“Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.'” (Matt 26:59-61)
Were these men lying? Todays readers of Matthew are aware of an earlier encounter that our Lord Jesus had with Jewish leaders early in his ministry. Asked for a sign by the Jews he replies “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19-21). An attentive reader of this exchange, which occurred after the first cleansing of the temple, will know that the witnesses distorted both the words and the meaning of Jesus’ claim. Their misunderstanding of what Jesus was saying to his interrogators is understandable, John tells us that even his disciples did not understand what Christ meant until after his resurrection (John 2:21, 22). These exchanges in Matthew’s and John’s Gospels are just two, of many, examples showing the role that Christ saw for the temple in past, present, and future redemptive history.
In his paper for the 1959 Jewish Quarterly “Christian Envy of the Temple” Hugh W. Nibley, a frequently cited Mormon apologist tries to take Christians to task for our ignoring the temple. He claims that, “the Christian world has been perennially haunted by the ghost of the temple.” and that “the temple has never lost its power to stir men’s imaginations and excite their emotions, and the emotion which it has most often inspired in Christian breasts has certainly been that of envy, a passion the more dangerous for being suppressed.” While this article is easy for Protestants to ignore because of Dr. Nibley’s failure to address Reformed theological views of the temple it is important for Christians testifying to Mormons precisely because of what Dr. Nibley chooses to ignore. In her article “The Body as Temple in High Middle Ages” Dr. Jennifer Harris explains that, “Nibley overlooks the equation of body and Temple in the New Testament.” In fact Nibley creates a false dilemma for Christians by ignoring the orthodox theology of the incarnation (cf. Matt 1:23; Isaiah 7:14).
Also ignored by Dr. Nibley in his paper is the concept of “types” in theology. A “type” in theology is “a special example, symbol, or picture that God designed beforehand, and that he placed in history at an earlier point in time in order to point forward to a later, larger fulfillment.” An example of a type is the Levitiacal sacrificial system, pointing forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. While Mormons may agree that the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ they fail to acknowledge that the tabernacle and temple are both a type pointing forward to a later larger fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Both in Exodus 25:8 the making of the tabernacle and in 1 Kings 6:12, 13 the building of Solomon’s temple herald God the Son living with man (Matt 1:23; John 2:19-21; Rev 21:22). In union with Christ both the individual Christian and the Church itself become the dwelling place of God on earth (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; Eph 2:19-22). One of the most illustrative examples of the role of the temple/tabernacle and its fulfillment in Christ can be seen in Exodus 40:34 and the corresponding 1 Kings 8:10, 11. In these passages we see God filling the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple with his presence or his glory, foreshadowing the miraculous events that take place in the New Testament. First we see the fullness of the Spirit in Jesus Christ (Matt 3:16-17; John 1:14; 3:34-35) and then in the church (Acts 2:3-4; 1 Cor 3:16).
It is understandable, when you look at Dr. Nibley’s heterodox views of God and temple worship that he would look for an explanation for an absence of temples in today’s Christian worship. Sometimes the easiest answer to a question is the correct one. Orthodox Christians follow the teaching of the writer of Hebrews when he teaches, there is no need for temple worship because, “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb 9:24 ff.).
Something else can be seen from Dr. Nibley’s work, especially with regard to Mormon temple practices. Knowing his audience he chooses not to propose any correlation to Mormon temple rituals to those in ancient Jewish rites. Missing is any suggestion of parallels between Solomon’s temple and eternal marriages, baptisms for the dead, or other secret rituals. Instead he chooses to immerse himself, obliquely into the early Churches questions concerning eschatology and the role of a temple after the parousia. As if these questions have anything to do with the worship of God prior to the eschaton. In fact in dealing with as many “Churchman” as he does Dr. Nibley proves the opposite of his thesis. Christians have thought deeply about the role of the temple. They have debated and disagreed but they have done so with the knowledge that God is with us now and we do not need a temple to bring him closer.