Jesus, Our Temple
When I’m travelling, or even just on days when I’m working in the office all day, one of the things I enjoy is FaceTiming my family. I’m so thankful that I get to be a dad in an era when technology lets me not only hear their voice, but actually see their faces as we talk to each other.
It’s so much better than just a phone call.
But as great as it is, it’s still not the same as actually being there with them. That becomes plain when the conversation draws to a close, and my very affectionate daughter wants to give me a hug. So she grabs the iPad and embraces the cold glass and aluminum.
It’s awfully cute, but all I see is her ear taking up my whole screen. You still can’t hug over FaceTime. And it goes to show that as wonderful as this communication is, nothing replaces really being there.
The Story of His Presence
That’s true in our lives, and it’s certainly true in the story of the Bible. As we’ve looked at the big story of the Bible over the past several months, God’s presence—God’s being with His people—has been one of the themes that’s been woven all throughout. it.
In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve for relationship with Him. He came in the cool of the day to walk with them in Eden (Genesis 3:8). And when they rebelled against Him, they were sent out of the garden, away from the place God had created for them, and away from the presence of God. Adam and Eve experienced exile.
And from that point forward, each time God stepped into the story to redeem and save and make a covenant, His presence is a major factor. One of the best examples of this is the exodus from Egypt.
As God brought His people out of Egypt, He was with them in the pillar of cloud and fire. And one of the first priorities after the covenant had been established was to build the tabernacle, where God’s presence would be manifest.
In relation to the tabernacle, God said to Moses in Exodus 29, “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them” (Exodus 29:45–46)
It’s just like He said later on in Leviticus 26: “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:11–12). It’s important to note that the word for “walk” that’s used there is the very same word used in Genesis 3:8 to describe God walking in the the garden.
So in the tabernacle, God was bringing His people a step closer to Eden. And this is further explained by the connections between the tabernacle and Eden, like the cherubim guarding the presence of God or the golden lamp stand that paralleled the Tree of Life. These are some of the reasons why some theologians have described the tabernacle as a mini-Eden, the place where God once again walks with His people.
Being Near God
And the tabernacle was really the centrepiece of their life as a nation. As the people settled in the promised land, they were to go up to the tabernacle three times a year to “appear before the Lord GOD,” in the words of Exodus 23:17. If they wanted to be near God, they had to go to the place where He was.
We see hear of this longing to be in the presence of God all throughout Israel’s hymnbook, the Psalms. Psalm 84:1-2 says, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” That’s talking about the temple, which replaced the tabernacle as God’s permanent residence.
Similarly, Psalm 42:1-2 says, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” That language of “appearing before God” is taken from Exodus 23 and speaks of going up to the Jerusalem temple to worship.
Psalm 43 says, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God” (Psalm 43:3–4).
And then there’s a whole collection of 15 Psalms, from 120-143, called the Psalms of Ascent, which are all songs for the journey going up to Jerusalem.
This is something we often miss: that in the Old Covenant, the people’s relationship with God was directly connected to their ability to go appear before God, be near God, in the temple.
And so, when the people were finally cast into exile by the Babylonians, and the temple was destroyed, the sharp edge of the whole experience was really losing access to the presence of God.
And that’s why we see, for example, Daniel praying towards Jerusalem three times a day (Daniel 6:10). The great hope of the exiles was that God would bring them out of these foreign lands and bring them back to Himself at a new temple in Jerusalem.
Isaiah prophesied about this return from exile, and it’s interesting to read how he described it like a second exodus (Isaiah 43:16–19). Just like God led His people out of Egypt in order to dwell among them, so He was going to lead them out of Babylon in a great second exodus so that He might dwell among them again.
And so, after the 70 years had passed, we read in Ezra chapter one how Cyrus king of Persia made a decree allowing the Jews to go back to their land, and… do what? Rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1–4). Just like in the first exodus, where they left Egypt and built the tabernacle right away, so a second time, God’s people leave the place of captivity and begin to build a dwelling place for God.
But something was different about this second temple. We read in Ezra chapter 6 about the day it was finished, and the celebration the people had, and that’s about it (Ezra 6:15-16). It’s so different from when the tabernacle had been completed in front of Mt. Sinai, and God came in a visible way, filling up the place in a cloud of glory (Exodus 40:34). He did the same thing when Solomon finished the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11). God was showing them in a very visible way that He was there and would dwell there with them.
But when that second temple was finished after the exile, nothing like that happened. There was no glory. God’s presence never came and filled the place like it had before.
This just confirmed the suspicions that while the people had returned to Jerusalem, God hadn’t returned with them. They were still in exile, still without the presence of God, even within their own land. The people were still waiting for God to be with them.
Prepare the Way of the Lord
So, can you imagine the excitement in the hearts of the people, centuries later, when a wild-haired prophet named John began to call people to repent out in the Judean desert? And when the religious leaders asked him who he was, “He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said’” (John 1:23).
Now here’s what’s so important about this. John is quoting from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40, from one of the very prophecies that spoke about the second exodus, where God promised to come and be with His people again.
By quoting this verse, and applying it to himself, John is saying: the second exodus is finally going to happen for real. The exile is about to end. The Lord is finally coming to be with His people.
What John may or may not have known is that the Lord was already there. And He was there in a way more real and more precious than perhaps anyone would have dared to guess.
Would anyone have guessed that God was already there, walking among them as a man?
The clues were there all along. Isaiah himself had told us: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14), which means “God with us.”
He also told us that “to us a child is born, to us a son is given,” and that this child shall be called “mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6).
And so it was that when God returned to His people, He didn’t come in cloud or smoke and thunder. He came as a baby.
“And the Word Tabernacled Among Us”
I love how the Apostle John describes this in the passage we read earlier. John begins by introducing us to the Word who was with God and is God. The second Person of the Trinity, through Whom all things were created. And then verse 14 tells us these incredible words: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The divine word because flesh. You may remember from our series in 1 John how mind-boggling this would have been to many of John’s readers. They thought that these bodies, this flesh, was a bad thing, and the best thing will be when we die and finally cast them off, and all that’s left is our soul.
But this divine Word, the light and life of men, became flesh. He took on a body. He became an embryo, and then a fetus, and then He was born.
And so, verse 14 says that He “dwelt among us.” The word that’s used here for “dwell” is so rich. In the original Greek this word actually literally means “pitched his tent.” I’m not making this up: you can go look it up. And so verse 14 is really saying, “The word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” Or, as I’ve heard it put, “The word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”
God walked among His people in the tabernacle, and now He walked among His people in flesh. In a body.
So I hope now the title for today’s message makes sense. When the Word became flesh, Jesus replaced the temple. He became the way in which God dwelt with His people. Not in a building, but in a person.
This is what’s going on in those words we read earlier from John chapter 2. “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 2:19–21).
Jesus’ body, His flesh, was the new and true temple. It was the place where God’s presence really was, where God really dwelt with His people.
And throughout His ministry Jesus made repeated references to the truth that it was through Him, not just though a building in Jerusalem, that people would meet with God and experience His presence and grace.
It shows up in places we might not see it at first—for example, in the familiar story of the paralytic who was lowered down in front of Jesus through a hole in the roof. And what did Jesus say to him?
“Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). And then we read “Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:6–7).
There’s another layer to the story here. Only God would forgive sins, and where did He do that? Where is the place you would go to receive God’s forgiveness for your sins?
And here, in a crowded house miles away from Jerusalem, Jesus does something that could only happen at the temple. He forgives sins. In other words, He is saying, “I am the true temple.”
Not Just His Body
I hope you see how rich this is. And yet I also hope you see how disappointing this would be if this is where the story ended.
If Jesus’ body replaced the temple, and that was it, you and I would still be in a really tough spot. Because we’d still need to travel to be near Jesus in order to experience the presence of God. And now that Jesus, in His flesh, isn’t even here on Earth anymore, we’d be in essentially the same place as the people were before He came in the first place.
But we know this is not the end of the story. Because Jesus Himself told us that He was going to do something that would open up access to God in a bigger and greater way than anyone could have imagined.
We hear about this in His conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father’” (John 4:19–21).
You see what He’s saying? The time is approaching where it won’t matter where you worship God. You won’t need to be in a specific place to worship God and access His presence. That hour is coming.
And that hour came when Jesus went to the cross for us. Because there on the cross, Jesus paid for our sins.
The whole reason why God’s presence was kept locked away in the temple behind a curtain with priests as the go-betweens is because of our sin. God is holy and if we entered His presence we would die.
And so there on the cross, Jesus died to make us holy. He took our place and suffered the full punishment for our sins. And as He did, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Do you know what Jesus suffered on the cross? Exile. Jesus was cast out from the presence of God. Jesus experienced the depths of spiritual exile for us.
And He did it so that we would never need to again. Jesus suffered our exile so that we would be counted righteous in Him and could experience the presence of God forever.
And so, when Jesus “cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit… the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:50–51).
The curtain of the temple is what separated God’s presence from the rest of us. You and I could never go behind there. But God ripped it in half. Not needed anymore. Because our sins have been paid for, and we’ve been counted righteous in Christ through faith, we have access to the Father.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
Because of the death of Jesus, we have access to God at all times and in all places. Just listen to these words from Hebrews chapter 10:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19–22).
Oh, there’s so much there for us to see. Do you hear these temple references? Wherever we are, we can enter into the holy places—we can draw near to the presence of God—through Jesus and the way that He purified us when He died for us on the cross.
Is This It?
This is so rich. But this is also a spot where it’s easy for us to trip up. Because we hear these words about holy places and drawing near, and it might be easy for us to ask, “Have I ever experienced anything like that? Have I ever felt like I ‘entered the holy places’? Am I missing out on something?”
I’ve spent some time in churches that used these words to try to seek the presence of God through mystical experiences. The whole church service was one big hyped-up journey and we would try to arrive at some kind of experience where it “felt” like we had been in the presence of God. And if we had a good enough experience or felt the right things, then we had encountered the presence of God. But if not, we’ll try again next week.
But friends, please listen: what Hebrews chapter 10 is describing is something that we experienced here already this morning. Just think about what happened when we prayed. You and I—small, insignificant people—approached our holy God and confessed our sin to Him and asked Him to forgive us. And then we made our requests known to Him and asked Him to help us with those things.
Do you realize how incredible that is? That we just get to do that? In Nipawin? We can draw near to God, and ask for His grace and His help, and experience His forgiveness, without having to hop on a plane and take a trip to the Middle East.
It’s absolutely mind-blowing. The Old Testament saints would be awe-struck at what we get to experience.
But there’s even more than that. Because God is actually with us here today through His spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the one who is here, convicting us of sin (John 16:8) and helping us see the truth about Jesus (John 16:14) and opening our eyes to the wonders of His love (Romans 5:5). Even right now, as I’m preaching His word, if you’re understanding it and it’s resonating in your heart and it’s causing you to treasure Jesus more, this is the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the work of God with us.
And so the presence of God is just what we call the normal Christian life. Reading the Bible and understanding it. Praying. Receiving forgiveness. Experiencing joy in the truth of God’s word. Growing in our love for Jesus. Having fellowship with God’s people. The normal Christian life. All of it enabled by the presence of God.
And it’s anything but normal. The Old Covenant saints would have lined up to trade places with you any day. They would gladly have given up walking through the Red Sea or eating manna from heaven to experience what we get to experience every single day.
The End of the Story
But let’s pause again and be honest: as wonderful as our present experience is, don’t we still long for more? Don’t we long for a closer experience of the presence of God? Don’t we feel the truth that for as much as we already have, there’s still some not yet that we’re longing for?
I feel that way. And that’s where 1 Corinthians 13:12 is so comforting: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” A clearer and more perfect experience of God’s presence is coming to His people. When we flip to the back of the book and see how this biggest story ever told finishes up, we’ll see that God coming to dwell with us in person, here on earth, fully and finally forever.
“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, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:1–3).
That’s our hope, folks. That’s what we’re still looking forward to.
The baby in the manger was pointing forward to this. The presence of Jesus with us today by His Holy Spirit is pointing forward to this. God with us. Fully and finally, forever.
We Are the Temple
Now, what does all of this this mean for us today as we head out into our weeks? What do we do with this now?
We’ve already seen one answer, which is that we recognize and appreciate and enjoy all of the ways that God is with us. That we do that Hebrews 10 tells us to do: we draw near to God through Jesus. We take full advantage of what Christ has done for us.
But there’s one more piece to this whole picture which says a lot about us today. And it’s this: if God’s Holy Spirit is with us, dwelling in us, then that means that we are also His temple.
1 Corinthians 3:16 says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” And in Greek, those are both plural verbs. You, plural, you as a church, are God’s temple because God’s Spirit dwells in you.
2 Corinthians 6:16 says, “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (2 Corinthians 6:16).
And that means we have the mission and responsibility to represent God in the world. It means that when people encounter us, they should be encountering God.
And it means that Christmas isn’t just some event that we get to look back on and celebrate as if it happened, and that’s it.
Because Jesus has commissioned His church to carry on the work of representing Him to the world (John 17:20-23). As the Father sent Him into the world, so He has sent His followers out into the world (John 17:18).
In a very real sense, when Jesus ascended to heaven, He passed the baton of embodying the presence of God to us.
And so Christmas should remind us of our mission. Just like Jesus left heaven and brought the presence of God into a painful and uncomfortable world, so we must do likewise.
And we might even have opportunities to do that this week. Maybe you’re not looking forward to this week of celebration. Maybe your Christmas isn’t going to look like a Normal Rockwell painting and you’re tempted to feel sad about that. Or maybe you need to spend time this week with some difficult family members, and you’re struggling with that.
What would change if you embraced the mind of Christ? If you embraced your mission to represent God into those painful and uncomfortable circumstances?
Maybe you are just looking forward to a good time with your family this week. But what might change for the better, even there, if you embraced the mind of Christ? That might mean something like inviting someone to join you in your celebration who would be alone otherwise.
Jesus spent His first Christmas with perfect strangers, and that means that Christmas is the perfect opportunity to show uncomfortable hospitality and generosity.
These are just some examples, but I guarantee you that if you keep your eyes open this week, you’ll have opportunity to represent God. You’ll have opportunity to play your part as a member of God’s temple.
And you’ll certainly have many opportunities to enjoy and take advantage of all that Christ did for us on the cross. Every time we pray, every time we open up our Bibles, every time we experience forgiveness, every time we draw near, we get to enjoy access to the Father through Jesus, our real temple.
And as we do that, we look to the day of His return, the day when He’ll be with us in Spirit and body forever.