We are the Temple of God
Parkdale Grace Fellowship
Sunday AM, April 27, 2008
1 Corinthians 3:16-17
We are the Temple of God
There are few things more destructive to a church than disunity which is expressed through divisions, cliques, a critical spirit, a lack of love and concern for one another, etc. It was Jesus’ greatest desire as He prayed in the garden in John 17 before going to the cross, “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
The outstanding characteristic that marks a child of God is love. The world will know that we are Christians by our love. When love is not present the image of the church is desecrated and the testimony of the church is powerless.
Psalm 133:1-3 “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, Running down on the beard, The beard of Aaron, Running down on the edge of his garments. It is like the dew of Hermon, Descending upon the mountains of Zion; For there the Lord commanded the blessing— Life forevermore.”
1 Corinthians 3:16
This verse begins with a mild rebuke, “do you not know . . .?” The implication is that they should know this basic principle of the Christian faith: “You are the temple of God.” It was common sense which even the pagans of Corinth knew that the thing which made their pagan temples a temple and not an ordinary building was the fact that an image of idol of their god or goddess dwelt in that building. Therefore the presence of the god or goddess made it a sacred temple. The Corinthian believers made a big deal over the fact that the Holy Spirit was very present and active among them in their gatherings, manifesting His presence with many miraculous signs and wonders. Therefore it is obvious; they should know that the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
This is not referring to the building or to the meeting place as the temple of God. People often mistakenly refer to a church building as the temple of God or as the house of God. But it is not. Though it is a sacred and holy place it is however not a temple or a house of God. The Bible makes it clear that the Lord does not dwell in a building made of brick, concrete or wood:
Acts 7:48 “. . . The Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: ‘Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the Lord, Or what is the place of My rest?”
Acts 17:24 “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.”
But where does He dwell if not in a man-made temple? Here are a few verses which answer that question for us:
2 Corinthians 6:16 “And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.”
Ephesians 3:17 “. . . That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. . .”
1 Corinthians 6:19 “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?”
It is important for us to understand exactly what Paul is referring to as the temple of God in this text we are studying in 1 Corinthians chapter three. In 1 Cor. 6:19 the Bible makes it clear that the physical bodies of Christians are each individually a temple in which God’s Spirit dwells. If you are a born again child of God then your body is a temple of God and His Holy Spirit lives permanently in you. But here in 1 Cor. 3:16 the Bible is not talking about our bodies. It is not talking about individual Christians being God’s temple. Here the Bible is speaking of the church as a corporate gathering of believers together being the temple of God. (Barrett, p. 90; Fee, p. 147) “Do you not know that [the Church is] the temple of God and that the Spirit of god dwells in [the Church]?
We know that this passage is speaking about the church and not about individual bodies for at least a couple of reasons: In verse 16, the word “temple” is singular, but the word “you” is plural in the Greek. (Morris, p. 67) We don’t have a distinct word in English to distinguish between you singular and you plural. (If we were American we might translate it, “Do y’all not know that y’all are the temple of God . . .?”) Also the context of verse 16 in chapter three is Paul giving three illustrations of what the church is like. First of all in verses 5-9 he compares the church to a field in which he planted and Apollos watered. Secondly in verses 10-15 he compares the church to a building under construction. Now thirdly in verses 16-17 he continues, the church is not just any old building but the church is the temple of God.
Many people have wrongly interpreted this passage to be a warning against committing suicide at the risk of losing your salvation. But the context and grammar of this passage does not apply at all to the treatment of an individual’s own physical body. (Fee, p. 149) This passage is very specifically speaking of the church, the gathering together of believers. Therefore to see it as a warning against suicide is to take the passage completely out of context.
How does the Spirit dwell “in” a group of people? In a similar sense to which the Spirit of God took up residence “in the midst” of the people of Israel in the wilderness and dwelt among them. So also in the new testament, not only does God live in each of our hearts individually, but when we come together as a body of believers, God is in a very unique way in our midst and our gathering becomes a holy temple.
This same truth is expressed in Matthew 18:20 where it is used in the context of church discipline. “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” I occasionally hear people say that because this verse is talking about discipline it cannot be used to say that anytime two or three believers come together God’s Spirit is present in their midst. Perhaps that would be true if this were the only passage in scripture that suggested such a concept but it is not. Also, notice that the discipline takes place in the context of the church, it is church discipline. This was not to be done one-on-one in private but when they were gathered together. Why? Because the Lord was present when they were assembled as a church in a unique way that was not true outside of the church gathering.
Again this same idea of God being present in a special way when believers gather is expressed in 1 Corinthians 5:4 “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” The NIV clarifies this verse saying, “. . . the power of our Lord Jesus is present.”
What is the significance of the Bible comparing our NT gathering together with the OT tabernacle and temple where the Spirit of God manifests Himself in power? The significance is this: both in the Old and New Testament the temple of God was very holy and it was to be treated as sacred. Nobody treated God’s temple lightly or disrespectfully without paying a high price for their error. For example look at the example of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-4
“Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, saying: ‘By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.’ ” So Aaron held his peace. Then Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.’”
Another example is that of Uzziah’s pride in 2 Chron. 26:16-21.
“But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction, for he transgressed against the Lord his God by entering the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. So Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him were eighty priests of the Lord—valiant men. And they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed! You shall have no honor from the Lord God.” Then Uzziah became furious; and he had a censer in his hand to burn incense. And while he was angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, before the priests in the house of the Lord, beside the incense altar. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and there, on his forehead, he was leprous; so they thrust him out of that place. Indeed he also hurried to get out, because the Lord had struck him. King Uzziah was a leper until the day of his death. He dwelt in an isolated house, because he was a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the Lord. Then Jotham his son was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land.”
This was not strictly an Old Testament principle limited to the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple of God in Jerusalem but it is also true of the church of God in the New Testament which has become the new temple of God. Look for example at the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Notice that this account takes place in the context of the gathering together of the church and notice how very similar was God’s response in both the OT and the NT to those who treated His presence in His holy temple lightly.
Acts 5:1-11 “But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him. Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter answered her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?” She said, “Yes, for so much.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.”
Right from the earliest days of the beginning of the church God was making it clear that the church gathering was the new temple of God and the Holy Spirit of God was present in His holy temple.
This whole idea of the church as the body of Christ being the temple of God and His Holy Spirit very present and active in a way that is to be respected is also very much at the heart of the warnings in 1 Cor. 11:29-30 regarding the communion supper. 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.”
Look carefully at the context of this passage: 1 Corinthians 11:17-22
“Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it . . . 20Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.”
What was their sin that brought judgment upon their bodies? It was division among the body, disregard and lack of consideration for the needs of some of the members among them, unwillingness to share, and so on. In essence the sin was wrong attitudes that came out in their actions toward other believers in the body.
Another significant lesson we learn from this truth of the church being the temple of God is that God loves His church in spite of its problems and He will not take lightly anyone who despises His church or who causes divisions in the church. The church at Corinth had a lot of problems, but they were still the temple of God and He loved them. The church is very special to God and He would not tolerate even the least of them being mistreated by other believers. One of the biggest problems in the church at Corinth was the problem that Paul tackles first off in this letter, which is the problem of divisions in the church. (See 1 Cor. 1:10; and 3:3-4). The church is precious in God’s sight and He will defend her. You touch the bride of Christ at your own peril. Any behavior that is destructive to the love and unity of God’s temple is severely condemned by God in verse 17.
What does it mean to defile the temple of God? To defile the temple can also be translated as to destroy, to corrupt, to cause hurt, or to vandalize the temple of God. To defile the church is a term that expresses the imagery of the dismantling or demolition of a house. (Fee, p.148) In general it means to bring serious harm to the body of Christ. This is what happens to the church when there is envy, strife, contention or division among the members of the church; it is defiled. Sometimes it is church leaders who abuse the people. Sometimes it is the people who abuse the church leaders and sometimes it is the members abusing one another. But it is destructive to the temple and it is a sacrilegious offense to the presence of the Holy Spirit of God who dwells there.
The consequences of harming the temple are that “God will destroy him.” In the Greek this is a repetition of the exact same word that is earlier in this verse variously translated as destroy, corrupt, defile, cause hurt or vandalize the temple. Literally the Greek says, “If anyone the temple of God destroys, destroy that person will God.” (Thiselton, p. 67) What does the Bible mean when it says that God will destroy him? The exact meaning is not clearly revealed in Scripture but the word can imply anything from total and everlasting annihilation to a breakdown of physical or mental health. (cf. Fee, p. 148 footnote) Total and everlasting annihilation however is probably not intended in this context unless it is applied equally in both cases in this verse. But it is impossible for any human or devil to annihilate the church of Jesus Christ. Therefore in this context total and everlasting annihilation is likely not intended by the word “destroy”.
I believe that there is no precise description, of what it means for God to destroy one who defiles the temple, because there is a variety of consequences that can come to such a corrupter of the church. But all the possible consequences are destructive to the individual who brings harm to the church. The examples we have already looked at all illustrate for us what it means for God to destroy the one who defiles or damages His temple: Nadab and Abihu as well as Ananias and Sapphira were all struck dead instantly by God; Uzziah got leprosy. 1 Corinthians 11:30 simply says that “for this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.”
This is one of the most serious warnings I know of in the Bible directed toward Christians. We have so often seen believers tear each other down, or show total disregard for the suffering of other believers, or split apart a church over differences rather than humbly seek God for reconciliation. And then we wonder why there are so many Christians who are utterly defeated, weak and sick among us and many go to the grave prematurely in spiritual defeat.
The reason for these severe consequences of destruction is given in the final sentence of verse 17, “For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.” According to chapter one, it is through Jesus Christ and the work of the cross that we have been made holy. Therefore to devalue a fellow Christian or to promote or participate in divisive behavior or cliques that exclude others in the church, or to malign or slander the body of Christ in any way is to commit sacrilege against the Spirit who makes this temple holy by His indwelling presence. To tear apart a fellow believer in the church is like going into the OT Tabernacle and spray painting graffiti on the sacred golden objects in the temple. To cause division in the church should be as unthinkable as going into the holy place of Solomon’s temple and knocking over the golden lamp stand, toppling to the ground the alter of incense and scattering the showbread off the table across the room.
God will not bless such an individual but will tear them down with destruction. However, this is not the unpardonable sin. If we confess our sin and repent of it there is forgiveness and healing. Therefore, “confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” James 5:16