The Desecration of God’s Temple

The lamentable condition—indeed, crisis—of our day in which heterodoxy and heteropraxy are not only tolerated but celebrated in the pew and pulpit, as well as the public square, was foretold by Jesus in arguably the most startling announcement of his ministry.

On the previous day, he had been received by the townspeople as the conquering king who would restore their nation to its former glory. Then, following an extended visit to the temple, Jesus looks back at the massive complex and tells his disciples that “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

To folks expecting the imminent return of the Davidic kingdom, those words were confusing at best and crushing at worst. Not only was the temple one of the most impressive structures of that era—renovated into a magnificent monument by Herod over a 40-year period—it was central to the religious life and corporate identity of the Jewish people.

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Thinking or, perhaps, hoping that Jesus was referring to an event in the distant future, his disciples ask him about the timeframe.

Prophesy Redux
Jesus responds with a list of precursors: famines, wars, and earthquakes—things that have been a part of the human experience from the beginning and could be rationalized and dismissed from having any supra-natural significance.

But at the end of the list he adds something that no first-century Jew could have mistaken: “the abomination that causes desolation.” It is the term the prophet Daniel used six hundred years earlier, foretelling the profane actions of a Syrian king.

In 167 BC, Antiochus Epiphanes sacked Jerusalem and defiled the temple by sacrificing a sow on an altar erected to Zeus. The desecration ended the temple sacrifices and triggered the Maccabean revolt. It was a watershed moment in Jewish history, as familiar to Jesus’s questioners as the Boston massacre and American Revolution are to us today.

Jesus’s point was clear: The awe-inspiring temple that the disciples were admiring would be defiled by a similar atrocity. But unlike Daniel’s prophesy, Jesus’s was fulfilled within the lifetimes of its hearers. In 70 AD, the Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem, razing the temple and erecting imperial ensigns over its ruins. (As an aside, the lack of mention of this historical event in the biblical record is evidence of the New Testament’s early authorship, that is, well within the living memory of eyewitnesses.)

The case has been made that “the abomination” also concerns an eschatological event—a blasphemous action by a future charismatic figure that ignites a period of intense global distress. While Jesus may have been predicting actions involving a re-built Jewish temple, it could be that his answer related to another temple.

Another Temple
Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus made for the temple and, straightaway, was incensed by what he saw: the Court of the Gentiles looked like a Damascene bazaar. The space devoted to gentile worship was crowded with stalls and merchandise. Furthermore, temple authorities, animal inspectors, and merchants had conspired to exploit worshippers whose sacrifice or currency of exchange was deemed unsuitable.

Jesus’s table-turning reaction caused a momentary stir, but his stinging reproach, “My house will be called a house of prayer,” propagates out to the present generation.

In the Church age, God’s house is made up of believers who are, in the words of Peter, “like living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

As the temple of the living God, the Christian church is not a commercial enterprise, but it is vulnerable to commercial pressures. For instance, in the face of stagnant or declining membership, how do churches respond?

Do they up the “wow factor” of worship with foot-tapping praise music and “relevant” sermons perfunctorily linked to biblical texts, or do they remain faithful to traditional forms of worship?

Do they back off or water down the historic Christian teachings, or do they proclaim them boldly and unapologetically?

Do they host more bingo nights and youth events featuring pizza, Coke, and movies, or do they invest in a structured, life-long process of catechesis to create a transformative community of Christ-like Christians?

A church obsessed with Wall Street indicators—bodies, bucks, and buildings—and Madison Avenue strategies—increased relevance and entertainment value—is a church that has filled its sacred spaces with marketplace kitsch. And like the temple court that Jesus happened upon 2,000 years ago, it may be full of activity and people, while in truth it is but a divine eyesore bereft of true worship and worshippers.

Finally, there is a third temple that has a bearing on Jesus’s Olivet warning.

Yet Another Temple
Earlier that day, Jesus had been approached by a group of religious leaders and political loyalists. The curious teaming of Pharisees and Herodians—normally adversarial factions—signaled that something was up. Indeed, they wasted no time putting the “gotcha” question to him: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If he answered, yes, he would be labeled a traitor to Jews; if, no, he would be labeled an enemy of the state; either was a potentially life-ending response.

As was his custom in these “gotcha” situations, Jesus answers their question with one of his own: “Whose image is on the coin of the realm?” When they reply, his comeback silences them as their gimlet eyes go wide.

Jesus’s memorable line, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” conveys the dual allegiance of Christians. As citizens of the city of God, living in the city of man, Christians owe respect and duty to the civil magistrate: he is God’s instrument for restraining evil and promoting justice, and his image on our coinage reflects his material claims on us.

But there is another Authority, a higher one, to whom allegiance is owed. His image is not on the coin of the realm but on us. The Imago Dei is a stamp of divine ownership on mankind. Of all creation, humans alone bear the divine image of rational thought, aspirations, imagination, creativity, transcendent yearnings, philosophical questions, and moral awareness; humans alone are duty-bound to the One whose image they bear.

While all humans carry the imprint of the Imago Dei, Christians carry something more—something Paul described as, “Christ in you!” It is the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise to his disciples that he would abide in them through the Holy Spirit.

Paul told the Corinthian believers that their bodies are God’s temple, with a reminder that his temple is sacred. To a church that was gaining attention for carnality, rather than incarnational living, he warned: “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Emmanuel (God with us) dwells with his people, in the collective body of the Church and in the individual life of each believer. We honor him and maintain his sacred temple when we offer ourselves as living sacrifices, serving him with our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies as he has instructed us in his Word. We defile his temple when our affections for material success, social esteem, and sensual satisfaction result in the intrusion of a competing altar—one devoted to the sovereign Self.

The Prophetic Pattern
Throughout the ages, God’s people have been identified by the “flesh.” Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites were identified by the circumcision of the flesh. Under the New Covenant, Christians are identified by the works of the flesh—behaviors and lifestyles aligned to Jesus’s teachings with integrity of character reflecting the fruits of the Spirit. Problem is, as reported in various surveys over the years, the “flesh” of most Christians is not very distinctive.

This suggests that another gospel (an abomination) has found its way into our sanctuaries—one that, in the words of Protestant theologian Richard Niebuhr, famously tells of “a God without wrath who brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

So while the Christians have been looking for an abomination “out there,” in an individual or organization an ocean apart or galaxy far away, it could be that the Invader has been patiently, but surely, setting up residence “in here,” where it was least suspected. If so, it follows a familiar pattern of biblical prophesy, one that calls for serious self-examination of every denomination and every believer.

(Photo credit: Jerusalem Temple / Wikicommons)


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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