I don’t go to church. I don’t need to go. Although, as a pastor, some people think I go to church or even expect me to go, I refuse. I’m not rebellious, just redeemed.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Putting God in a box.” I’m sure you understand the gist of the phrase. What’s more fascinating is the etymology and theology. The easiest way to explain it may be to go back to Indiana Jones.
In the 1981 George Lucas film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harrison Ford plays Dr. Indiana Jones. Dr. Jones, an archaeologist, is searching for the ark of the covenant. Essentially it was a box. But not just any box as he, and the Nazi’s, found out. It represented the power of God.
Before I talk about the box, let me talk about the place where the box was kept. For that, rather than the drama of Hollywood, we need to go back to the actual story in the Bible.
The Israelites suffered bondage in Egypt. God brought them out with a mighty hand. After he did, God commanded the Israelites to construct the tabernacle, basically a large tent. It would symbolize His presence.
Eventually, when the Israelites established themselves, the concept of the tabernacle morphed into a permanent structure called the temple. The main difference between the two was that the tabernacle was movable (used in the wilderness wanderings)—the temple was permanent and located in Jerusalem. Both tabernacle and temple represented the same thing.
The most important element of the Jewish temple was an area inside the temple known as the “holy of holies” or the “most holy place.” Within this area was kept the ark of the covenant—"The Box.”
The actual dimensions of the ark came from God. It was measured in cubits. That’s about the distance from your elbow to your fingertips—or about 18”. But since our tape measures don’t include cubits, the English translation would be a rectangular box about 52 inches long, 31 inches high, and 31 inches wide.
The ark was covered in pure gold. But its value was not measured monetarily. The ark had a lid on it, called the mercy seat. The mercy seat featured two angels, called cherubim, who were at opposite sides with their wings stretched toward the middle. It was the middle part that was the most important. That was God’s spot.
God said, “And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark… There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.” (Exodus 25:21-22).
God promised that His presence would be there upon the mercy seat on the ark. There was no image on the mercy seat for a reason. “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Any attempt to assign an image to the invisible God was considered idolatry. No image would suffice.
The temple was a critical part of worship for the Jews. At the temple, people would come to pay homage and seek forgiveness. Through the intermediary of the priests, they would offer sacrifice to the invisible God.
Not only was God invisible, but He was also inaccessible. His majestic presence was relegated to the sacred area of the holy of holies and the mercy seat. Only the high priest could go in there and he could only enter once a year—on the day of Atonement when he would offer sacrifice for the sin of the nation. As a visible reminder, there was a large curtain that separated the holy of holies from the rest of the temple area.
Although God chose to meet with the Jews at the mercy seat, He could not be contained. The Bible reveals that he is omnipresent. That means he is everywhere—all at the same time. God does not dwell in a temple made with hands (Isaiah 66:1). You can’t put God in a box.
Back to my initial discussion of why I don’t go to church. As I said, on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, there was no form. We don’t have enough crayons in the box.
However, God chose to reveal Himself through the Person of Jesus who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). The Bible says, [God] “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Interestingly, the word “dwelt” in that sentence is the Greek word for tabernacle. It’s not a coincidence but divine providence. Jesus tabernacled among us.
Thomas, one of the disciples, said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father.” Jesus responded, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me…? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9).
Jesus, the very God who manifested Himself on the mercy seat, came to put His portrait in the center of the cherubim. He also came to do a little temple maintenance.
While in Jerusalem, at the temple, Jesus said to His adversaries, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). A strange statement, indeed. They responded by saying, “it took forty-six years to build this temple and you are going to raise it in three days?” (John 2:20).
Of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about the physical temple—although He certainly could have done that if He wanted. The temple He was talking about was spiritual—His own body (John 2:21).
This was illustrated vividly at the crucifixion. The Bible records that when Jesus died, the huge curtain that separated the temple area from the holy of holies—where the ark of the covenant was—was torn in two from top to bottom as if God Himself ripped the curtain from above.
The symbolism is clear. No longer was there a separation between God and people. People no longer would go to the temple to find atonement and reconciliation.
The temple became just another building. Jesus Himself, the perfect sacrifice, became the temple, the door, the access, and the way to God. He is the mediator, the high priest, and the perfect lamb.
His death on the cross fulfilled the Law and obliterated the need for a continual sacrificial system in a physical location. His body replaced the temple. He did it once, for all (Heb 7:27). A proper understanding of Christianity means that, upon salvation, God Himself, through the person of the Holy Spirit, comes to live in the life of the believer.
The miracle and majesty of the New Testament is that Christians don’t go to church. Christians do get together in buildings we call often call churches. We’re reminded, don’t neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Heb 10:25).
But the building doesn’t make it a church. The people do. For example, in the Bible, the Apostle Paul sends greetings to the church in Corinth. He writes, “The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord” (1 Cor 16:19).
Notice, the “church in their house.” Also, he writes to the church at Colossae saying, “Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house” (Col 4:15). It says very clearly, again, the church in her house.
Christians don’t go to church. We are the church. The church is not a building, but a body. It is not an organization, but an organism. God lives in us. The Bible reminds us, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? (1 Cor 6:19).
That’s why I don’t go to church. I don’t go to church because I am part of the church. Where I go, the church is.
If you remember, in the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones does find the ark and it ends up in a warehouse somewhere. Probably for the best. We don’t need it anymore. You can’t put God in a box.
Dr. Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.