Why We Must Understand the Temple in God’s Plan Today
Yesterday, Dr. Don Carson joined us to explain that there are twenty big themes in the Bible that develop from Genesis to Revelation, and he said there are another fifty to seventy smaller themes there as well. We are back with Don Carson again today, who edited the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, which releases in a month. Instead of talking about what biblical theology is, which we talked about yesterday, I want you to show us how biblical theology works. Particularly, I want you to focus on one big theme for us today. For people who are wondering what biblical theology is about, show us how the theme of the temple develops from Genesis to Revelation in God’s plan.
If we think of temple as the meeting place between God and people, then there is a sense in which the garden of Eden is a kind of proto-temple. And many people have drawn parallels between themes in Genesis 1 and 2, understanding something of what a temple is in later scriptural writings. But the temple is also a place of sacrifice. And there are sacrifices that are developing, for example, when Abraham is being called out of Ur of the Chaldeans and so forth.
Beginnings of Degeneration
The first time that there is a structure is in the tent of meeting before the tabernacle is built. And then the tabernacle is built, and many, many chapters of Scripture are devoted to discussing its proportions, the Most Holy Place, who can approach the holy God in the Most Holy Place, and when — namely, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, once a year — only with the prescribed blood of the prescribed sacrifices, a bull and a goat, covering both the sins of the priest and his family and the sins of all the people, and sprinkling that blood on the ark of the covenant behind the veil. Only the high priest being allowed to do it and even then only once a year, and so forth.
And so this theme is tied to the years of the wilderness wandering, the glory of God coming upon the tabernacle, the detailed prescriptions of how the tabernacle works, the role of the priests, and the glory of God manifesting himself there, and so forth.
The story goes on, of course. Once the people get into the Promised Land, the tabernacle is the central point where God meets with his people. The priests are connected to the tabernacle but are supposed to also be teaching people the law of God, the way of God. But sadly, there are cycles of degeneration and decay and degeneration and decay, so that parts of the story actually find the Philistines stealing the ark of the covenant from the tabernacle, thinking that somehow they have managed to capture Israel’s God. God does not wipe them out but has his own way of guaranteeing that the tabernacle is reconstituted with the ark of the covenant in it.
Eventually you get to the remarkable chapters in 2 Samuel 6 and 7 which are hugely formative for the rest of biblical theology. David has been king at this juncture for seven years, but only over the southern two tribes. After seven years he becomes king over the entire country — all twelve tribes — and takes Jerusalem and makes it his capital. And the Davidic dynasty is promised by God in 2 Samuel 7. The ark of the covenant is brought there in 2 Samuel 6. So now you have three huge themes coming together that control a great deal of typology for the rest of the Bible: Jerusalem, the kingdom dynasty of David, and finally the tabernacle that eventually becomes the temple under Solomon in the next generation.
So now you have a firm place with, again, the dimensions being laid out — the plans are according to God’s design. Much of it is designed to teach that the only approach to God for sinful human beings — his covenant people — are by the means that God himself has ordained, by the sacrifices that God himself has commanded, in the terms that God himself lays out, by the priest that God himself ordains, by the shed blood that God himself prescribes. And all of these things get hammered into the nation and begin to point forward to the need for a sacrifice that will actually and finally deal with sin, and prove to be more transformational than the blood of bulls and goats. But nevertheless, here is the center for the Passover, here is the center for the Day of Atonement and for the morning and evening sacrifices and so on.
Exile and Return
This then runs eventually to the degeneration of the entire nation. The northern tribes are taken off into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 BC. And then the southern kingdom is broken up and taken off in a succession of raids and finally the destruction of the city and of the temple in 586 BC under the Neo-Babylonians. And for many people this captivity is unthinkable, because it is threatening the Davidic dynasty which God promised would be perpetual, and it is threatening Jerusalem which is now destroyed, and it is threatening the temple. It destroys the temple. How can that be? This is the meeting place between God and his people.
And perhaps one of the most insightful passages is Ezekiel 8–11 where God himself shows in a vision how the city will be destroyed. It is not that Nebuchadnezzar is so strong that God doesn’t have a chance, poor chap, but rather that God judicially abandons the city because of its sin, even though the exiles find it difficult to imagine that God could do so. In particular, it is interesting that God says to the exiles by the banks of the Kebar River through the mouth of Ezekiel that even though they are far away, “I will be a sanctuary to them” (Ezekiel 11:16). That is temple language.
So, in other words, the real sanctuary is where God is. It is not where the masonry is. It is not in a geographical location. God is not restricted to Jerusalem. God is not restricted to a box. God is not restricted to a cubical room behind a veil. “I will be a sanctuary to them” becomes very strong.
Nevertheless, in God’s covenanted mercy, he calls the people back to Jerusalem. Some come back first in a wave of fifty thousand under the ministry of Haggai and Zechariah. The small temple is rebuilt again under the ministry of Nehemiah. There is the rebuilding of the city, the repopulation of the city, and great celebrations of covenantal renewal that focus again on the temple. There is chapter after chapter on covenantal renewal in Nehemiah, and very, very little on, let’s say, what we would call “moral law,” precisely because what you must have is reconciliation with God. And under the terms of the old covenant, that was done through the temple and the sacrifices that God ordained.
Christ Is Ultimate
So that really brings us close to the end of the Old Testament storyline. And when you come to the New Testament, it is not long before Jesus himself says in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And neither his opponents nor his disciples had a clue what he was talking about. But John quietly comments, “After he was raised from the dead, then his disciples remembered his words and they believed the Scriptures” (verse 22).
That means Jesus becomes the crucial temple — that is, the real, the ultimate meeting place between God and sinful people, so that the typological lines, the trajectories of the old covenant come together in him.
- He is the ultimate priest.
- He is the ultimate sacrifice.
- His flesh is the veil.
- His shattered, broken body is the shattered, broken temple that rises on the third day to become the real meeting place between God and sinful people.
So in the New Testament, the antitype of these strands regarding the temple emerge in three ways — two big ones and one small one. The first big one is Jesus himself as the ultimate temple. The second big one is the church of Jesus Christ is the temple; that is, it is the meeting place between God and sinners. This is where God speaks through his temple to the surrounding nations. Being constituted as the church, the church becomes the meeting place between God and sinners, and thus, becomes a temple as well. And then in one or two passages only our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. That language is used further there.
And you could track out various further emphases until you come to the book of Revelation. There are temple themes throughout the book that are really quite remarkable. But for want of time, let me just skip to the last two chapters where you have the final vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Or again, the vision changes and it is now a vision of the new Jerusalem, and yet this Jerusalem is also a bride. One of the things that apocalyptic literature does is mingle its metaphors; it mixes them together.
But what is interesting is that, in the vision of the new Jerusalem, John the seer says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). So once again, you don’t need the edifice because you have God. You have now complete reconciliation. You don’t need a mediating priest. Christ is there.
And the new Jerusalem itself is depicted symbolically as perfectly cubical. It is a perfect cube. And there is only one cube in the Old Testament — namely, the Most Holy Place. So you can’t have a temple in the Most Holy Place. All the people of God are in the Most Holy Place. They are in the temple. They are in the presence of the living God. And so now you have really come to something like the garden of Eden, only much better.
And so all of these pieces together form a whole tapestry of biblical-theological unpacking that is one of the strands that ties the entire Bible together.