Temples or Tombs?

280px-Taj_Mahal_2012Without doubt, the Taj Mahal is the most famous, most recognizable of all tombs. This elaborate mausoleum was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan near Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India in honor of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, his favorite, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child in 1631. Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632 with the principal mausoleum completed in 1648 and the surrounding buildings five years later. The court chronicles of Shah Jahan’s grief illustrate the love story traditionally held as an inspiration for Taj Mahal. It remains one of the greatest monuments of all time.

All over the world there are memorials, shrines and monuments built to commemorate some great person or to commemorate some great historical event. Whether monument or mausoleum, all are the works of human hands, made of earthly materials of wood, stone or metal, all subject to the ravages of time, thieves and decay due to oxidation, the shifting of the earth, the effects of the weather or the encroachment of nature.

Local cemeteries are filled with simple to elaborately ornate monuments of lesser people whose survivors have sought to have their loved ones remembered. As one strolls through these resting places of the deceased it is easy to see the effects of time on the monuments lovingly placed there and look into the not too far distant future to the time when these, too, will have decayed into dust and formless rubble.

History is replete with examples of temples of various kinds that have stood in grandiose splendor only to have crumbled into heaps of rubbish, been robbed of their gold and artistic treasures and even been forgotten by the people who still reside in what would have once been the shadow of these structures. One example of this is the temple of Artemis at Ephesus which once boasted of being one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.temple of Artemis

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.” Antipater, Greek Anthology (IX.58).

A few eroded stones are all that is left of the great temple of Artemis.

Angkor Wat … is a Hindu, then subsequently Buddhist temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. It’s central part is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas (deities) in Hindu mythology (Wikipedia). Built of stone, this monument to mythological gods, like all temples built with men’s hands, fell into disrepair and has been undergoing a massive renovation over the past several decades to be turned into … a tourist attraction! Like all temples made with men’s hands, eventually this temple, too, will eventually crumble into dust.

Even the grand temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem fell victim to the ravages of war. This temple – which didn’t merely house a carved image of a god as the heathen temples, but the presence of the God of Heaven – fell victim to the destruction and pillage of war when Nebuchadnezzar invaded the city. The second temple,  restoration of which was begun by Zerubbabel and later rebuilt and enhanced by Herod,  that was standing when Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem was also destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Though they were built as places to worship the true God, they were only the productions of the hands of men and as all such were destroyed and are no more.

When God came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the concept of temple took on a new nature and a new significance. He was Immanuel – God with us. When he was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended and remained on him as an abiding divine presence (John 1:33). The apostle Paul wrote: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). When Jesus was telling his disciples of his crucifixion he called his body a temple. Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19). Jesus was the temple in which God dwelt.

With the establishment of the church, it became the place of God’s dwelling on earth. This development naturally followed since Jesus had been the temple of God before his death. The Holy Spirit descended on the apostles on the day of Pentecost and those who were saved as a result of hearing the gospel and responding with faith in it received the gift of the Spirit as a living presence of deity (Acts 2:4, 38). Paul amplifies this thought in Ephesians 2:19-22

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

If the church became the body of Christ, it follows that we are also the temple for the dwelling of God. When he wrote to the Corinthians about what they were doing to the church of the Lord by their sin and division he reminds them of what they were dealing with. It is a most serious matter to desecrate and destroy the dwelling place of God. The church of the living God is the temple of he living God. God dwells in it in the person of the Holy Spirit who is given to each believer when they are saved and added to or built together as living stones into the living temple of God.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

This temple is made up of “living stones.” Peter says that Christians are “like living stones, [and] are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 3:5). Like the stones used by a mason to build a building, we are joined with other living stones and are becoming a place in which God dwells and manifests his presence on earth.

Not only do we collectively make up the temple of God, but as individuals we are said to be a temple as well. The apostle was teaching some Christians about why they were not free to indulge the lusts of the flesh. He said …

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Temples built by men in honor of their gods were often ornate, artistic renderings of great beauty. They were lavishly decorated with gold and precious stones. The Greeks were known for their attention to details that made their temples eye-pleasing structures. The interior of the temple Solomon built for the dwelling place of God was lavishly adorned with gold and precious stones with colorfully embroidered tapestry hangings on the interior.

If the church – the people of God – are the temple of God today, wouldn’t that necessitate that we make his dwelling place a thing of beauty also? How can we possibly make ourselves, collectively or individually, to possess the beauty and grandeur that is worthy of God? We can’t, of course. He is building his temple. We are simply the material out of which it is being built. That must mean that those who are fitted into this wonderful building are of rare beauty and great value. Again, this is not of our own doing. We are being made to be “dressed in beauty not my own.” It will be the beauty of God himself as seen in and defined by the person of Jesus.

In Ezekiel 16, God spoke of Jerusalem as his bride who had become unfaithful to him. In verses 13-14 he reminded her of what he had done for her in that he had adorned her “with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth … You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.

Yet, she let her beauty decay through her illicit affairs with idols and God withdrew from the city he had chosen as the place where he would dwell. Thus the city and her temple became a ruin when the Babylonians invaded. The rich utensils and adornments of the temple were carried away as also the “cream of the crop” of young, promising, talented men and women. What a monumental waste! What a sad commentary upon the character of a people who cared no more about their God than to abandon him to play the part of a prostitute to the idols of man’s devising!

We, today, who are the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit” need to appreciate what God has done for us and what he has made us to be. We are his own special people. We are to him a kingdom of priests. We are his holy temple. We must be faithful to him or we will, like so many of the temples of men, become a crumbled heap of worthless stone, a desolation, without inhabitant. (Jeremiah 9:11).

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