The New Temple of God: 1 Corinthians 3:16-17

In an artistic representation, King Solomon dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem. (painting by James Tissot or follower, c. 1896–1902)

Good morning. Please turn with me in your bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter 3. 1 Corinthians chapter 3. We will continue this morning our detailed study through Paul’s wonderfully rich and theological letter to the troubled church in Corinth.

This church was in a cosmopolitan Greek city, named Corinth, and the young church had gotten off the rails a little bit. They were bickering over their leadership. They were fighting over their preferences. They had let the world’s standards of evaluation, the worldly calculus of what is important, take over in their minds. They wanted more rhetorical flair, more impressive eloquence, and more impressive leaders.

They wanted what the world wanted. In short, they wanted the very things that God had chosen not value when He chose to save the Corinthian believers. God had chosen them, not because they were so wonderful and impressive, but because their own poverty demonstrated the riches of God’s mercy. Their own inability, demonstrated God’s ability to save.

And Paul has been in chapter 3 specifically addressing the divisions within the church by reminding them of what the church is, what the church leaders are, and who God is. The church leaders are mere farmers who are to faithfully plant and water, but only God can give the growth. They are builders, but not the foundation.

And, as we will see in our text today, the church of God is the new temple. Paul moves from a general architectural analogy (that is, of a building whose foundation is Jesus), to a more specific analogy for the church: the church is the new Temple of God. And if that is true, if the church really is the temple of God, then that should be significant for us in our thinking, and in our lives. That should change how we relate to one another, and how we think about our work here in the church of God.

So let’s begin by reading in 1 Corinthians chapter 3. Our text is verses 16 & 17, but I’ll begin by reading in verse 10 for context. Hear the word of our Lord:

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

I’ll frame our study this morning with 3 simple points: An encouragement, then a warning, then a closing encouragement. An encouragement, a warning and an encouragement.

First, let’s look at a initial encouragement from this text, which is this is this: you ARE God’s temple. You are God’s temple. That’s what Paul says very clearly in both verses that we just read. In fact, he asserts that very fact as a rhetorical question in verse 16: “16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple?” which assumes that this is something that the Corinthians should know from the very nature of things. It assumes that they should already know this, and they either don’t know it, or they aren’t acting consistent with their standing as God’s temple.

It’s also worth noting that the “you’s” in this text are plural. He’s talking to them collectively, not yet individually. He will later in chapter 6 talk about us individually being the temple of the Holy Spirit. But here he is saying that the church is the temple of God. We could even translate it, with a little southern artistic license, “Don’t ya’ll know that ya’ll are the temple of God?”

But in order for us to understand exactly what Paul is saying, it will be wise for us to unpack some of what he is saying when he says that the church in Corinth is the temple of God. This language is full of imagery and meaning, meaning most principally illustrated from the Old Testament.

So in order to understand what Paul is arguing, let’s take a few minutes to unpack this temple language.

For those who are new to Christianity, or are otherwise unfamiliar with the Old Testament, God had previously so ordered that his people would engage with Him, would commune with Him and worship Him, through a very special and particular arrangement. While the people of God were wandering in a desert for decades, God would meet with his people in a tabernacle, or a very ornate tent.

Later, when God’s people had been brought by God into the land that He had promised them, into the land of Canaan, that tabernacle was replaced with a permeant structure that is often called Solomon’s temple. This temple was built under the reign of King Solomon about a thousand years before Christ. But this first glorious temple and was later destroyed by the Babylonian invaders in 586 BC.

A second temple was later built by Jewish exiles returning from captivity in Babylon. That second temple lasted from about 515 BC, until the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD.

But in order for us to grasp the theological significance of Paul calling the church the temple of God, I want us to note 4 things about the temple. 4 things about God’s temple in the Old Testament that are significant for the church to consider.

First, the temple was the place of God’s special revealed presence. The temple was the place of God’s special revealed presence. God had previously led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert by manifesting His presence in a special way. He made a giant cloud that they could see and follow, and that cloud represented God’s special presence.

Later, after Solomon dedicates the newly constructed Temple, the language of cloud is used again. 1 Kings 8 tells us that the priest of God placed the ark of the Covenant in the Holiest portion of the temple, and when they came out of the Holy Place, the text says that “a cloud filled the house of the lord, so that the priest could not stand and minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.” God fills the temple with his special presence. He’s not limited to the temple; God is a spirit and he is everywhere, scripture teaches. But he promises to reveal himself in a special way in His temple. This is significant for reasons that we will soon get to. The temple is the place of God’s special revealed presence.

Second, not only was the temple was the place of God’s special presence, the temple was a place of holiness and purity. The temple was a place of holiness and purity. You can’t but help to read the large portions of Leviticus, which is the book that details the sacrificial system, without seeing the hundreds of rituals and washings and sacrifices and protocols that all scream to us: this place is Holy.

Only certain people are allowed in, and they are only allowed in if they was been ceremonially washed for purification, and only if they have been dressed in particular clothing, and only if they have eaten certain things and avoided eating certain things, and only if they have engaged in appropriate activity and avoided inappropriate activity, and it goes on and on. I won’t go into every detail of the holiness required and the purity that was necessary to maintain, but the overwhelming point is this: God’s temple was a holy place.

It’s similar to when God speaks to Moses from a burning bush and says take off your sandals because the ground is holy. It wasn’t holy because of Moses, and certainly not because of the bush. In fact, it was holy IN SPITE of Moses’s presence. It was holy because God’s presence was there. He is the holy one, and everything in his presence must be pure and must be holy. THAT’s why the temple a holy and pure place; because it was the place of a Holy God’s manifestation. The temple was a place of holiness and purity.

Third, not only was the temple a place of God’s special presence and a place of holiness and purity, the temple was also a place of divine making and divine ordering. The temple was a place of divine making and divine ordering.

I say the temple was a place of divine making because the Old Testament narrative makes it abundantly evident that the Israelites were innately incapable of doing it on their own. They were inept when it came to maintaining their own sovereignty, the bible makes clear, and so God takes this nation and adopts them, according to his own good pleasure, and HE rescues them from Egypt.

He feeds them in the desert, He defends them from attack, he brings them into a land that they were unwilling to take, he runs off the enemy armies, He sets up a kingly line, and he provides the material resources for Solomon to construct the temple. You can’t honestly read the Old Testament and give any credit for the temple’s construction to anyone other than God.

But he didn’t just make the temple, he ordered how it was to be run. This is clear from the very rigorous, sometimes even tedious, instructions that he gives for His worship in the temple. I mentioned this before, how he regulated the sacrifices and the washing and the priestly roles and the furniture and the wood and the gold and the dishes and the fabrics. Every aspect of the temple’s regulation was divinely ordered according to God’s word. That’s significant. God’s word detailed how it was all supposed to run. Not the priests. Not Moses. Not whatever seemed prudent. And not what was appealing to the surrounding Canaanites. It was God’s temple, he built it, and he ordered how it was to be run in his word.

Fourth, the temple is God’s place of special presence, it was a holy and pure place, a place of divine making and ordering, and lastly, the temple was a place only entered by priestly work.The temple was a place that could only be entered by priestly work. There were large and significant portions of the temple that were off limits. There were courtyards open to certain people, portions open to only men, portions only open to priests, and the holiest portion was only accessible by 1 priest, the High Priest, and only one day a year.

All of this access was regulated and made possibly by the work of a priest. If you had sinned or had otherwise been made impure, you were cut off from the temple. And the only way for you to regain access to the temple, to fellowship with God’s people and to the worship of God at his place of special residence, was to have a priest offer a sacrifice in your place. He was your mediator, your go-between between you and God, and his work was necessary for you to be made clean again, and thus fit to even enter the outer walls of the temple. God’s temple was a place only entered through the priestly work of another.

The temple was a place of God’s presence, holiness, divine ordering, and priestly work. Those are just a few of the significant aspects of the temple in the Old Testament. Now, heading back to our text in 1 Corinthians three, we can begin to see some of the significance of Paul saying that the church in Corinth was the temple of God. And, I hope, it will be encouraging to you for us to connect each one of these aspects of the temple explicitly to the church in the New covenant.

First, just as the temple was a place of God’s special revealed presence, so too is the gathered church a place of God’s special reveled presence. The gathered church is the place of God’s special revealed presence. God promises to attend to the faithful proclamation of his gospel, and for his Holy Spirit to work so that the preaching would not return void. God promises to hear our prayers, and to even work within our hearts to help us pray by the power of His holy spirit. God also attends the gathering of believers and reveals himself in a special spiritual way when we partake the Lord’s Supper together. Just as God filled the temple of the Old Testament with a cloud, so too does he fill his gathered church with his Spirit.

Second, just like the temple was a place of holiness and purity, so too is the church is place of holiness and purity. This is true in a present tense, and in a future tense. The church of God was declared holy and pure when it was founded upon the work of Jesus Christ in her place. Christ’s work of atonement on Calvary was the instrument of the church’s great purification. She’s been made clean, because her guilt has been transferred to another, and another’s righteousness, namely Jesus’s, has been counted to her.

But not only that, not only has the church been declared pure and holy like the temple, but she has also been called to BE Holy. You see this all over, but of particular note is Peter’s language in 1 Peter 2, where we are called “living stones,” which is temple language, living stones founded upon Jesus Christ and being built up into a spiritual house in order that we might offer spiritual sacrifices. We’re called to be the stones of the new temple of God, and we’re not merely building just any old building. We’re building a temple of God’s presence, and thus we each ought to strive for holiness and purity befitting the place of God’s residence.

We ARE holy and we ARE TO BE holy. More on that later.

Third, just like the temple was divinely originated and ordered, so too does the church have its origin in God himself, and so too ought the church to be ordered according to God’s explicit plans.

God’s church was founded by God, like we discussed at length last week. It wasn’t started by wonderfully faithful men that were dutifully seeking God. The church was founded upon the foundation of the apostles, with Jesus himself being the cornerstone of that foundation. And that apostolic foundation was only made because God called and made those apostles into a suitable foundation. On their own, they were nothing. But in God’s hands, they became the foundation of his glorious church, his special temple of His own making.

But even more, just like the temple was ordered according to God’s plan alone, so too ought the church be ordered according to God’s revealed word alone. It’s HIS temple, and it ought to be run according to HIS design, according to HIS wishes, and not according to any man or woman’s. We don’t have the liberty to get all creative, or to test out new ideas, or to ignore clear commands. We’ve been given the blueprints in His word, and we are to build according to his perfect plan, and not any other. No other foundation, no other methods, no other plans. God’s plan and God’s alone.

Fourthly and finally, just like the temple was a holy place only entered by the work of a priest, so too is the church a temple that can only be entered by a priest. The church can only be entered by the work of a priest.

You and I are born into this world with a problem. We are polluted by sin. We’re impure. We’re corrupted. We’re bent away from seeking God and doing all things for His glory. We want to do things our own way. We want to demand our own preferences. That’s what happened in Corinth, and it was splitting the church.

We do that all the time too. We want our way, we don’t care what other people want, and we sometimes sin even more to get it. Sometime we lie to get what we want. Or we manipulate. Or we threaten. Or we whine and grumble. Whatever the fruit it, the root is that we are naturally impure.

But the gospel of the New Testament, is that God has made a new temple, the church. And this new temple has a new priest. Not like the priest of the old covenant who had to constantly make animal sacrifices. This new priest has made the final sacrifice. And he had done it once and for all. It doesn’t need to be repeated. And this sacrifice is sufficient to atone for all his people. Any and all that would come to him by faith will be atoned by this glorious sacrifice.

This offer stands for everyone here this morning. If you come to Christ, believe that he is the son of God sent for the salvation of sinners, turn away from your sins and trust in his atonement, you too can be made pure by his priestly work. You can have access to the special presence of God by his Holy Spirit. You can be made holy and pure, and you can be given the Holy Spirit, who himself helps you grow in holiness.

You can be washed of your sin and guilt, you can be made clean, you can have a pure conscience, and you can again be given access to God because of the work of our perfect priest, our perfect mediator, who didn’t sacrifice some bull or goat in your place, but who gave himself as the perfect sacrifice of atonement for the new temple of God.

Come to Christ this morning and believe, and you can be made a living stone in this new temple. And if you are already a stone in the temple of God, then be encouraged in your role. Know that you are made pure by the priestly work of Christ, and that by his work, you have forever been given access to the Holy of Holies, access to the divine presence, through the mediatorial work of Christ. Praise be to God that our sin doesn’t forever banish us from God, but that he has made a way for us to be brought back to Him.

Next. Moving on to my second point, we’ve seen first an encouragement based upon the fact that you ARE God’s temple. Now, a warning from our text. A warning. And the warning stems from this: you are GOD’s temple. You are GOD’S temple. That’s what Paul affirms again in the beginning of verse 17. You are God’s temple.

The Corinthians were starting to tear down the great structure of God, the temple of God, by their divisiveness and their bickering. Their divisions were starting to tear apart this temple at the seams.

And the fact that Paul emphasizes that the Corinthians were GOD’S temple should be a warning for us for three reasons.

First, because of who’s owns the property. Because of who owns the property. It’s not like the Corinthians were messing with the temple of some other impotent God, like Ares or Zeus. They were tampering with the property of the God who laid the foundations of the entire cosmos. He set the stars in the sky and put the sun in its place.

It’s his temple, his work, his structure, the place of his special presence, the place where he deigns to dwell, place where he is worshipped, where he is praised, where he will be proclaimed.

Consider the audacity of a created being trying to destroy the church upon which God has set his special affections. This is God’s adopted children, his place of spiritual residence. It is no wonder that Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, described the church of God as an anvil upon which many a hammer has been worn out. God owns it, God will defend it, God will rescue it, God will preserve it, and God will glorify his church on the final day.

Therefore, we do not dare threaten the unity and purity of God’s temple by introducing the sin of divisiveness and division, or any other impurity. That’s the implied conclusion from Paul’s arguments. This is God’s temple, be warned that He owns it, and he will defend it.

Which leads to the second part of this warning, which is the consequences of mistreating the temple. The consequences of mistreating the temple.

17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.

Because God is the owner, and because he is Holy, he will not permit sin to defile his new temple. Just like Nadab and Abihu were killed for defiling God’s place with improper worship, so too will God judge those that choose to defile his new temple, the church.

That judgment may or may not take place instantaneously, like it did for Nadab and Abihu, but it will be judged nonetheless. It MAY take place as public exposure of the sin and lead to the humiliation of the offender. It may be church discipline and excommunication. Or the defilement may not be exposed until the last day, like Paul mentioned in the preceding verses.

Either way, God will not tolerate the defilement and disruption of his church by sin, especially the sin of division and divisiveness, which was so dominating the church in Corinth.

We would all be wise to consider our own behavior, especially as it relates to God’s temple. Have I been faithful in this area? And I a promoter of unity, or an I someone who tears down the temple? Am I an encourager who builds up the living stones? Or am I a grumbler or a gossip who tears down the living stones that God is using to build his temple?

Be warned, God will not be mocked, and his temple building will not be thwarted. If you are engaging in these behaviors, turn today, run to Jesus for forgiveness and cleansing. Don’t be found engaging in these sins when the Lord Jesus Christ returns. Don’t run headlong to your destruction. Turn today, be forgiven, and renew your commitment to trust in Christ and faithfully engage in the building project, the building up of the new temple of God.

Finally, I want to close with a last encouragement. We should also see in Paul’s closing words an encouragement because of because of the status of the temple. Because of the status of the temple. See how he ends verse 17:

17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

God’s temple is holy, he says, and he again affirms that the people of God ARE THAT TEMPLE. The nature of the temple is such that UN-Holiness is inappropriate. It doesn’t fit. In fact, it’s not merely out of place, it is inconsistent with the very nature of the structure.

If God is in you, if you are his temple and He is holy, then unholiness doesn’t belong. Division is incompatible because God himself is not divided. Disunity is not right, because God is not disunited. And impurity is out of place because God himself is the fount of all purity.

And if you are in Christ, know that you have been made pure. You have been made Holy, by the sacrifice of Christ in your place. And if you have not been made pure by faith in Christ, then today is the day that you can be saved. Come to him this day and believe in the Christ presented in scripture and proclaimed to you this morning. You have no other foundation upon which to build your life and your salvation. Come and trust, and you too can be saved.

Brothers and sisters, let us close with an encouragement drawn by reflecting upon the ultimate fate of this temple. At the end of Revelation 21, the temple language is used again. John is describing his vision of the heavenly city, of the New Jerusalem, which is called the dwelling place of God with man, which is temple language.

But in verse 22, John says, “22 And oI saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”

In the final state there will be no more temple, there will be no more place that we go to meet with God and worship him. God himself will be our temple, and we will forever be united with him. No more division. No more pain. No more sin. Only the pure enjoyment of God Himself, our savior and redeemer, forever. Amen.


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