The Church as God’s Temple: A Dwelling under Construction

In modern Western society, there exists no precise cultural or religious analog to the temples of the Ancient Near East and of the Greco-Roman world.  For this reason, the function and significance of temples for biblical peoples—and most notably the Israelites of the Old Testament—is often lost to modern readers.  Consequently, when the apostle Paul adopts temple language and imagery at several points in his New Testament epistles, the full meaning and import of his remarks are frequently obscured by this cultural distance, which can in turn lead to a tendency among modern Christians to read past such passages without mining their fullest depths.  Perhaps the best known of Paul’s temple references by contemporary churches is his teaching in 1 Corinthians 6:19, where, after denouncing the Corinthians’ practice and tolerance of sexual immorality, he chides, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”[1]  The modern familiarity with this particular passage and its appropriation of temple language comes as no surprise, given both the hyper-sexual and hyper-individualistic emphases of today’s culture.  However, Paul brings his temple theology to bear in a wide range of contexts in his letters;[2] and, significantly, his direct comparisons of Christians with the temple are more often corporate than individual in nature, identifying either certain local churches or indeed the universal church as God’s ‘temple.’[3]

In particular, three passages in Paul’s letters deserve special attention for their specific identification of God’s people with God’s temple.  With each drawing out different dimensions of this identification within their respective contexts, the overall emphasis is clearly placed on the ramifications of God’s dwelling in and among the churches of Christ, which collectively comprise the temple of the new covenant.

1 Corinthians 3:5-17

(5) What then is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. (6) I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (7) So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (8) He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. (9) For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

(10) According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it.  Let each one take care how he builds upon it. (11) For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (12) Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—(13) each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. (14) If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. (15) If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

(16) Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (17) If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Throughout the first several chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the twin crises of division and poor leadership in the Corinthian church.  It is not surprising that Paul would invoke his temple theology as an argument against the disunity of the Corinthian believers, since the Jerusalem temple had been a key touchstone for the unity and identity of the people of God in the old covenant, as P. W. Comfort notes.[4]  This relation of the Corinthian church to the temple of God comes last in a string of three images which at first may not seem to bear any particularly obvious connections.  The first is that of a field (1 Cor 3:5-9), whereby Paul explains that the various leaders of the Corinthian church are comparatively insignificant to God, who is ultimately responsible for the church’s life and growth.  Paul is clear that he, Apollos, and the other leaders should not be viewed in competition with one another but rather in cooperation and ultimately in submission to their common Master.

Then, within a single sentence, Paul abruptly shifts to another image: “You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9).  Outside of their shared facility in advancing Paul’s arguments, few scholars note any strong connection between the images of field and building; however, G. K. Beale demonstrates that “the close association of ‘garden’ and ‘temple’ in the Old Testament and Judaism would plausibly have influenced a similar link in Paul’s mind at some level.”[5]  In this image, Paul is the “skilled master builder” who “laid a foundation” for the Corinthian church, a foundation upon which the Corinthians’ present leaders now build (1 Cor 3:10).  In the very next verse, Paul appears to contradict himself by saying that “no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11).  However, one need not rob either verse of its face value in order to reconcile the two statements:  From a redemptive-historical perspective, Christ’s eternal person and completed work had laid the foundation prior to Paul’s preaching activity; but existentially, Paul has appropriated Christ to the lives of the Corinthians through his preaching and teaching among them, and in this sense has “laid the foundation” of gospel truth.[6]  It is upon this foundation—the doctrines of the gospel and ultimately Christ himself—that the leaders of the Corinthian church are called to build, and Paul says, “Let each one take care how he builds upon it” (1 Cor 3:10).  He explains that the value of each builder’s contributions will be tested by fire on “the Day”—undoubtedly a reference to the eschatological judgment which the prophets called the ‘Day of the Lord’—and the builder will receive a reward for works that endure (1 Cor 3:13-14).  For works that fail the test, “He [the builder] will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved” (1 Cor 3:15).[7]

It is only now in verse 16 that Paul introduces the term temple, but a strong confluence of evidence (not the least of which being the direct conjunction of the two images) overwhelmingly points to Paul’s identification of this temple with the building just described.[8]  Here Paul reaches the apex of his argument: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17).  The English language is at a natural disadvantage in translation because of the lack of visible distinction between singular you and plural you; but a look at the Greek reveals that all the you‘s in the verses just quoted are indeed plural, referring to the collective Corinthian church.

Why must the leaders of God’s church take such great care as they ‘build’ her?  It is because, in the words of Charles Hodge, “They are engaged in the erection of no ordinary building.  They are not raising up a house for themselves to be constructed of what materials and on whatever plan may suit their taste.  They are building the temple of God.”[9]  Whereas the careless builder will escape with his life, the one who “destroys God’s temple”—as local churches can indeed be destroyed—[10] will himself be destroyed by God in an act of retribution.[11]  “For God’s temple is holy” (1 Cor 3:16); numerous scholars note strong overtones here of the Old Testament association of holiness with danger—“almost like an electric charge,” says C. K. Barrett.[12]  Rather than a mere rhetorical device, Hodge sees this association as a fitting reality, for “God is not less jealous of his spiritual temple, than he was of the typical temple, built of wood and stone by the hands of men.”[13]  Paul goes on to expound the importance of holiness in relation to this new temple in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, to which we shall turn, Lord willing, on another day soon to come.

The peace of Christ to you.

[1] All Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

[2] With reference to literal temples, Rom 2:22; 1 Cor 9:13 (different Greek word, referring to entire temple area rather than just the holy place); with reference to temple in eschatological events, 2 Thess 2:4; with reference to Christians as temple, 1 Cor 3:9-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1; Eph 2:19-22; with language of ‘offering’ and ‘sacrifice,’ Rom 11:16; 12:1; 15:16; 1 Cor 5:7; 10:18; Eph 5:2; Phil 2:17; 4:18; 2 Tim 4:6; with language of ‘build[ing] up,’ 1 Cor 8:1; 10:23; 14:4-5, 12, 17, 26; 2 Cor 10:8; 13:10; Eph 4:12, 16, 29; Col 2:7; 1 Thess 5:11; with language of ‘foundation,’ Rom 15:20; 1 Cor 3:10-15; 2 Tim 2:19; with language of ‘building’ (i.e. edifice), 1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 5:1-10; with language of ‘house,’ 2 Cor 5:1-10; 1 Tim 3:15; 2 Tim 2:20-21; with language of God’s ‘dwelling,’ Rom 8:9, 11; 2 Cor 13:5; Eph 3:17; Col 1:19; 2:9; 3:16; 2 Tim 1:14.

[3] For this reason and others, a majority of scholars consider the corporate aspect of Paul’s temple theology to be fundamental, with the individual aspect of 1 Cor 6 being essentially an outgrowth of the corporate as it applies to an individual’s conduct.  For an example of this position, see the comparative exegeses of 1 Cor 3 and 1 Cor 6 in Jonathan A. Draper, “The tip of an ice-berg: the temple of the Holy Spirit,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa no. 59 (July 1987): 57-65.  For a reaction to the alleged scholarly overemphasis of the corporate aspect in Paul’s temple theology, see Nijay Gupta, “Which ‘body’ is a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19)? Paul beyond the individual/ communal divide,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly Vol. 72 no. 3 (July 2010): 518-536.

[4] P. W. Comfort, “Temple,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 924.  The fullest extent of the unifying force of Paul’s temple theology is seen in Ephesians 2:19-22, which is treated below.

[5] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (ed. D. A. Carson; NSBT 17; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 246.

[6] As Robertson and Plummer explain, “It is only by admitting some inconsistency of language that the truth can be at all adequately expressed….  Each statement, in its own proper sense, is true; and we need both in order to get near to the truth.” Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians (ed. S. R. Driver, A. Plummer, and C.A. Briggs; ICC; Edinburgh, England: T. & T. Clark, 1914), 61-62.

[7] Scholars are divided as to whether the building materials in this image are to be understood as doctrines/ teachings or as the lives of those Christians who are taught; since the overall meaning of the image is little affected by it, we shall not press the matter here.  Cf. Robertson and Plummer, First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, 62.

[8] For instance, “The only other place in Scripture where a ‘foundation’ of a building is laid and ‘gold,’ ‘silver’ and ‘precious stones’ are ‘built’ upon the foundation is Solomon’s temple….  Paul also calls himself a ‘wise master builder’… which echoes the use of the same word applied to those who helped build Israel’s tabernacle.”  Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 247.

[9] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on 1&2 Corinthians (Geneva Series; Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 58.

[10] C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (HNTC; New York, N. Y.: Harper & Row Publishers, 1968), 91.

[11] Robertson and Plummer, First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, 67.

[12] Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 92.  Cf. Robertson and Plummer, First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, 67-68.

[13] Hodge, A Commentary on 1&2 Corinthians, 59.


3 thoughts on “The Church as God’s Temple: A Dwelling under Construction

  1. Thanks for shedding some insight on this passage, Jordan. I only ever seem to hear these words from the mouth of a person talking about how tattoos are evil — it’s nice to see that Paul had more important things to discuss.

    On a side note, the deficit of English grammar you mention is why I’ve come to accept y’all permanently into my vocabulary; in lieu of a “proper” second-person plural, it will have to do.

    • Haha well, ’round these parts, y’all seems to be used in the singular as often as the plural. But I reckon that as long as you’re consistent in your own usage, it’ll be clear to your readers.

      Glad you liked the post. This passage is (a) great, (b) overlooked, and (c) not even as awesome as the two yet to be discussed.

  2. Pingback: The Church as God’s Temple 3: One Holy Catholic Dwelling | Calling Out Your Name

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