Discovering the Temple
With a story as large as the one in the Bible, it can be difficult to see how different parts of the story tie together. It has been suggested that there are four major acts that unfold in Scripture: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. While these four categories do help us to see significant themes in Scripture, thinking of the Bible in this simplified way creates difficulty when we try to make sense of other parts of Scripture that don’t seem to fit well into these big four. What of the Garden of Eden? What of tabernacles and sacrifice? What of temples and priests? What of the role of Israel in God’s plan? What of the Messiah? The list could go on…
Return to the Beginning
The good news is that this difficulty can subside when we uncover a central theme that ties all of Scripture together…from the beginning to the end. In order to do that, however, to discover this missing theme, we must look to the beginning for this is where the theme enters into the story. The Creation account in Genesis 1-3 tells of God’s creation of the world and the purpose or function He gives to it. The way that the story of Creation is often taught today, we are disconnected from the original context. We get caught up in all sorts of debates and miss one of the most important aspects of the Creation account, the theme that will help tie all of Scripture together – God establishing His temple.
To highlight the disconnect, consider this question: What is the most significant day in the week of Creation from Genesis 1? If you were to ask a room full of modern Christians, the answer would likely be Day 6 because that is the day that God made Man from the dust of the earth and breathed His life into him (c.f. Gen 2:7). The 6th day of Creation is no doubt significant as it tells of a special kind of creation and of a personal kind of creature that has been made in the image and likeness of its Creator (Gen. 1:26-28). But is that correct, is that the most significant day? Close, but not quite.
The most significant day of creation is Day 7. This may queue the mental head scratch and rightly so. This day of creation does not fit well into the modern narrative and often ends up being a “throw-away” day. But it makes sense that this happens, right? God is all-powerful and doesn’t need to “rest” (Hebrew shabat). The creation of the world was not taxing on His power so why does He need to rest? You will often hear it said that Day 7 is merely an example for us because we need the rest. In this view, God is modeling the week for us which includes Sabbath rest. However, this line of thinking misses the main emphasis of Day 7. While the text does say that God “rested” it does not mean that God needed to take a break, it meant that he was ceasing from His work – He was done, it was completed. He had created order and beauty out of darkness and chaos. He had created a sacred space in which to dwell with mankind. God had made His temple!
You see, one of the keys to unlocking the significance of the Creation story is the connection of gardens to “sacred spaces” or “temples.” In Genesis 1, the earth is described as being “formless and void” as God’s Spirit hovered over the deep waters. There was darkness over the earth and it was not yet suitable for life. For the ancient reader, this language would have evoked themes of chaos and disorder. In the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context the waters (including the oceans) stood as a symbol of chaos. So, as God’s Spirit hovers over this world of chaos and disorder and begins to create, He is bringing order out of chaos. In the middle of the chaos and disorder, God creates Eden, a garden that is lush and teeming with life and herein lies the significance. In the ANE context, gardens (as well as mountains) were often seen as sacred spaces, or temples; places where the gods dwelt. It’s easy to see how ancient people would have made this connection. In a largely agrarian culture, a lush garden is a place of abundance, sustainability, and most importantly life. The source of this sustenance was connected to the power of the god(s) whom the people associated as creator.
But what is so important about a temple? In the ANE context, a temple was the dwelling place of the gods. The temple did not contain the gods, as if a mere building could do such a thing, rather, they were the place where the gods would meet with man. There was a sense in which the temple was the location of specific divine presence – a sacred space, a place where heaven and earth meet. The temple was also a place of ritual worship. Worship of the gods was carried out in the temple as acts of devotion and reverence. Thus, the Garden not only as a place for relationship with God but a place to worship Him.
Another related theme becomes important here: the theme of man as an image-bearer of God. As God establishes His Temple on Earth, and the Garden as the first Sacred Space, you will see the purpose of the image-bearer. God places man in His Sacred Space and charges him to care for and expand it (Gen. 1:28). Almost immediately, however, this appointment of the image bearer raises a potential problem in the narrative. If God’s plan at creation was to create a sacred space in which to dwell with humanity, has God’s plan failed?! Already, in just the third chapter of the narrative, the image bearers disobey the Creator and are cast out of the Garden (Gen. 3:1-24). They fail to faithfully fulfill their role and are punished. What of God’s plan, what of His intent to be in relationship with creation? This is both the beautiful and tragic beginning of the redemptive narrative of Scripture. Tragic in the sense that man’s failure brought separation, sin, and death but beautiful in the sense that God’s plan had not failed, he would not give up on His creation.
Bringing It Together
The Temple theme is central to the message of the Bible. Once you see it in Genesis, the temple narrative forms a unifying theme throughout the whole story of Scripture. From Genesis 3 onward to the end of the Scriptures, the story of Scripture is God’s plan of restoring the union that was lost when humanity was sent from the Garden, cast out of the Temple. Throughout Scripture, we can see how time and time again, God establishes the Temple with His people. In the Wilderness, it was in the Tabernacle. With the Kings of Israel, it was in Solomon’s Temple and later Zerubbabel’s Temple. There are times where God’s people are not faithful and the Temple is destroyed and God’s presence is in a sense distant or removed. But following a long period of waiting and distance, God returns and tabernacles with man in the most distinct and profound of ways – the incarnation of the Son, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (John 1:1-14). In Jesus, God and man come together in a unique way. He is both God and image bearer at the same time. He takes on the function that the first image bearer – Adam – could not fulfill. He demonstrates his dominion over creation and establishes the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that looks forward to the time where the Temple will be fully restored in the renewed heaven and earth (cf. Rev. 21).
In Christ, the relationship between God and Man is restored, heaven and earth reunited. The role of image bearer has been redeemed. Those that are part of God’s people have a renewed purpose as image bearers in the Kingdom of God. Empowered by God’s Spirit, the church body is commissioned to be that location of sacred space we first see in the Garden. In this way, a community of believers who are committed to loving God and loving others (Matt. 22:37-39) are the temple (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Through God’s Spirit, it is our love for God and love for others that continues to unite heaven and earth. Part of the church’s function then is to be curators of sacred space in a dark world of chaos and disorder. It is the church’s responsibility to share the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done and invite people into this sacred space.
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