In the 10s and aughts BC, Herod the Great—the Roman-appointed “king of Judea”—began a massive renovation and expansion of the relatively humble temple. By the year 0, it was a resplendent structure, towering over the city of Jerusalem and reflecting light from its whitewashed and gold-trimmed walls for miles around. This was the structure that God finally filled again with his presence, this time in the person of Jesus Christ. Here’s what happens as John recounts it in John 2:
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. (John 2:13–21)
Part of what’s happening here is the fulfillment of prophecies like Malachi’s that when the Lord returned to his temple this time, it would be as a refiner’s fire, cleansing the temple of those who would rob God. But even more importantly, notice what Jesus does here by saying “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” with reference to his own body. Do you see? He’s saying that the temple is no longer the dwelling place of God; it’s no longer the place where God and humans meet. Now that place is him. No longer is God’s presence a matter of a particular building in a particular city. God’s presence is found in a person, in Jesus Christ. Through ups and downs, glories and catastrophes, the biblical theme of God’s presence finally finds its fulfillment in Jesus. He is the living presence of God, the “place” where the divine and human natures meet as one and the person to whom all must come if they would know God (John 1:14).
This point was dramatically emphasized at the moment of Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross. As Christ exhausted the decreed penalty for sin and absorbed the wrath of God, Matthew tells us that “behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51). The curtain of the temple was the enormous barrier (somewhere between forty-five and sixty feet high, and about six inches thick) that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. In other words, it was a stark reminder of humanity’s separation from God. But here, at the moment of Jesus’s death, that barrier is torn—not from bottom to top as if humans accomplished this for themselves, but from top to bottom, from heaven to earth—and the way back into God’s presence was thrown wide open. The great curse of Eden, mankind’s separation from God, had finally been ended and reversed.
Through the rest of the New Testament, the reality that the theme of God’s presence is fulfilled in Jesus develops still further, as Jesus promises that he—that is, God—will be present with his people the church until the end of time and history. So he tells them: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). What Jesus meant was not that he would be physically, bodily present with them. After all, his physical body ascended to heaven. What he meant was what he told them in John 14, that after his ascension to the Father’s throne he would send the Holy Spirit to be with them: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17). In several other places, the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:19), “the Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7), even “the Spirit of [God’s] Son” (Gal. 4:6). Jesus was not mistaken; through the presence of the Holy Spirit, his Spirit, dwelling in their hearts, he is present with each and every one of his people and present with them when they gather as a church. No wonder Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” And no wonder he would say in 1 Corinthians 3:16 about the church, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” The building is no longer the point. The dwelling place of the presence of God is now his people.
Through ups and downs, glories and catastrophes, the biblical theme of God’s presence finally finds its fulfillment in Jesus.
The theme of God’s presence comes to its conclusion in the book of Revelation. Here’s what John writes, strikingly, about the New Jerusalem:
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 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. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Rev. 21:22–22:5)
What a glorious end to the story! In the new Jerusalem, there is no temple, no need for one particular place where God will dwell, because he dwells right out in the open, among his people. His throne is there, and the throne of the Lamb. His people see his face, and they reign with him—joyfully in his presence, and in the presence of the Lamb Jesus Christ—forever and ever.
This article is adapted from The Epic Story of the Bible: How to Read and Understand God’s Word by Greg Gilbert.
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