As we come to 1 Corinthians there is a confusion about the temple. On one hand we see that the temple of God is the community of God’s people (1 Cor 3:16-17, see also Eph 2:21, 1 Peter 2:5). On the other hand, we as individuals are also seen as the temple of God (1 Cor 6:19). Since Jesus responded to the religious leaders when they asked for a sign, that the temple be destroyed and replaced with his body (John 2:18-21), how as Christians are we to think of the temple?
The most important thing we need to do is make sure we understand the fundamental purpose of the temple, or as it started, the tabernacle. When God meets with his people for the first time as a people it is at Mount Sinai. Since God’s special presence was on the mountain, namely at the top, no-one was to touch the mountain or go near it or let their animals go near it (Ex 19:10-13, see also Hebrews 12:18-21). This is because the power of God’s presence in his moral purity was so great that they would be consumed by it being a people who are sinful (illustrated in the events of Exodus 32). So a distance needed to be maintained between the people and God’s presence for the safety of the people.
However, it is God’s intention to dwell with his people and Moses even begs him to go with them to the promised land (Ex 33:15). God chooses to dwell in the midst of them in the tabernacle, a special tent built for that purpose and the book of Exodus ends with the presence of God coming down off the mountain and entering the tabernacle (Ex 40:34-35).
This is the key purpose of the temple. It is the place where God’s special presence dwells. Although he is presence throughout the universe, omnipresent, he is present in a special way in the temple. This is a copy of the heavenly court (Her 8:5; Rev 7:15, 11:1, 15:5-6). I think this shows one of the key ideas of the temple being the embassy of heaven.
However, this leaves the Israelites with a dilemma: how does a holy God dwell in the midst of a sinful people? The answer is found throughout the books of Leviticus and Numbers God institutes an institution of priesthood and sacrifice so people can come to the temple despite their sin.
Throughout the history of Israel the tabernacle is central to their nation and their identity. As they enter into the promised land the tabernacle becomes a more permanent structure of the temple. The key moment in the consecration of the building is the same event that was at the tabernacle, God’s presence, in the form of a cloud, moving into the building (1 Kings 8:10-11).
The one interruption of the function of the temple is the 70 years where the temple is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Chron 36:18-19). This raises an issue for the people as they wonder where God is and yet trust in the promises of the prophets for a new temple.
When the exiles return one of the key marks of the return is the rebuilding of the temple (see Ezra and Haggai). The temple is also renovated and redone under Herod the Great several hundred years later which prompts the religious leaders to refer to the building taking 46 years (John 2:20). Nevertheless the function of the temple should remain the same which is why Jesus is so angry with the marketplace that has popped up in the temple courts (John 2:13-17).
One of the great twists in the coming of Jesus is that he reveals himself as the replacement of the temple (John 2:21). This not to be seen as a mistake that is being fixed, but that the tabernacle/ temple was simply a placeholder for the coming of the incarnate one. As Jesus comes he is revealed as the one who would make his dwelling among us (note that the Greek word used here is literally “tabernacled”) and this would reveal the glory of the one who came from the Father (John 1:14). This is like the master of a field sending his son rather than a servant (Matt 21:37, Mark 12:6, Luke 20:13).
But then Jesus is to return to his Father’s side and as he does so he sends the Spirit (John 16:7). This is a good thing for the people because now God’s presence is with them wherever they go and they are sent throughout the world (Matt 28:19-20, John 20:21).
The presence of God in the lives of his people now means two things. Firstly it means that they individually are the temple of God (1 Cor 6:19). Paul’s pastoral point here is that since our bodies contain the presence of God, we need to treat them with respect and not drag them into sin. However, secondly, we also see that the community also is where the presence of God is (1 Cor 3:16-17). His pastoral point here is that disunity in the church is foolishness since the church is the temple of God, that God himself is building. Paul, placing these concepts so close together shows that he does not see a conflict between the two ideas. We may perceive that there is a conflict, but this is because we underestimate the power of relationship in God’s plan. We are to be made like him, and as we come together as people who have his presence, we experience his presence on a different level.
Nevertheless, in both cases, as body individually and the body of Christ, we still continue the role of the temple of being the special place where God dwells and there for the embassy of where God meets with people. This is part of our role as his people and why we need to seek to be disciple makers in partnership with him.
The new creation will not need a temple because there is no need for the embassy (Rev 21:22). There is no division for God is with us!!