Here’s my text for last night’s sermon. The subject was “Visions of the Temple”. I think I was more worried about this than any other I’d preached before, because it’s a topic I find very interesting, and I was concerned that other people wouldn’t be at all interested. There was a bit more of me invested in this sermon than others perhaps. I wasn’t sure it had come across particularly well, but a number of people afterwards said they’d found it interesting. I’m glad my fears were groundless. Onwards…
Visions of the temple
[ROAD TO EMMAUS SLIDE?]
This evening series, the Road to Emmaus has been looking at some of the broad themes running through the Bible and thinking about how we might encounter Jesus through the whole narrative of the Bible, and in our walk through life.
How do these slightly bizarre visions we’ve heard read relate to each other, and how do they relate to Jesus’ place in the Biblical narrative?
The Temple (in Jerusalem or elsewhere) is not something we think of very often in our lives today, and probably quite rarely in connection with Christian theology.
Think of the temple mount in Jerusalem, far more likely to think about conflict between Jews and Muslims.
The two passages describing visions of the temple both need some understanding of the temple background of the text. This temple worldview would have been very familiar to the first disciples of Christ, who would have worshipped there with Jesus when he was alive and listened to Him teaching there every day. We also read that the disciples continued worshipping there after Jesus’ death both at the end of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of Acts.
What is the temple?
[TEMPLE IN JERUSALEM]
So, what is a temple and what was done there? The references to the temple are not simply to “a” temple, to any old temple dedicated to any god, but to “the” temple, the principle Hebrew place of worship of YHWH the God of Israel.
Not strictly “one” temple structure, there have been several.
– First temple “structure” was the tabernacle built by Moses according to a design received in a vision from God. Moveable with nomadic people.
– Then the First Temple of Solomon, whose design was given to David in a vision. People had homeland and permanent temple.
– First temple then destroyed around the time of the exile in Babylon.
– During the exile in Babylon, Ezekiel has his vision of a new temple.
– A Second Temple was built after the return from the exile (although not specifically to the design envisioned by Ezekiel).
– Second temple destroyed by the Romans around AD70.
– Then in Revelation we get allusions to the temple. Although John says “I saw no temple in the city”, it’s not quite as simple as that, and we’ll revisit that later.
What was the purpose of the temple?
[SLIDE – GLORY OF THE LORD IN THE TEMPLE]
From the tabernacle, through the first and second temples and in the temple in Ezekiel’s vision it’s clear that the temple was the place where JHWH, the LORD dwelt on earth – we heard that in the third Ezekiel passage. Not that GOD was limited to the temple, but it was where the cloud and fire rested, it was where the glory of the LORD was, it was a special place of GOD’s presence.
[HOLY OF HOLIES]
The temple was divided into several parts, and the innermost part, the Holy of Holies, was a central room as tall as it was wide and as high as it was wide – a perfect cube covered entirely with gold. And it was in this innermost place, the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the Throne that the LORD was believed to reside. This central part was separated from the rest of the temple by doors, or a veil of fabric. So the glory of the LORD was hidden to some extent by this veil.
The temple was the place where sacrifices were offered by the priests. These sacrifices in some way got rid of the uncleanness and sin which damaged the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The most important day of sacrifice was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement where atonement was made for the nation’s sins. On that most important day of sacrifice, the day of atonement, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, into what was believed to be GOD’s very presence. There the High Priest would make a sacrifice, then bring the blood through the veil between the Holy of Holies and the rest of the temple to sprinkle about the temple. This atonement would bring healing for the damage done to the convenant between God and Israel.
This idea of sacrificial blood coming forth from the Holy of Holies and being sprinkled to restore the covenant bond with GOD points so strongly to the work of Christ on the cross, it can’t be ignored. Revisit this later.
What are these visions about?
Having thought about the temple context behind these passages, let’s look more specifically at them.
Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple would have taken place during the exile in Babylon. Solomon’s first temple had been destroyed, and the Jewish people forcibly removed from their homeland. Those two most important tangible possessions of the Jewish people, land and the temple, had gone. Ezekiel’s vision is one of restoration for the people in exile, with God at the heart of it. This vision is not limited to the temple itself, but goes on to map out the whole nation of Israel restored, but with the temple and God at the very heart.
[NEW JERUSALEM DESCENDING]
The Revelation passage comes right at the end of that book. Again, it is a very hopeful vision after some of the scenes that have come before. The book was written at a time of great persecution of the early Christian community, and again the vision promises restoration and the triumph of God.
Both of these visions are hopeful visions.
Visions for God’s plan on earth
I think in both visions we see that the plans God has for us are on the earth. The new temple in Ezekiel appears on earth. And in Revelation, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. It is not a case of God’s chosen people being whisked away to paradise and the earth being abandoned by God.
As we heard in one of Luke’s talks earlier in this series, the message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is near, near to you here on earth. Jesus’ message was not that we should put all our hope in being spared the horrors of this earth when we die, but that God’s Kingdom is here amongst us, and that we have work to do in it. These passages tell us that God has not given up on the earth, he has plans for the earth.
So often the book of Revelation is read in a way that would encourage us to abandon the earth. If the world is about to end, why care about the environment? If God is planning to destroy the earth why care about poverty or climate change or justice? If things are only going to get worse and worse until all ends in a cosmic conflict between the forces of Darkness and Light, why waste effort on peace-making, diplomacy, dialogue? This passage of Revelation surely tells us that destruction is not God’s intention, but renewal, liberation and new creation for the earth.
[TIME AND SPACE?]
Both passages seem to be referring to a point in the future – to a future restoration of the Temple in Ezekiel, and to the end of the world in Revelation. And of course, in a way that is true – we do believe that God’s work begun in Christ is heading to a point of fulfilment.
However, I think that it can be too limiting only reading these passages in the light of the future. We are often restricted by our own understandings of the working of time that we can’t see that God might be beyond the dimension of time, God is not limited by the forward flow of time we experience. In God’s realm, the concept of past, present and future is meaningless as all are One in Him.
In Revelation 21, for example, the voice from the throne says “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” It sounds like this is referring to some point in the future when God will dwell with us… But, as we approach the season of Advent and Christmas, surely we must think that God has dwelt with us in the form of Jesus. Emmanuel, God with us. And thinking of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, we believe that God is still with us by His Spirit. And yes, we do believe that God will finally work His purposes out and “Christ will come again”.
So as well as promising future hope, these passages can also apply to the past and present, telling us that God has been working his purposes out from the beginning of Creation, and continues to work them out today.
Why no temple in the later vision?
[NEW JERUSALEM & HOLY OF HOLIES]
Hopefully the similarities between the Ezekiel passage and the Revelation passage were obvious from the way they were interspersed – both visions, both guided by angels with measuring reeds, both describe cities and temples, the LORD is present there, and streams of water flow from the temple/city.
The key departure in Revelation from Ezekiel is that John “saw no temple in the city” of New Jerusalem. This doesn’t mean that there was no temple at all, but John says there was no temple building located in the city itself. The New Jerusalem was described as having length, height and width all equal – a perfect cube. The city is made of pure gold. This takes us right back to the temple – the perfect cube covered in gold, the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God! God and the Lamb are present in the Holy City, and the temple is where God dwells, so the holy city is itself the temple. In this vision, God is no longer confined to a part of a temple for the service of one people, but the light of God and the lamb fill the New Jerusalem, the new creation, providing light for the nations. As well as a foretelling of the final times, again this points to our present: Christ revealed as the light to lighten the Gentiles, not restricted to the Jewish people.
Why has the vision of the new restored city developed from Ezekiel to John?
A fundamental change has occurred in the 600 or so years between Ezekiel’s vision and John’s. That change is the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. And Christ’s life and death can also be viewed in terms of the Temple, and probably would have been by his disciples. St Paul takes this view even further, likening the early church itself as the temple in which the Spirit of God resides.
Jesus in the Gospels identifies himself very strongly with the temple, God’s dwelling place on earth. In John’s Gospel, just after driving the money lenders from the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus is asked for a sign. He answers them “’Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days? But he was speaking of the temple of his body”
Just as the glory of the LORD in the Temple was veiled in the Holy of Holies, so Christ was also veiled in his human bodily form. You might think about this when you’re singing Christmas carols in a few weeks’ time – one particular line in Hark the Herald Angels Sing “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail th’Incarnate Deity”.
In the manner of Christ’s death, we also see images of temple sacrifice leading to atonement of sins, with Christ as both perfect sacrifice and perfect High Priest fulfilling the rite of atonement in the temple of his body once and for all. The covenant with God is restored in Christ’s blood. At the moment of Christ’s death, the temple veil is torn in two, the Holy of Holies in the temple is revealed – confirming Christ was indeed God’s dwelling place on earth, and that the Kingdom of God is amongst us and cannot be contained.
God’s plans involve healing
[BLAKE’S THE RIVER OF LIFE]
I’ve already mentioned that these visions in Ezekiel and Revelation are hopeful visions of renewal. They are also visions of healing from God.
In both passages there is a river flowing from the temple or the city. Beside the river in the Ezekiel vision are all kinds of trees whose fruit is for food, and whose leaves are for healing. In the Revelation vision, growing by the river is the tree of life producing twelve types of fruit, and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. God’s ultimate plan is for the healing of all nations.
There is judgement along the way (as we read elsewhere in Revelation), but that judgement is not the same as condemnation. It is part of a process of reconciliation, making things right, healing and recreation.
The image of the tree draws us back again to the crucifixion. It is by that tree, the cross, that healing can be brought to the nations. It is by that tree, and the atonement sacrifice made on it that atonement or healing can be brought to the world. And the river of water flowing from the city and temple might remind us of the water flowing from Christ’s side pierced with the spear. Jesus, who also described himself as the living waters.
So what I would emphasize is that the future (as well as the past and the present) in God’s grand plan is bright. It is hopeful. The theologian Brian Mclaren puts it beautifully when he says that the Book of Revelation shows that the “future is undoomed – it is undoomed to eventual healing and joy, undoomed to ultimate liberation, resurrection and (in the fullest sense of the word) salvation, because the living God will never foresake or forget this beloved creation”