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Jesus, the True Temple

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by Kim Riddlebarger


Jesus, the True Temple


When Jesus declared of himself, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here,” (Matthew 12:6) and when he told a Samaritan woman that he can give her “living water” (John 4:10-14), we are given a major clue that the authors of the New Testament have reinterpreted the pre-messianic understanding of God’s temple in the light of the coming of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah.


When we consider the fact that the temple occupies a major role in the witness of Israel’s prophets regarding God’s future eschatological blessing for the nation, and that this imagery points forward to person of Jesus, we are greatly aided in our understanding of the nature and character of the millennial age as a present reality.


We begin with the Old Testament expectation regarding the temple of the Lord. Both Isaiah 2:2-4 and Micah 4:1-5, speak of God’s future blessing upon Israel in the last days, when God’s people will go up to mountain of the Lord, and to the temple, where God’s people will once again learn the ways of the Lord.


In Isaiah 56, we read of those who hold fast to God’s covenant (v. 4), and who love the name of the Lord and keep his Sabbaths (vv. 6-8). They will be brought to the holy mountain and house of the Lord, which is that temple and the house of prayer for all the nations (v. 7). A similar vision is given in Isaiah 66:20-21. Here we are told that the Israelites will bring their grain offerings to God’s temple, and God will renew his priesthood (vv. 20-21). In Zechariah’s prophetic vision, we learn that one day the sacrifices of Israel will once again be offered and will be acceptable to God (Zechariah 14:16-19).


With all of this prophetic expectation in the mind of virtually every Jew living in Palestine in the first century, it is no wonder that Jesus’ declaration of God’s judgment upon the temple–“Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2)–came as such a shock and offense. How dare this man say that all of this expectation of a glorious temple is fulfilled in him. Speaking of himself, Jesus said, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).


It was not until after Christ’s resurrection that the meaning of these words became plain–when Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple, he was speaking of his own body (John 2:22). This is what he meant when he said that one greater than the temple has come!


Furthermore, there is the Old Testament prophecy of a new and glorious temple, found in Ezekiel 40-48. Ezekiel envisions a future time for God’s people in which the temple will be rebuilt, the priesthood will be re-established, true sacrifices will once again be offered and the river of life will flow forth from the temple. How we interpret this prophecy will have a significant bearing on the question of whether or not there will be a future millennial age upon the earth.


It should come as no surprise that dispensationalists believe that this prophecy will find a literal fulfillment in the millennial age. According to J. Dwight Pentecost, “the glorious vision of Ezekiel reveals that it is impossible to locate its fulfillment in any past temple or system which Israel has known, but it must await a future fulfillment after the second advent of Christ when the millennium is instituted. The sacrificial system is not a reinstituted Judaism, but the establishment of a new order that has its purpose the remembrance of the work of Christ on which all salvation rests. The literal fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy will be the means of God’s glorification and man’s blessing in the millennium” (J. D. Pentecost, Things to Come, Zondervan, 1978, 531).


Sensitive to the traditional amillennial criticism that such images of perpetual animal sacrifice and temple worship after the second advent of Jesus undercut his saving work, especially given the fact these aspects of Mosaic economy of the Old Testament are fulfilled at calvary, Pentecost is careful to argue that Ezekiel’s prophecy is not connected a renewed Mosaic economy, but to an entirely new order, one which commemorates the saving work of Christ in the distant past.


Again, because Pentecost is committed to a “literal fulfillment” of Old Testament prophecies, and because he is aware that the Christ’s own redemptive work fulfills the typology of the Mosaic economy, Pentecost is forced to argue that temple worship in the millennial is associated with a wholly new order.


But is this what the authors of the New Testament teach us about these prophecies? Elsewhere, the New Testament teaches that Christ is the true Israel and David’s greater son (Click here: Riddleblog - The Latest Post - Amillennialism 101 -- Jesus Christ: The True Israel). It is in Christ’s church--as Jesus' mystical body--that we find the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies regarding Jerusalem and the Mountain of the Lord. The promise of a land, will be fulfilled in a new heaven and earth in the consummation (cf. Romans 4:13; Hebrews 11:9-10). The New Testament clearly teaches that Christ is the New Temple and that any new order of commemoration involving the ceremonies typical of the earthly temple found in a future millennium, can only commemorate the types and shadows, not the reality.


This presents a serious problem for dispensationalists, who argue, in effect, that redemptive history takes a U-turn in the millennial age, as the reality which is in Christ now supposedly returns to the types and shadows of the Old Testament.


How, then, is the temple imagery from the Old Testament fulfilled by Jesus Christ in the New? In Exodus 40:34, we are told that the glory of the Lord filled his temple. When viewed against the overall backdrop of redemptive history, we can see how this pointed forward to the day of Pentecost, when, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, the glory of the Lord filled his true temple, the mystical body of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12 ff.–cf. Kline, Structure of Biblical Authority, 194).


If Christ’s body is the true temple–as Paul puts it, “For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16)–what use remains for an a future literal temple? That to which the temple had pointed, is now a reality through the work of the Holy Spirit. Why return to the type and shadow?


It is also clear from chapters 8-10 of Hebrews, that in his death, Jesus fulfilled the priesthood typology of the Old Testament, and in his own blood, he puts an end to the sacrificial system, once and for all! Says the author of Hebrews, “Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Hebrews 8:1-2).


If the reality to which the Old Testament sacrifices and priesthood pointed is to be found in this true sanctuary and tabernacle in heaven, why look for a return to the shadows in the form of an earthly temple, which served throughout Old Testament revelation to point us to this very heavenly scene?


Contrary to the view of dispensationalists, the prescribed New Testament commemoration of the ratification of the New Covenant is not to be found in a new order of temple worship, an order which includes a new temple, a new priesthood and further animal sacrifice, supposedly yet to be reinstituted in an earthly millennial kingdom. Rather, when Jesus utters the words of institution, “this is my body, this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me,” he institutes the divinely-approved method of commemoration of his sacrificial work, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It is in this way that the people of God feed on the savior through faith and commemorate his doing and dying on their behalf.


When Jesus tells the Samaritan women that he can give her living water and that “everyone who drinks from this water will never be thirsty again,” Jesus is self-consciously declaring that he fulfills that prophetic image of which Ezekiel had foretold in the thirty-seventh chapter of his prophecy, when he spoke of the water flowing from the sanctuary (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1971, 259-261). If Jesus is the true temple of God, then he alone gives us that “living water” which takes away the thirst of human sin and longing.


Therefore, the dispensationalist’s insistence upon a return in the millennial age to the shadows and types associated with the Old Testament prophetic expectation, amounts to a serious misunderstanding of the very nature of redemptive history. By arguing for a new commemorative order based upon Old Testament typology and yet to begin in the millennial age, dispensationalists see the future not as a consummation, but as a return to the past. And this, of course, sadly obscures the person and work of Christ by seeing the ultimate reality not in him, but in those types and shadows which were destined to perish when the reality himself entered the theater of redemption.

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