For this sermon, I made use of G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, IVP Apollos, 2004 and Edmund P. Clowney, ‘The Final Temple’, Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 35, pp. 156–89.
We’re thinking about how the coming of the Lord Jesus into the world brought about the fulfilment God’s promises in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, we read about God’s covenant with his people in the days of Moses; and we read about the kings who ruled over his people; and we read about the temple where they worshipped; and, of course, we read about the creation. But everything was spoiled by sin. And so, the people broke the covenant; and the kings often did what was wrong; and the temple was destroyed at the time of the exile; and the whole of creation has been ruined because of our sin. But God promised through his prophets that there would be a new and better covenant; and a new and better king; and a new and better temple; and a new and better creation. And all of those promises are fulfilled because of Christ. He came into the world to establish the new covenant. He is the new king. As we’ll see today, he is the new temple. And whoever believes in him belongs to God’s new creation. That’s what we’re thinking about this Christmas. Last Sunday morning we thought about the new covenant. On Christmas morning we thought about how Christ is the new king. This morning we’re thinking about the new temple; and this evening we’ll think about the new creation.
When the Lord rescued his people from Egypt, he brought them safely through the Red Sea and through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. And there, at Mount Sinai, he established his covenant with them when he promised to be their God and to take care of them; and they promised to do all that he commanded. And in the rest of the book of Exodus, the Lord set out the terms of the covenant: all the things he wanted them to do as his holy people. And among the terms of the covenant were instructions for the construction of the tabernacle. So, before the temple was built in Jerusalem in the days of Solomon, the people were to build the tabernacle, which was really a transportable temple, because it was a large tent which could be taken down and packed up and transported from place to place as they may their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The Hebrew word for tabernacle means ‘living place’ or dwelling place’ and that helps us to understand what the tabernacle was for, because it was God’s dwelling place among his people. Just as the people lived in tents at that time, so the Lord was going to dwell among them in this special tent. And so, from time to time it was called the tent of meeting, because it was the place where God met with his people. It comprised an outer courtyard surrounding a cover tent. The covered tent was divided into two parts: one part was the Holy Place and the other part was the Most Holy Place. The Most Holy Place contained the ark of the covenant and it was God’s throne room. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place and he was only allowed to enter it once a year on the Day of Atonement. That was the day each year when the priest would offer sacrifices on the altar in the courtyard to cleanse the tabernacle and the people from the stain of their sin so that God’s wrath would not break out against them for defiling his dwelling-place with their sin. And after offering the sacrifices, the priest would enter the Most Holy Place and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice before the ark. That was the only time the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place. However, at other times the priests were allowed to enter the Holy Place which contained a table on which was placed the Bread of Presence and there was the golden lampstand and the altar of incense. The people were allowed to gather in the courtyard, where the sacrifices were offered to the Lord at the altar.
The terms of the covenant which God made with his people at Mount Sinai included instructions for the construction of the tabernacle. The terms also contained instructions on the sacrifices they were to offer to the Lord and instructions about the various holy days and festivals they were to observe when the people assembled before the Lord at the tabernacle to worship him. And right at the end of the book of Exodus we read how they built the tabernacle according to God’s plan. And when Moses finished the work of constructing the tabernacle and when it was set up with all the right furniture in place, the glory-cloud — which signified God’s presence and which up until that time had appeared at the top of Mount Sinai — moved from the top of the mountain to cover the tabernacle and to fill it with God’s glory. Since this was God’s dwelling place, it was time for God to move in. And so, when the people saw the glory-cloud cover and fill the tabernacle, they knew that God was there, dwelling among them. And so, he accompanied them throughout their time in the wilderness, living among them in his special tent.
Many years later, when the Israelites had settled in the Promised Land, David made plans for the construction of a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. And after David died, his son Solomon built the temple. And it was a magnificent structure which was modelled after the tabernacle with a Holy Place and a Most Holy Place and it was surrounded by several courtyards and everything was covered in gold to reflect the glory of heaven above. And when it was finished, and the ark of the Lord was brought into it, the glory-cloud of the Lord filled the temple to signify once again that God has come to dwell among his people.
And, you see, when we think about the meaning of the temple, or the purpose of the temple, the idea of God’s presence with his people must be central in our thoughts. The tabernacle and temple were established as the meeting place between God and his people.
However, not only was the temple the meeting place between God and his people, but it was also the gate to life. Think about what happened in the beginning in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden was a kind of temple, because it was the place where God would come and meet with Adam and Eve. However, after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were sent out of the Garden and away from the Tree of Life which had once held out to them the promise of eternal life in the presence of God’s glory. But after they sinned, and were sent out of the Garden, angels and a flaming sword, flashing back and forth, guarded the entrance of the Garden. And so, because of their sin, Adam and Eve were prevented from entering the Garden and eating from the Tree of Life.
However, in the temple, a gate was opened up for God’s sinful people. And the gate was the altar, where sacrifices were offered to God to cleanse the people from the stain of their sin and to make up to God for what they had done wrong. Though they deserved to be die because of their sin, they were instead allowed to live in the presence of God, when they offered up the right sacrifices for their sin. Adam and Eve were kept away from the Tree of Life by a sword; and with a knife, which is a kind of sword, the sacrificial animal was slaughtered and killed in the place of the people; and the people were allowed to live. And so, the temple was a meeting place between God and his people. And it was also a gate, a gate of mercy, because the way to enjoy life in the presence of God was opened for those who, in faith, brought the right sacrifices to offer to the Lord to cleanse them of their guilt and to pay for what they had done wrong.
Destruction of old Temple and Promises of new Temple
And so, the temple was the meeting place between God and his people and a gate, because by means of the sacrifices offered on the altar, the people could live in the presence of God. However, as you know, the people broke the covenant again and again and they rebelled against the Lord and did not keep his laws or walk in his ways; and they worshipped false gods instead of the true God. In his mercy, he sent them prophets to call on them to repent and to return to him, but they would not listen and they persisted in their rebellion and unbelief. And so, eventually, the Lord did what he said he would do and he sent their enemies to invade the land. And the people were taken away into exile to Babylon. And the city of Jerusalem, and the temple within it, was destroyed.
And yet, in the beginning of the book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel saw a vision of the Lord, who was on a kind of moveable throne. And the point of the vision was to make clear that though the temple was destroyed, God would remain with his people, even in exile. Just as his people went into exile, so the Lord God went into exile with them on his moveable throne. And the Lord reassured them in Ezekiel 11, saying about them:
Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.
Though the temple was destroyed, God was still with them. And he came to them in the words of the prophets with messages to encourage them and to comfort them. And he promised to restore them to the Promised Land and to bless them once again. And he promised to restore the temple as well. So, in Isaiah 2, he promised that the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; and it will be raised above the hills; and nations will stream to it. In Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 33 he promised that sacrifices will again be offered and accepted. And as we’ve seen from the book of Zechariah on Sunday evenings, he promised that Jerusalem would become an ever-expanding city and will be filled once more with people from many nations and those who live there will live in peace and safety. And right at the end of Ezekiel’s prophecy, there are nine chapters devoted to describing the new temple which God will establish in Jerusalem, a temple which will be surrounded by a wall; and there will be gates all around; and there will be rooms for the priests and for preparing sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord will return to the temple and will fill it once again. And God promised that the temple will be his throne room once again; and he will dwell there among his people; and the people will never again defile it. And there’s an altar for sacrifices and there will be holy days and Levites and Priests will be there to serve the Lord. And then, in Ezekiel 47, Ezekiel saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple. And a man was with Ezekiel and he began to measure the depth of the water and he showed Ezekiel that the water became deeper the further it went from the temple so that it became a river which was too deep to cross by foot. And the water from the river entered the sea and made it fresh; and where the river flows everything will live. And all kinds of trees will grow on the banks of the river and their leaves will not wither and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month because the water from the temple flows to them. Their fruit will be for food and their leaves will be for healing. According to the vision which Ezekiel received from the Lord, this new temple will be a magnificent building. Though it will be similar to the old temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed in the exile, it will also be unlike the old temple.
And so, that was God’s promise to his exiled people of a new temple and of a river of the water of life which will flow from it. And though those who returned from exile were able to rebuild the temple in the days of Ezra and Haggai and Zechariah, nevertheless the temple they built paled in comparison to the old temple which Solomon had built; and it was nothing like the temple which Ezekiel saw in his vision. And so, though the people were able to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, it was clear that God had something else in mind when he gave Ezekiel that vision of a magnificent new temple from which flowed the river of the water of life.
Christ is the Temple
And so, we come to the New Testament and to the coming of Christ. According to John in his gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ is the Word of God. That is, he’s the Eternal Son of God, who, in the beginning, was with God and who is God. And the Eternal Son of God became flesh. He became flesh when he was born in Bethlehem as a little baby. And, as John tells us, he became flesh and made his dwelling among us. That is, he tabernacled among us. The word John used and is translated ‘made his dwelling among us’ can also be translated ‘tabernacled’. In the past, God was present with his people by means of the tabernacle and temple. Now he was present with them by means of his Son. God had come to dwell among his people, not in a tent or a temple, but in the person of his Son. And just as the tabernacle and temple were once the gate to life in the presence of God, so Jesus Christ is the gate to life in the presence of God, because he offered himself on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for sins. When he died on the cross, he gave up his life to pay for what we have done wrong and he shed his blood to cleanse us. In other words, he died to bring us to God. And so, by faith in Christ, we’re able to come before God in prayer and worship; and one day we’ll come into God’s presence in the life to come.
So, Jesus Christ is the true temple, because he fulfils the purpose of the temple. The temple signified the presence of God with his people; and God came to dwell among his people in the person of his Son. And the temple was a gate giving access to life in the presence of God; and Christ is the gate, because by the sacrifice of himself he has opened the way for sinners to live in the presence of God.
Do you remember the story in John 2 of how the Lord Jesus cleared the temple in Jerusalem of the market stalls which had been set up there? And afterwards, he said to the people:
Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.
And the people did not understand, but he was referring to himself. He is the temple; and as the temple, he would one day be destroyed when he was crucified and buried. But three days later he would be raised from the dead.
And remember Ezekiel’s vision of the river of the water of life, flowing from the new temple? In John 7, the Lord Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, which commemorated the time in the days of Moses when the Israelites lived in tents in the wilderness. And on the last day of the feast, the Lord Jesus stood up and said in a loud voice:
If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’
And John went on to explain that the Lord Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit, because the Lord Jesus is the one who gives us his Spirit; and whoever has the Spirit has life. And so, Christ fulfils Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple because the Holy Spirit, who is the river of living water, flows from him and brings life to all who belong to Christ by faith.
The old temple contained a table to hold the Bread of Presence; and Christ revealed that he is the true bread who has come down from heaven to give life to the world. The old temple contained the golden lampstand; and Christ revealed that he is the light of the world. The old temple contained the altar of incense and the incense was a sweet-smelling fragrance which went up to heaven and pleased the Lord; and Christ went up to heaven and God was pleased with him and his sacrifice for us.
Believers and the church
The Lord Jesus is the new temple, because he fulfils the purpose of the temple. And we who are united to Christ by faith are also temples of God, because God dwells in each one of us by his Spirit. And the church is also the temple of God, because God dwells among us when we gather for worship. And so, think of the end of the book of Exodus and the beginning of the book of Acts. At the end of the book of Exodus, God filled the tabernacle with his glory-cloud. And at the beginning of the book of Acts, God came on the day of Pentecost and filled his people, not with his glory-cloud, but with Holy Spirit. And so, he revealed that the church is his new temple. Christ is the chief cornerstone of this new temple; and the apostles and New Testament prophets are its foundation. And whenever someone is converted to faith in Christ, they are added as living stones to this worldwide temple which Christ is building on the earth.
And then, at the end of the New Testament, we have John’s vision of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city which comes down from heaven. And the new Jerusalem is not really a city, because it’s the church in glory. And John describes the new Jerusalem for us and one of the thing he says about it is that it did not contain a temple. The old Jerusalem, the earthly Jerusalem, contained a temple, but the new Jerusalem, the church in glory, did not have one. But it’s not because there was no need of a temple, but it’s because the whole city was a temple, because the whole city was filled with the presence of God and of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. In other words, the church on earth is the temple of God because God dwells among us by his Spirit; and the church in glory is also the temple of God because God will dwell with us for ever and for ever. And this is a temple which is not made by human hands and which would therefore perish. This is a temple which will last for ever.
And so, in the Old Testament, God commanded his people to build the tabernacle and temple to be the meeting place between God and his people and to be a gateway so that they could live in his presence. And the tabernacle and temple pointed forward to the coming of Christ who is the true temple, because in him God and sinners meet; and, by means of his sacrifice, we have access to everlasting life in the presence of God. And since believers are united with Christ by faith and are filled with his Spirit, then believers are also the temple of God. And Christ is building his temple on the earth, adding new believers to it as living stones. And we’re waiting for the day when Christ comes again in glory; and when his church here on earth will be glorified in his presence; and when we will be the temple of God for ever.
And so, if you ever read the Old Testament and wonder why God instructed his people to build a temple and why they worshipped God in the temple, it’s because the temple foreshadowed the coming of Christ into the world. It’s not that the temple in the Old Testament was the true temple and that the Lord Jesus is like that temple. It’s the other way around: the Lord Jesus is the true temple and the temple in Jerusalem was like him. He’s the real temple. He’s the meeting place between God and his people; and he’s the one who gives us life in God’s presence. The Old Testament temple foreshadowed Christ, who is the true temple. And the Old Testament temple foreshadowed the future glory which all of God’s people will enjoy and which you will enjoy if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who died to bring us to God. And so, we should bow down and give thanks to God for Jesus Christ our Saviour, who is the meeting place between God and his people and who gave up his life on the cross to give life in the presence of God to sinners like us.