“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” ~ 1 Corinthians 3:16-17
As Paul continues sharing the second reason for the divisions in the church at Corinth—a misunderstanding of the Christian ministry—he describes the church in terms, first of an agricultural field or garden, where its ministers are merely farm-hands working together toward the common goal of the cultivation of God’s harvest field (1 Corinthians 3:6-8).
The second metaphor he employs is that of a building, where he again emphasizes that the building of Gods church requires the work of many people, yet God holds His builders responsible to build it to His precise specifications (1 Corinthians 3:9-15).
In the third metaphor, Paul likens to the church is a temple. For several reasons, this text in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, is important in the epistle; its description of the church as a temple is the focal point from which and to which later instruction will proceed and refer.
The startling declaration of verse 16, “You are God’s temple,” is anything but an isolated remark, but flows from the context which precedes it. This idea of the church as a temple flows right out of the garden/building metaphors described before it in verses 6-15 of chapter 3. The evidence for this is in verse 9 where there is a sudden shift of metaphors from garden to building. What does a garden have to do with a building? The answer is: a lot, if Paul does not have some generic building in mind, but specifically God’s temple.
When Paul admonished the builders of the church to build with materials of gold, silver and precious stones, he had to have the Hebrew temple in mind. First built by Solomon, the temple was the only edifice in the Hebrew Scriptures described as being built upon a foundation, with 100,000 talents of gold, 1,000,000 talents of silver, and adorned with many precious stones.
But it is also striking to note that Solomon’s temple was also described as being full of garden-like items—‘wood-carved gourds and open flowers,’ ‘palm trees’, several hundred ‘pomegranates,’ a ‘lily blossom design,’ ten lampstands configured as ‘almond tree blossoms,’ resembling a small grove of trees. This combination of botanical items along with gold, silver, and precious stones is more than sufficient warrant for Paul to move swiftly from God’s field to God’s building—as both point to God’s temple.
This concept of God’s community as a temple is a Scriptural theme, as the presence of God’s Spirit is often described as being among His people (see Exodus 25:8, 29:45, Leviticus 26:11-12, Psalm 114:2, Ezekiel 11:16, 27:26- 28). The idea of people as a building was nourished in Jewish tradition and the writings of Josephus and Philo. So this idea is by no means novel. We can safely say that Solomon’s temple points to a fulfillment found in the church, as the focal point for the presence and worship of God moves from a physical building to a spiritual one.
The idea that the Corinthians were God’s temple was honorable. It recalls the way Paul describes the church in the letter’s opening, “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people” (1 Corinthians 1:2). This also sets the scene for the expulsion of the sinning man involved in an incestuous relationship in chapter 5, as he must be ‘destroyed,’ because he has ‘destroyed’ God’s temple. It is this temple motif that adds significance to the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16-22, 11: 17-34) .
Meditate on what the temple meant to the Jewish people—the pilgrimages, meeting with God, the ultimate seat of the government of the earth—as you think about its centrality to Israel and the world, then think about this … 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 sees a small squabbling band of mainly Gentile Corinthians as the fulfillment to which that temple points. Then think about this … our church is included in this fulfillment—we are God’s temple, the Spirit of God dwells with us … we, together are that temple!