The Church Compared to the Temple (Sun. Dec. 5)

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.  Three main comparisons:  the foundation, the cornerstone, and the materials that “fitted together” make up the building as a dwelling place for God.

Note that the writer to the Hebrews speaks of both the “tabernacle” and the temple in single thought.  Likewise, the Book of Revelation combines these terms when it refers to “the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony” (NRSV Rev. 15:5).  The “tabernacle” or “Tent of Meeting” was the portable place of worship that the Israelites carried it with them when they wandered in the wilderness.  But the Israelites continued to use this moveable structure in their own land until the end of the reign of King David. Built by Solomon, the temple was the place where the sacred rites of the tabernacle (Hebrews 13:10) (Strong’s #4633, 22) were observed. The writer of Revelation calls it the “tabernacle of the testimony” because the Holy of Holies contained the sacred tablets of the Law that testified to God’s will for His people.

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).  God gave the Israelites the pattern of this sanctuary to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 26 1-27:21). With this in mind, , 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 can compare aspects of the Church to the features of the temple.  But these elements of the temple on earth 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 at the building site.

The foundation of the Old Testament temple foreshadows the foundation of the Church that is built on the apostles and prophets.  These founders 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).  It is also tested (Hebrew/Aramaic #976, 36).  In combination, these terms refer to a stone that lies at the base of a building, one that is tested, true, and substantial.

As Paul does in our reading, several New Testament authors apply this verse to Jesus Christ (Matt. 21:45, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7).  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, before the Creed in the Divine Liturgy, the priest prays: “I will love Thee O Lord my strength.  The Lord is my firm foundation, my refuge, and my deliverer” (St-Tikhon’s 1984).

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 but 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, it is easy to forget what we learn from our reading.  We disregard 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.

Works Cited

St-Tikhon’s. 1984. Service Books of the Orthodox Church. Third ed. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press.


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