Living as the New Covenant Temple – Part 1

By Timothy Rucker

Today’s post explores the New Testament’s use of New Covenant Temple imagery. Next week’s post looks at some implications of this imagery for our lives as Christians today.

Temple language and activity saturate the New Testament, following in the footsteps of the Old Testament. Somewhat surprisingly, much of this temple imagery is not primarily concerned with Herod’s stunning Second Temple makeover, but rather, with the New Covenant Temple (NCT hereafter) that Jesus was building. NCT imagery was important for the New Testament authors and their community, and therefore, such imagery should also be enriching for the Church today.

New Covenant Temple Imagery

According to the New Testament’s NCT imagery, Jesus is the NCT (John 2:21), the cornerstone (Matt. 21:42, Eph. 2:20), and the high priest (Heb. 4:14, 10:21). The curtain is Jesus’ flesh (Heb. 10:20). Jesus is the atonement (1 Jn. 2:2, Rom. 3:25).

The foundation for this new temple is made up of the apostles and the prophets (Eph. 2:20, Rev. 21:14). The pillars are James, Cephas, John, and the one who conquers (Gal. 2:9, Rev. 3:12). The saints are the living stones being indwelt and built together by the Spirit (1 Pet. 2:5, Eph. 2:22). The saints are also the priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). The lives of the saints are daily sacrifices (Rom. 12:1).

Holy living, sacrificial giving, and the prayers of the saints are the daily incense (2 Cor. 2:14-16, Philip. 4:18, Rev. 5:8). The Holy of Holies is heaven (Heb. 4:14, 8:1). The Holy Place is the Church on earth (1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:22). Ministry is care for (or cultivtion of) the saints, and expanding the reach of the earthly Holy Place (Acts 14:27, 1 Cor. 16:9, Rev. 3:8).

Therefore, the Holy of Holies in heaven and the Holy Place on earth are one temple, but YHWH’s people are still awaiting the final “summarization” in Christ (Eph. 1:10). The NCT is already a present reality, and it is the true temple, but it has not yet reached its full consummation (Rev. 21-22).

Jesus or the Church?

But is Jesus still the NCT or is it the Church or is it both? As observed above, the language used for the NCT is remarkably consistent, but a few issues do exist: namely, distinguishing between the NCT imagery used for the body of Jesus, the Universal Church, and the local church.

When Jesus walked upon the earth, the Gospel of John viewed Him as the locus of the presence of God on earth (John 1:14, 18). Therefore, Jesus was the true temple, and He transcended the Second Temple and all other temples. The Spirit was at work in the formation of the Old Covenant Temple, and the Spirit brought about the formation of Jesus as the temple (Matt. 1:18, Rom. 8:11).

After Jesus’ ascension, the Spirit was sent to build the NCT that Jesus founded on earth: the Lord’s community, which is the Universal Church. The Universal Church is made up of local churches, which are being joined together as the one NCT by the Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22).

As high priest, Jesus offered final atonement for His people through His death outside the city (Heb. 13:12, Lev. 16). Jesus now continues to span the gap between heaven and earth by constantly mediating for His followers and by allowing their prayers to be pleasing incense before the Father (Rev. 5:8). Jesus is a perfect high priest, and His people will never be guilty of sin because of Him (Lev. 4:3-12, Eph. 3:12).

Jesus’ continual presence in the heavenly Holy of Holies assures His people of their covenant status: which has always been a cause for great joy and trembling (Lev. 9:23-24). Also, as Josephus pointed out, the materials of the garments for the high priest were similar to the materials used to build the tabernacle. In other words, by representing Israel to YHWH and by representing YHWH to Israel, the fully clothed high priest becomes a microcosm of the tabernacle/temple.

Therefore, in one sense, Jesus is still the NCT, and one can only be part of the NCT by being in Jesus through the new creation of the Spirit. In another sense, Jesus is the high priest within the NCT, which is made up of the heavenly Holy of Holies and the earthly Holy Place, and He mediates between God the Father and His people. To put it another way, Jesus is a high priest who never takes off His high priestly garments. Through the Holy Spirit, the saints will one day be the high priests and the completed temple where God’s presence rests (Rev. 22:3-4, Exod. 28:36-38).

Already and Not Yet

The already/not yet temple that Jesus founded will one day be consummated as a fulfilled and improved Eden. In the end, through the Spirit’s power and the return of the true king, the current Holy Place will be unveiled as the newly created Holy of Holies (Rev. 21:16). The Book of Revelation seems to present this process in the following way: as the saints of the earthly, “already” Holy Place die, they are assimilated into the “not yet” Holy of Holies that is being prepared in a heavenly bridal dressing room until the king returns.

When He returns in His glory, then the Bride (the Church) will be revealed from heaven for the final consummation of the kingdom of God and the NCT. When YHWH fully indwells the New Jerusalem—the newly created Holy of Holies, the primary dwelling of His presence—then His people will be able to fully enjoy YHWH’s glory. They will serve in His presence as Christ Jesus, the current high priest, perpetually does. YHWH’s people will be both temple and high priest.

The foundation has been laid, the building has begun, and its completion is imminent, but the king has yet to bring the work to fruition. In the meantime, the Church-under-construction is the official place of God’s presence on earth.

 

Timothy Rucker earned a Th.M. degree from Western Seminary. He currently lives in the Tampa Bay Area with his family, where he worships with and serves the congregation of Keene Terrace Baptist Church.