One of the most audacious and dangerous statements Jesus made was:
“I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple.”Matthew 12:6
What did Jesus mean?
The temple was the centre of life for Israel and nothing compared to it’s importance and glory.
In a world of sin, the temple was the holy space where the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob symbolically dwelled. The temple represented the very presence of God with His people. The place where man and God meet; the place where worship takes place; the place where sacrifice takes place.
“The symbolism of the Temple was designed to express the belief that it formed the centre, not only of the physical world, but also of the entire cosmos, so that, in being YHWH’s dwelling place, it was the spot where heaven and earth met.”N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God,.
From the time of the exodus, it was God Himself who desired to dwell among His people, as disobedient and as sinful as they were. Why? Because he loved them.
He instructed Moses regarding the construction of a tabernacle, a mobile tent structure that would be a symbolic holy space set apart for His holy presence, in the desert, in midst of unholy people.
“And they are to make a sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell among them.” Exodus 25:8
Later on, during the time of Solomon, a permanent structure was built, the majestic Temple of Jerusalem. In a sense, it was God’s house.
“…’My Name shall be there’…” (1 Kings 8:29)
His divine presence was there. Man worshiped the Almighty God in the house of worship.
What can be greater than the temple, except the One who is worshiped in the temple?
No mere prophet, priest or king could dare say or even imagine saying that he was greater than the temple! That would be unthinkable blasphemy! For God alone is greater than the temple!
For Jesus to even insinuate that He is greater than the temple is an unmistakable claim of divinity. Not only was Jesus claiming to be the God of the temple, it follows that He is to be the center of worship!
The religious leaders of the time understood what Jesus meant. and theye were appalled at his insolence. In their minds, it was clear Jesus had blasphemed. There were no two ways about it. Hence, just a few verses later, in Matthew 12:14, we see that, “…the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.”
The temple was a shadow of something greater to come. And that “something greater” did come!
The apostle John understood this. He wrote for us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
It is very interesting that John used the word ἐσκήνωσεν (eskenosen; translated as “dwelt” in this verse). It is the same word that means “tabernacle!”
In other words, John meant, “And the word became flesh and TABERNACLED among us.”
The tabernacle of Moses (and later the temple of Solomon) were a visible presence of God dwelling among man. The building itself was human workmanship but God was present in it.
“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)
He is God in human flesh tabernacle. His physical human body is not divine, just as the physical temple building is not divine.
The physical building can and in fact, was destroyed. That doesn’t mean the the presence of God of the temple was destroyed or affected in any way. God is eternal.
When Jesus tabernacled on earth, his visible physical body was part of his human nature. His invisible eternal nature (The Word) was always divine! His divinity is not defined by his human nature. Just as the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, Jesus’ human body was crucified and killed.
In fact, Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection and described his body as the temple!
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Something mysterious and miraculous happened when Jesus died on the cross. The apostle Matthew tells us, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27:51)
What is the meaning and significance of this?
In the temple, there was a massive curtain, separating the area known as the Most Holy Place, which symbolized the very presence of God.
“It was a vivid demonstration of the separation between God and man. Notably, the veil was torn from top to bottom, and it was God who did the tearing.” (Guzik)
The only way for sinful man to approach the holy God in the temple was through the offering of a sacrifice. And even then no man (except the High Priest) could come near, let alone, go beyond the curtain. The tearing of the curtain indicated that the way to God was now open through the final and eternal sacrifice made.
“No one can come to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)
The One greater than the temple accomplished this for us. Only the One greater than the temple could do this for us. Not the priests, nor the temple sacrificial system.
The Apostle John was given a revelation of a future new heaven and new earth. It is very telling that he records, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:22)
No temple? No need. The temple only represented God’s presence. In the future, why would there be a need for a temple when the presence of God is a reality for us?
“After all, the temple was only a symbol, and Jesus is the substance; it was only the shadow of which he is the reality. Albeit that every Hebrew heart leaped for joy when it thought of the tabernacles of the Lord of Hosts, and that this day every Jewish spirit laments the departed glories of Zion, yet the holy and beautiful house was a symbol of good things to come, and not the very image of the covenant blessings. It was not essential to the world’s well being, for lo! its disappearance has brought light and life to the Gentiles. It is not necessary for true religion now, for the time is come when those who worship Jehovah adore him in no consecrated shrines, but worship him in spirit and in truth. But our Lord Jesus is truth and substance. He is essential to our light and life, and if he could be taken from us earth’s hope would be quenched for ever. Emmanuel, God with us, you are greater than the temple!”C.H. Spurgeon