Review of the Temple and the Mission of God

The temple is an important facet of the Old Testament theology and the life of ancient Jews. Though clearly transfigured, the temple remains prominent in the New Testament. In The Temple and the Church’s Mission, G. K. Beale traces the theme of the temple from the Garden of Eden to Revelation’s New Jerusalem. He argues that the original purpose of the temple, as embodied in the Garden, tabernacle, and later temples, was to fill the entire world as the place where God would dwell. I have great respect for G. K. Beale and have benefitted from numerous of his works, so I have for a while now looked forward to diving into The Temple. However, I found the book overall a disappointment for reasons that will be explained in this review. Nevertheless, there remain many insights in the book, and many of his conclusions about the spiritual fulfilment of the physical, Old Testament temple in Christ and his Church are surely correct. After summarizing the basic argument and structure of the book, I will provide a reflection on the argument of The Temple, its treatment of a key aspect of the Old Testament evidence, and its methodology.

Summary

In a nutshell, Beale argues across the books 400+ pages that the Edenic Garden was a temple and, like latter temples, manifests God’s original purpose for the temple, that it would expand to encompass the entire creation. He frames the problem the book attempts to answer around a tension he finds in Revelation 21-22: why is it that after “seeing a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1), John then sees the “New Jerusalem” descending from heaven (Rev 21:2) (pg. 23, all pages are for the Kindle ed.)? For Beale, the latter is identical with the former: the New Jerusalem is the entire new creation, and yet it is clearly a temple. He frames his purpose in this way, “My purpose in this book is to explore in more depth the significance of the temple in John’s Apocalypse and especially in this final vision of the book (pg. 25).” Why is it, Beale asks, that the eschatological end of the temple is the entire cosmos? His thesis is that “the Old Testament tabernacle and temples were symbolically designed to point to the cosmic eschatological reality that God’s tabernacling presence, formerly limited to the holy of holies, was to be extended throughout the whole earth” (pg. 25). He argues that this, a world-encompassing temple, was the purpose of the temple from the beginning across ten chapters, along with an introduction (Chapter 1), theological conclusion (Chapter 12), and practical reflections (Chapter 13). In this final chapter, he ties the all-encompassing telos of the temple with the Christian life, highlighting the themes of prayer and sacrifice: “The main point of this book is that our task as the covenant community, the church is to be God’s temple, so filled with his glorious presence that we expand and fill the earth with that presence until God finally accomplishes the goal completely at the end of time!” (pgs. 401-402). Chapters 2 – 4 concern the Old Testament: they argue that the Old Testament temples (i.e. Eden, Tabernacle, etc.) have cosmic symbolism such that they represent as a microcosm the entire cosmos (Chapter 2). Beale then argues that the purpose of the Temple is seen to expand across the Old Testament (Chapter 3) and that this particularly relates to its eschatological end (Chapter 4). He argues that throughout the prophets and in passages such as Daniel 2:34-35, we see the temple expand to fill the entire world. In the following chapters, Beale than argues that this end-time temple finds its partial fulfilment with Christ’s first coming and its final fulfilment at his return. Chapters 5 & 6 address the temple in the Gospels and Acts respectively, Chapter 7 Paul’s Letters, Chapter 8 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 9 Hebrews, Chapter 10 Revelation, and Chapter 11 Ezekiel 40-48 and its relation to the New Testament. I have found Beale’s treatment of Ezekiel’s temple very helpful, and his identification of the “temple” within which the Antichrist sits in 2 Thessalonians is compelling. There is much that is helpful in Beale’s analysis of the evidence, especially as it concerns the New Testament. However, as a whole, I did not find his argument compelling. This comes down, I believe, to two points in his methodology and the dozens of places (related to these decisions) where his exegesis appeared to be tenuous and forced on the text (as I believe is the case for Daniel 2:34-35). Below I will focus on several areas where his argument seems strained, exemplary of many more instances that I judge to weaken his argument significantly.

The Arguments of The Temple

The primary reason I found the argument of The Temple unpersuasive were the exegetical arguments Beale makes throughout the book. In case after case, I found his readings to be forced. Surely part of the problem is the sheer number of texts he addresses and the limitations of the book’s size (already 400 pages long), which prohibited him from making an elaborate argument for each text. However, in many cases, the conclusions he reached were presented as completely compelling when they were not the evident conclusions to be drawn. As an example, I will focus on Revelation 21-22, the central text of the book, his claims about the patriarchs’ altar building, and his interpretation and that the archetypical temple is a future temple in Hebrews.

First, Beale claims that the “new heaven” and “new earth” which John saw in Revelation 21:1 is equated with the New Jerusalem in the following visions. He sets his whole argument around this dilemma, “How can one explain the apparent discrepancy that John, in verse 1, saw a new creation, yet in the remainder of the vision observed only a city in the shape and structure of a temple?” (pg. 23). The arguments he gives for the equation of the New creation with the city are far from compelling, calling into question the “apparent discrepancy.” First, he argues that because nothing unclean would enter the temple (21:27, 22:15), it “probably” means “no uncleanness will be allowed into the new world” (pg. 23), therefore they are to be equated (pg. 23). I simply cannot comprehend this argument. It does not follow: could not both have no uncleanness—without being equated? Yet the text does not say that the new creation will have “no uncleanness,” so John makes no effort to equate the two. That 22:15 says those who are unclean will dwell outside naturally suggests that they would be in the new creation, only outside the city; however, we understand that they are actually in the “lake of fire.” Is this necessarily outside of the new creation, rather than merely a segment of it? The text simply does not say either way. That the unclean will be outside the city does not mean they will be outside of the new creation, though we are probably right in assuming they are. Even on this assumption, this does not equate the two. To say that my parents are not in my house and to assume they are not in Australia does not make my house the same as Australia, it just understands my house to be a further subsection of the latter. Beale further argues that the city vision “likely” interprets the first vision but gives no argument for this; I do not see why this need be the case (pg. 24). His appeal to Isaiah 65:17-18 is uncompelling for the same reason: both texts could be describing (and on my reading do describe) two different realities, though closely related in their fulfilment. I think that the “New Jerusalem” does fill the new creation, but only because the latter refers to the re-created and perfected world and the former to God’s people who dwell in this world. Finally, he argues that the “seeing-hearing” pattern in 21:2-3 “suggests that verse 1-3 refer to the same reality.” Again, this does not follow: it seems to me that the hearing in verse 3 is only meant to explain the city in verse 2 (as the content of the hearing suggests). If I had other reason to believe verse 2 was the same reality as verse 1, then the “hearing” would, of course, explain both, but there is no reason to equate the two, as far as I can tell. This sort of argument, claiming something is clear but not giving much evidence for the reading, is continually present throughout the book.

Second, Beale claims that the “Adamic commission is repeated in direct connection with what looks to be the building of small sanctuaries” (pg. 96). He identifies five elements to justify this claim: God appears, they pitch a tent, on a mountain, build altars, and this often occurs at a place called “bethel.” He further claims that these five elements are only combined elsewhere in reference to the tabernacle or temple. The problem with this argument is that these five features do not appear together in any of the Genesis patriarchal stories. Furthermore, many of these are perfectly ordinary activities throughout Genesis. For one, in connection with the tabernacle, the “tent” (אֹהֶל) is solely for cultic activities. In contrast, the tents pitched by the Patriarchs are never for cultic activities: they are merely their dwelling places. In the narrative of Jacob, Jacob does not build an altar but erects a “pillar” (28:18-19), which is neither equivalent to an altar nor connected to the temple. Beale’s claim that these five elements appear together in patriarchal stories, let alone with shared cultic emphasis, falls apart on close examination. Thus, there is no evidence for the claim that they were intentionally (or in the eyes of the narrator) building little “sanctuaries” in fulfilment of Adam’s original commission (cf. pg. 96).

Third, he repeatedly claims that the heavenly temple in Hebrews is an eschatological temple (Chapter 9), the heavenly people of God seen descending from Heaven in Revelation 21-22. The problem here is that he does not argue for this position, yet it plays a prominent role in his argument concerning the book of Hebrews. I am aware of several arguments for such a position but have not found them persuasive; if the issue is not clear cut, it should be argued for. Arguments like this weaken his overall argument, as does his treatment of the temple in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament in The Temple

The primary issue affecting his argument in the Old Testament is his treatment of Solomon’s temple. He assumes that the temple fits into a Biblical theology of the temple as a positive example, a development of God’s purpose expressed in Eden and the tabernacle. I think this does not do justice to the stories surrounding this temple. In the first case, God never gives detailed instructions for this temple as he does for the tabernacle. Given the space devoted to God’s explicit instructions concerning the tabernacle in Exodus, this is a significant—telling—omission. Because we do not have a God-given mandate concerning the details, one should be hesitant (I would suggest) arguing for God’s purpose with the temple from these details. We have other reasons to believe Solomon’s temple is not God’s purpose, though he nevertheless condescends to dwell with his people there. First, the specific reason David is given in 2 Samuel 7 why he is not to build the temple is because God has not told him to (2 Sam 7:7): building a temple is a divine, not a human prerogative, as seen with the tabernacle (the account in Chronicles that David is a man of blood is God’s words as recounted by David, not necessarily endorsed by the narrator, 1 Chron 28:3). Second, there are many reasons to believe that Solomon is not, in the narrator’s eyes, the fulfilment of 2 Samuel 7 (as I have argued in my book God’s Kingdom through His Priest-King). Therefore, he is neither the son who will rule forever nor the son who “shall build a house for my name” (2 Sam 7:13). In Kings, the narrator makes it very clear that the temple is not high on Solomon’s priority list (e.g. 1 Kgs 6:37-7:1). Finally, in contrast with God’s clear promise to David concerning a dynasty and temple, God’s word’s to Solomon concerning the temple are far from reassuring: “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my rules and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David, your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel” (1 Kgs 6:12-13). This is compounded by 1 Kings 10:1-11:13, where it is made clear that Solomon does not “walk in my statutes and obey my rules and keep all my commandments and walk in them” (esp. 11:9-10, cf. Deut 17). We have a reason, therefore, to be highly suspect of Solomon’s temple and its role in God’s plan for the temple, though God, of course, did dwell in it and was, for periods of Israel’s history, faithfully present there. I think that taking a sceptical approach to Solomon’s temple would change a lot of Beale’s argument concerning the role and symbolism of the temple in the Old Testament, and it would strengthen his argument concerning Christ as the one who establishes the eschatological temple, for he would be the clear referent of the prophecy in 2 Samuel 7. All of these issues approach the two problematic methodological decisions Beale makes.

The Methodology of The Temple

First, Beale states from the outset that he will take a scattershot approach to the evidence: “a typical strategy of argumentation throughout this book will be to adduce several lines of evidence in favour of a particular interpretation. Some of these lines will be stronger than others, but when all of the relevant material is viewed as a whole, the less convincing material should become more significant when seen by itself” (pg. 26). Such an approach may pay off if there was solid evidence amidst “the less convincing material,” but the less convincing material predominated, and when this was set aside, I could not find the solid core that would allow them “to take on more persuasive power when viewed in light of other angles of reasoning” (pg. 26). In the end, there simply did not appear to be any compelling reason to accept his overarching argument (though some of the individual strands were quite persuasive and edifying). Part of this relates to Beale’s second methodological decision.

Second, large portions of the book are devoted to early Jewish discussion of the themes Beale contends are found in the temple, namely, that the temple is a microcosm of the entire cosmos demonstrating that its intended purpose was to fill the latter. In most cases, I believe Beale shows that much of what he argues for was present in Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha and apocryphal material and Qumran and Rabbinic exegesis. However, he often moved too quickly from this material to the Bible. For example, he adduces from this material that the temple’s veil had a cosmic pattern on it. This may very well be true, but it very well not be. The Bible simply does not say so concerning the tabernacle, Solomon’s temple, or the prophesied temple of Ezekiel. Even if one could show that the temple in the Bible did have this detail, the fact that no author mentions it suggests that it is not relevant to the symbolic purpose of the Biblical literature. The same is true of the significance Josephus attributes to the colours of the material from which the tabernacle was constructed (e.g. Pg. 37, 46-47). The problem with Beale’s method here is not that he uses the material from the ANE and early Christianity and Judaism; there is much that is helpful, at least in the latter two sources. He writes, “The documents of the Ancient Near East and of Judaism function comparably to modern commentaries. Should we not also make use of this ancient commentary material, for example early Jewish interpretations of Old Testament texts, themes, and so on?” (pg. 30). To this I wholeheartedly assent, yet as with modern commentaries, such sources must be used to help us see what is actually in the text. Therefore, as I have argued elsewhere (and in my book, The Gift of Reading – Part 1), once we have been led to see something in the text through such material, we should be able to show it without appealing to that material: it must actually be there. However, in Beale’s arguments throughout, he draws on this material and employs it in ways that are not justified by the text (such as the symbolic meaning of many aspects of the tabernacle and priesthood).

Conclusion

For the above reasons, I did not find The Temple and the Church’s Mission as helpful as I hoped it would be. However, there is still much that is good in Beale’s argument; I think his treatment of 2 Thessalonians and the eschatological temple in Ezekiel are particularly important. For these reasons, the book may perhaps serve many reader’s better as an exegetical reference than a single, compelling argument.

Leave a Reply