Christ’s Vision for the Church (2)
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. Ephesians 2.19-22
Individual believers are at other times called “temples of the Holy Ghost,” (1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16,) but here all are said to constitute one temple. In both cases the metaphor is just and appropriate. When God dwells in each of us, it is his will that we should embrace all in holy unity, and that thus he should form one temple out of many. Each person, when viewed separately, is a temple, but, when joined to others, becomes a stone of a temple; and this view is given for the sake of recommending the unity of the church.
- Calvin on Ephesians 2.21
Dwelling place of God
Foundational to Christ’s vision for His Church is that it should be a dwelling place where He and His people live together in the salvation He provides. The Lord’s desire for His Church, the desire His Church should bear always in mind, is that of dwelling in the Lord’s presence, for fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16.11). David captured this aspiration when he asked, “LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?” (Ps. 15.1)
The New Testament uses the language of “temple” to describe Jesus’ vision, primarily because this is what the people of God were familiar with in those days. In ancient Israel, God came to dwell with His people – first, in His tabernacle, later in His temple – to meet with them and receive their offerings, and to send them out with His blessing.
Similarly, among the Gentile peoples of the Roman world, temples – like the temple of Diana in Ephesus – served as a kind of meeting place with the gods, their “home away from home” when they weren’t lolling around and conniving against one another as usual on Mt. Olympus.
So it doesn’t surprise us when we see the New Testament freely using the language of “temple” and “dwelling-place” to describe local churches.
We are the temple of the Lord
But, unlike pagan temples and the temple of the Old Testament, the temple which is the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ is not made with hands – it is not a constructed site, at least, not in the first instance. The temple of the Lord is realized in the members of the Body of Christ, in whom Jesus dwells by His Spirit. We who believe are the temple of the Lord (1 Cor. 6.19), both individually and together. The Lord’s vision for us is that He might dwell within each of us individually and all of us corporately.
Now this has tremendous significance, in the first place, because it should turn us away from thinking of our churches – of that which Christ would build in and through us – as physical locations and material facilities. The bricks and mortar and all the furnishings may be useful when the temple of the Lord assembles, but these are not the temple of the Lord in themselves. We should be very careful about attaching the idea of “church” to buildings and real estate. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Columbia, Maryland, has it right when it advertises on the marquis of its building that it is “The worship and ministry center of the Columbia Orthodox Presbyterian Church.” The church and temple of the Lord are the peoplein whom the Lord dwells by His Spirit. If they think of the buildings that accommodate them rather than themselves as the church and temple of the Lord, this can have serious negative ramifications.
Nevertheless, large portions of the budgets and time of any local congregation go to caring for, keeping up, and making good use of a physical facility. That’s not bad in itself. It can be, though, if when we think of “church” we think, in the first instance, of the buildings in which we gather as the temple of the Lord.
The temple of the Lord is His own body, which He is raising up, adorning, beautifying, strengthening, and commissioning to the task of advancing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. It is His people, the Church, who are being sanctified in the truth of God and fitted for the work of ministry and seeking the Kingdom of the Lord. The building is merely a convenience and tool for furthering the aim of the Lord’s temples.
The Apostle Paul tells us that a temple of God, properly adorned and maintained, grows in unity and maturity in the Lord Jesus, as pastors and teachers equip church members – temples all – to do the work of ministry (Eph. 4.11-16). A building and other facilities can aid in this process, but they are not essential. Indeed, in many ways they can actually distract us from our task by so defining and confining what we do in the name of ministry that our endeavors consistently look more like the ways of the world than the work of the Lord, more like maintaining and maximizing a facility than seeking and advancing a Kingdom not of this world.
Jesus is building Himself a dwelling-place of beauty and joy, one that so reflects His presence and power that it can seem, at times, to be almost indistinguishable from Him (Ps. 48.1-3, 12-14).
As we build our churches let us not lose sight of the fact that what matters most to the Lord is not the number, shape, and usability of the buildings we erect, but the health, growth, and ministries of the people in whom He has come to dwell.
For the people who believe in Jesus are His temple, individually and as congregations, and these are the centerpiece of Christ’s vision for the Church.
“All souls made spiritual through Christ are joined and built up into a holy temple, where God dwells. As Christ is in all and God in Christ, all are a temple of God through Christ.”
- Marius Victorinus (280-363 AD), Epistle to the Ephesians 1.2.21-22
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).