The Church is...the temple of God



Home group notes - By Revd Tim Long


1Corinthians 3:1-17, Ephesians 2:19-22

The temple of God:         No. 7

Notes for leaders:

1.    There are three parts to this study, each of which can stand alone. A group can choose any or all of the parts, though I think it’s advisable to start with the Bible study and follow it with either Part II or Part III, if time forbids trying to cover everything. The three Parts are:

a.    A study of the set scriptural passages

b.    An exploration of the implications of Jesus’ claim that his body replaces the JerusalemTemple

c.     An exploration of the place that church buildings should or should not play in Christian life in light of Jesus’ claim

2.    I’ve put some suggested answers to some questions because I know that house group leaders are often under pressures of time. Needless to say my answers are no more than indications.

PART 1: THE WORD – Some Background to Focus our Discussion

Our topic revolves around Jesus’ revolutionary claim that his own body replaces the Temple (John 2.19, 21). This claim became central for other NT writers’ understanding of the Church: for Paul in our two set passages, for example; and for Peter (1 Peter 2.4-5). Lying behind this claim are the following:

·      Jesus’ critique of the corruption that had taken hold of the Temple (John 2.13-25 & parallels), as a result of which Jesus prophesied the Temple’s destruction (Mark 13.2) in an imminent time of war and suffering (Mark 13.1-37). This prophecy was proved accurate when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, at the end of the long and terrible Great Jewish War of 66-70 CE.

·      Jesus’ belief that in himself God had inaugurated a new moment in God’s work of salvation which rendered ongoing animal sacrifice, the heart of Temple worship, unnecessary, because Christ’s sacrifice had brought that form of worship to an end. This may well be the central point of the Temple episode (John 2.13-25 & parallels).

·      This new moment inaugurated by Jesus is also related to the issue of the Law (Torah) which, contrary to much Christian teaching, has not been superseded by Christ but rather fulfilled in him. In other words, Torah, as given particularly to Israel to set Israel apart from all other nations, is no longer necessary to salvation; rather Torah is universalized in Christ, through faith in whom all believers from any and every nation live in obedience to God. Insofar as the Temple was the heart and focus of Torah obedience in Israel the Temple is no longer necessary because, through faith, Christ lives in all believers.

·      Jesus’ replacement of a building as the focus of the community’s worship with his own body speaks of his absolute centrality for our faith. In the Bible, the priority of the community of God’s people over a sacred building is not a new idea but Jesus shifted it into an altogether new key in that his claim simply makes any consideration irrelevant other than the believing community’s relationship to him and the nature of the community life flowing from this relationship. The Greek word koinonia, which speaks not merely of fellowship but of people committed to giving their lives for one another, captures the essential feature of this community focused on Jesus.

The Word: 1 Corinthians 3.1-17

1.    What has caused the Corinthians to fail to live koinonia (vv. 1-9)?

a.    Presence of “jealousy and quarreling among you” (v. 3)

b.    Because rival groups have attached themselves to different leaders (Paul and Apollos). It seems that these leaders didn’t see themselves as rivals but were made so by factions within the congregation

2.    How does Paul use the assertion “you are God’s temple” (v.16) to teach the Corinthians that what is happening in the body of Christ in Corinth is unholy and destructive (vv.10-17)?

a.    Paul presents himself as a builder laying the foundation upon which someone else builds (so he and Apollos are not rivals: just responsible for different stages of the building)

b.    The foundation Paul laid is Christ (v.11) and what is erected on it must be true to the foundation (v. 12) or it will be destroyed (v. 13-15)

c.     Applied to the division in the congregation, Paul warns that “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person” (v. 17)

d.    Notice how Paul addresses a pastoral problem through theology – using christological and eschatological (reference to the day of judgement) concepts.

The Word: Ephesians 2.19-22

3.    Look at the literary context of Eph 2.19-22 (vv. 11-18) and discuss how it adds to our understanding of what it means to say that the Church is the Temple of God?

a.    Paul sets the church as “holy temple” (v. 21) in the context of the work of Christ creating a new unity between Jew and Gentile (standing for all humanity), so the unity of the Body stands for a wider, universal new creation in which the previously-intractable division between Jew and Gentile has been overcome (vv. 15-16).

4.    Taking both passages into account, what threatens koinonia in the Church of England today? Is there any threat to it at St Georges & St Giles? How does Paul’s teaching on the Church as Temple of God speak into any current breaches of koinonia?

5.    Should Christians allow controversial issues to divide them? What is the right balance of adherence to cherished beliefs versus the preservation of koinonia?

PART II: EXPLORATION of the NT claim that the Church is the Temple of God

Before exploring this topic, a point of clarification. To claim that the Church is the Temple of God depends on the prior claim of Jesus that his body is the new temple. The sequence of thought goes like this: my body is the new Temple; you (the Church) are my body; therefore the Church is the (new) Temple of God.

6.    Below is a list of possible meanings  arising from Jesus’ revolutionary claim that his body is the new Temple. Discuss them, as well as any others that may arise during your discussion.

Firstly, in Israelite faith the Temple was the place of sacrifice which was the chief way worshippers offered themselves to God. Jesus offered, not produce, livestock or money but his own body/life. By doing this he shifted sacrifice into a new key: his sacrifice of himself took sacrifice as far as it could go and thus ended the need for it. Further, in the sacrifice of God’s own Son, God sacrifices God’s Self, making this sacrifice ultimate in yet another sense. God, having sacrificed God’s Self, has made any lesser sacrifices irrelevant because God has come so close to us that our only appropriate response is to love God.  Arising directly from this connection to sacrifice, the Church as the Temple of God suggests a community whose life arises from the sacrifice of Jesus and who, individually as well as corporately, imitate Jesus by offering themselves sacrificially in the interest of the kingdom of God. Sacrifice, in other words, is now a whole way of life which needs no ritual repetition for its efficacy.

Secondly,  God’s self-revelation in Christ means that worshippers no longer need to appease God, because God’s action in Christ shows that God is not angry but lovingly takes the initiative to redeem us. Of course, this is a repetition and enhancement of God’s action in choosing and loving Israel: both testaments share a belief in the God who comes to redeem his people, but Jews and Christians both tend to fall back into appeasement theology which suggests a God who is angry and has to be placated. This is perhaps an even worse regress for Christians than for Jews, given the Incarnation.

Thirdly,  Jesus refers to his body as the Church, the Body of Christ, which becomes the new way of emphasizing that Jesus continues his ‘real’ Presence after his death, resurrection and ascension. In this sense, Jesus’ Body-as-Temple replaces the OT focus on the Temple as sign of God’s Presence (1 Cor 12.27; Col 1.18, 24; 2.19; 3.15) – the church as Christ’s Body becomes, as it were, the new Temple. In the NT, “church” (ekklesia) refers primarily to the local church, to people gathered together in worship and fellowship (koinonia). Hence Jesus’ body is present  in its completeness wherever believers gather in the name of the Lord (1 Cor 3.16). This is why belonging to and participating in the life of the Church is an essential dimension of discipleship rather than an optional extra.

Church-as-Temple is thus a wonderful image for the essentially communitarian thrust of salvation: while each of us is called personally to respond to Christ (because a call from a Person must be received personally) that response connects us to others, necessarily, in that each of us is part of the body of Christ and only together are we the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12). The metaphor of Church-as-Temple, with its variant metaphors of Body (1 Cor 12.27) and House (1 Peter 2) are wonderful images of this communitarian nature of our personal response to God. There is efficacy, in other words, simply in belonging and in being present, even though believers will be in many different places on the journey of faith.

Fourthly, as his Body, the church is a holy community (1 Cor 3.17; 2 Cor 6.16; Eph 2.21), so the central idea of God’s people as a holy community is shifted into a new key: where in the OT there is a building to signify the holy calling and nature of the worshipping community, in the NT the holiness of the community is entirely the character of the community: there is no need for any external sign of holiness; the nature of the community is its own sign. If Christ’s body is the new Temple then the church as the Body of Christ is also itself, in a sense, the new Temple and thus by nature holy.

This takes us directly to the fifth sense of this shift from the building to Jesus’ body. If the community is by nature a holy one because it is the Body of Christ it must follow that the body of each individual member of that community is also to be holy (1 Cor 6.19).

A sixth aspect of the shift from Temple to Jesus brings together the social and individual call to holiness. The church as Temple articulates the binding together of individuals into a single Body and highlights the allowance for differences, of gifts etc., within that unity. Of course the related image of the church as the Body of Christ continues in the same vein (1 Cor 12). The church as Temple, then, allows oneness and difference to co-exist and support each other. It also emphasizes that the church is not a building but rather the building of a community, living stones...built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2.4-5).

Building on this dialectic of oneness and difference, we find a seventh sense: the shift democratizes the worshipping community, removing the hierarchical arrangement of the world so central to the OT Temple. As Jesus’ Body, the new Temple, the Church, is a community of equals, the only requirement of belonging being relationship with Jesus, which is also the mainspring of function. There are different functions because there are different gifts (1 Corinthians 12.1-31; Ephesians 4.7-16), but none is more privileged than any other. We may well ask how faithful we have been to the church in this sense?

An eighth aspect of the shift from the Temple to Jesus has a significant political dimension but to understand it we have to go back into what I called the ‘shadow’ side of the Temple. Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem was one of the grandest structures in the ancient world, reflecting Solomon’s imperial ambitions and Judah’s development as a powerful national state. In the building of this Temple, a state bureaucracy was introduced into the nation’s life which penalized most Judeans who became victims of the development of the new elite that grew up around Solomon’s ambitious building and military ambitions. This connection of the Temple to political power and ambition is, as we’ve seen, continued in the use of the Temple Herod the Great made to further his ambitions, so that Jesus found a Temple thoroughly compromised by having become almost completely separated from its original intention (see the next section for more detail on this).

Against this scenario, the shift from Temple to Jesus underlines the critique in other dimensions of Jesus’ ministry of elite power and corruption, and locates Jesus with the poor and marginalized. Thus the shift reflects God’s “preferential option for the poor” which simply means that God is on the side of the poor of every kind rather than on the side of the rich and powerful who oppress the poor. The shift from Temple to Jesus underlines God’s concern for the poor, a concern that is, of course, already embedded in Torah, so it’s not new in Jesus; rather, Jesus fulfils the Law in this respect, as in every other. In this sense, then, the church-as-Temple contains the danger of a regress into thinking about the church-as-Establishment and Power, a danger doubly present because Establishment and Power have continually been part of the church’s history. So the church as Temple points a warning signal in addition to its positive meanings. This warning is doubly necessary because of the profound influence of the Temple on Christian worship: the design of our churches, the separation of priesthood from laity, furnishings and images such as sacrifice and atonement all reflect Temple worship.

In summary, in at least these eight ways, the shift from a building as the central sign of God’s Presence and work to the worshipping community as this signs points the meaning of the strong christological emphasis of the NT. Everything the Temple was the Church/Body of Christ now is, but in a new way which heightens our understanding of the personal Presence and love of God.

PART III: The Story of the Temple in the Bible Applied to Church Buildings (if you have time)

 A question is raised by the image of the Church as the Temple of God: in light of Jesus’ claim that his body replaces the Temple is it wrong to worship in consecrated buildings which inevitably become very central to our common worship and life?

The question arises because in the Bible believers have always needed a building to be the centre for their worship of God together.  Even while in the desert God gave Israel a Tabernacle for this purpose: And have them make me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25.8). Once well settled in Canaan God laid it on David’s heart to build a temple in Jerusalem, a project achieved by Solomon (1 Kings 5.5). When this Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE it became very important to the returned exiles to rebuild it, a project completed in 515 BCE by Nehemiah and Ezra. This Temple, the building in which Jesus worshipped, was substantially redesigned and enlarged by Herod the Great (37 BCE – 4 CE) in order to impress his Roman master and curry favour with the Jews. During the Great Jewish War (66-70 CE) the Temple was a central site of struggle between competing Jewish factions as much has between Jew and Roman. The Romans destroyed it in 70 CE, together with Jerusalem; and it has never been rebuilt.

As we’ve seen, there is also, however, a shadow-side to the biblical portrait of the Temple which appears in both the OT and NT. For example, we see the Temple from this angle in Jeremiah. Recall that Judah is threatened by Babylon, a great power. The king and his advisors are trying all sorts of political tricks to avoid conquest but Jeremiah has told them that the Lord wants Judah to surrender (because the conquest is punishment for Judah’s disobedience). So at 7.4, in the vacuous repetition of a single phrase,  the prophet mocks what the Temple has become: an almost-magical guarantee of Judah’s safety: This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord. In this mocking imitation of real prayer, Jeremiah is critiquing the fact that the building has replaced the obedience of the people’s lives; people believe that the very presence of the Temple guarantees Judah’s immunity from conquest, so in the incantatory repetition of This is the temple of the Lord...  Jeremiah is ridiculing the absurdity of this reduction of the covenant.

Jeremiah’s inner-biblical critique of the Temple is offered in the context of the OT’s theology of the Temple which, in summary, was that the design of the Temple represented Creation:  the Holy of Holies is the throne of God, the origin of life, the Veil is the web of matter separating God’s throne from human perception, the Table for the Bread stands for agricultural produce, the Seven-Branched Candalabra for the sun, moon, and five planets then known; the Altar of Burnt Offering represents non-human creatures, and the High Priest represents humanity.

Hence, the Temple was designed so that in its ceremonies worshippers would, as it were, participate through the liturgical year in reliving the seven days of Creation and through this once again experience Paradise. As the Jewish biblical scholar, Jon Levenson puts it: “...the Temple is not a place in the world, but the world in essence” (“Sinai and Zion” p.139).  You can see how appropriate this Creation theme is to the way Jesus connects himself to the Temple in John, the Gospel where, most strongly, the claim is made that Jesus was active with the Father in the act of Creation.

Worshipping communities tend to fall away from their own best understandings. We have seen Jeremiah’s critique of this tendency; and when we come to the NT period we find a Temple that has again become seriously compromised in practice, as we have noted. Rebuilt after the Exile, it has been radically reshaped by Herod the Great to reflect the grandeur of his political ambitions in the service of his own kingship and the glory of his Roman master. The architecture of Herod’s temple, with the military barracks attached to and overshadowing the Temple itself, makes it quite clear that the Temple now serves the interests of Roman military power, aided by the Judean religious leaders who mostly work in and from the Temple.

By the time of Jesus the Temple has become an even greater source of the oppression of ordinary people: manned by a corrupt, self-interested leadership, as we see in all the Gospels,, both lay and clerical, it serves the interests of the rich and powerful almost entirely. This is why when the Great Jewish Revolt broke out in 66 CE the rebels’s first act was to burn the records of debt which were kept in the Temple; and it is one reason for Jesus’ symbolic  destruction of the Temple – it is incorrect to label this action a “cleansing” as many Bibles do (Mark 11.15-19; Matt 21.12-16; Luke 19.45-48; John 2.13-25).

All this being said, we should not forget that despite its corruption the Temple continues to be the site of true worship, as the widow offering her mite to the Temple treasury indicates (Mark 12.41-44). That the Temple episode represents a destruction rather than merely a cleansing is indicated in Mark 13 which it is now widely agreed is Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s actual destruction amidst all the suffering of warfare, a prophecy that came tragically true when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE as a climactic event in the terrible Great Jewish War that raged from 66-7- CE.

In the Temple episode, Jesus predicts and symbolically enacts the destruction of a Temple that no longer served its theology. However, as John especially makes clear by his powerful emphasis on Jesus’ identity with the Father,  and as I noted at the start of this study Jesus also has another motive for wanting to end the time of the Temple which may have nothing to do with the Temple itself but rather with a significant moment in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. it is quite likely that Jesus is developing in an unexpected way a question voiced over time by a number of OT writers as to whether God’s presence can be confined to a particular place: For what great nation is there whose God is near to it as YHWH our God is whenever we call upon him (Deuteronomy 4.7).

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE Judaism divided into four streams, two of which have endured to our own day: the Pharisees moved to Galilee from where they began what has developed into Rabbinic Judaism, focused around Torah and Synagogue. The second stream became Christianity focused around Jesus and Church. It is probable that in the first few centuries both streams used private homes and community facilities before developing their own particular buildings.

As far as Christianity is concerned, it is interesting for our topic that consecrated buildings have been such a central part of our history, and that our church buildings have, as I’ve already noted, replicated the Temple in size and magnificence, in furnishings such as altar and table, as well as in a design which duplicated the hierarchical separation between ordained and lay priesthood. This development became inevitable for two main reasons: first, as the fervent belief of the first Christians in the imminent second coming faded, Christians had to face the reality of continuing life on earth; and second, when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, under Constantine, large congregations required large buildings especially set apart for the purpose of public worship. To this day many Christians regard this embroilment of the Church in the fabric of society’s political life as one of the greatest impediments to the gospel.

7.    Has the historical presence and role of church buildings made us just that bit less faithful – perhaps entirely unfaithful – to Jesus’ intentions for his followers?

a.    A part of your discussion might include a reflection on this question: when Jesus accounced the replacement of the Jerusalem Temple by his body (John 2.19) was he prophesying merely the destruction of that building (Mark 13.2) or did he intend that the new community of his followers should never use a building?

b.    I’ve asked this question because Christians often feel guilty about their (often-magnificent) buildings. However, such guilt seems pointless and possibly misplaced. It is arguable that history required the development and reliance on buildings; but the always-present question is how to avoid the dangers of inevitable institutionalization.

Tim Long, 11/06/2012