Sunday, May 6, 2007

Building the Third Temple


What does it mean to build the third temple? Should we be looking about for a red heifer, in hopes that it might cleanse some future temple in Jerusalem? As the previous weeks have shown, the Old Testament tabernacles and temples all hearkened back to the Garden of Eden. Then we saw that when Jesus came, He was God “tabernacling” in the flesh. John uses the most explicit temple imagery regarding Jesus. Jesus is the new temple. He replaces the old, temporary, hand-made temple that stood in Jerusalem. While Herod’s temple stood as the second “incarnation” of God’s dwelling place in Jewish history, God’s kingdom was still a far off hope, not yet realized. Herod’s temple was a temple built from violence. It was a temple that reflected more his own quest for glory than the dwelling place of the shekinah glory of God.

When Christ came and began proclaiming that the kingdom of God had been inaugurated with Him, He spoke of the promises of the prophets being fulfilled in Himself and His ministry. The prophets promised that a new temple would come that would not be made with hands. Instead, the final temple would be built by God Himself, and this temple would be the perfect embodiment of where righteousness would dwell. This temple would be built with living stones that would cry out praise to God and proclaim His faithfulness to all the creation. Christ was the Cornerstone of this new temple that would spread out across the world. The stone would be the Cornerstone that would become a mountain that would fill the whole earth.

That building project has been going on for two thousand years now, and each new believer and the sanctifying presence of God within them has spread out God’s recreating work until the day when God says “It is done” and all of normal human history will be wrapped up and all things will be reconciled and made new. As we have become believers, the temple has been built. And with each new believer, the building project continues. But the temple grows in other ways too.

As the primordial garden brought order into chaos, life out of death, fertility out of desolation, and the direct rule of God through His appointed vice regents, the new, third temple inaugurated by Christ has the same effect on the surrounding world, even to today. It will reach its climactic pinnacle at the end of history when God, through Christ, will radically intervene into our mundane history and set things right. Christ will vindicate those who have put their trust in Him and have been willing to suffer for His name’s sake, even unto death.

The new third temple, like the previous temples, and the garden before them, will have a dual focus in enacting its God-given purpose. It will minister to its own, the covenant people called by God’s own name, in order to sanctify them through and through. This ministry of sanctification, of making a holy people unto Himself, is not an end in itself. The point of making a people that are holy, set apart to do the Lord’s work, is to have them get about the work at hand! We are made holy in order to be used by God to bring in righteousness. We are called to be light shining in the darkness. We are called to be salt that preserves. We are called to follow in the footsteps of our master, friend, and older brother, Jesus, and take up our cross, kneel low to wash feet, turn over tables in holy places defiled by lust and greed, and more. Jesus even says that we will do greater things than He did during His ministry. That’s hard to imagine. But He did say it. Do we believe Him? Can we trust His word? Are we yet fulfilling His word for us?

This third temple is to be the place where righteousness dwells. It is the place of the New Covenant people. We are the ones the prophets spoke about when they said that hearts of stone would be made flesh. In the New Testament witness, we see the most explicit temple imagery in the letter to the Hebrew Christians and in Peter’s first letter to the exiles spread out over modern day Turkey, not to mention John’s Revelation. All of the New Testament writers understood that Christians, those who trusted in Jesus as Messiah, were the true heirs of the Old Testament promises. Their words were no more radical than anything the Old Testament prophets had said concerning the people of their own day. Jeremiah made it abundantly clear that just saying “the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” as some magical incantation, would then, nor will it now, protect a rebellious people from God’s righteous judgment.

The New Covenant, New Living Temple people of God, made up of believing Jews and gentiles, are to be the temple of God on earth. And being the temple on earth means doing the work of the temple. Remember that the temple of God is where God dwells directly. It is where God reigns directly. It is where God does the work of bringing reconciliation to the world broken by sin and rebellion. Thus it is the place where sacrifice happens. In the garden God dwelled. God reigned directly. God cultivated an oasis in a land of chaos. When rebellion occurred in the garden, God expelled the offenders, but also clothed them with an animal skin to cover their nakedness. The tabernacles and subsequent temples also served those same purposes. Christ comes in the flesh as the embodiment of God’s presence and reign. He finally fulfills the garden mandate. He obeys as Adam and Eve had not. He becomes our covering, sacrificed for our sin, covering our nakedness.

Since Christ fulfills the reason for the garden, the tabernacle, and the temple, and we are in Him, we reside, spiritually now, fully at His return, in the place of rest that is His body. The work has been done. It is finished. Now the kingdom spreads like a fertile vine in a land already full of weeds. It springs up with life giving water, feeding all those who would drink from this One Spring. Wrapped in His cloak, we are hidden in His life because we have already shared in His death. And unlike the kings and kingdoms of this fallen world, we set out to spread the kingdom of God by following after our greatest example, Jesus.

To know how best to bring about the kingdom of God means that we need look no further than the life of Christ. He alone is our standard. He alone is our starting point and goal. He leads us to the cross, only to see us through to the broken open grave. The consummation of the kingdom of God, when the kingdoms of this world will be the kingdom of Christ, will not fully come about until His return. But what will be seen in fullness then, vindicated then, finalized then, is now seen only in part.

The temple image is very physical. It immediately brings to mind brick and mortar. It’s very ‘this world’ in its impact. But the kingdom of God being spread out across the world through the ministry of the church doesn’t seem so physical, since we have no physical holy place in Jerusalem, Rome, or Athens. This lack of a physical building is often thought of as being more ‘other-worldly’ because of that difference. After all, we’re the ‘heavenly’ people of God, whereas the Jews were the ‘physical’ people of God. At least according to the dispensational understanding. But if the dispensational view that sets apart the Jew from the gentile is wrong, and I believe it is, then how should we see the temple at the end of time? What is the temple in Revelation?


The temple in Revelation is seen in different imagery from chapter 1 through to chapter 22. The fact that Revelation itself is written in a seven-fold manner attests to a very Jewish, Zechariah influenced literary motif. Revelation uses much, if not most of its imagery from Jewish apocalyptic writings such as Daniel, Zechariah, and Ezekiel. All three of these Jewish apocalyptic writings are very temple oriented themselves. Since they were all written during the exile, when the first temple had already been destroyed, and the hope for a new temple was only on the horizon, or at best only getting started, as in Zechariah.

The seven lamp-stands that are featured in chapters one through three are symbolic of the fullness of the presence of God’s Spirit dwelling in their midst. The lamp-stands are menorahs, which are standard temple d├ęcor. So already, John is linking the churches and the presence of God together in a way that hearkens back to the Jerusalem temple. As a side note, whether John wrote his revelation before or after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD does not dramatically change the importance of the imagery he uses throughout the book. If he wrote it before the destruction, and the temple was still standing, his temple imagery would point out to those reading it that they were the true Jews, the true priesthood, and the true temple of God, not the unbelieving Jews who were persecuting them. If he wrote it after Titus’s army destroyed the temple, then his temple words and images would simply be a way of pointing out that the old Jerusalem temple was done and over with and that the only true temple left was the one made up of those who belonged to Jesus Christ.

John also would want to make it clear that no other temple would suffice in revealing God’s holy presence. The Roman emperors had temples to their own glory set up all throughout the Roman provinces, and any good Jew or Christian that these were idolatrous and blasphemous competitors to what God had commanded. Much of what John wrote was concerned to keep his readers strong in the faith in the face of severe persecution and temptation to give in to the ‘little pinch of incense’ that the emperor demanded.

Most likely John was writing to a community fighting a two front war. On one side were the other Jews who did not believe in Jesus and who were accusing Christians of every possible crime against the empire, and on the other side was the empire itself, trying to either co-opt or wipe out this still young community of Jewish and gentile believers in this Jewish Messiah. The Revelation was given to give hope to a desperate band of believers, warning to others among them, and a promise that God, through Christ, and in a mysterious way His church, was going to overcome and defeat the kingdoms of this world. I believe that the book was written later, so that the Jerusalem temple had already been destroyed by Titus’s army. Thus the temple language used by John spoke to a temple that was currently hidden from sight, but “real” nonetheless. The temple in Revelation is in the heavens until its “revelation” later on when it descends to earth.

Chapter 4 of Revelation is a scene of the throne room of heaven where the four living creatures, as in Ezekiel 1, continually praise God. Chapter 5 has the prayers of the saints in bowls of incense. Chapter 6 has the souls of saints under the altar asking how long before their blood would be avenged. Chapter 7 has the 144,000 Israelites sealed and the great multitude from every nation praising God who “serve him day and night in his temple”. John continues to reside in the heavenly temple courts seeing these fantastic visions of what was soon to come.

Chapter 11 has the most temple language so far, and has John being told to measure the temple, the altar, and those who worship there, but not the outer court. That’s left to the nations to trample for a season. Interestingly, the outer court of the temple is also referred to as the ‘holy city’ in this same passage. At the end of chapter 11, the heavenly temple is opened and the ark of the covenant is displayed for all to see. Chapter 14 has the Lamb on Mount Zion with his 144,000 ready to do battle. Chapter 15 has the sanctuary of the tent of witness being opened and the fiery judgments of God ready to be poured out on earth.

To be continued...