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The Church - a Building, a Temple

by André Schwartz last modified Jul 23, 2014 03:51 PM
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The image of a building and the temple to describe the Christian ekklesia is often used. This draws on the rich tradition and history of the wilderness tabernacle and the temple in Jerusalem.

The metaphor “The People of God are the Temple of God” is nowhere explicitly used in the OT. There are themes that build toward it, though. God the Creator is portrayed as a builder: “My own hand laid the foundations of the earth” (Isa 48:13). In giving detailed instructions for construction of the tabernacle and temple, God is portrayed the typical Builder. Importantly, God “builds” Jerusalem (Ps 147:2) and the remnant of Judah (Jer 31:4, 28).

In addition to the OT tradition, the Greco-Roman “temple culture” of the first century was a part of the everyday lives of believers. In one or both of these ways, the writers of the NT could count on their readers to be familiar with the building and function of temples.

Jesus says in Matt 16:18, “On this rock I will build my church (ekklesia),” identifying the church as a building rising on a solid foundation. Many more NT passages use terms from architecture to describe individual believers or the Church. We will briefly look at four passages.

In 1 Cor 3, Paul treats the issue of “envy, strife and divisions” among the Christians in Corinth. Complaining that they identify with himself or Apollos, Paul uses the field image. He identifies himself as the one who planted and Apollos as the one who watered, to describe their equality as “only servants”. Paul abruptly changes to another metaphor: “You are God's field, God's building.” The function of the image of house/temple is different than the field, for now Paul wishes to distinguish his role with those of Apollos and others. These are now cast as other builders on the foundation he laid as “wise master builder.” He warns them to take care of how they build because a test is eminent. If the builder's work survives the fiery test, he will be rewarded; if not, he will “suffer loss.” Addressing Christian believers directly, Paul employs the term “temple” three times. He concludes the passage by explicitly using the metaphor “Christian Believers are God's Temple”:

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

In addition to the sub-metaphors of “wise master builder” and other builders, Paul identifies Christ as the “foundation” and lists a variety of possible building materials. Assumed knowledge from the secular context in Corinth is that a temple belongs to its god and is of value to that deity; damage to a temple is an affront to the deity; a temple houses the deity; the building of a temple requires supervision; contractors are rewarded for successful work and fined for poor craftsmanship; and the process of temple building involves the selection of appropriate and rejection of inappropriate, building materials.

In 2 Corinthians 6:14‑7:1 Paul again uses temple imagery to query his addressees. Here he advocates separation from “idols” and the “unclean.”

As a culminating question he asks:

What agreement has the temple of God with idols?

He follows with a strong, declarative statement:

For you are the temple of the living God.

The sense of the image is: “the distinct holiness of Christians.” But also the secular knowledge, “a temple is inhabited by the deity," is assumed (“I will dwell in them”). You see, the temple metaphor stresses the need for separation between believers and unbelievers.

The exclusive use of the temple image in 2 Cor 6 contrasts with the inclusive one in Eph 2:19‑22. Here the temple metaphor functions as a poignant image for the inclusion of Gentiles as full partners in the Church. The wider passage celebrates the work of Christ on the cross, by which Christ creates “in Himself one new man from the two”. Gentiles “are no longer strangers and foreigners,” but, instead, are “fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God.” Language of citizenship and household gives way to the imagery of building and temple. This temple is a place where God dwells, the cornerstone is Christ and the foundation is the apostles and prophets. The building materials are both Jews and Gentiles.

The sense of the metaphor is: “the cohesion of all in the church (Jews and Gentiles).” Again the secular context is drawn from: structural integrity (a building or temple made of different materials coheres), the process of building (temples are built), and habitation (here, the temple is “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit”).

Peter uses temple imagery (“spiritual house”) for Christian believers in a developed temple metaphor (1 Pet 2:4‑8). Believers as “living stones” are built upon the “living Stone,” Jesus, who is the “chief cornerstone, elect, precious” (here, clearly a foundation stone). The role of the believers as a “spiritual house,” though, is complicated by the fact that they are also portrayed as priests who offer “spiritual sacrifices” in this temple. The identity of builders is implied in the rejection of the living stone, “by men,” an act corrected by the true divine Builder. As with previous uses of this metaphor, everyday first century familiarity is drawn on: temples require a process of building; the process of building involves the selection and rejection of building materials; a temple is the site for ministry of consecrated priests overseeing approved rituals; the building of temples is supervised by a builder or builders; and a temple houses the deity. In those Christian communities wrestling with problems of alienation and “homelessness,” the house/temple metaphor vividly portrays the relationship between them and Christ.

In the context of the temple in Jerusalem, as well as the Greco-Roman structures all around them, Paul and Peter use the temple metaphor to help believers see the sanctity of the Church, God's role in founding and growing the church, the defining nature of the work of Christ and the Spirit on behalf of the Church, and the unity of believers within the Church as a blood-bought privilege.

A building/temple image could give one a static impression, though rather than a static image, we are pressed to see a story: the process of construction rather than a completed structure. The metaphor, then, is an ancient analogy to our “web cams,” keeping a constant eye on the progress of “The Block.” The present active role of the Spirit in the Church-as-temple contributes to this dynamism. The Church is granted the great privilege of humbly and joyously acknowledging in its life and story “the temple of the living God.