Let’s allow the clarity of Scripture to overturn needlessly complicated and convoluted interpretations that have dominated American Christianity for many decades. Further, is this replacement the same as the church replacing Israel? Read the post to find out. And look at the photos, too!
We need to understand God’s global plan, and the church is the most important part of it. Without the church proclaiming the kingdom of God and the gospel, the world is doomed. So let’s study the church’s fuller identity, in God’s eyes. Let’s get stronger and stronger and acquire a clearer and clearer vision of who we are in Christ, and who Christ is in us. Let’s ignore distracting doctrines that lead us away from his plan. Then God can accomplish his plan with us and through us.
The translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. Readers are encouraged to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
Let’s get started.
Scriptures about the church fulfilling and replacing the temple
Jesus’s own words
Or more expansively we could say that now the church = the new temple, and the new temple fulfills and replaces the Old Testament temple. Therefore, the church fulfills and replaces the old temple.
Jesus says something (not someone) is here:
I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. (Matt 12:6)
In context, he is talking about the whole gospel message, his new movement, and the kingdom of God that he is ushering in. It is God’s new way. It fulfills and replaces the temple elements in the old law.
At his trial when Jesus stood before the high priest, Caiaphas, two false witnesses came forward and said:
“This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God within three days build it.’” (Matt. 26:61)
John’s Gospel confirms that Jesus said it (2:19-21). In v. 21 of John’s Gospel he equates his body with the temple, indirectly confirming the new imagery that will be revealed to the church, in the next verses, namely, that the Body of Christ is the church, and the church is the new temple. The new temple fulfills and replaces the old one.
So now let’s turn to the epistles.
Remember that the Jerusalem temple was going strong, while the next verses quoted in this section were written.
God’s presence has moved from the temple to the church; note how many OT verses Paul refers to in this one verse (2 Cor. 6:16).
For we are the temple of God, as God has said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor. 6:16, ESV; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27)
Next, 1 Cor. 3:16-17 talks about God protecting his church / temple from deficient teachers:
16 Do you not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17, ESV)
In the above two verses, in their context, God’s presence lives in the new temple, the church. Take care, teachers, how you build on Paul’s apostolic foundation! God watches out for his new temple / church!
Next, Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians:
… Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:20-22, ESV)
So, we the church, built together, are the dwelling place of God by the Spirit.
Peter writes that the individual members of the church are “like living stones”:
4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 2:4-5, ESV)
Peter says in those two verses how the church fulfills the old temple. We believers are a spiritual priesthood and we offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus–not by Moses. And we certainly do not offer animal sacrifices. Then Peter goes on to quote the verses from the OT which talk about Jesus being the chief cornerstone, even though it had been rejected (vv. 6-8). Nonetheless, God put Jesus in the top spot in his new temple, the church, which is like living stones. Peter adds that we are a royal priesthood. Bottom line: the church fulfills and replaces the OT priesthood, which had performed their duties in the old temple (v. 9).
Of course Heb. 8, 9, and 10 talk about the heavenly tabernacle, which replaces the old one. And the author of the epistle goes to great lengths to prove that Jesus is the high priest over it, even while the old one was still existing and animal sacrifices were still going on. Heb. 13:15 says we, his followers, offer a sacrifice of praise, implying, instead of animal sacrifices.
Revelation, which most scholars believe was written after the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple, must be treated with caution, because it is the most symbolic book in the Bible and ushers in a brand new age. But I believe these verses are talking about the church = the new temple:
2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev. 21:2-3, NIV)
Note how the temple is wearing a wedding garment (v. 2). How can a literal temple or city of huge dimensions wear one? This is an indicator that we are now looking symbolically at the bride of Christ. “For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7, NIV). ““Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”” (Rev. 21:9, NIV) “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” (Rev. 22:17, NIV).
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. (Rev. 21:22-23, NIV)
These next verses to the church at Philadelphia reinforce a symbolic reading of the above passages:
12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. 13 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev. 3:12-13, NIV)
A human is not literally a pillar in a literal temple. Jesus is talking about the church and being a part of it, and a “pillar-Christian” is an example to us all.
Let’s look at one last passage in this section that clarifies the verses in the Revelation. Here is Paul’s teaching that the bride or wife is the church:
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. … This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:25-27, 32 NIV)
Christ is the husband and the church is his bride, symbolically.
So all in all, the Body = the Church, the Bride = the Church, and the Church = the temple. Therefore, the temple in Rev. 21 is the church. So the temple is the Lord God and the Lamb, and the church is in Christ. That is, let’s follow the standard and wise method of letting the clear Scriptures guide our interpretation of the symbolic or unclear Scriptures. It’s called the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture.
To conclude this section, since Revelation is the most symbolic book in the Bible and Rev. 21 is about the final days and the beginning of the New Messianic Age, I won’t press my interpretation of the verses too far. Jesus’s and the apostles’ clear teaching in the Gospels of Matthew and John and the epistles are sufficient. It is easy to interpret their words. The church = the new temple.
The man of lawlessness and the temple
So what about the man of lawlessness appearing in the temple (2 Thess. 2:3-4)? My thesis, to be consistent, has to conclude that the temple in those two verses refers to the church. This ecclesiastic context–a man who works signs and wonders inside the church and in the name of the church–would give him more (apparent) “credibility.” In this context, the great falling away or rebellion or apostasy would be more widespread and robust (2 Thess. 2:3). Due to all the Scriptures, particularly in Paul’s epistles, in this post, this thesis makes much more sense than the belief that the literal temple has to be rebuilt in Jerusalem, just for one man of lawlessness to do work his evil signs and wonders.
Very first Christians clung to the Jerusalem temple
All converts to the Jesus Movement were Jews at first, so it is natural that they would cling to the temple. Maybe it is more accurate to say that they clung to their outreach to the people depending on the temple. Their fellow Jews needed the gospel, too. In any case, here are sample verses on how the earliest Christians proclaimed the gospel in the temple.
This verse speaks of the new believers right after the ascension.
They were continually in the temple, blessing God. (Luke 24:53)
And the next verse shows the Christians remaining in Jerusalem, even though Jesus told them to spread the good news elsewhere (Acts 1:8)
And every day they did not stop teaching and spreading the good news in the temple and households that the Messiah is Jesus. (Acts 5:42)
And finally these summary verses say the same as the previous one, but in more descriptive terms.
Each day they were persistently devoted together in singleness of heart and mind in the temple precincts, breaking bread by household, taking their meals with gladness and generous hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And each day the Lord was adding to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
The last phrase says that the Lord was adding to the early Messianic community’s numbers. How many, approximately? Thousands (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 21:20).
One major theme of the Book of Acts is to pry the church loose from Jerusalem and the temple and to go out to the whole world, which also needed saving.
Further, judgment was a-comin’ on Jerusalem and its temple, as we see next.
The destruction of the Jerusalem temple
Jesus had already spoken of judgment coming on the temple (Matt. 11:16; 12:39, 41-42, 45; 16:14; 17:17). This generation (Jesus’s generation) will experience judgment of the most real kind (Matt. 24:34 // Mark 13:30 // Luke 21:32). They are about to experience the destruction of the temple that will forever change Judaism. And the main section spelling out its demolition is in Matt. 24:4-35 // Mark 13:5-31 // Luke 21:5-33).
Please see this post:
The clear sign that the end of the temple is about to happen is the devastating pollution standing in the holy place. This is a reference to Daniel 8:13; 9:27, 11:31, 12:11, which further referred to events in 167 B.C., when Antiochus Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem and stopped Jewish sacrificial worship and set up an altar for pagan sacrifices (a pig included). However, Jesus also applied this imagery to the Roman military. Here is Luke’s Gospel linking the abomination of desolation with the Roman armies:
20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you know that its desolation is near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains and those inside it must get out and those in the countryside must not enter it, 22 because these are the days of judgment, fulfilling everything that has been written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and are nursing in those days! For there shall be great distress upon the country and wrath upon this people. 24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword and be taken captive into all nations, and Jerusalem shall be trampled on by the nations until the times of the nations shall be completed. (Luke 21:20-24, emphasis added)
Jesus warns the Judeans to flee. As for fleeing on the Sabbath, it would be difficult for scrupulous Messianic Jews or unconverted Jews. It may refer to the buying of food as one left Jerusalem, en route.
This urgent call to flee can only refer to the destruction of the temple, not the Second Coming and final judgment, from which no one can successfully flee and escape. Church historian Eusebius says that the Judean Christians did flee to Pella, beyond the Jordan River (Church History, 3.5.3).
Once again, please see the post:
From the time Moses set up the tabernacle in the desert to the destruction of the temple in AD 70, Judaism would be drastically changed. Epic and epochal. No wonder Jesus said in the context of this prediction of its overthrow that the times would produce the “great tribulation” like the world has never seen and never will see (Matt. 24:21). At that time the Messianic Jews and unconverted Jews had to move on. And they did.
The next section about the photos confirms that the destruction happened during Jesus’s generation, though he died young.
Photos depicting the aftermath of the destruction of the temple
I took these photos in June 2001, while in Rome.
The judgment on Jerusalem happened in A.D. 70 when the Romans sacked the city and destroyed the temple. They stomped all over it; therefore, the abomination of desolation prophesied in the synoptic Gospels actually happened within the generation living at the time of Jesus’s prophecy (Matt. 24:34 // Mark 13:30 // Luke 21:32).
Once again, Luke 21:20-22:
20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you know that its desolation is near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains and those inside it must get out and those in the countryside must not enter it, 22 because these are the days of judgment, fulfilling everything that has been written. (emphasis added)
15 Then, when you see the abomination of desolation spoken through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains ….
14 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (ESV)
Luke clearly connects the abomination of desolation prophesied in Daniel 9:21, 11:31, 12:11 with the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem. They stomped all over it.
The Arch of Titus was built by Domitian in A.D. 81 (ruled 81-96), to honor his deceased brother Titus’s and their father Vespasian’s victory over the Jews and Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The Roman army really did stand in the Holy Place in the temple, where the Menorah and other tools were kept. The abomination of desolation already happened within Jesus’s generation, just as he had predicted.
God was not going to look back, and neither should we Christians. God has always been looking forward, and so should we.
Please note: Some NT scholars believe that eventually all temples–the pagan ones, as well–will sooner or later be destroyed and swept away. That’s a theme in the book of Acts, which show various pagan temple caretakers confronting the earliest disciples. So God is not just picking only on the temple in Jerusalem. I agree.
Answers to objections and questions
But all of this is replacement theology!
Yes, the church absolutely replaces the temple. That’s clear from the key NT verses, quoted above.
Then this post is advocating the replacement of Israel!
No, God still has a plan for Israel. He has regathered this nation in 1948, so they can hear the gospel in one location and in modern Hebrew (Rom. 11:25-27). God still has his eye on this nation because his gifts and calling on it are irrevocable (can’t be re-called) (Rom. 11:29). All Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:26), provided they don’t remain in their unbelief and hardness of heart (Rom. 11:23). Conditions do apply.
Only by God’s grace is the answer.
God’s heart is now focused on accomplishing the global mission. So it is more accurate to say that God has ordained that his Son’s church move past Israel, not so much replace Israel And as noted, God wants to reach Israel too with the gospel, so he regathered Jews in their ancient homeland for this purpose.
But I heard that God will re-ordain sacrificing animals in the Messianic Age to commemorate the death of the Messiah.
Dispensationalists get this notion from verses in the OT that say sacrifices will go on forever in the temple. Some verses say that people from around the world will gather to the temple and offer sacrifices and hold the feasts (see Is. 40 and 52 and Zech. 9 and 14, for example). For those verses to be fulfilled, the temple must be rebuilt (Ezek. 40-48). However, in comparison, God’s covenant with David is said to live on forever (2 Sam. 7:16; 1 Chron. 17:14; Ps. 89:3-4, 28-37), and the priesthood of Aaron will also be active forever (Exod. 29:9; 40:15; Num. 25:13). (Never mind that “forever” could be translated as “for an age” in many contexts see my post: What Do Words ‘Eternity,’ ‘Eternal’ Fully Mean in the Bible?) Now Jesus is the one who fulfills the Davidic covenant and the priesthood. They live on forever through him now. Jesus is called the Son of David many times, but he is David’s Lord (Matt. 21:41-46). And Heb. 6-10, all of those chapters, talk mainly about Jesus replacing the priesthood of Aaron. Now Jesus ordains that the church fulfill the earthly temple. The church = the new temple.
More importantly, here is how Jesus commands us to remember his death:
26 As they were eating, Jesus, taking bread and blessing it, broke it, and giving it to the disciples, said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” 27 And taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, everyone, 28 for this is my blood of my covenant which poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you: from now on I will surely not drink from this produce of the vine until that day when I drink with you anew in the kingdom of my Father.” (Matt. 21:26-29)
I say those verses are clear and should sweep aside any complicated interpretive template imposed on the OT and transferred to the NT. Jesus and the apostles never taught that the church should reinstitute animal sacrifices to commemorate Jesus’s sacrificial death. In fact, they might even have considered it blasphemous. Jesus is the once-and-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 7:27, 9:12, 26, etc.).
To drive home the third point, as I read Galatians, Paul would be so offended by this teaching of animal sacrifices that he might have put a curse on anyone who taught it, and his issue was mere physical circumcision (Gal. 1:8-9). In short, the apostolic community would have seen this teaching as bizarre and distracting from how Christ told us to commemorate his death: the cup and bread (1 Cor. 11:23-26). They would have seen Ezekiel’s rebuilt temple even in the Messianic Age as irrelevant to how God was building a new temple–his global church, where his presence would live forever.
Will the temple ever be rebuilt, and should it?
Read the third point, above, for a more detailed reply. I focus on it again, here in the fourth point, to be clear.
Some Christians are eager to rebuild it because they believe that prophecies about it in the OT must be fulfilled literally (see the third objection). However, the New Testament authors are silent about the old temple being rebuilt or even the need for it. Just the opposite. The church is now the new temple, they taught us. Those OT temple prophecies are fulfilled in Christ. Therefore if it is rebuilt, God is not backing the project. These Christians, instead, should contribute their money to global outreach done by the church. God’s Son and his Son’s church now takes center place in God’s heart, not the old temple system and certainly not some complicated interpretations of Scripture that insist on its being rebuilt.
More specifically, bringing Ezekiel’s actual and literal temple (or a version of it) forward to our world today (or the Millennium) is a wrong idea because Ezekiel himself said it was conditional (Ezek. 43:9-11). The apostolic community never wrote about bringing Ezekiel’s temple forward to their day (or any day in a new millennium), where animal sacrifices would be reinstituted, to supposedly commemorate the sacrifice of Christ. Keep the plain things the main things, by allowing the NT to filter out OT verses and particularly convoluted interpretive systems.
Summary and conclusion
The teaching that the old temple must be rebuilt to fulfill certain OT prophecies, based on overly complicated interpretations and convoluted hermeneutical systems, must be left behind. Though they dominate Christian TV, they miss the mark and confuse average church goers. Now pastors won’t go near eschatology, and that’s a pity because it is remarkably straightforward and streamlined if we follow what Jesus and the apostolic community, some of whom were inspired to write Scripture, actually taught.
Here is NT theology on this topic, boiled down:
The church = the new temple, and the new temple fulfills and replaces the Old Testament temple; therefore the church fulfills and replaces the Old Testament temple.
We must return to following Jesus and the apostolic community and their inspired statements and writings, now embodied in the NT; we must let their streamlined and simple theology guide the church; we must reject and filter out, on the authority of the NT, any and all convoluted, ad-hoc interpretive systems about an old, obsolete temple.
The perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture guides us.
How do I come to know God better with this post?
We have come to know God better because we have learned who is and what are at the center of God’s heart: His Son and his church. And now you can fit within God’s plan to reach the whole world by belonging to the church in your own area–the local church. Please be sure that the local church is outreach-minded. Be sure your local church teaches the Bible and is full of the Spirit. Then your walk with God will go from faith to faith and from glory to glory, and his plan can advance through you, in your own family and neighborhood. You are one among “like living stones,” and are part of his new temple, the living and glorious church.
Luke 17:22-37: Taken Away = Secret Rapture? (I also briefly look at Matthew’s version)