“My body is a temple”

What kind of a person would say such a thing?  What image comes to mind?  Someone deep in silent meditation?  Someone who practically lives at the gym and downs shots of wheatgrass juice?

Or did the apostle Paul spring to mind?  Or even Jesus himself?

Both men referred to the human body as a temple, but meant something rather different than how that phrase might be used today.  The contemporary meaning seems to suggest that the body as a temple is not so much a place of worship as an object of worship.  Granted, that could lead to something positive, if we’ve become used to taking our health for granted and neglecting the proper care of our bodies: nutrition, sleep, exercise–you know the drill.  But while the biblical meaning can include health-consciousness as an implication, it far transcends it, in ways that stagger the imagination.

My problem as a modern-day Protestant is that I don’t really understand the deep cultural resonance of references to the temple.  Here’s an example from Psalm 42:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?  My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”  These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.  (Psalm 42:1-4, NIV)

I tend to read that passage as a description of individual spiritual longing in the midst of great trouble.  But for the psalmist, the visceral sense of God’s absence is felt against the background of an equally visceral remembered joy of a shared pilgrimage to the temple, where the presence of God was sure to be found.  And for what does the psalmist pray?  As we read in Psalm 43 (thought by many to be of a piece with Psalm 42), he doesn’t ask for mere private encouragement from God, but a return to his source of joy and praise:

Send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.  Then I will go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. (Psalm 43:3-4, NIV)

“To the place where you dwell.”  This would have been taken for granted as a description of the temple.  And then, John tells us, Jesus stood tall in the courts of the Jerusalem temple, driving out the money-changers, and making a cryptic prediction of his crucifixion and resurrection by referring to his own body as a temple (John 2:13-22).  We can’t blame his hearers for being confused–not even the disciples seemed to understand.

Do we?

“To the place where you dwell.”  There, in the temple courts, Jesus was pointing to a new work of God, a creation of the Holy Spirit.  Paul, in the context of talking about the care with which we should build God’s church, says, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Cor 3:16, NIV).  Likewise, in his discussion of believers being “unequally yoked” with unbelievers, he writes:

What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.  As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (2 Cor 6:16, NIV)

We are the temple of the living God; we are the place where God dwells.  And it is in the context of such a shared, communal understanding that Paul makes the individual moral application:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Cor 6:19-20, NIV)

Paul says: don’t behave in sexually immoral ways, because you have been redeemed through the cross of Jesus Christ; you were bought at a high price indeed, and now belong to God.  Your body is not simply yours to do with as you please.

But Paul’s metaphor of the redeemed slave is preceded by another: our bodies are each temples of the Holy Spirit, the place where God dwells.  We don’t have to push Paul past his meaning into some kind of physicalist absurdity–where in the body, exactly, does the Spirit live?  Could the Spirit be surgically removed?

Instead, we should be awed, amazed.  We are the place where God dwells.  I am the place where God dwells.  All who belong to Christ can say the same.  And because of this, our bodily existence is not cast aside as something unspiritual or even anti-spiritual.  Understanding who we are, we must ask how we can honor God in and through our everyday bodily lives.

So say it: “My body is a temple.”  And more: “We, as God’s people, are his temple.”

Does it make a difference to how you understand yourself and what you do?