The Evolution of the Temple

The Apostle Paul

The Evolution of the Temple
Sunday, May 14, 2017

The brilliant Anglican theologian, N. T. Wright, concludes that we have largely missed Paul’s major theme. [1] After Luther, many thought Paul’s great idea was “justification by faith” (Protestants) versus “works righteousness” (Catholics). It makes a nice dualistic split, but Wright believes the great and supreme idea of Paul is that the new temple of God is the human person. In this insight, he offers us a superb example of thin-slicing the texts and finding the golden thread. Once you see it, you cannot not see it.

The first stone temple of the Jewish people was built around 950 BC. On the day of the dedication of “Solomon’s Temple,” the Shekinah glory of YHWH (fire and cloud from heaven) descended and filled the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-13), just as it had once filled the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35). This became the assurance of the abiding and localized divine presence of YHWH for the Jewish people. This naturally made Solomon’s Temple both the center and centering place of the whole world, in Jewish thinking.

When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and took the Jews into exile (587 BC), it no doubt prompted a crisis of faith. The Temple was where God lived! People like Ezra and Nehemiah eventually convinced the people that they must go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple so God could be with them again. Yet Wright points out there is no account of the fire and glory of God ever descending on this rebuilt temple (515 BC). And this “Second Temple” is the only temple Jesus would have ever known and loved.

The absence of visible Shekinah glory must have been a bit of an embarrassment and worry for the Jewish people. Wright says it could explain the growth of Pharisaism, a belief strong in Jesus’ time that if liturgical and moral laws were obeyed more perfectly—absolute ritual, priesthood, and Sabbath purity—then the Glory of God would return to the Temple. This is the common pattern in moralistic religion: our impurity supposedly keeps God away. They tried so hard, but the fire never descended. They must have wondered, “Are we really God’s favorite and chosen people?” (This is a common question for all of us in early-stage religion.)

Knowledge of this history now gives new and even more meaning to what we call the Pentecost event (Acts 2:1-13). On that day, the fire from heaven descended, not on a building, but on people! And all peoples—not just Jews—were baptized and received the Spirit (Acts 2:38-41). Paul understood this and spent much of his life drawing out the immense consequences. In that moment, Christianity began to see itself as a universal rather than a tribal or regional religion, which is why they very soon called themselves “catholic” (universal) as early as the year 108 AD. Paul loved to say, “You are the Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21-22), and of course this morphs into his entire doctrine of corporate humanity as the very Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-30).

Gateway to Silence:
I am God’s dwelling place.

References:
[1] See N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress Press: 2013), two-book fourth volume in his series Christian Origins and the Question of God.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, an unpublished talk, February 2015 at the Center for Action and Contemplation.

Image credit: St. Paul in Prison (detail), 1627, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.
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