There used to be a building that stood on a hill in Jerusalem known as Solomon’s Temple. The biblical narrative devotes a significant portion to its construction and unfortunate destruction. Why is this building so important to the biblical authors? What does an ancient building have to do with us today?
This building is a step along the path that prepared the people of God to become the temple—their crucial role in God’s plan to dwell with humanity. If you identify as a Christ-follower today, your role remains the same. You are an ancient building, God’s temple. This can be a strange concept to grasp. Let’s observe how the temple theme unfolds throughout the biblical narrative. Spoiler alert: it ends with you—or more accurately, y’all.
God Walks with His People
The initial glimpse of temple language occurs with the first image-bearers in the garden of Eden—Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26-27). Images of the gods typically took the form of idols placed in ancient temples. The message of Genesis 1-2 is clear: God created humanity to dwell with him and bear his image in the world. For a brief moment, there was no need for a temple structure. All humankind lived in harmony with each other, nature, and God.
This idyllic picture doesn’t last long. The first humans choose rebellion (Genesis 3). They are alienated from the garden, from each other, and from the presence of God. Will God restore his presence among them?
The Tent, the Building
Fast forward to the Exodus story. The people of Israel have been in slavery in Egypt for 400 years, disconnected from their identity as God’s image-bearers. As Moses led the people out of Egypt, God commanded the people to build the tabernacle. This tent structure served as a place for God to dwell with his people (Exodus 25:8). Almost like they were back in the garden!
Several hundred years later, this tent is replaced by the permanent structure that King Solomon built in Jerusalem: the temple. This building was labelled “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). Through this temple, God not only manifested his love and care to Israel, but to anyone from any culture who would come there to worship him. Has God finally restored what we destroyed in the garden?
Unfortunately, just like Adam and Eve, Israel’s leaders rebel against God, perpetuating evil and injustice. As a result, the temple is destroyed and the people are exiled from the land (e.g., Jeremiah 52:12-13).
Many years later, some people return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. However, the temple system quickly fell into corruption once again (e.g., Malachi 1:6-10). The Old Testament story ends with more questions than answers. Is it impossible for humanity to dwell with God as he intended?
God Who Tents Among Us
Just when we thought the story was coming to a tragic end, Jesus arrives on the scene. In fact, when the Gospel writer John describes Jesus, he states that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The special word he uses for “dwelt” is the Greek verbal equivalent of the noun used to describe the tent God commanded Moses to make (Exodus 25:8-9). Matthew, another Gospel writer, quotes Isaiah 7:14, claiming Jesus is Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” John and Matthew’s message is clear: Jesus is literally God with his people!
John goes on to record Jesus referring to his own body as the temple, saying that it will be destroyed but rebuilt in three days (John 2:19-21). At Jesus’ crucifixion the curtain that shielded the inner room of the temple is torn. What was the significance of this event? The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice that accomplished what the temple in Jerusalem never could. Through Jesus’ sacrifice and victory, he made a way for God to not only dwell with his people, but for God to dwell in his people!
The People are the Temple
The New Testament writers continue to use temple language, but they are no longer concerned with a building. Incredibly, when they write about the temple, they talk about the people of God! The apostle Paul writes, “do you not know that your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)?
At face value, this could be mistaken as an individualistic idea. However, in English we don’t have a grammatically correct way to differentiate between a singular “you” and a plural “you all.” Suffice it to say, all of the ‘yous’ in this text are actually second person plurals. That means we should read Paul’s words as, “y’all’s body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” There are some immense implications here, both for the early church and us today:
Community: There is an inbuilt communal aspect to being a part of God’s family. Paul uses the metaphor of the “body of Christ” to describe the Christian community and how all of the diverse members need each other (1 Corinthians 12). There is an inherent assumption of teamwork, cooperation, and unity as the people of God function as the temple today.
Presence: The temple is where God dwells with his people throughout the biblical story. So if the people of God are the temple, that means it is through these people that God reaches the world.
Mobility: People travelled from far and wide to encounter God at the temple in Jerusalem. Now, the people of God are the temple and take God’s presence to the world! If the people are the Temple, then they must make his glory known to all nations from now until Jesus comes back.
Our Current Reality
So what does an ancient building have to do with you? If you are a Christ-follower, it frames your entire spiritual life and calling. Do we need to rebuild that ancient building on the spot where it once stood in order to meet with God? Nope. He is calling you—actually, y’all—to function as a little temple today, wherever you are.
In the very last chapters of the Bible, John writes about his vision of heaven after Jesus returns (Revelation 21-22). He sees an extraordinary depiction of the new City of God, but something is conspicuously missing. There is no temple in the city. And why would there be? Jesus is right there with his people. As we look to the end of the story, what we lost in the beginning is restored: God himself dwelling with his people.
Joe Slunaker is a professor at California Baptist University and a pastor in Southern California. His passion is studying and teaching the Old Testament.