“Your body is a temple.” We expect the phrase to be followed by health advice. Stop eating junk food. Bacon is out; sprouts are in. Soda is out; wheatgrass smoothies are in. Meditate; take up yoga. The temple metaphor suggests that we should bring only the best to these bodies of ours, and that’s good advice. But ambiguously, it also suggests that we ourselves may the object of worship and devotion.
Needless to say, that’s not the way Paul uses the metaphor.
Having described the Corinthian believers collectively as “God’s building,” established on the foundation of Jesus Christ, Paul cautioned them to build on that foundation with care. As further justification, he then took the metaphor a level deeper:
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 that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:16-17, NRSV)
When Paul spoke earlier of building with “gold, silver, precious stones” (3:12), he may have been thinking of the magnificence of the Jerusalem temple itself. But the city of Corinth itself was the site of many pagan temples, and even the Gentiles in the congregation would have understood the point: temples call for the best materials and the most careful workmanship.
But could they understand themselves as the temple?
These days, when we say “your body is a temple,” we mean an individual’s physical body. And both Paul and Jesus can use the metaphor this way (e.g., 1 Cor 6:15-19; John 2:19). But here, in context, Paul is referring to the collective “you” of the congregation–which is why the latest version of the NIV translates Paul as saying, “God’s Spirit dwells in your midst” and “you together are that temple.” The congregation, together, in their mutual life as the body of Christ, are the dwelling place of God’s Spirit, a place of worship consecrated to God.
Paul wants the Christians in Corinth to realize just how big a problem their divisive pride has become. Some may be more involved in “destroying the temple” than others, but all are implicated. Thus Paul doesn’t just tell them to “play nice” or to try harder to get along. Essentially, he accuses them of sacrilege, and warns them of the consequences of their foolish and blind behavior.
God’s building, his temple and dwelling place, is no longer a literal edifice but a people among whom his Spirit dwells. Wherever jealousy, rivalry, pride, or arrogance divide our congregations in any way, it may be that we have forgotten our identity, our priestly vocation (Exod 19:6; 1 Pet 2:5).
Think about the relationships you may already have in a local congregation. What might change if you were to think of yourselves collectively as the temple of the Holy Spirit?