Last week we examined two images Scripture uses to describe the Old Testament temple that should be applied equally to the New Testament Church has God’s temple—sanctuary and house of God. From these images, we can recognize a bit more clearly the nature of who we are and what we are to do as the gathered church—we are a holy, set apart dwelling place for God, and when we gather, we do not simply perform duties, express praise, or have an experience; when we gather as the church, we meet with God.
However, when we consider these two images together, a problem emerges: if the church is God’s temple, God’s dwelling place, God’s holy sanctuary, how can sinners enter? This is the exact problem Ephesians 2 is addressing. Beginning in verse 11 he specifically connects the condition of unbelievers with the uncircumcised who were unable to enter Israel’s sanctuary. He contrasts through these verses those who are “near”—a term used to indicate those who are able to enter the sanctuary—with those who are “far off”—referring to those prohibited from entering. “But now,” he says in verse 13, “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” This is language that describes the gospel, not only in the sense that it forgives us from sin, though it certainly does that, but in the sense that it enables us to come near to God, to enter his presence, to enter his sanctuary. Christ came, Paul says in verse 17, “and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”
And then here is the critical statement (verse 18): “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” This is the central message of the gospel—we sinners who were far off now have access to the presence of God in one Spirit by grace through faith in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel, but don’t miss the essential connection between this gospel message and the church’s worship. Do you see the flow of Paul’s thought here? We sinners were far off, we were unable to draw near to the sanctuary of God’s presence. But now, in the Spirit, through Christ, we have access—we can draw near. “So then,” verse 19, “you are no longer strangers and aliens [those prohibited from entering the sanctuary of God’s presence], but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” There’s that phrase again that describes the temple, and notice how he continues to build this imagery of the NT temple, the church: “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Do you see the essential connection between the gospel and worship? Yes, the gospel forgives us from the penalty of sin, but the emphasis here in Ephesians 2 is on having access to the presence of God. The goal of the gospel is to enable us to draw near to the presence of God, in his house, in his temple, where we are then able to fellowship with him, to commune with him. That’s the nature of what we’re doing when we gather as the church for corporate worship.
This reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the New Testament, Hebrews 10:19–22:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Here, too, the author is deliberately using OT worship language to describe the nature of the gospel—holy places, curtain, high priest, and he says that it is because of Jesus’s sacrifice, and because he is our high priest that we are able to “draw near”—there’s that phrase again that signifies entering God’s presence for communion with him.
Here’s the bottom line: the goal of the gospel is to form a temple where God’s people meet with him, and that is what we are primarily doing when we gather for corporate worship.