About 3,400 years ago, a man named Moses climbed a mountain to talk to God on behalf of a very large group of refugees. God, who had saved these people from slavery through a series of awesome and terrifying acts of judgment on their oppressors, covered the mountain with dark clouds and thundered out an official and binding covenant with them. They would be a nation, and he would be their God. Following the pattern of treaties customary in that day, God gave the people a list of obligations to keep. If they lived according to this law, they would live and prosper in a land that God had prepared for them, and he would be with them. The people readily agreed, and so Israel became a nation.
Among the many laws and regulations were building plans for a temporary structure called the mishkan. It just means tent or dwelling place. We usually call it the Tabernacle, a less familiar but prettier word. The Tabernacle would be God’s dwelling place while he was among his people Israel. God obviously doesn’t need a house to live in, but he wanted the people to have a physical sign of his presence with them. God’s presence with Israel is what set them apart, consecrated them, made them holy among the nations. As Moses persuasively expressed in his prayer of intercession, they were nothing without the presence of God. “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” (Ex. 33:15).
God’s blessing on their life as a nation in the promised land, however, was not guaranteed. While God is omnipresent, the aspect of his presence experienced as his specific favor in blessing and prospering Israel in their land was conditioned on their observing his laws. Since the Tabernacle was the physical sign of his presence, those strict requirements were also pictured in how the Tabernacle was constructed. “Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Ex. 25:9). Every element was to follow an exact blueprint, down to the smallest detail. The presence of a perfect God requires perfect holiness, perfect obedience in every aspect of life.
Several centuries later, King Solomon built a Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the brainchild of Solomon’s father, King David. It wasn’t something God had asked for, but he allowed Solomon to build it. Solomon followed the pattern of the Tabernacle, and God honored it with his presence. The Temple had a permanence that the mobile Tabernacle lacked, and the people of Israel felt a great sense of stability in their standing with God. If the Temple was permanent, then surely God’s presence would be as well.
God’s requirements had not changed, however, and his presence was no more bound to the Temple than it had been to the Tabernacle. Israel fell into sin and was exiled from their land, eventually ending up in captivity in Babylon. God’s presence departed the Temple, and it was ultimately destroyed.
A man named Ezekiel lived near the Chebar River during the captivity. He had prophesied about the fall of Jerusalem, and he later had another vision of a restored city and a New Temple. The Temple in his vision was special. Ezekiel 47 describes a river flowing out of the Temple, growing deeper and wider as it flowed, bringing life to barren lands. The source of this life is clear. God declares, “Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel forever” (43:7). This glorious, permanent, life-giving presence mirrored the presence in the Tabernacle, and it likewise required perfect holiness. Nine long chapters in Ezekiel (40-48) describe the design of the Temple and the rituals surrounding its use in almost oppressively fine detail.
God explains the purpose of all of this, telling Ezekiel to “describe to the house of Israel the temple, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and they shall measure the plan. … Make known to them as well all its statutes and its whole design and all its laws, and write it down in their sight, so that they may observe all its laws and all its statutes and carry them out” (43:10-11). The first purpose is that the people might be ashamed of their sins. The main significance of this Temple vision is not the image of a physical building, but the fact that the people’s behavior is so far from perfect, that the requirements of God’s law are so strict, that the only response is shame at how far short they fall. Some interpret this passage as a command for the people to build this Temple, but no human can construct a building that sources an ever-deepening, life-giving river. The people were not to build, but to perform and keep the design and law of this Temple, the behaviors connected with perfect worship. God sums up what that law is in the next verse: “This is the law of the temple: the whole territory on the top of the mountain all around shall be most holy. Behold, this is the law of the temple.” The point of the detailed description is not for the people to build a building, but for them to see the unreachable standards of holiness required to receive living water from the abiding presence of a holy God.
Another several hundred years passed. The captivity ended, the people returned and rebuilt a less-than-ideal temple, the Greek Empire fell to the Roman Empire, King Herod sought the favor of the Jews by having an enormous temple built, and in all of this God’s presence never manifested itself in Israel the way it had in the old days. The stream of Siloah flowed under the Temple Mount, but it didn’t flow deeper and wider into barren lands. It was just a normal stream. Despite Haggai’s assertion that “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (Hag. 3:1), the Temple stood dazzling but empty.
One day about 2,000 years ago, during one of the Jewish festivals when priests would pour water from Siloah onto the altar, an unassuming man stood in the Temple and hollered out, “If any man thirsts, let him come to me!” (John 7:37). This was the same man who had said to a Samaritan woman of himself, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (4:10). The same man who had said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days,” speaking about his own body (2:19). This was Jesus, the Anointed One, the promised Messiah who would save his people from the sins that divided them from God’s presence. He would be the source of living water. The Lord they sought had suddenly come to his Temple. And the only way for him to assure his people of God’s presence was to live a life that was perfectly holy in every way, as perfect in every detail as Ezekiel’s vision.
That’s exactly what Jesus did. We hear often how he took our sins and paid the punishment for them, but simply forgiving sins does not in itself earn God’s special favor and abiding presence with us. Jesus, both God and man, lived a perfectly holy and righteous life, demonstrating God’s righteousness in keeping his promises to his people and reciprocating with proper human obedience. He not only died for us; he lived for us. The shame from living under the weight of a law too exact for any human to follow is no longer ours to bear.
The Temple shows up once more at the end of the Bible. Some people, admirably seeking to take Ezekiel’s vision literally, place its physical presence in an intermediary period between Jesus’ return and the eternal state. This accommodation, however, means taking less than literally the most weighty and unequivocal statement in Ezekiel’s vision: “This is the place…where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel forever.” To place this Temple in a limited timeframe limits the strength of the word “forever.” It’s true that the Hebrew word can mean “continually,” or “for a very long time,” but the length of time seems to correspond with how long Israel will continue in holiness. The very next phrase says, “The house of Israel shall no more defile my holy name.” “No more” does not mean, “for a very long time.” It’s permanent. The only Temple that Ezekiel’s vision can signify is a Temple that never goes away.
In Revelation 21:22, the prophet John says of the New Jerusalem, “But I saw no temple in the city.” If we stop here, we may conclude that there is no eternal Temple. Continuing on, however, it’s clear that John’s statement is in regard to a temple made of physical building materials. He explains, “Because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” For the rest of eternity, Jesus will be the perfect Temple. Having kept God’s perfect holiness, he forever allows his people to dwell in God’s presence permanently. And out of that presence flows the river in Ezekiel’s vision, “a river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” watering the Tree of Life “for the healing of the nations” (22:1-2). And those of us who are in Christ, imperfect though we be, will be perfected and permanently established in that glorious presence. “The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it” (3:12).