The Nature of the Church: The Church as Temple

Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man destroyeth the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are ye (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

Throughout the New Testament the Apostles speak about the church less by direct statements and more through illustrations and imagery. The church is spoken of in terms of a body, comprised of different individual members who work independently and together for its own growth, development, and function (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). The church is also spoken of in terms of a family, with God as Father, Jesus as the elder Brother, and Christians as fellow brothers and sisters in God’s household (1 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 2:17). Yet in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and 1 Peter 2:4-6 the church is also spoken of as a temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. What does it mean for the church to be spoken of as a temple?

The Queen of Sheba before the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, by Salomon de Bray (1597-1664)

The ancient world was full of temples: from ziggurats in Sumer and Akkad to the elaborate Greco-Roman temples throughout the Roman Empire (Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 19:24-28). It was believed that temples were the dwelling places of divinities: adherents would come and “meet” the god or goddess at the temple, presenting food offerings to feed and/or placate them. The Israelites recognized that not even the heavens could contain God, let alone a physical building (1 Kings 8:27); nevertheless, YHWH their God, the One True God, authorized the building of a house, or temple, in which He would make His name and presence dwell, in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:1-9:9). The Israelites were to bring their sacrifices to the house of YHWH, the Temple (Deuteronomy 12:10-11); there priests would offer them before God on behalf of the people (Hebrews 9:1-10). Therefore, even though the Israelites recognized that YHWH was God everywhere, they nevertheless were to draw near to God in worship, in prayer, and for atonement, in the place where He established His presence and made His name to dwell, in or towards the Temple (Acts 24:11, Hebrews 9:1-10).

Jesus of Nazareth, as the Word made flesh and Immanuel (God with us; Matthew 1:23-24, John 1:1-14), came not only to provide the perfect atonement for sin but also to re-center the Israel of God around Himself. This is well illustrated in John 2:18-22: Jesus declares His own body to be the temple which is raised imperishable in the resurrection. This explains Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman in John 4:21-24: the people of God would soon no longer go to Jerusalem to render obeisance to God; God’s presence would no longer be manifest at the Temple. Little wonder, then, that the curtain of the Temple was town in two when Jesus died (Matthew 27:51)!

Jesus’ Kingdom was established after His death, resurrection, and ascension (Acts 1:1-2:47, Colossians 1:13). Within fifty years the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans; it has not been replaced. Yet God had not left His people as orphans; throughout the New Testament all the elements of service present in the Temple in a concrete way were understood now in light of the Kingdom and the gatherings of the people in the Kingdom. Jesus was High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-28); in a sense all His followers are priests, ministering before God on behalf of the people (1 Peter 2:5, 9). Christians are likewise the sacrifices, offered up to the glory and honor of God (Romans 12:1, 1 Peter 2:5). Prayers are as incense (Revelation 8:3-4); the songs of the saints are praise, their hearts as the instruments (Ephesians 5:19). Thus it was also with the Temple: it is no longer in one physical location, but exists wherever the people of God exist, since the Holy Spirit, God Himself, dwells in their midst, individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20)!

Thus the church is as a temple, the place where God has established His name and His presence through the Holy Spirit. This temple is not made of brick and mortar; it is founded upon the apostles and prophets who proclaimed the truths upon which it stands, and Jesus Christ as its cornerstone, who gave Himself for it (Ephesians 2:20, 5:22-33, 1 Timothy 3:15). Its stones are not dead rock but living people, the members of the church (1 Peter 2:5). Thus the people of God, individually and collectively, are to represent where God has placed His name; those who wish to find God ought to see His presence among His people through their words and deeds (Matthew 5:13-16, 1 Corinthians 14:25).

God intends for the church to connect and identify fellow members as a family and to work in terms of a body yet also is to be defined as holy in terms of a temple. The church is not to be any ordinary family or to function as any ordinary body of people; the church is to be a holy family and a sanctified association, empowered by God through His Spirit who dwells in the midst of His people (Ephesians 3:14-16). Let us live in holiness and righteousness, seeking to fulfill the purposes of God in Christ, and reflect the holiness demanded of those among whom the Holy Spirit of God pleases to dwell!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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