The Importance of the
Temple Mount to Christians
The Scroll of Independence of the State of Israel guarantees freedom of worship and access to all the holy places in Israel whether they be Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Hand in hand with this commendable and tolerant standard has been the government policy of maintaining the status quo at these sites in the interest of preserving the fragile peace in a highly pluralistic society. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem, location of the First and Second Temples, the Dome of the Rock and El-Aqsa Mosque is a site also of great importance for Christians historically and prophetically. For this reason a discussion of the meaning of "holy places" for Christians, using the Temple Mount as an example, is appropriate. Recent clashes there have been between extreme Jewish groups (or individuals) and the Muslim tenants of the site, but this does not imply Christians are neutral on the subject.
The Muslims took control of the Temple Mount in 635 C.E. finding it in a neglected state. Omar ordered the area cleared of rubbish and Abd el-Malik built the shrine known as the Dome of the Rock between 684 and 691 C.E. to protect the "holy rock" (See Miriam Rosen-Ayalon Jerusalem Revealed p93; and Guy le Strange, Jerusalem Under the Muslims, 1890). Omar apparently was led to the proper spot by Jews living in Jerusalem at the time. Incidentally, Arabic inscriptions in the interior of the shrine constitute an attack on Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God, not especially upon Jewish thought. Muslim tradition later added the claim that Mohammed ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount and it is today consecrated as the "third most holy place in Islam," after Mecca and Medina.
Although the Crusaders converted both the Dome of the Rock and El-Aqsa to churches for a brief time, Muslim stewardship returned in less than a hundred years, and continues to the present. A number of people have commented that the "Muslim sanctity" of the site has greatly decreased in recent years and that important archaeological features there have been destroyed or covered over. Visiting hours are sharply limited, Muslim tour guides control what is said there and visitors are limited to a very restricted inspection of the area. Armed guards are now needed because of fears of violence there. To the Muslims El-Aqsa is the building of the mosque and they treat the entire Temple Mount as a mosque (though they pray with their backs towards the Dome of the Rock).
Muslim theology claims that land once owned by Islam is forever holy to Islam and must be repossessed if lost. This applies to lands other than Israel of course, but their claim that Islam has replaced both Judaism and Christianity as a later and better revelation from God makes the Temple Mount an extraordinarily important plot of ground to Muslims.
Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael from the diaspora, especially since the "first aliyah" in 1891, has raised their numbers to well over 4 million bringing into sharp focus the fact the Temple Mount was of enormous importance in the national life of ancient Israel and is the proper focal point for religious worship and prayer by the Jews in the future. However until now the only accessible place for Jewish prayer has been the Western Wall. Efforts by small numbers of devout Jews to pray on the Temple Mount have been frustrated by the police, the Muslim WAQF, and the government in spite of the legal (constitutional) guarantees. The dominant national spirit in Israel is secular and the present government is a basically secular body. Thus Jewish pressures for prayer on the Mount or the building of a Third Temple represent a minority point of view. For centuries observant Jews around the world have considered the eventual building of a third temple an obligation, or at least something that would be accomplished when the Messiah comes.
In spite of the secular zeitgeist in Israel today it should be noted that on the Day of Atonement the majority of the people fast the whole day and go to a synagogue. Other religious holidays are observed to an increasing degree. Interest in the Bible and its claims is increasing. Thus national Jewish consciousness and media attention concerning the Temple Mount is rising. Resulting fear in the minds of the Muslims has led in recent years to poor treatment of both Jewish and Christian visitors to the Temple Mount and to arbitrary restrictions of access as well as many incidents of harassment by Arab guards. This situation has been made more difficult by extremist attempts to shoot up or blow up the Dome of the Rock and El-Aqsa. On the other hand the Jordanian claim of sovereignty over the Temple Mount is hardly helpful either in the midst of an otherwise undivided city.
Another factor in the Temple Mount equation is that fact that archaeology is the well-known "national pastime" of the Israeli people. New Jewish settlements tend to be built at locations discovered from the Bible and numerous tells are excavated zealously year after year by thousands of eager students led by some of the world's most competent and renowned archaeologists. Archaeological discoveries are big items on the evening news in Israel. There can be little doubt that many Jews in the nation are motivated not only by a love of the land of the Bible but take a keen interest in the search for Jewish roots. Those sites that are visited by tourists are invariably restored and put in pristine condition by the Israelis (in contrast to the Arab neglect of earlier years) even though archaeological excavation may be impossible or inappropriate under a church, a mosque or a residential district. Israel's preoccupation with archaeology has paid handsome dividends in only a few decades and there is every reason to believe phenomenally great finds will be made in the years to come. Yet the most important archaeological site of all, the Temple Mount, was last "looked into" by a few foreign explorers such as Sir Charles Warren in the last century!
The Temple Mount is known to contain several dozen cisterns, underground passages and store-rooms associated with the First and Second Temples as well as beautiful, now-blocked access gates. All of these sub-surface features can be and should be thoroughly explored archaeologically and scientifically. None of these research activities need disturb the park-like upper surface of the Mount and existing buildings. Why should not the Golden Gate and the gates in the southern wall be opened and restored as the Damascus gate has been? Tunnels and rooms accessible from the sides could be cleared, explored and opened to tourists without any disturbance to the top of the Mount. Even opening Solomon's stables to the public would add an exciting new tourist attraction to the city. Of course the location of the First and Second Temples should be made known for historic reasons, completely apart from any religious considerations. It is characteristic of western civilization to resist the suppression of truth or legitimate scientific study. Likewise freedom of worship, prayer and peaceful access to a site is highly prized by both Christians and Jews as part of their Judeo-Christian heritage. While Muslims in Israel may lack interest in archaeological exploration and the study of holy places their rights have been overemphasized in my opinion, perhaps from Jewish fears of a "holy war with Islam". As a sovereign state, Israel should encourage, not repress the scientific and archaeological exploration of the Temple Mount now denied by the current policy of preserving the status quo at all costs.
For Christians the holiness of God is an important concept if not the supreme attribute of the God of Israel. Christians think of holiness as primarily a term referring to God and to people rather than to places and objects. Though Eretz Israel, "the holy land", and Jerusalem, "the holy city", attract reverence and devotion from Christian pilgrims, there is no emphasis in the New Testament on sacred territory. The idea that Eretz Israel is a plot of land set-aside by the God of Israel for His exclusive purposes is a tenet of orthodox Jewish belief derived from the Old Testament. Christians do not deny this value system but neither do they tend to affirm it as part of their own heritage and calling.
The Bible's actual overall claim is that God is building one new Adam out of an old fallen race drawn from Jew and Gentile alike. This new race of men like the first Adam, has body, soul and spirit. Israel's emphasis on the physical, outward expression of divine activity in the world (corresponding to the body) complements that of the true church whose calling is to reflect the emotional life and the realm of thoughts, ideas and of beauty, (that is, the soul). In this view, the God of Israel Himself corresponds to the spirit of the new man. One reason for the centuries' old difficulties in dialogue between Christians and Jews surely has to do with misunderstandings about the different calling of the church and the nation Israel. Faulty theology by some who suppose the church has replaced Israel has compounded the difficulty.
In Israel one must also take into account that the land is tenanted by a number of "ancient" Christian churches such as the Armenians, Ethiopian Copts, Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Roman Catholics. These groups constitute bodies that are highly oriented to religious tradition that is not necessarily refreshed by current reference to the actual content of scripture. Unfortunately for many who grown up in such congregations it can no longer be said that they are true Christians in the New Testament sense, but only in a cultural or traditional sense. For many peoples in the Middle East the word "Christian" means "not Muslim" or "not Jewish." There may be little if any reference to the Lordship of Jesus, to spiritual regeneration and to a working knowledge of the Bible by great numbers of nominal Christians in Israel. Thus traditional ancient churches may not be very willing to adapt to changing times. They can be expected to side with those favoring preservation of the status quo, and may perhaps be found somewhat indifferent to changes being wrought by God in the land of Israel today. Since there are many "true" Christians within the ancient churches it is of course impossible to exclude their values and beliefs from discussion, or to stereotype their views. Perhaps it is enough to say that the New Testament speaks both of a true church and a counterfeit, apostate one. The ancient Christian bodies in Israel enjoy God's grace with everyone else, and can be expected to show their true colors as the time of Messiah's appearing draws near. In contrast the views of visiting foreign evangelical Christians may differ sharply from the values of the traditional eastern churches in the Middle East. Added to this weakness of expression by the true Christian church in Israel, great numbers of Christians are moving out of the area greatly diminishing even the influence of cultural Christianity.
If a survey were taken of American evangelical Christians touring Israel, few would say they consider either the church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Temple Mount to be "holy places," though most would consider them of great historic importance. Christian life among the gentile nations centers around the local assembly and community affairs. Evangelical Christian hope has tended to center on the next life and the age to come. Most of the New Testament promises to Christians are for peace of mind, provisions for guidance and daily needs, wholeness of persons, and eventual justice in the world. The fact that Christians are called by the Apostle Peter "strangers and pilgrims in this present age" contrasts with Jewish rootedness in the promised land. Observant Jews, on the other hand, still wait for a King to occupy the throne of his father David, and for the Third Temple, and for safe and secure boundaries of the land God gave to Abraham 4000 years ago. In the New Testament the church building is never called "the house of God" as the Jewish Temples were, instead the Apostle Paul speaks of the body of every believer as a temple of God and the corporate assembly of Christians as the dwelling place of the Spirit. These Christians beliefs do not deny the validity of the Jewish priorities nor negate their future restoration and consummation. Fortunately centuries of conflict between Christians and Jews have been eased in recent decades as both groups have come to see their common roots in the faith of Abraham and God's multi-faceted promises passed down to both groups through Abraham's son, Isaac.
Christians have a special interest in the life of Jesus (Yeshua) in light of their belief that he was and is the true Messiah. For this reason Christians venerate Bethlehem where he was born and Nazareth where he grew up. Galilee is especially appealing to many. In Jerusalem the possible site of his death, his tomb and the Mount of Olives where he ascended into heaven (40 days after the resurrection) are awe inspiring to most Christians. Were more Christians aware of the location of the First and Second Temples no doubt the majority of Christian visitors to Israel would spend more time on the Temple Mount and indeed hold services there if permitted, especially on Sundays. Jesus was tempted by the devil at the pinnacle of the temple and James his brother was martyred there yet Christians may not visit the area today (the southeast corner) because of harassment by the guards!
The Gospels which open the New Testament, record that Jesus was dedicated in the Second Temple in accordance with the Law of Moses with accompanying sacrifice (see Luke 2:22-28). His boyhood visit to the Temple where he talked with the teachers there is also recorded, (Luke 2:41-52). He was raised a devout, religious Jew and became thoroughly versed in the Scriptures from an early age. At the beginning of his three-year ministry about the age of 30, Jesus cleansed the temple (John 2:14) at Passover, and again during the last week of his life, (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48). He also taught there. The fact that Jesus referred to the Temple as "his Father's house" means that no Christian can take lightly the intended sanctity or holiness of that site. The problem is that every trace of historic occupation of the Temple Mount by either Jews or Christians has been eradicated by the Muslims-consistent with their theology that Islam has replaced both Judaism and Christianity as a later and more perfect revelation from God.
Sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives also during the last week of his life, Jesus spoke of the coming destruction of the Second Temple and the days to follow, stretching down the centuries beyond our present time. He also made reference in this "Olivet Discourse" to a Third Temple on the site which would be desecrated by a future Jewish false Messiah, "the man of sin". The fact that a Third Temple will be built can also be established from the writings of the Apostle Paul (2 Thessalonians 2) and the Apostle John (Revelation 11:1, 2). These three New Testament passages about a "Third Temple" cause many Christian Bible scholars to watch the Temple Mount keenly for the latest developments looking for clues and signs of the times. Though Christians have no reason to support the building of a Third Temple (since it is part of the religious "economy" of Israel rather than the church), many Christians can be expected to vigorously support greater freedom of access for the Jews on the site, and for an environment on the Temple Mount more favorable to Christian worship, prayer, meditation and study. Christian charity and respect for the Muslim peoples is certainly hindered by the present situation on the Temple Mount.
Since Christians consider Abraham their spiritual father, the fact that Mount Moriah was the place of offering Isaac as a sacrifice is historically important to us. The life of David and his purchase of the threshing floor there 1000 years later as well as the history of the kings and the two temples is of keen importance to Christians who consider the whole Bible to be inspired by God.
Following the departure of Jesus from the summit of the Mount of Olives, the early Christians (all Jews) gathered together in Jerusalem for prayer. Ten days later (at Shavuot, or Pentecost) the Spirit of God came upon them forming a new body or company of believers, "the church" (The Greek word ecclesia means the "called out ones", or the assembly, see Acts 1,2). This event and Peter's great outdoor sermon following took place (almost without a doubt) in the courts of the temple, in front of the eastern gate. A number of other highly significant events in the early history of the Christian church also occurred in the courts of the temple, as recorded in the book of Acts. Thus the Temple Mount is the birth-place of the church---a highly significant site for Christian pilgrims from around the world. Many are eager to visit the very spot where God's new work began---the calling out of the goyim (gentiles) a people for Himself. Denial of freedom of prayer or worship there to the Christian community is inconsistent with both the Jewish Scroll of Independence and the actual historic significance of the place.
The last book in the New Testament, the Revelation, or the Apocalypse, speaks mostly of events yet to come on earth. At stage center in the Book of the Revelation is Jerusalem, and of course at the center of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount. It is there that vigorous outdoor preaching and teaching by Jewish prophets of God will once again occur for a brief few years before the return of Jesus.
Evangelical Christians also hold to a doctrine known as the "rapture of the church," described in I Thessalonians 4. This removal of the true Christians from the earth for a seven-year time interval will herald, it is believed, the passing of the torch back to Israel, as well as the renewing and final fulfillment of God's ancient promises to Israel as a nation. During this "time of Jacob's trouble" spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah, Israel will experience her greatest trials but find deliverance with the coming of Messiah. Not all Christians agree with the exact scenario of Bible prophecy (eschatology) to be sure, but there can be little doubt to most of us that the most important piece of real estate in the world today is the Temple Mount. Christians may not find it necessary to call that piece of land "holy" but that does not mean that they approve of its desecration or misuse. Thus many evangelical Christians can be expected to support the view that the Temple Mount belongs to the Jews and to their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. From the prophet Zechariah evangelicals note that the Bible clearly says that the nations of the world will one day come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the Holy One of Israel. Israel will then be called upon to once again faithfully represent the true character of their God to all the Gentiles, so that they may come to worship God in the midst of his chosen people.
For all these reasons, sovereign control and management of the Temple Mount by the government of Israel should be resumed. Recent suggestions that the Pope assume a central role over Jerusalem as an international city should be rejected as this would be clearly in violation of God's promises concerning both the future of Israel and of Jerusalem.