In Jesus’ day, the Jerusalem temple as embellished by King Herod must have been a magnificent structure, a glorious and memorable sight for Jews making their pilgrimage to the city. And there were, of course, other temples in the ancient world. Numerous sites of pagan worship dotted Corinth, from the Temple of Apollo in the lower part of city to the Temple of Aphrodite high on the overlooking acropolis. So when Paul told the Corinthians that they were the temple of God, both the Gentile and Jewish believers would have had a point of reference.
But Paul’s purpose in saying this was to draw attention to the matter of holiness. In the Bible, there are two different Greek words for temple. One refers to the whole building, the other more specifically to the inner sanctuary. To a Gentile, the latter would refer to the actual shrine where the idols were kept. But to a Jew like Paul, it meant the Holy of Holies, that part of the Jerusalem temple where the presence of God resided. That’s the word he uses in 1 Cor 3:16-17, and the one he uses in his later letter: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16, NRSV).
That statement comes at the end of a list of rhetorical questions, in which he challenges the Corinthians to stop being misled by his opponents:
Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (2 Cor 6:14-16, NRSV)
The contrasts are stark: righteousness vs. lawlessness; light vs. darkness; Christ vs. Beliar (a reference to Satan, meaning something like “the treacherous one”). But the fifth and last question is different: it’s the only one to be followed by a direct declaration: “For we are the temple of the living God.”
Paul is seldom content to simply tell people what to do. He doesn’t just issue commands to coerce their obedience; instead, he explains how things are. In particular, he wants his charges to understand who they truly are in Christ, even if they themselves can’t see it.
Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers, Paul insists. And it’s not just because you don’t dare make a holy God angry. It’s because you yourselves are holy. This is who you truly are. Do you understand? You are the sacred dwelling place of the living God.
Who knows what social pressures the Corinthians experienced? Who knows what it would have cost them personally to take a stand for what was right and stop associating with those who were misleading the church?
But they needed to do just that, and for the right reasons. This is your true identity. It comes as a gift from God. Now you need to act accordingly.
Truth be told, I suspect that on most days we’re more inclined to think of ourselves as religious people trying to be good than as the temple of God. What difference would it make if we saw ourselves differently?