To get deeper into the idea of the church as temple, we must first consider the idea of Jesus as temple. This is an idea taught by N. T. Wright in several places and expanded on by Nicholas Perrin in Jesus the Temple.
Even more recently, Wright has explained the importance of the Temple to First Century Jews in detail in Paul and the Faithfulness of God —
The Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of the whole Jewish life and way of life. A good deal of Torah was about what to do in the Temple, and the practice of Torah in the Diaspora itself could be thought of in terms of gaining, at a distance, the blessings you would gain if you were actually there—the blessing, in other words, of the sacred presence itself, the Shekinah, the glory which supposedly dwelt in the Temple but would also dwell ‘where two or three study Torah’. …
The point of the Temple—this is where I want to develop considerably further what was said in the earlier volumes—is that it was where heaven and earth met. It was the place where Israel’s God, YHWH, had long ago promised to put his name, to make his glory present. The Temple, and before it the wilderness tabernacle, were thus heirs, within the biblical narrative, to moments like Jacob’s vision, the discovery that a particular spot on earth could intersect with, and be the gateway into, heaven itself. In the later period, even synagogues could sometimes be thought of as meeting places between heaven and earth; how much more the actual Temple.
The Temple was not simply a convenient place to meet for worship. It was not even just the ‘single sanctuary’, the one and only place where sacrifice was to be offered in worship to the one God. It was the place above all where the twin halves of the good creation intersected. When you went up to the Temple, it was not as though you were ‘in heaven’. You were actually there. That was the point.
Israel’s God did not have to leave heaven in order to come down and dwell in the wilderness tabernacle or the Jerusalem Temple. However surprising it may be for modern westerners to hear it, within the worldview formed by the ancient scriptures heaven and earth were always made to work together, to interlock and overlap. There might in principle be many places and ways in which this could happen, but the Jewish people had believed, throughout the millennium prior to Jesus, that the Jerusalem Temple was the place and the means par excellence for this strange and powerful mystery.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:95-97.
Here is the Temple itself, filled with the powerful glory, that is, the personal presence in power and glory, of YHWH himself. This is the place which will now be the place of sacrifice, the place towards which prayer will be offered, even from far away, the place of wisdom, the place from which blessing or deliverance will come. Here is the resting-place, after all the long journeyings, for the covenant made at the time of the exodus.
Sometimes ancient writers speak of the beauty of YHWH present in this place; sometimes, too, of his constant love. And here, not least, is the name of YHWH; this is one of the reasons why it helps us, despite the occasional objection, to quote that name itself rather than saying ‘LORD’ all the time, which in today’s English or American scarcely conveys the mystery and power of the tetragrammaton itself.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:99.
Wright goes on to explain three central elements of First Century Temple theology.
The first is that the Temple was seen as a microcosm of the entire Creation, as we covered a few posts ago, based on the writings of John Walton.
Gregory Beale, in a thorough and careful work, asks why the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21 and 22 is described as though the whole thing is a temple. His answer, on the basis of a wide survey of Temple discourse throughout ancient Jewish history, is that the Temple was always supposed to represent creation, and that at last, according to Revelation, the purpose is accomplished: that which was represented by the Temple, namely the presence of the creator in his world, is completely achieved. There is thus no Temple in the New Jerusalem, because the whole new creation is itself the ultimate (and originally intended) Temple.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:102.
Second is the connection of the Temple with David and God’s covenant with him.
For the next thousand years [after David and Solomon] the question of kingship and the question of Temple are tied closely together. The split of the kingdom in the generation after Solomon created a major problem for the divided Israelite world, as the northern tribes had to create a replacement for the single sanctuary as part of their breaking away from David’s house. Threats to the Temple were threats to the king, and vice versa; conversely, the two kings seen as heroic by the Deuteronomic historian, Hezekiah and Josiah, are the ones who reform the Temple, its worship and its central place in the life of Judah.
The destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians goes hand in hand with the overthrow of the monarchy, and the rebuilding after the partial return from Babylonian exile is entrusted to Zerubbabel—though the puzzle of the second Temple, to which we shall return presently, was part of the problem which meant that the Davidic house was not restored to its former glory.
There was then a hiatus until the second century BC, when Judas Maccabaeus cleansed and restored the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. This at one fell swoop legitimated his family as rulers, indeed priests as well as kings, for the next hundred years, despite the fact of their belonging neither to the royal tribe of Judah nor the priestly tribe of Levi.
Arguably, one of the motives of Herod the Great in rebuilding the Temple to be the most stunning piece of architecture in the ancient world was the hope that, despite even less auspicious ancestry [he was among the Edomites, converted to Judaism by the sword by the Maccabeans only a few generations earlier], he might legitimate at least his successors as the true kings of the Jews. The question of kingship hung ominously over the first century along with the question of the Temple, which was scarcely completed in its new magnificence before the Romans finally burnt it down once and for all. But the memory of the royal vocation of temple-building continued.
One of the coins minted by BarKochba in the great [Second Century] revolt has a picture of the Temple, indicating not only his aspiration to rebuild it but also his intention to demonstrate thereby that he was the true, final king.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:103–104.
Third is the challenge presented by the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
The two themes so far noted—Temple and cosmos, Temple and king—are both implicated in the third theme, of special importance for the study of the whole second-Temple period and, not least, the rise and self[-]understanding of the early Christian movement. What happens to the worldview, focused as it was on the Temple, when the king was killed and the Temple destroyed?
Answer: it threatens to fall apart. YHWH has abandoned the Temple to its fate, thereby removing his presence from Israel and leaving king and nation to their fate. The worldview can be put back together again only with the help of prophecies about the coming new Temple—which means, of course, the work of the true king and the restoration of the true cosmos.
New Temple, new king, new creation: that is the combined promise of the exilic prophets. Israel’s God will return to his Temple at last, the Temple which the coming king will build. Then, and only then, will the new Genesis come about.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:104–105.
In short, the destruction of the Temple by the Roman army was not a mere inconvenience. It wasn’t merely that the Jews no longer had a facility in which to meet and worship. The Temple was not like a modern church building — an expedient place to gather as believers. The Temple was the literal joining of heaven and earth, the literal dwelling place of God among his people, the only place where sacrifices could be offered — indeed, the only place where one could worship.
No Temple meant no worship, not as the Law of Moses and the Prophets taught.