In Acts 7:48-50 the deacon Stephen makes this statement to the Jews in Jerusalem:
Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’ (Acts 7:48-50)
Paul makes a very similar statement to the pagans in Athens in Acts 17:24, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.”
What I want to consider today is what it means for us that God does not dwell in houses made by hands. In the Old Testament God was present with his people Israel, and in particular his presence was in the tabernacle as the people wandered around and then it was at Shiloh and later the presence of God was in the temple in Jerusalem. There is no doubt that God was not contained by the physical temple, since his dwelling place is heaven. However, the New Testament has a new paradigm in regard to the presence of God. That is what I want to speak about today. In other words, I am going to consider what it means to be the temple of God indwelt by the Spirit.
The tabernacle was made of the best cloth, skins, gold and silver. The Old Testament temple was in Jerusalem and built of the finest stone, wood and precious metals. Something different, however, happens in the New Testament. Instead of a tent in the wilderness which contained the Name of the LORD and his glory, God the Son became a human being. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This word ‘dwelt’ has the same root as the word for ‘tent’ or ‘tabernacle’, so we might say that the Word tabernacled among us. God’s presence is now in a human being instead of in a building made of stone and wood and gold. This is a radical shift. It is utterly unexpected. John’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus is the one in whom we meet with the Father. His presence brings us the Father’s presence. Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Paul puts it like this: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19).
Jesus said that he is the new temple. Early in John’s Gospel Jesus went to the Jerusalem temple and cleared out the people selling cattle and the money changers.
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body (John 2:18-21).
The physical temple of stone and wood and gold is now no longer the centre of God’s presence in Israel or the world. Jesus is the temple of God. In him is centred all the activity of God.
But Jesus has gone to be with the Father. He is no longer the presence of God in the world. Instead he said that he would send the Holy Spirit to dwell in his people. Just before his crucifixion he told his disciples, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever–the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). That does not mean that Jesus is not central any more. The Spirit is sent by Jesus (Acts 2:33) and he is the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9). As with every other work of God all three persons of the Trinity work together. In the same chapter a few verses on Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). Father, Son and Holy Spirit are present with believers.
The church, then, is now the temple of God in whom the Spirit dwells.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).
Jesus is the cornerstone of the temple because he is the first one in whom the Spirit dwells, the first human temple of God. But since we are all united to him we have become part of the temple of God which is growing as more people are added. God dwells in his church by the Spirit. What does it mean for God to dwell in his people? There are many implications of this fact, but today I will consider just three: the need for holiness, our continual worship, and the fact that there is no longer need for special places, times and rituals. The first is the need for holiness.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
Holiness has a two-fold meaning – we are set apart as belonging to God and we must live lives which reflect his holy being. Since we are holy to God, we have no other purpose than to live for him. We do not belong to ourselves to do whatever we please. Unlike the Old Testament temple which existed on one place and which people would enter and then leave, we are now the temple of God all the time. We cannot leave the temple. Wherever there are believers in the world there is the temple of God. This means that our entire lives, wherever we set our feet, is holy to God. Everything we do, everywhere we go, every time of the day is holy to him. It also means that all other members of the body of Christ are holy to God and should be treated as such. Everyone who believes in Jesus belongs to him and no one can treat them badly without offending the God to whom they belong.
Secondly holiness is about what we do. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Since the physical body of Christ, that us the church, is holy, what we do with our bodies must always be holy activities. In the example in 1 Cor 6 some people in the church were having sex with prostitutes. They seemed to think that what they did with their bodies was not important because they were only spiritual beings. Not so. Since the Holy Spirit lives in the church, corporately and individually, every activity we engage in we do so with the Holy Spirit present. He is offended when we act in an unholy fashion. This applies in every sphere of life, not simply in Sunday activities or public activities. In everything we do, everywhere we go, holiness must be the characteristic of our lives.
Holiness also applies to the partnerships we enter into. “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (2 Cor 6:16). This passage concerns the partnerships and alliances we enter into. If we enter into something with another person and that person is ungodly then we must ask if that individual will bring us down with their actions or morals. This does not mean that we can never speak to or engage with unbelievers. Rather, we need to be sure about the direction that the unbeliever may take us. The deeper the alliance with ungodly people, the more likely that unholiness will be the result. We are the temple of God so we have to ask ourselves, would the holy God who dwells in me want me to be allied with this person or that person?
The second implication of being the temple of God in which the Spirit dwells is a life of worship. 1 Peter 2:5 tells us that “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Priests in the Old Testament were consecrated for the purpose of offering sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. The individual people of Israel brought sacrificial animals or food to the temple and the priests offered these on the altar. This was a very large proportion of the activity inside the temple. In the New Testament there are no more designated priests as such, but rather the whole church is priests and every one of us offers spiritual sacrifices to God. We have no need to offer animals for blood sacrifices or food offerings since Jesus has offered himself to the Father on the cross in a once-for-all offering. So as Christians we live a life of worship through Jesus Christ. This activity in the temple of God is not something which simply happens at church gatherings, but is a life lived continually as the temple of God inhabited by the Spirit. Everything we do as the people of God is intended as an act of worship.
In this Jesus is our example. He lived his entire life as an offering to the Father. The Epistle to the Hebrews explains it like this:
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book’” (Heb. 10:5-7).
Instead of offering animal sacrifices on the altar of the physical temple, Jesus continually offered himself to the Father in a life of pure obedience. This is true worship. Christians are to do the same as Rom 12:1 tells us: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Our worship also involves our words. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise– the fruit of lips that openly profess his name” (Heb 13:15). Praising God in church is much easier than using our words carefully in interaction with others. James 3:9 warns us, “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” However, as John says, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). A life of giving praise to God is not an isolated life which does not involve other people, but rather the vertical and horizontal are connected. When we speak to other people in a way which is loving and positive and helpful we are in fact offering praise to the Father who created them. When we speak harsh words that are unloving we are not giving glory to the one in whose image the people are made.
Finally, since God does not dwell in temples made by hands, we as the church of God, the temple in whom God dwells by his Spirit, need to avoid the temptation to try to contain God by places, times and rituals. I will give a few biblical examples in which this is exactly what people did. In 1 Sam 4 Israel was at war with the Philistines and defeated in battle. So they decided that they should bring the Ark of the Covenant into the battle so that God would give them victory. They imagined that having the ark with them would bring God into the battle on their side. However, this did not work as 30 000 men were killed and the ark was captured by the Philistines. This is the first example of how foolish it is to imagine that God is somehow contained in a place or in this case in a thing.
Example number two comes from Jeremiah 7. God told Jeremiah, “‘Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’” (Jer. 7:2-4). The temple had become an idol and the people of Judah had stopped being obedient to their God. They expected that the existence of the temple in Jerusalem would be sufficient to stop an invasion. The temple was a kind of talisman to force God to keep them safe. Not long after this the kingdom of Judah was taken into exile.
The point is that God cannot be contained by places or times or rituals. Christians can get fooled into trusting in particular times or places when they imagine God as being more present. Is God more present on Sunday morning than Tuesday afternoon? No, he is present because he promised to dwell in us by the Holy Spirit in all places and all times. Yet often we think that particular times and places are more blessed, more holy and more important than others. Sometimes we think that God is more likely to answer a prayer prayed in church than one prayed at home. Christians can also come to depend on particular rituals. If we see someone healed when a certain person prays a certain prayer a certain way then we can begin to believe that this way of doing things will always ‘work’ to heal people. This is how rituals begin. But this then becomes magic rather than trust in Jesus. The ritual is a means by which we try to contain God. Yet there is no containing God and no means of forcing his hand. If God works he does so because of the work of Christ, not because we have discerned the best ritual to make things happen.
To sum up, since God does not dwell in houses made by hands, but rather in his people, then whenever and wherever we are, we are always that temple. Therefore we must be holy in who we belong to, what we do and who we associate with. We are called to live a life of continual worship in obedience and praise and speaking grace-filled words to others. And lastly, we have no need to give significance to place, time or ritual as a means to gaining the presence and blessing of God. He is always with us as he dwells in us by his Spirit, because we are the people whom Jesus has saved for his own.