In the forlorn and rocky sweeps of the Sinai wilderness Moses prepared a tabernacle, overshadowed with a pillar of cloud by day and lit by a pillar of fire by night, a locus for the presence of a Holy God with a motley crowd of people. It was both comforting and terrifying, a place filled with the stench of burning flesh and flowing blood and with the fragrance of bread and incense, a space ominous with sin and luminous with atonement.
I have been fascinated by the journey of this solemn institution as it has passed through the ups and downs of debasement by idolatry and subsequent reformation, destruction and reconstruction, desecration and re-consecration and finally destruction again. Particularly fascinating is the journey of the metaphors and associative allusions to it in the New Testament. In the crucible of the gospel its Jewish exclusiveness is disassembled and transformed. When Jesus cleansed the temple at the beginning of his ministry according to the Gospel of John he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," (John 2:19), speaking of “the temple of his body” (John 2:21). In a very profound sense, the temple as the body of Christ was destroyed and resurrected as “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 15:17).
Whether the temple stands at the center of practice or of discourse, there is ever present the tension between the violence of sin and the healing of atonement, of destructive misuse and redemptive understanding. When Stephen expounded that the Jewish temple was not an adequate or exclusive dwelling of God, his countrymen made him pay with his life, because they preferred to preserve it as a symbol of their status and power. The tragic irony of human arrogance is that it can convolute the very means of atonement and reconciliation into a vehicle of estrangement and sin.
Already during Jesus’ ministry Greeks came and said, “We would see Jesus” (John 12:20). Previous to this Jesus had announced that he had “other sheep not of this fold (John 10:16) and subsequently he stated that “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Then as he prepared his disciples for his departure he gave some of the most comforting words in scripture. They are inclusive in a way we have not always appreciated:
Let not your hearts be troubled,
believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father’s house are many rooms… (John 14:1-2).
The picture is not that of individual mansions that express isolation and luxury, but rather rooms where my neighbors, full of color and diversity, are only a door-knock away.
We find that the temple metaphor acquired new dimensions in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. In the city of Corinth Paul had an enormous problem on his hands with the Corinthian church split into factions, each claiming special status by association with Paul himself, with Apollos, Cephas, and even with Christ. There was bitter jealousy and strife (1Cor 3:1-3), which he pointedly addresses in 3:16-17:
Do you not know that you are God's temple
and that God's Spirit dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God's temple,
God will destroy him.
For God's temple is holy,
and that temple you are.
Here the imagery has traveled from a tent in the wilderness to an edifice of rocky people. Once more, “temple” is at the center of damage and destruction at the hands of people seeking status and power in the name of religion. It is at the very center of this perversity of human nature that the temple as the corporate body of Christ is interposed as a place of atonement and healing, a place of unity, a place where members should care for and minister to fellow members according to 1 Corinthians 12.
In the body of Christ there are many members.
In my Father’s house are many rooms.
Human fanaticism regarding the temple subsequently stood at the center of the demise of Paul’s earthly life. In an effort to heal the division present among Jewish Christians who insisted on ritual observances by Gentile Christians, Paul went to the temple in Jerusalem to pay for the vows of some fellow Jewish Christians. We know the rest of the story, ending with a journey to Rome and Paul’s execution. Some time before he died, Paul wrote Ephesians out of a heart that ached for unity between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. In Ephesians 2:14 he refers to the very “dividing wall” of the temple past which he had been accused of bringing a Greek gentile. He uses it figuratively of the division that Christ has overcome so as to unite both Jew and Gentile “into a holy temple in the Lord... a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22). According to Ephesians 3, it is this united church as the temple of God that will provide the universe with the final proof of God’s love and justice.
Near the end of the prologue to the Gospel of John (1:14), the incarnation of Jesus is expressed by means of allusions to the temple: “The Word became flesh and dwelt [tented or tabernacled] among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory [shekinah]...” The concreteness of physical incarnation, of temple and sacrifice, of God’s answer to sin, is intentionally palpable, concrete and particular within time and space. I have struggled to understand this concreteness, this somewhat offensive physical demonstration of atonement, this almost obscene drama of flesh brutally torn and blood shed in sacrifice from Genesis to the Sinai wilderness to Calvary. Many texts are used to explain it as cultic, forensic, cultural, etc.:The life is in the blood, it’s said, therefore blood had to be shed, life for life. The wages of sin is death but justification brings eternal life. A ransom is paid to free the slave of sin, and so on. These explanations take me a long way, and perhaps I should rest content with what is sufficient.
Ultimately the physicality of temple, the concrete manifestation of sanctuary, is necessary because human beings must relate faithfully to God and fellow humans, with both body and mind. Temple expresses that salvation is holistic, that the physical order is also included in the sacred, not just as a future matter of the resurrection, but here and now. All of life is sacred. All of life is addressed by incarnation and atonement, by sanctuary.
But perhaps one more window may be opened on this mystery. Whatever other religions have suggested as the essential predicament of humankind, for Christianity it is in essence the relational brokenness of our tangible lives. There is in us a frailty of character that permeates not just thought but also the inevitable action that flows from it: concrete acts of injustice bred by the greed, violence, murder and mayhem that anger produces; the effacement of humanity, of commitment, fidelity and trust that lust scratches on the walls of human hearts.
It is not just the mind that needs restoration, but the whole person, including the body. And thus, God in the mystery of Christ meets mind with mind, action with action, body with body, blood with blood. He brings both healing and judgment for the whole person. For the hardened and impenitent who shut the door on divine Spirit and love, we find throughout the Book of Revelation judgment flashing from the temple to purify the earth. For those who open the homes of their humanity to him (Rev. 3:20), atonement flows down for both heart and hand, thought and action. He exchanges our broken home with a home of many rooms where whole persons can live and thrive.
In my Father's house are many rooms.
There is an old Chinese saying, “It’s not on my body.” This means it is not my responsibility. In his book In Christ, E. Stanley Jones tells of a missionary who offered to pay some Chinese fishermen to rescue a drowning man. Their response was, “It’s not on our bodies.” By contrast, Jones relates an epidemic of suicides in India during a time of terrible drought and economic depression. At a particular blind turn of a railway track the poor and desperate were placing themselves on the rails where the engineer had no time to stop. A particular old Christian woman decided that these suicides were “on her body.” She placed a large sign at the bend, “Don’t. See Mrs. Nobu Jo first. God is love.” She became God’s temple, a sanctuary for thousands of God’s children: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and otherwise. For Christ it was also very much “on his body.” As Peter wrote: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).
When all is said and done, Jesus promises that, “Where I am there you will be also.” John 1:18 tells us where that is: Jesus is “in the bosom of the Father.”
When all is said and done Revelation 21:22 tells us “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”
When all is said and done,
In my Savior’s body there is a place for you.
When all is said and done,
In my Father’s heart there is room for you,
in my Father’s house are many rooms.
Bruce Johanson lives in College Place, Washington, where he recently retired from a long career as Professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University.