This is a big one. Get a hot coffee (from my cafe), get a Bible, sit down and take your time. Here…we…go…
There are just a few things I especially love in life, coffee, church planting, and biblical theology and of course, blogging is definitely up there. I would actually love to church plant soon, the world can’t do with enough healthy churches. So as I was pondering what my next post should be about I thought “why not write a biblical theology of church!” Wow, amazing. A few things we should note.
First, there is a difference between biblical theology, systematic theology, and theology that’s fundamentally biblical. Biblical theology is the official term used when one traces a theme or a topic throughout the entire biblical narrative. Systematic theology draws from biblical theology as well as history, exegesis and other disciplines in order to present a certain perspective or perspectives on certain topics (the Trinity as an example). Theology that’s biblical is just good theology grounded in the Bible. Anyone can do theology but in order to be a good theologian, it has to be fundamentally grounded in the Scriptures.
Second, there is a difference between the Church universal, and the church local. The Church universal is the term we use to describe the Church invisible across space and time. It includes every Christian who has ever lived, lives and will live across the world with Christ as its head. The church local is simply the local, physical, and visible expression on the Church universal. While there is some overlap, this post will be focusing on the local church. Finally, we shall begin our study where every good biblical theology should start, in Revelation (didn’t see that one coming did ya).
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:1-4
Spoiler alert – at the end of the Bible Jesus wins, the heavens and the earth are renewed, humanity is saved and all is well. Awesome. The problem is we’re not there yet. We live in what is known as the now but not yet stage of history. That means that, yes Jesus has died and has risen for the sins of the world, for the restoration of creation, and the defeat of darkness, but this has all fulfilled only in part. Jesus has taken away the power of sin but not it’s presence. Jesus has brought heaven and earth together but He didn’t restore it. Jesus was victorious over the satan, the principalities and powers of this world, but He didn’t remove them. It’s an awkward tension where Jesus has done some great things but we’re yet to see it come to completion. Why hasn’t Jesus just fixed everything already? Mainly because He has a plan, and a major part of that plan is that God chooses to partner with humanity in the restoration of the world, the same humanity that broke the world and introduced sin into it. This started all the way back in Genesis 1-3.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and then He created the garden of Eden. God fills the Garden with trees, rivers, fruit, animals and finally humans. Why is this the first thing God makes? Because the Garden functions as space where God and His creation comes together in the midst of the chaotic and dark world of Genesis 1:1-2. This space is where humanity lives in unity with God and with the rest of creation as they’re tasked to subdue the earth, rule over it, to be fruitful and multiply. In the ancient world and throughout the rest of the Bible these spaces where humanity and the gods meet are known as temples. They are a unique spot where humanity can engage with who they worship away from the corruption and chaos of the world around them.
This theme of the temple and sacred spaces, where humanity, creation, and God come together in harmony can be tracked throughout the entire biblical narrative:
Eden (Genesis 1-3)
In the beginning, God created heaven and earth to overlap, but because of humanities decision to do what was right in their own eyes, they were exiled from the sacred space and into chaos and outer darkness.
Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6-10)
Noah’s Ark is a picture of sacred space in that, within the midst of a chaotic world, humanity (Noah and his family), creation (animals), and God come together to start new earth.
The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11-12)
Babel or Babylon is a picture of an anti-temple. It’s where humanity, creation and the gods and idols of this world come together to meet and perpetuate sin and darkness.
Mount Sinai (Exodus 19)
Here at Sinai, God gives Israel (and all of humanity who worship Yahweh) identity and a vocation. First, they’re His own people, He is their God, and second, they are to be a kingdom of priests – a holy nation. It’s difficult to not see the temple theme here as God Himself is establishing an entire nation full of priests. The mountain itself was a holy space if anyone touched it that God didn’t allow they were to be stoned, yet God asked all of Israel to come to Him in that space.
The Tabernacle (Exodus 26-31)
A proto-temple. While Israel was going through the wilderness God wanted to make sure there would always be a sacred space where He could meet with His people.
Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 5-6)
Finally, in the promised land and the kingdom set up, God established a sacred space where people and come and meet with Him whenever they please. Take note of how both the tabernacle and the temple are recast as Eden type spaced. There was gold and fruit trees as well as all the bells and whistles a temple was expected to have.
Second Temple (Ezra and Nehemiah)
After the temple was destroyed and after Israel returns from exile from Babylon, there is an attempt to rebuild the temple. Unfortunately, it did not return to its former glory. Because of Israel’s sin, God’s presence was not there. It was a vain attempt at restoring a once sacred space.
Jesus (John 2)
Jesus, however, makes all things new. Instead of there being a physical temple with four walls, Jesus Himself is the new temple where God’s space and our space overlap. Where Heaven and Earth meet.
The Church (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5-7; 1 Corinthians 3:16-19).
Thus so is the Church. In Christ, we the Church collectively are the space where Heaven and Earth meet. Visibly and locally we become little pockets of sacred temple space where people come to meet with God.
New Earth (Revelation 21:1-4)
Finally, at the end of the age, every single inch of creation will be sacred. No division, no sin.
The local church then needs to borrow from this sacred space – temple imagery and ask the question, “how does this play out in our role in the local church?”
- The local church needs to be a community of priests (1 Peter 2:9). For this to happen we need to be a people who know God’s Word and a people of prayer. There’s no point in doing anything else unless we get this right. There’s no temple without priests working in it.
- The local church needs to be missional. The local church needs to be a light to the world displaying God’s glory and love in deed and through the preaching of the Gospel. There’s no temple without people to reconcile to God (Matthew 5:14-16, 28:16-20; Romans 1:16, 10:14-15).
- The local church needs not to be so dull. When you step into a temple you should feel as though you’re in God’s presence and about to meet with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We’ve lost a little bit of the magic in our churches that made temples and the old cathedral so grand. Plant a garden or some trees around your church (Subdue and cultivate the earth). Hang some art and play great music (Ephesians 5:19). We should get creative in how we decorate and build our sacred spaces to inspire worship and awe.
At the end of the day, how different might church on a Sunday morning be if we treated it a bit more like a sacred space instead of a club we go to or a chore. I think if pastors, planters and Christians in general thought of their Sunday experience more in this theological vein perhaps our affections would be more stirred and we’d be just a bit more pumped to meet with our Father and invite people into that sacred space.