On the one hand, I don’t want to be guilty of unwarranted exaggeration. On the other, I’m hard-pressed to think of a more theologically important, spiritually encouraging, and eschatologically controversial statement than that of Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:16b. “For we are the temple of the living God”!
The starting point for understanding this crucial concept is the Old Testament narrative in which we find the visible manifestation of the splendor of God among his people, the shekinah of God, his majestic and radiant glory without which the Israelites would have been left in the darkness that characterized the Gentile world.
Before Solomon’s temple, God revealed his glory in the tent or tabernacle which Moses constructed. It was there that God would come, dwell, and meet with his people. “Let them make me a sanctuary,” the Lord spoke to Moses, “that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8). It was there that “the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and [there that] the Lord would speak with Moses” (Ex. 33:9). It was there that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34). The tabernacle was where the people of Israel would draw near to hear from God, to worship God, and to stand in his presence (cf. Lev. 9:23; Num. 14:10).
What was true of the tabernacle during the days of Israel’s sojourn was even more the case in the temple of Solomon. When the Ark of the Covenant was brought “to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the Most Holy Place, underneath the wings of the cherubim” (2 Chron. 5:7), “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God” (2 Chron. 5:14).
It is against this preparatory backdrop that we read the stunning declaration of John that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The word translated “dwelt” (skenoo) literally means “to pitch a tent” or “to live in a tabernacle” and unmistakably points back to the OT when God’s glory took up residence in the tent of Moses, the portable tabernacle, and eventually in Solomon’s temple.
John’s point is that God has now chosen to dwell with his people in a yet more personal way, in the Word who became flesh: in Jesus! The Word, Jesus of Nazareth, is the true and ultimate shekinah glory of God, the complete and perfect manifestation of the presence of God among his people. The place of God’s glorious dwelling is the flesh of his Son! The glory which once shined in the tent/tabernacle/temple of old, veiled in the mysterious cloud, was simply a foreglow, a mere anticipatory flicker, if you will, of that exceedingly excelling glory now embodied in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ (cf. Col. 1:19).
God no longer lives in a tent or tabernacle built by human hands, nor will he ever. God’s glorious manifest presence is not to be found in an ornate temple of marble, gold, and precious stones, but rather in Jesus. Jesus is the glory of God in human flesh, the one in whom God has finally and fully pitched his tent.
The point is that the temple of the Old Covenant was a type or foreshadowing of the glory of Christ. It was the place where the Law of Moses was preserved, of which Jesus is now the fulfillment. It was the place of revelation and relationship, where God met and spoke to his people. Now we hear God and see God and meet God in Jesus. It was the place of sacrifice, where forgiveness of sins was obtained. For that, we now go to Jesus. Israel worshipped and celebrated in the temple in Jerusalem. We now worship in spirit and truth, regardless of geographical locale (cf. John 4:20-26).
To meet God, to talk with God, to worship God, you no longer come to a building or a tent or a structure made with human hands. You come to Jesus! Jesus is the Temple of God!
But the story doesn’t end there. We, the church, are the body of Christ and therefore constitute the temple in which God is pleased to dwell. The shekinah of Yahweh now abides permanently and powerfully in us through the Holy Spirit. When Paul describes this in his letter to the Ephesians, he refers to Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, “in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21-22). Simply put, God’s residence is “neither a literal temple in Jerusalem nor simply heaven, but the Church, of which the Gentile Christian readers in Asia Minor were a part” (Lincoln, 158).
This formation of the temple is an on-going divine project, a continuous process (see also Eph. 4:15-16). Although it may seem strange to speak of a “building” experiencing continuous “growth”, Paul surely wants us to conceive of the church as an organic entity. Recall that Peter also refers to believers somewhat paradoxically as “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5)!
Again, Paul grounds his appeal to the Corinthians in this truth: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:16-17). In his plea for sexual purity, he again asks: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20; see also the graphic portrayal of this truth in 1 Peter 2:4-10).
All this bring us to Paul’s consummate declaration in 2 Corinthians 6:16b: “For we are the temple of the living God”! To reinforce this point he conflates several OT texts (Lev. 26:11-12; Isa. 52:11; Ezek. 11:17; 20:34,41; 2 Sam. 7:14) which prophesied of a coming, end-times temple, one of which is Ezekiel 37:26-27 where God declares: “I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Let me come straight to the point. Beginning with the incarnation and consummating in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, together with the progressive building of his spiritual body, the Church, God is fulfilling his promise of an eschatological temple in which he will forever dwell.
But what of the literal, physical temple in Jerusalem? Has it lost its spiritual significance in God’s redemptive purposes? To answer this we must return to Jesus’ words in Matthew 23-24.
In judgment against the Jewish people, the temple complex was abandoned by our Lord, both physically and spiritually, as he departed and made his way to the Mount of Olives. “Your house,” said Jesus, “is left to you desolate” (Mt. 23:38). It has thus ceased to be “God’s” house. When Jesus died and “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mt. 27:51), God forever ceased to bless it with his presence or to acknowledge it as anything other than ichabod (the glory has departed).
Just as dramatically as Jesus had entered Jerusalem (Mt. 21:1-17, the so-called “Triumphal Entry”) and its temple, he now departs. This once grand and glorious house of God is now consigned exclusively to them (“See, your house is left to you desolate,” Mt. 23:38). The echoes of God’s withdrawal from the temple in Ezekiel’s vision reverberate in the words of our Lord (see Ezek. 10:18-19; 11:22-23). The ultimate physical destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 a.d. is but the outward consummation of God’s spiritual repudiation of it. Jesus has now left, never to return. Indeed, the action of Jesus in departing the temple and taking his seat on the Mount of Olives (Mt. 24:3) recalls Ezekiel 11:23 where we read that “the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city.”
This applies equally to any supposed future temple that many believe will be built in Jerusalem in the general vicinity where the Dome of the Rock now stands. It’s entirely possible, of course, that people in Israel may one day build a temple structure and resume their religious activities within it. The political and military implications of such, not to mention the religious furor it would provoke, are obvious.
Whether or not this will ever occur is hard to say, but if it does it will have no eschatological or theological significance whatsoever, other than to rise up as a stench in the nostrils of God. The only temple in which God is now and forever will be pleased to dwell is Jesus Christ and the Church, his spiritual body.
It would be an egregious expression of the worst imaginable redemptive regression to suggest that God would ever sanction the rebuilding of the temple. It would be tantamount to a denial that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It would constitute a repudiation of the Church as the temple of God and thus an affront to the explicit affirmation of Paul here in 2 Corinthians 6 and elsewhere.
Finally, let’s not lose sight of the practical point Paul is making. It is because we as the church are the place of God’s presence in the world today that we must guard ourselves against any and every expression of idolatry. We are not simply another cultural institution or “social service meeting the felt needs” of our neighbors. “Instead, as the new covenant people of God, the church is the ‘family of God’ united by a common identity in Christ and gathered around her common worship and fear of ‘the Lord Almighty’” (Hafemann, 292). May our lives always reflect that glorious and gracious identity.