Scripture affirms that Jesus is the temple—the place where God and humans meet is Jesus (John 1:14; 2:22). But that presents a number of challenges for us. In the first place, how can a person be a temple? In the second place, why does it matter if Jesus is the temple? What is the significance of all of this?
To sketch an answer, we need to study the scriptures because they provide a profound answer to all these questions.
The Temple Promise
Following the pattern of God dwelling among his people in the tabernacle (Exod 25:8; 29:45), the holy writings point to a future dwelling of God among his people:
- Ezekiel 43:7: “I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel forever.”
- Zechariah 2:10: “I come and I will dwell in your midst.”
- John 1:14: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
- John 2:19, 22: “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ … he was speaking about the temple of his body.”
The temple, the place where God dwells among human beings, which the Old Testament promises, is the body of Jesus Christ.
By Spiritual union to the body of Christ, we too enter into and become the temple of God:
- 1 Corinthians 6:19: “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.”
The effect of our union with the body of Christ via the Spirit dwelling within us fulfills, as John Behr has noted in his book on John’s Gospel, the promise that Jesus makes in John 14:23: “Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.’”
The Father and Son make their home in us by the Spirit’s indwelling us. We unite to the Spiritual body of Christ. At the place in which humanity unites to divinity (Christ), we through the Spirit share in that union by deity indwelling us (the Spirit). Given the logic of trinitarianism, the Father and Son, through a shared nature with the Spirit, too dwell in us.
The significance of the temple structure, therefore, was never meant to point to itself. Temples are shadows, hints, or vestiges of our created destiny (cf. Heb 8; Heb 10:1; Col 2:17). The plan hidden before the ages and now manifest is Christ in us making us one body (Eph 3:6, 9–11). It is worth listening to Paul explaining this in full:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:19–22).
What is key here is: (1) the body of Christ becomes a holy temple in the Lord Jesus Christ, and (2) we become God’s dwelling place by the Holy Spirit. In short, human persons become the body of Jesus Christ—we the body and Christ the head (or cornerstone). The Spirit indwells us in ways similar to how the Spirit indwells Christ. And so we become temples as Jesus is the temple, and this occurs via our union with his body by the Spirit.
This mystery always was God’s plan A. It is not as if temples somehow preceded God’s plan. They may precede Christ’s appearance along the spectrum of time. But they do not logically precede Christ our temple. Nor does the Spirit indwelling us follow from the existence of temples; just the opposite, temples presage our transfiguration into the Spiritual body of Christ.
They are vestiges of the knowledge of God, discerned through the image of God and creation, yet ultimately fallacious knowledge because of sin and its noetic effects (with the exception of the Jerusalem temple, of course).
We have thus entered into the mystery and, through revelation, know God’s great plan and his manifest riches for us in Christ Jesus. We are becoming the temple of God, the place of his habitation in Christ and through the Spirit.
The Spirit’s Ministry of Remembrance
Given the revelation of Jesus Christ, we can never read the Old Testament apart from Christ at the centre. He has opened our eyes (Luke 24) and removed the veil (2 Cor 3) so that we can read Scripture rightly. The revelation of Jesus Christ that opens our eyes to see rightly opens up the meaning of his claim to be the temple. It lets us see beyond the mere figure of the temple to Christ himself—the temple, where God and humans meet.
We see this in the life of the disciples who, in John’s gospel, remember the scriptural significance of Jesus only after his resurrection and due to the Spirit’s ministry of remembrance (John 14:26). And this is exactly what John says happens to the disciples when they later remembered what Jesus said about being the temple of God and its scriptural significance:
John 2:22: “When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
It is the resurrected Christ who reveals through the cross what Scripture has always said. But the scriptural witness to Jesus becomes fully clear only after the resurrection. In this sense, the memory of what Jesus said unites with to revelation of Christ at the cross, so that disciples can now rightly remember Jesus.
Before we receive such a revelation, we, as the prophets before us, will seek to know the person or the time of the Messiah (1 Pet 1:11). Or, like the Ethiopian eunuch, we may ask, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this” (Acts 8:34)?
Yet when the Spirit brings to remembrance Christ and his scriptural revelation through his cross-work, then we know the answer: Isaiah, we could tell the eunuch, speaks about Christ. Or, we can answer the prophets: the person is Jesus; the time is now.
Temples of God
By the revelation of Jesus Christ, we know now why Jesus called himself the temple. We also know how he can call himself and the temple and its significance. Jesus’s body became the temple of God by the Spirit’s indwelling and by uniting the human body to the divine nature in the person of Christ. By our Spiritual union with Christ, we become the body of Christ—the temple of the living God. In our body, we have direct access to God as temples.
Paul sums this reality up with economic beauty: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45). As temples with the life-giving Spirit, we become who we were created to be (Gen 1:26–27)—images of the Image of God (Col 1:15) reformed into that very same Image (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10).