The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: The Temple (Part 2)

In an earlier article, I discussed the Temple in relation to Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 (in commemoration of the 2nd day of Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day). The references to the Temple, and use of the Temple theme in that sermon-speech, reflect, in various ways, early Christian views of the Jerusalem Temple and how it relates to the new religious identity of believers in Christ. This second article will look at the Temple as it appears in the Infancy narratives, more directly related to the birth of Jesus. The Temple is mentioned only in the Lukan narrative(s), as the setting/locale for three different episodes:

    1. The Angelic Appearance to Zechariah (1:8-23)
    2. The Encounter with Simeon (2:25-38)
    3. The Boy Jesus in the Temple (2:41-51)

Each of these episodes is discussed in considerable detail in other Christmas season notes and articles. Here I will focus specifically on the role and significance of the Temple in the Lukan narrative.

1. The Angelic Appearance to Zechariah (Lk 1:8-23)

To begin with, it is importance to notice the close connection between the Temple setting and John the Baptist’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were of priestly lineage. In particular, Zechariah was an active priest assigned to periodic service in the Temple (vv. 5, 8-9, 23). The events which occur in the Temple in this episode take place during Zechariah’s time of service. Thus, here the Temple ritual itself plays an important role in the narrative. This leads to an important thematic (and theological) observation, which is essential to the message of Luke-Acts as a whole. The Gospel records divine revelation manifest in the midst of the Temple ritual. From an early Christian standpoint, this theme can be stated more generally:

The New Covenant is manifest in the midst of the Old, the New being the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.

Let us see how the details of the narrative relate to this thematic principle.

a. The ritual setting. As mentioned above, Zechariah was a priest, and a member of a long-established priestly tradition and lineage whose duties included service in the Temple; on this, cf. 1 Chron 23:6; 24:1ff; Neh 12:1-7; 13:30; Josephus Antiquities 7.365-6; Against Apion 2.108. The particular service Zechariah performs here in the narrative involves the daily sacrifice, and, in particular, the burning of incense at the altar in the sanctuary and tending to the related matters within the sanctuary (vv. 8-9). This duty goes back to the Torah regulations and the tradition of the Tabernacle (Exod 30:7-8; cf. also Mishnah tractate Tamid 5:2-6:3). This detail relates not only to Zechariah’s priestly service, but also to the more important motif that John’s parents were among the faithful ones in Israel, being di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”)—which means, primarily, being faithful in observing/performing the regulations of the Torah (v. 6). In addition to the offering of incense, as an officiating priest, Zechariah would also have delivered the priestly blessing to the people as part of his duty (Num 6:24-26; m. Tamid 7:2). This would have taken place upon his leaving the sanctuary and entering into the outer precincts of the Temple, as the setting of vv. 10, 21-22 indicates. Note, then, how this all is expressed clearly in the outline of the narrative:

    • Ritual Duty: Offering incense at the altar within the Sanctuary (vv. 8-10)
      • The Divine Revelation (vv. 11-20)
    • Ritual Duty: The Blessing to the people outside the Sanctuary (vv. 21-22)

b. The offering of incense. The particular sacrificial offering performed by Zechariah in the sanctuary also has a special significance in the Lukan narrative, and for early Christians as a whole. The burning of incense takes on a symbolic meaning for Christians which is twofold: (i) an association with prayer, and (ii) as a form of sacrifice entirely separate from that of animal offerings (with the shedding of blood, etc). The first point—the association of incense with prayer—goes back to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, most notably the statement in Psalm 141:2. Moreover, the time of the evening (afternoon) sacrifice, was traditionally regarded as a time/hour for prayer—cf. Dan 9:21; Josephus Antiquities 13.282; Acts 3:1, etc. That is certainly the setting indicated in verse 10; and there is likely a conscious allusion to Daniel 9:20-21ff (cf. below). The identification of burning incense with prayer is perhaps strongest in the visions of the book of Revelation (5:8; 8:3-4).

In Jewish and early Christian thought, prayer begins to take the place of the ritual offering, taking on the characteristics of sacrifice. We see that they occur simultaneously at the hour of sacrifice/prayer (v. 10). God is also said to respond favorably to the prayer of the righteous, in a manner similar to the divine response to the ritual offering; this is reflected in the idea of a person’s prayer ascending (like smoke) up to God (Psalm 141:2; Lk 1:13; Acts 10:4 etc). This first level of separation—i.e. prayer from the concrete ritual of sacrifice—takes on greater meaning for early Christians, who themselves began to view the entire role of the Temple in a new light. This rethinking of the Temple goes back to Gospel tradition and the sayings of Jesus (see esp. Matt 12:6-7; Mk 11:17 par [Isa 56:7]). With the exception of the episode in Acts 21, neither Jesus, the disciples, nor other early Christians are depicted in the New Testament participating in the sacrificial ritual of the Temple. Rather, the Temple serves primarily as a place for teaching and prayer, or for worship generally—cf. Lk 2:46-47; 18:10-11ff; 19:46 par; 24:53; Acts 2:46; 5:20ff, 42; 22:17; Rev 11:1. The spiritualization of the Temple and the sacrificial offerings can be seen vividly in Paul’s letters (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; also Eph 2:21), for example, and definitely precedes the destruction of the Temple building itself.

At times, the Christian view of the Temple turned toward actual opposition of the cultus and the ritual apparatus, as we examined in the case of Stephen’s sermon-speech (Part 1). Again, this can be seen as going back to Jesus and the Gospel tradition—i.e., the Temple action and saying of Jesus (Mk 11:12-17; 13:1-2; 14:58 pars; Jn 2:18-21). At the very least, we see a contrast between the ritual purpose of the Temple and the new purpose revealed in the person and work of Christ. With the destruction of the Temple building in 70 A.D., its role for Christians became increasingly spiritualized, existing as a symbol of God’s presence, holiness (i.e. the Holy Spirit) and the religious devotion of believers.

c. The Temple as a place of vision and revelation. The Angelic appearance to Zechariah is in accordance with Old Testament and Jewish tradition, in which the Temple, representing the presence of God and meeting-place for God and His people, is a suitable location for the experience of visions and divine revelation. This idea goes back to the early traditions related to the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting, where Moses (and others) had a direct experience of the Divine Presence. Perhaps the most famous visionary scene set in the Temple is that of Isaiah in 6:1-4ff. For other references to visionary/revelatory experiences in the Temple, see e.g., Acts 22:17ff; Josephus Antiquities 13.282-3. Even more relevant to the Lukan narrative here is the occurrence of Divine (Angelic) revelation at the afternoon time of sacrifice/prayer—Dan 9:20-21; Acts 10:3ff. For the possible influence of Daniel on the Lukan narrative, cf. my earlier article in this series.

d. The specific location of the revelation. In verse 11, we read that

“…the Messenger of the Lord was seen by him [i.e. Zechariah] standing out of the giving (side) [i.e. on the right side] of the place of (ritual) sacrifice [i.e. altar] of smoking (incense)”

The right hand side is the “good” and favored side (lit. the giving [decio/$] side), i.e. a propitious sign of God’s favor. Moreover, the sanctuary and the altar mark the presence of God—the place where human beings encounter the Divine Presence. These images and associations reflect a parallel to the Throne/Temple of God in heaven, surrounded by heavenly beings (Isa 6; Rev 4-5; 7:9ff; 11:1ff, 19, etc). In the New Testament and early Christian tradition, the exalted Jesus is seen as standing at the right hand of God on His throne (Mk 14:62 par; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34, et al). In early Old Testament tradition, the “Messenger of the Lord” was essentially a way of referring to the presence of God (YHWH) himself, as manifest to his people in history. By the time of the New Testament, the expression “Messenger of the Lord” typically referred to a distinct heavenly/angelic being, here identified as Gabriel.

The location of the altar is especially important in light of the theme discussed above, suggesting the idea of ritual sacrifice being replaced by vision/revelation for believers in the New Covenant of Christ.

e. The Old Testament Context of the Revelation. The revelation given to Zechariah by the Messenger Gabriel is Messianic and eschatological. It refers primarily to the role that the child John will play in the end-time redemption God has prepared for his people. As discussed in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”, the name Yôµanan ( )Iwa/nnh$, “John” v. 13) literally means “God (Yahweh) has shown favor”, alluding to the favor God will show to his people in bring salvation for them, an idea also implied in v. 14. The delight people will have at John’s birth is a foreshadowing of the role he will play (vv. 15-17) in the coming redemption.

The key phrase is found in verse 17:

“and he [i.e. John] will travel before in His [i.e. God’s] sight, in the spirit and power of °Eliyyah {Elijah}…”

It is an allusion to Malachi 3:1ff, a passage of profound eschatological/Messianic significance for Jews of the time. Already in the book of Malachi itself, the “Messenger” is identified as “Elijah” (4:5-6), an association which was highly influential in development of the belief that Elijah would appear at the end-time, before the coming Judgment, to lead God’s people to repentance, as stated here in v. 17b (cf. also Sirach 48:10, for an earlier occurrence of the tradition). I discuss the Messianic figure-type of Elijah at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (soon to be posted here).

Early Christian tradition came to identify John the Baptist with “Elijah” who will appear at the end time, and this identification is expressed several times in the Infancy narrative—both here and in 1:76-77—and, of course is essential to the early Gospel tradition (Mk 1:2, 6-7 par [but note Jn 1:21]; 9:12-13 par; Matt 11:14). Early Christians gave to Mal 3:1ff a distinct interpretation: John (the Messenger/Elijah) prepares the way for the coming of Jesus (the Lord). According to this line of interpretation, the words in Mal 3:1 (“the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple“) would similarly refer to Jesus coming to the Temple in Jerusalem. This idea would, of course, be fulfilled in Mk 11:15-18 par, but it may also be in the Gospel writer’s mind in Luke 2:22-27ff. I will discuss this episode, along with that of Lk 2:41-51, in the concluding portion (Part 3) of this article.