The temple built by Solomon lasted about three hundred and fifty years and then was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, in divine judgment. Seventy years later, the Jews who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon dedicated a second temple, much smaller than the one Solomon built, and the sacrificial system was restored, as predicted by Jeremiah. The second temple was eventually renovated and expanded in the latter part of King Herod’s reign, about five hundred years after it was built, with work continuing for several decades, throughout the lifetime of Jesus on earth. Construction finally terminated in the early 60s A.D., about the time Paul was a prisoner in Rome. Then the second Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., by the Romans, as predicted by Jesus. From that time, the Jewish sacrificial system initiated at Mt. Sinai through Moses ended, and several generations later in Rabbinic Judaism a symbolic system of prayers and rituals centered in the synagogues and homes of the Jews among the nations became the traditional substitute. Almost two millennia have passed with no Jerusalem temple, although since the late nineteenth century, interest in building a third Jerusalem temple has been stirred again, an interest further inflamed by the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel in 1947. Zionists and evangelical premillennialists have great interest in a revived Jewish temple system.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D., stamping out a Jewish revolt against the Romans, there was a second Jewish revolt in 132 A.D., led by a man known as Bar Kokhba (Son of The Star), who presented himself as the Christ, during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Bar Kokhba intended to restore Jewish dominion over Jerusalem, rebuild the temple and reinstitute the sacrificial system. The rebellion was put down by Hadrian’s forces, brutally and at great cost in lives, and Bar Kokhba died in 135, with one result being that Jews were banned from Jerusalem, the province of Judea was dissolved into Syria Palestine, and the city renamed Aelia Capitolina. A little more than two centuries later in 363 A.D. a Roman emperor remembered as Julian the Apostate wanted to destroy Christian influence in the empire and reaffirm paganism. Part of his program included restoring the Jews to Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple there. Christians of the era believed that Julian’s motive was to undermine the prophecies of Jesus in the New Testament about the destruction of the temple (see Matthew 24-25). The emperor authorized funds and resources to build a third temple, but several historians, both Christian and pagan, reported that the work was thwarted first by disaster, fireballs bursting forth from the foundation stones of the temple, and an earthquake, and then by the abrupt death of Julian (see Ammianus Marcellinus, “Res Gestae,” Book 23, for example). After almost 3 more centuries passed, in 610 A.D., the Persian Sassanid Empire gained control of Jerusalem and again proposed rebuilding the Jewish temple, but that effort too fizzled and died.
Meanwhile, what did Jesus say about building a third temple in Jerusalem? He clearly and accurately prophesied the destruction of the second temple in all its grandeur, “not one stone left upon another,” (Matthew 24:1-2), but what did he say about building another temple? Early in his ministry when he visited Jerusalem’s temple and denounced turning his “Father’s house into a market” the Jews demanded a sign proving his authority (John 2:16-18). Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up again in three days” (verse 19). This answer seemingly confused the Jews who cited the ongoing building project that was then forty-six years in progress, but John tells us that “the temple he had spoken of was his body” which his disciples later understood when he was raised from the dead (John 2:21-22), and they “believed the scripture and the words Jesus had spoken.”
Jesus proposed to raise up a temple, and that temple was his body. When Jesus later spoke to the Samaritan woman at Sychar (Shechem), he told her:
“believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:21-24).
Subsequent New Testament references speak of the fading glory of the Mosaic mode of worship at the temple in Jerusalem and the increasing glory of heartfelt worship of those who come to God by the Spirit.
“If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:7-11, and see Hebrews 8:13).
When the New Testament speaks of a temple being built, it is as Jesus said, the temple of His body, which is the church (Ephesians 1:22-23), made up of living stones being built together. Peter had confessed faith in Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God, and Jesus promised that “on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:16-19). Peter later wrote that Jesus is “the living stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him. You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). The church, the body of Christ, is God’s house,
“built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple to the Lord… built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20-22).
This is the temple Jesus proposed to raise up, and he is the builder of the house of God in which Moses was a servant, as described in Hebrews 3:1-6, which concludes that “Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.” Jesus built the temple God wanted. He spoke of no other. Despite every effort to destroy or distract true worship, his temple stands firm as the “place” for worship in spirit and truth.