The Church and the Temple: a Comparison (Sun. Nov. 22)

The word of the day is “temple .”  In our reading of Ephesians 2:14-22, St. Paul compares the Church to a holy temple that is built on a solid foundation. Further, he emphasizes that Christ is the Cornerstone who unites the Church’s members into a sacred dwelling place of God.

In our reading, Paul draws the analogy between the building of the Old Testament temple in Jerusalem and the nature of the Church. There are three main comparisons:  the foundation, the Cornerstone, and the materials that “fitted together” make up the building as a dwelling place for God.

First, let me explain that the Book of Hebrews speaks of the “tabernacle,” not the temple.   This “Tent of Meeting” was a  portable place of worship. The Israelites carried it with them when they wandered in the wilderness.  But they continued to use it in their own land until the end of the reign of King David.  The temple that Solomon built was a continuation of the sacred rites of the tabernacle (Hebrews 13:10) (Strong’s #4633, 228).   Thus, the Book of Revelation refers to “the temple of the tabernacle” (Rev. 15:5). The Orthodox Study Bible comments that the “tabernacle was itself the archetype of the temple in Jerusalem” (see Ex. 25:9, 40; Heb. 8:5, 9:11; 13:10).

Second, let me clarify that according to Exodus, God gave the pattern of this sanctuary to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 26 1-27:21). Therefore, the Book of Hebrews teaches that the tabernacle was but a “copy and shadow of heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5).  This understanding means that we will compare the Church to the features of the temple.  But these elements are but “shadows.” That is, they are imperfect outlines of the Church’s spiritual realities that they dimly represent (Strong’s #4639, 228).

The Foundation

First, note that huge, costly stones formed the foundation of Solomon’s temple. Over eighty thousand laborers cut and dressed these stones at the quarry.  They fit together so perfectly that the workmen did not have to use any hammer, ax, or other iron tool to set them in place.

The foundation of the Old Testament temple foreshadows the foundation of the Church, the apostles and prophets.  These messengers of God are far stronger and more secure than any physical stone.  And they are so fixed that they are one in their witness to Christ.  Through the earthquakes, fires, winds, and storms of history, they remain rock-solid and unwavering.  Moreover, there is no crack or fissure between them, but together they support the whole building

The Cornerstone

The prophet Isaiah promised the People of God, “See I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a test-stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” (Isaiah 28:16  Oxford Annotated)., The root of the  Hebrew word refers to a corner.  However, Isaiah’s words tie together the idea of a foundation (Hebrew/Aramaic #4143,149) and its establishment  (Hebrew/Aramaic #3245, 1160).  The writer also describes the stone as precious or weighty Hebrew/Aramaic #3368, 119 and tested (Hebrew/Aramaic #976, 36).  In combination, these terms refer to a  cornerstone that lies at the basis of a building, one that is tested, true, and substantial.

The book of Psalms associates such a stone with a worship procession. The Oxford Annotated Bible suggests, “It is tenable that the speaker is a king who has come to the temple to offer thanks for a victory” (Oxford Annotated fn. on 118:19 ff.).   In verses 118:19, the king asks to be admitted into the temple.  He says, “Open to me the gates of righteousness.” Inside the temple, the king gives thanks to God that he has prevailed when others doubted him.

As Paul does in our reading, several New Testament authors apply this verse to Jesus Christ.[i]  The Lord’s own people rejected Him.  Yet, he is the keystone that holds the whole edifice of the Church together.  In His life, death, and resurrection, Christ has confirmed all that the prophets and the psalms attributed to him:  He is the established, tested, and essential ground on which the Church stands. Thus, in the Divine Liturgy before the Creed, the priest prays: “ I will love Thee O Lord my strength. The Lord is my firm foundation, my refuge, and my deliverer” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2013).

The Materials of the Building.

Finally, the Church is made up of its members, both living and departed. The temple was a magnificent edifice made of beautiful white limestone, quarried and shaped at the site.  Thus, the workers could join the dressed stones together in a harmonious unity without disrupting the peace of the sacred place.

Similarly, the Apostle says, “You also are living stones, being built up into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”  (1 Peter 2:6). The Greek word refers to building stones for construction (Strong’s #3037, 151). But they are not inert and insensible.  They are alive (Strong’s #2198, 106-07.)  Certainly more precious than anything in creation, human persons are capable of growth in faith, life, and relationship to God and one another.  Moreover, as each member grows, the whole Church grows into a holy temple (vs. 21).

For Reflection

We may learn from this comparison of the Church with the temple that all the Church’s features are essential. The Church has no foundation without the apostles and prophets.  The Church has no unity without Christ, its Cornerstone.  And churches are just empty buildings without their members.

In this time of individualism, when so many are insisting on their own right without considering others, it is easy to forget what we learn from our reading.  We neglect the communal, corporate, and common nature of the Church.  Surely one of the lessons of this time of crisis is that we need each other.  We depend on one another not merely to pray for, help, and support one another.  But we cannot be the Church on our own without each other.  Together with one another, united in Christ, and built upon the foundation of Holy Tradition, we fulfill our calling to be the Church, the temple of the Holy Spirit.

[i] Matt. 21:45, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7


About Fr. Basil

Now retired, the Very Rev. Archpriest Basil Ross Aden has served as a parish priest, parish pastor, diocesan mission director, writer, and college teacher of New Testament and Religious Studies. He has a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of Chicago and has published daily devotional and stewardship materials as well as a college textbook on Religious Studies. He also has published papers and/or lectured on the Orthodox perspective on Luther and the Reformation. religious freedom, current issues of religion and society, and St. John Chrysostom. He is married to Sandra and has two sons and three grandchildren. He is still active as a priest as well as a writer of articles and materials on Orthodoxy and topics of faith and life today.

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