The Sanctuary of God
The Apostle Paul consistently applies the Greek term rendered the “Sanctuary of God” to the church, the Body of Christ, and he uses related temple language when describing congregations of believers. Many of the same Greek terms are applied in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible to the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. While his usage is metaphorical, it illustrates the identity of God’s people under the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus.
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In Paul’s epistles, the English term “sanctuary of God” translates the Greek clause ton naon tou theou, and the noun naos means “sanctuary.” Most often it refers to the inner sanctum, the sanctuary proper, and not to the entire Temple complex.
Paul applies the term to the church four times in his two letters to the Corinthians, and once he uses the noun naos by itself in Ephesians for the assembly of God that is now comprised of Jewish and Gentile disciples of Jesus:
- (1 Corinthians 3:16-17) - “Know ye not That ye are a |shrine a of God|, And that ||the Spirit of God|| |within you| doth dwell? <If anyone doth mar the |shrine of God|> ||God|| |will mar him|; For ||the shrine of God is holy||-- And |such| are ||ye||.” – (compare 1 Corinthians 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16). ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
- (Ephesians 2:19-22) - “Hence, then— ||No longer|| are ye strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens of the saints, and members of the household of God,— Having been built up on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, There being |for chief corner stone| ||Jesus Christ himself||— |In whom| ||an entire building, in process of being fitly joined together|| is growing into a holy shrine in [the] Lord; |In whom| ||ye also|| are being builded together, into a habitation of God in Spirit.” ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
And in Ephesians, not only is the language metaphorical, but Paul mixes his metaphors. The church DOES NOT consist of men who are made of stones or goatskins. And tents and stone buildings do not “grow,” at least, not organically. None of this means that his language is not serious, or that he is not describing genuine realities brought into existence under the New Covenant.
The church is the “Sanctuary” of God because, like the ancient Tabernacle and Temple, it is where the presence of God now dwells (the “habitation of God in the Spirit”). And it is His presence that makes the church “holy,” and therefore, something not to be violated, sullied, disrespected, or otherwise desecrated.
THE SANCTUARY IS HOLY
The language about preserving the holiness of the “sanctuary” and the punishment that awaits anyone who “defiles” it reflects the purity regulations for the Tabernacle in the Torah. For example, Numbers 19:20, “But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly BECAUSE HE HAS DEFILED THE SANCTUARY OF YAHWEH.”
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is quite explicit - “And what concord has Christ with Belial, or what portion has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the SANCTUARY OF GOD with idols? For we are a SANCTUARY OF THE LIVING GOD; even as God said, I will dwell in them, and I will walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” – (2 Corinthians 6:15-17).
Paul summoned believers to live holy lives by learning to remain “separate” from sin and idolatry. As before, he identified the church as the “Sanctuary of God,” the place where He dwells. To fortify his point, he cited two passages from the Hebrew Bible:
- (Leviticus 26:11-12) - “And I will set my habitation in your midst,— And my soul shall not abhor you; But I will walk to and fro in your midst, And will be unto you a God, And ||ye|| shall be unto me a people.” ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
- (Jeremiah 31:33) - “For ||this|| is the covenant which I will solemnize with the house of Israel after those days Declareth Yahweh, I will put my law within them, Yea <<on their heart>> will I write it,— So will I become their God, And ||they|| shall become my people.” ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
Previously, he linked the “Spirit” to the presence of God that now dwells in the assembly. The gift of the Spirit possessed by believers demonstrates that God is dwelling among His people, and collectively, they constitute the “sanctuary of God” in the present age as well as in each city or region in which the church resides.
Thus, Paul identifies the church as the “Sanctuary of God,” and that identification is built on promises from the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, as he teaches elsewhere, the institutions of the old covenant were “types” and “shadows” of the true realities that Jesus has actualized in the New Covenant - (Colossians 2:16-17).
The Tabernacle and Temple foreshadowed the greater reality when God would indwell His people. And wherever followers of the Nazarene are gathered for worship, the Spirit of God is present in the “Sanctuary of God.”