Both in his gospel and in the book of Revelation, John shows great interest in the temple, the building in Jerusalem, which, more than anything else, symbolized the covenant presence of God among His people. The tabernacle had been built by Moses (Ex. 25ff.) as a tent that would accompany Israel through the wilderness and in which the glory of God would dwell among them; but, once settled in their own land, the temple would be the permanent representation of God’s dwelling-place among His covenant people. There the minds of the people of God were directed to the glories of God’s covenant relationship to them, and they could say, “We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple” (Ps. 48:9).
It is worth noting that the temple provision was one of God’s covenant promises to David. David had desired to build a house for God, but God forbade him to do so. Instead, God promised to build up David’s house, or dynasty (2 Sam. 7:11); in turn, David’s son would build the temple for God (v. 13).
The promise, however, that the temple would be built by David’s son is not exhausted once Solomon constructs a house filled with the glory of God (1 Kings 8:10–11). That promise anticipated a greater son of David — the Lord Jesus Christ — who would appear as the legitimate heir and successor of David and so build a temple for God.
These themes of God’s glory dwelling among His people, of David’s son constructing a worship arena for God’s people, and a place for God’s presence to be made manifest, find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. John’s vision of heaven is of the New Jerusalem without a temple, for Jesus Himself is its temple (Rev. 21:22). The symbolism of God dwelling among His people on earth will come to pass (John 14:2; Rev. 21:3). Just as the original Paradise was a place where man and God communed together, so the ultimate paradise is a place of eternal communion between man and God through Jesus Christ.
This over-arching theme of the biblical story enables us the better to understand the twin emphases of John’s opening chapters on incarnate temple and resurrection temple. There is a level at which the physical body of Jesus fulfills the temple image. In the incarnation, the enfleshment of the eternal Word and glory of God dwells among men (John 1:14). John’s starting-point in telling the story of Jesus is the pre-existence of the eternal Son of God. The point at which he is aiming is that we will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and have life through knowing Him (John 20:31). Jesus, as the eternal Son, had an existence before He had an existence in the world; He entered the world from the outside. The Creator became a creature. The Word became flesh.
For John, the greatness of the story of Jesus is bound up in the greatness of the person of Jesus. Who is He? He is the eternal God who pitched His tent among men, according to John 1:14, and thus “we have seen his glory.” That’s what made the tent that Moses built altogether different from any other tent in which the people of God lived: God’s glory was in it. The fact that the book of Exodus can close with the assertion that “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34) is an indication that the tragedy of the fall at the beginning of the book of Genesis is being addressed. Sin may have been the reason for man’s expulsion from the dwelling place of God (Gen. 3:24), but grace provides a means by which that communion may be restored.
And grace in all its fullness is part of the glory that is manifested in the incarnation-temple, as the glory resides now among men, not in a tent or in a temple but in a person. What the people of God under the old covenant saw dimly, we perceive clearly: the glory of the Lord is among men. The God-man has appeared.
Yet it is not merely in the incarnation that the temple imagery is manifest. In an action at the beginning of His ministry that may be emblematic of the mission of the Son of God, Jesus blazes through the temple precincts in Jerusalem, whip in hand, fueled by a holy jealousy, consumed with zeal for God’s house (Ps. 69:9). As the messenger of the covenant, He comes to refine and purify, to pave the way for offerings that will be pleasing to the Lord (Mal. 3:1–4). In the course of His action, in which He drives money-changers and merchants out of the courts of God’s house, He is demolishing the abuses of God’s house and bringing into clear relief where God’s house is truly to be found. The true temple is not in the stones and beauty of Jerusalem’s worship center but in the resurrected body of Jesus. He will build the temple in the three days in which He will enter into death and emerge as its conqueror. Even the glory of the incarnation, when the disciples saw the glory of God in the flesh of Jesus, will be eclipsed by the glory of the resurrection. Here is the essence of the temple imagery: the majesty, awesomeness, weightiness, purity, brilliance of God will be seen in the body of Jesus which will have triumphed over the curse, brought to the dust of death but seeing no corruption. At last, Jesus is the true temple.
The joy of the psalmist was the anticipation of going to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem to worship God and give thanks to the name of the Lord (Ps. 122). But the joy of the Savior is the anticipation of gathering His people into the New Jerusalem where they will behold His glory (John 17:24). They will see His face, and will bask in the sunshine of His glory, no longer hidden under badgers’ skins, like the glory in the tabernacle, or behind a veil, like the glory in the temple, or coated with flesh, like the glory in the incarnate body of Jesus, but ablaze with light in the resurrected splendor of the exalted Savior. At last, Jesus is the true temple.