It is little wonder that the church was a mystery to the Old Testament saints.8 Who could ever imagine that God could dwell among His people as Jesus promised and as Paul describes?
16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you9 (John 14:16-18).
19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
The purpose of this lesson will be to trace the story of the birth of the church through the Bible, to see how God has worked to display His glory in and through the church.
The church is the consummation of God’s eternal plan to dwell among His people on the earth. The story begins way back in Old Testament times with none other than the rascal Jacob.
10 Meanwhile Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 He reached a certain place, where he decided to camp because the sun had gone down. He took one of the stones and placed it near his head. Then he fell asleep in that place 12 and had a dream. He saw a stairway erected on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens. The angels of God were going up and coming down it 13 and the Lord stood at its top. He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. All the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name and that of your descendants. 15 I am with you! I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you!” 16 Then Jacob woke up and thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, but I did not realize it!” 17 He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:10-17)
Jacob was not doing very well with his family these days. Having lost his wrestling match with Esau in his mother’s womb (Genesis 25:21-26), Jacob found himself in second place. He was not about to be outwitted again. First, Jacob managed to “purchase” Esau’s birthright (Genesis 25:27-34), and then he (with much encouragement from his mother) successfully deceived his aging father so that he pronounced his blessing on him, thinking he was Esau (Genesis 27:1-41). Jacob was his mother’s child indeed. It was by staying at home and cooking (two fateful meals), while Esau was out hunting in the field, that Jacob managed to gain both the birthright and the patriarchal blessing.
Esau was furious and was simply biding his time until Isaac died; then he fully intended to kill Jacob and retrieve what he believed was rightfully his (Genesis 27:41). There is no mention that either Jacob or Esau was aware of the prophecy concerning these two boys, given to Rebekah while she was still pregnant (Genesis 25:22-23). It was Rebekah’s idea to have Jacob leave the country until Esau cooled down. It was all done in the guise of finding a “godly” wife (Genesis 27:42—28:5). Once again, Isaac fell for the scheme.
Jacob was thus fleeing for his life. Granted, Rebekah had said that he needed to be gone to her brother Laban’s house for “only a few days” (Genesis 27:44), but Jacob had to know better than that. It was no small journey to Haran in the first place. On his journey from Beersheba toward Haran, Jacob spent the night under the stars, with a rock for a pillow. He had a most unusual dream that night. He dreamed that a ladder was set up on the land, reaching up into heaven. On this ladder, the angels were ascending and descending. God then reiterated the promise He had made to Abraham and Isaac to Jacob. God would give this land – the land on which the ladder was set – to Jacob and his descendants. His descendants would be numerous, and in Jacob and his seed,10 He would bless all the families of the earth. Most significant of all, I believe, is God’s assurance that He will protect Jacob and bring him back safely to this land.
Jacob was impressed, and rightly so. His words reveal his understanding of the vision he had been given.
16 Then Jacob woke up and thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, but I did not realize it!” 17 He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:16-17)
Jacob took note of the place where the ladder was standing. This place, he reasoned, was a holy place. God was there, and He did not even realize it (until his dream). This was God’s dwelling place. This place was somehow “the gate of heaven,” the place where heaven and earth met, where men on earth found access to heaven. As a result, Jacob named the place Beth-el, the house of God. This seems to have been a major turning point in Jacob’s life. It certainly provided a strong incentive for him to return to Israel (in spite of the danger of doing so).
For now, let us recognize that God had chosen to identify Himself with a particular place – Israel. It was this place where God and men would somehow meet. It was this place where God had chosen to dwell. Only time would reveal the full meaning of what had happened to Jacob on that fateful night.
Many years passed, and Jacob finally did return to Bethel and to the land of Israel. But it was not yet time for him or his descendants to possess the land. Years earlier, God had informed Abraham:
13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country. They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. 14 But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 But as for you, you will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit” (Genesis 15:13-16).
Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and it was Joseph and Egypt that God used to save Israel (Jacob) and his family (see Genesis 50:20). Jacob’s descendants greatly multiplied in Egypt, in spite of their adversity. Eventually the time came for God to deliver His people from Egypt and return them to the land of Israel to possess it. After passing through the Red Sea, the nation came to Mount Sinai, where God gave the Israelites the law. God warned the people not to draw near too near:
16 And on the third day in the morning there were thunders and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the lower end of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire; and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook greatly. 19 When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice. 20 And the Lord came down on Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain; and the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and solemnly warn the people, lest they force their way through to the Lord to look, and many of them perish” (Exodus 19:16-21).
God’s presence there on that mountain was terrifying, so much so that the people were too frightened to draw near. They gladly accepted Moses as their mediator:
18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when they people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).
God’s presence among His people was vital. Moses did not wish to go on unless God remained with them:
12 Then Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have been saying to me, ‘Bring this people up,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. But you said, ‘I know you by name, and also you have found favor in my sight.’ 13 And now, if I have found favor in your sight, show me your way, that I may know you, that I may continue to find favor in your sight. And see that this nation is your people. 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here. 16 For in what way will it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we will be distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:12-16)
The problem was that these were a sinful, stiff-necked people. How could a holy God dwell in their midst? The solution is found in the law itself. First, God gave His law that forbade things which were offensive to Him. Second, God provided a sacrificial system, where sins could be temporarily atoned for. Men could not keep the law that God gave; thus the sacrificial system was provided so that atonement could be made until the “Lamb of God” came to atone for sins “once for all” (see John 1:29; Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 9). Third, God established various boundaries, assuring that sinful men would not come too near. This is especially evident in the tabernacle, where only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, and just once a year.
Even when Moses asked to see God’s glory, it was necessary for God to shield his view, so that he would not look directly upon Him and die:
18 And he said, “Show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before your face, and I will proclaim the Lord by name before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” 20 And he said, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Here is a place by me; you will station yourself on a rock. 22 And when my glory passes by, then I will put you in a cleft in the rock and will cover you with my hand while I pass by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:18-23).
When all of the precautionary separators or barriers were in place, God’s presence did come and fill the tabernacle, as it later did the temple:
34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35).
10 Once the priests left the holy place, a cloud filled the Lord’s temple. 11 The priests could not carry out their duties because of the cloud; the Lord’s glory filled his temple (1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chronicles 5:11-14; 7:1-3).
Israel’s sins resulted in the departure of God’s glory,12 the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, and the destruction of the temple, just as the Lord had warned:
19 “But if you people ever turn away from me, fail to obey the regulations and rules I instructed you to keep, and decide to serve and worship other gods, 20 then I will remove you from my land I have given you, I will abandon this temple I have consecrated with my presence, and I will make you an object of mockery and ridicule among all the nations. 21 As for this temple, which was once majestic, everyone who passes by it will be shocked and say, ‘Why did the Lord do this to this land and this temple?’ 22 Others will then answer, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord God of their ancestors, who led them out of Egypt. They embraced other gods whom they worshiped and served. That is why he brought this disaster down on them’” (2 Chronicles 7:19-22; see also Deuteronomy 28:36-37, 41; 2 Kings 24:20—25:21; Lamentations 2).
God also promised that He would restore His people, freeing them from their bondage, and bring them back to the land of Israel:
1 “Now when all these things happen to you—the blessing and the curse I have set before you—and you remember them in all the nations where the Lord your God has exiled you, 2 if you turn to the Lord your God and listen to him just as I am commanding you today—you and your descendants—with your whole mind and being, 3 then the Lord your God will reverse your captivity and have pity on you. He will turn and gather you from all the peoples among whom he has scattered you. 4 Even if any of your dispersed are under the most distant skies, from there the Lord your God will gather and bring you back. 5 Then he will bring you to the land your ancestors possessed and you also will possess it; he will do better for you and multiply you more than he did your ancestors. 6 The Lord your God will also cleanse your heart and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your mind and being, in order to live” (Deuteronomy 30:1-6).
The day finally came for God to deliver the Jews from their captivity and to return them to the Promised Land. They found Jerusalem in shambles and their glorious temple destroyed. Work soon began to rebuild the temple. When the foundation was laid, there was great celebration, but it was mixed with the tears of those who had seen the glory of the previous temple:
10 When the builders established the Lord’s temple, the priests, ceremonially attired and with their clarions, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with their cymbals, stood to praise the Lord according to the instructions left by King David of Israel. 11 With antiphonal response they sang, praising and glorifying the Lord: “For he is good; his loving kindness toward Israel is forever.” All the people gave a loud shout as they praised the Lord when the temple of the Lord was established. 12 Many of the priests, the Levites, and the leaders—older people who had seen with their own eyes the former temple while it was still established—were weeping loudly, and many others raised their voice in a joyous shout. 13 People were unable to tell the difference between the sound of joyous shouting and the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people were shouting so loudly that the sound was heard a long way off (Ezra 3:10-13).
Through the prophet Haggai, God addressed this mourning, putting this whole matter into perspective:
1 On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the Lord spoke again through the prophet Haggai: 2 “Ask the following question to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak, and the remnant of the people, 3 ‘Who among you survivors saw the former splendor of this temple? How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it appear as nothing by comparison? 4 Even so, take heart, Zerubbabel,’ says the Lord. ‘Take heart, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you citizens of the land,’ says the Lord, ‘and begin to work. For I am with you,’ says the sovereign Lord. 5 ‘Do not fear because I made a promise to your ancestors when they left Egypt and my spirit even now testifies to you.’ 6 Moreover, the sovereign Lord says: ‘In just a little while I will once again shake the sky and the earth, the sea and the dry ground. 7 I will also shake up all the nations, and they will offer their treasures; then I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the sovereign Lord. 8 ‘The silver and gold will be mine,’ says the sovereign Lord. 9 ‘The coming splendor of this temple will be greater than that of former times,’ the sovereign Lord declares, ‘and in this place I will give peace’” (Haggai 2:1-9, emphasis mine).
It appears to me that the weeping of the “old timers” was due to the external inferiority of the second temple. It certainly did not have the splendor of the first temple. But was this what made the temple great? Was external beauty what should have been important? As I understand the Word of God through Haggai, the second temple was great because of what it anticipated. God was with His people; His Spirit was dwelling in their midst13 (Haggai 2:4-5). God was with them. That was what mattered.14 And more than this, the second temple was but a foretaste of something far greater that was yet to come, something that is still yet to come – God dwelling among His people in the new heavens and the new earth. The writer to the Hebrews will pick up on Haggai 2:6-7, showing us that this glorious event is still future (see Hebrews 12:18-29). The glory of the temple is not to be found in the artistry or in the gold, but in the presence of God Himself, dwelling among His people.
God did come to dwell among His people in the Person of His beloved Son:
14 Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. 15 John testified about him and cried out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” 16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known (John 1:14-18, emphasis mine).
This footnote in the NET Bible explains what it meant for our Lord Jesus to “take up residence” among men:
The Greek word translated took up residence (skhnovw, skhnow) alludes to the OT tabernacle, where the Shekinah, the visible glory of God’s presence, resided. The author is suggesting that this glory can now be seen in Jesus (note the following verse). The verb used here may imply that the Shekinah glory that used to be found in the tabernacle has taken up residence in the person of Jesus. Cf. also John 2:19-21. The Word became flesh. This verse constitutes the most concise statement of the incarnation in the New Testament. John 1:1 makes it clear that the Logos was fully God, but 1:14 makes it clear that he was also fully human. A Docetic interpretation is completely ruled out. Here for the first time the Logos of 1:1 is identified as Jesus of Nazareth—the two are one and the same. Thus this is the last time the word logos is used in the Fourth Gospel to refer to the second person of the Trinity. From here on it is Jesus of Nazareth who is the focus of John’s Gospel.
The glory of God that once indwelt the tabernacle, and later the temple, came to earth in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Late in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, our Lord is linked with yet another Old Testament manifestation of God’s presence:
45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and exclaimed, “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus replied, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!” 50 Jesus said to him, “Because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 He continued, “I tell all of you the solemn truth—you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:45-51, emphasis mine).
Because of what Jesus had said to Nathanael, he believed that Jesus was the Messiah. That is a wonderful reality, but Nathanael does not yet fully grasp just all that being Messiah means. Jesus takes Nathanael back to Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28, to which we referred at the beginning of this lesson. As a result of his dream about the ladder, Jacob rightly believed that this place (Bethel) was the dwelling place of God, the place where heaven and earth intersected, the place of access to heaven.
Jacob’s attention was fixed on the ground on which the ladder was placed. Jacob was impressed that God somehow dwelled in this physical place – Bethel. What Jesus tells Nathanael has everything to do with this. Jacob saw the land as all-important – “this place.” It was important, but Jesus takes this to a whole new level. It was not the ground on which the ladder was placed that was all-important, but the ladder itself. The ladder was the gateway to heaven, as it were. And Jesus was that ladder! Jesus was the Messiah, Who came to earth as the one Mediator between God and men:
5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
Jesus was God dwelling (tabernacling) among men. This theme is picked up, I believe, in the very next chapter of John:
12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there a few days. 13 Now the Jewish feast of Passover was near, so Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple courts those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting at tables. 15 So he made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple courts, with the sheep and the oxen. He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold the doves he said, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will devour me.” 18 So then the Jewish leaders responded, “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” 19 Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” 20 Then the Jewish leaders said to him, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and are you going to raise it up in three days?” 21 But Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 So after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the saying that Jesus had spoken (John 2:12-22, emphasis mine).
Jesus spoke of Himself as God’s temple, God’s dwelling place. No wonder John says that Jesus “tabernacled” among men (John 1:14). Wherever Jesus was, God was there. Wherever Jesus was, men could worship God by worshiping Him. This is precisely the point of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. When Jesus asked this woman to call her husband, she responded that she had no husband. Our Lord’s reply made it clear that Jesus knew this woman’s story completely, that nothing was hidden from Him. The woman concluded that Jesus must be a prophet, and so she inquired of Him about the great Jewish/Samaritan debate over the proper place of worship:
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But a time is coming—and now is here—when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (the one called Christ); “whenever he comes, he will tell us everything.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I, the one speaking to you, am he” (John 4:19-26).
I believe that Jesus is telling this woman more than she could understand at the moment. He is telling her that it is no longer a matter of where to worship, but rather of whom to worship. Worship the Messiah! And when the woman asked just whom that might be, Jesus informed her, “I … am” (4:26). Jesus is God dwelling among men. It is He that is to be worshiped. The right place is no longer the issue; the right person is.
All this leads me to understand John 14-16 in a different way. I have always been inclined to think of this passage as our Lord’s words of personal comfort to the disciples. It was that, of course (see John 14:1; 16:6), but it was more than this. Jesus, I believe, was speaking to His disciples as those who would constitute the founders of His church (remember Matthew 16:18). Jesus speaks of His absence as something better than His physical presence, because His presence will continue in a more intimate way through the Holy Spirit, Whom He was about to send:
7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:7-11).
15 “If you love me, you will obey my commandments. 16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you. 19 In a little while the world will not see me any longer, but you will see me; because I live, you will live too. 20 You will know at that time that I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you” (John 14:15-20).
The Spirit would call to their remembrance the things Jesus had told them and enable them to understand these things (John 14:25-26; 16:13-14). The Spirit would empower their preaching by convicting the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:8-11). But most of all, I believe, the Spirit would dwell within the church, and within each individual believer, manifesting the presence of Jesus. In other words, our Lord’s departure (resurrection and ascension) was not the end of God dwelling among men through Christ, but the beginning of God dwelling within men through the Holy Spirit Whom Christ sent from heaven.
I now view Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit in the Book of Acts in a somewhat different way. There are but four times in the Book of Acts when the Spirit falls upon believers in a “pentecostal way” (Acts chapters 2, 8,15 10, 19). In each instance, the Spirit comes upon a group of people, rather than upon an individual. In none of these instances does the person who receives the Spirit do anything to bring about the event. It would also seem that the coming of the Spirit took men by surprise. It was not something they were seeking to experience.
I would like to suggest that there is a similarity between the way God’s presence came down upon the temple and the way God’s presence (through the Spirit) came upon the church.
1 When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the Lord’s splendor filled the temple. 2 The priests were unable to enter the Lord’s temple because the Lord’s splendor filled the Lord’s temple. 3 When all the Israelites saw the fire come down and the Lord’s splendor over the temple, they got on their knees with their faces downward toward the pavement. They worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “Certainly he is good; certainly his loyal love endures!” (2 Chronicles 7:1-3, emphasis mine)
When God’s presence filled the temple, fire came down from heaven, consuming the sacrifices. As a result, the glory of the Lord filled the temple. In response, people fell on their knees and began to praise God. Now consider the similarity of this incident in the temple with the first Pentecost in Acts 2:
1 Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:1-4).
Pentecost was a visible manifestation of the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell the church. In each and every instance in Acts, the Holy Spirit fell upon a particular group of people. In Acts 2, it was the Jewish followers of Jesus. In Acts 8, it was upon Samaritan believers. In Acts 10, the Spirit came upon Gentile believers. In Acts 19, the Spirit came upon those in Ephesus who had been disciples of John the Baptist, and who had just come to a saving knowledge of Christ. These “pentecosts” were visible proof that these believers were a part of the church, and that the Spirit of God was dwelling in them. The purpose of these “pentecosts” was not to prove the piety of individuals, but to demonstrate the inclusion of various groups of believers into the church. God had now come to dwell in His church, just as Jesus had promised in John 14-16.
12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 All who were sitting in the council looked intently at Stephen and saw his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:12-15).
54 When they heard these things, they became furious and ground their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently toward heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:54-56)
Like Jesus (Matthew 26:60-61; 27:39-40; Mark 14:57-58) and Paul (Acts 24:5-6; 25:8), Stephen was accused of speaking against the temple. One can understand why. The Jews made too much of the temple (Matthew 23:16-17). Even the disciples seemed to be overly impressed with its external beauty (see Matthew 24:1-2). Stephen reminds his accusers that God needs no man-made dwelling, and that He is vastly bigger than any temple could contain. The tabernacle was God’s idea, while the temple was David’s, although he was not permitted to build the temple (Acts 7:44-50).
Stephen’s words cut his audience to the quick. As they commenced to stone him, Stephen looked into heaven, and there he saw the glory of God, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Did his accusers charge Stephen with speaking against their glorious temple? The glory of God was seen in heaven, in the presence of Jesus. The glory of God was not to be found in their temple, for in a very short time that temple would be destroyed:
1 Now as Jesus was going out of the temple courts and walking away, his disciples came to show him the temple buildings. 2 And he said to them, “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” (Matthew 24:1-2)
The teaching of the New Testament is that God now dwells in the church through the Spirit:
19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
The temple is not a physical building; it is the spiritual body of Christ, the church. It is composed of Jewish and Gentile believers who have united together through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the cornerstone of the church (Ephesians 2:20).
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul uses two different images to describe the church. The first image is that of a field; the second is that of a building:
1 So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, 3 for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like ordinary people? 4 For whenever someone says, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” are you not typical people? 5 What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. 7 So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters are united, but each will receive his reward according to his work. 9 We are coworkers belonging to God. You are God’s field, God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are (1 Corinthians 3:1-17).
It would be good for us to consider the context in which these words are written. The Corinthian church was divided by various schisms (1 Corinthians 1:11-12). The issue seems to be “wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:18—2:16). It is my conviction that other “teachers” had come to Corinth. Their message went “beyond” the simple message of “Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23), and their method was one that appeared persuasive and powerful. Paul, on the other hand, seemed to have but one note – Christ. His approach was simple and direct (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). He did not rely on humanly persuasive gimmicks or techniques, but upon the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10-16).
As wise as the Corinthians may have considered themselves to be, they were really just babes, still in need of spiritual baby food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). Their spiritual infancy was betrayed by their dependency upon others to do their thinking for them. They relied too heavily on men, and the wrong men at that. Paul first describes the church as God’s field in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9. Paul compares himself here with Apollos.16 What (not who) was Apollos, and what (not who) was Paul? They were merely servants, hired farm hands. They did not produce crops; God did. They played a role, of course. Paul planted, and Apollos watered. But it was God Who produced the growth, and thus it was He (and not mere men) Who should get the glory. How was it then that the Corinthians placed so much stock in mere men?
Now, in verses 10 through 17, Paul changes to the imagery of a building – a temple. Paul no longer speaks of himself and Apollos, but only of himself as a “master-builder.” He laid the foundation for the church in Corinth (and elsewhere) by declaring the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This foundation cannot be changed, even by Paul himself (see Galatians 1:6-9). Others could build on it, but they must do so in a way that does not disturb or seek to modify the foundation. Whoever builds on this foundation (of Christ alone) must do so very carefully. They must be careful how they build – building in a careful manner, and not sloppily. They must not, as it were, set aside the architect’s master plans. They must also build with only quality materials.
Using this imagery of a building, being erected on a sure foundation that has already been laid, Paul emphasizes that anyone who seeks to build on it had better do so in a way that is consistent with the foundation. In other words, the construction must be consistent with sound doctrine (and not the shoddy material of worldly wisdom). Neither the message nor the methodology employed should depart from that of Paul and the true apostles:
I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6, emphasis mine).
Paul continues to use the imagery of the church as a temple in 2 Corinthians 6:
14 Do not become partners with those who do not believe, for what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship does light have with darkness? 15 And what agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share in common with an unbeliever? 16 And what mutual agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” 17 Therefore “come out from their midst, and be separate,” says the Lord, “and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, 18 and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,” says the All-Powerful Lord (2 Corinthians 6:14-18, underscoring mine).
Being a Christian does not exempt one from the sufferings and groanings of life (2 Corinthians 4:16—5:10; see also Romans 8:18-25). By faith in Christ, one does become a new creation in Christ and is thus reconciled to God and to others (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Living the Christian life involves adversity, hardship, and persecution, as Paul’s experience demonstrates (2 Corinthians 6:1-10). I think it was precisely because of Paul’s afflictions that some withdrew from Paul (2 Corinthians 6:11-13), and at the same time entered into relationships with those who were not even Christians (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Paul turns back to Old Testament language describing God’s relationship with the Old Testament saints. If a holy God was to dwell among His people, they must separate themselves from the abominable practices of the heathen nations. The assumption that Paul makes in this passage is that God does indeed dwell among His people in the church. And since God dwells in the church, those who are in the church dare not create alliances and relationships which are incompatible with the character of God.17
As I look at the Corinthian church, it is not a very pretty sight. The church is divided into factions, and the saints are carnal, lacking any depth of spiritual insight. The church meeting is unruly and undisciplined, and people seem more interested in performing for others than in worshiping God. One has to look hard, it would seem, to find God dwelling in this church. Unfortunately, Corinth is more the rule than the exception. A look at the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 does not present a pretty picture of the church either. How then can Paul say,
To him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:21, emphasis mine).
How can God be glorified in a flawed, imperfect church? Paul tells us:
26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were members of the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10).
The glory of God is displayed in and through the church as God uses weak and foolish men to accomplish His divine purposes. This is nothing new:
10 Then Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I am not an eloquent man, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of mouth and slow of tongue.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Who gave a mouth to man, or who makes a person mute or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 So now, go, and I will be with your mouth, and will teach you what you must say” (Exodus 4:10-12).
4 The Lord said to me, 5 “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I chose you. Before you were born I set you apart. I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.” 6 I answered, “Oh, Lord God, I really do not know how to speak well enough for that, for I am too young.” 7 The Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ But go to whomever I send you and say whatever I tell you. 8 Do not be afraid of those to whom I send you, for I will be with you to rescue you,” says the Lord. 9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I will most assuredly give you the words you are to speak for me” (Jeremiah 1:4-9).
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will” (Matthew 11:25-26).
13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this (Acts 4:13-14).
As I read the Book of Acts, I do not see a flawless group of men, but rather those who are fallible. In chapter 1, the apostles and others attempt to appoint the twelfth apostle as a replacement for Judas. They sought to follow Scripture, they prayed, and they seemed to come of one mind. But it looks to me as though God appointed Paul as the twelfth apostle, and not Matthias. In chapter 6, the apostles sought to correct a problem that had arisen in the care of their widows. They appointed a group of godly men to oversee the care of the widows so that they, the apostles, could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). But in the end, it was two of the seven “deacons” who were the key to much of the evangelism that took place – Stephen (Acts 6:8—8:3) and Philip (Acts 8:4-40).
The apostles were hardly on the cutting edge of Gentile evangelism. It took dramatic action on God’s part to convince Peter that he could go to the home of a Gentile (Acts 10:9-16). When he went to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and preached, these Gentiles were marvelously saved. Not only were these folks saved, they received the Holy Spirit, just as Peter and his Jewish colleagues had in Acts 2 (10:17-48). And yet the folks in Jerusalem were greatly distressed when they learned that Peter had associated with the uncircumcised (Acts 11:1-3). Peter’s account of their baptism by the Holy Spirit seemed to clinch it:
15 Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them just as he did on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:15-18).
And yet look at the very next verse:
19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews (Acts 11:19).
It was not the church in Jerusalem that aggressively sought to evangelize the Gentiles; it was an unnamed group of folks who could not contain themselves as they fled from persecution in Jerusalem:
20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11:20-22).
The church in Jerusalem did send Barnabas to the newly-formed church at Antioch, but it was Paul (and others) who became the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:7-9).
What was so glorious about God’s dwelling in His church? Paul gives yet another reason in 2 Corinthians 3:
1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? We don’t need letters of recommendation to you or from you as some other people do, do we? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone, 3 revealing that you are a letter of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on tablets of human hearts. 4 Now we have such confidence in God through Christ. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as if it were coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who made us adequate to be servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 But if the ministry that produced death, carved in letters on stone tablets, came with glory so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory that was fading away), 8 how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry that produced condemnation, how much more does the ministry that produces righteousness excel in glory! 10 For indeed, what had been glorious now has no glory because of the tremendously greater glory of what replaced it. 11 For if what was fading away came with glory, how much more has what remains come in glory! (2 Corinthians 3:1-11).
Paul’s message, as we have already noted, was simple: Christ crucified (see 1 Corinthians 1:23). Paul’s method was also simple – a clear proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, without all the embellishments and enticements of worldly wisdom:
For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God (2 Corinthians 2:17).
1 Therefore, since we have this ministry, just as God has shown us mercy, we do not become discouraged. 2 But we have rejected shameful hidden deeds, not behaving with deceptiveness or distorting the word of God, but by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience before God (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).
I am sure the Corinthian charmers impressed some with their “enlightened” words, but it was not the gospel that they proclaimed. They probably made light of Paul and his simplistic preaching – “How provincial!” “How plain!” “How dull!” How could Paul ever expect to convert many with his kind of preaching? Paul answers this challenge in 2 Corinthians 3.
Saving men is not Paul’s task. Paul does not need to commend himself, seeking through human devices to impress his audiences (2 Corinthians 3:1). The proof of Paul’s ministry is the fruit that God has produced – the Corinthian believers themselves (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Paul readily admits his inadequacy, for his adequacy is from God (2 Corinthians 3:5). Paul’s style and content may not appear spectacular to his critics (and competition), but the apostle defends his New Covenant ministry and message as far more glorious than that of the Old.18 If the Law had glory, the gospel had greater glory (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).
The work of our Lord on the cross of Calvary produced what the law could never accomplish – a salvation achieved once for all, for all who believe. This new way of access to God through the shed blood of His precious Son gives us a boldness to approach God in a way that no Old Testament saints could do:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:19-25).
We should not, however, be cavalier about approaching God. The writer to the Hebrews takes up the theme of Haggai 2, applying it to us in a sobering way:
18 For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a burning fire and darkness and gloom and a whirlwind 19 and the blast of a trumpet and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. 20 For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” 21 In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly 23 and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does. 25 Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? 26 Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” 27 Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. 28 So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. 29 For our God is indeed a devouring fire (Hebrews 12:19-29).
We have seen that God dwells in the church through His Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22). He does so to bring glory to Himself (Ephesians 3:8-12, 21). He is a holy God, and we dare not ever forget it (1 Peter 1:16). God’s temple is a holy temple 2:21, and we are to be a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5). We must therefore not become unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). We must serve God in reverence and fear, for God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29).
What does that “service” look like? I believe it is outlined, among other places, in Hebrews 13. It should be characterized by brotherly love (Hebrews 13:1), hospitality toward strangers (13:2), care for persecuted saints (13:3), sexual purity and fidelity in marriage (13:4), freedom from greed and fears regarding money (13:5-6), honoring the leaders in your life (13:7), purity in doctrine (13:8-9),19 boldness to venture beyond our own safety zone to reach out to others (13:10-14), offering the sacrifices of praise (13:15), and charity toward those in need (13:16). Once again, the writer returns to the spiritual leaders whose responsibility it is to shepherd them (13:17). They are to obey these leaders in a way that makes their job a delight. Finally, they are to pray for the writer and those with him who are proclaiming the gospel (13:18-19).
This week someone told me about a friend who was considering the gospel. This person believes the essential facts about Jesus but will not become a Christian because he does not want to be obligated to attend church regularly. What a distorted view of the church this person has! God has chosen to dwell in His church through His Spirit. God has purposed to glorify Himself in the church, not only before men, but also before celestial beings (Ephesians 3). What is more exciting than to have the privilege of becoming a part of the church?
This friend is too much like many of us – he is too interested in what church will do (or will not do) for him. I think of some in the Corinthian church who were oblivious to the spiritual significance of the Lord’s Table, and who were only interested in stuffing their faces with food and drink (1 Corinthians 11). They were more interested in performing before others than in edifying others (1 Corinthians 14). In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Paul reviewed Israel’s failures in history, concluding that they were preoccupied with fleshly self-indulgence than in worshiping and serving God.
Contrary to popular thinking (some of this among church leaders), the church does not exist to make us happy or to make us feel good. The purpose of the church is to glorify God as we obey His commands. We should not go to church so that God will serve us, but so that we may serve Him. Everything we do as Christians should be governed by the principle set down by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31:
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
No wonder Paul speaks of our service in the church in terms of sacrifice (see Romans 12:1ff.; Philippians 2:1-8; 4:18; Hebrews 13:15-16). What a privilege it is to be a part of the church and to participate in bringing glory to our God!
7 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in the A Study of the Church series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on November 16, 2003.
9 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
12 To my knowledge, there is no specific reference to the glory of the Lord departing from the temple, but we would have to assume this.
14 I am reminded of Asaph’s protest in Psalm 73. How could God be good to Israel if the wicked were prospering and the righteous were suffering? Asaph learned the answer when he came to the sanctuary of God (73:17). God was not with the wicked in their prosperity, but rather was with Asaph in his adversity (see 73:21-28).
15 Some might wish to debate whether or not Acts 8 is a truly “pentecostal” event. I think it is safe to assume that these Samaritan believers spoke in tongues as we read in Acts 2, 10, and 19. Otherwise, why would Simon have sought to purchase the power to bestow the Spirit as he did (Acts 8:17-24)?
17 There is a personal application to this as well, for we are, as individual believers, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul spells out the personal application in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Here in 2 Corinthians 6, Paul is talking about the corporate indwelling of the Spirit in the church and the implications of this.
18 It is my understanding that many of Paul’s opponents – who appealed to some of the Corinthian saints – were Jewish. This is particularly clear in 2 Corinthians 11:22ff. There is a Jewish element among those who are exposed by Paul in his Pastoral Epistles (see, for example, 1 Timothy 1:3-11; Titus 1:14).
19 I include verse 8 because I think it is directly related to verse 9. If Jesus Christ is the same and doesn’t change, ever, then there is no need for “new” and novel teachings (verse 9).