Literal or Symbolic?


The word "temple" is always literal: (1) referring to a temple in the physical world of past, present, or future; or (2) referring to a literal temple in the spiritual realm. The word "temple" is never a mere figure of speech meaning who-knows-what.

There will be a literal physical temple in the new heavens and new earth used for Old Testament-style worship having Eucharistic elements regarding the sacrifice.

Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. (1 Corinthians 3:16,17)

Christians comprise the "temple of God". The Catholic Church uses this passage to support their idea that the church is a divinely-sanctioned institution, but I see no evidence Paul had this in mind.

The Jewish and Christian concept of temple includes these elements...

There are various temples referred to in the Bible...

Some think of the image of Christians as the temple as figurative, but it seems literal to me. Just as the Holy Spirit literally resides within each believer, so also the set of all believers is a literal temple. Just as the Old Testament temple was composed of individual stones, so also the Church is composed of individual Christians.

For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11)

Christianity is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Christians are part of this structure which Paul refers to as the "temple".

What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19)

In this verse Paul claims that the body of each Christian is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Presumably those who defile their bodies through sin defile God's temple.

Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. (2 Thessalonians 2:4)

The word "temple" refers to the Jewish temple which was still standing when this book was written.

In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:21)

The body of Christ is a temple of God.

And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (2 Corinthians 6:16)

Each Christian is a temple because the Holy Spirit resides within.

Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. (Revelation 3:12)

Each Christian is a part of the temple.

In recent decades there has been much emphasis on end time prophecy and identifying the Antichrist. The phrase "temple of God" in 2 Thessalonians 2:4 caught my attention as having an important clue. Below I've commented on all the passages in the New Testament having this phrase or similar variations as well as the passage from Zechariah chapter 6.

Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. (2 Thessalonians 2:4)

The "man of sin" (verse 3) sits in the temple of God just as God did for the purposing of showing to the world that he is God. So what is this temple of God? Is it a rebuilt Jewish temple? Is it the church? We can answer this after looking at the other references to this phrase.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, (Matthew 21:12)

According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. (Luke 1:9)

In these verses the phrase "temple of God" refers to the Jewish temple which would be destroyed in 70 A.D. Presumably the phrase could also be used of a yet-future rebuilt Jewish temple built on the same spot. In my view this will occur in the new heavens and new earth.

And said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days. (Matthew 26:61)

In this verse the phrase "temple of God" refers to Christ's physical human body which would be resurrected after his death. Perhaps by way of application it also applies to the human body of all believers which will also be resurrected sometime after death.

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. (Romans 6:4,5)

Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. (1 Corinthians 3:16,17)

In this verse the phrase "temple of God" refers to each believer, or by way of application, the church as the set of all believers.

Some have taken the phrase "temple of God" to mean the institution of the church. If a person defiles this institution, this church, that person will be destroyed. But how can you defile an institution? Perhaps by speaking out against it or by defiling its symbols, or books, or building, or objects used for worship.

What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19)

In this verse the phrase "temple of the Holy Spirit" refers to the physical body of each Christian. Presumably this includes the soul as well. In verses 15 through 18 Paul declares that this temple is defiled by fornication.

And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (2 Corinthians 6:16)

In this verse the phrase "temple of God" refers to the physical body and the soul of each Christian. It perhaps means "the church" but ultimately the church is composed of individual Christians. The concept of an institutional church apart from the individual Christians who are members is merely an abstract idea — such a church could never do anything at all since it is not a person and has no soul. Only the members of such a church are capable of obeying Paul's injunctions.

Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. (Revelation 3:12)

In this verse the phrase "temple of God" refers to a work of God in which he builds a glorious yet-future reality out of individual Christians. Here, the phrase "temple of God" does not refer to any particular Christian but to the set of all Christians who have all been redeemed in the same manner through Christ's redemptive work. Notice in this verse the redeemed in the new heavens and new earth never leave the temple; they stay in it at all times.

And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. (Revelation 11:1)

In this verse the phrase "temple of God" refers to an actual temple in heaven. Apparently heaven contains spiritual objects corresponding to their earthly counterparts. When the physical temple at Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., the spiritual temple in heaven was not destroyed. Perhaps this spiritual temple in heaven existed long before the tabernacle of the Old Testament was constructed.

This temple in heaven has an altar just as the Old Testament tabernacle did.

I should note that in using the term "spiritual temple" I am not implying this temple is merely an ephemeral abstract idea — rather, in my view: (1) the spiritual realm is tangibly real, and (2) the human souls which inhabit this spiritual realm sense it to be as concrete as they do the physical realm. To state it in another way: us humans experience the physical world through the senses and we think of it as very tangible and concrete. It is the souls of us humans that is the living entity which experiences reality and these souls currently reside in a spiritual realm. They are in contact with the physical realm via the senses and other connections with the nervous system and brain. When a person dies their soul continues to live on in the spiritual realm and they continue to experience realities of the spiritual realm through spiritual senses. These disembodied souls consider the spiritual realm to be tangible and concrete as well.

And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail. (Revelation 11:19)

This heavenly temple has an ark of the covenant just as the Old Testament tabernacle did. I think this is the same temple of God as the one in Revelation 11:1.

And speak unto him, saying, Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, Behold the man whose name is The BRANCH; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD: Even he shall build the temple of the LORD; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both. (Zechariah 6:12,13)

The man whose name is "branch" is Jesus Christ. In this passage the phrase "temple of the Lord" refers to the Church, to the set of all the redeemed Christians.


Synopsis

The various meanings of the phrase "temple of God" and related phrases...

Possible meanings implied by these various passages...

Which of these usual explanations fits 2 Thessalonians 2:4? Each has problems...

The surrounding context of the passage in 2 Thessalonians 2 gives some more clues...

Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. (2 Thessalonians 2:3,7)

A few points to note...

After all this analysis, here are the sensible possibilities of what the "temple of God" refers to in 2 Thessalonians 2:4...

  1. The mystical body of Christ; all true believers in Jesus Christ. The soul of each of these.
  2. The set of all true believers in Jesus Christ formed into an institution; the Church. Not the Catholic Church.
  3. A literal Jewish temple to be built in the future.
  4. The literal temple existing at the time (this is my view).

Yet-future events and scenarios (I reject all of these)...

  1. Once the Christian influence on the world is drastically reduced due to the great apostasy, Satan will introduce a false religious system loosely based on Christianity and Old Testament Judaism and including a central temple in Jerusalem. Other religions have this idea of a central place of worship: Islam (the Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca), Old Testament Judaism (the temple in Jerusalem), Sikhism (the Golden Temple). The Antichrist refers to this temple as the "Temple of God" and sits in it to receive worship from pilgrims. Of course, it is really Satan who is receiving this worship as the adherents to this false religion think of him as God.
  2. Same scenario as above except that the phrase "temple of God" refers to apostate Christians who have chosen to follow the Antichrist.
  3. Under the influence of Satan, the Jews allow the Antichrist to build them a temple. The Antichrist convinces the world he is the Messiah of this renewed Judaism and he sits in this rebuilt temple to receive worship. This would, of course, horrify the true Jews resulting in their mass conversion to Christianity (if there is such an event):

    For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. (Romans 11:25,26)