14 Sep 2017

Back to the Temple, AD 33: Time Machine Pilgrimage to the Temple and Early Church

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Acts, Gospel of John, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Worship

Marty & Doc visit the Jerusalem Temple

In our Journey through the Bible we are in the Gospels, and Acts is looming near.  There is so much of the geography, the social customs and religious practices that we often are not in tune with.

In particular the Temple is one of the most prominent things in the Gospels, Acts and in all the NT. But we know so little about it. So what if we take a “fact finding” trip to the Temple during the time of the Gospels and the Acts, from about AD25ish to AD 65ish.  It would be an exciting trip.

So lets make sure the flux capacitor is fluxing, get in our DeLorean, and go Back to the Temple. As we the doors open on our time machine what would Marty and Doc see? What would Jesus, Peter, James, the thousands of early believers in the Way … what did they see as Peter and John was heading to worship in Acts 3?

But first we need some traveling music … from the Psalms

The Levites were God’s Praise Team

Lyrics from the Psalter

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars,
O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise …
For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper
in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness
(Psalm 84.1-4, 10)

Walking Through the Temple

We would be impressed first by how massive the Temple complex actually is. It is built to make a statement. We would also be amazed at how many people are here, including Gentiles from all over the world who come by the thousands to see the Temple and worship the God of Israel (cf. John 12.20; see texts like Tobit 13.11; 14.6).

We would see the daily Temple worship and rituals (not a bad word btw) were performed primarily by the priests but not exclusively so. The priests, however, in Herod’s Temple had exclusive access to the altar and the sanctuary. There they offered up to the Father of Jesus both communal and individual sacrifices, burned incense and kindled the candelabrum in the sanctuary and pronounced the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6.22-24) upon the people.

Massive “pilgrim” steps leading up to the five Huldah Gates named in honor of the Prophet Huldah

We would see the Levites working alongside the priests. In Herod’s Temple the Levites did not have access to the altar and sanctuary though. They served as singers and gatekeepers. As we walk thru the Court of the Gentiles toward the Court of Women we would ascend a series of steps. As we did we would join the Levites as they sang on their sacred instruments the Psalms of Ascent (Pss 120-134) with each step up.

Only ceremonially clean Jews, men and women, were allowed to enter the Temple proper (which begins with the Court of Women). There is a large monumental inscription warning Gentiles to go no further into the Temple, if they do they bear sole responsibility for their fate. There was a small wall here about waist high that “divided” and served as a “barrier” for Gentiles. Most scholars believe this is what Paul refers to in Ephesians when he writes Jesus has “broken down the dividing wall” that reflected ethnic division (Ephesians 2.14).

The Levites are not only our worship leaders as we ascend into the Temple but they serve as the bouncers safeguarding the Temple. It was their job to protect, by any means necessary, the sanctity of the temple. These Levitical bouncers were stationed at 24 different places

Looking over the Courts of Women and Israel and Priests to the opening of the sanctuary which contains the Holy of Holies

1) at the five Temple gates
2) at the four inner corners
3) at the five gates of the Temple court
4) at the Temple courts four exterior corners
5) behind the Holy of Holies
6) in five chambers

Josephus tells us that 200 to 240 gatekeepers – guards – were at their posts day and night at the Temple. The gatekeepers were responsible for opening and closing the gates to the Temple.

As we pass the guards with our best Jewish impression, passing the ceremonially clean test, we see thousands of Jews from all over Palestine, and the whole world, entering the this place of pilgrimage. What are these people doing on any given day? What did Jesus, Peter, James and the followers of the Way see and do in that Temple. They came to …

1) fulfill their obligations and vows, offering of first fruits, tithes, wave offerings and sacrifices
2) worship, pray, and celebrate during the liturgy
3) to inquire of priests
4) to study the Torah and talk in the virtual Presence of the Lord (dozens of rabbis are teaching)
5) to participate in Temple worship alongside the priests for special offerings

While teaching in the Temple courts, Jesus refers to himself as “the vine.” There are rich “OT” roots for this image. But also every one would see the Golden Vine at the entrance to the Holy of Holies, the presence of God. No one would miss the point. (John 15.1-17)

We notice that “ritual purity” is a major concern and function of the Temple. Thus on the fourth and seventh day worshipers were doused by the priests with cleansing water to take away defilement.

Purity is rigidly enforced. The Levitical bouncers protect the Temple from any one that is not clean (including priests). Thus around the Temple mount are immersion pools (mikvas) for pilgrim worshipers to pass through before entering the Temple. So we see a lot of wet people as they enter the Temple courts.

I have often said it just may alter our view the early church. When we read the Gospels and Acts, we need to imagine a drenched Jesus coming up out of the mikva (immersion pool) as he enters the Temple. And as the church gathers in the courts, the three thousand, are soaking wet just to get in.  Such images would remind us just how Jewish the Messianic Way was/is.  This is the background in Acts 2, including 2.46 and Acts 21. Peter and John simply could not get in the temple in Acts 3.1 without going through ceremonial cleansing, a mikva.  A Levite would happily relieve them of their lives if they tried.

We notice that the Temple is regarded by Jews as a house of prayer for all the nations of the world and not just Jews (see even texts like Tobit 14.6; etc). Gentiles would come to worship the God of Israel and were allowed the privilege of presenting offerings to the Lord through the priests. They came to be taught the way of the Lord in Scripture (Torah).

Looking at the hand out of the daily activities, we note that daily worship begins and ends with a whole burnt offering. A lamb in the morning and in the evening. Between those services the priests remain busy. Various offerings are offered up as worship with groups bringing their sacrifices to the God of Israel.  These same priests would have worshiped with Paul in Acts 24.11,14,16. What are these various sacrifices that we know so little about? Most sacrifices were voluntary and nonobligatory.  They are offered out of gratitude and thanksgiving.

1) burnt offerings
2) shalom offerings
3) thank offerings
4) various categories of meal offerings

There were also obligatory sacrifices that people had to make for various reasons

1) sin offering
2) guilt offering
3) purification offerings

Temple depicted on a Bar Kochba coin

Jesus commanded a pilgrimage of sacrifices to the leper he cleansed in Galilee, Luke 5.12-14. “[G]o show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them” (5.14).

We notice that sacrifices are not so much throwing a carcass of an animal on the altar. Rather only small portions of the animal, typically the fat, are burned on the altar.  The rest is shared in a delicious communal meal with family, friends and priests.

Having never witnessed sacrifice before we are taken aback that our imagination was seriously skewed.  Sacrifice is more like a big Texas BBQ than endless legalistic burning animals for a wrathful deity. The aroma of the Temple is delightful to the senses.

So we see a lot of eating on God’s holy mountain and suddenly we recall passages in the Hebrew Bible that we just ignored previously, texts like Exodus 24.1-11; Isaiah 25.6-7; and Isaiah 55. The Temple is a place of joy, thanksgiving and feasting in the Presence of the Lord.

During our visit to the Temple we experience periods of prayer and readings from the Law of Moses (i.e the Bible). We would sing joyously at the top of our voices the Psalms and hymns on various instruments.

We may even join in the dances of the women in the Court of Women before the steps going into the Court of Israel. Jesus seems to have done lots of teaching in the Court of Women (cf. Lk 21.1-4). Singing, music and dancing in the presence of the “Father” also figures prominently in Jesus’s parable of the Father that we sometimes call the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32, vv. 25, 32).

Jerusalem was dominated by the Temple in Jesus’s life and the Book of Acts

Amazed By What We See

By the time we walk back to our DeLorean we can only imagine what this place would be like during one of the great festivals! But suddenly Marty looks at Doc and says, “you know Doc I think I see things about Jesus and the Way that I never even dreamed about before.” We realize that the Temple dominates the Gospels literary landscape as much as it does Jerusalem’s geographical landscape. Luke’s Gospel begins in the Temple, it ends in the Temple. Luke opens part 2 of his story in the Temple, the Messianic Way is literally born in the Temple. The Jerusalem Church barely leaves the Temple.  Jesus did not just teach in the Temple. Jesus worshiped in the Temple. See my article Psalms and the Temple: What Jesus and the Early Way Experienced.

Jesus loved the Temple.

Our discoveries on our Time Machine trip may also show us that the Temple actually begins the Bible in Genesis 1  and closes the Bible in Revelation 21-22. But that is another Time Machine trip.

Neither Jesus nor the early church experienced anything like what the average American follower of the Messiah does any day of the week … including Sunday. May we be faithful readers of the Story of Jesus and the continuing story of Jesus in the Way.

But I’m ready to go back to the future.

Some Important Resources

G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Mission of the Church (IVP 2012)
G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (IVP 2014)
James H. Charlesworth, ed, Jesus and Temple: Textual and Archeological Explorations (Fortress 2016)
Oskar Skarsuane, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (IVP 2008)

In Earlier Days Protestant scholars in particular attempted to make a sharp distinction between Temple worship and the Synagogue.  This distinction simply will not hold up to historical scrutiny especially in light of archeological discoveries.  So in the last 40 years there has been a major shift in thinking on the connection between the two.  Here are two very important articles.

Mordechai Aviam, “The Decorated Stone from the Synagogue at Migdal: A Holistic Interpretation and a Glimpse into the Life of Galilean Jews at the Time of Jesus,” Novum Testamentum 55 (2013), 205-220

Peter J. Leithart, “Synagogue or Temple? Models For Christian Worship,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2002), 119-133

4 Responses to “Back to the Temple, AD 33: Time Machine Pilgrimage to the Temple and Early Church”

  1. Swango Says:

    Thanks for this post. I means a great deal to me because I was able to walk on the temple mount about a year ago. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And I hope to do it again someday!

    Where would all the people eat the food from their sacrifices? Would they just find a place on the floor? Were there designated areas for “mess halls”?

    Were the traditions of cleansing before entering the temple area from the Scriptures? Or was all that cleansing a ritual of men?

  2. Carl & Janice Harris Says:


  3. Bobby Valentine Says:

    There are very large rooms on the sides of the Temple. Meals would be eaten there primarily.

  4. rich constant Says:

    of course Jesus is the faithful Jew in all ways.
    although would you speak to the empty worship and the unrelenting Curse of Deuteronomy .28?
    which speaks to the the need of atonement, for the purpose of reconciliation by promised Grace, through The Loving faithfulness of the Father for His Words ” It is very GOOD”
    cumulating in the restoration, through our brother Jesus being vindicated BY OUR FATHER

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