Book review of Beale, Greg (2004) The Temple & the Church’s Mission: a biblical theology of the dwelling-place of God (Leicester:IVP)
This is a marvellous book! Here is a review I wrote for NTI.
Why is it, Beale asks, that in the climatic vision of the final state, John sees “‘a new heaven and a new earth’ in Revelation 21.1 and yet in 21.2-3, 10-22.3 he sees a city that is garden-like, in the shape of a temple?” (23) Where are the mountains and the trees? The answer, which he develops in great detail through nearly 400 pages, is key to comprehending the meaning of the Bible and hence the church’s mission. In John’s vision, the new creation and the garden-city temple are the same thing, the significance of which is to indicate that in the final state, God’s presence will fill the whole cosmos. This is the end to which the whole Bible story has been heading and which the whole tabernacle/temple theme has been pointing and it is the purpose of God’s original creation. Here are some of Beale’s principle lines of argument:
1. The structure of the temple in the Old Testament represents the cosmos, as in the following table.
outer court - habitable world where humanity dwelt
holy place - visible heavens and its light sources
holy of holies - invisible dimension of the cosmos, where God and his heavenly hosts dwelt
2. Israel’s tabernacle and temple recapitulate the original temple in the Garden of Eden.
3. God’s intention was that the garden-temple of Eden was to expand to fill the earth through the rule of its priest-king, Adam
4. This purpose of expanding the temple to fill the earth was passed on to Israel, who failed, and placed in the eschatological future by the prophets, e.g. Hab 2.14 “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea:”
5. Israel’s temple therefore was not an end in itself an “architect’s model” whose purpose was to point to a greater fulfilment, “the great goal of spreading the light of God’s presence throughout the earth until the entire world was under God’s tabernacling presence.” (170)
6. Christ and his people are seen in the New Testament as the beginning of that end-time temple, inaugurated at Christ’s first coming and to be consummated at his second.
7. In other words, the eschatological cosmos-wide temple is the new creation – “eschatology not only recapitulates the protology of Eden but escalates it” (368)
The conclusion is that “the temple in Revelation 21-22 symbolically represents the entire new cosmos because that was the goal of God’s temple-building process throughout sacred history.” (369)
This then, bears, on the church’s mission, which is no less than, “expanding the sacred sphere of God’s presence in order that others would experience it and come into the sacred temple themselves.” (399)
This is the kind of deep theological reflection that, if assimilated, provides powerful fuel for mission. There is a richness in Beale’s treatment of the intertwining themes of temple, presence, creation & new creation, kingdom of God etc. that brings you into the symbolic thought-world of the bible that excites the imagination. Indeed, it evokes praise to God and longing for the consummation of that final day. I find Beale’s thesis totally compelling.
Having said that, some of Beale’s specific arguments and exegesis is at first glance rather weak; many times he builds his case on plausible or possible interpretations or allusions. Beale himself recognises this and asserts that the arguments work cumulatively, so that the weaker lines of argument support the broader cumulative case or, alternatively, if dismissed, by no means undermine the overall thesis.
This book is also very helpful as a model of biblical theology and how to interpret scripture. I found some of his concluding hermeneutical reflections particularly striking. For example, in Hebrews it is the heavenly temple that is literal while the earthly temple is the figurative one, thus overturning a common view of what ‘literal’ means. The physical temples were meant to be models of the true, eternal one. Therefore, “to see Christ and the church as the true end-time temple is neither an allegorical spiritualization of the Old Testament temple nor of prophecies of an eschatological temple, but is an identification of the temple’s real meaning.” (374)
Questions and Connections
My main question is to do with how to bring this rich theology through into the practice of ministry and mission. Beale himself limits such reflection to an 8-page final chapter. Here are my own brief reflections.
The importance of understanding biblical theology: Having a grasp of the kinds of themes that Beale develops a) provides a framework for understanding individual parts of Scripture b) clarifies what God’s big plan is and thus helps us to understand ourselves and our mission. These will then play out in the very practical level of Christian life and witness. I am convinced that christians would benefit enormously in the long-term from having a firm grounding in this kind of biblical theology. This does not mean getting everyone to read The Temple and the Church’s Mission (it's too big!), but at least to grasp some of the themes at a simple level.
Finally, understanding God’s final purpose as filling the cosmos with his presence helps us to
a) give proper value to the material, created order
b) value the anticipatory presence of God we experience now as Christians through the Spirit, in prayer etc.
c) value, in particular, the community of God’s people as the locus of His presence
d) praise God for Christ, the true temple, who has made God’s big purpose reality etc.