From Tabernacle to Living Temple

THE IMAGERY OF THE TEMPLE runs through the Scriptures and the Church’sTradition, especially in the Christian East. Several of those images are presented to us during these days, offering us the opportunity to reflect on the Temple in the thought of our Church.


God Dwells among the Israelites

The first temple described in the Old Testament was not a temple-building. It was the tabernacle or portable shrine set up by Moses in the wilderness (c. 14th century BC).

In its fullest form the tabernacle consisted of a large tent, called the Holy of Holies because it contained the Ark of the Covenant which held the tablets of the Law given by God to Moses. In front of the Holy of Holies stood an altar for burnt offerings and a laver in which the priests washed their hands and feet before offering a sacrifice. The courtyard in which these objects stood was surrounded by curtains mounted on poles.

God Dwells in Jerusalem

When King David conquered Jerusalem and established his capital there (c. 1000 BC), he had the Ark brought to the city (cf 1 Chronicles 15). King David wanted to build a permanent temple for God in Jerusalem but God did not permit it, as David reported to his people:. “Hear me, my brethren and my people: I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool of our God, and had made preparations to build it. But God said to me, ‘You shall not build a house for My name, because you have been a man of war and have shed blood’ (1 Chronicles 28:3). Instead it was left to David’s son, Solomon, to build the temple of Jerusalem.

In 833 BC, a time of peace in the region, King Solomon began the construction of the Temple on a site chosen by his father. David’s site, Mount Moriah, was the place where Abraham had once prepared to offer up his only son in obedience to God (cf. Gen 22). Seven years later Solomon dedicated the completed temple and had the Ark of the Covenant brought into its Holy of Holies.

Solomon’s temple is described in some detail in the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary and behind the second veil586 the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies,  which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat” (Hebrews 91-5).

The temple signified Israel’s continuing communion with God, expressed in its round of daily and festal sacrifices. “…the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s transgressions”(Hebrews 9:6-7). Solomon also provided a place in the temple for non-Jews, the Court of the Gentiles, “that all peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this temple which I have built is called by Your name” (1 Kings 8:43).

The temple remained the center and heart of Israel for the next three centuries, even though the rulers and people frequently strayed from faithfulness to their God. Finally in 586 BC Jerusalem was overrun by the Babylonians. The Jews were deported, the temple was destroyed and all its treasures taken off to Babylon, never to return.

The Second Temple

After fifty years in captivity the Jews were freed by the Persians who conquered Babylon. Many returned to Jerusalem and in time rebuilt the temple. The second temple was completed in 349 bc and became the center of restored Jewish life. While the Jews were back in Jerusalem, they were not politically independent so the temple became the sole embodiment of Jewish identity. But since the Ark and other God-ordained vessels had disappeared, the Holy of Holies was left empty. As a result several Jewish groups, like the Essenes, refused to acknowledge the second temple without the “real presence” of the Ark.

King Herod the Great renovated and enlarged the second temple in AD 19, covering the façade of the Holy of Holies with gold and white marble. He also added a great plaza around the temple to accommodate the vast number of pilgrims who celebrated the Passover and other feasts in Jerusalem.

The football-stadium sized temple with its courtyards and outbuildings could not fail to impress visitors, including the Galilean fishermen and tradespeople who accompanied Jesus. “As [Jesus] went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2).

Living Temples

Before the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, it had been eclipsed as God’s dwelling place on earth by the incarnation of the Word. Christ is the new and living temple of God on earth. As He told the Pharisees who criticized Him for healing on the Sabbath, “One greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6).Through Christ God has communicated Himself to mankind and also through Christ we can reach out to God as our heavenly Father.

In that the Theotokos was the dwelling place of Christ in her womb, the Church also calls her the temple of God. This image is employed particularly on the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos (November 21). In the words of the kondakion, “The most pure temple of the Savior, the precious bridal chamber and Virgin, the sacred treasury of God, enters today into the house of the Lord, bringing with her the grace of the divine Spirit.”

The Church itself, in that it is the Body of Christ, is His dwelling place on earth. As St Paul told his Gentile followers in Ephesus, “you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,  in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Finally our church building is an icon proclaiming that Christ, incarnate of the Virgin and the Head of His Body, the Church, is for us what the temple of Jerusalem once was for Jews. The pot of manna is fulfilled by the Eucharist, the Torah scroll by the Gospel Book and the rod of Aaron by the cross. The cherubim, the menorah and the censer now flank the Holy Table instead of the Ark. The impenetrable temple veil is now made transparent by the icons and we come in and go out freely, as children of the Father and priests of the New Covenant.