The Bible begins and ends with a temple. I’ll unpack that first phrase a little later but I want to suggest in this post that we can best understand the Bible as a whole by referring to the idea of temple. The temple, or God’s dwelling place, is a common thread that runs throughout both Old and New Testaments. It gives us a unifying picture for the totality of the Christian Scriptures.
Let me go back to that opening phrase: the Bible begins … with a temple. It’s hardly a new idea, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what Genesis 1 is painting is not a picture of how the cosmos was created but why. For the past 200 years or so we have allowed ourselves to be cul-de-saced in a sterile debate about the factual/literal basis of the creation account. Let’s make a nifty three-point-turn and find a different street shall we; one that actually goes somewhere?
Genesis 1 is a passage that explains to us that God created the cosmos as a dwelling place for himself. For a detailed explanation of this interpretation you can read John H Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One (2009) or for a much shorter explanation watch this clip of Tom Wright being interviewed for the BioLogos site. Clues as to how we arrive at this conclusion are to be found in the strikingly similar phrases used both in the creation account and the passage from Exodus 39-40 about Moses building the tabernacle. As is clear the tabernacle was the moveable temple of ancient Israel and the language used is so similar to the creation account that it leads some to conclude that Genesis 1 is also referring to the construction of a temple. Another pointer to the creation-as-temple interpretation is the fact that other cultures in the Ancient Near East had made the same link between the cosmos and their own temples. It would appear that this was not an uncommon theme in the region in that period.
If the Bible begins with the creation of a temple for God to dwell in, then it ends with another picture of a temple, this time the eschatological temple descending to the new Jerusalem. The Book of Revelation is, of course, highly symbolic in content but its final chapters talk of a new heaven and a new earth – a re-creation long promised through Israel’s prophets (Is 65:17). The traditional thinking about God rescuing some to a beyond-the-stars heaven while abandoning his creation is directly challenged in passages such as these.
A key symbol in Revelation’s final chapters is the temple. However, this temple is not to be a physical construction like the temple of old Jerusalem. Rather chapters 21 and 22 paint a picture of God dwelling with his people and filling the new Jerusalem, i.e. the new creation. Just like the original creation, the new is to be God’s temple, his chosen place of rest.
If the Bible begins and ends with a temple, then what about everything in between? The tabernacle may have been the first constructed meeting place between God and man but long before that we have all those simple places of worship in Genesis. Places where a patriarch lays down a stone on a significant spot and acknowledges God’s presence (e.g. Gen 28:18-22). Then there is Sinai – like the temple, divided into three parts: the foot of the mountain, to which the majority of the people were restricted (Ex 19:12); then some distance further the elders were allowed to go (Ex 19:22); and finally the top of the mountain was restricted to Moses himself (Ex 24:2) – a holy of holies where God and man communed.
An immovable stone structure was not what God desired as a dwelling place according to the story (2 Sam 7:1-7) but it was David’s desire and God relented. Designed according to the principles of the earlier tabernacle the Temple in Jerusalem was to become a potent symbol of Israel being God’s own people. Both structures speak to us of a God who wants to be with his people in creation.
The same theme is picked up in the New Testament and the person of Jesus – the ‘Word who became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). The verb ‘to dwell’ in that verse is the Greek for ‘pitching a tent’ or tabernacle and reminds us of the tabernacle of God’s presence in the OT. Jesus now carries the presence of God within creation and it to this fact that he must surely have been referring when he talked of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days (John 2:19).
So far we’ve noticed how God’s presence has gone from filling creation to being in a structure and then to a single person. But at Pentecost things open up again for it is then that the re-constituted people of God are filled with the Holy Spirit and in effect become the temple. G. K. Beale makes a compelling case for interpreting Pentecost as the time when the people of God actually become the temple of his presence. Many of the NT letters take up the theme, with Paul for example, talking about us being ‘God’s household’ and a ‘holy temple in the Lord’. That he should say this to the church at Ephesus is particularly relevant since that city was dominated by the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Undeniably there is a great emphasis on God dwelling within his creation in the Bible. Indeed I believe we would be safe in saying that the cosmos is his dwelling place and was designed and created to be so. It is his mission for it to be so again and in his plan of restoration we his people play a key part. We have become the temple of his presence – through which his restoring work is on-going.
Dyfed Wyn Roberts blogs at dyfedwynroberts.org.uk. He Tweets @DyfedWyn.