In Luke’s gospel, the Temple of Jerusalem is an incredibly important part of the narrative and key to understanding the themes of Luke.
The opening scene of Luke’s gospel is set at the Temple, which immediately tells us that understanding the Temple is going to be crucial to understanding the story. But what was the Temple and what was its role and significance for Israel? And how is that significant for us?
The Temple actually began its life as a tent – called the Tabernacle.
God gave the Israelites instructions for building the Tabernacle at Mount Sinai, after they had escaped from Egypt and begun their new life with God as his people. The Tabernacle dominates the book of Exodus after Israel reach Sinai – about 12 of 15 chapters. God tells Israel to build a sanctuary for him ‘and I will dwell among them’. Israel were beginning a journey to the Promised Land – where they would find a home with God. On the journey they’re away from home, living in tents, and this special tent is made for God to represent that he is on the journey with them, living amongst them. The Tabernacle is therefore a physical representation of God’s presence with and rule over his people. Dealings between God and Israel take place at the Tabernacle while they journey to the Promised land.
However the Tabernacle didn’t just represent God’s presence with Israel, but his separation from them.
God is holy, set apart from anything impure, and so his presence is represented by an inner sanctuary in the middle of the Tabernacle – the Most Holy Place. Israel as a whole are shut out of the Most Holy Place; shut out of God’s presence, his ‘home’, because of their sin. They can’t bring their uncleanness before God’s purity. Only one person, the High Priest, could enter, only on one day a year and only after going through an elaborate washing ritual. The Tabernacle was therefore an image of incredible tension between God’s commitment to make a home with his people and the necessity of staying at a distance because of their uncleanness. The central dealing that took place between God and Israel at the Tabernacle therefore was a continual system of animal sacrifices – animals being killed in the place of Israel to wipe away the guilt of their sin and maintain God’s presence with them. So the Tabernacle was absolutely central to Israel’s life as God’s people. Its failure would spell the end of Israel’s life with God and their judgement like the rest of the nations.
The Temple continued this role of the Tabernacle with one major difference
… As a building and not a tent it represented permanence in the Promised Land – it represented God fulfilling his promises to Israel by giving them a home with him in the land he’d promised them. It’s really important to realise that Israel didn’t build the Temple for a very long time after they entered the Promised Land. Because of their sin and broken relationship with God, Israel were at constant warfare with other nations in the land, most especially the Philistine people. While that was happening the land wasn’t truly theirs. This was a sign that things weren’t right between them and God, and that they’d never fully settled into their home under God’s loving rule.
The building of the Temple signified something had changed – God allowed the Temple to be built by a particular person – King Solomon, the son of David, the Anointed King or Messiah. In 2 Samuel 7 God had promised David that his son would build a house for God, a Temple, and his kingdom would endure forever. David’s son Solomon building the Temple signified that in the reign of this King Israel were finally settled in the land under God’s rule.
Of course, it didn’t last.
The enduring problem of Israel was their sinful hearts. Solomon’s sin led Israel further into sin. The Temple didn’t deal with Israel’s sin. Instead Israel’s sin led to the corruption of the Temple and the sacrificial system that maintained their relationship with him. The result was exile from the land – driven out of the home they’d been promised. It turned out the Temple wasn’t the final fulfilling of God’s Promises but itself a promise, causing Israel to look ahead to a day when a true son of David would come to his Temple and finally deal with the sin and corruption of Israel; when Israel could finally find their home with God forever.
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:1)