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A Building That Befits God's People

How does a building relate to the spiritual house described in 1 Peter 2? Are they the same thing? Are they completely unrelated things? Does the spiritual house replace a physical house? We toss it off as a Christian cliché that “the church is not a building”, but how then should we articulate the relationship between the two?

My answer is this: a building should be an outward picture of the inward reality of God’s spiritual house. The building should match the people both in form and in function. That is, it should be a place that reflects in its design and decoration the nature and character of the spiritual realities embodied by the people, and it should enable and facilitate what God’s people are supposed to be doing as a house, in this case, offering spiritual sacrifices. But before expanding on that idea, let’s examine some other ways of explaining the relationship.

Right off the bat, it is easy for us to dispense with the idea that a building and God’s spiritual house are the same thing. We live in a post-temple time, and the very realities of the situation make it clear that the building can disappear and the church live on.

But then what about the second option: is a building completely unrelated to the spiritual house? And the answer here is no, as well. They can’t be identified, but they shouldn’t be completely separated, either. God’s people have almost always expressed the spiritual reality in a physical way, whether through a tent, a tabernacle, a temple, or a church building. Hebrews tells us that God designed these buildings to be patterned after heaven itself. Houses of worship are not unrelated to heavenly realities; they are designed to be images of heavenly realities.

But there is one more way of accounting for the relationship that we should consider: maybe the image is now unnecessary because the reality is present. Maybe the spiritual house that Peter talks about is a replacement for the physical houses of the old covenant.

Here are four reasons why I don’t think that the spiritual replaces the physical when it comes to God’s house:

1) from the text: the idea of people as “living stones” is not new. Peter is referencing Isaiah 28 and Psalm 118, which Jesus applied to Himself in Matthew 21. This idea was already understood in the Old Testament, and it wasn’t taken to mean that there shouldn’t be a physical temple as well.

2) from theology: the already/not yet. Throughout the NT, the coming of the kingdom is presented as something that is an unfolding reality, that is, is has begun with the coming of Christ, but it isn’t finished yet. One day, as John sees in Revelation, there will be no temple, because the presence of the Lamb is the temple. But until the glory of Christ fills the New Heavens and the New Earth, physical houses for worshiping God haven’t been replaced yet.

3) from analogy: the resurrection. Human bodies are also “temples of God” in a sense, but the movement they undergo is not a progression from physical to spiritual. What we see instead is that God promises to purify and resurrect the sin-ridden bodies of His people, and He has shown this by raising Jesus from the dead. By analogy, while the spiritual house can exist by itself when God judges and destroys a building, the ideal is restoration. (Compare this with Israel’s history, too.)

4) from church history: God’s spiritual house has almost always met in buildings designed for worship. The collective wisdom of our fathers in the faith has constantly been “as soon as you are able, find or buy or build a glorious church building to represent the spiritual house that is the Church.” Those who don’t see buildings as important are in the decided minority throughout Church history.

So my conclusion is that both are true: a church building can rightly be called God’s house, and a congregation of spiritual worshipers is also rightly called a spiritual house for God. These things are not in conflict with each other, and the former is meant to be a representation of the latter.

So what does this mean? It means that both the building and the worshipers should reflect God. It would be terrible to have a glorious building, and cantankerous people, but it would also be a wrong goal to have beautiful and holy people in an ugly place meant for something other than worship.

But the great goal is this: holy people in a holy place, worshiping a holy God. Our hope should be that when people drive by, they see a building that makes them think of the presence of a glorious, holy, and majestic God, and then when they come inside, they find a spiritual house constructed of living stones that says exactly the same thing, in both word and deed.

Posted on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 by CJ Bowen