The Significance of the Temple in the Bible
by: Joel Israel
Staff member at Pennington Park Church
Do you know that person that habitually walks into the middle of a movie and starts asking questions like, “What’s going on?” or “Who’s that guy?” Are you that person? If so, let me give you a moment to recognize the error of your ways and repent. Okay, maybe this habit isn’t necessarily sinful, but it is a big pet peeve of mine because the solution seems so obvious. If you want to understand what’s happening in a movie, just watch it from beginning to end. Otherwise, you’ll miss important themes, details, and character development that will be crucial to understanding the movie’s story.
Well, much like a movie, the Bible is also telling a story filled with themes, details, and characters, and, much like a movie, this story can only be fully understood when we start at the beginning and work our way systematically toward the conclusion. Unfortunately, we can often see the Bible as fragmented or disconnected, particularly when we compare one testament to the other. However, every passage, book, and testament of the Bible is intricately connected and telling one single story about God’s redemptive plan which has been revealed through Christ, and one of the best ways to see this interconnectivity of the Bible is by tracing different themes which run from Genesis to Revelation. By studying these themes, we can better understand the grander narrative of Scripture so that we won’t be left asking, “What’s going on?” in our own reading.
The Temple in the Old Testament
While there are many themes which display the connectedness of the Bible, one of my favorites is that of the temple. Perhaps, when you hear that word, your mind immediately goes to the great Jerusalem temple completed by King Solomon in 957 B.C. But if we define a temple simply as “a place where the presence of God meets humanity,” we see that the Garden of Eden served as the first true temple in that it was where God met and communed with Adam and Eve, the first humans. Of course, Adam and Eve eventually disobeyed God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and consequently, the communion and divine presence which humanity once experienced in the Garden of Eden was now severed. However, God, in His grace, decided to progressively reestablish His presence with humanity, starting with the Israelite tabernacle.
The tabernacle, described throughout Exodus 25-40, was an intricately designed mobile tent and served as the physical place in which God’s presence would dwell with His people. Specifically, the tabernacle was divided into two sections with the Holy Place serving as a long front room to the tabernacle and the Most Holy Place, a perfect cube, serving as the specific place where God’s presence dwelt. To further distinguish these two areas of the tent, a large curtain was placed at the entrance of the Most Holy Place, signifying its unique importance. In addition to being the place where God’s presence dwelt, the tabernacle also served as the place where God’s people received forgiveness from sin by means of the sacrificial system.
As Israel continued to establish themselves in the land of Canaan, the time came for God’s dwelling place with humanity to also become more established. Enter the Jerusalem temple. Much like the tabernacle in Exodus, the temple had a Holy Place and Most Holy Place, but compared to the tabernacle of old, the temple was both twice as large and twice as ornate (1 Kings 6-7). Think Extreme Makeover: Temple Edition. In addition to its large size, the temple also stood immediately outside of King Solomon’s house in the nation’s capital which further emphasized the temple’s significance in not only the religious practices of Israel but its social and political life as well.
The Temple in the New Testament
Unfortunately, the Jerusalem temple would later be destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, a consequence of Israel’s rebellion against God, leaving the nation looking toward the day when a new, more glorious temple would be established (Ezekiel 40). With this anticipation, the New Testament opens by connecting the theme of temple to the coming of Christ. In speaking of Christ’s coming, John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” A more literal interpretation of this phrase would be that Christ “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled” among us. In other words, Jesus, himself, is a temple, the very presence of God not only meeting humanity but becoming a human as well.
In case you were wondering, your mind should be blown at this point, but the New Testament’s continuation of this temple theme doesn’t stop with Jesus’ incarnation. Instead, the death and resurrection of Christ ushers in a New Covenant in which the dividing curtain between God and man is torn in two (Matt. 27:51) and the temple is expanded far beyond a single building. Upon Christ’s ascension into heaven, the Father now sends us the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) who will not only dwell with God’s people but in God’s people (1 Cor. 3:16-17). Why is this so significant? Well, in effect, the people of God, whom we call the Church, now become a temple able to experience the presence of God at all times in all places (Eph. 2:19-22). Just as the tabernacle and temple of the Old Testament served as the location for God’s people to experience God’s presence and forgiveness for sin, so now this beautiful meeting point takes place in the hearts of all those who believe in Christ as their Lord and Savior.
But the theme of temple doesn’t stop with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of man. While that part of God’s redemptive plan is significant and miraculous, a greater day is coming still when the temple will be further realized in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21). On that day, God’s presence and glory will fill all the earth, and sin will be defeated once and for all. In other words, what was once a reality in the Garden of Eden will now be restored, expanded, and enjoyed by God’s people for all eternity. The work of recreation which has begun in us will be brought to completion on that wonderful day, and we will experience the radiance of God’s glory as though it were the sun pouring light onto the world (Rev. 21:23). So, Brothers and Sisters, as we are being built up together as one temple, let’s also look toward to that day when God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more” (Rev. 21:4).
*For a more visual presentation of the temple throughout Scripture, watch this helpful video created by The Bible Project.