While the temple of the first century was rejected by certain groups of Jews—such as those at Qumran—it was not because they had lost faith in sacrificial religion, but rather because they had lost the temple itself. Herod’s temple was no doubt wondrous in its externals, but the hierarchy was corrupt and the faith had been emptied to a mere semblance of its former glory.
For the apostles and the early Church, the first visions of heavenly worship were visions of that lost temple and its worship. Incense, processions, sacrifice, antiphonal hymns, sacred images, and the throne of God were paramount in John’s apocalyptic experience, reminding these early Christians of the glory and worship once experienced in that (now absent) original temple. The worship in heaven was to become the worship on earth, just as the original temple worship was meant to be a shadow of the heavenly (Heb. 8:5).
It is no surprise that from the first moments Christians were permitted an opportunity to build houses of worship, they were patterned after the first temple. Apostolic (and later) Christianity was not a faith that rejected ‘religion,’ but was rather a faith that had finally recovered the means for proper religion, being performed and experienced in light of the triumphant and resurrected Christ of Israel.
Of this, Margaret Barker notes (Temple Theology, pp. 9–10):
When the Roman emperor Constantine, early in the fourth century CE, built great churches in Palestine, the complex built around the site of Calvary and the tomb of Jesus was clearly intended to be the restored temple—not the temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE but the original temple destroyed in 586 BCE. The relics ‘acquired’ for the benefit of pilgrims were relics of the first temple: King Solomon’s ring which had kept the demons away from the building site, and the horn of oil used to anoint the ancient kings … From the very beginning, Christians had adopted and preserved the ways of the original temple.
From the first remodeled basilicas to Orthodox Christian church buildings today, the architectural layout of the Christian place of worship has been patterned after that of the original temple. Corresponding to the porch, holy place, and the ‘holy of holies’ of the temple are the narthex, nave, and sanctuary of the Christian church. Much of the same furniture, appointments, sacred artwork, and even liturgical activities are in the same areas of these churches as in the temple—but of course as fulfilled (not abrogated) in the risen King of Kings.
We should not be surprised by this, as part of the proclaimed ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ was a promise to restore the temple in himself (John 2:19–22) after the destruction of the old (which took place in A.D. 70, just as he foretold; e.g. Matt. 24:1–2,15,33–34). The first Christian architects simply took this image to its logical conclusion in the design of their churches.
Thanks, in part, to a profound understanding of the theology of the temple, the earliest Christians were able to both understand and explain their ‘new’ theology in Christ:
It is beyond doubt that the faith of the temple became Christianity. Images and practices that most Christians take for granted such as priesthood, the shape of a traditional church building, or the imagery of sacrifice and atonement are all obviously derived from the temple. By reconstructing the world of the older faith it can be shown that Invocation of the divine Presence, Incarnation, Resurrection, Theosis (the human becoming divine), the Mother of God and the self-offering of the Son of God were also drawn from the temple. The gospel as it was first preached by Jesus, and as it was developed and lived by the early Church, concerned the restoration of the true temple.
This explains how Christian doctrine was able to develop so quickly; it was the expression of a long established set of beliefs in the light of the life and work of Jesus. —Temple Theology, p. 11
The great feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (Nov. 21) is intimately connected with not only Orthodox church architecture, but also our theology of both the person of Jesus Christ and the makeup of his body, the Church.
Today, the most pure temple of the Savior, the precious bridal chamber and Virgin, the sacred treasure of God, enters the house of the Lord, bringing the grace of the Divine Spirit. The Angels of God praise her. She is the heavenly tabernacle. —Kontakion
As a fulfillment of both the mercy seat and ark of the covenant in the old temple, the second Zoe/Eve becomes the true mother of life (Gen. 3:20), as well as a new temple of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). And because she said ‘yes’ to God, we can now be re-created in Christ as the new temple of the living God—that is, as the Church:
What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will live in them and move among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch nothing unclean;
then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.” —2 Cor. 6:16–18
On this same theme, the apostle Paul also writes:
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
And once more:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are. —1 Cor. 3:16–17
It is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the obedience of his holy mother, the foundation of the apostles, and now our unity with God through Christ that we can fulfill his very words and become that new temple recreated in him. It is only fitting that our worship would be patterned after the temple of old, with each element now also recreated in Christ.
Jesus did not come to abolish religion, but rather to purify it from the corruptions of the faithless and their man-made traditions, granting it new life as a participation in the liturgy of the apocalypse; in the liturgy of eternity; in the wedding feast of the lamb in the eternal throne room of God.
There is no higher calling for the Church than the Eucharistic worship, and this sacrificial praise is an offering of sweet aroma in God’s holy temple.