Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Temple in the New Testament

In his work From Eden to the New Jerusalem, T. Desmond Alexander explores how the beginning of the Bible (the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3) is related to the end of the Bible (the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22). God’s original design was for Adam and Eve to extend the boundaries of Eden throughout the earth. The rebellion of Adam and Eve separated them from God, but the meta-story of the Bible focuses on God’s attempt to redeem fallen humanity, and the New Jerusalem will ultimately restore what was lost at Eden. Throughout the Bible, God is at work to restore his presence through the Tabernacle and the Temple in the OT, and through the Incarnation and the Church in the NT. The OT temple is symbolic of the full presence of God that redeemed humanity will enjoy in a perfect way in the New Jerusalem of eternity.

In two previous blogs, I have reflected on Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple in Ezekiel 40-48 and the reasons for believing that a literal temple and an earthly millennial kingdom are part of God’s future plans. At the same time, the NT clearly teaches that the temple where God dwelled in the OT era is replaced in the NT by a fuller and more direct enjoyment of the presence of God because of the coming of Christ. This blog will focus on the NT theme of the replacement of the temple and the Bible’s incredible promise of God’s presence in our lives.

The Temple Replaced by Christ

Ezekiel’s prophecy of a new temple is transcended first and foremost by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who brings heaven to earth in a far greater way than the dwelling of a deity in an architectural structure. Jesus is “God with us” (Matt 1:23) and is thus the “one greater than the temple” (Matt 12:8). The Transfiguration accounts found in all of the Synoptic Gospels reveal that the glory of God is now associated with the person of Jesus apart from the edifice of the temple (cf. Matt 17:1-3; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). With his authority to provide direct and immediate forgiveness of sins (cf. Matt 9:2-5; Mark 2:5-9; Luke 5:20-23; 7:47-49), Jesus supersedes and ultimately renders obsolete the sacrificial system associated with the temple and the Old Testament economy. At the Last Supper, Jesus pointed to the bread and wine symbolic of his death “as more acceptable to God than regular sacrifice” (Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19-20).

The idea of Jesus as the replacement of the temple runs throughout the New Testament and is especially pronounced in the Gospels of Mark and John. In Mark, the motif of Jesus’ replacement of the temple provides an ironic twist to the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus is condemned to death in part because of the false accusations that he had threatened to destroy the temple (Mark 14:57-58). Though the accusation was false, the reference to the building of a new temple in “three days” demonstrates that Jesus’ resurrection would in fact bring about the symbolic destruction of the temple (cf. Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). When Jesus is on the cross, passersby mock him for his warning that the temple would be destroyed at the very time he is fulfilling this prophecy (Mark 15:29-30). The rending of the temple veil from top to bottom (Mark 15:38) is the heavenly pronouncement that access to God via the temple and its sacrificial rituals is no longer in effect. In fact, one should likely view the inclusio provided by the “rending” (schizo) of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus in Mark 1:10 and this “rending” of the temple veil at his death as a statement of how the incarnation of Jesus brought about the obsolescence of the ancient Near Eastern constructs of temple and sacred space as the vehicle of God communicating his presence to and among his people.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and the accompanying statements concerning the rebuilding of the temple in connection with the “three days” of his resurrection are placed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This teaching appears in close proximity to the statements in John 1 that the glory of God “tabernacles” in the person of Jesus (John 1:14, 18), and that Jesus is now the intermediary between heaven and earth (John 1:50-51). Jesus informs the Samaritan woman that true worship no longer centers around the temple sites of Jerusalem and Gerazim and must be offered to God in spirit and in truth (John 4:20-24). When Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and to drink on the last day of the Feast of Tabernalces (John 7:37-39), he is identifying himself as the source of the “streams of living waters” that the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah promised would flow out of the new Zion and temple (cf. Ezek 47:1-12; Zech 14:1-8). What was promised concerning Jerusalem and the temple in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament.

The Church as the Temple of God

Ezekiel’s prophecy of the future temple is also transcended by the experience of the unmediated presence of God by the Christian community through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The church has now become the “living temple” of God, and the service and godly lives of believers takes the place of the temple cult (cf. Rom 12:1; 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:4-9; Rev 1:6; 5:10). Using tabernacle typology, the writer of Hebrews explains that believers have this access to God because Christ has entered into the heavenly sanctuary with his blood as the perfect sacrifice for sin (Heb 9:23-28; 10:1-22). Rowland explains, “The cross becomes the moment when unmediated access to God becomes a possibility.” Christ provides a connection to the divine presence that enables believers to follow him into the Holy of Holies (Heb 10:19-22), to presently enjoy the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22-24), and to anticipate by faith the heavenly city that awaits them at the end of their earthly pilgrimage (Heb 11:13-16). Rowland further explains, “What is above, in heaven, is what is to come and is what will be revealed in the end time; but what is to come is now already revealed . . . and to which the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews have access.”

The New Jerusalem and No Need for the Temple

The prophets’ promise of a new temple is ultimately transcended by the New Testament promise of the fullness of God’s presence that is to be experienced in the eschatological age. In the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no need for a temple because God’s presence will fill everything (Rev 21:22). There are two interesting features of the New Jerusalem portrayed by John in Revelation 21-22. First, the city is a perfect golden cube (Rev 21:16), recalling the square dimensions of the Holy of Holies where God’s presence dwelled in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Kgs 6:20). Second, the New Jerusalem is immense in size, measuring to roughly 1,380 miles (12,000 stadia) on each side (length, breadth, and height). As Beale notes, these proportions convey that the new heaven and earth is completely dominated by the garden-like city of Jerusalem (Rev 21:1-3, 10-22:3). There are no “forests, rivers, mountains, streams, valleys, and the many other features of a fertile worldwide new creation,” but instead there is only “an arboreal city temple.” In other words, the whole world will become a temple, and all peoples will enjoy the unfiltered experience of God’s glorious “face” as he rules from his throne (Rev 22:4-5). The New Jerusalem will be a new Eden where humanity once again has the unlimited access to God that was lost in the fall (Rev 22:1-3; cf. Gen 3:8-10, 23-24). The temple symbolism of the Bible ultimately points to the reality of “a huge worldwide sanctuary in which God’s presence would dwell in every part of the cosmos.”

Some Concluding Thoughts

While I believe that Ezekiel 40-48 is picturing a literal temple, the symbol of temple points to something far greater than a building. The temple is a reminder that God desires to be in relationship with fallen sinners and that the best part of our salvation is knowing God and enjoying him forever. The symbol of temple points to what we now enjoy in Christ and what we will enjoy forever in the New Jerusalem. We celebrate the same thing at Christmas—the great promise that “God is with us.”


  1. Dr. Yates,

    For some reason my comment posted on the previous post, sorry. However, a different question: why isn't the title of the blog tohu vavohu, instead of vebohu, wouldn't the Beit get a dagesh, and the quamets make an ah and not o? just wondering, I'm only Hebrews "tools" guy.

  2. Dr Yates. I am taking a course in liberty with you. Well at least watching you! lol. I came across this verse and I was wondering: "For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence" is there a sanctuary in heaven? Thanks!.