God’s Mission for the Temple Matters Today

If you’ve been around The Crossing for long enough, you’ve probably experienced an expansion in your understanding of idolatry. What once connoted wooden or stone statues of powerless pagan deities, now includes any good thing we elevate to an ultimate thing by worshipping it. (Success, control, sex, money, etc.)

Likewise, the Bible’s understanding of the temple is more profound than a stone building. Just as deepening our understanding of idolatry can help us battle sin, understanding the temple can help us to understand our mission (and how God helps us to participate).

The Temple’s Mission: Eden’s Mission Unfolded

In Genesis 1 God created from nothing. He ordered an unshaped chaos into our spectacular universe. He shaped the stars, planets, and especially our little earth. On this pale blue dot he formed the crown of his creation: mankind, made in God’s own image; mankind, his vice-regents, given a great commission:

And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28)

Earth was an wild planet with immense creational potential. As God’s vice-regents humans were to do unto earth what God did with the universe: order it and make it beautiful.

God started this project by planting the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8). God dwelt in his garden with Adam and Eve, even walking with them (Gen. 3:8). Eden is the archetype for every temple. It is the place where God and man dwell together. Adam and Eve’s mission was to spread the paradisal, edenic garden of God’s presence throughout the whole world. That mission, to spread God’s blessed presence throughout creation, is the heart of the temple’s mission.

Tragically, Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Their, polluted, idolatrous hearts could no longer walk in God’s presence, so he cast them from the garden. But God did not give up on his original mission for Eden. Not even Adam’s tragic failure stops him. God will make a way for he and man to dwell together once more (Ex. 6:7).

God works through the line of Seth (Gen. 4:26), Noah (Gen. 9:1), and Abraham (Gen. 12:7-8) to bring about a special people with whom he would dwell: Israel. He commands Moses to build a tabernacle, so that he might dwell, literally, in the middle of Israel’s camp (Ex. 25:8-9). Eventually Solomon builds a permanent home for God on mount Zion, in the heart of Jerusalem, the temple (1 Ki. 8:11ff).

The Temple’s Mission: Shaping Israel’s Heart, Mind and Soul

Both the tabernacle and temple taught God’s people about who he is, and who they are. Moreover, both gave a distinct picture of “shalom,” which is God’s plan for human flourishing. As Israel grasped this picture of the good life more and more deeply, they were shaped, increasingly, into a peculiar people after God’s own heart. A peculiar people, through whom he could one day bring eternal shalom.

Through the reading of the law they learned that they have fallen short of God’s standards (Rom. 5:20). Through the sacrificial system they learn that God graciously makes a way for them to approach him (Ps. 65:5-3). Even the physicality of the temple functions to shape their imagination: it is a microcosm of all creation – earth, sea, sky and the heavens – representing God’s ultimate mission to transform all of earth into a holy place, free of sin.

Psalm 92 envisions believers as trees in the temple of God – growing, expanding, and being transformed by God’s power and grace,

The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the LORD;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the LORD is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him (Ps 92:12-15).

This is a picture of shalom: God’s design for human flourishing. The temple, rightly understood, gave the watching a world of paganism a picture of what true communion with God looked like. But it the temple itself was never the end goal.

The Temple’s Mission: Spreading Shalom

The whole Old Testament hints at a day when God’s presence would stretch out to consume the whole earth. The prophet Isaiah wrote,

Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out (Is. 54:2).

He prays, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is. 64:1). The Israelites were called to continue the mission of Adam, and spread out the dwelling place of God. Instead, they became like their pagan neighbors; the temple became an idolatrous mockery of God.

Jeremiah writes, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 7:11 ESV). Moneychangers used the temple to extort the poor. Others, much like the pharisees in Christ’s day, practiced outward religiosity at the temple without any inward commitment to God (Is. 66:1-2).

Yet God never gave up his commitment to human flourishing. He sent his son, Jesus, who said “Destroy this temple and in three days I will build it up” (Jn. 2:19). He accomplished this by dying on a cross. By making the final sacrifice, Jesus eliminated the need for the temple’s sacrificial ministry (Heb. 10:1-18). By giving his disciples his Holy Spirit, he inaugurated a new covenant where God’s presence dwelt no longer behind the veil of the most holy place, but inside our hearts. From the foundation of the apostles, Paul writes, Jesus is building a new temple, not of stones, but of men and women (Eph. 2:20-21).

The people of Christ’s church are the temple today. God dwells in our hearts. As more and more people are converted, God’s vision for shalom expands. It is amongst Christ’s people, through the power of Christ’s Spirit, that we experience the ministry of the temple. In Church we hear God’s word preached, we worship him through song, and we enjoy restored fellowship with believers of every nation. 

Stop and consider God’s mission for your life. He wants us to be stones his temple, spreading shalom. How? Through evangelism by sharing the gospel. Through vocation by using our calling to order and build up God’s creation. Through relationship by seeking healing, reconciliation, and loving friendship. Through worship by ordering our lives around enjoying God’s glory.

The Temple’s Mission: Already, But Not Yet

All of this is a foretaste of a renewed heaven and earth, where there will be no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22). Jesus will finish Adam’s commission and spreads Eden, the garden of God’s presence, throughout a renewed earth.

Today we wait for heaven. The Shalom we long for is already here in one sense, but not yet. Because we live in the “already, but not yet” of God’s temple, we are susceptible to powers that would draw us from God. There are competing temples, with competing visions of shalom, or the good life all about us. Next week I will begin a series looking at how “secular temples” form our desires and threaten our enjoyment of God’s shalom.

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