by Peter Ditzel
It is common to hear people refer to the building in which the church meets as God’s House or the Lord’s House or something similar. Probably you have heard it: “It’s good to see you in God’s House today,” “We should be in the Lord’s House every Sunday.” Sometimes a loose reference is made to Scripture, such as Psalm 122:1: “Let us go into the house of the LORD.”
Often, too, the part of the building where the meeting takes place is called the “sanctuary.” People will say, “Let’s go into the sanctuary.” Church members will sometimes act differently inside the “sanctuary” than they do outside of it. Some churches may even have a sign on the wall of the “sanctuary” that quotes a Scripture, such as Leviticus 19:30: “Ye shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.”
What I want to do in this article is look through the Old and New Testaments to see some of the places where these terms occur and what they meant in their context and typologically. I also want to determine from this evidence whether the common use of these terms, such as I have given above, is a correct understanding for Christians and whether an incorrect understanding can actually be harmful to Christian growth. Along the way, we might come across some surprises.
Old Testament Usage
In the Old Testament, the term “house of God” is translated from the Hebrew Beth-El, which is also sometimes left not translated as a place name.
As a place name, Bethel is first found in Genesis 12:8 and again in Genesis 13:3. 1 But the origin of Bethel as a place name, and the first place in the Bible where the term “house of God” is used, is in Genesis 28. We’ll start in verse 10. I will emphasize with bold type where the terms we are examining appear:
And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel [which, remember, means “house of God”]: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.
Jacob was out in the open, yet he called this piece of ground “none other but the house of God.” Then he set up the stone he had used for a pillow. He set it up for a pillar and “called the name of that place Bethel” (which means “house of God”) and said, “this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house.” Here we have a piece of ground out in the open and a pillar being called the “house of God.” So, contrary to what we might expect, “house of God” has no necessary connection to a physical building. Please keep this in mind as we continue.
In Genesis 35, we see God telling Jacob to go to Bethel and make an altar to Him there. After this, Bethel seems to be mentioned only as a place name with no special significance attached to it.
In Exodus 23:19, we see the first use of the term “house of the Lord”: “The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.” What does “house of the Lord” mean here?
It is referring to the tabernacle, the elaborate tent that God told Moses to build. In this verse, we see that it is where the Israelites were to bring the firstfruits. “House of the Lord” is only used in two more places (Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 23:18) in the first five books of the Bible, or Pentateuch. Both of these times it is referring to the tabernacle.
There is no need to quote the rest of the places where “house of the Lord” is found in the Old Testament, but it is used in Joshua 6:24, Judges 19:18, and then three times in 1 Samuel (1:7, 24; and 3:15). All of these refer to the tabernacle. I will quote the last use of “house of the Lord” in the Old Testament as a reference to the tabernacle. It is in 2 Samuel 12:20: “Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.”
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- It may seem odd that Bethel appears as a place name in Genesis 12 and 13 before the account of its origin in Genesis 28. This is explained by the fact that Moses wrote Genesis centuries after these events, and, in Genesis 12 and 13, he simply used the name that he was familiar with at the time he wrote. ↩