The Church as God’s Temple 3: One Holy Catholic Dwelling

Ephesians 2:19-22

Our final passage for consideration is found in the Epistle to the Ephesians, and in keeping with his exalted tone and transcendent topics elsewhere in the letter, Paul’s treatment of God’s people as God’s temple is at its most extensive and sublime here.  Following his famous blessing of Christ in chapter 1 and his equally famous exposition of salvation by grace through faith in the beginning of chapter 2, Paul begins to trumpet the glorious inclusion of the Gentiles along with the Jews in God’s plan of redemption.  By his blood, Christ has “made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility… that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body….  For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:14-16, 18).[1]  From here Paul rapidly crescendos through three relations, with each surpassing the former in intimacy and privilege:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:19-22, emphasis added).

It is clear that Paul employs dual senses of the Greek word oikos (household/house) as a way to transition from the family description to the temple description,[2] but is it clear that the temple is meant to be understood as greater?  Besides its position at the end and its relatively lengthy elaboration, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones sees ample evidence of this: “The family, after all, is a collection of individuals, whereas when you come to a building… there is a truer merging of the parts….  [T]he child has access to the father, but the child is still outside the father.  But here the idea presented is God dwelling within us, taking up His abode within us.”[3]

Obviously, a comparison of 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 and Ephesians 2:19-22 reveals that the designation of the temple’s “foundation” and the structural role of Christ differ between the two letters.  Though some critics may be tempted to cite such differences as evidence of the non-Pauline authorship of Ephesians, this stance is altogether too narrow-minded in its assumption that Paul could not or would not adapt the metaphorical physical elements in order to emphasize different facets of the true spiritual reality in different contexts.  In fact, given our previous examination of Paul’s dual identification of the “foundation” in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, we can readily accept such an explanation.  In the same way that Paul laid a foundation for the Corinthians in a true, secondary sense, so the apostles and the prophets (and, by logical extension, the deposit of gospel doctrines which they proclaim) act as the foundation for the church in a true, secondary sense.[4,5]  What then is Paul’s purpose in shifting Christ out of the foundation role here?  Paul’s capital emphasis on unity in this passage leads him to designate Christ the cornerstone, that specific part of the foundation which joins the walls of the structure both to the foundation and to one another.[6]  The shape, angle, and direction of every other piece of the building is ultimately determined to be correct or incorrect by its relation to the cornerstone.[7]  Since all believers (both Jew and Greek) are rightly oriented toward Christ through the same means (salvation by grace through faith), it follows that every believer fits harmoniously into the structure and is thus united to one another through Christ.

In an unexpected linguistic turn, Paul indicates the living nature of the new covenant temple in stating that it “grows” (Eph 2:21)—a term clearly borrowed from the realm of organic development.  In so doing, Paul mixes the imagery of the temple with the imagery of his favorite church metaphor, the body of Christ.  Since the temple can develop ‘organically’ in this passage, we are not surprised to find the body developing ‘architecturally’ later in Ephesians 4:12 (“…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”).[8]  To conclude his discourse on unity in the temple, Paul returns to the more familiar ‘building’ language in appropriating the statements just made about the universal church to the local church in Ephesus: “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22).  Thus the local church/temple is a manifestation of the one universal church/temple, growing toward completion by the addition of individual believers and by cooperation with one another in right relation to Christ.

Conclusion: God’s Presence Has Consequences

Like so many other elements of God’s kingdom during the overlapping of the ages, the eschatological temple of God prophesied in the Old Testament has arrived and, at the same time, is not yet complete.  Paul’s conception of the local and universal church as the temple of God is not merely a thought experiment or a helpful illustration; God has indeed come and made his dwelling among his people by the Holy Spirit, who is building his temple (cf. Eph 2:21-22) and directing his people to build (cf. 1 Cor 3:10).  The glory of the divine presence is neither a vanished antiquity of the old covenant nor a distant prospect of the final consummation; it is a present reality.[9]  Because of this divine presence, the church is holy, set apart for God (cf. 1 Cor 3:17); as Hodge writes, “It belongs to him, is consecrated to his use, and can neither be appropriated by anyone else nor used for anything outside his service without causing it to be profaned.…  It is his house, in which he alone has any authority.”[10]  As an inevitable consequence of this consecration, the church is called to the task of sanctification—of “bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1).  Furthermore, the presence of God is a powerfully unifying presence.  Every believer united to Christ is established on the one and only foundation, aligned with the one and only cornerstone, and therefore also united to all other believers in one structure.[11]

What is our proper response to this magnificent truth?  Let us look to Paul once more:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:1-5).

The presence of the living God among us—his dwelling, his living temple—cannot be any less than the single most defining and controlling factor in determining our identity and directing our activity, in this world and unto eternity.


[1] “[The ‘dividing wall’] may be an allusion to the barricade which in Jerusalem separated the court of the Gentiles from the temple proper, and on which there was an inscription threatening death to any non-Jew who tried to pass it:  ‘No foreigner may enter within the barricade which surrounds the sanctuary and enclosure.  Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.’”  William Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians (New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1967), 133.

[2] Ibid.,141.

[3] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God’s Way of Reconciliation (Studies in Ephesians chapter 2; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1976), 336, 338.  Emphasis original.

[4] “Not at all in themselves or because of any intrinsic merit were they entitled to this distinction, but as divinely appointed witnesses and ambassadors who were constantly pointing away from themselves, to Christ….  A parallel would be the fact that Jesus called himself ‘the light of the world’ (John 8:12), but he also called his disciples ‘the light of the world’ (Matt 5:14).”  Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians, 50, 147.  Emphasis original.

[5] Much ink has been spilt debating the identity of the “prophets” Paul mentions here as New-Testament-era, Old-Testament-era, or both; since the issue is ultimately tertiary to Paul’s main point in the passage, we will not entertain specific arguments here.  Cf. Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians, 142; and Charles Hodge, Ephesians (ed. Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994), 95.

[6] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 749.

[7] Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians, 143.

[8] Ridderbos, Paul, 431.

[9] Bryan Chapell, Ephesians (ed. Richard D. Phillips and Philip Graham Ryken; Reformed Expository Commentary; Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing Company, 2009), 132.

[10] Hodge, Ephesians, 97.

[11] “When holiness is the main characteristic, the unity looks after itself.”  Lloyd-Jones, God’s Way of Reconciliation, 344.


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