Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days.” Therefore the Jews said, “This temple took forty-six years to build, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body.-John 2:19-21
In our previous two posts we’ve considered how to read genealogies and how to read the law—two of the toughest kinds of literature in the Bible. In this post we turn our attention to reading temple/tabernacle building narratives. This might seem like an odd sub-genre, but we find at least 26 chapters in the OT that relate the preparations and execution for building the tabernacle and temple, as well as setting up the Levitical system to run the temple. These sections tend to be larger chunks, anywhere from 2-6 chapters. So what’s the big deal about the temple? And what spiritual benefit should we derive from reading such passages?
A Biblical Theology of Temple Building Narratives
As you read the Bible it becomes clear that the temple is a big deal. The key to rightly valuing these portions of scripture is seeing why the temple is so central to the story of redemption. The basic idea of the temple is God dwelling with his people. As we read through the Bible we see this on display in the tabernacle/temple in Israel, Ezekiel’s visionary temple, Jesus’s relationship to the temple, and finally the New Jerusalem.
The Tabernacle/Temple for Israel
The tabernacle/temple was God’s designated dwelling place with the people of Israel. In Exodus 19 God explains that he rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt so they will be his possession “out of all the peoples,” his kingdom of priests. The tabernacle facilitated God dwelling with his people in spite of their sin. How? By making provision through sacrifices. In order for sinful people to dwell with the holy God of the universe he had to make provision for forgiveness. At the end of the day that’s what the temple is all about.
So everything about God’s dwelling had to be especially dedicated to him; i.e., holy. The building had to be done a certain way. The materials couldn’t be common. Even the men who oversaw the building of the tabernacle, Bezalel and Oholiab, needed to be especially equipped by the Spirit of God for their task (Ex. 35:31-35). All the tools and furnishings in the temple had to be specially made and dedicated to the Lord’s use. This included the people who would serve at the temple: the Levites. Levites had to be set apart to serve the Lord, had to have special sacrifices made for their sins, and even their clothes had to be holy. All of this points to the holiness of God whose dwelling the tabernacle/temple was.
The tabernacle was a portable temple designed to be setup and taken down as the Israelites traveled throughout the wilderness. Later David’s son Solomon would finally build a permanent temple in Jerusalem, the city God had chosen. That occasion is the subject of much attention in the OT because it was a tangible expression of God’s commitment to dwell with his people permanently. Of course Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians as judgment for Israel’s sin. God had made provision for his people to dwell with him, but their persistent sin demanded judgment. God was holy, his people were not.
Ezekiel’s Visionary Temple
The later visionary temple of Ezekiel 40-48 is an idealized presentation of God dwelling eternally with his people. Remember that Ezekiel was the prophet who went into exile not long before Solomon’s temple was destroyed. In his second vision he related the tragic departure of God’s glory from the temple before its destruction (Ezek. 8-10). His prophetic book ends with a dramatic reversal: God dwelling with his people in a glorious new temple. What could bring victory from disaster? What change will make it possible for God to again dwell with his people? The Messiah.
Jesus Is the Better Temple
Jesus’s ministry makes it possible for God to eternally dwell with his people because he permanently removes the problem of sin and makes sinners holy. This is why in John 2 when Jesus is cleansing the temple he told the temple leaders that if they destroyed the temple he would rebuild it in three days (Herod’s temple during Jesus’s first advent had take over 4 decades to build). John clarifies “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). Jesus replaced the temple. How? John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who “dwelt” among us (John 1:14). Commentators rightly note that the verb “to dwell” is used of pitching tents, like the tabernacle of the wilderness. Jesus is God dwelling with his people. But that’s not all, as we learn in Hebrews his death and resurrection provide eternal satisfaction for sin—no additional sacrifices needed.
No Temple in the New Jerusalem?
So what the tabernacle and earlier temples temporarily made possible Jesus makes permanent. What Ezekiel saw in his vision represents our eternal dwelling with God because of Jesus’s death and resurrection. This is why in Revelation 21:3, speaking of the New Jerusalem, God declares “Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them.” How? Later John says, “I did not see a tempe in it, because the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). Greg Beale would add that the temple in the New Jerusalem is the eternal fulfillment of the design in Eden: God dwelling with his people forever.
Tips for Reading Temple Building Narratives
The tough temple sections of Scripture are Exodus 25-30, 35-39, 1 Kings 6-7, 1 Chronicles 23-27, 2 Chronicles 3-5, and Ezekiel 40-44. In these passages you’ll find instructions for building the temple, setting up the priests, and accounts of the temple being built. These aren’t the only temple-related passages in the Bible, but they’re the long harder-to-read ones. Here are some tips as you read these sections.
Read Complete Units
When you come to temple building narratives in the OT I suggest reading the given section as a complete unit, even if it’s longer. For example, don’t read Exodus 25-30 over five days, read it fairly quickly in one sitting. Resist the temptation to over-interpret the significance of small details like measurements. The big picture significance of the temple in light of the whole of the Bible should drive our devotional application of these sections.
Focus on God’s Holiness
As you read through the temple building narratives remember the main driving force: God’s holiness. It’s easy to get lost in the trees of building measurements, utensils, priestly garments, and lists of priestly functions. All the literary real estate dedicated to these details is a result of the holiness of God, a doctrine we increasingly struggle to value as a culture.
Remember the Cross
The temple system is necessary because of sin. Every component is designed to facilitate atoning sacrifices for God’s people. Therefore, we can say with the author of Hebrews that the whole of the temple points to Jesus. It is Jesus as our great High Priest, our Passover Lamb, and our better temple who makes it possible for God to dwell with us.
It’s All about Relationship
At the end of the day, the temple is all about God enabling sinners to live in relationship with him. This is why the church (the body of believers, not the building) is called a temple by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19. Because the Spirit of God dwells in us we now are holy, just like the OT temple. God has made the way for us to be made holy, and as you read these sections perhaps consider how you are designed and crafted to be dedicated to the Lord just like the temple furnishings, utensils, and priests. There’s a great opportunity here for repentance as we are convicted over areas of our lives that aren’t holy.
Look Forward to Our Eternal Home
As you read temple building narratives do so with one eye on our eternal home in the New Jerusalem. Consider brushing up on Revelation 21-22 beforehand. This will help you see the ultimate end game for the temple: sinners made saints, dwelling with God forever.
In our next post we’ll consider one final tough-to-read part of the Bible: tribal location lists.