When God rescued the Israelites from Egypt, He told them to make a special tent, the Tabernacle, so that He could “dwell among them” wherever they went (Exodus 29:46). About 500 years later, when the Israelites were securely settled in the Promised Land, Solomon built a grand Temple to replace the Tabernacle. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies in 586 BC, but it was rebuilt when the Jews returned from exile 50 years later, and it was this second temple that Jesus visited in the gospels. It was completely destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 and has never been rebuilt. So where is our God living now?
“The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” (Acts 7:48) Yet even today, people will mistakenly refer to a church building as “God’s house”. Very often, at the start of a service, the leader of the congregation will say something to the effect that ‘we are coming into God’s presence’. It may be linked with the idea that we should wear special clothes (our ‘Sunday best’) when we go to church, and use special language (Elizabethan English, perhaps, or even Latin).
Of course, God is there and one hopes that people will meet Him in the church service! After all, Jesus did promise to be with us in a special way when we meet together! (Matthew 18:20) But this kind of language does tend to carry the implication that He is only in the church building – and that after the service we can leave Him there until next Sunday!
We are the temple of the living God (II Corinthians 6:16)
But God does indeed ‘live’ in His Church – if by that we mean not the building but the community of people that make it up (I Corinthians 3:16). Now that the old Jewish Temple no longer exists, God’s presence is made ‘visible’ in the world by Christians. This is a wonderful truth – but it doesn’t mean that the Church ‘owns’ God. He is bigger than any individual church, than any denomination. He is not even confined to the whole of the worldwide Church. He normally works through Christians, but reserves the right (on occasions) to work without us.
When Jesus was living on earth, God was literally dwelling amongst His people. “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory… full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Now that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19), God is dwelling in us – and people should be able to see the glory of God in the love-relationship that we (should) have with one another (I John 4:12).
God’s Building Site (I Peter 2:4,5)
The Tabernacle was designed by God but built by the Israelites themselves, using materials that they had donated (Exodus 25:1-7). And God is now using the service of His people to build His Church (I Corinthians 3:10-15). As we bring people to faith through our witness, and build them up through teaching and fellowship, we are enlarging and beautifying God’s Temple – and making something that will last into eternity.
The cornerstone of a building was the very first stone to be laid, and was the key to the whole structure. The Cornerstone of God’s new Temple is Jesus (Ephesians 2:20). The whole building depends on Him for support and unity – and each individual stone finds its ‘right’ place only in relationship to Him. But when we are rightly aligned to Jesus, we shall also find ourselves rightly aligned to other Christians. “In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:21)
Can we honestly claim that the Church is worthy of its great role? It does not look very beautiful to us, but that is because it is still ‘under construction’ – and building sites are muddy, messy, unattractive and sometimes dangerous places. But the Jews who returned from exile began to worship in the ruins of the old Temple before they started to rebuild it (Ezra 3:6). And even though the Church is unfinished, God is already being glorified in it.