A conversation on the old and new temples
Today we are continuing our conversation through some of the key principles found in the Book of Hebrews. The foundation of this book that we see over and over and over again is that Jesus is greater. Greater than angels, greater than Moses. Greater than you and I. And this is the heart of Hebrews and what I need to hear again today: Jesus is greater.
We started off the series with an overview of that concept and ended with the processing of moving from being told to actually processing Jesus’ greatness. And today we jump into a conversation about the old testament tabernacle and temple, and the new temple.
We had this conversation at our annual fall retreat and our theme was What Matters Most. In a season of seemingly infinite change, it’s important to reflect on what actually matters.
The people that Hebrews was initially addressed to were in a season of increased change.
They were considering or were walking away from their relationship with Jesus.
They were facing increased persecution for their faith.
They were considering going back to their old system of beliefs.
They were drifting from what they believed.
They were feeling disconnected from others and from God.
In the midst of all the changes in life, we have some level of knowledge that God is constant and faithful. But as we think about our own changes, we’ve probably all experienced that moment where, after a moment of deep change, things just go back to normal.
Think about the biggest changes you’ve made or experienced in your life.
How do you know when a change has happened?
Why is it easy to make a significant change and then quickly return back to pre-change lifestyle?
We can often live in the mindset that because of Jesus, things have “changed drastically”, but that day to day life often stays the same. We’ll explore a little bit of how that can happen, but first we need to take a look at the concepts of the old/new temple.
If this is foreign to you, don’t worry. We’re going to just get a quick view.
So what was the old temple?
The temple (or tabernacle) was the place where people could have a relationship with God. It’s where his presence dwelled and where people came to offer sacrifices to cover their sins.
The old testament view of God was that He dwelled in heaven, but that the temple was the overlap, the one spot where God’s presence dwelled on Earth.
It might seem silly to us, like, “God is everywhere”, but I think we treat God like he’s confined to temples or specific things more often than we realize.
The temple was made up of the holy place which contained a continuously lit lampstand, consecrated bread for the priests and a golden altar of incense that offered up scents to God. Further in there was the most holy place, or the holy of holies. It contained the ark of the covenant which had in it a few really important pieces of Israel’s history and experience with God. Above the ark was considered the mercy seat, which was seen to be the throne of God within the temple. The place where God’s spirit rested.
Think about the concept of holy. We think in moral terms, like holy is free of anything bad. This is true, but the more base concept of holy is that something is set apart due to its uniqueness. God’s holiness in the temple is that there was none like him. He is completely unique. And set apart.
What did the temple represent?
The temple was the physical place where God’s presence dwelled. And not just alone, but the place where God’s presence dwelled with his people. There is some amazing imagery that was used in the temple. It was built to represent the garden of Eden so the walls were adorned with golden images of trees. Fun fact I didn’t know, the menorah that we see in Hanukkah is representative of the tree of life.
There’s only one big problem though. Even though God’s presence was “with” His people, they couldn’t actually access Him.
Priests entered the outer room frequently, doing different priestly duties. But the inner room was entered only once a year and only by one person (the high priest), and he went through an intense ritual process to get to the point of going in. When he went in, he would use incense to help cover himself from the presence of God, and he would take sacrificial blood and sprinkle it on the ark to atone for the sins of the people. Imagine that. Once each year, only one person could enter the same room that God’s presence dwelled in. Everyone else just had to hear secondhand.
But what we see in Hebrews 9 is that the old testament temple (tabernacle) was never God’s long term plan. That He was always aiming for being a God who lived present with his people, with nothing to separate Him from them.
The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
What is the importance of God’s presence?
What does the old temple from scripture mean for us today?
What has changed?
What is the temple for us today?
The old temple (God’s holiness that would kill people) was a place you had to be a little bit afraid of because of your impurity but still had to interact with in order to gain holiness.
In the old temple system there was a clear understanding of clean vs unclean, sacred vs secular, holy vs unholy.
The temple system was created so that humans could dwell near the presence of God, near his holiness.
Being near God’s holiness while in an unclean state was deadly. In 2 Samuel 6 you can read the story of Uzzah, who with good intentions reached out to steady the Ark of the Covenant and was struck dead by God for it. Not because he was being evil, but because he came into contact with something so holy.
In the old temple, gaining holiness was done via sacrifice. This was a system that operated in recognition of humanities shortfalls, and required regular efforts for relationship with God. The person had to make the journey to the temple, towards God’s presence to be made right with God.
In what ways have you experienced trying to be good enough, holy enough, clean enough for relationship with God and how has that affected you?
So now what has changed for us today? In the new testament, we see moments of God’s presence coming through the person of Jesus. We see these moments in which Jesus touches the “unclean,” which should then make him unclean, but rather we see the opposite.
We see the leper healed, the blind receive sight. We see lives saved and dignity restored. We see the dead risen.
These moments of touch are more than miracles. These are moments of Jesus confronting what had been labeled unclean, and rather than holiness killing, holiness is restoring.
This is the presence of God, making clean what was once unclean. Making holy what was considered secular.
Jesus changed the game. Holiness was no longer something that had to be achieved, but something that was given freely.
The new temple is a system through which Jesus embodies that powerful holiness, and when He touches us we don’t die but are instead transformed into his image.
The old temple used to be a system where if you touched something unclean you would become unclean.
The new temple is one where, as you’ve been made holy by Jesus, you carry it with you and it infects the “unclean” all around you.
This new temple isn’t some individual, lone-wolf christianity. It’s meant to be pursued in community.
In Matthew 18 Jesus is addressing how his disciples are supposed to relate to one another and he reminds them that “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
The old temple of the Israelites was a place to come to sacrifice to become holy.
The new temple of today is recognition that the sacrifice has been made, and as we gather together the temple is being built.
What does it look like for us to live like we are under the old temple today?
Being afraid to approach God because we might die.
Entrusting our faith/salvation/holiness/etc to someone else (a pastor).
Thinking that what we sacrifice makes us right with God.
Seeing outsiders as people we need to avoid because they’ll make us unclean.
But the new temple is available to us. Jesus invites us to leave the old temple system behind and to participate in community and communion with Him and with other believers.
You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.
1 Peter 2:4-6
New Living Translation
How does the new temple change the way you view yourself? God? Right relationship with God? Others?
Take It Deeper Questions
Read 1 Peter 2:4-12
When have you been most closely connected to a home improvement project? How did it go? What was most enjoyable? What was most unenjoyable?
How do you respond to Peter's description of you in verse 9?
What struggle within yourself are you facing that only Christ can help you overcome?
How are you focused, confused, challenged or confused by this text today?
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