Identity in Worship

The uniqueness of those who are in Christ is manifested in the important reality that only they are the true worshippers of Yahweh. Divine adoration is a fundamental marker of the people of God and we shouldn’t diminish this reality! The scriptures use concepts and identifiers to communicate that which is to be accepted as authentic worship. These include the place of worship, the worshippers and the offerings.

Israel’s temple and its associated sacrificial system was foundational to its identity. To give a proper description of Israel, we must identify it through its means of worship. The center of worship, the role of the people in worship and the offering related to that devotion must be identified.  In this segment, we’ll be looking at the temple, its priests, and its sacrifices.

Prior to the building of the first temple, the Lord met with a representative of the people in various locations. During the Exodus, Moses erected a tent outside the camp to meet with Yahweh which was called “the tent of meeting” (Exodus 33:7). Later, the instructions on building the tabernacle were given with further attributes such as the outer court, the holy place and the holy of holies. Both tent and tabernacle symbolized the presence of God with Israel (Ex. 33:14), the fact, that is, that God had chosen to dwell in the midst of Israel (25:8; 29:45)[1]Another important feature of the tabernacle was its set-up to allow for sacrifices to be made for sin and burnt offerings. This portable temple featured the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat. It was there that God would deal with Israel’s unholiness and dwell with His people.

Once Israel’s journey ended in the wilderness, the first temple was erected by Solomon after his father David desired to build a house for Yahweh (2 Samuel 7:1-7; 1 Chronicles 17:1-15). Solomon built the temple after the pattern of the tabernacle and modeled it as the place where God’s presence dwelt (1 Kings 8:29). This was where atonement for Israel’s sins would now be made. While God promised to put my name there forever (1 Kings 9:3), He also warned that if they should turn away from Him and serve other gods, that this house will become a heap of ruins (1 Kings 9:6-9). The ultimate problem was that they foolishly believed that the temple was the guarantee of God’s presence and favour, and forgot that the assurance of that presence was through their obedience and holiness.  The first temple was eventually destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and Israel’s people taken into captivity.

Ezekiel’s vision of a temple communicated where God will reside among the people of Israel forever (Ezekiel 43:1-7) and that would bare His name (Ezekiel 48:35). When the temple was rebuilt, it didn’t match the specifications of Ezekiel’s book. The second temple, build after the return from exile, lacked the glory of Ezekiel’s vision[2]. Herod eventually renovated the temple to it’s grandeur in Christ’s day and it became the center of Jewish worship and life.

The priesthood was given to Israel through the law and God chose a particular ancestral line through the tribe of Levi to care for this important function within the community. They were to wear holy garments (Exodus 28) and required a washing and sacrifice for their consecration (Exodus 29:1-8; Leviticus 7-8). Their main role was as caretakers of the tabernacle and to offer up sacrifices on behalf of the people. They were the representatives of the people to God. These sacrifices had their own particularities (Leviticus 1-6) with a focus upon a covering of their sins. Within the priesthood, there was the High Priest who’s function was much more significant.  He was the only individual who could enter the Holy of Holies and be in the presence of Yahweh. On the Day of Atonement, this high priest would exchange his “secular” clothing to put on his priestly garments and wash himself with water, offer up the sacrifice for himself and for the people. This Day of Atonement would consist of the high priest bringing two young goats before the LORD’s presence at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. They would then cast lots to determine which goat would be offered as a sacrifice and which was to carry the sins and rebellions of Israel into the wilderness (Lev. 16:10). 

Jesus’ Interactions with the Temple

There is an interesting dynamic in the Lord Jesus’ interaction with the temple. A young Jesus would spend time in the temple and demonstrate respect for it by calling it “my father’s house” (Luke 2:49), the house of God (Matthew 12:4), a house of prayer (Mark 11:7), and the place where God dwells (Matthew 23:21). This regard for the temple was also a means to condemn those in charge of the temple, mainly the elders and chief priests. They turned the temple into a den of robbers (Mark 11:17) and a marketplace (John 2:16). Eventually, He would declare a judgment upon the leaders and the people through the destruction of the great temple which would be left to them desolate. This and the city left in ruin would also echo a coming change of the place of the presence of God and the sacrifices (Matthew 23:37; Matthew 24: 1-2). Interestingly, one of the charges against the Lord Jesus during His trial was that He would destroy the temple (Mark 14:58) and during His crucifixion, it became a point of taunting (Mark 15:29). When the Lord died, the temple’s legitimacy to offer sacrifices ceased (Hebrews 9 & 10) and the presence of God departed signified by the curtain being torn in two (Matthew 27:51). When the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, its physical functions were dramatically shut down and remain that way to this day.

The Greater Temple

The charge of destroying the temple (Mark 14:58) was a misunderstanding of the Lord’s words in John chapter 2. If they would destroy the temple, in three days He would raise it up again. The main thrust of this saying wasn’t focused upon the destruction of the temple, but that the new temple would come in the form of His body. His burial and resurrection would be the “sign” that they would be given and His death and resurrection were simply communicating the sign. Christ as the temple was already spoken of earlier in John 1:14: And the Word became flesh, and dwelt (tabernacled) among us, and we saw His glory. Just as the glory of God filled the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-35), so the glory of God now tabernacled in Jesus. The presence of God, formerly contained in the Holy of Holies, has begun to burst forth into the world in the form of the incarnate God, Jesus Christ.[3]  The worship of God would no longer be centralized in Jerusalem and at its temple, but through Christ, the true temple. This is where worshipping in the Spirit and truth of Christ would be experienced (John 4:21-26). The Lord would not merely become another temple because something greater than the temple is here (Matthew 12:6). There was something so much more to this temple!

Not only would the presence of God once again become a moving tabernacle, but it would be administered by a greater high priest. Christ is the Great High Priest of the Temple and at the same time, the Great Sacrifice of the Temple for sin. His priesthood would then be different in that it would come from the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:6; 6:20; 7:11, 15), an eternal priest (Hebrews 7:23), a perfect priest who is holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens (Hebrews 7:26). This priest offered the perfect sacrifice once and for all (Hebrews 7:27). That sacrifice would be the offering of Himself (Hebrews 9:14), a sacrifice that was offered once for all time and its efficacy was so satisfying in the eyes of God, so much so that He sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high (Hebrews 10:12). This priest who makes perfect intercession for those whom He represents and guarantee they be brought to glory (Hebrews 7:25). The offering would be an effectual atonement that would actually atone for sin (Matthew 1:21; Mark 1:21; 2:10; John 1:29) without having to be offered up again. It was different and greater than the blood of bulls and goats but that of a blood that would be offered without blemish. This blood would bring about a true reconciliation (Colossian 1:20). His death would be the ultimate propitiation for the sins of His people that would appease the wrath of God for sin (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).

Expanding the Temple

After Christ’s death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the nature and function of the temple was being associated with those who are “In Christ”, the true temple. Paul explicitly calls the believers in Corinth the temple of God and that the Spirit (as the presence of God) dwells within them (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). The reason why they are the temple of God is twofold: (1) because the spirit of God is within them and (2) because they are holy. The Spirit of God would dwell internally in them wherever they are which would lessen the significance of Jerusalem and its temple. God’s presence could go outside the borders of Israel to the nations!

In an attempt to communicate the importance of purity and separating from idols, the apostle Paul exhorts believers in Corinth not to bound themselves together with unbelievers. He uses the comparison of how Christ and Balial have no accord, or that the temple has no agreement with idols. Amid this exhortation, he explains that the believers in Corinth are the temple of the living God. The God who dwelt in the temple in Jerusalem no longer blessed that temple with His presence but now had moved into the dwelling place of His people. In 2 Corinthians 6:16-18, another important reality is communicated to the believers. In them, the promises to Israel from Exodus 29:45; Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 31:1; Ezekiel 37:27, and Isaiah 43:6 as well as Hosea 1:10 would be fulfilled. These OT quotations shouldn’t be taken lightly. The application of these promises was not fulfilled in ethnic Israel, but in spiritual Israel consisting of both Jews & Gentiles. Remember, these were promises given to Israel and now applied to the Church! David’s true Son came to build the true temple to fulfill the promises of 2 Samuel 7:14. One other important point to notice is that, during the period of the early church, this temple is not fully complete but God’s temple as a community was being built, with Christ being the chief corner stone (Ephesians 2:20-22). God’s spirit and presence would go throughout the earth.

Not only was the church seen as the new temple of God’s dwelling, but that they would function and take on the privilege of becoming priests.  In 1 Peter 2:5, we read that New Covenant believers are as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Peter would again refer to them as a “Holy Priesthood” (2:9), a priest to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:6). Believers would now serve as the priests of this new temple. Isaiah predicted the day of this new priesthood when he wrote But you will be called the priests of the Lord; You will be spoken of as ministers of our God. (Isaiah 61:6).

What are the sacrifices that believers offer up as priests? Paul could say that he was a priest who ministered the gospel of God to assure the sanctification of the Gentiles (Romans 15:16). We, as believers, are to offer up our bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship (Romans 12:1). The believers sacrifice is to offer the sacrifices of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His Name. (Hebrews 13:15).

As we have seen thus far, the temple and its associated workers and works, are no longer associated with the old temple and its sacrifices or priesthood. The New Covenant speaks that these are fulfilled in Christ and in those who are in Christ. 

[1] Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, David E. Holwerda, WM B. Eerdmans Publishing, Page 62

[2] Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, David E. Holwerda, WM B. Eerdmans Publishing, Page 65

[3] God Dwells Among Us, G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, IVP Press, 2014, Page 82


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