There’s an often-forgotten story in the histories of the Old Testament where David (the model Israelite king who went on to follow God with humility and honesty for most of his reign) wanted to build a house for God as an expression of worship. To the reader, this seems like a reasonable idea. Temples were a thing, and David was close to God, so he was probably on the right track, right? Later, we even read about this very temple being built by David’s son, Solomon, and it was the pride of Israel until its destruction by the Babylonians in ~587 BCE. But when David first had it in his heart to build it, God’s response was surprising. He said, essentially, “Thanks, but no thanks.” God had bigger plans.
God responded to David’s idea through his prophet, Nathan, declaring that while David might want to build a house for him, his own desire has always been to build a people. He then promised to build this people group through David’s own kingship and lineage. He made a landmark covenant with David, promising instead to build him a house! Not a physical house, but a dynasty that would last through the ages and bring great blessing to the whole earth in the future. The fulfilment of this covenant came in many stages (and is still being fulfilled today by Jesus’ followers), but the coming of Jesus himself is the climax. Jesus was born in the direct lineage of David, bringing blessing to all.
Blocking the Sun
Here’s where things get really interesting. If we rewind to Exodus 19, God spoke an earlier covenant to his people, offering to make them into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. These strange words describe God’s desire to nurture and develop his people, making them faithful image-bearers of himself, reflecting his goodness, love and authority to the world. This relationship, however, demanded great trust on the part of the Israelites. Sadly, the exchange went like this (my paraphrase):
“Come and be my family. Trust in me, each of you, and I will lead you. I will be your God and you will be my people. Through you, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Today, I reach out my invisible hand and ask you to trust me.”
Israel’s reply (by their actions rather than their words):
“Thanks, but no thanks. Give me something I can see.”
God called them into direct relationship, but they wanted a human leader between themselves and God. They couldn’t deal with the real thing. Full sunlight was far too demanding, so they asked to live in the shade. So, God gave them Moses as a mediator, and moved powerfully through him to further his purposes, slowly and patiently. We see this trend repeating throughout the Old Testament. God desires to work directly with his people, nurturing them into a faithful reflection of himself, but his people insist on a middle-man of some kind (whether human or otherwise) to buffer themselves from direct exposure to God.
To be honest, if I were an Israelite in the ancient Near East in 1,000 BCE, I’d probably want the same thing. The gods were an angry bunch! People saw gods lurking behind every corner (yes, even the Israelites, who continually forgot their calling to pay mind only to “the one God”). Gods brought harsh judgment to anyone who dared step out of line. It was a superstitious time, and appeasing gods was a complex and unpredictable business. If you got sick or lost a baby in childbirth, it was generally assumed to be divine punishment. We shouldn’t assume that the Israelites had a clear picture of what God was like, because they didn’t. Over and over, they misunderstood him, assuming him to be like the gods of their neighbours. From that point of view, I can understand their hesitation. Surely direct relationship with a supreme God was far too treacherous.
Our Huge, Tiny Temples
So, what does David’s dream to build a temple have to do with all of this? Well, temples (and yes, even churches) can get in the way of our relationship with God if we’re not careful. They can act as a middle-man, too. They can become a place where we box God in. The problem with a place of worship is just that. It’s a place of worship. Worship shouldn’t be bound to a place. It lives in our souls, following us everywhere. It’s a posture of the heart. And just like worship doesn’t need a house, God doesn’t need a house. If we fall for the lure of the temple, we can come to believe that it is the place where God lives, as though he is more present in one place than in another place, being geographically challenged in some way. In the book of Acts, in Stephen’s speech against the blindness of the Pharisees (for which he was stoned to death), he condemned the foolishness of such thinking: “God does not live in houses made with hands!!” He goes on to describe God as being far too expansive and glorious to be contained in such a way. While at certain times God chose to limit himself in certain ways (such as in the ark of the covenant), it was only to accommodate our limited minds and help us to relate to him. Also, it was only for a season. That season is over.
What came of David’s grand temple plan? Amazingly, God actually gave him his way. David’s temple was built by his son, Solomon, and God even used the powerful imagery of the temple to foreshadow the person and work of Christ, and many other profound spiritual realities. God worked with David’s desire, even though it wasn’t his own ideal. He’s always willing to accommodate our limited humanity, and even work through it. That’s what God is like. But did he need the temple as a dwelling place? Not for a moment. Stephen’s last words should echo for eternity. Human hands can’t forge a dwelling place for God.
A New Reality
Please don’t interpret this post as a slam on physical churches. I love my church. God’s people need a place to gather and worship, and the best manifestations of Christianity are mostly found in great churches around the world who understand their calling to be bigger than themselves and selflessly serve their communities in the name of Jesus (whether locally or abroad). But a physical church is really just a place for the gathering of God’s people, and it’s those people that God cares about. He doesn’t need a roof. We do.
The stunning truth is that in this new age of the Spirit, we ourselves are God’s temple (1 Cor 3:16). We are his house. This was God’s endgame; every time we take a step, we’re like a portable temple moving around, reflecting his nature to the world (which means that every church meeting is like a mass gathering of portable churches!) That’s both a high calling and an endless thrill! The same good God who revealed himself supremely in Jesus has chosen to make his home in us, rather than in some building which we can visit if we want to see him moving. The time for shadows is over. Now, we live in the sun.
We are God’s people. Let’s live like we’re carrying God’s presence, because that’s not some Christian dream or unattainable ideal. For the Christian, that’s called living in reality.