Surely You Know That You Are God’s Temple

From “A Theology of Liberation:
History, Politics, and Salvation”
by Gustavo Gutiérrez, b.1928

The land of Canaan was initially designated as Yahweh’s dwelling place. It was the land promised by Yahweh. who was not to be found outside it. David feared exile because he did not wish to be far from Yahweh (1 Sam. 26:19-20). After the prophet, Elisha cured his leprosy. Naaman took a handful of the soil of Canaan to be able to offer sacrifices beyond its borders (2 Kings 5:15-19).

Certain places in the land of Canaan were privileged: these were the sanctuaries. generally located in high places. But very soon. especially after the Deuteronomic reform. there was but one official sanctuary in Jerusalem: Solomon’s temple. The different traditions converged there: the obscurity of the Holy of Holies recalled the darkness through which Moses climbed Mount Sinai; the Ark was placed in the temple; the temple is the heart of Jerusalem and Jerusalem is the centre of the land of Canaan hence the importance of the temple in the life of the Israelites.

But at the same time and to keep the balance it was proclaimed that no temple could contain Yahweh. This idea was expressed forcefully in the famous prophecy of Nathan. motivated by David’s desire to erect a temple for Yahweh (2 Sam. 7).

Moreover, at the very moment that the temple was consecrated, Solomon admitted that heaven is Yahweh’s dwelling place: “Hear the supplication of thy servant and of thy people Israel when they pray towards this place. Hear thou in heaven thy dwelling and, when thou hearest, forgive.” (1 Kings 8:30)

The theme of the dwelling place of God in the heavens was old (ct. Gen. 11:5; 18:21; 28:12; Exod. 19:11: Deut. 4:36; Ps. 2:4). but it emerged clearly and with the full strength of its transcendence and universality at the very moment when the Israelites erected a dwelling, a fixed place, for the privileged encounter with Yahweh. The idea of a heavenly abode gathered strength gradually. especially after the exile. In the temple itself, the Holy of Holies was an empty space: God dwells everywhere.

While these notions of transcendence and universality were taking shape and becoming established, the prophets were harsh in their criticism of purely external worship. Their censure extended to places of worship; God’s presence is not bound to a material structure, to a building of stone and gold.

“Men shall speak no more of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord,” writes Jeremiah. “They shall not think of it nor remember it nor resort to it; it will be needed no more.” (Jer. 3:16)

And regarding the temple: “These are the words of the Lord: heaven is my throne and earth my footstool. Where will you build a house for me, where shall my resting place be? All these are of my own making and these are mine. The man I will look to is a man downtrodden and is humble and distressed, one who reveres my words.” (Isa. 66:1-2)

The last phrase indicates the essence of the criticism: Yahweh’s preference is for a profound, interior attitude.

To this effect, in proclaiming the new Covenant, Yahweh says: “I will take the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit into you and make you conform to my statutes, keep my laws and live by them.” (Ezek. 36:26-27; cf. Jer. 31:33).

God will be present in the very heart of every human being.

This proclamation was completely fulfilled with the incarnation of the Son of God: “So the Word became flesh; he came to dwell (pitch his tent) among us.” (John 1:14).

Nathan‘s prophecy was accomplished in a most unexpected way. Christ not only announces a prayer “in spirit and in truth” which will have no need for a material temple (John 4:21-23), but he presents himself as the temple of God: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again.”

And John specifies: “The temple he was speaking of was his body.” (2:19, 20)

And Paul tells us: “It is in Christ that the complete being of the Godhead dwells embodied.” (Col. 2:9; cf. Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-8).

God is manifested visibly in the humanity of Christ, the God-Man, irreversibly committed to human history.

Christ is the temple of God. This explains Paul’s insistence that the Christian community is a temple of living stones. and that each Christian, a member of this community, is a temple of the Holy Spirit:

“Surely you know that you are God’s temple, where the Spirit of God dwells. Anyone who destroys God‘s temple will himself be destroyed by God because the temple of God is holy and that temple you are.” (1 Cor. 3:16-17)

“Do you not know that your body is a shrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Spirit is God‘s gift to you?” (1 Cor. 6:19)

The Spirit sent by the Father and the Son to carry the work of salvation to its fulfilment dwells in every human being, in persons who form part of a very specific fabric of human relationships, in persons who are in concrete historical situations.

Furthermore, not only is the Christian a temple of God; every human being is. The episode with Cornelius shows that the Jews “were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out even on Gentiles.”

Peter draws the conclusion, “Is anyone prepared to withhold the water for baptism from these persons, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did ourselves?” (Acts 10:45. 47; cf. 11:16-18 and 15:8)

For this reason, the words of Christ apply to everyone: “Anyone who loves me will heed what I say; then my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (John 14:23)

“Many constitute the temple, but invisibly,” says Congar, referring to the well-known expression of Augustine of Hippo: ”Many seem to be within who are in reality without and others seem to be without who are in reality within.”

ln the last instance, only the Lord “knows his own.” (2 Tim. 2:19)

What we have here, therefore, is a twofold process. On the one hand, there is a universalisation of the presence of God: from being localised and linked to a particular people, it gradually extends to all the peoples of the earth. (Amos 9:7; Isa. 41:1-7; 45:20-25; 51:4 and the entire Book of Jonah) On the other hand. there is an internalisation, or rather, an integration of this presence: from dwelling in places of worship, this presence is transferred to the heart of human history; it is a presence which embraces the whole person. Christ is the point of convergence of both processes. In him, in his personal uniqueness. the particular is transcended and the universal becomes concrete. In him, in his incarnation, what is personal and internal becomes visible. Henceforth, this will be true. in one way or another, of every human being.

Finally, let us emphasise that here there is no “spiritualisation” involved. The God made flesh, the God present in each and every person, is no more “spiritual” than the God present on the mountain and in the temple. God is even more “material.” God is no less involved in human history. On the contrary. God has a greater commitment to the implementation of peace and justice among humankind. God is not more “spiritual,” but is closer and, at the same time, more universal; God is more visible and, simultaneously, more internal.

Since the Incarnation, humanity, every human being, history, is the living temple of God. The profane, that which is located outside the temple, no longer exists.

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