The heavenly temple in the Gospel of John

This article will first explore temple language used by John in his Gospel, and then concentrate on what John says about the heavenly temple.

Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus.

“‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going’” (John 14:1–4, NIV).

Through the ages, John 14:14 has captured the imagination of Christians because of the assurance that Jesus will return to earth to get His followers. Discussions often concentrate on two things: first, the nature of the assurance of Jesus’ return; second, the size, quality, and type of habitation He is preparing in heaven for His followers. John 8:35—“ ‘Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever’ ” (NIV)—has, by contrast, received considerably less attention.

This study endeavors to fit both texts within a broader framework of heavenly topography. Belief in the existence of a heavenly temple is strongly evident in the Old Testament2 and in extrabiblical Jewish writings,3 as well as in the New Testament (NT),4 where believers also are a type of temple.5

We will first explore temple language in John’s Gospel, and then concentrate on John 8:35 and especially 14:2 to see what John says about the heavenly temple.

Temple language in the Gospel of John

Most temple references in John refer to the temple in Jerusalem. His favorite word is hieron, used 11 times.6 A common word to describe the temple, this word carries a nuance of sacredness and holiness, underlining John’s respect for this Jewish institution.

Three times in one pericope John uses the noun naos (2:19–21). Having just cleansed the temple (hieron) from the money changers and traders selling sacrificial commodities (vv. 14, 15), Jesus invites His accusers, most likely the temple authorities, to destroy “ ‘this temple’ ”7 (ton naon touton), meaning His body, and says that within three days He will rebuild it.

The switch from hieron to naos is intentional. Whereas hieron can be used of other holy items as an adjective, 8 naos refers only to a temple. Furthermore, whereas hieron refers to the broader complex of buildings, naos refers to the inner structures central to Israel’s sacrificial ritual.9 John 2:19–21, therefore, draws a parallel between the temple and its sacrificial system on the one hand, and the literal body of Jesus on the other, implying that the latter supersedes the former.

Five times John uses the noun oikos, meaning “house” or “home”; twice as a reference to the temple (vv. 16, 17) and three times in reference to human habitations (2:16; 7:53; 11:20). In 2:16, 17, oikos is used in a theologically loaded context. Just as He casts out the money changers and traders from the temple (hieron), Jesus condemns those responsible for transforming the “house of my Father” (ton oikon tou Patros mou) into “a house of trade” (oikon emporiou) (v. 16).

As with the switch from hieron to naos, here, too, the switch from hieron to oikos is not incidental. Whereas hieron denotes a sacred object or building, oikos conveys more intimate realities. The noun can be translated either as house or as home,10 or even as household.11 The traders are guilty of defiling not just a holy building but the very home and household of God.

The fact that Jesus calls the temple the “house of my Father” as opposed to “the house of God,” we find also significant. If God is the Father and humans are His children, then His children can expect that God’s house can facilitate the worship of all who call God their Father. Moreover, as the unique Son of God, Jesus claims full prerogatives to act with authority in relation to issues of worship and to purify the temple to function within a proper context.

Immediately after the incident of the cleansing, John introduces a statement, the “ ‘zeal for your house [oikos] will consume me’ ” (v. 17). The words come from Psalm 69:9 and appear in a context where the psalmist bemoans the persecution he faces because of his fidelity to God. The quotation from the psalm coupled with the words about the destruction and the rebuilding of the body-of-Jesus temple anticipates His death and resurrection.

The heavenly temple in 8:35

John has two references to the heavenly temple that are intercon­nected. In both instances, John uses the word oikia. Oikos and oikia are lexically very close but not identical. Goetzmann notes that in classical Greek oikia denoted the dwelling place, the physical structure or house, while oikos could be used in a broader sense either of a physical structure or the dwellers in it, the household or family.12

This is also true of biblical Greek. Of the 93 usages of oikia in the NT, only 5 refer clearly to anything but a physical structure.13 By contrast, of the 114 usages of oikos, a full 32 refer to the people in the house rather than the house itself.14 The switch, therefore, from oikos in John 2:16, 17 to oikia in 8:35 and 14:2 could be intentional, aiming to affirm the existence of a literal house of God in heaven.

The first of the two oikia references to the heavenly temple is in 8:35, in a context of an exchange between Jesus and certain Jews. Jesus declares that whereas a slave cannot habitu­ally dwell in the house (oikia), a son remains there forever. The statement appears to be a common saying regarding everyday realities, but here this word functions to build a contrast between Jesus and His opponents.

The context is important. The exchange takes place in the temple (8:20). Jesus contrasts His opponents’ earthly origin with His own heavenly origin (v. 23). He is not of this world but came from above.15 He then contrasts their sinfulness with His own close association with the Father (vv. 24–30). He implies that He has no sin because He always does “ ‘the things that are pleasing’ ” to the Father (v. 29). By contrast, His opponents are enslaved because their sin keeps them enslaved (v. 34). This enslavement to sin does not allow them to dwell in the house.

The “house” here, in which Jesus dwells but His sinful opponents cannot, refers to God’s house. God’s house is the temple. But which temple? Not the earthly one. In the Jerusalem temple neither Jesus nor His opponents dwelt “forever.” And at any rate, as indicated elsewhere in the NT,16 the Jerusalem temple was shadowy and temporal and soon to be destroyed (e.g., Matt. 23:38; 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6, 20). The only “house” in which Jesus dwells “forever” is God’s house in heaven, the heavenly temple. The language probably draws from Psalm 23:6 and David’s confidence that he also would dwell in the house of God forever.

In depicting Himself as the heav­enly Son who always dwells in the  heavenly house/temple of His heav­enly Father, Jesus draws a contrast between the purity and holiness of heavenly realities and the corrupt priesthood and leadership of the Jerusalem temple. By using the noun oikia instead of oikos, He highlights the reality of this heavenly oikia. By using oikia instead of hieron or naos, He highlights the intimate relationship He shares with the Father, and one which will also become a reality for all believers. This truth can be seen in John 14:2.

The heavenly temple in 14:2

John 14:2 appears within a dis­course in which Jesus states that He will ascend to heaven to the Father’s house, God’s heavenly temple,17 prepare a place for the disciples, and return to take them home so that they may always be with Him. John uses the word oikia again, as in 8:35, possibly for the same reasons. Jesus assures His disciples that in the Father’s house are many monai, “mansions” (KJV), “rooms” (ESV, NIV), “dwelling places” (NAB, NASB).

The word monai appears only here and in John 14:23. This word comes from the verb mend, “to remain” or “abide,”18 and can be used of habitations of different quality and magnificence, ranging from a room to a mansion.19 The emphasis is not so much on the structure, its quality and size, but rather on the reality of living or abiding there—in which case, “dwelling places” appears to be a better rendering than either “rooms” or “mansions.”

The choice of this rare word monai is closely attached to John’s “abiding” theology. Of 118 usages of the verb mend in the NT, 40 appear in the Gospel of John and 24 in John’s epistles—54 percent of the total. The Father abides in the Son, and this enables the Son to perform all the wonderful deeds that He does and the words that He says (John 14:10). The Holy Spirit also abides in Jesus. John testifies that He saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove not only descend upon Jesus at the baptism but abide with Him (1:32, 33). The implication is not so much that the dove remained upon Jesus but rather that the anointing of the Spirit received at the baptism was not just for the occasion but served to equip Jesus throughout His ministry. Just as the Father and Spirit abide with the Son, so the Son abides with the Father (14:10).

This permanence in divine relation­ships becomes a reality for believers, too, through the ministry of Jesus. When a believer receives the Son, the Father will abide in him (3:36). He promises believers that if they abide in the Word, they will truly be His disciples (8:31). And just as the branches of a vine receive life nourishment from the vine, so Jesus promises to abide with the disciples (15:4–9). If they abide in Him, they will bear much fruit (v. 5), and their fruit will also abide and it will please the Father (v. 16).

Failure to believe is also related to the concept of abiding. Whoever does not receive the Son abides in darkness, in contrast to the believer who no longer does so (12:46). The unbeliever does not have the Word abiding in him (5:38) but rather the wrath of God (3:36).

More important, the abiding in God’s heavenly temple/house of John 14:2 reflects directly back on the heav­enly house of 8:35. There two persons were contrasted: the Son, who, being in full harmony with the Father, can abide (menei) in the house for ever, whereas the servant cannot abide (menei) because of his earthliness and sinfulness (8:24, 34, 35). The disciples are presumably also earthly and sinful. But having been set free by the Son, they, too, can also have permanent abiding places, monai, in the Father’s house, just like the Son when He returns to take them to the Father’s house.

In 14:23, another temple dimension is added, closely connected to 14:2. In 14:2, the believers gain permanent residence (monai) in God’s heavenly temple/palace by abiding in Jesus. But in the meantime and in anticipation of that fulfillment, the Father and the Son build a dwelling place (monēn) with the believer (v. 23). The fact that the Father and Son now dwell in believers makes believers, individually and corporately, temples of God. (This concept is more fully developed in passages such as 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21; 1 Peter 2:5; and Revelation 3:12, among others.) Only by becoming a temple for God now can the believer, in turn, gain access into the heavenly temple. There is therefore a close connection between the believer as a temple individually or corporately, and the heavenly house/ temple of God, a connection evident in other NT writings.

The use of monai, therefore, to describe the habitations believers will receive after the return of Jesus places the emphasis on the close and intimate relation that will exist between God and the saved for eternity, more so than on the size or grandeur of these habitations. Moreover, this intimate relationship that will exist in the world made new begins here on earth as believers come into close fellowship with God.

The emphasis on abiding does not, however, in any way negate the grandeur of the heavenly habitations.

Heavenly temple, heavenly grandeur

The temple in Jerusalem was the heart and pride of the Jewish people. It was not only the center of their religious experience but also their most beautiful and splendid building. In Mark 13:1, the disciples, overawed by the sight of the earthly temple, exclaim, “ ‘What wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ ” (cf. Matt. 24:1).

If the earthly, shadowy temple was magnificent, the heavenly can be only infinitely grander and of exquisite beauty and glory. In Paul’s ascent to the third heaven, he heard things “that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor. 12:4), things of “surpass­ing greatness” (v. 7). In Revelation, a vision of the heavenly temple is ushered by “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (11:19), while the heavenly Jerusalem is of massive proportions and dazzling in beauty (21:16, 12–22).

The Gospel of John does not give similar descriptions, but two state­ments suggest he assumes them. First, he assures his readers that the dwell­ing places in the heavenly temple are “many” (monai pollai). John does not envision a structure parallel only to the immediate temple precincts with the Most Holy Place, Holy Place, and adjacent areas. Rather, in view exists a large, magnificent structure fitting to be the dwelling place of God and the center of His authority in which the believers of all the ages will one day be easily and comfortably accommodated.

Second, in John 14:4, Jesus declares that the disciples know where Jesus is going. This statement possibly aims to affirm expectations of heavenly glory. As such, while John left the magnificent descriptions of heavenly grandeur for Revelation, even in the Gospel he gives us hints of the majesty of the heavenly temple.

Conclusion

Like contemporary Jewish and Christian writers, John takes a strong interest in the temple. Most of his refer­ences are in relation to the Jerusalem temple and occur in narrative. In one instance, he presents the body of Jesus as a new reality, a new temple that would eventually grow and encompass the nascent church.

More importantly for our purposes, and in parallel with many Jewish and Christian writers, John also envisions a heavenly temple/palace, the house of the Father. John does not describe this place in detail. He seems less interested in its appearance and more interested in the fact that this is the place where the abiding that Jesus shares with the Father and the Spirit, and that He offers to His followers on earth, will reach a climax and full realization. Nonetheless, the fact that He depicts it as containing potentially numberless habitations suggests a glorious building in line with Jewish and Christian apocalyptic depictions of heaven.

Though his descriptions in the Gospel are by no means apocalyp­tic, John manifests an awareness of heavenly topography and realities as discussed elsewhere in Scripture, especially in biblical apocalyptic, and utilizes them in theological develop­ment of his book.

1 This article is adapted from a longer one to appear in a forthcoming publication from Andrews University Press.

2. Gen. 28:11–22; Exod. 25:8, 20; Deut. 26:15; 1 Kings 8:30, 39, 43, 49; 2 Chron. 6:30, 33, 39; Pss. 11:4; 15:1; 80:1; 99:1; Isa. 6:1–13; 63:15; 66:1–6; Jer. 25:30; Dan. 8:14; Jon. 2:7; Mic. 1:2; Hab. 2:20; Zech. 2:13.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Exod. 15:17; Antiquities 3.6.5; 2 Bar. 4:3–6; T. Levi 2:5–5:2; 8:1–19; 3 En. 1:1–12; 4:6, 7; 5:5; 1 En. 14:8–25; 47:1–4; 4 Ez. 9:26–10:59; in 3 Baruch a heavenly temple forms the background of the whole composition.

4 Mainly Revelation (e.g., 1:10–20; 4:1–5:14; 8:1–5; 11:19; 14:15–19; 15:5–8; 16:1, 17), and Hebrews (e.g., 8:1, 2; 9:1–12). Elsewhere we find mostly allusions and echoes (e.g., Matt. 23:16–22; Acts 7:55, 56).

5 Matt. 26:61; Mark 14:58; John 2:19–21; 1 Cor. 3:16, 17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21; 1 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 3:12.

6 John 2:14, 15; 5:14; 7:14, 28; 8:2, 20, 59; 10:23; 11:56; 18:20.

7 Unless otherwise noted, scriptures are from the English Standard Version.

8 Dan. 1:2; 1 Esd. 1:51; 2:7; 5:44; 2 Macc. 8:33; 4 Macc. 6:30; Mark 16:8; 1 Cor. 9:13; 2 Tim. 3:15.

9 See Siegfried H. Horn, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Temple,” 8:1071.

10 E.g., Matt. 9:6, 7; Mark 2:11; Luke 1:23; Acts 2:2; 19:16; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 11:34; 14:35.

11 E.g., Matt. 10:6; Luke 1:27; Acts 2:36; 7:42; 11:14; 16:15, 31; 1 Tim. 3:4, 5; Heb. 3:6.

12 Jürgen Goetzmann, Dictionary of New Testament Theology, “House,” s.v. vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 247.

13 Matt. 10:12, 13; 12:25; John 4:53; 1 Cor. 16:15.

14 Matt. 10:6; 15:24; Luke 1:27, 33, 69; 2:4; 10:5; 11:7 (2x); 19:9; Acts 2:36; 7:10, 42, 46; 10:2; 11:14; 16:15, 31; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16; 1 Tim. 5:4; 2 Tim. 1:16; 4:19; Titus 1:11; Heb. 3:2, 5, 6 (2x); 8:8 (2x), 10; 11:7.

15 See C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction With Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1978), 341. The “above” refers to the heavenly world and the “below” to the earthly realm, as indicated by the next phrase, which mentions “the world.”

16 See Kim Papaioannou, “Sanctuary, Priesthood, Sacrifice, and Covenant in the Book of Hebrews,” Ministry (November 2014), 23–27.

17 Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 456, sees the Father’s house as a reference to the temple and compares it with Luke 2:49 and John 8:35. He does not quite call it the “heavenly temple” and indeed seems to understand the whole heaven as God’s habitation and therefore the reference as pointing to the whole of heaven. However, the use of oikia suits better a specific locale and edifice than the realm of heaven as a whole. Gary Burge, “Gospel of John,” in Craig Evans, Isobel A.H. Combes, and Daniel M. Gurtner, eds., Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John, Hebrews-Revelation (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 2005), 126, calls it “the heavenly dwelling where he [God] lives” and compares it with Hebrews 12:22.

18 G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1981), 284.

19 E.g., Dionysius of Halicarnasus, Roman Antiquities 1.41.1; Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica XVI 7.1.8; Philo, De Abrahamo 2.237.2; De Aeternum Mundi 116.3; Vettius Valens, Anthologies 4.12.5; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata bk. 2, 6.28.6.

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Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus.

April 2015

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