A phrase so simple—if it were used only once in Scripture—might receive but little notice; yet when it appears time after time, again and again, this seems to invite extraordinary attention. Those modest words "made with hands" or their negative counterpart "not made with hands" are used nine times, and not by Paul alone, for they are used also by Mark and Stephen, then at least four times by Paul—in Acts, Ephesians, Colossians and Second Corinthians—twice also by the writer of The Hebrews. With and without the "not," this phrase is used twice of the "circumcision made with hands" but it is applied most often to temples made with hands. Of those it appears to be used disparagingly as if places of worship were not pleasing to God expressly because they are made with hands; yet we know there were times when God especially required His people to make places of worship, of course with their hands; a tabernacle in the days of Moses, a temple in the days of Solomon, and a further temple in the days of Joshua and Zerubbabel after the Babylonian servitude. Even today there is nothing which forbids the building of temples made with hands.
There is of course nothing contradictory about this if we pause to observe that temples made with hands can be well pleasing to God if intended and used only as a means for worship, but if they come to be recognised as the OBJECT OF WORSHIP, for their own sake, then they become an offense.
Altars made with hands for the worship of idols are of course disdainful to God but there have been other altars well pleasing to Him which were made with hands as long ago as in Noah's day, and Abel's offerings would seem to have required an altar on which he could sacrifice the firstlings of his flock. This was obviously well pleasing to God, for we read that "the LORD had respect unto Abel, and to his offerings." When Abraham built altars, as we read that he did, these were clearly identified with worship, because from those he is said to have "called upon the name of the Lord" and most notable is the altar he built whereon to sacrifice his own son Isaac. Later Isaac built an altar from where he too "called upon the name of the LORD," and Jacob was told to build an altar at ancient Bethel where he had slept one night some years before and dreamed of the ladder reaching into the heavens, wherefore also in the morning he erected a pillar of stone which he anointed with oil. In the letter to The Hebrews where all these ancient faithful are named; such as Abel, Noah and the patriarchs who built altars unto the Lord, lie observe they did all this "by faith" and their faith was testified to. This suggests they had at least some partial knowledge and devout recognition of the need for a more acceptable Sacrifice to be offered at some remote future time whereof their own offerings on improvised altars were only figures or "shadows."
We learn from the same letter to The Hebrews that the tabernacle which The Twelve Tribes made by hands at the word of Moses was to serve as a figure of heavenly things; and this was also true of the altar, the ark of the covenant and all tabernacle accessories. We are told that Moses had been personally informed of all this before the tabernacle was to be built, for God had solemnly impressed upon Him, "You shall be making all in accord with the model shown to you in the mount," which Moses also was faithful to observe and to do.
Whereas all such things pertained to divine services under the law, Paul explains that we are to offer "divine service in spirit" and that ours is a "circumcision not made by hands." Seeing, however, that the tabernacle was built according to the model Moses had seen in the mount but for some reason the services Israel performed became unacceptable later, we may have something to learn from this about things now made with hands, our own hands or those of others. Much as indirect lighting can make some things more discernible to the physical eye, perhaps we too may borrow indirect light from the Hebrew Scriptures to observe how present sanctuaries made with hands, or any present service performed by hands, can be spiritually either "a fragrant odor" or inversely an offense to God.
The things Israel made according to the model Moses had seen were to them the sole object of their labors; nothing more or less than what they had agreed to do in the hope of deserving and receiving certain special blessings above all other nations. They did not understand that these things were divinely ordained to serve as figures of heavenly things; and, lest we might think unworthily of Israel, it should be noted here they were not to be told that the tabernacle they made with hands was a figure of something much better. Therefore all they could possibly see in the tabernacle and its services was the work of their own hands; not what such things prefigured, and they were not unlike any other people when they soon lost interest in the daily repetition of services they could not understand, so they went to seek gods like Baal and other gods made with hands. Things which most naturally occurred to them were images which could be made by hands either in the form of humans or animals, like they had seen Egypt and other nations worship as gods of idolatry. Then Israel's sin of idol worship made even their tabernacle services disdainful to God, as He afterward said through the prophets: "Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me" (Isa. 1:13); "I despise your feast days ... Though ye offer Me burnt offerings and meat offerings, I will not accept them... Take away from Me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols" (Amos 5:21-23). Yet previously oblations with incense had been required and they were appropriate to Levitical services under the law.
The worship of idols had been clearly forbidden to Israel and Moses was especially careful to tell them why. He reminded them that their God is a LIVING GOD, for they themselves had heard His resounding voice from the burning and quaking mountain; a voice speaking out from the midst of fire and smoke with lightnings and thunder while the blare of the trumpet waxed louder and still louder. As Moses recalled all this to Israel's memory, he reminded them that their God, although a living and omnipotent God, is still not to be observed by the present eye of flesh; therefore they had seen no form when they heard His sovereign voice and witnessed His awesome power. "Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves" said Moses—not because they had seen their God—no rather, "For YE SAW no SIMILITUDE in the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire" (Deut. 4:11-19). Moses stressed there was a lesson in this which Israel should learn and remember long after his lifetime:—"Lest ye corrupt yourselves and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure—the likeness of any beast, any winged foul, anything that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish... and lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven... the moon and the stars (and) shouldest be driven to worship them and serve them." The reason they were to make no similitude with their own hands was BECAUSE THEY HAD SEEN NO SIMILITUDE of the God whom no human eye now can see and live; a God merciful and gracious yet meanwhile a God ALMIGHTY; and, according to Hebrews, "a consuming fire" (12:29).
Here we must not assume that a people of higher enlightenment than those who had suffered the bondage of Egypt might have been immune to idol worship. Solomon had prayed for wisdom, not for his personal glory but so that he might all the better rule God's ancient people; and just because he prayed for wisdom rather than wealth, God blessed him richly both with wealth and wisdom. "Wisdom," He said, "and knowledge is granted unto thee; and I will give thee riches and wealth, and honor, such as none of the kings have had before thee, neither shall there any after thee have the like" (I Chron. 1:12). It was with God's special blessing that Solomon built the temple of historic fame, for that too was to serve as a figure of heavenly things. Whereas the tabernacle had been covered with badgers' skins which concealed some very precious things within, being thus an appropriate figure of our Lord's concealed glory in the days of his humiliation, the temple served rather to foreshadow His distant royal glory in eons now still future. Neither was Solomon unmindful that the temple, glorious as it was, could only faintly reflect the glory of God. At the dedication of the temple he spoke not with wisdom only but with profound humility, more pleasing to God: "Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house which I have built!" II Chron. 6:18.
If any high level of enlightenment or spirituality could ever by itself spare humanity from the snares of idolatry, either then or now, this should have been well exemplified in the humble, reverent and illustrious young Solomon; yet Scripture has preserved the astonishing fact that in his later years even he built altars for pagan rituals and sacrifices offered to idols (I Kings 11:4-7). Today the objects idolised may be quite different but it is no less true now than it was among pagan Gentiles in the pre-Christian era that idolatry captivates all human flesh.
Stephen, the first martyr for the faith of Christ, was somehow reminded of Solomon when he spoke to men highly esteemed in Judaic culture who had rejected our Lord and accused Him before Pilate but were exceedingly zealous for a temple made with hands. They, the same as their fathers, were much disposed to things they could see with eyes of flesh. "Solomon built Him an house," said Stephen, "but the Most High is not dwelling in what is made by hands" (Acts 7.47-48). Standing by at that moment as the chief witness and advocate for Stephen's impending execution was the former Saul of Tarsus, and little did he realise then that some years later he would be speaking to philosophers at Athens and reflecting on "temples made with hands, 'I using the same words as he had heard from Stephen, his former victim: "The God who makes the world and all that is in it... is not dwelling in temples made by hands" (Acts 17:24). Those of the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem who put Stephen to death, no less than the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who heard Paul at Athens, were men proud of temples made with hands which to them were the object of their worship, not the means; and when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans a generation later, the temple was not spared. Not one stone was left upon another, as our Lord had previously told His disciples.
God dwells not in temples made with hands; not that all things made by hands are intrinsically evil but, being of human achievement, they tend to invite human adoration and thus obscure the glory of God. Though He may visit temples made with hands, God DWELLS not there; it is not His abiding-place. Instead He makes temples of His own; temples oŁ the spirit which He fashions in hearts of men and women; temples in no sense a human achievement, so the glory is all God's own. Through the ministry of Paul at Corinth, God had fashioned such temples of the spirit in persons who then until recently had worshiped dumb idols in temples made with hands. Some of these were scarcely aware that a wondrous transformation God had wrought for them in spirit, so Paul reminded them pointedly: "Are you not aware that you are a temple of God and the spirit of God is making its home in you?" "Are you not aware that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit in you, which you have from God and you are not your own?" I Cor. 3:16; 6:19,20. In that day the former worshipers of idols were called upon to make a clean, fast break. "What concurrence," said Paul, "has a temple of God with idols?... Come out of their midst and be severed... and touch not the unclean" (II Cor. 6:16,17). They had no other choice if they were to worship God in spirit, for the temple of idols was a temple of demons, as Paul reminded them further, "What agreement has Christ with Belial?"
Today the circumstances are not wholly the same but there are some resemblances. Now many temples made with hands are dedicated to the worship of God in Christ where some or perhaps many of God's present saints assemble for worship. To some the temple made by hands is properly only a means for worship; to others it becomes the OBJECT; a modern form of idolatry so well disguised that not even those involved may be aware. If we should choose to visit one temple or another and join with others there in prayer and praise, we do well to remember it is not our forum, for the temple then belongs to others. If we find rituals, ceremonies or teachings there which to us appear at variance with present truth, it is still a doubtful place to voice our opinion—unless perchance we are asked—and even then we are cautioned that our words should be "always with grace, seasoned with salt, perceiving how you must answer each one" (Col. 4:5,6).
The woman from Samaria who talked with our Lord at Jacob's well seemed to feel that everyone in her day was constrained to choose either the temple at Jerusalem or the one her people favored in the mountain of Samaria. Of those two, and at that time, our Lord did not suggest that He was impartial, for He said "Salvation is of the Jews," but meanwhile He looked far beyond that present moment. "Believe Me," He said, "coming is an hour when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem shall you be worshiping the Father... Coming is an hour, and now is, when the true worshipers will be worshiping the Father in spirit and truth." From this three inferences seem to be inherent:—
1) Many who worshiped then either at Jerusalem or in the mountain of Samaria were NOT worshiping in spirit and in truth;
2) At some remote future "hour" when true worshipers in general shall worship the Father in spirit and truth, there may be no longer one preferred place of worship above any other;
3) This would be true of some even from that time onward, for our Lord said "the hour" was not only coming but already present—"AND NOW IS."
Since other Scriptures do indicate, however, that Jerusalem is to be favored as a place for worship at least for the next eon, including what is commonly called The Millennium, it would appear that when our Lord envisioned some remote future time when true worshipers in general shall be worshiping in spirit and truth neither at Jerusalem alone, nor in Samaria, nor anywhere else exclusively, but wherever they may be, such ideal conditions must await the eon of the new heavens and the new earth. Until then it would appear that some temples made with hands may be used of God to serve a further intermediate purpose as some temples are serving now.
The woman from Samaria sought to know in which temple God could be worshiped best. Today there may be no simple answer. It should be of course a temple where God is worshiped in spirit and where our Lord is proclaimed not only as "Jesus Christ and Him crucified" but also as CHRIST TRIUMPHANT; therefore not only as crucified, dead and entombed but also as risen, vivified and glorified; now His impending presence "in air;" later His descent on Mount Olivet; His judging of the living and the dead; His ultimate acclaim as Savior and Lord by every voice in heaven and on earth; past, present and future; the laud of generations yet unborn; all to the praise and glory of God the Father.
Today it is no less true than when Solomon, Stephen and Paul said all alike that "God dwells not in temples made with hands." He does not make His home in these but in temples of the spirit which He fashions for Himself in human hearts. In those Paul says He "walks" and there He DOES make His home. In such temples God may even visit temples made with hands, though only as a guest. He dwelleth not there as if it were His abiding-place. He breatheth not His spirit into panels of cedar or redwood. His presence is not reflected from tall picture windows nor works of treasured art. His voice is not heard in the resonant peal of heavy bells or the vibrant tones of mammoth organs. It may or may not resound from eloquent sermons or sacred music professionally rendered. Once again, as in Elijah's day, the Lord may be neither in the great strong wind, the earthquake or the fire but only in some still small voice thereafter. Anything humanly made, be it either from head or hands, can be truly a labor of love to the glory of God, for divine service in spirit, or it can be an object of worship for its own sake and thus an adorable idol: Now as in ancient times God says "Ye shall have no other gods before me"... "My son, give Me thine HEART" (Prov. 23:26). Well may we share the sentiment of the hymnal: "O may no earth-born cloud arise to hide Thee from Thy servant's eyes!"
When the service at the temple is over and the worshipers go their separate ways, God lingers no longer at the temple, but He walks along with some who were there and talks with them in an intimate sort of way as if He and they together were going to Emmaus. "And they say one to another, 'Was not our heart burning in us as He spoke to us on the road and as He opened up to us the Scriptures?"
When John in spirit had been snatched away, as it were, down into the future Day of the Lord, so from there he could see both fore and aft, he was uniquely favored to enjoy a preview of the new heavens, the new earth, and the new Jerusalem. The absence of any temple there was one of the things that impressed him deeply, for presumably he well remembered how he and Peter would go up to Israel's temple for the hour of prayer, at nine o'clock in the morning. Yet it seems John had been told most delightfully why he saw no longer any temple in that far future eon: "And I saw no Temple therein; for the LORD God Almighty and the Lamb ARE the Temple." Then God and Christ will dwell in mankind while they will spiritually dwell in God; no longer in temples made with hands; for all the former things will have passed away; all will be new; the figures will have vanished and only abiding realities will remain:
"At that day shall a man look to His Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel. And he shall not look to the altars, the work of his hands, neither shall respect that which his fingers have made" (Isa. 17:7,8).
Melvin E. Johnson (Treasures of Truth, Instalment Six, September 1972)