How Many Temples Does God Have?
Frequently we find popular expositions of 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19 saying to individual Christians, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” This is totally misexposition, completely wrong. And misleading. And it distorts Paul’s point.
Isaiah 28:16 gives the promise: “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation.’” Jesus says (Matt 16:18), “I will build my church.” Jesus takes the words of Psalm 118:22 and applies them to himself - he is himself the cornerstone of the church he is building (Matt 21:42//Mark 12:10//Luke 20:17; also Acts 4:11). And in John 2:19 Jesus says to the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Not altogether surprisingly, they take him to be referring to the building in front of them. “But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:21-22.)
Stephen understood that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands” (Acts 7:47-50), and Paul draws all these thoughts together, describing “the church which is his body” (Ephesians 1:22-23) as: “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:20-22.)
Note carefully: The people of God (Ephesians 2:22, “you”, plural) are being joined together (as each new convert is added) so that “the whole structure grows into a holy temple”, because Christians are being “built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit”.
Peter teaches the same truth (1 Peter 2:4-8), where he says, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house”. A church building is not the house of God: the people of God are together the true house of God, each one of them being a living stone.
This then is the strand of biblical teaching which Paul reflects in 1 Corinthians 3:16. “Do you not know this?” Paul asks. “- that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Not the individual Christian, but “you” plural. It is a corporate concept: the whole body of Christians together: “all of you together constitute God’s temple, and God’s Spirit lives in you”.
In the next verse Paul goes on to speak of destroying God’s temple. He is speaking of destroying the church of God - not of an individual Christian. Then in 6:19 Paul refers once again to the same concept, “Do you not know that your body is the Holy Spirit’s temple within you, whom you have from God?” Again, “you” is plural; again, it is referring to the people of God collectively, corporately. And then in 2 Corinthians 6:16 Paul says, “We are the temple of the living God.”
So, biblically, you cannot say to an individual Christian, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Let me emphasize again: you cannot.
But isn’t it all the same thing, singular or plural?
No, it is not.
Oftentimes teachers are saying to someone, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” And then to another Christian, “And yours.” And to another, “And so also is yours.” As if God has as many temples as there are individual Christians. At this point frequently the lesson is drawn, “Therefore honor God in your body” - do not treat your body or use your body in a way which is dishonoring to the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Indeed a valid conclusion and application, but an invalid premiss, which misses Paul’s point.
For the point which Paul is making in Ephesians 2:20-22, and again twice in 1 Corinthians, is the interconnectedness of Christians as the body of Christ, the temple indwelt by the Holy Spirit. If our concept is of an individual as “a temple” of God, then what such a one may do in the body which dishonors the indwelling Spirit is bad enough; but at least it may not directly impact upon other Christians. However, in Paul’s application of this biblical truth, it is wider than that. For when (in 6:15-20) Paul writes of a Christian joining himself to a prostitute, and links this with the concept of the body as the Holy Spirit’s temple, Paul is saying that in so doing, this person is joining the other parts of the temple of God to that prostitute also. The person concerned may think it is a private and individual thing that he is doing. But “the Holy Spirit’s temple” is a corporate concept, so he has involved the whole church in his sin.
This would apply equally to any other sin which a Christian commits in, with, or through his body.
And any exposition of this teaching as of an individual Christian being “a temple” of the Holy Spirit quite misses this dimension of what Paul is saying.
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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