The Temple – a shadow of heaven

Picture: Jews pray at the Western Wall – the only remaining part of their temple

The temple dominated Jewish society in Christ’s time. It was by far the biggest building in Jerusalem and some Jews attended it daily. So you can imagine the shock when Jesus told the rulers of the temple that he would destroy it and raise it in three days.
Jesus had just driven marketers out of the temple area and the rulers asked him what sign he would give them to show he had the authority to do this. It was a long held belief that the Messiah would cleanse the temple when he came, so they were looking at his actions as a claim to Messiahship. Jesus said ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again’ (John 2:19). They thought he was crazy because it had taken 46 years to build the temple, but Jesus was talking about his body. It would be destroyed at the crucifixion and raised from the dead on the third day.
Now, this statement is big. For Jesus to associate his body with the Jewish temple was quite something. The temple was holy – it contained the Presence of God. Was Jesus’ body holy, did it contain the Presence of God? In hindsight Christians will say yes, but it was not that obvious to Jews at the time. But this was not all. Jesus was about to institute a new order of worship. He was about to declare the old temple obsolete and a new temple – the Church – open for operation.   When the Holy Spirit (God’s Presence) was poured into all believers on the Day of Pentecost the new temple became active. The church was the new wineskin for God’s new wine – the old skin was obsolete. In fact the Romans destroyed the old temple soon after Christ (70 AD) and the temple was never built again. Some Jews still pray at the ‘Wailing Wall’ (or Western Wall – see picture above) which is the only piece of the old temple remaining. And many of these Jews are hoping it will be rebuilt. But that raises a big question. If the temple was rebuilt would modern Jews return to animal sacrifices which were such an essential part of temple system? I think we can all say no, they would not. The old order of worship is dead and gone. Jesus really did destroy the temple and raise it in three days. And in doing so he gave lasting proof that he was the Messiah.
Now although the Jewish temple has been declared obsolete it still gives Christians vital information, The old temple acts as a sign post pointing to the new, just as animal sacrifices act as a sign post pointing to Christ’s sacrifice. For this reason it’s important for Christians to study the old temple. We may be the new temple – but how do we be that temple? What does God want of us? The old temple has a pattern that tells us. In fact the writer of Hebrews says ‘They (the Jewish priests) serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain”’ (Hebrews 8:5). If the old temple is a copy of what is in heaven it has something to say to both Old Testament and New Testament believers; its message is timeless. So in the rest of this article I am going to look at what each part of the old temple has to say to us as believers of the New Covenant.

The Temple Pattern

The writer to the Hebrews says Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lamp stand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered Ark of the Covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now’ (Hebrews 9:1-6).
Notice that he says ‘We cannot discuss this in detail now.’ Obviously he intended doing it at some point, and he believed it as a worthy exercise. So let’s do that. Let’s look at what the temple pattern has to say to Christians. We’ll start with the court area surrounding the temple.

The Court (around the temple)
The Altar:
The first thing that confronts you as you enter the court is the altar. It looked like a very big barbecue and it did exactly that. If an Israelite wanted their sins forgiven they would bring a lamb, goat or ox, and confess their sins to the Levite on duty. They would then place their hand on the animals head as if to transfer their sins to the animal and then the animal would be slaughtered and barbecued on the big altar.
Hebrews 10:3-7 shows how the sacrifices on this altar pointed to Christ saying ‘But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, Here I am — it is written about me in the scroll — I have come to do your will, O God.”’
Here we see that the sacrifices on the altar pointed to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. John the Baptist understood this because when saw Jesus he said ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). The Messiah’s sacrifice fulfilled all sacrifices so none were needed once he had given his life for the sins of the world. Now when Christians ask God for forgiveness they see their sins being put on Jesus and him dying in their place. Jesus paid in full for our sins.
The Basin:
Now if you walk past the altar and are about to enter the temple building you would find a large basin to the left of the door. Thebasin was really a bath. The Levites and Priests would wash their whole bodies in it at their ordination and wash their hands and feet in it whenever they went to work in the temple area. The idea was that you have to be clean to minister for God.
But  the apostle Peter says to all New Testament believers ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God’ (1 Peter 2:9). Under the New Covenant all believers are priests and every one of us must be clean before God.
Jesus revealed how the temple basin pointed to him when he went about washing his disciple’s feet at their Passover meal. When he came to wash Peter’s feet, Peter said ‘No, you shall never wash my feet.’ And Jesus said ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’ Peter then said ‘Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’ In other words ‘wash all of me.’ But Jesus said ‘A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean’ (John 13: 8-10).
Here Jesus is saying that Peter is already clean like an ordained or consecrated priest, but like a priest he still needs daily updating. It’s like that for all Christians, we have one overall cleansing when we give our lives to Christ – this is symbolized in our baptism – but after that we need daily forgiveness for things done wrong as we go about living and ministering for God.
So as we look at the altar and basin outside the temple door we see things related to salvation. We see the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus and we see the cleansing that comes through that sacrifice. So the court area points to the salvation of the Messiah.

The Holy Place (first room)
Now we are ready to enter the temple building itself. Only priests could go inside the temple – ordinary Levites were limited to the court area outside. But as Peter said under the New Covenant all believers are priests, so the symbolism inside the temple is for everyone who is a Christian.
The Lampstand:
As we enter through the temple door we find a seven-armed candlestick. In the Bible it is called the lampstand. It was filled with oil and lit daily. It gave light to the whole temple and was a symbol of God’s life in Israel – much like the Olympic Torch is a symbol of the life of the games.
In John 8:12 Jesus says ‘I am the light of the world.’ And in John 14:6 he says ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except by Me.’ Jesus saw himself as both the light and the life of God. But oil and fire have always been symbols of the Holy Spirit in Scripture and this makes sense because John the Baptist said of Jesus ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Matthew 3:11). This happened on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus poured out the Spirit on all believers and the Spirit came on each like a tongue of fire and gave them the ability to speak supernaturally (Acts 2:1-4). But the Holy Spirit also gives believers the ability to see supernaturally. Even as I was writing this there was a power cut and everything went dark, and in a few seconds the power came back and light filled the room. The Holy Spirit makes this difference spiritually. He is the light and life that Jesus promised.
Jesus warned a number of the seven churches in Revelations 2 – 3 that if they disobey he will remove their lampstands. That means he will remove the life of his Spirit from those churches. When God’s light and life is removed the church becomes a dull and lifeless place.
In the parable of the Ten Virgins Jesus warns us of the same thing. We must make sure we are like the five wise virgins that made sure their lamps had enough oil to keep burning till the bridegroom returned (Matthew 25:1-13).
The Table of Show Bread:
So the lampstand is on our left, but as we look to the right we see a table with twelve loaves of bread on it. This was called the Table of Show Bread. The bread was literally on show. It represented God’s daily provision for the twelve tribes of Israel. He had provided manna for them in the wilderness and continued to provide their daily bread in the land of Canaan.
In John 8 after Jesus fed 5000 people with 5 loaves people returned the following day for more. And in attempt to get the people to seek after spiritual bread instead he said ‘I am the bread of life.’ In other words he was telling them that they should get their spiritual sustenance from him.
In Luke 4:4 Jesus said ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Here we see how Jesus can be spiritual bread. Spiritual bread is God’s revelation of himself. When God’s mouth speaks we are nourished. Jesus is called ‘The Word’ in John 1:1 because he is God’s supreme revelation of himself. And just as the twelve tribes of Israel are witnesses to God’s material sustenance so the twelve apostles are witnesses to God’s spiritual sustenance – the revelation of God in Christ which is now found in the pages of the New Testament.
So the Table of Show Bread is a symbol of God’s Word – written, spoken and supremely revealed in Christ. Once again we see that the Messiah is the fulfilment of things found within the temple of God.
So as we stand in the room and look left we see the Lampstand which is the Holy Spirit given by Jesus, and as we look right we see the Table of Show Bread which is the Word brought by Jesus. These are the two main things God has given to the Church for its sustenance. And so we see that the first room inside the temple is all about God’s provision for his covenant people. And we see how these vital ingredients came through Messiah Jesus.
Some churches emphasize the Word more than the Spirit, and some emphasize the Spirit more than the Word, but God wants us to have a good balance of both. All churches need Life and Truth.
Now as we walk forward across the room past the lampstand and table we come to a big curtain which blocks our entry into the Most Holy Place. No one was allowed behind the curtain except the High Priest because inside was God’s earthly throne and sinful man could not enter God’s Presence. In fact the High Priest could only go in once a year on the Day of Atonement if he went with the blood of a lamb to atone for his sin and the sins of the nation.
The Altar of Incense:
Just in front of this curtain was the Altar of Incense. Priests would burn fragrant incense on this altar and it would rise to God as a sweet aroma before the curtain of his throne room.
In Revelations 8:3-4 it saysAnother angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.’ In Psalm 141:2 it says ‘May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.’
The rising fragrant incense is a symbol of prayer rising to God in worship. Of course prayer has many forms. The most common is spontaneous talk, but the second most common comes in the form of songs. Songs to God are prayers put to music. Music adds mood to the words giving the words a more powerful expression. I am sure we can all relate to how musical adoration rises to God’s throne.
But let’s think for a moment about the position of the Altar of Incense. It’s before the entrance to God’s throne room, the place of His Presence. Plus it is in the middle of the room just ahead of the Lampstand and the Table of Show Bread. This shows us something that is very important in the church of Jesus Christ. As believers we draw on the Spirit (the Lampstand) and the Word (the Table of Bread) to lift up God in worship (the Altar of Incense). And as we lift up God in worship we are ushered into his throne room and His Presence.
The Curtain:
But before we go into the throne room and God’s Presence we need to talk about the curtain. The curtain is obviously a barrier to God’s Presence – if we are going to enjoy His Presence it must be removed. What bars us from God’s Presence? Only sin does. But as Jesus breathed his last on the cross this curtain was ripped in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). It was a sign. Jesus’ death had made a way for all believers to enter God’s Presence. He died for the sins of the world, now those who received his sacrifice could enter God’s Presence in him.
Hebrews 9:11-12 says But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.’ Because Jesus entered the Most Holy Place in heaven with his own blood as a sacrifice for all believers the curtain blocking God’s Presence was ripped in two. This means that those who are in Christ can now enter God’s Presence in safety.
So let’s now go into the throne room and explore what’s inside.

The Most Holy Place (second room)
The Ark of the Covenant:

There was only one thing in the Most Holy Place. It was a large gold box (a chest) with a lid which had crafted gold angels on top. The box contained the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments that were given to Moses on Mt Sinai. The Ten Commandments were the basis of God’s covenant (agreement) with Israel. So the box was called the Ark of the Covenant – it was what the covenant was housed and carried in. The lid of the box was called the Mercy Seat and the angels (Cherubim) faced inwards towards the seat. This was a picture of God’s throne in heaven. It was as the writer of Hebrews said – a copy or shadow of heaven.
Israel expected to meet with God where the tablets of stone were, at the place of their agreement with him. And scripture shows that God’s Presence often manifested in a tangible way where the Ark was.
So the Ark symbolizes God’s throne and Presence while the curtain symbolizes the barrier of sin. Jesus the Messiah became the way for God’s people to enter His Presence and enjoy Him forever. This is the aim of the gospel and the aim of all Scripture.
As we think back to the words of Jesus where he claimed he would destroy the temple of the Old Covenant and raise a new temple under a the New Covenant we are struck by how thoroughly he did it. The story of the Jewish temple continues but only in Jesus the Messiah.

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