God's Spiritual Temple
by Harry Foster
(Published in "A Witness and A Testimony" magazine, 1969)
Reading: 1 Peter 2:1-10.
"Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” Then His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.” So the Jews answered and said to Him, “What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?" Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Then the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said." (John 2:13-22).
The Truth Sown and Hidden
You will notice that the incident referred to above took place at the commencement of our Lord's ministry, and it is very remarkable that there is nothing in the other Gospels of this nature which sets forth so clearly the determined counsel of God concerning the crucifixion and resurrection. He began to disclose to the inner circle of His disciples how He must be crucified, and rise again on the third day. Here we have quite a public statement right at the beginning of the Lord's ministry. This surely brings into view something of extreme importance, which gives a very big and comprehensive explanation of the mission of Christ in coming here, being crucified and being raised again - "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
You will notice that the disciples, after the resurrection, remembered that He had said this, and we are told that they believed the scriptures and the word which Jesus had said. When the Lord Jesus did rise again, so unexpectedly to these men (although they had been told so often), they naturally would remember that He had told them that He would rise again. But we are expressly told here that it was not the fact of His resurrection that they remembered, nor the fact that they had been told about it beforehand, but that after He rose again they remembered this particular saying. It came back to them - not just that Jesus was going to rise again, but this particular utterance of His. Surely that means something more than that they believed that it was written that Jesus should rise again! They came to understand something of the implication of the resurrection, and I think we find that in this particular chapter of the first letter of Peter.
Here is the real implication of Christ's resurrection, and a scripture is brought forth. He is to rise again. Yes, but His resurrection means this: that God now has, by the resurrection, a spiritual, heavenly, eternal temple in which to dwell. "Destroy this temple," the Lord Jesus said, "and in three days I will raise it up." He raised up God's temple which, in the first place, was the Lord Jesus Himself. The disciples remembered the scripture, and here in Peter's letter we have the Spirit's explanation of that abiding work done by the resurrection in the sense that God now has a spiritual, heavenly, eternal temple in which to dwell; and when we touch that we surely touch the final, and ultimate, and full purpose of God.
Peter tells us what the temple is for. On the one hand, it is that spiritual sacrifices might be offered up to God. On the other hand, we are told that it should be that from which His excellencies should be shown forth. It is a place for God's dwelling, in which He is to abide and find the satisfaction of His heart (represented by the spiritual sacrifices), and from which He is to manifest His excellent glories to the universe. That is the result of the resurrection.
Now we may see something of the value and importance of this expression of the Lord's from the way in which it was taken up and twisted by His enemies towards the end of His time here on the earth. You remember that when they sought false witnesses against Him, nothing very much came which seemed to offer any particular charge against Him until two men came and said: "This man said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days" (Matthew 26:61). Why did they lay hold of this saying? Surely there were many other things which might equally well have been brought forth as charges against the Lord Jesus! Well, of course, as Jews that hit them and it rankled in their hearts. That is the human explanation. They could never forget a word that seemed to be against their temple. But there is something even deeper. Surely Satan's hatred is being manifested in this, and since it is to be shown what his finger is out against, there comes up this question of the destroying and raising again of the temple. It would seem that there is something there against which all the powers of darkness are ranged, something which, as far as they know, is of supreme importance and value. It comes up again when the Pharisees complain about the tomb not being sufficiently guarded: "Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive. After three days I rise again" (Matthew 27:63). That had remained in their minds and was something they could not forget. When we touch this question of God's heavenly dwelling-place, the corporate heavenly Man, immediately we come into a realm of intense and bitter conflict. This is God's ultimate purpose, as it is His first purpose. His heart has always been set upon this very thing, and that is confirmed by the way in which Satan rages against it.
The Truth Apprehended
Now we pass into the time of the Pentecostal Church in the book of the Acts. We find there men who, because of their witness concerning the Lord Jesus and His resurrection, are in a realm of persecution and suffering, trial and difficulty. But it seems that, when we get beyond those first few chapters and meet this servant of the Lord called Stephen, we come into a peculiar realm of antagonism. Stephen comes forth as a man, and the first thing we are conscious of as he comes into his public ministry is that all hell is against this man. They have been persecuting the disciples, but they gnash their teeth on Stephen, and there is a tremendous uprising of all the rage and bitterness of hell against him. It is surely not going beyond the scripture to suggest that Stephen had a clearer vision of this very thing than the apostles had. We are not suggesting at all that there are any differences between these servants of the Lord, so far as their experiences are concerned. As we know, the Apostle Paul later on brought, by the Holy Spirit, a very clear explanation of the heavenly nature of the Church, and there have been some dear children of the Lord who have mistaken the explanation for the experience, and think that the Apostle Paul brought in the heavenly Church.
I think there is no doubt that these first chapters of the book of the Acts reveal that the saints of the Lord at that time had not the clear vision of what was involved in this heavenly temple, but that did not alter the fact that they were in the experience and value of it, and were living in fellowship with their blessed Lord, in heavenly union with Him; for we must always remember that the experience is one thing, and the explanation of the experience is a further thing. The experience does not wait upon the explanation. Let us not be too concerned if we have not the clearest understanding or explanation of things, but let us rather be deeply concerned that we shall be in the heavenly value of them and in the experience of them - though, of course, the explanation as given by the Holy Spirit is of great value.
Then we come to Stephen. Stephen has met the awful force and power of the devil against him, and then he is brought before the Sanhedrin. Notice the terms of the accusation! The witnesses are false, but they are as usual distorting something which is true. "This man ceaseth not to speak words against this holy place, and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place..." (Acts 6:13-14). Well, as in the case of the Lord Jesus, they were false witnesses, distorting his words, but there was something of truth in what they said. Follow through Stephen's explanation. Many good people imagine that Stephen did not answer the charge, but went off into a long story and then levelled a hot-headed explanation against the Sanhedrin, and suffered for it. Not at all! Stephen is a man filled with the Holy Ghost. He goes through the history of God's dealings with His children from the time when the God of glory appeared unto Abraham, and keeps this charge in view until he comes to the end of the story. He tells how Solomon built a house and said: "The heaven is my throne, and the earth the footstool of my feet: what manner of house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?" (Acts 7:49-50) - and he stopped there. If God does not dwell in a house made with hands, where does He dwell? Stephen was reciting a well-known passage of scripture to men who had quite probably studied the scriptures and knew them. Now you know that when a passage of scripture is quoted and the one who is quoting stops before it is completed, how instantly in your mind you finish the quotation. This was a very familiar passage and perhaps every man in his mind said: "But to this man will I look..." (Isaiah 66:2), and the Man who was very much in view was the Lord Jesus. That was why Stephen did not have to say any more to ram home the explanation!
Here is the point. You are speaking against the temple - but what is God's concern? What is God's plan and place? What position has He in this great building? Well, the Almighty does not dwell in houses made with hands. Then where does He dwell? "...to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at my word." You do not have far to go before Stephen says: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56). A heavenly Man at God's right hand in the power of resurrection? They would not forgive Stephen for that! All hell rose up in an awful ferment of fury against him. Why? Because this is the ultimate, full thing of God. Where is God's holy, heavenly, eternal dwelling place? "To this Man will I look" - the Lord Jesus Christ! He always was, of course, God's heavenly Man; but the value and the purpose of the resurrection is that - as we see so clearly in 1 Peter 2 - by His resurrection God not only has the Personal Man in whom He dwells, but also His corporate Man, His heavenly, holy, eternal dwelling-place.
Now this is the emphasis in my own heart. The Lord Jesus said that if that temple were destroyed, in three days He would raise it again. That raising again of His temple, His body, of Him who was, and is, the eternal temple of God, has resulted in this: that God has secured in Him, beyond any doubt, that which His own heart has sought from all eternity - a spiritual temple in which to dwell, wherein to find His own heart's rest, and from which to manifest His glory.
The Violent Reaction to the Truth
You notice the reaction of the Jews to what Jesus said in relation to the three days: "Forty and six years was this temple in building." Herod was the man responsible, and he would not be forty-six years at a job without making a very good job of it! As a matter of fact, that building in which our Lord stood was one of the wonders of the world, and yet that was not where God dwelt. So the forty-six years and the three days not only stand in contrast as to time, but set before us this real contrast of what a wonderful building for God can be as against the heavenly temple which God has built for Himself. Oh, what a contrast! I cannot describe that temple at Jerusalem, but most of us have probably read some account of its beauty and wonder. But that was not where God dwelt. Where did He dwell? Peter tells us: "Unto whom coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of men..." See the contrast! Here is a great, overwhelming, impressive, beautiful, magnificent building, and over against it a very ordinary Man. The Word describes Him as 'a root out of a dry ground, with no form nor comeliness, and when we see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him'. No value was set on Him, and He was not esteemed - and yet this is God's heavenly Temple. We need to pull ourselves up over this, for we have so often imagined that God's temple must be a world wonder. If it is full of God's glory it must impress people! We have to learn that God's glory is a very different thing from the world's glory, and does not impress the people on earth, for it is not revealed to them.
The Truth Still Largely Hidden
How many of the Lord's people are straining, striving, praying, and desiring that the Church here on earth should be a world wonder, impressing people by its magnificence, by its form, by its standing among men! No! That is not where God dwells, and that is not what He is doing. It is this Man, rejected by the builders, disallowed, despised, who is God's Living Stone, His heavenly Temple.
That refers not only to the life-time of the Lord Jesus, but, if you pass over to the time of the Epistles, you see a glory of God in man joined to Jesus Christ; but it is not very glorious and magnificent so far as earth is concerned. You remember the account that the Apostle gives in 2 Corinthians 3 in which he contrasts the glories of the Gospel with the glories of the law, and he tells how there was a great glory associated with the law when Moses came down from the Mount. That was a very impressive sight, but the whole point of the Apostle's account was to show how very much the new covenant excels that in glory. It is of surpassing glory, so that that old time of the first covenant seems to have no glory 'by reason of that glory which excelleth'. So we might ask: If Moses was such an extraordinary sight, and this is a glory that excelleth, where is the man that is the herald of such a covenant? He is a despised outcast, broken, pressed, trampled on, beaten, imprisoned, scourged, discredited, poor, as having nothing. And yet, was not Paul, above all who have been on this earth, a wonderful example among men of the heavenly glory of those who are associated with Jesus Christ? There was no earthly magnificence about him, and he became even more discredited and despised; but that is always the way.
Suffering and Glory
Peter is the Apostle who speaks of glory, but he is the Apostle who speaks at the same time of suffering. He is amongst that company in the glory of God's heavenly, wonderful work, but you would not think so to look at them. They are going through fiery trials; they are suffering, and it is not a very heroic suffering so far as the world is concerned. They are suffering as Christians, and "Christian" was a very nasty word by which to be named in those days. We do not realise how much contempt a name can convey. Here are people suffering as Christians and they are people filled with the glory of the Lord. That is God's heavenly temple. There is a wonderful inward glory of fellowship with Him, but so far as the world is concerned, the Stone which the builders rejected is an unworthy thing. We need to remember that!
Even when we have laid aside our more wonderful ambitions concerning the Lord's work, and even when we come to realise something of the heavenly and spiritual nature of the Church, there often lingers with us a desire to make, perhaps of our little local assembly, a world wonder, something that shall impress people. Not to impress them in the sense of wealth and influence of course, for we may have got beyond that realm, but there is still sometimes the desire to impress people with the very spirituality and efficiency of the thing. 'This is an example of the heavenly Church here on earth!' No! If you are trying to get a spiritual work that shall be a world wonder, you are not doing what God is after. 'Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner stone' - but it is rejected of men, though held in great honour by God and by those who believe. It is an honour which this world can never understand, and which the Lord does not allow to be displayed here on earth. It is quite obvious that in some cases He takes pains to remove those very things which might present something to be recognised by men. Thus He takes Moses and makes him a nothing, a nobody; He takes Paul, and all the things in Paul which might seem to be of value, even for the Church of God, have to be cast away, until he becomes this messenger of the Gospel, a despised, rejected outcast. But Paul knew it was all right, for he had the vision of the heavenly side of things.
Forty and six years it took them to build the temple, and I understand that it was not finished then. That is the sort of thing that happens when you are trying to build something for God! It has not taken the Lord two thousand years to build His temple. He did not even take those three days of which the Lord Jesus spoke. We know His resurrection did not take three days, but was actually on the third day. What did God do? In the twinkling of an eye there was a finished work by the resurrection. It did not take the Lord Jesus time, for this raising of Him was a timeless thing, though actually there was a moment in time when He was raised from the dead. Man's building takes a long process and period, and then it is not finished. What God does He does in a timeless way, and it abides forever.
The Jews were afraid that the Lord Jesus would rise again, because they knew that Lazarus had risen from the dead. When Lazarus arose the stone had to be removed and the grave clothes taken away, and they thought that, if only they could seal the tomb, even if Jesus did rise again He would not get very far because the tomb was blocked up. The angel rolled the stone away, but not for the Lord to come out; he rolled it away so that people could see that He was not there. In a moment God raised Jesus from the dead, and in a moment God had laid in Zion His Living Stone. By that raising He had in Christ that upon which His heart had been set through all eternity. In the resurrection that great and wonderful and eternal work was a finished thing.
Finished and Yet Proceeding
Looking at this from another point of view, we read about the whole temple growing and the Body making increase of itself. Look at it from a heavenly side and we see that this building is finished and the work is done. If, by the Holy Ghost, we can lay hold of this it will mean a tremendous strength to our hearts. God is not taking forty-six years, nor any time, to build His Church. There is a sense in which, by the resurrection, this is completed. It was as secure in Christ on that resurrection morning as it ever will be. What strength to the heart of a despondent, struggling servant of the Lord who sees so little and desires to see so much of God's true, spiritual building! May the Lord show us, and give us grace to be ever reaching out to Him in earnest faith and prayer, that He may do His work; but we shall find strength for our prayer and strength for our ministry if we get God's viewpoint, which is that at the end of that third day Jesus Christ raised up God's holy, heavenly temple, a finished thing. Praise His Name!
By Men or by God
Now notice these forty and six years during which these men were building. They were trying to build something for God - and that is just the trouble. God's heavenly dwelling-place is not like that. We read that it is a spiritual temple, and we shall understand something of that which is involved if we see the contrast. This great wonder of the world was what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls: "Of this building" (Hebrews 9:11). It was made with hands, with laborious planning and straining and effort to build up something with a good, strong foundation here on this earth, that God might have something for Himself. That is the opposite of His spiritual temple. And yet, how many of us have been engaged in that very thing!
You notice what happens when people try to build something for God (for God, mark you!). Then they have to go on and try to maintain it for God, and before long they have got the thing in their own hands and are grasping it for themselves. You get a feeling that things are not quite right as soon as you open the Gospel by John, but you have not got very far before you find this most significant phrase: "Now the passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand" (John 6:4). You do not find that term in the Old Testament, for it was Jehovah's Passover. Now it is the Jews' Passover. They have got it themselves and are holding it and that always happens when people try to build something for God. And look at the state the building was in! Contamination had come into it, and it was a defiled thing.
Oh, the defilement and contradictions that come into anything that we try to build up for God! We may do it with the very best intentions, but it is a very dangerous thing to be a builder. These builders rejected the true Stone, and whenever people on this earth try to build up something for God, what eventually happens is that they reject the Living Stone. It is a sad thing, but true. The very fact that they are so busily engaged in trying to build something for the Lord brings them into the realm where they really reject the Living Stone and make their own edifice. You see the contrast. The Lord says: "Behold, I lay in Zion..." It is not the earthly Zion now and is not built by human pains. It is a poor conception of the Lord's work to imagine that because the Jews would not have Him and He was driven out, He had to found a temple amongst the Gentiles. That at its best, when it was pure and spiritual for God, was only a type, but it was a shadow of the things which are to come. God says: "Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner stone..."
A Resurrection Temple
There are very practical issues from all this. It is by the resurrection that God's heavenly dwelling-place is obtained, which means that we need to know the resurrection. To know the resurrection is to be made conformable to His death, and in the final summing up it is, as the Apostle says: "That I may know him." Therein we have what is involved in being in that which is God's true, heavenly work - to know Christ and to come into an ever-increasing knowledge of Him. That is the way, and that involves in actual, continual experience, this basis of death and resurrection. That was how God's purpose was obtained. There had to be the death; and then He rose from the dead, and in actual experience it was as a practical working thing. Our life in that heavenly temple means for us a continual series of experiences on this basis of coming to a place which seems to be utter destruction, and then God raising from the dead.
The Devil's Hatred
For one reason this is because the devil is always out against the thing that is God's chief concern. So, right up to the very end, when the Man-child is caught up to the Throne, it is in such an atmosphere, and that rapture is a resurrection from the dead. The dragon stands there ready to devour, and here are the saints of the Lord brought to the last extremity. And then God's purpose is fully and finally realised as, out of the very jaws of Satan, He catches up His Church. And this principle is the same all the way through.
This is encouragement for us, because it explains a lot that would otherwise be inexplicable. Why do we go through such terrible experiences? Why does everything seem to collapse and break up? Have we failed? Is it unbelief? Are we wrong? The principle of the heavenly temple is death and resurrection, death and resurrection! For us it means a series of experiences when, for the moment, we seem to be utterly swallowed up. It is as if once again the challenge has gone out from the Lord to His enemies: "Destroy this temple!", and the devil takes Him at His word. But the Lord continues: "I will raise it up." That is the experience through which the Lord is bringing us, and it is necessary for this reason: that, so far as our personal and practical experience goes, God's building is largely a matter of His being able to break down that which is not of Himself. Perhaps that is the three days - death really working, and the delays in our experience are often, not solely because of His building, but because through a certain period there is some breaking down process going on. We shall probably see that growth is more in the nature of swift acts of the Lord. We come to a new place, but the process is one of disintegration, of breaking down and despair. That is the way the Lord leads because, in practical experience, this resurrection can only be on the basis of death, and it is a continual application of the Cross making the death real, and putting out of the way that which hinders God. But let us always hold in view this fact: that it is by the resurrection that God has secured everything.
In one sense we are not waiting, and God is not waiting to be able to build His heavenly temple, to have His heavenly Man, for He has Him there already. The resurrection has done that, and our strength consists in laying hold of that, and believing that with all our hearts. Notice the abiding meaning of that which God does! The temple was forty-six years in building, but it did not last another forty-six years. The disciples could not believe that. When the Lord said: "Your house is left unto you desolate!" they came back and said: 'Lord, look at these buildings, these great stones!' Then the Lord said: "See these great buildings - and there shall not be left one stone upon another!" Looked at from a human point of view: there is here a well-grounded and founded piece of architecture, so strong that it would seem to last for ever. On the other hand, here is a poor, frail Man, whose life, it would seem, could be taken away in a flash. Which is going to abide? From an earthly point of view the building will abide, and the human life is snuffed out like a candle. Those poor Hebrew Christians to whom the Apostle was writing were tremendously attached to all these things, and they found it hard to leave them, go right outside the camp and be united to Christ, whereas when they had a temple and recognition by the Roman Government they seemed so secure. They little knew how few years were to pass before not one stone of that temple would be left on another. The Lord said through that very Apostle that He was going to shake once more the heavens and the earth, and He reminded them that they were inheriting a Kingdom which could not be shaken, but it looked so different. It looked so precarious just to be in that heavenly position. There was no security for them here on earth, no recognition, and that is a very real consideration today for many servants of the Lord.
How we do want something that has a standing before men and is recognised, a kind of something that we can fall back on and feel secure! This attachment to a heavenly Christ is all very well, and we are hoping for it in the future, but while we are here on earth we want something more solid and more reliable. Not many years passed before that whole temple was in ruins, and a ploughshare was being driven through them. It was gone and now these people were really in a desperate plight, for they had nothing. But those who are united with the Lord, in heavenly union with Him, are unmoved, even though everything is reduced to ruins with not one stone upon another, and though perhaps the visible thing that represented the Lord here has gone. "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision" (Psalm 2:4).
An Eternal Temple
Which is the most reliable? The temple looked such a great place, but the Lord said one day that a greater than the temple was there. It is worthwhile to be united with Him. When everything else is shaken, He is unshakeable, He abides, He is eternal. Having come to the Living Stone, we know that blessed position of being united with Him, where nothing can ever move or change God's eternal purpose.
We are not striving nor trying to climb up towards that position, and our strength is to recognise it. In the Epistle to the Ephesians we read that we are raised, we are placed there. It is true that there are plenty of enemies, but in Christ we are above the enemies. So in the Epistle to the Colossians we are told to seek the things that are above. What is the basis? That we have died and are risen with Him! That is why we are to seek the things that are above! It is something which was done once and for all in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
Let our hearts lay hold of that. God has laid His Living Stone in Zion, and there we stand by His grace.