A long time ago, as Genesis 1 recounts, God began naming, separating, and assigning functions and roles to his creation. In other words, he spoke purpose for his creation into existence (often when God speaks, reality changes). The garden that resulted—Eden, by name—was pervaded with the presence of God, not in the general sense of omnipresence but in a special, intimate way—a perpetual, ongoing presence. The garden was the temple of God Almighty.
Fast forward a good amount of time (but not too much, say, between 2,500 years and 2.2 million years), and we come to the building of God’s dwelling place among his people, Israel (see Exod 25:10–40:33). Clearly, the look and materials employed throughout are meant to symbolize the original creation described in Genesis 1, and thus further represent, to use what has become the old cliché, “heaven on earth.”
Just as the Creator didn’t seek council with his creatures when preparing the garden, so too did he initiate and dictate to Israel the building of his new dwelling place, the tabernacle (Exod 25:9). In fact, we see that God doesn't leave it to his people to define the parameters of worship they will offer him.
The same holds true today—God provides the grand playground in which we’ve been called to play. Yet he has also graciously provided a fence for our protection. We (the church) are not to invent alternative ways to worship the living God—ways that are outside the fence and thus leave behind the essentials God has instituted; nevertheless, we are free to express our God-given creativity when worshiping him in each passing age.
In our time and place, riddled as it is with hyper-individualism and the temptation to live as if God doesn’t exist, we need now more than ever to recapture the biblically defined idea of sacred place, not as a building so much as that which presupposes and points to a personal God. “For where two or three come together in my name,” Jesus said, “I am there with them” (Matt 18:20). Not one, but two or three. And then the Christ comes. What this assumes is that our growth as persons (that is, our development into more fully image-bearing humans) happens only in relation to others—first with God in Christ by the power of his Spirit, and second with the temple of the Most High, his people. Only through this do we have a ready-made resistance against “the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age” (Eph 6:12).