Living temples

You’ve no doubt heard it again and again: the church is not a place, but a people. After all, the New Testament word that is typically translated as “church” in our English Bibles — ekklesia (from which we get “ecclesial” and “ecclesiastic”) — means an assembly of people who have been “called out” for a particular purpose. In Acts 19:39, for example, it refers to a group of citizens who would be gathered to decide legal matters. Typically, though, ekklesia refers to congregations of believers who are called to represent God’s kingdom and the body of Christ in the world.

But even if the word “church” makes us think automatically of a place or a building, it may still be difficult for us to relate to the psalmists’ attitude toward the Jerusalem temple. Not all of us, after all, worship in majestic cathedrals, where the very architecture is meant to point our spirits skyward. Even if we do, the way the psalmists seem to equate the temple (or tabernacle) with the presence of God may be foreign to us.

Four times in Psalm 84 — including the opening and closing verses — God is referred to as the “LORD of hosts” (vss. 1, 3, 8, 12, NRSV), or in Eugene Peterson’s memorable phrase, “GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies.” In the shared memory of the Israelites, that name was closely associated with the Ark of the Covenant, which represented the holy and powerful presence of God with the people when they went to battle. The ark resided first in the tabernacle, and later in the innermost sanctum of the temple, and was treated with the greatest reverence. It makes sense that the psalmist would use that name for God in Psalm 84 when thinking of the temple.

For the psalmist, the temple, the ark, and the divine presence were deeply intertwined. It’s much harder for us to imagine that when we don’t share that history. But my point here is to suggest that we need to at least try to imagine it, if we want to appreciate some of the things we may take for granted in the New Testament.

Take, for example, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Can we identify with his outrage at what the introduction of commerce had done to his Father’s house? What was supposed to be a holy place of prayer had been turned into a marketplace, and the piety of the pilgrims was being leveraged for profit. The psalmist, I think, would have understood Jesus’ wrath.

Or take the apostle Paul’s statement that believers are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). A zealous Jew such as Paul — even as a convert — would not have used such language lightly. This is, after all, the same Paul who made a vow to God in Corinth and later traveled specifically to the Jerusalem temple to fulfill that vow. The idea that the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in us should be treated with awe; indeed, if we really understand what this means, we should tremble with what the Bible calls a proper “fear of God” (cf. Phil 2:12-13).

Do we treat each other as temples of God’s Spirit? Do we give each other the deep respect this entails? C. S. Lewis memorably makes a similar point in a sermon entitled “The Weight of Glory”:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. 

Chances are, when we look at each other, “everlasting splendors” is the last thing we see. We tend to see people in terms of how they relate to us: friend or foe? Ally or obstacle? We have to work at it to see what God sees.

But if we did, maybe we’d see “church” in a new light, too.