Such a short word can dredge up an unbelievable range of emotions, opinions, and memories. Where some find comfort, others feel conviction, and yet others feel ambivalence. Some may think of church as simply a great way to meet people, while others immediately associate it with childhood memories and the stale smell of felt boards and old animal crackers (representing the denizens of Noah’s Ark, of course).
While it would be impossible, even in my relatively small community, to adequately assess the varied, individual experiences held by every attendee, I find it vitally important to pause and look at the big picture. How do we (speaking from an American viewpoint) think of “church”? What are the cultural assumptions and expectations we bring to the discussion? Historically, where might these expectations come from? More importantly, are they congruent with the lifestyle and mission of Jesus, the one whom we profess to follow and worship?
The story of the modern Christian church finds its roots in the story of the ancient Jewish people. In Exodus, God spoke directly to Moses, telling him to instruct the people to “construct a Sanctuary for me so that I can live among them” (25:8*). The following chapters are full of extremely specific building instructions. Everything from the altar and the courtyard, down to the lamp-stands and clothing for the priests, is covered in excruciating detail. Finally, God identifies this structure as the “Holy Place” (29:31). He proceeds to explain to Moses that, once the construction is completed, “I’ll move in and live with the Israelites. I’ll be their God.” (29:45).
The implications of this cannot be understated. God, the Creator, YAHWEH, the infinite being who chose the Israelites and rescued them from bondage, was planning to live with them. Focus on that thought for a moment. This building was, quite literally, God’s dwelling place among His people. The structure would eventually go on to become the Temple, the centerpiece of all Jewish culture, life, and daily practice in the ancient world. It was known as a holy, sacred place, the intersection of heaven and earth.
This understanding would be deeply and profoundly etched into the collective conscious of the Jewish people for centuries, significantly shaping their culture. On a smaller scale, think about how we Americans revere documents like the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution. As a people group, our story is one of oppression, taxation, and our ability to face despairing odds to throw off the chains of a ruling tyrant. Though this story has certainly been glorified throughout our short history, the way we hold on to certain relics reveals quite a bit about our cultural values. In contrast, the Jewish story was one of exile and return. The very God who brought them out of exile, and promised a joyous return, then decided to live in a physical building amongst them. As American children learn our story through their first history classes, young Jewish children would learn their story by studying the Torah and eventually taking part in Temple practices. However, over time, as with any system under human control, the Temple would become infected with political corruption and economic oppression.
What exactly did this particular Jewish Rabbi have to say about the Temple? Quite a bit, actually. The stunning summation of his views are captured in one incident in the book of John:
He found the Temple teeming with people selling cattle and sheep and doves … Jesus put together a whip out of strips of leather and chased them out, stampeding the sheep and cattle, upending the tables of the loan sharks, spilling coins left and right. (John 2:14-15)
Why did Jesus do this, and what does this well-known event tell us about his view of the Jewish Temple? Some argue that he was simply fed-up with the obvious corruption, and this outburst was a call for reform, while others state that he was predicting God’s impending judgement, which would ultimately come to fruition in it’s destruction at the hand of the Romans in A.D. 70.
In any case, prior to this event, Jesus conducted his life and ministry in ways which clearly indicated that he was called to be the new Temple. His free forgiveness of sins is evidence for this, as it was known throughout Jewish culture that sins could only be cleansed by observing proper rituals at the Temple (as N.T. Wright has argued, imagine someone on the street offers to issue you a new Driver’s License, something you know can only be done through the proper channels and personnel; this would certainly turn some heads!). This additionally explains Jesus’ pronouncement to the Pharisees, “Tear down this Temple and in three days I’ll put it back together,” something we can look back on and obviously understand what he was really referring to: that he would physically raise from the dead after three days in the ground, thereby instituting the new Temple system. His angry outburst against the merchants was a blatant proclamation that the climax of the Jewish story was imminent, and that God would not be limited to residing in the Temple forever, as His people mistakenly assumed. Rather, a brand-new system was to be instituted through him, which transcended the Temple and wiped clean the stains of corruption.**
Which brings this whole discussion back to us.
We, the Church, are this new system. We don’t “go to church”, like the Jewish people once “went to the Temple”.
We are church.
Paul articulated this paradigm shift wonderfully in his letter to the church at Ephesus:
God is building a home … He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day - a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home. (Ephesians 2:19-22, emphasis mine)
Paul’s repeated use of the word “temple” in this paragraph is quite intentional, for he knew that this word would immediately grab the attention of any Jewish listeners in a significant way. He was urging them to completely re-think their conceptions. This was a bold stroke on his part, as he was pushing against hundreds of years of tradition.
My fear is that, in subtle ways, we have regressed right back into a system, a line of thought, that Jesus literally died to change. Why do we set aside certain clothing to wear on Sunday mornings? Why do we think it inappropriate to tell certain jokes and use certain language “at church”, but not anywhere else? Why do we go to church to worship, rather than worshipping in our cubicles? Why do we go to church to “find God”, instead of finding Him in our neighbors’ homes?
The Jewish views of the Temple were birthed out of their conception of reality, that God had a specific residence, in a specific building. This view was appropriate to the cultural setting of these people. However, our ideas of “church” are also born out of our conceptions of reality, and if we continue to believe church is a place we have to “go to”, then our view of reality is dead-wrong.
This view eventually led to power-mongering, rebellion, and general corruption within the people of Israel, and as Jesus predicted, ultimately to destruction. Much like the Jewish people, we need Jesus to destroy our conceptions, before they destroy us.
*Every scriptural reference in this piece is pulled from the Message translation by Eugene Peterson.
**For a stronger, in-depth discussion of this topic, read N.T. Wright’s fantastic book The Challenge of Jesus.