The Orthodox Temple: Returning to Paradise

The church is an earthly heaven in which the super-celestial God dwells and walks about. It represents the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ: it is glorified more than the tabernacle of the witness of Moses, in which are the mercy-seat and the Holy of Holies. It is prefigured in the patriarchs, foretold by the prophets, founded in the apostles, adorned by the clergy, and fulfilled in the martyrs.1

The Orthodox temple is in continuity with Eden, the tabernacle of the desert revealed to Moses, and the Temple built by Solomon. It is where God “dwells and walks about” as St. Germanus tells us. It is within the temples of the Orthodox Church that Jesus Christ, crucified, buried, and resurrected, is revealed to God’s people. The Temple of Israel has not been abrogated but fulfilled in the advent of Jesus Christ. Our return to the paradise Adam and Eve had with God is made possible to Jesus Christ, who has made his presence and grace known to us specifically within the temple and rites of the Orthodox Church. Not every Orthodox space of worship meets the ideal architectural form of an Orthodox temple. However, the ideal to be built and maintained by faithful Orthodox Christians is based around these deep biblical forms we have encountered. Rather than detailed lines of exegesis, we will explore how Christ has restored us to paradise by walking through a typical Orthodox church and pointing out different ways in which the temple fulfills Israel’s Temple and Law. As we walk through the church, we will also discuss significant liturgical actions and high points of the Divine Liturgy, the eucharistic rite of the Orthodox Church.

We enter an Orthodox church through the narthex. An Orthodox temple is built in a three-tiered manner. There is the narthex, which is the outer court, the nave, also called the inner court, and the altar, which is the holy of holies. This is an echo of the pattern of Israel’s Temple. The narthex is an in-between space. It is where the Church meets the world and provides a space for transitioning from the world into the depths of paradise. This is where the faithful take a moment to lay aside earthly cares, greet and venerate the friends of God, the saints, and light a few candles as they petition the saints or God Himself. Because this space is a transitional space, there are other significant liturgical actions held here. Catechumens, those who are enrolled to prepare for reception into the Orthodox Church, are enrolled within the narthex. This is where catechumens will receive prayers of exorcism, denounce Satan and all his pomp, and adhere to Jesus Christ by confessing faith in Him as “King and God”. The baptisms and application of Holy Chrism will be done within the nave. Another significant liturgical act is the rite of betrothal, wherein a man and woman are promised before God to be wed. The rite of crowning will, like the baptisms and chrismations, occur within the nave.

The nave of the Church is where the people of God gather for the rites of the faithful. This space is where the faithful lift up their prayers to God, attend to the hymns of the Church, prostrate before the saints and holy things of God, receive the various blessings of the priest, confess their sins to Almighty God, receive the absolution of their sins, and where the prophetic word of God is given to them via the preaching and teaching of the bishop. This is where Jesus Christ meets his people in their initiation into the Church via baptism and chrismation. It is within the nave that the priest will bring out the divine gifts, the holy Body and Blood of our Lord, to be given for the illumination and healing of the faithful. It is where Jesus Christ weds a man and woman, making them kings and queens of their homes in order to have a fruitful life of service to his creation.

We see the manifold ways in which the roots of Israel have born new fruit, through the life, cross, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For example, in the service of our Lord crowning a man and woman as husband and wife, we see how the dissolution brought about by Adam and Eve is turned back. The newly crowned couple’s life, grounded in the martyric witness of marriage, wherein the husband and wife are bound together through Christ-like love and sacrifice. We see in the rite of baptism an echo of the salvation wrought by God for Israel leading them through the Red Sea and crushing the pursuing army of Pharoah. In chrismation, we see our Lord anointing his new royalty for service in the kingdom, an echo of the anointing of Israel’s kings. The continued presence and shepherding of God continue through the sacramental life of the Church. God leads his pilgrim people from the chaos of sin and the dissolution of death into the promised land of God’s eternal Kingdom.

Within the holy of holies is the altar upon which Jesus Christ is enthroned. The altar of an Orthodox Church has placed upon it many different items of great significance. The Temple of old centered and radiated from the ark of the covenant upon which God appeared to his people from between the two angels. If we recall, within the ark there lay the ten commandments, a jar of manna, the budding rod of Aaron, and the further works of Moses. Since the advent of Christ, all these things have found their fullness on the altar of Orthodox churches.

The ten commandments and the works of Moses are fulfilled within the Gospel book which lays upon the altar. Here, the fullness of God’s Law is revealed in the life and work of Jesus Christ as given to us by the four evangelists. It is in the reading of the Gospels and the subsequent preaching which make our Lord’s royal, priestly, and prophetic word known to us. St. Germanus describes the four gospel writers as characterized by four faces, each representing, in their different ways, the Son of God. Drawing on an earlier tradition, ultimately from the prophet Ezekiel, St. Germanus characterizes the gospel writers as four animals:

For the Gospel of John recounts His [Jesus’] sovereign, paternal, and glorious birth from his Father. The Gospel of Luke, being of priestly character, begins with the priest Zachariah burning incense in the temple. Matthew tells about His birth according to His humanity – “the book of the genealogy.” Therefore, this gospel is in the form of a man. And Mark begins from the prophetic spirit, which comes to men from on high, making the beginning say: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in the prophets: “Behold, I send my messenger.”2

It is through the proclamation of the Gospel, the reading as well as the preaching, that the royal, prophetic, and priestly ministry of our Lord is made clear and accessible to God’s people.

The jar of manna being held within the ark of the covenant was a continual reminder of God’s providential care for his people as they traversed the desert toward the promised land. In the Church, this is fulfilled in the continued feeding of God’s pilgrim people from the altar upon which the holy sacrifice of our Lord is again and again offered to the faithful. St. Germanus refers to the altar as “the spot in the tomb where Christ was placed. On it lies the true and heavenly bread, the mystical and unbloody sacrifice. Christ sacrifices His flesh and blood and offers it to the faithful as food for eternal life."3 He goes further telling us that the altar was “prefigured by the table of the Old Law upon which the manna, which was Christ, descended from heaven.”4 On Orthodox altars, there stands within the tabernacle a vessel containing the sanctified gifts of our Lord’s Body and Blood, which are drawn upon in order to care for those faithful who are sick and unable to attend the Divine Liturgy.

Beside the Gospel book lies a blessing cross which is used to bless the faithful. This is the true budding rod of Aaron, the first high priest of Israel. The Cross is the true fruitful tree which has brought salvation and joy into the world. At the back of the altar stands the seven branched candelabra which replicates the candelabra of the Temple and was a symbol of the tree of life.

We could continue making parallels and giving commentary from the Holy Fathers upon the many ways in which the Orthodox temple is the complete and fulfilled icon of the Old Testament worship. For it is in the rites of the Orthodox Church that the heavens are truly opened, and the Lord gives himself to his people under the various sacraments of the Church. Instead, we close with this Psalm that describes the joy of being in the temple of God.

One thing only have I asked of God, it alone shall I seek: to live in the Temple of God, all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of God, and to frequent his palace (Psalm 27:4)

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  1. Paul Meyendorff, St. Germanus of Constantinople on the Holy Liturgy (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 56–7.

  2. Meyendorff, St. Germanus, 83.

  3. Meyendorff, St. Germanus, 59.

  4. Meyendorff, St. Germanus, 59.