The belief that God dwells in a special manner in some physical location, particularly in the meeting place of the saints, is a common misconception that pervades most Christian congregations. However, an overview of the biblical perspective reveals that this concept is distinctly foreign to a godly mindset.
From the earliest days of recorded history, unregenerate men have related to God in a mechanical, ritualistic manner … from a distance. Men want to believe that God especially dwells in some particular place, and that He is pleased when they perform certain mechanical rituals. They want to embody Him in an image, an idol, confine Him to a particular location, and expect that his benevolence is granted based on ritualistic obedience.
Men thus wish to contain God in some way, to control Him … like a vending machine: when we put in our coins we want a certain response, and then we want to walk away. We want to depart from Him … with our desire granted. We want to keep God in this place we have invented until we decide we want to deal with Him again. This orientation seems hopelessly embedded in the idolatrous, pagan mindset.
At first, we might not think of the pagan mindset in such terms. It does not become clear until we consider the reality, what God has intended in our relationship with Him.
What is it that God does intend? What is the reality of God’s desire for us in our relationship with Him?
The whole of God’s perspective here may be distilled into two basic thoughts:
1. God is everywhere, and
2. God is focused on the heart.
God’s desire is to fellowship with you, from within, every moment of your life. You cannot move in any direction to get “closer” to Him. His intention for you is to delight yourself in Him continuously, constantly enjoying His presence in an undiluted fashion. “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” (Ps 139:7-10)
In other words, we cannot contain God in a box, in an idol, in a city, or in any particular house. We cannot keep God at a distance: God is everywhere and we cannot escape Him. We cannot hide the corruption of our inmost being, our depravity, by inventing rituals. God is looking at our hearts … and He is looking at all of them all of the time. And the heart is, for the vast proportion of mankind, deeply corrupt, deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. (Jer 17:9) The desire to be apart from God, to keep him safely at a distance, springs from this depravity.
Desperate men desperately want to evade an omnipresent God that is focused on their depraved heart. Hence we have idolatry, ritual, and with this… the “house of God.”
Men have always, it seems, been mechanical — ritualistic, methodical, distant — in their approach to God. Though most would never treat a marriage this way, or any other precious relationship, it is a cold design which permeates the idolatrous, pagan mind.
If men were not desperately wicked, if they wanted to enjoy God and delight in Him, they would rejoice in His omnipresence and fellowship with Him every moment of the day. What God offered in the Garden of Eden when He came down to walk with our father Adam in the cool of the day would be the constant delight of every soul. There would be no idols and no special places of “God’s dwelling.” Rather than keeping God in a distant box, to be sought only when some earthy benefit is desired, men would be delighted in God and enjoying Him at every location, simply because of the One Who made every location, such that the concept of the “house of God” would be largely, if not completely, irrelevant.
It is clear from Torah that God does not especially dwell in temples or buildings of human construction. Consider how Stephen admonished the Jewish leaders in Acts 7: “Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Hath not my hand made all these things?” (Ac 7:48-50
There certainly have been times when God has associated Himself with a building, such as with the tabernacle in the wilderness, and with Solomon’s temple. But consider also that this has been in the context of His attempt to reach out to an unregenerate people, a stubborn and a stiff-necked people.
Israel asked for a king, and God gave them one … but this did not imply God’s pleasure in doing so. “But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” (1Sa 8:6-7)
Consider also Israel’s ultimate response when they saw God’s displeasure in this request. “And all the people said unto Samuel, Pray for thy servants unto the LORD thy God, that we die not: for we have added unto all our sins this evil, to ask us a king.” (1Sa 12:19) The fact that God gave Israel a king does not imply that a king is intrinsic to God’s ideal pattern of relationship with mankind.
So it appears to be with the concept of a temple. There was no temple in the Garden, and evidently no need for one. The concept is consistently part of idolatrous mindsets, and only seems convenient for one that wants to keep God at a distance.
Such a concept, of keeping God at a distance, is actually not foreign to the patriarchs either. Consider Jacob at Bethel. “And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Ge 28:16-17) Jacob was not walking in fellowship with God, enjoying His presence in the journey of life. Jacob is shocked to “run into” God, in the experience of a dream, and figured he must have stumbled upon “God’s house.” It was not a pleasant experience either. Ironically, Jacob was so moved by the place that he gave it a special name. “He rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel.” (Ge 28:19)
But, though the place was special to Jacob, it would seem that God was not so special. Jacob “vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God: and this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house.” (Ge 28:20-22) Jacob is negotiating with God to let Him be God. And if God keeps His end of the deal, God even gets to keep His little house! In Jacob’s mind, he seems to leave God there, and proceed on his journey.
Perhaps the sarcasm is inappropriate, but it is to emphasize this fact: just because Jacob did this doesn’t make it right. If this is not a pagan perspective, and an unhealthy one, then what is? Before Jacob would give his life to God, God had to perform for Jacob. It is a pagan, “vending-machine” mentality if there ever was one.
Paul, in his address on Mars Hill, repeats this concept: “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” (Ac 17:24) Having a special place for God to dwell, where He is contained and distant, is central to the pagan mind and must be challenged by those in pursuit of healthy spirituality.
It is interesting to note that that the very concept of a temple, of a physical place of the habitation of God on earth, is temporary. In the New Jerusalem, where the saints of God will tend to congregate in their communion and fellowship with God, there will be no temple: “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.” (Re 21:22 ) What clearer picture could we have of this concept? If there is not a temple in the New Jerusalem we can be quite sure that there is none at all below the heavens. God does not want you to be a “temple” addict, for you to think of Him dwelling apart from you; His desire is to dwell in you and with you, and for this to be central to your spirituality.
This is indeed striking, that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, because there is currently a temple in heaven (Re 11:19) which appears to be central to many of the activities in heaven.
Even so, God’s provision of a temple in Jerusalem, or a tabernacle in the wilderness, does not indicate His ultimate desire for His people, that we should seek such a place in order to fellowship with Him or serve Him. We must remember the context of it, God is dealing, in large measure, with unregenerate sinful men who are, at their core, at enmity with Him. We should not take such a provision as ideal or be, at heart, temple seekers. It is this temple-seeking mentality that is at the root of the mindset that calls the meeting place of the congregation of the saints the house of God.
The church building, or other congregational meeting place, is not “God’s House,” even if it especially dedicated to Him for worship and instruction. God supernaturally indwells believers, and in a special way the congregation itself, the congregation that is aligned with Him, but not their meeting house.
A particular danger in allowing such a mindset is that it tends to reinforce the idea that men can somehow be closer to God by frequenting this house, this place, and that their prayers are somehow more effectual when offered up there, etc. This is equivalent to saying that from some other location we are not as close to God, that He is not as attentive to our prayers, and that He is more removed from us. It is saying that there are places you can go and be not so close to God, from where He is not so accessible. This is in every respect a pagan thought pattern. We ought not to passively tolerate it among the saints in the least fashion.
Consider the perspective of the woman at the well in John 4. She challenged Yeshua, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” (Jn 4:20) She was trying to place an emphasis on the proper location of worship and claiming that the Samaritans had it right. Evidently, in her mind, this was bait for a juicy argument with a lonely Jewish stranger.
But Yeshua says unto her, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” (Jn 4:21-24) Yeshua emphasized the condition of the heart as being central to worship, and did not reinforce any idea that the physical location was of any benefit at all. In exposing her pagan mentality He is driving at her heart, a heart that wants to hide from God.
Teaching people to have respect for community property, like the church building, and to treat it with care and respect is certainly a good thing, but using God, saying that it is “His house” to give this perspective more weight, seems deeply inappropriate and presumptuous. If God doesn’t do this, what business have we to do it?
Unless God has Himself initiated the claim to a piece of property, or to an object of some type (like the Ark of the Covenant), and has broadly communicated this to the kingdom of God, that He intends to associate Himself with this place or object for some period of time, we ought not presume to do this for Him or in His stead.
Further, no act of dedicating an object to God, be it a house or some other place or object, necessarily means that God has therefore also associated Himself with that house, place or object in a manner that would require anyone to treat that object with any particular reverence. Unless God has explicitly approved of this dedication and has formally associated Himself with that house/place/thing in some clearly supernatural way, like He did with both the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple, one shouldn’t ask anyone else to treat such an house/object/place that one has dedicated to God with any special reverence. Anyone doing so is acting on God’s behalf in open presumption.
It is a pagan mentality that associates cleanness or uncleanness with physical objects in a mystical way. Paul was convinced that this was an unhealthy mindset. “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” (Ro 14:14) It is an occult mindset that thinks it can transfer a curse or a blessing to us through an object. Yeshua corrected this notion when He said, “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.” (Mr 7:15) The belief that physical things can help spiritually, or hurt us, springs from this same pagan mindset.
Though God has employed temples and tabernacles in relating to mankind, and has associated Himself with certain places, it is evident that God’s ultimate intention for us is to delight in Him equivalently in all places and to enjoy Him consistently at all times, independently of any location, relic or other special object. God does not intend for us to think of Him “dwelling” in a certain place, or of Him being more available to us there. Treating particular places with this mentality is founded on a lie, and tends to keep us from enjoying true fellowship with God in all places and at all times.