New Testament Significance
In the 18th year of his reign, King Herod the Great began a massive rebuilding and beautification of the temple and its surrounding complex. Josephus, a 1st Century Jewish historian, gives a wonderful description of the size, wonder and grandeur of the Temple. In one passage he writes of how when the sun reflected off it, the temple shone so bright you could not look directly at it. As such it became a significant tourist attraction.
In Jewish understanding the Temple was where God was and represented his presence in Israel. In the deepest part of the temple was the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was allowed to go once a year. From that point ‘holiness’ radiated out in concentric circles. Surrounding the Holy of Holies was the Court of the Priests, then the Court of Israel (only Jewish men), the Court of Women and then the Court of the Gentiles where anyone was allowed. Signs in Latin and Greek warned foreigners from going any further lest they die.
Our understanding of this court of the Gentiles gives an idea of how large and busy it must have been, from it we are given historical context for many of the Gospel stories, the most famous of which is Jesus cleansing the temple (Matt 21:12; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45; John 2:14-17). You can imagine the scene as Jesus arrives with money changers and dove sellers eager to trade with religious pilgrims and interested tourists. Jesus said the temple was intended to be a house of prayer for all nations. Indeed, in a sense all nations were there, but it had become an opportunity to make money.
Although the story appears in all the Gospels, Mark's account is especially illuminating for how this act was interpreted by early Christians. Mark tells this story alongside a strange story about the cursing of a fig tree. Many understand the fruitless fig tree to represent the wayward Temple and understand Jesus actions as foreshadowing the Temple's destruction in 70 CE, something which Jesus predicts outright elsewhere (Matt 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 19:41-44). Jesus suggests in this story that you will no longer need to go to the Temple for God to hear your prayer. Instead Christians understand that prayers are heard by God through Jesus as he sets himself up as the new ‘Temple’ (John 2:19-22; John 16:23-24).
The Christian belief is that, through Jesus' death and resurrection, there is now direct access to God himself. This access is no longer restricted to varying degrees for different people but is open to everyone. In the metaphor of Jesus as temple, there is no Court of the Gentiles. In fact when the synoptic Gospels report the tearing of the veil to the inner part of the Temple at the time of Jesus death (Matt 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45), this was interpreted by the writer of the Hebrews as symbolising the opening of the way to God’s presence through Jesus (Heb 6:19-20; 8:19-20). The author of Ephesians says; “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [Gentiles] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." While there is much more that could be written we can see how understanding the Court of the Gentiles gives us historical context for many Gospel stories and background to some New Testament theology.