N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
Covenant and Temple
Adam and Eve worshiped God in the temple of the Cosmos — Creation.
Abraham had no physical temple. He built altars as he felt the need to worship God.
Moses built the tabernacle as the place for God to be worshiped and for sacrifice to be made. After the tabernacle was built, we no longer read of sacrifices being made to God apart from the tabernacle or Temple. God insisted that he be worshiped in this one, special location.
[JFG] “Worship” in the tabernacle and Temple was primarily the sacrifice of animals or agricultural products. While the Jews chanted or sang songs and prayed at the Temple, these were generally spontaneous acts, not a regular liturgy led by priests. The priests primary job was to assist with animal sacrifice (an elaborate, bloody process) and to perform the Levitical rituals, such as burning incense and leading various national festivals.
[JFG] Synagogues were not instituted until after the time of the Babylonian captivity, and no sacrifices were ever made at a synagogue — and the Jews did not think of a synagogue as a place of “worship.” They prayed to God and studied the Tanakh (OT) there, but there was no sacrifice, no singing, or the like so far as is revealed by our available sources. The song service seems to have developed after the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD.
David designed and Solomon built the Temple.
Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple by the Romans due to the sinfulness of the Jews and replaced the Temple with the new, eternal Temple — himself.
The church, as the body of Christ, is also the new Temple. The NT repeatedly refers to the church as a temple for the Holy Spirit. But this is just one temple — as Jesus is one with the church.
[JFG] The Christian assembly does not replace the Temple as the unique place of worship. Rather, because Christians are always in the “temple,” they are always permitted to worship. In the NT, “worship” is defined by analogy to OT worship, that is, sacrifice. Hence,
(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.
[JFG] This is OT worship language applied to Christian living.
At the Second Coming, there will be no temple.
(Rev. 21:22-23 ESV) 22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
In effect, the NHNE become the Temple, just as the original Creation was made by God to be a cosmic temple for himself. We will have come full circle.
Merger of heaven and earth
As Wright explains in Simply Christian, the same story can be understood in terms of the separation of heaven and earth/God and and man.
In the Garden, man walked and spoke with God in the cool of the morning. The Garden was an intersection of earth and heaven, where both God and man could dwell together.
God’s special presence did not leave mankind entirely after sin entered the world, but it was greatly lessened and soon was nearly gone entirely — so much so that God allowed the world to be flooded and all but Noah and his family killed.
God’s presence returned with the accounts of Abraham. God spoke directly with Abraham as he’d spoken with Adam and Eve. This brought about the covenant relationship between God and Abraham. And when God appeared to Abraham, heaven and earth briefly intersected.
Over time, the Israelites in Egypt seem to have very nearly forgotten about God. We know nothing of their worshiping God until they cry out to him in their anguish due to Egyptian oppression. This led to God’s very presence among Israel — through Moses, atop Mt. Sinai, and in the column of smoke and fire that led them through the wilderness, which rested in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle.
Wherever God’s special presence was — on Mt. Sinai or in the tabernacle — was a place where heaven and earth met.
The same happened when Solomon’s Temple was dedicated and God’s presence rested there.
In Ezekiel, as the Babylonian army approaches Jerusalem, the prophet pictures the Glory of God — his presence — leaving Jerusalem, exiting to the east via the Mount of Olives. Heaven and earth were separated, resulting in Exile.
When Jesus returned, he entered Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and so heaven and earth met. This was plainly visible at the Transfiguration but also at the crucifixion as the curtain that barred everyone but the High Priest from the Holy of Holies was torn down by God’s earthquake — opening God’s presence to all with faith in Jesus.
Under the new covenant, God the Holy Spirit has a special dwelling in the church, as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The church itself is also the body of Christ. Heaven and earth meet in the church and in each individual Christian (but the church is emphasized in the NT). When we pray to God, we no longer look to the east to find God in his Temple. We look inside or we look among us, because God’s special presence is in his church.
In theory, the church is therefore a bit of heaven on earth. Sometimes it even seems that way. Sometimes it seems the furthest thing from reality. Our vocation, our mission, is in part to let God make the church into the church — the church as it actually is must become the church as it is meant to be.
The Temple as a Mini-cosmos
The Temple was designed as a mini-cosmos, with elements reflecting the Creation. This is because the original Temple was the Creation itself. Wright adopts the teachings of John Walton regarding the meaning of Genesis 1. Walton is an expert to the literature of the Ancient Near East, and he teaches that if we read Gen 1 as an Ancient Near East (ANE) document (inspired, of course, but written to ANE people in ANE terms), we’d find that it’s a description of the dedication of a temple to a god (the God, of course). I explain this in more detail at How to Study the Bible: The Cosmic Temple.