The Apostle Paul consistently applies Temple language metaphorically to the church of Jesus Christ.
In his letters, Paul referred to the church as the “sanctuary of God,” and he applied related terms to the saints that were applied first to the Tabernacle and Temple in the Hebrew Bible. While the language is metaphorical, it describes new realities that have resulted from the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus.
“Sanctuary of God” translates the Greek clause ton naon tou theou. The noun naos means “sanctuary,” and in biblical Greek, it most often refers to the inner sanctum, that is, the sanctuary proper, and not to the entire Temple complex (Greek, hieron). Paul applied the termto the church four times in his letters to the Corinthians, and once the noun naos by itself in his letter to the Ephesians. For example:
- (1 Corinthians 3:16-17) – “Do you not know that you are a sanctuary of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?If any man defiles the sanctuary of God, him shall God destroy; for the sanctuary of God is holy, and such are you.” – (See also 1 Corinthians 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16).
- (Ephesians 2:19-22) – “So then you are no more strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God,being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone;in whom each several building, fitly framed together, is growing into a holy sanctuary in the Lord;in whom you also are being built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.”
The language is metaphorical, and the Apostle mixes his metaphors. The church consists of people, and they are not made of stones or goatskins. And tents and stone buildings do not “grow,” at least, not organically. But none of this means that the language is not serious or does not describe genuine and lasting realities.
The church is the “sanctuary” of God because, like the ancient Tabernacle and Temple, it is where the presence of God dwells (“habitation of God in the Spirit”). And it is His presence that makes the church, Temple, or the Tabernacle “holy,” and therefore, something not to be violated, sullied, disrespected, or otherwise desecrated.
The language about preserving the holiness of the “sanctuary” and the punishment that awaits anyone who “defiles” it reflects the purity regulations for the Tabernacle from the Torah. For example:
- (Numbers 19:20) – “But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly because he has defiled the sanctuary of Yahweh.”
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is quite explicit:
- “And what concord has Christ with Belial, or what portion has a believer with an unbeliever?And what agreement has a sanctuary of God with idols? For we are a sanctuary of the living God; even as God said, I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” – (2 Corinthians 6:15-17).
He was summoning the Corinthians to holiness by learning to remain “separate” from sin and idolatry. As before, he identified the church as the “sanctuary of God,” and therefore, it is the place where God dwells. To fortify his point, he cited at least two passages from the Old Testament:
- (Leviticus 26:11-12) – “And I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you.And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
- (Jeremiah 31:33) – “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Previously, Paul linked the “Spirit” to the presence of God that now dwells in the assembly. The gift of the Spirit demonstrated that God was dwelling in and among His people, collectively, they constitute the “sanctuary of God” in the present age.
Thus, Paul identified the church as the “sanctuary of God,” and in part, that identification was built on promises from the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, as he taught elsewhere, the institutions of the old covenant constituted “types” and “shadows” of the realities that are actualized in the New Covenant – (Colossians 2:16-17).
The Tabernacle, and subsequently, the Temple, foreshadowed the greater reality when God would indwell His people. Wherever the church is gathered for worship, the Spirit of God is present.