The Word “Temple”

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When one Greek word is unnecessarily translated by two or more different English words (such as the pairs “right, just”, “Spirit, Ghost”, “to minister, to serve”), and when two different Greek words are translated by one English word (such as “temple”, “man”, “another”), then clearly the studious reader of the New Testament must be on his guard. Otherwise, false exegesis may result in strange doctrines and unscriptural practices. We shall examine the Greek words behind the English word “temple”.

The Greek word naos is defined as “a shrine or sanctuary … among the Jews the sanctuary in the Temple, into which only the priests could lawfully enter” (Vine: Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). The word is used 15 times of the sanctuary in Jerusalem, once of a future sanctuary there, 7 times of the body of the Lord Jesus (of which 5 were spoken sarcastically by the false witnesses and those at the cross), 7 times metaphorically by Paul in his Epistles, 16 times in Revelation (once as a sphere of heavenly blessing, 11 times of the sanctuary in heaven issuing forth judgment on earth, twice of a structure on earth, once of the Lamb, and once of its absence in the millennial city).

The second Greek word is hieron, defined as “a sacred place, a temple … that in Jerusalem, signifying the entire building with its precincts, or some part thereof, as distinct from the naos, the inner sanctuary” (Vine). The word appears 69 times in the Gospels and in The Acts, once by Paul to refer to a common religious practice in Jerusalem, and once in a heathen sense.

The word temple also translates oikos on one occasion, Luke 11. 51, “Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple”. Strictly, the word oikos means “house”—the word appears 16 times in the Gospels and in The Acts as referring to the structure on mount Moriah, and three times spiritually to the church. Why the translators of the A. V, used the word “temple” in Luke 11. 51 we cannot say, unless to force the word to be identical to that in Matthew 23. 35 where naos (temple) is used in the same statement about Zacharias.

In a few contexts, both words naos and hieron are found. For example, in John 2. 14, 15 the Lord Jesus found tradesmen “in the temple”, making a profit at the expense of those entering to serve God with sacrifices purchased from the profiteers. The word “temple” is hieron, embracing the actual house, the courts and precincts where the public could enter. Immediately afterwards, to His critics the Lord said, “Destroy this temple (naos), and in three days I will raise it up”. In their reply, the Jews then used the word naos, while John also used this word in his explanation, “he spake of the temple of his body”, v. 21. In other words, the holy thing that had been born was a vessel, a shrine, a Holy of Holies, where the Son of God resided, moved and worked while He was here below.

Again, in Luke 1. 9 the priest Zacharias “went into the temple of the Lord”, the word naos, inner shrine, being used, since only priests were allowed to enter the sanctuary. The same word appears in verses 21 and 22, where the people on the outside marvelled that he had been so long “in the temple”, namely, inside. Yet after the birth of the Lord, His parents brought Him into the temple, hieron, where Simeon saw Him, Luke 2. 27, where Anna served constantly, v. 37, and where later the Lord was found at the age of twelve, v. 46.

It is remarkable that these two words are used in a heathen setting in Ephesus. The great temple of Diana in Ephesus is called a hieron, but the “silver shrines” being made for Diana are described by the word naos. Heathen religious gain was being made by the craftsmen, as is common practice in the present day in certain circles of Christendom, Acts 19. 24, 27.

As we have seen, the Lord never entered the naos, since He was not of the priestly family of the Levites, Heb. 7. 13-14. His connections with the hieron were

  1. to be taken to the “pinnacle of the temple”, Matt. 4. 5;
  2. “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple”, Matt. 21. 14;
  3. He “departed from the temple” and the disciples showed Him “the buildings of the temple”, 24. 1;
  4. during the last week, the Lord spent the daytime “teaching in the temple”, Luke 21. 37, 38.

As far as naos is concerned, the Lord used this word four times in His teaching in Matthew 23. 16-21. It was the veil of the inner sanctuary, the naos, that was rent when the Lord died on the cross, Matt. 27. 51, showing to the ministering priests that the Holy of Holies was empty, that there was no ark, no throne of God amongst His people as in Moses’ tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. The strangest reference of all is in Matthew 27. 5, where Judas “cast down the pieces of silver in the temple (naos), and departed”. Whether he actually gained access to the separated place, or whether he got one of the priests to cast down the money in the forbidden place, we are not told. Yet the betrayal money was found in the inner shrine, then to be used for the purchase of “The field of blood”, Acts 1. 19.

In the Epistles, the word hieron is used only once, 1 Cor. 9. 13, referring to the Jewish practice of extracting tithes to maintain priests and Levites. But Paul uses the word naos eight times. In 1 Corinthians 6. 19, the body of the believer is called “the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you”, namely, the believer’s body should be sanctified and meet for the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Thereby, Paul exhorts, “glorify God in your body”, a reference to the glory of God in tabernacle and temple of old. In 1 Corinthians 3. 16, 17, Paul uses the word naos three times to refer to the local assembly: “ye are the temple of God”, the gathering of the saints being where the Lord is found with His own. In 2 Corinthians 6. 16, “ye are the temple of the living God” refers to separation, and can apply both to the individual and to the local assembly. In Ephesians 2. 21, the whole building “groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord”, referring to the Lord as the “chief corner stone” in what we term the universal church. Finally, the anti-Christ is seen sitting “in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God”, 2 Thess. 2. 4, taking over an inner structure that will be built in the future, and vainly copying the divine presence and glory of the past.

The lack of the word hieron in the Epistles may suggest that God is less concerned with material dwellings, Acts 7. 48, whilst the metaphorical use of naos indicates His choice to make His presence known in the bodies of believers and their gatherings. May we take this to heart both doctrinally and practically.

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