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The History of the Temple of God

The author Erich Sauer (1898-1959), in chapter 4 of his classic work From Eternity to Eternity (Paternoster Press, 1954), outlines the purpose and history of the “Temple of God” from its beginning through to the eternal day of God. This insightful article, dealing with a much neglected subject, opens up a theme that runs throughout Scripture and thus unlocks one of the Bible’s many unifying threads.


The History of the Temple of God

The central spring of Israel’s calling was the temple service. According to the will of God, Israel should have been a “royal priesthood” (Exod 19:6). Its God-given vocation was to effect just the very last and deepest experiences in the relation between God and man, even the restoration, cultivation and perfecting of a holy, loving and personal fellowship with the Lord.

The Point of Contact of Eternity and Time

But here opens the immense gulf between God and man. Not only that God is infinite and man the small and finite: not only that God is Creator and man His creature; but – God is the holy One and man, since Adam fell, is the sinner, God is the righteous one and man is laden with uncleanness and guilt.

And yet nothing but union with God can save the lost. For God is the fountain of life, and only fellowship with Him gives to the creature salvation and blessedness. But, on the other hand, for the sinner to encounter the holy and righteous God means for him the revelation of the righteousness that punishes. Thus precisely that which alone can help the sinner, even contact with God, must destroy him. Here lies the mighty tension that can only be relaxed if by some means this point of contact between eternity and time carries in itself at once two elements – righteous judgment and salvation, that is, covering of guilt and foundation of a new life, forgiveness and sanctification.

The Meaning of the Most Holy Place

Here now is revealed how, in simply magnificent manner, the symbolic meaning of the Old Testament temple service, and in general the whole Divine redemption, answers to the need of man.

This central point of union between eternity and time, between God and the sinful creature, is revealed symbolically in the central vessel of the Old Testament temple service, the ark of the covenant. Here in one vessel these two opposite aspects were harmoniously joined together. Above the ark was the mercy seat (the Kapporet, the propitiatory cover) where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled once a year on the Day of Atonement for the forgiveness of sins, and in the ark were the tables of the Law which represented the demands and the kingship of Jehovah (Heb 9:4, 7).

By these two typical arrangements, Kapporet and Thora (law), the ark of the covenant included that necessary double-unity, a denying and an affirming, breaking down of the old life and introduction of a new, forgiveness and guidance, covering of sin and establishing God’s rule in holiness (Exod 25:17-22). Indeed, this central foreshadowing of salvation could not more accurately correspond to the necessity for and the goal of redemption.

Here again is seen the clearness and logical consistency of the Divine revelation and how everything answers to its purpose.

Christ, then, has brought to completion this polar double-unity. His priestly offering brings the “putting away of sin” (Heb 9:26). His kingly office effects sanctifying and lordship. Thus both are fulfilled in One; the mercy seat and the tables of the Law: and also here, in the light of inward necessity and outward symbol, there is shown to us the demand for and the work of a world-Redeemer, who is Priest and King in one, who, as Zechariah says, is crowned with a crown of silver and gold (Zech 6:11-12), who, as the New Testament declares, is the royal high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb 7:1-8:2).

Thus the Melchizedek priesthood of Christ – in its harmonious double-unity – is the fulfillment of the Kapporet and Thora, the accomplishment and full exhibition of the most important type in the whole Old Testament temple service: the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place of Tabernacle and Temple.

Thus in the Most Holy Place contact between eternity and time is set forth in the most perfect symbol. Therefore it is at the same time, as also in its proportions (measurements), a symbol of perfection in general. This results from its being a cube, first in the Tabernacle, later in the Temple, and at last as a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem (Exod 26:15-30, Ezek 48:16, Rev 21:16). For the cube is of equal size on every side, a harmonious whole, and therefore it expresses, so to say, “the ideal space”; as a space symbol it represents the idea of perfection.

The Basic Idea of the Temples of God

On account of the invasion of sin it was not possible that the Divine perfection could reach its full manifestation from the beginning of history. Therefore it was necessary to represent the Old Testament Most Holy Place as hidden and veiled, as shut in  by a curtain (Heb 9:3, 8), indeed as being mysteriously shrouded in darkness (Exod 20:21, 1 Kings 8:12). And therefore it was also necessary to add to it graded anterooms and areas of less spiritual rank and importance, namely forecourt and holy place. Not till ‘the perfection’ will God’s plan and God’s person be brilliantly manifested. Not before then will the whole of God’s people be most holy. Therefore only then will disappear both forecourt and holy place. Therefore also there will be no special temple area in the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:22), for then the whole city will itself be the Most Holy Place, indeed a most holy place no more in the darkness of mystery but standing in the eternal brilliance of the complete Divine revelation (Rev 21:11).

Till then the three regularly graded temple areas correspond to the regions of the kingdom of God, as these, in their different positions in the history of revelation, are the theatre of divine acts and the sphere of Divine powers and workings (Heb 9:23).

Seen thus the earth is the forecourt, where Golgotha was; heaven is the holy place; and the throne of God is the Most Holy Place.

On earth God will work out two things: the justification and the sanctification of the redeemed. Therefore in the forecourt were two vessels: the altar of burnt offering and the laver of purification.

In heaven is the life and the worship of the Eternal in the midst of heavenly spirits. Of these the showbread (bread of life) testified, and the lampstand, as well as the altar of incense (see Psa 141:2; Rev 3:8) and the surrounding figures of the cherubim on ceiling and curtain (Exod 26:1).

But “above all heavens” is the throne of God Himself. There is the law that rules the universe, even as the tables of the law were in the Most Holy Place (1 Kings 8:9). There also is the grace which forgives the sins and turns the sovereign throne of God into a “throne of grace” (Exod 25:17, Heb 4:16, Rom 3:25); and above all there is light of the glory of God, which, like the Shekinah cloud, irradiates everything else (Exod 40:35-35, 1 Tim 6:16).

The Necessity in Salvation of the Substitutionary Sacrifice

The central act of the temple service is the offering. Only thereby becomes possible all this symbolic and saving activity. For if the point of contact of time and eternity, around which the whole temple service revolves, is to become an effectual centre of saving power, then must the work of grace, which in it is perfected, be at the same time justified in law. But this can only be if it is at once legal and effectual in dealing with sin, and therefore at the same time includes atonement.

But sin in its nature is separation from God; and God is “the life”; therefore to be separated from God is to be separated from life, which is death: “death is the wages of sin” (Rom 6:23). But if an objective atonement is required it must correspond to the nature of sin, and thus likewise must consist in separation from the Creator and from life, and thus in death. Only through death can death be put to death (Heb 2:14, Eph 2:16): “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb 9:22).

The sacrifice of the Old Testament temple service refers to this central indispensable means of salvation. Systematically ordered by God it endured through the centuries, in hundreds of thousands of individual acts, an always fresh and active educational institution pointing to the historical centre of salvation. Christ, as the “Lamb of God” brought the true fulfilment (Heb 9:26). The devoting of Himself to God on Golgotha was the true offering, His cross the true altar, His blood the true redemption price, and thereby Himself, in His person and work, was at once the true temple, the true high priest, the true sacrifice.

White, the Symbolic Chief Colour of Priesthood

In the colour symbolism of the Old Testament service of God, white is the chief and characteristic colour of priesthood. The garments of the priests were white, white were the working clothes of the Levites. White was also the chief colour of the high priestly clothing. For white is the colour of light and purity, the colour of feasting and joy, the symbolic colour of the world of blessed spirits, and the priesthood stood in special relation to that world beyond. It served the Lord of spirits, was to set forth and restore union with Him, should serve Him in holiness and purity, clearness and true light, and by its mediatorial service be a bridge leading to fellowship with Him and so to blessedness and joy. Therefore there could be nothing more suitable than that white should be prophetically the chief colour symbol of priestly service.

The Chief Temples of God (in historical sequence)

In the history of revelation there are to be recognised seven or eight consecutive forms of the temple idea.

1. The Tabernacle

Erected by Moses about 1,500 B.C. at the giving of the law at Sinai. This was the travelling tent of God in the wilderness, and was later, for several centuries, the central sanctuary of Israel during the interval between Joshua and Solomon, say from about 1,500 to 1,000 B.C.. During the chief part of this period (till the time of Samuel) it was at Shiloh (1 Sam 1:3, 9; Jer 7:12, 14).

2. The Temple of Solomon

Built about 1,000 B.C., incomparably grander than the Tabernacle, but following the same ground plan (1 Kings 6:1). For centuries it was the centre of the worship of God, in spite of the concurrent apostate form of worship which began with Jeroboam in the Ten-tribed kingdom (1 Kings 12:25-33, John 4:20). It was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon on his third expedition against Jerusalem (586 B.C.), and seventy years the temple service in Israel entirely lapsed.

3. The Temple of Zerubbabel

Only after the return from captivity in Babylon under Zerubbabel and Joshua (536 B.C.) could a beginning be made of a new temple, which nevertheless, after sundry further attempts, could not be carried forward for some time, so great were the difficulties that arose. Only after fifteen years, spurred on by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1), could the work of completing it be again undertaken. By five years’ labour the building was completed in the second year of Darius of Persia (Hag 1:1). Thus it was exactly seventy years after the destruction by Nebuchadnezzar that in the sixth year of Darius this temple could be consecrated. Darius reigned from 521 to 485 B.C., so that this dedication was in the year 516 B.C. (Ezra 6:15). It was a plain building (Ezra 3:12), but it was signalised by special Divine promises (Hag 2:7-9). Later, by forty-six years’ labour, it was splendidly finished by Herod the king (John 2:20).

But its real glory, by which it decidedly surpassed Solomon’s temple, came to it in the fact that it was this very temple of Zerubabbel in which Jesus was a boy, and in which later, as Man and Prophet, he taught and fought (Luke 2:41-50, John 2:14-17). But still greater glory came in that it was this temple in which, in the death-hour on Golgotha, the curtain between the holy place and the Most Holy was rent, signifying that world-redemption was complete, that a fully valid sin offering had been set before God, and the direct way to God was thenceforth free (Matt 27:51, Heb 9:8-9, 10:19-20). At the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Titus (in the same month, August, as before in the days of Nebuchadnezzar) this temple also went up in flames. From that time Israel, who rejected the Messiah and invoked His blood upon themselves and their children (Matt 27:25), has been “without sacrifice, without altar, without ephod, without sanctuary” (Hos 3:4).

But God, whose plans of salvation can never be destroyed, even here holds steadily to His holy goal. Now also, in the midst of collapse and judgment, He did not abandon His principle, but rather brought it to a spiritual fulfillment, more wonderful, deep and inward. He Himself called His church, and, by the indwelling of His Spirit, made it His temple.

The creative beginning of this new way was the Redeemer Himself. In Christ, the Son of God become man, “dwelled” the fulness of the Godhead “bodily” (Col 1:19, 2:9). Thus has Christ, the centre of salvation, as the God-sent Immanuel, in His person and work brought to reality in perfect measure the truth expressed in the temple.

4. The Temple of the Body of Jesus

If ever in the history of the universe eternity and time have harmoniously united, it was in Jesus Christ who was God and was “manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim 3:16). Therefore He was a moving “tent” of God and His body the true temple. So John described Him as “the Word became flesh and ‘tented’ among us” (John 1:14, lit). So characteristically He said of Himself: “Break down this ‘temple’ and in three days I will erect it again.” This “He spake of the ‘temple’ of His body” (John 2:19-22). He who was the Lord of the temple, and also in the Old Testament time its proper meaning and historical goal, in the fulness of time became Himself the full exhibition of the temple idea, simply and properly “the temple” in His person and His behaviour, the ideal and perfect realisation of union between heaven and earth.

The church is then the continuation of His life here on earth. “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Therefore, through the indwelling of Christ through the Holy Spirit, is it also “temple of God”.

5. The Church, the Spiritual Temple

In this realm of life the Lord unfolds this truth in three circles. Through His Spirit He dwells in the personality of the individual believer, whose body is now a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). Through the Spirit He dwells in the local church of believers, which is thereby a place of His presence and “temple of God” (1 Cor 3:16). And through the same Holy Spirit he dwells in the universal church, so that the whole body of Christ is “holy temple in the Lord”, in which all individual members are built together to become “a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22, 1 Pet 2:4-5).

Thus the church of the new covenant is God’s temple in the present period of salvation.

The foundation is the Lord Himself. No one can lay another foundation than that which is laid (1 Cor 3:11). The witness of the first generation has Him as its subject. Therefore what follows is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20).

The stones come from two quarries, and are Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:11-12). They are joined together in one holy temple. They come as dead stones to the Living One, and are made to live by the Spirit of His life (1 Pet 2:4-5). Their faith in Christ is at the same time on Christ, a resting upon, a being built upon the Corner-Stone in Zion (Isa 28:16).

The purpose of this house is that it shall be a temple. It is a spiritual house, and the stones in the wall are at the same time priests at the altar (1 Pet 2:5, Heb 13:10). Their life is a burnt offering (Rom 12:1), their service a drink offering (2 Tim  4:6), their works a spiritual offering (1 Pet 2:5), their worship a praise offering (Heb 13:15). They pray for others; they offer thanks for others (1 Tim 2:1-2), in their secret chamber they embrace the world. They are a blessing in their circle; they bring others into the presence of God, and so in each of them is fulfilled the promise, “I will bless thee and thou shalt be a blessing” (Gen 12:2).

In this indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the church lies its dignity and its responsibility. Through this great fact they become the dwelling place of God in history, one point of contact between eternity and time, the anticipation of the great and true perfection, “Behold, the Tabernacle of God is with men” (Rev 21:3).

But it appears that finally God will resume the history of the earthly visible temple.

6. The Temple of Ezekiel (Chs 40-44)

At all events, in his prophecy of the Messianic salvation Ezekiel pictures a future sacrificial service with so many details and such exact and particular statements and measurements that it seems scarcely possible to understand it all as simply symbolical and spiritual. The difficulty then is that, in spite of the instruction in Hebrews (10:10, 14, 8:13, 7:18), there will then be a service of sacrifices after the completed work on Golgotha; and that this will include burnt offerings, meal offerings, thank offerings and sin offerings, a priesthood and a holding of special feasts (Passover, Tabernacles: Ezek 45:21, Zech 14:16). It is possible to resolve this difficulty by regarding these offerings as holding much the same status as Baptism and the Supper in the present time, that is, as tokens of remembrance, as representations of the now accomplished work of redemption. They will be symbolic pictures looking backward, just as the Old Testament offerings, done away by the Cross, looked forward, to a foreseen but then still future work of redemption, which at that time was not yet accomplished but which would be carried out in due time, even “when the fulness of time was come” (Gal 4:4).

But at last, as we shall now see, the accomplishment will come and with it the full exhibition of the idea of a temple.

7. The Heavenly Jerusalem as a Temple (Most Holy)

In the picture language of the Revelation the eternal city of God is plainly pictured as the heavenly Most Holy Place. Therefore its form is a cube (Rev 21:6, comp Ezek 48:167), because itself is the perfected temple of God…But whereas in the temple of the old earth the Most Holy Place was still shrouded in darkness (1 Kings 8:12, Exod 20:21, 1 Tim 6:16), as a token that God’s revelation of Himself could not yet be completed, the heavenly Most Holy Place is brilliant with the radiance of the jasper-Shekinah (Rev 21:11, Isa 4:5, Exod 40:34-38). For perfection has been reached…His servants shall serve Him and see His face. God’s self-revelation has come to full unfolding. Therefore all veiling disappears, and in place of the darkness of mystery there streams the light of the divine eternal sun.