Reverberations and Revelations: The Role of the Temple in the New Testament

Heuston Literary Prize Winner

By Joshua Epstein '03

The most tragic of events in the Hebrew Scriptures–the event that inspired more poetry and song and lamentation than just about any other–was the fall of the temple in Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Yet in fact, the scriptural rendition of the fall of the temple provided a model for much of the New Testament as well. The depictions and reverberations of the temple in the New Testament certainly rekindle the Hebrew poetry of the post-exilic prophets, particularly Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel; but ~e role of the temple is, unsurprisingly, vastly different in light of the new covenant borne by Jesus, the Christ. The role and form of the temple undergoes a great and fascinating transformation from the days of Jesus' testimony to the days of Revelation, and such transformations tell us a great deal about the nature and direction of this new faith.

To assess the role of the temple in the New Testament, it is wise to illuminate the final outcome and destiny of the temple, and the ram)fications of that destiny. By 70 C.E., Jerusalem has been destroyed by Rome, temple and all. But in the prophecy of John written after this destruction, commonly termed Revelation, the kingdom of God and Christ is reborn, in its final and eternal form: a New Heaven and Earth–a new paradise, not in a distant, abstruse Heaven, but rather on Earth itself:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (21.1) The final fate of the world must, in order for God's eternity to be perfect in its design, resolve the tensions of the creation: the history of life must come full circle. The dissonance, or chaos, of the creation must be resolved to an eternal consonance. The eradication of the sea, for example, is particularly apt, as Martin Kiddle points out:

When John says "the sea is no more," he is both recording the old earth's dissolution and giving its reason. [. ..] In Persian thought that angry element is the dwelling of Tiamat, the Chaos spirit–as in Revelation it is the symbolic lair of the seven-headed Beast. (411)2

Indeed, the name of Tiamat, the great goddess figure, whose hollowed carcass forms the vault of earth and heaven in Mesopotamian mythology (Harris 98), might even be related to the Hebrew word tehom, which constitutes the "primeval substance that Elohim proceeds to illuminate, divide, and shape into an orderly system" (98). The Biblical form of chaos, which also runs through the Hebrew post-exilic writings (most notably Job), is finally tempered with the end of the old order. The new order, including the new heaven and earth, replaces the old order just as prophesied in Isaiah: "I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind" (65.17). Yet, contrary to Isaiah, and contrary to much of Jewish thought after 70 C.E., John of Revelation does not prophesy a rebuilding of the temple. His temple, ultimately, is the Lamb (Rev. 21.22).

For, by the end-time, the temple concept is inadequate for Christian religious philosophy, and it must be replaced. First of all, like the Hebrew temple on Zion and like the synagogues during the life of Jesus, the temple has been corrupted. As God questions in Jeremiah, "Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?" (7. 11); Mark adapts this as the cry of Jesus against the Pharisees (11.17). Jeremiah offers a beautiful image of the temple as a dying plant: "When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered" (8.13), and once more, Mark finds this image of note:

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in lead, [Jesus] went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." (11.12) The fig tree is bearing no fruit–because "it was not the season for figs"–but this fruitlessness suggests a false trust in the temple, which cannot bear fruit outside of a time frame. Any eternal temple will have to find a resolution for this problem, and it turns out that the best solution is no temple at all. This conclusion may seem disproportionate at first, especially to faithful templeworshipers, but one must keep in mind that distrust of the temple is also squarely with the Jewish scriptural tradition, from the failure of Saul (1 Sam. 15.22) to the prophecy of Hosea: "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (6.6). As the image of the dying plant suggests, the temple cannot bear aufficient spiritual sustenance to merit such pious faith. The inadequacy of the physical temple can be seen, in part, in its consistent need to be cleansed, for example Jesus' driving out the money changers (Matt. 21.12-3). Thus, in his preaching Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple: "Do you see these great buildings? Not one of them will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down" (Mk. 13.2).

What, then, would be alternatives to complete abolition of the temple? It is in viewing these that one can see the aptness of Revelation's final conclusion. The first view of the possibilities of a new temple suggests a temple in the heart, or spirit: "This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts" (Heb. 8. 10). The general trend of Jesus' new covenant is the internalization of the temple; the transference of law and ritual to the sinner's heart is his new salvation. When Jesus warns his disciples, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Lk. 12.34), he encourages the cleansing of the temple in this new vestige, the heart. John also summarizes the new temple nicely: "The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem [...] but in spirit and truth" (4.21, 4.23), as the temple has proven inadequate so frequently–unfailingly, in fact–it must be internalized to a new dimension. After Jesus' death, the great apostle Paul refers frequently to the circumcision of the heart, an adaptation of Deuteronomical law which summarizes the commitment to the heart of God's new covenant: "Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer" (Deut. 10.16). Again, the imperfection of the temple lies in the failure of its worshipers to engage their spirits therein–as Hosea indicates, sacrifice in the temple is insufficient substitute for loyalty. Thus the heart must be circumcised. In this way, the temple is also extended to a new congregation: whereas the circumcision of the Israelites distinguished them from their unholy foreign adversaries, this spiritual c*cumcision is offered to Israelites and gentiles by mere virtue of their humanity, as long as they are willing to internalize this new faith:

For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart [...]. (Rom. 2.29)

Yet again, this new essence of faith echoes Jeremiah, by whom God warned that He would "attend to all those who are circumcised only in the* foreskin [...]. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart" (9.26). The temple, insofar as it serves ritual devices, is inadequate–the worshiper finds it too easy a safety valve for salvation, even when the heart is elsewhere. Thus, as Jesus proclaims in Mark only impurity of spirit can defile a man: only unc*cumcision within is a testament of faithlessness (7.14). And in fact, the temple of the heart is never destroyed. Yet, it also cannot serve as the only ultimate vestige of God's kingdom; for the communal aspect is lost. If, as Jesus mandates, worshipers take their own faith into their "closets," how is God's kingdom united as a community–a single community, like the one in which humankind was created? As a possible alternative, Paul offers the temple built on the saints, especially in 2 Corinthians: "for we are the temple of the living God" (2 Cor. 6.16). Paul urges the purity of the saints–that sense of exhortation is the entire point, practically, behind his epistles–because the temple is built in them, within their hearts, and the purity of the temple is essential to its worth as a place of worship. Clearly, the temple of the saints is not an endeavor to replace the temple of the heart, but to extend it to a communal base again, a principle underlying Paul's entire argument. This view of the temple, like the *eternal temple, also makes it clear into Revelation, in which the Church of Philadelphia constitutes an entire pillar of God's temple (3.12).

The most substantial of the New Testament's answers to the temple problem is the new temple in the body of Christ himself. The temple in the heart, even in the hearts of saints, is merely an abstraction, though a profound one, made real through the physicality of Christ's body. In a sense, this is most famously, and gorgeously, rendered in the first chapter of John's Gospel: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (1.15). God's creation, represented by His Word, is embodied in Jesus, who is made flesh as a manifestation of His etemal Plan. John is also the key interpreter of Jesus' promise:

"Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. (2.19)

Thus the new temple is established with the resurrection of Christ, three days after his crucifixion. Interestingly, these words of Jesus in other gospels, for example Mark are represented only through the mouths of his accusers, and they read "I will destroy this temple that is made with hands and in three days I will build another, not made with hands" (14.58); the very people who destroy Jesus' body, and who put these words into Jesus' mouth (while Jesus intentionally stays silent), effect the new covenant themselves. Jesus' other central promise to make himself the new temple is the vineyard parable: as the tenants of the vineyard kill the owner's son out of unwillingness to share its produce, "the stone that the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone" (20.17); the death of the vineyard owner's son is in essence a promise of his victory. The quote concerning the cornerstone is an adaptation of Psalm 118.22–a post-exilic piece, wherein the psalmist no doubt felt that the fall of Israel would soon bring about her victory. And Jesus' rejection ensures that he becomes the cornerstone of the new faith. This, in one sense, is a way of legitimizing Jesus' awful death as a culmination of the Divine will. Moreover, as John points out, it just)fies Jesus' death as a preparation of the kingdom for his followers: "I go to prepare a place for you" (14.2). With his death, the Church–the new temple, in the great Pauline phrase, "in Christ":

The body of the crucified and risen Lord expands into the ecclesiological Body of Christ by means of the Spirit; though the latter the Lord (his head) builds up his Church (his body) for himself and becomes with it a full unity. (Taylor 222)

From this Paul derives the marriage analogy–another metaphor that survives through Revelation in which the effective replacement of the temple, New Jerusalem, is adorned as God's bride. Paul (if indeed Paul penned Ephesians) exhorts men to love their wives out of a love for Christ's church:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her [.. .]. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes it and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. (Eph. 5.25) Thus Christ's body is the new temple–by extension, Christ's followers are members of his body. fact, Paul extends this metaphor from yet another, likening the followers of Christ to his limbs. The community of the Church is a manifestation of Christ's body:

[W]e must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (Eph. 4.15)

Thus the followers of Christ and the body of Christ are united. It is no surprise, in light of this and of Paul's temple of the saints, that the physical suffering of the saint is offered as a parallel of Christ's: Paul closes his letter to the Galatians by saying, "I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body" (6.17). The view of Christ's followers as the limbs of his body is a beautiful solution to the problem of community; it is, as Dale B. Martin points out, as egalitarian a philosophy as one can imagine. In particular, Martin turns to 1 Corinthians 12.22-23, in which Paul argues that " the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor." Martin proceeds to argue:

Initially in [1. Cor. 12.23], Paul seems to be saying that we, by our own choosing, accede greater honor to the less honorable members. But then, in the second half of the verse, his wording changes [. ..]. We must recognize that those who, on the surface, occupy positions of lower status are actually more essential than those of higher status and therefore should be accorded more honor. (Martin 96)

So, to represent Christ's body as the temple does profound justice to Jesus' concern for the weak, in particular the child–a figure whom he indeed deems indispensable to the realization of his covenant. Another interpretation is that even in light of the new internal covenant by faith (or, more emphatically, by faith alone), to link the follower's body to Christ's is a powerful incentive against sin. God, as Paul argues, sent "his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8.3). As such, he argues, "Should I therefore take the members of Christ," his followers, "and make them members of a prostitute? Never!" Though the term "member" has an all-too-fitting double entendre in modern colloquial English, Paul's Greek probably did not–yet the parallel remains.

It is here where Paul's view of "body" and "flesh" deserve, well, fleshing out. And it is an expressly Pauline, or at least Greek, concept, not Hebrew: the Greek word soma, or "body," translates into "no less than eleven Hebrew words (with cognates, thirteen), for none of which is it a true equivalent" (Robinson 11). Paul distinguishes soma from sarx ("flesh") thus seemingly distinguishing the body of the sinner from that of Christ. As Romans 8.7 reads, 'Yhe mind of the flesh is enmity against God." But as Kallistos Ware points out, the distinction between "flesh" and "body" is a matter of totality: for the only instances in which Paul "assert[s] a contrast" between the physical and spiritual, Paul chooses sarx, not soma (93). "Thus the terms 'flesh' and 'spirit' indicate, not components of the person, but relationships embracing personhood in its totality. 'Flesh is the whole person as fallen, spirit the whole person as redeemed" (93). Hence, the temple of Christ's body further illuminates the internal redemption of the sinner, even though it is in the "likeness of human flesh": as the person is redeemed, his "flesh" is affirmed as a "living sacrifice to God" (Rom. 12.1). Note, too, how exclusively a New Testament phenomenon this is: the Old Testament only refers to the resurrection of the physical body as united with the soul–not with immortality of the soul itself, or any transcendence of the spirit (Ware 91); the covenant has only newly been interiorized to such an extent that body and mind need separation. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, "It is sown a spiritual body, it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15.44). And in taking Christ's body unto oneself, one intemalizes the temple even further: hence the tradition of the Eucharist:

Eucharistic eating, as a physical act, transfomls and sanctifies the body. Whereas in ordinary eating food is changed into the person who consumes it [...] here the reverse happens: we become what we eat, and through holy communion our bodies are changed into members of Christ's body." (Ware 102) So, Ware argues, "sexual promiscuity is so deplorable–not because the body and its sexuality are unclean, but because they are potentially holy" (93). Christ's body as a temple thus assumes the role of asserting moral law–certainly a key aspect of the new temple.

The Letter to the Hebrews views Jesus' death not as a preparation of his body to be enshrined as the true temple, but as a sacrifice of atonement, which in tum founds the new covenant. The Letter to the Hebrews explains his incamation thus: "he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of his people" (2.14). Thus Jesus serves the role of a priest, rather than the temple itself. Furthermore, Hebrews recalls the link of the heavenly sanctuary, where Jesus is high priest, to the temple in Jerusalem:

for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was wamed, "See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain. [. . .] But if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one" (8.5) Thus the question why the temple of Jesus' body is inadequate–why in fact the true temple realized in Revelation is, in fact, a mere refashioning of the earth–is in fact disturbingly utilitarian: God's original plan simply didn't work out; had it worked out, whether Adam had not fallen or the laws of Moses had been followed, there would have been no need for the new temple, in all of its different vestiges and reverberations.

Thus, we are left with New Heaven and New Earth. Even the first heaven established in Revelation is destroyed; Kiddle offers a reasonable explanation why:

God is infinitely holy–that is, He is infinitely withdrawn from men. John has shown us several symbols for God's remoteness. The throne is isolated by a crystal sea, which the martyrs alone are finally able to cross [4.6f]. (411) When the first heaven is destroyed, the sea is destroyed, as Revelation 21.1 establishes; thus the boundary between God and man is destroyed (411). And the new vision, in which God and his kingdom are reunited, is once more an egalitarian vision, another reason why the temple–any temple–needed to be destroyed:

The temple is part of a symbolic system that divides the world into the sacred and the profane [. ..]. The temple is a space which makes possible interaction between the two realms, by means of a special class of persons who can go from one realm to the other (priests) [. ..]. For Revelation the faithful have all been made priests through Christ's redeeming death. (423).

So, arguably, a temple implies a regimentation of ceremonial law, enforced on the congregation by an elite class of priests, but just as with the covenant of Christ "conformity to the Jewish law was no longer a necessary mark of the people of God" (Wenham 198), in the eternal–and internal–kingdom such regimentation would be unnecessary.

Thus, Kiddle finally points out, the perversion of God's world by the introduction of sin is corrected: "At the end, all things will be as God intended at the beginning" (423). The only way to accomplish this end is to deconstruct the impurities of the old kingdom, temple and all. The temple in heaven is at first cleansed with plagues and smoke (Rev. 15), but even this is inadequate: the only true temple is the "Lord God Almighty and the Lamb." God is newly accessible–"not far removed, out of the sight of men, in some inaccessible heaven"; Revelation 22.4 even promises that the faithful will see God's face (Kiddie 444). The image now is not of Christ's body but of his light:. "The glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb" (21.22). And even though, as Martin Luther argues, earthly needs such as food will no longer have a place (143), now that there is no temple to be defiled, the worship of God will again bear fruit (22.2).

Indeed, there is a grand, monumental progression of imagery, largely derived from the Hebrew Scriptures, concerning the New Temple, its form and its quality of worship. In the end, when the temple is internalized, no physical boundary to its worship is acceptable. God finds it necessary to destroy any vestiges of the old covenant in order to preserve this new one. And meanwhile, He confirms his relationship with Israel as Bride: "as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you" (Isa. 62.5). In consummating this marriage with His people, God establishes a kingdom that does, at last, bear eternal fruit. Whereas in the Pauline view, Christ's body was a vessel of God to save the souls of his believers–after which Christ was to return the kingdom to God–Revelation allows Christ and God to share the glory in the New Earth era, meaning that faith in Christ is rewarded by the presence and rule of Christ, eternally.


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