The Church as the Temple (and more) in the Book of Acts
The world is always changing and in her 2018 book iGen author Jean Twenge analyzes copious amounts of data to help us appreciate the differences between teens today and teens 10-40 years ago. One observation she makes is that there is a much lower percentage of teens today who are interested in the Church — Christianity proclaims a worldview that appears archaic and cruel to many teens. Twenge wonders and hopes at the end of this chapter that maybe the church could help teens if only it would let go of some of its strangeness, its rigid ways of viewing gender and sexual orientation that make many teens today cringe. Consider how strange this recommendation is. Part of the point of the Church should be that it is ancient and time-tested. The Church has helped generation after generation by pointing to ancient truths that transcend the latest sensibilities — and yet we need to abandon what uniquely qualifies us to help in order to help our therapeutic age feel better about itself? We witness to a God older than Moses — church should feel a little outdated! Twenge fails to understand: the Church’s outdatedness is what makes it relevant and helpful — whether people recognize it or not.
The Church is not yet perfect, the world always misunderstands us, and there will always be pressures on us to be something different than what God calls us to be. And what is the church? One description according to Paul: a holy temple, a dwelling place for God.
The Hebrew writer tells us that the tabernacle is a replica of the heavenly tabernacle. We could say the tabernacle and the temple were small spaces where the earth had been made like heaven above. But Israel defiled God’s temple and land with their idols and immoralities and injustices, so God allowed his temple to be destroyed and for his people to be cast from their land. God later brought his people back to rebuild his temple and repopulate the land — promising his Spirit was among them and that one day the temple project would be completed.
And in Paul’s epistles he refers to Jesus’ church as the temple — as has been read from Ephesians 2:19-22. We are growing “into a holy temple in the Lord…” and “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” This is a live, ongoing reality: “grows into holy temple” and “you… are being built together.” It’s not that we simply are a temple — this is a role we are growing into until God perfects us on the last day. And this is all made possible by the Holy Spirit. Paul speaks similarly in the Corinthian letters of our bodies being temples. This was big for Paul.
And I don’t think this was a vague spiritual theory Paul never observed but the Holy Spirit told him to write about it anyway. I think that as Paul lived among and observed the Church, he truly saw the temple taking shape before his eyes.
But what does this look like? How does an assembly of people become a temple of God? Acts chapters 2-7 shows us how the church is a better Israel and a better temple than the Jerusalem temple. Luke clues us into this theme when he repeatedly states that the Holy Spirit filled the apostles and dwelled in the church. Paul tells us the Holy Spirit forms the church into a temple, but Luke shows us this. Notice Acts 2:2-4a. When the Spirit comes upon the apostles (or possibly all the believers at that time), tongues of fire rest on them. By day a cloud covered the tabernacle, and by night — fire. This same tabernacle reality was temporarily visible over those who had the Spirit.
Throughout Acts 2-6, the church in whom God’s dwells is continually doing true Israel things and true temple things in Jerusalem and in the temple. Note this: the church in whom God dwells keeps meeting in and around the temple that God appears to not be dwelling in. Notice in Acts 5:17 who is jealous — the high priest and those with him. It doesn’t appear he’s simply jealous because Peter is getting attention — plenty of rulers and religious groups distracted people from himself. Luke may be hinting that the temple leaders are jealous of Peter and those with him because they’re doing all the things the temple and priests were supposed to do. This comes to a head in chapters 6 and 7: false witnesses accuse Stephen of speaking against the temple, just as they accused Jesus. It appears others are also feeling insecure about the temple and priests when there’s a superior temple and priests have taken shape all around them.
So Stephen takes the opportunity to preach: God does not dwell in houses made by hands and when you reject the church and her teachers you are doing what Israel has always done: you are resisting the Holy Spirit. One could summarize that as they reject the church, they reject both the Holy Spirit and the true temple of God. And so they kill Stephen and declare war on the church — seeking to destroy God’s new temple. But, the Holy Spirit won’t be contained — as the church is scattered into exile the Spirit and the Lord are with them wherever they go. God’s temple presence is filling the earth and they can't stop it.
This is a lesson about what the church should be. We will always be pressured to do and be something else, but we must always hone our focus and strive to be what God wants us to be.
The Church Is a Dwelling Place for God by the Holy Spirit…
Where the word of God is proclaimed. Priests and Levites were supposed to instruct people well in the way of the Lord, but we see in the prophets that this didn’t always happen. But in Acts it doesn’t matter what happens — whether persecution from the outside or strife on the inside: beatings, murder, deceit, neglect, you name it — Acts repeatedly emphasizes that the word of God continued to grow and be proclaimed. We know someone often by the words they speak. God is seen to be among us when his word is proclaimed. And nothing can take priority over that.
Where the diverse are reconciled. As those of you who are studying Judges, Samuel, and Kings know: the nations didn’t typically get along with Israel, and not even the people of Israel always get along with one another. The nations had their kings and gods, and even within Israel they could not agree who was king and what God ought to be served. And this led to tremendous strife. Yet the prophets saw a day when the north and the south — Israel and Judah — would be united under one king again. Not only this, they saw a day when the nations would come together with the Jews to God’s mountain in Jerusalem to hear the law of God. Nations would stop fighting, they’d beat their swords into farming equipment, and peace would flourish. In Acts 2, Jews from all nations and even proselytes are all united by means of the Holy Spirit — the Holy Spirit enables the word of God to be proclaimed in languages from everywhere. Later, in Acts 10-11, Peter and the Jews with him find themselves united with Gentiles who have faith in Jesus. Why? The Spirit of God has come upon them just as it came on others. The presence of God through the Spirit creates unity amidst diversity. We look different and have different customs, but hopefully we can see the common fruit of God’s Spirit in us: love, joy, peace, patience… and we can see that we are one. We have the same Spirit of the same Father from the same Lord in us.
I’m moving more quickly from these first two points than I would like. These are the most fundamental and important aspects of our life together. Sleeplessness from Judith has probably gotten the better of my judgment here, but there were three other points I hadn’t seen before that I spent more time preparing to speak about.
Where there are no needy. In Deuteronomy 15:4-5 Moses declared to Israel, “But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” If Israel obeyed, the Lord would bless them richly. Moses also explains how they would tithe and regularly release their debtors and redeem the poor — all to the end that actually there would be no poor among them.
This didn’t materialize as it should have in Israel. Prophets accused them of holding back the wages of their laborers and of disregarding the poor among them. But, Luke uses the language of Deuteronomy to demonstrate that this did start taking place in the church — note Acts 4:32-35. We have noted in the Acts class that sometimes in our tradition people draw a false dichotomy saying the church is a spiritual community, not a physical one. This certainly isn’t how Luke would have characterized the early church. Their spirituality was very physical, very material — they had all things in common: the word of Jesus, their tables and food, and their possessions. They sold their possessions and brought the proceeds — not to the temple in Jerusalem — but to the apostle’s feet. And it was distributed as there were needs. The result was that there wasn’t a needy person among them, just as Moses said would be the case with Israel.
Certainly a system like this requires wisdom and care. In Acts, some tried to deceive and give for show. Others are later neglected. Paul instructs Timothy later to prevent difficulties as well. But, despite the certain difficulties, I’m struck to think of the possibilities. This should be a church where we would make sure all the faithful here make rent and have access to heat and shoes and clothing, and don’t have to miss meals. I love how we even look beyond this church to Christians elsewhere to do what we can to lift them out of poverty. In this, we will turn out to be a better temple — or maybe simply a better Israel — than Israel ever was.
Where rebels are judged and all are made to fear. When you encounter the presence of God in the Old Testament people are always dying. The 3,000 at the foot of the mountain in the golden calf incident, Nadab and Abihu who offered strange fire, Uzzah who touched the ark, and still others. After a couple deaths around the tabernacle in Numbers, the people finally get it: “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the LORD, shall die. Are we all to perish?” (Num. 17:12–13 ESV)
And while there is a promise of life and healing in the church — as we will soon talk about — rebels are also judged there too. Just as Nadab and Abihu brought strange fire to the tabernacle and were struck dead, Ananias and Sapphira meet a similar fate when they bring a deceitful offering to the apostles. Notice Acts 5:1-6. Sapphira meets the same fate after this. Notice that Peter accuses them of lying to the Holy Spirit — to God. I hope we tremble at this. When Ananias and Sapphira put on a show to deceive the apostles and the church they were lying to God. I appreciate how one author put it: “Deceiving the church is not simply deceiving the pastors, or the other members, but God himself, who is present in the church through his Spirit.” (Schnabel, Acts, Kindle Loc 8203-8218).
Notice the result of this is stated twice: in verse 5 and 11. Great fear fell on all who heard this. And even notice verses 12-13. It reminds me of how people treated Mount Sinai and the tabernacle when they realized God was there — they started backing off. We’ll see in a moment that some do draw near and find healing, but others heard these stories and backed away. You don’t enter the temple lightly but with fear and trembling, and there ought to be that respect for the church as well — for the Lord and the Holy Spirit dwells in an among us, brothers and sisters.
This would have never happened if Peter didn’t call out Ananias and Sapphira out on their lie. Sometimes it’s hard to get people to stick around in the church. At times it may feel counterintuitive to take a Peter-like stance against sin. But we’ll never grow into a holy temple for the Lord if not. The world won’t see God in us and stand back in awe, or draw near in awe. May we speak the truth in love, but let the truth cut where it may.
Where forgiveness and healing are found. In the Old Covenant the tabernacle and later the temple was the center for forgiveness and healing. In Leviticus, if a person was unclean in some way the priest had to examine them and they had to stay away from the tabernacle (and later the temple) so as to not defile it. But if the uncleanness went away, they would go to the priest and the priest who would instruct them to offer the proper sacrifices and to wash in water before declaring them clean.
But now it now appears that this is happening in the church through the apostles a lot better than it ever happened through the temple or the priests. There’s a lame man who has sat outside the temple receiving people’s charity his whole life — Peter declares him healed by Jesus and walks him right into the temple. And Acts says at multiple points that all sorts of signs and wonders — healings — were being done by the apostles. Sicknesses are cured and demons are sent away that would have likely kept them all outside God’s temple presence, but now they draw near.
Notice Acts 5:14-16 as an example. Isn’t Peter’s glorification here shocking? He looks like Jesus and almost God-like. When God’s presence filled the tabernacle, the Greek translation of Exodus says the glory cloud settled or overshadowed the tabernacle. Using the same word, Luke said that the power of the Most High overshadowed Mary, and that the cloud of God’s presence overshadowed the apostles at Jesus transfiguration. The woman who bled hoped to just touch Jesus’ garment to be healed; now, people are hoping that maybe Peter’s shadow would — same word — overshadow. But why here? That they might be healed. And all who come are healed. It is after this that Luke said the high priest became jealous — maybe, maybe Luke is showing Peter as mediating the healing temple presence of God outside the temple.
And this is true for forgiveness of sins as well. If someone sinned, they were explicitly told in the Law to bring their animal to the tabernacle so the priest could make atonement for them. In Acts, people are being forgiven of their sins, but the Jerusalem priests and temple don’t have a single bit to do with it. Rather, the apostles and the teachers in the church are washing people with water and declaring them forgiven in Jesus’ name. And declaring the Holy Spirit — God’s presence! — is now in them.
No one in Acts is ever washed, forgiven, or healed by themselves or apart from the church. Even when Jesus appears to Saul or when the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and those with him — still someone from Jesus’ church baptizes them. Why? Could this not be another way that the church is the temple and priests of God? God always cleansed people in the past with priests and a temple, and now that power has mystically been bestowed upon the church as well.
As I consider in particular here the glorification of Peter and other stories later — like the way the Philippian jailer falls at the feet of Paul and Silas wondering how he might be saved — I am reminded of what Isaiah foresaw concerning renewed Israel. Isa 60:1–4 ESV, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you…” Isa. 60:9 ESV, “For the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has made you beautiful.”
Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was a wondrous thing to behold. And even Herod’s beautified temple was impressive. Yet God is doing a new, wondrous thing by making his dwelling among us. Whatever people see in us — that the word of God is proclaimed, that the diverse are reconciled under Jesus, that there are no needy among us, that rebels are judged, and that healing and forgiveness are offered among us — this ought to be the lasting impression people have: Yahweh God — not some other god — dwells among you.
Some days I am troubled that people don’t have the opportunity to see this in us through signs and wonders worked by the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit imparts better gifts than these — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And they can see that. In the final pages of Scripture — Revelation 21 — God’s dwelling place has been perfected. May we continue growing into that dwelling place, that holy temple for the Lord.