Jesus, the Temple
Here’s another key passage that we often overlook —
(John 2:19-21 ESV) 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
Why does the passage speak of “the temple of his body”? Because he was indwelt by the Spirit? Maybe. But not exactly. Jesus was already a member of the Godhead without the indwelling Spirit. Let’s read the passage, instead, as a Jew would have heard it at the time.
To a Jew at the Temple, what does “temple” mean? Well, the Temple is where you must go to worship. It’s where you receive forgiveness. The temple is where God dwells — not uniquely but with a special presence. The temple is where sacrifices are made. The temple is where priests serve God. The temple is where fellowship meals are eaten with God. The temple is what demonstrates that the Jews are God’s people — that God is the God of the Jews.
For Jesus to call his own body the “temple” is to say what? Well, that all those things would be true of his body.
For ancient Israel, The presence of God dwelt in the temple; sins were forgiven there; sacrifices were made there; people worshiped there; it was sacred space. But Jesus was forgiving sins and healing people right in the street; receiving worship right in the street; Judaism’s “incarnational” symbol of God’s presence was the Temple… but it was being redefined around Jesus.
— N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus.
Where is the new temple? Where is the proper place to “worship”? Where is the proper place to offer a sacrifice? Where do we go to receive forgiveness?
And where is Jesus found today? Not only in heaven. He’s on earth, incarnated as the church, the body of Christ. Jesus continues his mission on earth through his body, the church (1 Cor 12:27; Rom 12:5; Eph 4:12).
And where is Jesus found, incarnated as he is by the church? Well, to quote a cliché, but a true cliché, the church is not the building but the people. Forgiveness and worship and sacrifice happens wherever the people who are the body of Christ may be found.
No longer must we travel to Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim to worship. Indeed, no longer do we have to go to a church building to worship. We worship wherever we are.
We are — each one of us — a temple of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus himself replaced the Temple in his own person, so do we.
But the scriptures far more often refer to the church — rather than an individual — as a temple (1 Cor 6:19 speaks of the individual body; 1 Cor 3:16-17; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:4-5 all speak of the church as a temple). Only once are individual Christians referred to as a temple. The scripture writers far prefer to think in terms of the church as the Temple.
Yes, we can and do sacrifice and worship and contribute as individuals, but it is far better and far truer to the nature of Jesus to do so in community.
The new rules
So what are the new rules? What limitations are placed on worship and sacrifice and giving and so on? Surely there are rules!
Well, no. That’s the wrong question, asked from an entirely wrong mindset. Jesus transforms a rule-based system into a person-based system. It’s no longer about honoring 613 commands on how to worship and serve God. It’s about honoring Jesus. It’s a whole new mindset.
Because the church, as temple, is indwelt by the Spirit, just as the Temple was indwelt by God, true worship is in Spirit. And if the worship is Spirit prompted, it’s acceptable to God, for the same reason that God only and always accepts obedience that is prompted by the Spirit (see this earlier post on the Torah of the Spirit of life).
Because the church is founded upon and bounded by the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of truth, then worship must be about the truth, in support of the truth, prompted by the truth, all about the truth. That is, worship must be Jesus-focused and Jesus-centered. It’s about God’s revelation through Jesus and what Jesus did and does for us.
To borrow from John, it’s about testimony — telling each other what Jesus has done and is doing. It’s about being sent — sending one another and reporting the good news of what God has done through us as we’ve been sent into the world to be the light of the world, that is, to be just like Jesus.
New Testament Temple language
Read the New Testament. Read every passage that speaks in terms of “worship,” “sacrifice,” “offering,” or other language taken from worship at the Temple. Every single time, it’s about living for Jesus.
(Rom 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
“Present,” “sacrifice,” and “worship” are language of the Temple.
(Rom 6:13 ESV) 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
“Present” is the language of sacrifice.
(1Pe 2:4-9 ESV) 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
“Offer” and “sacrifices” are Temple language.
There are enough passages to fill weeks of posts! Over and over, the language of the Temple is borrowed and repurposed to apply to lives of dedication to Jesus in the form of individual and corporate service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering.
We “worship” as we imitate Jesus. We enter the true Temple as we are united with Jesus through our imitation of him.
And so, yes, these passages speak profoundly of the transformation Jesus was working. As the early church wrestled with such basic questions as “Must a convert become a Jew to be saved?” and “Must we continue to worship in the Temple?” and “How does the Law of Moses apply today?” it was exactly this kind of analysis that answered the questions.
It wasn’t a mechanical rule of “dispensations” or “the moral law survives but not the Temple cult.” No, it was carefully thinking about how Jesus transforms the elements of the Law.
We are plainly taught, over and over, that “worship” is now no longer an event based on rules and arriving at a certain place at a certain time. Rather, the language of worship has been transferred to the church doing what the church was saved to do — honor the mission of God by imitating Christ.