When Paul writes in Ephesians 2 that believers are “growing into a holy temple in the Lord” and “being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit”, he’s drawing on rich Old Testament history.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. – Ephesians 3:19-22
A Holy Temple
In Ephesians 2, Paul contrasts who we are by nature with what we can become by the grace of God through Christ. At the end of the chapter, Paul uses 3 metaphors to describe who we are in Christ, each more intimate that the previous:
- “fellow citizens” (Ephesians 2:19) — members of God’s kingdom, where God rules and bestows privileges and responsibilities to His subjects;
- “of God’s household“(Ephesians 2:10) – part of the family of God with all intimacy, loyalty, commitment and devotion a family shares;
- “a holy temple” (Ephesians 2:21) – a holy temple, being built into a dwelling of God.
The first two make sense to most of us. We understand what it means to be a citizen of a country and a member of a family. But “a holy temple?” We may know from biblical history that the temple was the place where the Jews worshiped God, but what does that have to do with the New Testament community of believers?
The temple is also the place where the glory of God dwelt with His people. Paul is telling us that today He dwells with believers.
The Glory of God appears
One of the first places we see the glory of God is with the nation of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. The glory of God is His visible and active presence in the midst of His people.
The LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. – Exodus 13:21-22
When the Israelites build the tabernacle (the tent where they meet God), the glory of God settles on it.
He erected the court all around the tabernacle and the altar, and hung up the veil for the gateway of the court. Thus Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel. – Exodus 40:33-38
After the Hebrews settle in the promised land, King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem. When the work is complete, they move the Ark of the Covenant into the temple.
It happened that when the priests came from the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. Then Solomon said, “The LORD has said that He would dwell in the thick cloud. “I have surely built You a lofty house, A place for Your dwelling forever.” – 1 Kings 8:10-13
The Glory of God departs
Many years later, Ezekiel saw a vision of Israel’s impending exile, which is signaled by God withdrawing His glory — His visible and active presence — from His people. First, the glory of God moves from mercy seat in holy of holiness to threshold of the temple.
Now the cherubim were standing on the right side of the temple when the man entered, and the cloud filled the inner court. Then the glory of the LORD went up from the cherub to the threshold of the temple, and the temple was filled with the cloud and the court was filled with the brightness of the glory of the LORD. – Ezekiel 10:3-4
Then the glory of the Lord moves from the threshold of the temple to the east gate.
Then the glory of the LORD departed from the threshold of the temple and stood over the cherubim. When the cherubim departed, they lifted their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight with the wheels beside them; and they stood still at the entrance of the east gate of the LORD’S house, and the glory of the God of Israel hovered over them. – Ezekiel 10:18-19
Finally the glory of the Lord departs to a mountain east of the city.
Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. And the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city. – Ezekiel 11:22-23
When God’s glory is not in the temple, the temple can be destroyed. In fact, the temple was destroyed and the Jews taken into exile.
But where does glory of Lord go from here? We would expect God’s glory to return when the exile is over and the temple is rebuilt. But when they finish the second temple is dedicated, there is no mention of the glory of God.
and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king. And the people of Israel, the priests and the Levities, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. They offered at the dedication of this house of God 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel 12 male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. And they set the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their divisions, for the service of God at Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses. – Ezra 6:15-18
The Glory of the Lord returns
Where do we see the glory of the Lord again? It reappears in the New Testament at the birth of Jesus Christ.
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. – Luke 2:8-11
When Paul writes in Ephesians 2 that believers are “growing into a holy temple in the Lord” and “being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit”, he’s drawing on this rich history. As we mature in the faith, we are being changed into a holy people among whom God will once again dwell.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. – Romans 5:1-2