In much the same way as an understanding of the inheritance of God’s people (W.S.#79, 80) has been altered throughout their long history, their perception of references to the temple of God has varied as well. A bit of history can do a lot to dispel some rather serious misunderstandings, and careful attention to the New Testament uses of the two words translated “temple” adds interesting and challenging light to the subject.
First, the history. We are told (II Sam.7) that God was not at all impressed when David got the bright idea to build him “a house”, reminding him that he (God) had the whole universe at his disposal for a “dwelling”. Even when Solomon was granted a “building permit” – thought to have been around 957 BC – he recognized that it could not “contain” God in the sense that a temple was interpreted among surrounding cultures. (More of this below.) That impressive edifice was eventually destroyed in the Babylonian conquest, during and after which prophetic messages of “re-building” were recorded. Subsequent to those prophecies, we have records of at least three such restorations: by Ezra and Nehemiah after the exile (538 BC); a re-dedication under the Maccabees in 164 BC after the desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC; and the temple complex built under Herod the Great in 20 BC, which was in use during Jesus’ earthly ministry. So much for claims of “yet unfulfilled prophecy” regarding a physical reconstruction of “the temple”! “Been there, done that” — at least three times!
More significant to the followers of Jesus, however, are the vocabulary considerations. There are two words translated “temple” in the New Testament. Hieron, occurring primarily in the synoptic gospels and Acts, uniformly refers to a physical location – including all the associated courtyards and buildings, where people gathered, begged, walked, taught, argued, and even set up commercial enterprises. The same word was also used of pagan temples (in the NT, the temple of Artemis of Ephesus). Before Homer, hieron was also used to refer to offerings and sacrifices (L/S), or any “sacred” objects, rites, or omens. After Homer, used with the definite article, the meaning narrowed to any “holy place”. The Jewish temple continued to be one of many gathering places for the faithful, after Pentecost, in addition to their meetings in homes (Ac.2:46, 5:42).
Naos, on the other hand, referred to the inner precincts of a pagan shrine, where an idol “lived”. In a Jewish context, it was the inner court, the “holy of holies”, where they, too, supposed the presence of God to dwell. It was this orientation that Paul was challenging in Ac.7:48 and 17:24, as he tried to make his hearers aware of the transcendence of the Lord he proclaimed. Understanding the word to refer to that portion where only the chosen priest was allowed to enter (Lk.1:9) emphasizes the audacity of the distraught Judas Iscariot, when he despairingly hurled the silver he had been paid for his treachery “into the naos” (Mt.27:5) – the sacred inner sanctum!
It was the naos that was separated from the more public parts of the temple area (hieron) by the thick curtain / veil which was torn in pieces at the time of Jesus’ death. The implications of this event are HUGE! The division between God and man – between “sacred” and “secular” – is forever removed! Jesus has opened the way, once and for all! (Heb.10:20). Please see chapter 8 of Citizens of the Kingdom for a fuller discussion of this event.
A hint of something even more monumental occurs in Jesus’ statement (Jn.2:18-21) to his critics, after the “temple cleansing” incident. John notes (v.21) that Jesus was really talking about “the temple of his body”!
This is the concept that Paul picks up, in I Cor.3:16-17, 6:19, and II Cor.6:16. In each case, it is naos (in the singular) that he chose to use; and in each case, the “you”, whether as a subject or a possessive, is plural, while “body” and “temple” are uniformly singular.
In the I Cor.3 passage, Paul has been describing the task of “building” – by all participants – on the “foundation” which is the Lord Jesus himself. He then demands, “Don’t you all know that you (plural) are God’s temple (singular)?” , and employs the plural “you” twice more in the same thought. Only the warning to be careful not to “mess it up” reverts to the singular. One person can indeed do that! – but functioning as the Body, or the naos – dwelling – of the Spirit of God requires group cooperation! The preposition en usually indicates “in” when its object is singular, but “among” when the object is plural.
The discussion in I Cor.6:15-20 is not quite as clear-cut: somata is plural in v.15, plainly referencing the physical body as “parts” of Christ’s, which Paul then undertakes to explain. But in v.19, he reverts to the singular “body” and “temple”, with the plural subject and possessive. Likewise, in II Cor.6:16, Paul asserts that “WE are the temple (sg.) of the living God!”
Only together can we become the Body of Christ, or the Temple of God / the Holy Spirit!
These two phrases are essentially synonymous, according to Jesus! (cf. Jn.2:21)
It has usually been assumed that II Thes.2:4 referred to an event similar to Antiochus’ statue of Zeus (2ndc. BC) or Augustus’ image of himself (contemporary to the writing?) in a physical temple – but the passages cited above open the additional possibility that this “temple”, too, could be the church – any or every “church” that submits to, or is co-opted by state control?
“Temple” references in the Revelation, a highly symbolic narrative (necessary in an era of intense persecution), are mixed – perhaps on purpose. The faithful are called “pillars” (support structure) in the temple of God (Rv.3:12), where they “serve him day and night” (7:15). “Messengers” come and go from “the temple” (chapters 11,14,15), as do “voices” (ch.16).
But there is no ambiguity in Rv.21:22, where John describes the consummate “City of God”: “I didn’t see a temple in it; for the Lord God, the all-powerful, and the Lamb, are its temple!”
Finally, fully united, the faithful and their Lord – the awe-struck apostle runs out of words to describe the glory of the scene.
We can only echo his parting prayer:
“Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”