Temple, tabernacle

A Temple is a special building where people come to worship and encounter God. Three successive temples were built on the Temple Mount in the Jewish city of Jerusalem. The first of these succeeded the earlier portable Tabernacle whose construction and use was prescribed in Exodus chapters 25-27, during the years that the Israelites spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Have the people make a sanctuary (holy place) for me, and I will dwell among them' (Exodus 25:8).

The Tabernacle

The Tabernacle and its furnishings were made of valuable materials: gold, acacia wood and fine coloured hangings. At its heart was the ‘Holy of Holies', hidden behind a curtain and only entered once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. In the ‘Holy of Holies' there was the Ark of the Covenant, and two golden angels. The outer part of the complex was called the Tent of Meeting. God was to be approached with extreme reverence, through the appointed priests, who regularly offered a complex series of animal sacrifices, to gain his forgiveness and favour. When the Tabernacle was completed, and consecrated with anointing oil, ‘the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle' (Exodus 40:34).

Solomon's Temple

Later, when the Jews were well-established with Jerusalem as their capital, King David wanted to build a permanent house for God: ‘Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of the covenant of the Lord is under a tent.' (1 Chronicles 17:1).

Solomon's templeHaving been told that he could not build it himself because he had been a man of war, David collected magnificent materials so that his son Solomon could build it. The construction, following the pattern and proportions of the Tabernacle, is described in 2 Chronicles chapters 2-5. Once again, after the consecration ceremony, it was said that ‘the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.' Later, the prophet Isaiah would describe a vision of this glory (Isaiah 6:1-8).

Isaiah also prophesied that God's house would become ‘a house of prayer for all nations.' (Isaiah 56:7). He and other prophets repeatedly stressed that it was justice and right living, not ritual sacrifices, that God wanted (Amos 5:21-24).

The Second Temple

Solomon's temple was later destroyed by the Babylonians, when King Nebuchadnezzar carried the Jews off into exile in 586 BCE. It was rebuilt by returning captives about seventy years later, as described in the book of Ezra.

Herod's temple

King Herod the Great built a magnificent temple c. 20 BCE, but this was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and has never been rebuilt.

Jesus and the Temple

Jesus clearing the temple of merchants and tradersJesus was first brought to the temple as a baby. He also found his way there at the age of 12, on a family visit to Jerusalem at Passover (Luke 2:41-51). As an adult, he often taught in its outer courts. However on one visit he caused a stir by throwing out the traders and money changers who were turning ‘his father's house' into a centre of trade and exploitation (John 2:13-16). Equally controversial was his statement, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.' John's Gospel suggests that Jesus was in fact foretelling his death and resurrection:

‘The temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said' (John 2:19-22). This figurative use of the word temple to mean the body of a person in whom God's Spirit lives, is taken up by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? Therefore honour God with your body.'

At the moment of Jesus' death, ‘the curtain of the temple' is said to have been ‘torn in two from top to bottom' (Matthew 27:51). This curtain kept the Holy of Holies separate, so its tearing was understood to symbolise the opening of free access to God for everyone, through the sacrifice of Jesus' death on the cross.

Related topics

Big ideas: Anointing; Exile; Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel; Passover; Death and Resurrection; Redemption, salvation; Cross, crucifixion

Other cultural references

Herbert's The Temple

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.