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The Church as God’s Temple

Viewing the church as God’s temple is a familiar metaphor to many Christians.  In 1 Corinthians 3:16, Paul says: “You yourselves are God’s temple.”  Today my daily reading in Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence brought some fresh insight to this common truth.

Here is the passage at hand: 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?  17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple (NIV).

On an important exegetical note, the “you” in this passage is plural and refers to the Christian community, not individual Christians.  The temple imagery will be used in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 for an individual Christian, but here the emphasis is on the community, hence, the church.  Now a few powerful observations from Gordon Fee:

  • God’s Presence.  “The church as God’s temple is pregnant imagery – for both the Jewish Paul and the Gentile Corinthians.  Paul’s word refers to the actual sanctuary, the place of a deity’s dwelling…In its first instance, therefore, the imagery picks up the motif of God’s presence with his people, which begins in the book of Exodus and runs throughout the OT…God’s presence, Moses argues with God himself, is the crucial matter for Israel’s existence (Exod 33:15-16)…For Paul, therefore, the temple imagery first of all echoes this OT motif: God is now present among his people in Corinth by his Spirit…Paul’s unique contribution lies with his remarkable, but understandable, transfer of images: the believing community themselves are God’s temple in Corinth.  In the OT the Israelites are never called God’s temple as such, although they are God’s people among whom God chose to “dwell” by tabernacling in their midst…The Spirit was how Isaiah 63 understood God to be present among his ancient people and how Paul now understands God to be present among his newly constituted eschatolgical people.”
  • A Missional Church in Corinth.  “…as God’s temple in Corinth, they are intended to be his alternative to Corinth, to both its religions and vices.  In contrast to the “gods many and lords many” of pagan religion with their multiplied temples and shrines, there was now a temple of the living God in Corinth – and they did not so much as have a building; they were the building.  And in contrast to the sexual immorality, greed, enmity, and broken relationships tht marked Corinthian society, they were the people of the living God, where God by his Spirit had effected purity, compassion, forgiveness, and love.  What made them God’s alternative, his temple in Corinth, was his own presence in and among them.  By his Spirit the living God had made his abode in Corinth itself!”
  • Warnings Against Disrupting/Disunifying the Church.  “Since their unity as a people was created by the Spirit, their disunity in the form of strife and division had the effect of banishing the Spirit and thus of dismantling God’s temple, the only alternative God had in their city.  Hence, following the rhetoric that calls attention to who they are, Paul solemnly warns those who were thus wreaking havoc in the church: ‘If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.’  One can scarcely circumvent the awful nature of the warning.  God obviously takes the local church far more seriously than did the Corinthians – and most contemporary Christians.”

Here are a few things that struck me about Fee’s commentary:

  1. The essence of the church.  The significance of the local church is not in what the church does (preaching, sacraments, programs, etc).  The significance of the local church is in what the local church is: the dwelling place of God.  God dwells, through His Spirit, amongst a Christian community in a particular area.  This is the one, true defining mark of a true church.
  2. The mission of the church.  The mission of the local church is to make the presence of God known in that local community.  The missional church authors say this means being a “sign” and “foretaste” of the kingdom in its fullness.  I think that is an appropriate description…the church today gives a sign and foretaste of Rev. 21 when God dwells on the new earth.  Now the practical question for each church becomes: how do we exist as a sign and foretaste in our particular community?
  3. The importance of the church.  1 Cor. 3:16-17 may be the most powerful argument for why it is critical to be connected to a local community of believers.  If the community of believers is God’s dwelling place, how is it possible for a Christian to be disassociated from that?
  4. The unity of the church.  One of the greatest sins against God is the destruction and disunity of God’s church.  I think this includes within one local church, but also amongst all the churches in one community.  All groups that are God’s dwelling place should work together…this shatters denominations and competitive church!
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