The Church and Temple Life
Over this last year, it has become apparent that the church needs to meet in some fashion to fulfill its purpose and mission. We need each other, and nobody can deny that.
COVID-19 has totally changed the landscape of what it means to be the church in our day and age. Is it a location, or is it a people? Most followers of Jesus would naturally say that the church is the people. But even with that answer, we are pretty quick to add our thoughts on meeting and gathering as a body. The Scriptures speak to the importance of meeting as a fellowship of believers, such as places like Hebrews 10:25, which says: “...not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing,...”. And to tell you the truth, this is a natural response to the year that has tried to keep us apart. It’s a natural response, but is it a Biblical response?
What is the appropriate response to being the church when we cannot meet like “normal” since March 2020? My first thought is that we should go back and see how those early Christians handled the situation. Acts 2:42-47 gives us a pretty good picture of what went on during those first “church services” as the church was being formed.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44 Now, all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45 They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Every day, they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47
Look at that. The church met every day both in the temple and in each other's homes. See, we need a church building or a central location! If we examine the 1st century and the early church workings, we might uncover a slightly different take on this story.
Yes, they indeed gathered in large groups. They did go to the temple to teach, pray, and worship. But the temple was a much different place than our modern-day church. For the 1st century Jewish follower of Jesus, the temple was undoubtedly an extension of their past worship experience. It was a natural place to gather because everyone gathered there. Everyone gathered at the temple those who believed in Jesus as well as those who didn’t. This is why the Apostles were getting themselves in trouble; they preached about Jesus in a very public Jewish place. It was a natural location to go to because they were coming to a place where everyone would gather, both believers and those they were evangelizing.
One of our favorite ways to describe the Christian experience is that we are in a new family. This is absolutely Biblically true. But what size constitutes a family gathering? I would pose the idea that the 1st century church considered those home gatherings as their “family gatherings.” Acts 2:46 tells us that they broke bread in their homes. The home was the place where authentic relationships were formed.
But back to the temple. The temple was convenient. It was central. Everyone went there, and so it was a natural place to gather. We would do well to keep in mind that the temple was part of the larger community where worship happened and where the general business of the day happened. What we’ve done as a modern church is to take this idea of the temple as our central place of worship and place our churches within that mold. We’ve created new temple experiences and have allowed those experiences to be our primary experience. We are just following along in the footsteps of those first Christians who came before us. They met at the temple regularly, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Then something happened. The temple was basically cut off for large gatherings because the people were scattered. Acts 8 begins to tell the story of those early Christians in the Jerusalem area as they came under great persecution. Most of them were forced to disperse to other parts of the world.
Many of these scattered followers of Jesus would land in towns and cities that contained a Jewish synagogue. Well, there you have it, another central place for worship. The problem was the 1st century synagogues were nothing like the temple experience. There were little or no worship experiences happening in the synagogues. The synagogue system wouldn’t start to take on that role until much later.
So what was a synagogue, and why did believers go there? The synagogue is a Greek word that means a gathering of people. Why do they gather? A whole lot of things. Synagogues were used for a “variety of communal needs: as schools (Josephus, Antiquities 16.43), for communal meals (Josephus, Antiquities 14.214-216), as hostels, as courts (Acts 22:19), as a place to collect and distribute charity (Matt 6:2), and for political meetings”. So, when we see Paul going to the synagogue to preach, he is just going to the town’s central meeting place so that he could preach the Gospel to his Jewish brothers. Think about it this way, going to the synagogue might be like us going to the town hall, or better yet, the local pub down the street. These are the kinds of meeting places where the people who need to hear about Jesus and find a relationship with Him go.
It’s more reasonable to think that the “main” church meetings were happening more frequently in places like the home. We see Lydia as an example of that in Acts 16. She became a follower of Jesus, and she had a pretty wealthy household, and so more than likely, the church met there. Going back to Acts 2, they broke bread in the home.
We must be very careful that we do not try to hold on to a temple experience as the first believers tried to do. I’m not saying that they relied on the temple, but according to the Scripture and their early practices, it looks like the temple model began to become a foundational part of their faith in those early days. It took God shaking things up for them to break out of that mold and become the mobile church that we see in the rest of the Scriptures. A gathering of people who go to other people to share the Good News about Jesus Christ.
There is nothing wrong with seeking out a central common location to have large gatherings. I love getting together with a lot of people to sing praises to the Lord. It’s fun; it’s energizing, it’s comfortable. But let me throw out this challenge; maybe things are being shaken for us like in those early church days. And because we are being shaken, we need to be on the lookout for the new ways God will move in his people. Just like they did in the 1st century.
We are a family, but maybe it’s time for the family to get away from the ongoing family reunions and seek out those places to meet and minister where those who are lost can be invited to see who this Jesus is. Maybe this is when we look to go big, but we do it by going small. Some modern-day leaders are calling them micro-church experiences. Perhaps the breaking of bread in the home is the new way of doing church in 2021, at least for the time being. I’ve been encouraged by some of the stories I’ve heard about groups from within the FBC body, both ministry teams and small groups, gathering together to minister to one another. This is church.
So let's not get discouraged if the doors to our larger buildings are closed. Let’s embrace that and find new and creative ways to get together with groups of people who might never darken the doorway of a “church.” There are people like that out there. Maybe we need those larger buildings to be closed for the time being for the health, growth, and wellbeing of the future church?
(I close this by saying that I am not a 1st century historian, but I am one who is looking to the Scriptures and studying the 1st century to understand better the culture that helped define Christianity.)
(This temple talk doesn’t even attempt to cover the temple versus tabernacle models of worship. The tabernacle model, a mobile vehicle of worship, is a whole other illustration of how the Body of Christ works.)