Images of God’s Temple in Salvation History

Its Fulfillment in Christ

Four thousand years ago God promised Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Implicitly this promise guaranteed a redeeming sacrifice for all mankind. In a reply to his son, Isaac, Abraham had uttered the prophetic words: “God will provide himself a victim for a holocaust.”1 In preparation for the blessing, divine visitation upon the Israelites at the time of the Exodus was made possible by the priesthood and the Tabernacle of Moses with the Holy of Holies. The groundwork was further laid when holy warfare for the ancient Hebrews led to covenant worship in the Temple of Jerusalem. Not until the coming of Jesus, however, was the blessing fully realized, sprung from Abraham after two millennia. In God’s plan the Temple sacrifice was fulfilled in Christ’s death on the Cross, which atones for sin and is renewed, represented, and offered sacramentally in the Mass. After the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and its offerings were no longer possible, the only way it could continue was in the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ, whose work of redemption was foretold by the prophet Daniel. Jesus is the new Temple here among us throughout the nations and the centuries.

Creation is God’s footstool and temple. There is a temple structure to creation in the sense that all of creation is a worship place mystically centered in Eden, the original Temple sanctuary of God.2 As a primordial temple, the Garden of Eden represents the blessings of creation and the filial, first-born relationship that Adam had with God, conversing face to face with God before the Fall. Not only was Adam given universal dominion in Eden, which makes him a king, but he was told by God to guard and serve in the Garden sanctuary, and thus he was also made a priest.3 In Eden is an olive tree known as the Tree of Life, and Gen 2:10–14 describes a universal river whose tributaries go out of Eden to water the whole earth.

The waters impart a restoration of the original order found in Genesis, which involves peace with all creation through the Edenic perspective and the blessings enjoyed by Adam and Eve, our first parents. It is a return to paradise, the Adamic covenant, and the Edenic situation, a renewed access to the Tree of Life.4 Jewish temples were decorated with Edenic imagery, and by entering a temple one was sacramentally going back to the original Garden.5 In the Douay-Rheims comment for Ezekiel 47, the life-giving waters that Ezekiel saw flowing mystically from the Temple of Jerusalem are the source of Christ’s baptism, doctrine, and grace.

While the Temple exists in cosmic form as all of creation, with its sanctuary in Eden, it appeared in microcosm as the Tabernacle of Moses, an earthly temple whose fabrication and erection are depicted in Exodus chapters 25–31 and 35–40 during a six-day period which recapitulates the six days of creation in Genesis chapter one. The Tabernacle was a sacred tent representing God’s presence amidst the people of Israel during their time of sojourn in the wilderness. For the Hebrews, the setting up of the Tabernacle — a kind of mobile, miniature Garden sanctuary — was a reminiscence and memorial experience of the creation story.6 As in Genesis, when God used the seventh day to rest upon his creation as if it were a footstool, in Exodus 40 the majesty of God in the pillar of cloud rested upon the Tabernacle, and “the glory of the Lord filled it.” The anointed and consecrated high priest acted as a type of Adam, established in covenant relation to God whom he meets while ministering in the Tabernacle, guarding and keeping it, much as Adam guarded and kept the Garden. The Holy of Holies in the portable Tabernacle in the desert was like the Edenic sanctuary in outline form.

Before the nations round about Israel had been subjugated and handed over to God, it was their custom to offer sacrifices at the high places of worship. Moses wanted to eradicate all of these sites which competed with the Tabernacle worship.7 God had decreed that not only was idolatry to be extirpated from the land set aside for Israel, but the law of the central sanctuary — that all sacrifice was to be offered in one special place chosen by God — was to be implemented and fulfilled. Although this precept was the basis of the second part of the Mosaic Covenant which was given on the plains of Moab for the second and subsequent generations of Israel, the issue of a Temple for God was not taken up until the time of David’s rule in 1013 B.C.8

David was distracted by his many military campaigns, but he eventually transferred the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and made this city the religious center of Israel.9 However, only after constructing a royal palace for himself did he think of building a “house” for Yahweh.10 Temples for pagan worship existed, but because David had waged too many wars and spilled too much blood in the sight of God, the people of Israel were unable to glorify Yahweh with a temple until David’s son Solomon became king in 960 B.C. (1 Chron 22:8–10). When after seven years Solomon completed the construction, offered priestly sacrifice, and brought the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple, “a cloud filled the house of the Lord, and the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord.”11

As the theology of the creation story in Genesis chapter one reveals that the cosmos is a macro-temple, the dwelling place of God in the spirit, Israel’s covenant relations with God allow the Tabernacle and Temple to be seen as a micro-cosmos, a house where God abides.12 For the ancient Hebrews a covenant was a sacred family bond. God’s divulging of his name to them had brought with it greater accessibility to him; he allied himself with Israel and became more available to all of mankind. Unlike a promise or a contract, a covenant is made by swearing an oath to Yahweh which invokes his name and recognizes his powerful presence. The covenants transformed the Creator into a Father and Israel into God’s sons and daughters. Whereas the Mosaic covenant had linked God and Israel, the Davidic covenant, lasting 490 years, linked God and mankind because David had defeated the nations and handed them over to Yahweh.13

According to provisions of the Torah, in order to keep a covenant with God, every seventh year was to be recognized as a sabbatical year where all debts were forgiven and land was to lie fallow (at rest).14 However, during the Davidic kingdom this law was ignored with disastrous results. In punishment for the violation, God imposed seventy years of Sabbath rest upon the people of Jerusalem, who became slaves of the Babylonian empire. It was the seventy years of exile announced beforehand by the prophet Jeremiah (2 Chron 36:20–21). With the eventual destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C., the Davidic empire collapsed. The Temple was burned down and demolished (2 Kgs 25:8–10). The Kingdom of Judah was ended.

After its destruction, the Temple area remained desolate until the return from exile. Cyrus, the head of the Mede and Persian empire from 559 to 530 B.C., made a restoration possible. In an amazing feat, Cyrus defeated Babylon by damming up the Euphrates River so that the city of Babylon didn’t get any water.15 When the water dried up under its seven walls, the Persians went through the openings and took the city without a fight before the Babylonian army knew what was happening. Cyrus’ decree in 538 B.C. not only ordered the repatriation of the people to Israel (the bulk of whom returned between 465 and 424 B.C.), but also permitted the reconstruction of the Temple (Ezra 6:3–5). When it became clear that the Hebrews were legally authorized to rebuild their Temple, an increased pace allowed it to be completed in 515 B.C.

The existence of the Temple of the Lord had the negative effect of creating a false sense of security, as if Yahweh would forever favor and protect the people despite their waywardness.16 Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord defied the idea that deliverance was available for those who persisted in abominations (Jer 7:4–15). The warning went unheeded and the continuity of sinful corruption was never broken, rising to its pinnacle at the time of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century A.D.17 In a long prayer of confession at the time of the Babylonian exile, the prophet Daniel repented for his personal sins and for those of his people (Dan 9:3–19). As an example of co-redemptive suffering, he did penance for their sins.

God responded to Daniel’s prayer with a decree saying that the seventy years of captivity in Babylon were not sufficient to purge transgressions and remove the sin of the people; they needed four hundred and ninety additional years of penitential reform — seventy weeks of years (70 times 7 years) — until the coming of Jesus, who would be anointed with suffering, dispatch sin, and replace it with righteousness (vv. 24–27). Through Daniel God had revealed the timetable leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the end of the entire old order.

God intended from the beginning to use the Temple as a type of much greater things and as a visible sign pointing to invisible realities. Where Paul teaches in his first letter to the Corinthians that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” he means that through grace we become a temple more sacred than the Temple in Jerusalem. “The Holy Spirit is the new law, the new power, the new life of the believer.”18 The Holy of Holies was sacred in anticipation of Christ, but his arrival put the Temple in a new dimension, pointing out its transitory character.19 When Jesus was asked for a sign in the Temple of Jerusalem, he responded, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). The Temple operates as an allegory which points to Jesus, who is himself the Temple and the Church where we offer his sacrifice. “The Church triumphant in heaven is the true sanctuary; the Church militant on earth is the true tabernacle; and Jesus Christ is the sovereign priest of both the one and the other, and exercises his priesthood both in heaven and upon earth.”20 Seeing the New Jerusalem in a vision, the apostle John wrote, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22).

The presence of God is a mystery. The Psalmist asks, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit, or whither shall I flee from thy presence?”21 He who is infinite cannot be confined in space. St. Paul confronted the idol worshippers of Athens, saying, “God, who made the world and all that is in it, since he is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples built by hands; neither is he served by human hands as though he were in need of anything” (Acts 17:24–25). Nonetheless, places consecrated to the worship of the one true God, having outward signs of his glory, are a help to us when we render our homage, make our vows, and offer our prayers to the Deity.22 Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” He waits for us in the Blessed Sacrament always and it is a salutary practice to visit him there often. The presence of God is a sign of election and a pledge of salvation (Pss 68:17, 132:13 [NAB]).23

In conclusion, only the high priest entered into the second part of the Tabernacle of Moses, the Holy of Holies, and only once a year, on the feast of expiation, to make an aspersion of blood on and around the Ark which he offered for his and all the people’s sins.24 Jesus’ body on the Cross is the new Tabernacle, each of us is a true Holy of Holies where the supernatural life of God is to reside, and the Catholic Church is intended by God as a true Temple.25 Aaron offered the blood of a calf for his own sins and those of his family, and the blood of a goat for the sins of the people (Lev 16:6–19). We understand Christ on Calvary as the fulfillment of the Law, completing all the sacrifices of the Old Testament and establishing the one new Eucharistic sacrifice.26 In Christ Jesus we have the summation of covenant history, the institution through sacrifice of a New Covenant which succeeds all prior covenants. Solomon was able to build the Temple of Jerusalem and rule the nations through the gift of divine wisdom which was published and handed down to us in the wisdom books of the Bible. “The Wisdom literature is for the nations what the Mosaic Law was for Israel, a means by which God teaches us to learn and imitate His fatherly ways, which take us back to Eden.”27 What is true of the Creation narrative is true of the whole narrative of salvation history which culminates with the restoration of Eden in the form of a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven in the glory of the Lord.

  1. Douay-Rheims Bible, Gen 22:8. “Abraham, in his readiness to sacrifice his son, is stayed from the act.”
  2. John Bergsma, “The 710 Wisdom Literature,” Franciscan University Steubenville Distance Learning, Lecture 35.
  3. Bergsma, “Wisdom Literature,” Lecture 3.
  4. Bergsma, “Wisdom Literature,” Lectures 4 and 25.
  5. Bergsma, “Wisdom Literature,” Lecture 3.
  6. Scott Hahn, “The 602 Theological Foundations,” Franciscan University Steubenville Distance Learning, Lecture 8.
  7. Hahn, “Theological Foundations,” Lecture 19.
  8. Hahn, “Theological Foundations,” Lecture 17; and The New World Dictionary Concordance to the New American Bible, s.v. “Temple.”
  9. 2 Sam 6.
  10. Dictionary Concordance.
  11. 3 Kgs 8:11 (Douay-Rheims Bible).
  12. Hahn, “Theological Foundations,” Lecture 8.
  13. Hahn, “Theological Foundations,” Lecture 19.
  14. Hahn, “Theological Foundations,” Lecture 21.
  15. Hahn, “Theological Foundations,” Lecture 22.
  16. Dictionary Concordance.
  17. Hahn, “Theological Foundations,” Lecture 22.
  18. Hahn, “Theological Foundations,” Lecture 29.
  19.  Dictionary Concordance.
  20. Rev. George Leo Haydock, Commentary on the New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with Useful Notes, ed. Paul A. Boer, Sr. (Houston, TX: Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012), kindle loc. 21825–28.
  21. Ps 138:7 (Douay-Rheims Bible).
  22. Haydock, kindle loc. 12741–50.
  23.  Dictionary Concordance.
  24. Haydock, kindle loc. 21952–61.
  25. Bergsma, “Wisdom Literature,” Lecture 35. According to Dr. Hahn, “the Church doesn’t replace Old Covenant Israel. The Church is Israel, renewed, transformed and resurrected in Christ” (Lecture 22).
  26. Bergsma, “Wisdom Literature,” Lecture 40.
  27. Hahn, Lecture 21. The Wisdom Books of the Bible are Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), the Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus).
John T. Knox About John T. Knox

John T. Knox is retired from the IT division of the University of Wisconsin. He recently completed a Franciscan University Steubenville MA Theology degree.