As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, over the past two or three months we’ve been surveying Tom Wright’s wonderful and important book Simply Jesus (you can find my review here). With only a few posts left, we’re into the final chapter.
Here’s today’s excerpt:
The Temple was the place, like the tabernacle in the wilderness, from which God ruled Israel. Now the new Temple — Jesus and his Spirit-filled followers — is the place from which and through which God is beginning to implement the world-transforming kingdom that was achieved in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection.
— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus
I first started reading outside of my safe charismocostal* bubble around seven or eight years ago. In so doing, I embarked on a voyage of discovery that would ultimately expose and demolish a good number of shaky beliefs, some of which I hadn’t even realised I held. (You can get an idea of the kind of thing I’m referring to by reading my very first post, which is still one of my most read posts, I used to believe.)
One of those unspoken shaky beliefs (in fact, it was more of a pervading Christian worldview) was that, since God’s plan in sending Jesus was to save the whole world, the whole business about the Jewish people and their complex and sometimes bizarre history was really no more than a parenthesis – a kind of historical quirk, if you will. It was certainly of little or no interest to us twenty-first century westerners.
OK, Jesus was a Jew, and that’s why we have to have all that Jewish history in the Old Testament – I get that. But the main point, surely, is that Jesus came and died was raised to new life for all humankind. That being the case, all that Jewish history and religion is really just a bit of local colour, right?
Well, no. That kind of understanding of Jesus’ Jewish back-story is OK if you’re perfectly happy with a flat, one-dimensional view of who Jesus was, what he did and why it mattered. Sadly, very many churches and Christians today do indeed seem to be entirely content with such a view of Jesus.
Enter Tom Wright.
One of Wright’s strengths is that, as not only a theologian but also a historian, he helps us see why, if we want to take the New Testament at all seriously, we have to pay a great deal of attention to Jesus’ Jewish heritage. In fact, to do so is the only way to properly understand Jesus’ mission. Conversely, to knowingly refuse to do so is to consciously accept a picture of Jesus and his work that is at best severely limited, and at worst downright distorted.
Today’s excerpt from Simply Jesus provides one very simple example of why we need to understand something of Jewish salvation history in order to fully appreciate the scope of Jesus’ saving work. Throughout Jewish history, the Temple – and the tabernacle (or tent of meeting) before it – had a deep significance that we find hard to grasp from our modern western viewpoint. For us, a temple is merely a fancy kind of church – i.e. a place where you periodically go to engage in corporate worship. For the Jews, the Temple was much, much more than this.
First, the Temple was the place where God’s invisible kingdom intersected with our universe of space, time and matter. When David referred to the Temple as God’s dwelling place, this was not simply a cute metaphor: for David, the Temple was literally the place God chose to make his abode in the world we see and know. You might say God chose the Temple as his address on earth.
Second, and by extension, the Temple was the place from where God ruled. A kingdom needs a king, and a king needs a seat of power from where to reign. This is why the Israelites needed a tabernacle in the wilderness: in order to remember their identity as God’s people, they needed a visual reference to serve as a reminder that (a) they had a king and (b) they were the subjects of that king, and so had better live by his commands and precepts. (An endeavour at which they nevertheless failed quite comprehensively, but that’s another story.)
To put it another way, the Temple was God’s base of operations for making his people, the Jews, into a different kind of community.
Hopefully you can see where I’m going with this: Jesus is the new and better Temple:
– The Temple, as a physical structure, symbolised God’s earthly residence and the intersection of heavenly and earthly space; Jesus, on the other hand, was the literal physical embodiment of God and the literal intersection of the human and the divine.
– With the Temple, God’s presence could dwell only in one location; through the Holy Spirit freely given by Jesus, God’s presence dwells in the hearts of all believers.
– With the Temple, God could form and reign over one ethnic community; through the cosmic redemptive work of the Messiah, God has established and is expanding His kingdom throughout every nation, people, tribe and tongue.
To put it another way, the Temple was the centrepiece and focal point of one particular transformed community. But the Temple has been replaced by Jesus and all of his followers, and together we are the centrepiece not only of one transformed community, but of a world-transforming kingdom.
This understanding ought to have serious implications for our view of the church. In particular, if we perceive today’s church as basically a modern-day, non-Jewish version of the Temple, we need to trash that idea and open our hearts and minds to a much broader understanding – one that fully embraces Peter’s exhortation that we are being built into a spiritual temple.
As a slight aside, I’d also suggest that we might need to start thinking a little differently about bricks and mortar. I’ve often been in church meetings where we’ve been invited to pray over the building and ask the Holy Spirit to saturate and fill it to overflowing. I never used to question this practice, but now I do. Of course, I understand the basic intention of such prayers, but they betray a failure to grasp the epic scale of what Jesus did in abolishing the Temple of stone and wood and setting up his kingdom in and through his followers.
* A word I recently invented to refer to the broad swathe of Pentecostal/charismatic churches.
[ Image: Michael Privorotsky ]