Sunday, August 23, 2020

Your Church Building is NOT the House of God

I’m hearing it all the time now in public prayer: “We thank you, Father that we are able to freely gather in the house of God” and other similar thoughts, where the words “house of God” are unquestionably being used to describe the building in which we are sitting.

A similar misconception is given voice by people who insist upon referring to the auditorium in which a church meets as a “sanctuary”, as in (from mother to child), “Don’t run in the sanctuary! Don’t make noise in the sanctuary!”

These are not new Christians. It makes me wonder if they really know what the house of God is or what the term sanctuary means. I think in many cases they do, but have through inattention lapsed into language that is potentially misleading.

Such expressions, often used with entirely benign intent, can be profoundly confusing when not understood in the light of New Testament teaching. They place regrettable emphasis on everything that matters least in the church and threaten to blind us to a most significant truth. They lead us to think of “church” as being something we attend physically rather than enter into spiritually; as a weekly event rather than an ongoing lifestyle choice and worldview.

Worst of all, they invite us to conceive of ourselves as passive consumers and critics rather than active participants and members.

Old Testament Usage

Once upon a time there really was a physical “house of God”. The term is used by the Lord Jesus himself to describe the tabernacle that Israel carried with them in the desert on their way to Canaan from Egypt, and which served as the center of worship in Israel until Solomon built his temple.

And of course the Lord also used the same word to describe the temple itself when he famously said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” while overturning the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.

Within this house of God, whether tabernacle or temple, was the sanctuary or Holy of Holies, in which the presence of God himself was manifest.

But since the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the late first century, this world has not had a single building — not one — that could be accurately referred to as the “house of God”. It has not been home to a physical sanctuary.

Mangling the Terminology of Scripture

That fact never seems to stop people abusing the term. Try googling “synonyms for house of God” and see what you get: “mosque”, “place of worship”, “church house”, “house of prayer”, “synagogue”, “tabernacle”, “temple”, “cathedral”, “basilica”, “minster”, “sanctuary” and a bunch of others — even, rather obscurely, “bethel”.

What you don’t get from Google are “church”, “congregation” or “assembly”, the only English words that translators of the New Testament actually use as synonyms for “house of God”.

Popular culture has co-opted the phrase, and it’s about time we took it back.

The New Testament House

The truth that the church itself — that is to say, the gathered believers, as opposed to any mere physical structure — is now God’s spiritual home is set out in Paul’s letter to Timothy:
“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”
The Greek word oikos, the same word used of both temple and tabernacle by Matthew, is here translated (at least in the ESV) as “household”, which better gives the sense of what Paul is saying.

I believe that membership in the “household of God” is a lifestyle rather than a weekly event because most of “these things” Paul writes to Timothy with respect to “how one ought to behave in the household of God” involve choices and exercises in personal discipline made outside the formal gathering of believers, in places where we are our “secular” selves. These include such character traits as being above reproach, self-controlled, respectable, sober-minded, faithful, managing a household well and so on.

But there is no sharp dividing line in the foyer of a building where I put off my secular self and put on my spiritual self. My membership in the church is an organic thing; something I carry with me seven days a week.

God makes his home in hearts, not in a building. There is nothing magical about bricks and mortar even if they are topped by vaulted ceilings and lit through the most gorgeous and artistic displays of stained glass. Three or four people in a basement gathered in the name of Jesus Christ are equally the “house of God” with dozens, hundreds or even thousands in a special-purpose structure.

Given what often goes on in such places nowadays, it’s possible the basement dwellers are actually a more faithful manifestation of God’s house.

The House of God in Hebrews

The writer to the Hebrews reinforces the truth that the house of God is a spiritual and not a merely physical thing when he declares Jesus Christ to be “a great priest over the house of God”. He remains our Great High Priest always, but his priestly service is never more evident than when we “draw near with a true heart”.

The House of God in Peter

Finally, Peter tells us that it is not just the Lord Jesus who functions as a priest: we too are part of a priesthood:
“… built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
This is the New Testament church, not a physical building of steel or stone but a spiritual building made of “living stones”. He reminds us only two chapters later that the household of God is a lifestyle, not an event or a ritual, when he speaks of judgment:
“For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
The house of God is the place where judgment begins, so we should live daily in keeping with that reality. For that reason Peter tells the believers, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” Since stealing and murdering are generally things done outside religious structures except in the most extreme of circumstances, it seems to me that Peter views being “in the house of God” as an ongoing project encompassing every second of our lives.

Visiting the New Testament Sanctuary

The word “sanctuary” occurs in the New Testament only in the book of Hebrews, seven times alone just in Hebrews 9. Christ as our High Priest has entered once for all into a spiritual sanctuary, the “true tent that God set up, not man”. We are told that the most profound rituals of Judaism were mere “copies and shadows” of heavenly things. The covenant of which the Lord Jesus is mediator is a “better covenant”. Christ entered not into “holy places” but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf”.

In chapter 10, marvel of marvels, we are told:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus ... let us draw near ...”
This is an absolutely stunning revelation, something for which no Jew, however devout, might ever have hoped. Christ himself has opened up the sanctuary in heaven in order that we might enter in and have fellowship with God on the basis of his sacrifice of himself. And amazingly, we are to do so not in fear or trembling, but “confidently”.

But again, the sanctuary speaks to us not of a weekly event but a lifestyle: “Let us draw near,” the writer to the Hebrews tells us, “with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

This cannot be accomplished by a quickie prayer cleanup at the door of a chapel. It is a way of life that enables worship when we come together.

Burn Down the “Sanctuary”

In the presence of this truth, is it not clear why I deplore the use of the word “sanctuary” to describe a room with pews in which we gather to worship? It is a na├»ve trivialization of a sacred reality. You could knock down, tear down or burn down every church building in the nation tomorrow and you would not have changed a single thing that matters in the house of God. You could desecrate the pews and roast marshmallows over the burning hymnbooks. Nothing important would have been lost. Christ would still sit at the right hand of God in heaven, his work accomplished forever, and access into the presence of God would be just as available to me in my home, at work or walking down the street as it is in any building.

Unless — God forbid — we have come to worship the traditions, trappings and surroundings of our faith as some kind of pathetic, lifeless substitute for the enjoyment of fellowship with its Author and Finisher.


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