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In the Old Testament, God’s presence with His people was most vividly manifested in the earthly symbols of Israel’s tabernacle and temple. As symbols or types, these institutions pointed to a future fulfillment. That fulfillment is found in Jesus Christ, the full and final manifestation of God’s presence with His people.
The Israelite high priest could only enter once a year into the holiest inner chamber of the temple, which was the locus of God’s presence among His people. In so doing, the high priest served as an intermediary for the people, coming into the presence of God on their behalf.
At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain separating the inner chamber of the temple from the outer chamber was torn down the middle (Matt. 27:51). This event powerfully symbolized the fact that the earthly temple was no longer the location of God’s presence. Jesus Himself is the new temple, something He spoke of even before His death (John 2:19). As both the final sacrifice for sins and the priest who offers the sacrifice (see Heb. 4–10), Jesus brings us into the joy of experiencing the intimate presence of God, the reality at the heart of temple worship in the Old Testament.
In the gospel of John, Jesus speaks of how He would come to dwell with His people after His death, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (see John 14; 17). John 1:14 even describes Jesus’ entire life as a “tabernacling,” or dwelling, among God’s people. Jesus, as the true temple of God, brings God’s people into God’s presence.
The New Testament, however, does not merely speak of Jesus as a new temple. The church is also called a temple. For example, in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul rebukes the Corinthian believers for allowing themselves to be consumed with the earthly prestige of their leaders. He urges them to recognize that the church is God’s building project, not theirs (1 Cor. 3:9). In fact, they must be brought to see that it is God’s temple, and that if individual members of the church hinder the building work, they will face God’s judgment (3:16–17).
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for the sexual permissiveness rampant in their church. The reason this is so offensive to God is that the individual believer is a temple of the Holy Spirit (v. 19), and nothing impure can be allowed to enter God’s temple (Lev. 11:45).
Importantly, 1 Corinthians 3 describes the entire church in its corporate existence as the temple, whereas 1 Corinthians 6 speaks of the individual believer as a temple. This captures an important dynamic in the New Testament: salvation is not merely about the salvation of individuals as individuals. An individual believer’s salvation— as important as it is—is incomplete if it does not bring that person into a vital relationship with the corporate people— the temple—of God.
One last Pauline text has an important bearing on the idea of the church as temple. In Ephesians 2:11–22, Paul writes movingly of how Gentiles, although once separated from God’s people, have become co-heirs of God’s promises through the death of Jesus Christ. Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Christ are being made by the power of the Holy Spirit into one “structure, being joined together” and growing “into a holy temple in the Lord” and a “dwelling place for God” (vv. 21–22). In this passage Jesus Christ is described as the “cornerstone” of the temple of God (v. 20), which indicates His absolute authority over this new temple.
Finally, Revelation 21:22 makes it clear that there will no longer be a temple in the new creation, not because God’s presence has somehow been diminished, but precisely the opposite: since sin and impurity have been completely banished from the renewed creation, there is no place where God’s saving presence is not felt.