Let’s start with a quick review and then close of the section of 1 Corinthians 3 that we’ve been studying for the past few weeks.
If you recall, we’ve been looking at Paul’s threefold illustration to describe why the Christian church needs to ensure that they remain united. Remember that in this section Paul is addressing the major problem that the Corinthian church is facing, that being divisions among them. They were a divided church.
They had divided over many issues, but to make matters worse, without telling them, the church had decided to claim different teachers and apostles as the leaders of their various factions. And so Paul begins by calling them children, chastising them for their immaturity and telling them that he’s disappointed that he can’t talk to them like mature believers, but instead has to deal with a bunch of fighting.
It’s almost like the school teacher walking into the classroom, or a parent coming into the children’s room, and seeing them brawling in the middle of the floor. That’s not why they came in, and they really don’t want to deal with it. They had a whole lesson planned out, something amazing to tell them, a story to share, a wonderful new experience to give them – but now they have to give the same old lecture about why they need to get along, why fighting is bad, how they should be treating each other better, why fighting hurts their heart, etc.
They had so much more planned for them, but now they have to backtrack and talk to them like their toddlers. That’s how Paul starts chapter 3.
And so, to teach these immature believers why what they are doing is so serious, Paul uses three illustrations. His first is to liken the church to being a farmer’s field where God is the owner and everyone else is a worker. There’s no reason to elevate one over the other because it’s God who gets the glory anyway! We covered that a couple weeks ago.
Next, he likens the church to being a building that is being built by the actions of the individual believers in the church. He warns them that a day of fire (or day of trouble) is coming and that it will test what their church is made of – so they’d better make sure that their church is made of solid stuff. We talked about that last week.
Today, we read the final of this trifecta of illustrations where Paul says the church is God’s temple. This is the most poignant of the three and it comes with a threat.
You Are God’s Temple
Open up to 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and let’s read it together:
“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.”
It’s really interesting the way that Paul starts this. He takes the previous illustration about the building and reveals that they’re not constructing just any building, but are, piece by piece, deed by deed, prayer by prayer, song by song, visit by visit, charity by charity, are building God’s temple!
He seems almost flabbergasted that they wouldn’t know this. “Guys! Don’t you know who you are and why it is such a huge deal that you are united under Jesus? It’s because your church, your family of believers, is the very place where God resides. Yes, as we read elsewhere, every believer is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, but at the same time, when Christians are together, they remain one, single temple. It’s an amazing concept.
He doesn’t say, “Don’t you know that you are all temples”, so you should all act like it. No, Paul changes from talking about individuals to talking to them as a collective. The “You” there is plural. He’s saying, “You are all God’s temple, collectively.”
Now, the temple, in the Old Testament, was the very location of the presence of God in the world. At the time this was written, around 54AD, the Temple in Jerusalem was still around. It would be destroyed in only 16 years. Consider what Paul was saying here – and what it meant to the people listening.
They looked around the city of Corinth and saw many, many temples. Huge, beautiful places of worship that were said to be the temporary homes of the gods. And many of the Jewish people in the church had been to see the Temple in Jerusalem, experienced the solemnness, the gravity, the power, and the presence of God in the temple. They had seen the priests walking around, had witnessed the sacrifices, and perhaps even watched as the High Priest made his procession towards the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place on earth.
And now Paul was saying that God had moved. Just as He has moved from the Garden of Eden into the Tabernacle, and from the Tabernacle into the Temple, so now God had moved again – not into another building, but into the hearts of believers. Just as the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem once housed the presence of God, so now, the temple curtain had been split, and now every believer carried the very presence of God with them everywhere they go. The Christian heart, in a very real sense, is the Holy of Holies.
Anyone Who Destroys
Which is where that really scary passage in the middle there comes from. “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.” This goes back to the temple priests who, if they did something against the temple, violating God’s rules about treating it with the utmost respect and keeping it special and holy, would be put to death. 1 Peter 2:9 says Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” . In other words, every believer is given similar joys and responsibilities to what the temple priests had!
- When you visit your Christian friend, you are coming as a priest of God.
- When you share the gospel with your neighbour, you do it as an ambassador for Christ.
- When you bring a casserole over to a sick family, you are acting out your duty as a temple priest.
- When you worship in song, run the a/v, hand out bulletins, give encouragement, pray over someone, help in their garden, attend their wedding or funeral, or just shake their hand in the street, you do it as someone with the Holy Spirit inside you, a representative of God, a part of the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the holy nation.
It’s a huge deal.
Therefore, in the same way as God took seriously an Old Testament priest marring or disrespecting the physical temple, so God takes just as seriously Christians who violate the sanctity of His spiritual temple, that is, the body of believers around you.
So, to divide yourself from the church by choosing not to gather with fellow believers, or through fighting, jealousy or neglect, you risk incurring God’s wrath. To hurt a fellow believer is like profaning or blaspheming the temple of God.
How serious is this? Let’s go to another passage that works in a similar way. Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Does not forgiving someone mean you will lose your salvation? Or, does not attending church mean you’re not going to heaven? No, because your salvation is not bound to your actions, but to your faith.
What this is talking about is your daily relationship with God, the cleaning away of the cobwebs of your soul, the retuning of your spiritual radio so that you can remove the static of sin and hear God more clearly. This is the action of daily repentance for your sins against others, and granting forgiveness for the sins they have committed against you. If you don’t do that, then you do not understand forgiveness, and God will hold back his hand of forgiveness toward you.
In the same way, someone who is not in right relationship with their brothers and sisters in Christ, won’t be able to see or hear God well, will still have a stain of guilt in their soul, will grow more bitter towards God as they grow more bitter towards others, will be a worse image of Christ for the world to see, will be walking in darker places, will be abiding in death instead of life, and will be under the judgement and discipline of God. Does that sound like a temple priest? No, because it’s a high standard.
Unity is Critical
Believers shouldn’t divide from one another. Why? Because they are God’s Field, God’s Building, and God’s Temple. Each of those illustrations is a collective one. We are meant to be together. The only bad thing on earth before the fall of man was that it was “not good for man to be alone.” (Gen 2:18) Even in the perfection of Eden, before the Fall, standing full in the presence of God, it was not good for man to be alone. Why? Because we are designed to be together.
Therefore, as individuals in the church, each of us have the responsibility to ensure that we remain united! Unity should be the number one, overriding characteristic that shows people how Jesus has changed us. Jesus says in John 13:35,
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In fact, multiple times in scripture, it is how we treat our fellow believers that shows the condition of our heart. One of our assurances of salvation is that we have a drive to love our fellow believers, the brothers and sisters that make up our forever family.
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:14-15)
“Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” (1 John 2:9)
“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:19-21)
After praying for the disciples during the Last Supper, He prayed for us. And what was the central theme of that prayer: unity.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
How will the world know that Jesus is the Saviour, sent by God? One huge way is by how the people of the church treat one another. And Paul reveals why? Because the presence of God is no longer in a building – He’s in us. We are God’s temple, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. When people want to visit God, know forgiveness, be ushered into His presence, and be told about the message of salvation – they can come to us: the people of God’s church.
What this Means, Practically
So, what does this mean, practically? It means we live out our faith and obedience to God by loving the people of our church first. Over and over in the Bible we are told to do good, but not just to everyone, we are to begin first with the body of believers around us (Gal 6:10).
It means, of course, forgiving one another as you have been forgiven (Eph 4:32), and keeping a short account of wrongs. But it also means, as 1 Peter 4:9 says, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling”, having one another into each other’s homes – even the people you don’t know or who are difficult guests.
How about this one from Colossians 3:12-13:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
See that? He reminds us that we are God’s chosen ones and then says that because of that, we need to be patient with one another, bearing with one another. That means when someone in the church is rude, difficult, judgemental, or anything else that annoys us, we… bear with them in love! Why? Because God bears with us all the time.
And there are so many more, but let me give one more from Hebrews 10:24-25,
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
We talked about what “the Day” means last week, right? The day Jesus comes back, and the days of trouble that will inevitably come to our life. So, how do we get ready? Stir one another up towards love and good works, encourage one another, and not neglecting to meet together.
Why? Because, to quote an old maxim, “United we stand, divided we fall.” That’s how God has set it up from the very beginning.
We are God’s Field workers, each one as valuable as the next.
We are God’s House, built by the individual actions of each person here.
And we are God’s Temple, the holiest place on earth, full of priests who proclaim salvation through Jesus alone.
How do we show it? By our unity and mutual love.