Beale-concluding thoughts

Because G. K. Beale talks, toward the end of The Temple and the Church’s Mission, about the Apocalypse and other last-things literature, it would be easy to get side tracked into a discussion of the various schools of millenialism. Beale is an amillenialist or idealist, maybe a partial preterist. If you care, you can look all those terms up on a search engine.

The main point is that he takes biblical predictions about the future as figurative. But he takes them seriously. His belief is that when the Bible talks about the temple, and is not specifically referring to the stone-and-mortar temple, it is talking about the people. This is clearly correct, at least some of the time. 1 Peter 2:4-10, for instance, makes it clear that people are living stones being built into a temple.

So his big picture is that God’s ultimate goal is to be present in the whole universe as in a temple.

In his own words:

…the redemptive-historical development may be explained as proceeding from God’s unique presence in the structural temple in the Old Testament to the God-man, Christ, the true temple. As a result of Christ’s resurrection, the Spirit continued building the end-time temple, the building materials of which are God’s people, thus extending the temple into the new creation in the new age. This building process will culminate in the eternal new heavens and earth as a paradisal city-temple. Or, more briefly, the Temple of God has been transformed into God, his people and the rest or the new creation as the temple.

But the title of Beale’s book contains a promise that he will apply this to the mission of the church. In his 13th and final chapter, he takes this up.

I was a little surprised by his approach. If he had fallen in with he spirit of our times, he would have gone in a political direction. Since, the kingdom of God is to fill the whole earth we need to push social justice (if you are on the left) or traditional or family values (if you are on the right) until the whole world reflects God’s own politics.

It was refreshing that he did not do this. He stayed very biblical. He pointed to all the times the New Testament refers to spiritual sacrifices, particularly to Paul’s priestly offering of the Gentiles (Romans 15:16) or the idea of the sacrificial “aroma” of the knowledge of God in every place (2 Corinthians 2:14). The world is becoming  a temple in which God’s people offer the sacrifice of evangelism. Also, Beale sees the sufferings of the church as a priestly sacrifice.

So this author applies the traditional missionary, great-commission imperative of the church to the idea that the church has the role of a levitical priesthood in expanding the boundaries of God’s temple and incorporating more people into that temple. This last chapter of the book is like a sermon. It has some illustrations from nature and appeals to God to “give us grace to go out into the world.”

Beale puts a new theological vision behind the old evangelical understanding of mission. Perhaps he could have made it more clear that this mission includes, not just verbal proclamation, but acts of love and benevolence as well. But I think he would agree with this. His chapter was brief and could not include everything.
His approach is especially unique (and commendable in my view) in the light of the way he has used ancient Near Eastern mythology and temple motifs as well as non-biblical Jewish sources to inform his view.

Now some caveats:

First, I simply do not grasp his idea that the sin of Adam and Eve was somehow a refusal to expand the garden/temple of Eden. This makes their sin a sin against the command to be fruitful and multiply and have dominion (Genesis 1:28). The view may come from midrash. But I just don’t see it in the text, which emphasizes the first couple’s attempt to be godlike instead.

Second, although I find much of Beale’s exposition compelling, it seems to me that he tends to make one biblical metaphor dominate the others. Certainly the temple is an important motif. But there are others. When the New Testament applies imagery to the atonement, for instance, it uses sacrificial imagery. But it also uses imagery drawn from family relationships, forgiveness of debt and obligation, and liberation from slavery. The sacrificial and temple imagery does not dominate the others.

Finally, he sees Israel fulfilled in the church. I do not see him grappling with the reality that Judaism and Christianity took a while to fully separate, or that there continues to be something real behind the phrase Judeo-Christian. The judgment upon temple-based Judaism that seemed to fall in the year 70, does not have to mean the end of God’s covenant with ethnic Israel anymore than the fall of the first temple did. To just subsume the Jews into the unsaved general population seems unsatisfactory to me.

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Beale-the buggy/car analogy

When I retired I wanted to continue to do good.  Some retired clergy that I knew worked as volunteers with charitable organizations–Habitat for Humanity, for example.  This kind of work did not appeal to me at all because they put retired clergy on boards and committees that require going to meetings and getting involved in the internal politics of these organizations.  So I said that I would volunteer for anything as long as I didn’t have to go to meetings.  That got me out of a lot of stuff.  Almost everything involves going to meetings.

One thing I have volunteered for is to provide transportation for people who need someone to drive them to medical appointments.  When I do that on a morning, it wipes out blogging for that day.  But sitting in a medical waiting room often allows me to get ahead on my reading.

So yesterday I was able to read most of the remainder of G. K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission in a urologist’s waiting room.

Although I have major misgivings about some of Beale’s interpretations, when I look at his overall argument I find myself largely sympathetic.

The vision of the future temple in Ezekiel is not just an ideal of the perfect temple.  It is a prophecy of the ultimate universal community and Revelation 21-22 expresses the fulfillment of that prophecy.

There is a lot to commend this view.  First, of all Ezekiel’s situation was that the destruction of Solomon’s temple created a void in the religious lives of the Babylonian exiles.  Ezekiel’s understanding was that the people, themselves, could become the temple of God.  The temple still existed in this sense.  And God would ultimately perfect it.

Second, Revelation faced a similar situation with the destruction of the second temple. Even if I can’t go along with Beale’s overall interpretation of Revelation, I think he gets this part right.  Even after God’s judgment has fallen on Israel and on the Roman Empire, the community of God will go on and find fulfillment as the great temple in the day of resurrection.

He takes on the literalism of much eschatological thinking with a telling analogy. Suppose that in about 1900 a father had promised his young son that when he grew up and got married he would receive a fine buggy as a wedding present. In the meantime, the buggy became obsolete as the automobile age arrived.  So the father’s actual wedding present was not a fine buggy, but a fine car.

Has this father broken his promise?  He did not fulfill it literally.  And yet the son is unlikely to complain.  He will take the gift as the fulfillment of the promise.  This analogy suggests that God’s promise evolves over time and is open to surprising fulfillments.  And yet the original promise remains valid.

For Beale, Jesus is the turning point in salvation history.  Like the coming of the automobile age for transportation, this changes everything.  Therefore, we can justify going back to the promises to Israel and interpreting them in the light of Jesus.

This may invalidate some of my criticisms of Beale.  I claim that sometimes what he says the Hebrew Bible means was not the intent of the original authors.  Perhaps he would just say that the original intent can’t be taken literally since the coming of Jesus has changed everything.

Okay.  But history has gone on for millenia. There have been other events.  I am thinking primarily of the Holocaust.  The Third Reich was an attempt to reincarnate the pagan Roman Empire. So what Revelation says about Babylon is relevant. But the main salvation-historical relevance stems from the attempt to eradicate the tribe to which God originally made the promises.

Does the Holocaust not require us now to reconsider the place of Israel?  The Augustinian replacement theology was certainly an enabler of the Nazis even though many Christians stood with the Jews.  So post-Holocaust Christians can’t be neutral about this. Any interpretation of the Bible that reads universal intent into the promises in a way that cancels out the reality of Israel’s election goes back to a pre-Holocaust naivety–or so it seems to me.

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Beale-the riddle of Hebrews

The Book of Hebrews obviously has an important place in understanding early Christian thinking about the temple.  G. K. Beale in The Temple and the Church’s Mission make this statement about it:

“Hebrews inform us of something that was not clear in Exodus: the pattern that Moses saw on Sinai was apparently the true heavenly tabernacle that was to come later with Christ and descend and eventually fill the whole earth.  It was this eschatological sanctuary of which Moses was to make a small earthly model.”

This is what gives rise to Hebrew’s language about the temple, the priests, and the sacrifices being a “shadow” of the real thing.  They were a figurative picture of something real.  Beale talks about the difference between something that is real and something that is physical.  Some interpreters don’t get that the temple being physical did not make it real.  But Hebrews 9:11 shows that the real sanctuary is not the one in this creation made by human hands.

He uses this to take a swipe at those who have a last-days scenario where the temple gets rebuilt.  That would be going back to the shadow, the copy.  It would be turning away from the real.

Beale does not understand Hebrews and the New Testament in general to have spiritualized the Temple.  His insight is that the thing that is figurative and spiritualized is the earthly temple and sacrificial system, while the thing that is real is what God did in Christ.  This is not just in Hebrews.  He points to Matthew 12:6: “something greater than the temple is here.”

Hebrews also says that the body of Jesus is the true veil at the entrance to the holy place (Hebrews 10:19).  Beale connects this to the passion-story event of the tearing of the temple curtain.

That Christ is several things–temple, priest, veil–may amount to more than mixed metaphors. All these things, as Beale argued earlier, can represent the cosmos.  This ties in with the conception in Paul that in Christ there is a new creation.

So Beale’s big idea is that the end-time temple is the body of Jesus extending to take in the whole church and even the universe.  Thus, he interprets Hebrews 12:22 ff.  There the author piles up phrases: Mount Zion, the city, the heavenly Jerusalem, the assembly, the congregation of the first born.  These point to the ultimate redeemed community.

There is also the notion in Hebrews 12:26-29 that the last things include a “shaking” of creation so that only what is unshakable will remain. Beale show Haggai as the background for this.

6 Moreover, the Lord who rules over all says: ‘In just a little while I will once again shake the sky and the earth, the sea and the dry ground. 7 I will also shake up all the nations, and they will offer their treasures; then I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the Lord who rules over all. (Haggai 2:6-7 NET Bible).

Haggai concludes that there will remain a temple with a splendor greater than that of former times (v. 9).  So Hebrews sees not the physical temple but a new and true temple as something unshakable that shall remain. (Although, Haggai’s literal meaning surely is that when the nations offer up their treasures that will allow the physical temple to be filled with more silver and gold.)

I am grateful to G. K. Beale for his interpretation and insights.  But, like many things about Hebrews, I am not sure.  We don’t know who wrote the book.  We don’t know its occasion.  Whoever composed the superscription did not know either.  “To the Hebrews” is not a specific thing like “to the Philippians”.  So the occasion of Hebrews has been lost since the second century at least.

The ideas seem to have some affinity with other Jewish writings of the time.  Thus the contrast between the real and the literal also occurs in Philo.  The writing off of the Jerusalem temple has parallels at Qumran and in other noncomformist Jewish writings.

A verse like Matthew 12:6 gives Hebrews a link with other New Testament works.  But I am wary of trying to make Hebrews jibe with the rest of the New Testament.  It is a very unique book.

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Beale-futurist eschatology and the spiritual temple

In the Temple and the Church’s Mission G. K. Beale deals with 2 Thessalonians 2:4. The passage talks about  a “man of lawlessness” who,

opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, and as a result he takes his seat in God’s temple, displaying himself as God (NET Bible).

Beale comes at this passage from a very different perspective than I do. First, he assumes that this is a prophecy that must be fulfilled at some time still future. Many who hold this futurist perspective believe that the Jews will rebuild the Temple in the end times. Only so could the antichrist literally take a seat in it.

Beale disagrees with this idea. He argues that the temple Paul speaks of is spiritual–the church. He still puts these events in a future end time. But the apostasy or rebellion will be in the church and the antichrist will lure the church away from true adherence to Christ. This is in line with his contention in this book that in the New Testament the church is the temple now.

The antichrist taking a seat in the temple is metaphorical like the scribes and pharisees sitting in the seat of Moses (Matthew 23:2).

This point of view has a history within Protestant interpretation. Calvin thought the apostasy of 2 Thessalonians 2 pointed to the papacy–in other words, the church now dominated by errant teaching and practice. Many followed him. Beale does not go this way. He has a futurist, not a historical, eschatology. Only forerunners to the antichrist have manifested themselves yet (1 John 2:18 ff.).

Second, he assumes that Paul’s thought about the future coheres within all the writings attributed to Paul (also with 1 John and Revelation). So he systematizes Paul’s thought. To be sure, he says this occurs within a progressive revelation. He means that there were partial historical fulfillments of the antichrist theme first introduced in Daniel. Antiochus Epiphanes was a partial fulfillment. The Romans were a partial fulfillment. But Paul, he thinks, consistently goes beyond this to a complete fulfillment in a future end time. This fulfillment will not involve Israel. It will involve a spiritual falling away of the church.

I am not sure I know what Paul is talking about in 2 Thessalonians 2. Beale admits that there are many interpretations. He says there are 7 different interpretations of the one who is restraining the antichrist. It is an obscure passage. So I just offer a few observation to show why I am not convinced by Beale’s treatment.

*Paul does not use the term “antichrist”. First John’s use of the term probably refers to something like the ideas of 2 Thessalonians 2. But it may refer to a much more developed scenario than what Paul held.

*Paul’s eschatology looks to me like it developed over time. Second Thessalonians was his earliest, or one of his earliest, letters. He does not mention these ideas in any of his other letters. We know that his early view that the appearance of Christ and the resurrection would happen during his own lifetime changed.

*Paul addresses a problem in Thessalonica in around 49-50 C.E. Someone was proclaiming that in some spiritual or abstract way Jesus has already returned. Before the return of Christ can happen, Paul seems to claim, a “lawless one” must arise. This one who exalts himself will appear in the Temple and desecrate it (2:4). Note that the church had received a letter from someone pretending to be Paul or Silas (first century identity theft) that contained this teaching (2:2).

*The emperor Caligula in 40 C.E. had sought to set up an image of himself in the Jerusalem temple. Beale never mentions this. But it seems to me that the problem in Thessalonica probably stemmed from the preaching of some prophets (Silas?) that this was the fulfillment of Daniel. How could those who had heard that message make sense of the fact that it had not really happened.  The prophecies must have been fulfilled. So Christ must have returned in some spiritual way. Maybe Paul taught that something had miraculously restrained Caligula–caused him to be assassinated in a nick of time. For obvious political reasons, Paul had to mention this idea in a cryptic way.

*Prophesies in the Bible are not ironclad. God does not have to literally fulfill them. Huldah’s prophecy that King Josiah would die in peace (2 Kings 22:20) comes to mind. In fact, Josiah was killed in battle.

*If you insist on finding a literal fulfillment of Paul’s lawless one, the best candidate would be the general (later emperor) Titus. He seems to have thought he was actually destroying Judaism and its Torah by sacking the Temple and killing the men of Jerusalem. The “lawless one” indeed!

*The idea that Paul was addressing a present problem in a particular church by telling them what was going to happen in an end time thousands of years later seems questionable.

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Beale-Paul’s temple and garden

One of the perplexing passages in the letters of Paul is 1 Corinthians 3:10-15:

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire (NET Bible).

G. K. Beale’s insight into this passage in The Temple and the Church’s Mission puts it in the context of Malachi 3-4. Those chapters repeatedly speak of the judgment as a fire the destroys and refines. Particularly the Levites will be purified so that they can bring acceptable sacrifices (Malachi 3:3).

Now in 1 Corinthians 3 Paul keeps speaking of building upon a foundation. Beale takes this as temple language. Paul’s work is to build the church into a temple for God’s spirit. Moreover, the way Paul speaks implies that the temple grows gradually over time. The temples of Eden, the patriarch’s sanctuaries, Solomon’s temple, and the second temple all were meant to expand over time. There is language in the Hebrew Bible that expresses the intention that they all expand from their original sizes to eventually include the whole cosmos.

This claim is not quite as outlandish as it sounds. For instance, the sanctuary of Jacob at Beth-el does seem to include a kind of universal claim that anyplace one lays one’s head can manifest as the house of God and the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:27).

Anyway, Paul does understand that the temple he is building by including Gentiles expands in size over time. Paul juxtaposes the image of a garden planted and growing with a structure getting built up from a foundation. These images go together for Beale because of his understanding of a garden/temple combining themes from Eden and the sanctuaries of Israel.

But someday the time for growing and building will end. God will test the building with fire. God will harvest the garden.

Beale does not really answer the most perplexing question about the 1 Corinthians 3 passage, which is the meaning of receiving a reward or surviving even though charred by fire. This could be both troubling and reassuring. Those of us who have probably used a lot of straw and hay will suffer loss. But we will be saved, though with the smell of smoke still upon us.

Beale affirms that the temple and priesthood consist of all those in the church. That certainly fits with the Protestant notion of the priesthood of all believers. But Paul is talking about builders/gardeners like himself and Apollos. It is hard for me not to think that Paul means particular workers are like Levites and that they will be rewarded or held accountable at the judgment in a special way.

Beale talks about Paul building the church. We should remember that word for church actually meant assembly, so, especially when speaking of this as a building, it is easy for us to slip into institutional thinking. For us the word church may mean a structure or polity, or the denominations, or the local church with its building and settled pastor. But Paul was talking about an assembly of adherents to Christ. In some of his communities this seemed to include smaller assemblies that met in people’s homes. In some communities it overlapped with the local synagogue. For Paul I am pretty sure the idea of church did not exclude Israel. He was aware, though, of a complicated relationship. The firm line between Christianity and Judaism had not yet been drawn.

Also, during Paul’s lifetime the Temple in Jerusalem still stood. Paul himself sometimes traveled there to worship. So it is hard for me to see Paul speaking of the church as a replacement for the Temple except in the eschatological future. We probably should not take his words in too exacting a way. Much of Paul’s language is figurative and meant to work on our imaginations rather than to be used to construct doctrines.

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Beale-St. Stephen’s speech

A professor of preaching in my youth used to mock sermons that he said were “a Cook’s tour of the Bible.” Thomas Cook was one of the first travel agents in mid 19th century England. He was famous for organizing and selling superficial, hurried tours.

At first glance, Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 looks like an example of a Cook’s tour of the Bible. Stephen touches on many stories leading up to Solomon’s building a house for God in verse 47. Then in verses 49-50 he quotes Isaiah 66:1-2:

49 ‘Heaven is my throne,

and earth is the footstool for my feet.

What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,

or what is my resting place?

50 Did my hand not make all these things?’ (NET Bible).

In defending himself against the charge that he spoke against the holy place, Stephen seems to make the case against himself worse with an argument that Israel’s understanding of tabernacle and temple had always been a mistake.

G. K. Beale in The Temple and the Church’s Mission understands the Temple as a microcosm of the universe. Stephen drew on the final chapters of Isaiah where the new creation and the new Jerusalem equal the new temple.  We don’t need a temple because God is remaking the universe itself into a new temple.

The true temple of God, according to Stephen, cannot be made by human hands for two reasons. One is the sinfulness of people. The disobedience of Israel meant that their worship was not all that much different from pagan worship (Acts 7:42-43). The other is the transcendence of God. Even when the people approach holiness, the transcendence of God means that a human-made temple is inadequate as a dwelling place for the creator.

Shortly after the sack of Jerusalem and the ruin of the Temple in 70 CE, a Jewish work, the Sibylline Oracles said that God’s true people “will reject all temples when they see them, altars too, useless foundations of dumb stones.” Some of Philo’s writings take a similar line. So as fatally offensive as Stephen’s plea may have been to the priesthood while the Temple still stood, it was by no means outside the circle of 1st century Jewish thought.

Part of the reason for this was that the people had experienced living on without the Temple during the Babylonian exile. They had begun to develop other institutions like the synagogue and the rabbinic schools. Even with a new temple in Jerusalem, Judaism came to be practiced at a distance in the diaspora. So, despite occasional pilgrimages, many Hellenistic Jews lived most of their lives far from the Temple. Acts says that Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew.

One aspect of Stephen’s speech that I don’t think Beale emphasized enough is the geographical aspect. Luke orders Luke/Acts geographically often at the expense of chronological order. There is the trip from Galilee to Jerusalem in the Gospel. There is the movement from Jerusalem to Rome in Acts. Stephen’s speech comes just before several episodes of the expansion of the Christ movement beyond Palestine. The gospel moves not just away from the Temple, but away from the city and land where the Temple stands. So the speech seems to me to challenge not just the place of the Temple but that of the Holy Land as well.

I wonder if Hellenistic Jewish converts, represented by Luke and Stephen, did not carry this beyond the position of the historical Jesus.

Beale interprets Acts 7 through the lens of Isaiah 66 as dispensing with the Temple. It calls for the abolition of the Temple in favor of a new dwelling for God in people who adhere to Jesus and in a promised new creation.  The Epistle of Barnabas builds on Stephen’s speech and affirms the destruction of the Jerusalem temple as confirmation.

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Beale-new takes on some familiar passages

I am still writing about G. K. Beale’s  The Temple and the Church’s Mission.

A standard feature of prophecies of destruction in the Hebrew Bible is cosmic dissolution language. The sun and moon are darkened; the stars fall; the earth is shaken. This language gets used in the New Testament as well. G. K. Beale relates this language to his claim that the Temple represents the cosmos.

So, for instance, when the curtain in the Temple gets torn at the time of the death of Jesus, Beale goes beyond the usual interpretation. Usually interpreters say that the tearing of the curtain at the entrance of the holy of holies means that the relationship between God and man has changed and that Jesus’ death brings us more immediate access to God. Without rejecting that interpretation, Beale sees something more.

He has argued that the design of the curtain was to make it represent the heavens. It is purple with a starry design. So its tearing harks back to the cosmic dissolution language of the prophets. This is especially so when you see that the darkness falling over the earth and an earthquake are also associated with the time of Jesus’ death.

This is one passage of many where Beale sees the New Testament proclaiming the destruction of the Jewish temple in terms of the destruction of the old world and the arising of a new world. The Temple represented the old world. Jesus’ risen body is the new temple and represents the new world arising.

A particularly interesting passage that he interprets this way is the falling of the Spirit on the disciples in Acts 2–the day of Pentecost.  Wind, earthquake and fire falling from heaven accompany powerful incidents in the Hebrew Bible.  For instance, these things accompany the giving of the law at Sinai.

But Acts 2 points specifically to Joel where apocalyptic cosmic dissolution language is prominent (Joel 2:30-32). Beale suggests that the disciples were at the Temple.  The cosmic dissolution language is not literal, but points to the historical downfall of a sinful people.  So Pentecost itself is another prophecy of the end of the Temple.  This is especially true when the speaking in tongues appears as the reverse of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel.  The tower represented a temple  and a means of climbing to heaven.  God put an end to that attempt and will put an end to the Temple in Jerusalem as well.

These are just some of the interpretations Beale made that were particularly striking to me.

His overall point seems to be that Jesus replaced the Temple.  This is not as problematic as the kind of replacement theology that claims the church replaced Israel as the people of God and undid their election. The Jewish sect at the Dead Sea had also written off the Temple, at least one served by a non-Zaddokite priesthood. Today even within Judaism something has had to replace the Temple.  However, I am not fully comfortable that Beale is not going to go farther.


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