Temple language and activity saturate the New Testament, following in the footsteps of the Old Testament. Somewhat surprisingly, much of this temple imagery is not primarily concerned with Herod’s stunning Second Temple makeover, but rather, with the New Covenant Temple (NCT hereafter) that Jesus was building. NCT imagery was important for the New Testament authors and their community, and therefore, such imagery should also be enriching for the Church today.
NEW COVENANT TEMPLE IMAGERY
According to the New Testament’s NCT imagery, Jesus is the NCT (John 2:21), the cornerstone (Matt. 21:42, Eph. 2:20), and the high priest (Heb. 4:14, 10:21). The curtain is Jesus’ flesh (Heb. 10:20). Jesus is the atonement (1 Jn. 2:2, Rom. 3:25).
The foundation for this new temple is made up of the apostles and the prophets (Eph. 2:20, Rev. 21:14). The pillars are James, Cephas, John, and the one who conquers (Gal. 2:9, Rev. 3:12). The saints are the living stones being indwelt and built together by the Spirit (1 Pet. 2:5, Eph. 2:22). The saints are also the priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). The lives of the saints are daily sacrifices (Rom. 12:1).
Holy living, sacrificial giving, and the prayers of the saints are the daily incense (2 Cor. 2:14-16, Philip. 4:18, Rev. 5:8). The Holy of Holies is heaven (Heb. 4:14, 8:1). The Holy Place is the Church on earth (1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:22). Ministry is care for (or cultivtion of) the saints, and expanding the reach of the earthly Holy Place (Acts 14:27, 1 Cor. 16:9, Rev. 3:8).
Therefore, the Holy of Holies in heaven and the Holy Place on earth are one temple, but YHWH’s people are still awaiting the final “summarization” in Christ (Eph. 1:10). The NCT is already a present reality, and it is the true temple, but it has not yet reached its full consummation (Rev. 21-22).
JESUS OR THE CHURCH?
But is Jesus still the NCT or is it the Church or is it both? As observed above, the language used for the NCT is remarkably consistent, but a few issues do exist: namely, distinguishing between the NCT imagery used for the body of Jesus, the Universal Church, and the local church.
When Jesus walked upon the earth, the Gospel of John viewed Him as the locus of the presence of God on earth (John 1:14, 18). Therefore, Jesus was the true temple, and He transcended the Second Temple and all other temples. The Spirit was at work in the formation of the Old Covenant Temple, and the Spirit brought about the formation of Jesus as the temple (Matt. 1:18, Rom. 8:11).
After Jesus’ ascension, the Spirit was sent to build the NCT that Jesus founded on earth: the Lord’s community, which is the Universal Church. The Universal Church is made up of local churches, which are being joined together as the one NCT by the Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22).
As high priest, Jesus offered final atonement for His people through His death outside the city (Heb. 13:12, Lev. 16). Jesus now continues to span the gap between heaven and earth by constantly mediating for His followers and by allowing their prayers to be pleasing incense before the Father (Rev. 5:8). Jesus is a perfect high priest, and His people will never be guilty of sin because of Him (Lev. 4:3-12, Eph. 3:12).
Jesus’ continual presence in the heavenly Holy of Holies assures His people of their covenant status: which has always been a cause for great joy and trembling (Lev. 9:23-24). Also, as Josephus pointed out, the materials of the garments for the high priest were similar to the materials used to build the tabernacle. In other words, by representing Israel to YHWH and by representing YHWH to Israel, the fully clothed high priest becomes a microcosm of the tabernacle/temple.
Therefore, in one sense, Jesus is still the NCT, and one can only be part of the NCT by being in Jesus through the new creation of the Spirit. In another sense, Jesus is the high priest within the NCT, which is made up of the heavenly Holy of Holies and the earthly Holy Place, and He mediates between God the Father and His people. To put it another way, Jesus is a high priest who never takes off His high priestly garments. Through the Holy Spirit, the saints will one day be the high priests and the completed temple where God’s presence rests (Rev. 22:3-4, Exod. 28:36-38).
ALREADY AND NOT YET
The already/not yet temple that Jesus founded will one day be consummated as a fulfilled and improved Eden. In the end, through the Spirit’s power and the return of the true king, the current Holy Place will be unveiled as the newly created Holy of Holies (Rev. 21:16). The Book of Revelation seems to present this process in the following way: as the saints of the earthly, “already” Holy Place die, they are assimilated into the “not yet” Holy of Holies that is being prepared in a heavenly bridal dressing room until the king returns.
When He returns in His glory, then the Bride (the Church) will be revealed from heaven for the final consummation of the kingdom of God and the NCT. When YHWH fully indwells the New Jerusalem—the newly created Holy of Holies, the primary dwelling of His presence—then His people will be able to fully enjoy YHWH’s glory. They will serve in His presence as Christ Jesus, the current high priest, perpetually does. YHWH’s people will be both temple and high priest.
The foundation has been laid, the building has begun, and its completion is imminent, but the king has yet to bring the work to fruition. In the meantime, the Church-under-construction is the official place of God’s presence on earth.
A MORAL EXHORTATION FOR HOLY LIVING
In the “already,” New Testament authors employ NCT imagery to admonish their readers to live wholly consecrated lives to YHWH. As the Holy Place of the NCT, the Church is the locus of God’s presence on earth under the New Covenant, and one’s actions have extra weight when they are performed in the temple. Through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, the Church’s character should mirror YHWH’s.
Following are two key passages that connect NCT language and holy living.
In 1 Pet. 2:1-12, Peter sandwiches his moral exhortations around obvious NCT language. Jesus is the “living stone,” and those who believe on him become as “living stones” being built into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5). Peter then clarifies the building plan for these living stones by quoting from Isa. 28:16, Ps. 118:22, and Isa. 8:14 in succession: they are not just being built up as any other house, they are being built up as the NCT. Their priesthood is not only holy (2:5), but also royal (2:9), therefore, they must keep away from passions of the flesh.
In 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1, Paul begins by listing several dichotomies for why members of the Corinthian church should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (6:14-16a). His closing dichotomy is between the temple of God and idols. Since the holy and living God dwells in the Church, the members of the Church should take every precaution in order to be holy. God’s presence is a great promise, but his presence should also create a healthy fear among his people (2 Cor. 7:1). The Church is the official place on earth where YHWH is worshipped, and all other temples, religions, and gods are treason. Therefore, individual believers should be characterized by their consecration to YHWH.
ESCHATOLOGICAL HOPE FOR SACRIFICIAL LIVING
The NCT’s “not yet” aspects help to provide the hope needed by YHWH’s people in order to live as sacrifices in two ways: (1) expanding the sacred space of the earthly Holy Place (evangelism), and (2) caring for the NCT on earth (building up other saints, i.e. sanctification).
The Holy Spirit not only binds the Church together as the NCT’s Holy Place, but also empowers the Church to continue Christ Jesus’ mission to reconcile creation through sacrificial love (2 Cor. 5:16-6:13).In other words, YHWH’s reconciled sacred space is expanded through the Spirit-empowered sacrifice of his people. YHWH’s priests are to serve by being living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1).
Similar to Hezekiah in 2 Chr. 29:3-19, YHWH opens doors (temple doors) to potential sacred space, and he bids his priests to enter and to serve, trusting that he will provide what they need in difficult circumstances (Rev. 3:8). Those who conquer, by the empowerment of the Spirit, will be made pillars in the temple of God and will have the name of the New Jerusalem and Jesus written on them (Rev. 3:12).
The hope of being part of the future consummation of the NCT should drive the Church to sacrifice for those in need as the Lord leads. The Church as the NCT on earth has a mission to reclaim creation as sacred space for YHWH, but – at the same time, as the NCT on earth—the Church must also allocate appropriate energies inwardly as well.
Not only is the Church part of the expansion of the NCT’s Holy Place through sacrificial living, but also, the Spirit uses the members of the Church to build itself up (1 Cor. 14:12). The Church should continually care for its members, for in doing so, the Church is actually caring for the hallmark of Jesus’ kingdom: YHWH’s NCT. Until the king returns, the Church should be more dedicated to the NCT than the faithful Davidic kings of the past were to the OCT because she knows that in caring for herself, she is a partaking in YHWH’s work and mission on earth. YHWH will bring it to completion (Philip. 1:6).
All in all, the Church should emphasize both (1) holiness for its members in order to be a pure and spotless Bride, and (2) sacrificial living to expand and care for the NCT on earth. The Spirit is once again making a new creation as the dwelling place of God—through the Church—as the NCT is being expanded and built up. The final consummation is coming, and the NCT eagerly awaits its rest in the undisputed coronation of Christ.
The New Testament authors employed NCT imagery throughout the New Testament in order to morally exhort the Church to holiness and to provide eschatological hope for sacrificial living. The New Testament authors believed that this language was especially effective because it accurately described the current inaugurated eschatology of God’s kingdom, and how humanity was being reconciled to its creator.
The Church’s privilege of being the NCT has many theological implications: it is the official place to worship YHWH, the sign to all of YHWH’s enemies that they stand no chance (Eph. 3:10), and the community where humanity is beginning to realize its goal. The NCT and the kingdom of God are both “already but not yet,” which will not be fully consummated until Christ Jesus returns.
Come Lord Jesus!
Timothy Rucker earned a Th.M. degree from Western Seminary. He currently lives in the Tampa Bay Area with his family, where he worships with and serves the congregation of Keene Terrace Baptist Church