A God Too Big for a Temple

The tearing of the temple curtain had signified that temple worship, as practiced by the Jewish nation, had been consummated with the death of Jesus Christ (Matt. 27:51).  The writer to the Hebrews elaborated on this reality in chapters 9 and 10.  He acknowledged that the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary (Heb. 9:1-10) but when Christ came he instituted a new order (9:10).  The new order included a new tabernacle not made by human hands which Christ entered once for all through his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption (9:11-12).  The new order has one great high priest over the house of God, Jesus Christ (Heb. 10: 21).  The new order does not include animal sacrifice because one perfect sacrifice has been offered to God for all (Heb. 9:14-15).  The tabernacle and temple were only copies of the heavenly temple (Heb. 9:24).  Snyder’s aversion to church buildings is evident when he tersely states, “Theologically, church buildings are at least unnecessary and at worst idolatrous.  If the priesthood and the sacrificial system have passed away, so should the tabernacle.” (Snyder 1975, 67)[1]

Christians did not need a temple-like building because they worshipped a non-local God who could not be contained in a single place unless he so decrees (Grant 1977, 149).   This is a major point in Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7.  Stephen recounts how God traveled with Abraham wherever Abraham journeyed (3); how God was with Joseph in Egypt in all Joseph’s troubles (9); how God was with the Israelites in their slavery and in their exodus from slavery (17ff., 38, 44); how God appeared to Moses on holy ground near Mount Sinai (30-32); how God punished the Israelites because they rejected him for localized gods (40ff.); and how God finally had Solomon build a temple (47) who acquiesced to David’s desire to build God a temple.  In verse 48-49 Stephen declares, “The Most High does not live in houses made by men.  As the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool.  What kind of house will you build for me?'” (NIV)   The Jews had rejected the temple God would build for Himself — His Son (52).  God built his own temple in the incarnation of his Son who “tabernacled” among the people (John 1:14) but the Jews rejected this Temple (52).   The Lord built the Church, but the Jews rejected that temple as well.  The Lord built his temple in the hearts of his children through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Word and Sacraments (Baptism and Lord’s Supper), but the Jews would reject these “temples” as well.  God’s people knew though that wherever two or three gathered in Christ’s name there he will be present (Matt. 18:20).  They knew that this omnipresent God could be found in His word, in simple water connected to the Word and in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper because that is where God has promised the world that he can be found.  Hahn argues (Hahn 1973, 46) that Matthew 18:20 is a rejection of the Jewish understanding of worship.  On the one hand, the presence of the incarnate risen Lord replaced the cultic presence of God in the temple, and on the other hand, the requirement of at least ten persons for Jewish worship was abandoned.  God’s children were liberated from the Old Testament ceremonial laws and worship.  They were free to worship God wherever and whenever they wanted. 

St. Paul speaks to the consummation of the old order.  In his letter to the Colossians Paul argues that Christ’s death on the cross had brought forgiveness, new life, and a cancellation to the written code, with its regulations to all believers (Col. 2: 13-15).  Paul concludes,

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col. 2:16-17; cf. Heb. 8:5)         

In Luke/Acts there was a movement away from the temple to the household (Elliott 1981, 193-194; Neyrey 1991, 215ff.).  More attention was given to both households and meals in Luke-Acts than in any other Testament writing because for Luke, the household represents the church’s familial organization and solidarity, its inclusive community of brothers and sisters under one heavenly Father, its social relations of mutual sharing, generalized reciprocity, generosity, and the like.  In Luke, a new food code replicated and supported a new social code (Elliott 1991, 102, 104; Neyrey 1991, 225-226). 

Whereas other religions placed emphasis upon the place of worship, the Christian religion placed emphasis on the gathered community, the assembling of the congregation (Jungmann 1959, 16-17). The Christian Church had no holy place or places which had been peculiarly chosen by God as His place of visitation.  For the Christian, worship in a particular place and at a particular time was understood within the context of response to God in their total existence.  It was impossible to draw a hard line between worship in the cultic sense and the mission or work of the Church (Shepherd 1963, 77ff., esp. 92-93).  In this context the household became the locale of the proclamation and acceptance of the gospel, healing, repentance, faith, generosity, mercy, and the sphere of the Spirit’s presence.  The domestic features of reciprocal household relations, kin-like solidarity, hospitality, and mutual support contributed toward the unity and vitality of Christianity (Elliott 1991, 102; Hahn 1973, 44).        

[1]In chapter 5, Snyder argues that church buildings are superfluous.

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