A True Temple Of God

“O HEAVENLY KING…present in all places and filling all things.” We begin most of our liturgical services with these words, proclaiming the universal presence of God in His creation. We know that God is the source of all things but we also believe that it is God who upholds all things in being by His life-giving presence. “In Him we live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul reminded the Athenians (Acts 17:28). Were God not present to our creation, it would simply cease to be. In a real sense, then, all creation is a temple in which we can encounter its Creator.

The earliest acts of worship recorded in the Book of Genesis took place outdoors. The fabled patriarchs Noah (Genesis 8:20), Abraham (Genesis 12:8; 22:9), Isaac (Genesis 26:25) and Jacob (Genesis 28:18) all built altars and set up memorial stones outdoors to recognize God’s presence and offer sacrifices to Him. With Moses, however, Israelite worship moved “indoors.” The portable tabernacle which accompanied the Israelites from Egypt and its successor, the temple at Jerusalem, became the concrete proclamation of God’s unique presence to them delivering them from slavery.

The temple did not only represent God’s presence in creation; it also affirmed His abiding relationship with the Israelites as His chosen people. God could be found in nature, to be sure, but especially in His relationship with the people among whom He dwelled. The signs of His covenant with Israel – the tablets of the Law, the jar of manna and the rod of Aaron (cf., Numbers 17:1-11) – were enshrined in the temple as evidence of His love.

When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the Jews were exiled, these relics of the covenant disappeared. The temple was rebuilt but the holy of holies was empty, merely the sign of what had been.

Jesus Is the Temple

In John’s account of Jesus driving the merchants and money-changers out of temple, the Lord says to the indignant Jews, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” John, and the first Christians, interprets this to mean: “He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the words which Jesus had said” (John 2:19, 21-22).

With the Incarnation there was a true Temple of God’s presence in the midst of Israel once again. Jesus of Nazareth was the temple in whom the Word of God had taken up His dwelling. The Lord Jesus is “the One greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6) built by men, because He the living temple provided by the Father for us. 

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all speak of the temple veil being torn in two from top to bottom at the death of Christ. The veil, which separated the holy of holies from the rest of the temple, was the sign of man’s inability to enjoy a full relationship with God. Christ’s presence has made God fully accessible to us. As Christ told His disciple Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

The Church a Temple

“We are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16) writes St. Paul about the Church. Some manuscripts of this epistle say “You are the temple…” In either case it is clear that St. Paul was not speaking of a church building: there were none yet. Christians met for worship in homes. He wrote about the community of believers itself: that the Christian community was a holy place of communion with God.

The Lord Jesus had declared that He would be present in a gathering of His followers, however small: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Because He was fully man Jesus was one of us; because He was also fully God His union with our humanity could transcend the limits of one earthly body. He could be embodied in the assembly of His followers.

St Paul adopted the image of a human body to describe the organic unity of Christ and the Church: “as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. … Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12:13, 27).

In the same vein St Paul writes to the Colossians, “He is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). The Church – the assembly of believers – is united with Christ its head as one body. This is why we can speak of the Church as a temple – because it is one with Christ, the living temple of the glory of God. As Christ in His humanity was the living temple of God, so the Church as His body is God’s living temple today.

In the past century it has become increasingly possible to graft skin, transplant organs or re-attach severed limbs onto a human body. As St. Paul taught, becoming organically united to the body of Christ was possible even in the first century AD. We are organically one in Christ by means of the “grafting” of baptism. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body —whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Baptism unites us to the body of Christ, making us members of the living temple of God on earth.

Consequences of Being God’s Temple

After setting forth the Church as the temple of God, St. Paul draws the following conclusion: the Church should be separate from the pagan culture around them. He quotes two of the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah and Ezechiel: “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you” (2 Corinthians 6:17).

The Jerusalem temple and everything in it was consecrated, set apart from profane purposes and devoted solely to the service of God. The Church, the living temple of Christ, should be as well, particularly in regard to the ethics and behavior of the secular culture. Some later Christians, like the Amish, set themselves apart by their dress or speech. The second-century Epistle to Diognetus, however, shows how early Christians lived out Paul’s teaching. “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. .…They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all…” (To Diognetus, V).

Many Christians in the past hundred years have sought to appeal to their contemporaries by adapting popular language and music in their worship and endorsing popular morality in their ethics, accepting divorce or abortion, and even “blessing” same-sex marriages. Christians seeking to be the temple of God, faithful to the Scriptures and the rest of Holy Tradition, should recall how Christ chastised the Jews for bringing the secular world into the temple: “And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Matthew 21:13) Secularizing God’s temple invariably makes it a den of thieves.