Updated: Apr 25, 2020
The Jewish temple of the first century was considered a sight to see. The historian Josephus described it as a “mountain of snow” as it glittered in the sunlight. It had gold details, and huge enormous bronze gates celebrated for their beauty.
This was the temple where Jesus threw over the tables, where he healed the people in the courts. He stood toe-to-toe against the religious leaders in the shadow of this center of worship.
The whole nature of the temple was to be the place where the spheres of heaven and earth met. Understanding a little about the temple can actually help us understand more about our role as Christians.
What was the Jerusalem temple like in Jesus' day?
While the details are debated, I think everyone agrees on the basic layout. (Well as much as historians agree on anything!) There are many wonderful details, but we'll just do a simple overview.
Near the temple courts were the large baths for purification, for men and women.
Ironically, also right next to the courts was a Roman garrison, called the Antonia, with towers allowing soldiers to oversee what was happening in the courts. A Jew could not even worship in Jesus' day without the overshadowing, inescapable, presence of Rome.
Up many stairs was the platform, often called the temple mount, which was an enormous area of 1590 feet by 1030 feet, made smaller and smaller by holier and holier walled areas. (For reference, a USA football field is 160 feet wide, by 360 feet long, small by comparison!)
It had a colorful tiled floor, and was fully encircled by a colonnade - a roofed area supported by columns. The colonnade, on at least one side, was two stories tall. This large courtyard was called the Court of Gentiles, where anyone could visit. This was where the money changers, the dove sellers and other business transactions took place. It was likely noisy and bustling - not very conducive to a worshiping atmosphere.
Within this large area was the next courtyard, the Court of Women. Any Jewish man, woman, or child could worship here. There were smaller sections of this courtyard that included storage for the sacrificial goods, oil for lamps, wood for the altar, and so forth.
Up a staircase, and through stunning bronze gates, was the Court of Israel. Generally, this was only for men, unless a woman was bringing a sacrifice. The Court of Israel included the fifty-foot square area with the altar for burnt offerings and an enormous basin for ceremonial washing.
Within the Court of Israel was a low wall, separating it from the Court of Priests. Only the temple priests could go in here to perform the services of the temple.
The temple itself is described by Josephus as being one hundred cubits wide, and one hundred cubits high (100 cubits is about 150 feet) with gold spikes on its roof to keep birds from landing (and making a mess!). Inside the front area, there were special lamps and tables for service.
Dividing the interior of the temple was a curtained area, to partition off a room called the Holy of Holies, considered by Jews as the holiest place in the entire world. Only the high priest could enter, and even then, he shrouded himself in incense smoke, and the people waited with bated breath to see if he would emerge safely. However, in Jesus' day, the ark of the covenant was no longer in the Holy of Holies. It had been taken away when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and never returned.
You see, the temple Jesus visited was not the original temple.
A Quick Look at the History of the Temple
The very first dwelling place made for God was the tabernacle in the time of Moses. It was a massive tent with elaborate furnishings, constructed with the finest materials, and by the hands of the most skilled craftsmen. You can read in great detail about the tabernacle, its furnishings, and what the priests wore in Exodus 25-28, 30, 36-40.
When David became king, he wanted to construct a temple for the Lord, but that honor was given to his son, Solomon. It took seven years to build. You can read about Solomon's temple in 1 Kings, or in 2 Chronicles. Once it was completed, it was dedicated with prayers and sacrifices, and the priests moved the ark of the covenant and the furnishings and other articles into the temple. This was somewhere around 970-931 BC.
The book of Second Chronicles tells the whole history of Solomon's Temple, from construction to destruction. Here is a super simple overview:
The book begins with Solomon constructing the Temple.
Solomon dies, and not long afterward, the once united land splits into Israel in the North, and Judah in the South.
Israel turns away from God. They commit evil, including sacrificing their children to pagan gods. As a result, God allows Assyria to sweep in, and most of Israel and Samaria are led away into exile. Assyria puts their own puppets kings in charge.
Judah goes through kings and queens, some good, some evil.
When they also turn away from God, and the king sacrificed his own sons to a false god, Judah was attacked by Babylon. After some failed negotiations and attempts to buy their security, King Nebuchadnezzar tore down the walls of Jerusalem, plundered and burned the temple, and carried away its people. From this point on, the ark of the covenant is never in the temple again, and it disappears from history.
The book does not end there though! Seventy years after their captivity began, Darius, king of Persia, becomes ruler of Babylon. God uses this foreign king to free the people, and to rebuild the temple!
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the struggles of rebuilding the Second Temple and the city walls, trying to restore the priesthood, and the difficulty of teaching the people the laws of Moses. In the end, the temple does not equal the grandeur of Solomon's Temple —to the people's great dismay. Not only that, but there is also no ark to place in the Holy of Holies.
Finished somewhere around 515 BC, this temple continued to stand as it was until the reign of King Herod. To earn favor with his Jewish subjects, Herod renovates the temple into a thing of splendor. During this massive renovation project, the priests continued to worship and serve without interruption. This is the temple Jesus visited. Though renovated, it is still commonly called the Second Temple.
The fact that a foreign ruler, not a Davidic king, restored the temple, made it a matter of some controversy in its day. On top of that, the priesthood devolved from a holy office to a mere political position. People were frustrated with the cost of sacrifices and the unfair money exchange rates. These issues led a small group of Jews to reject the temple altogether.
Despite its shortfalls, however, most of the Jewish people loved the temple as the center of their traditions, sacrifices, and feast days. It was still considered the place where heaven and earth touched. Even Jews from far away would come at least once in their lifetime to celebrate Passover. The sight of the temple would stir their very soul. It was a symbol of their national pride and their belief in the One True God, in the face of the powerful, pagan nations.
When Jesus prophesied the downfall of the temple, that no stone would be left atop another, the words carried more meaning than the simple destruction of a beautiful building. The harsh prophecy would remind the people of the last time the temple fell. It would remind them of judgment. The words were certainly a slap to the face of the religious leaders. In their minds, they were nothing like the evil generation before the exile! Hadn't they restored the Torah? Didn't their scholars study the law? Hadn't they made sure to have synagogues, priests and teachers in every place, so the people would not forget the Lord? Did not the scribes copy out the holy scriptures with exact detail, so not line or dot was out of place? They were perhaps the most learned generation of Jews up to this point in history. No wonder the priests and Pharisees were so insulted!
Yet, Jesus saw them and their sacrifices as outwardly pious, while rotten on the inside. He prophesied the destruction of the temple, and the fall of Jerusalem.
The way heaven and earth met was about to change.
We, as Christians, do not miss the temple. We know that God does not need a physical place like we need a house.
It's good to note though, that the idea that God does not need a temple to live among us is not a new, Christian idea. It is, in fact, a very old Jewish one, tracing all the way back to Eden.
“They heard the sound of the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of the day . . .” - Genesis 3:87
In the beginning, God dwelt with His people.
Do you remember how God spoke with Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses (among others) before the temple? The miracles of the exodus also happened before the temple. God is not limited to a building. The Jews knew that. That is how they were able to live far away from the temple and still consider themselves righteous. That is how they were able to survive the painful loss of the temple in 70 AD. Because they knew God could not be limited.
What is new, however, is that those who believe in Jesus have become the temple of God! (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Knowing the history of the grandeur and holiness of the temple can help us understand the great honor of the Holy Spirit dwelling with us today.
So What Changed in the Temple After Jesus?
We no longer need the High Priest to go into the Holy of Holies, interceding for us in the temple, for we have Jesus as our High Priest. (Hebrews 4:14).
Not only that, we are called to be priests ourselves! In Exodus 19:6 God says to the people, "you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The first-century Christians saw this coming true in Christ's kingdom. 1 Peter 2:5 says,
"You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."
Our role as "priest" and "temple" is not to sacrifice on an altar. It is to stand under God, and under our High Priest Jesus, and worship God, teach the truth, and love our neighbors. We need to "show God" to the world. We no longer need sacrifices of animals, wine or grain, for Jesus sacrificed once for all. (Hebrews 10:10)
Also exciting, is that we are no longer separated Jew from Gentile by dividing walls and laws. (Ephesians 2:12-14)
Isn't this awesome?!
I'll leave you with one last verse to encourage you,
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” - John 14:23
Did you know there is a miniature of what the first century Jerusalem and the temple may have looked like, recreated in great detail? Check it out here.
Want to learn more about the Jerusalem temple? Click to learn about the sacrifices that were performed in the Temple!
History sourced from Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson, pages 399-401, 413, 562-563