We the Temple
I Corinthians 3: 16-17
As Paul continues to address the surface issue of celebrity culture within the church and the underlying problem of the church’s drifting from the crucified Christ as the core of their identity he touches on the idea of the church as the “temple of God.” Later in chapter 6 Paul uses this term to refer to individual Christians, but here the indication is that he is speaking to the Church as a whole, a collective temple rather than a collection of temples.
This temple, Paul insinuates in verses 10-15, is constructed on the foundation “which is Jesus Christ,” by both the members themselves and also by figures like Paul and other church leaders and teachers who have the task of pouring into the congregation both their teaching and their service. It is then left to the members to take what has been given them and to use it wisely in the construction of their lives. They also bear the burden of discerning truth from error in all that they receive.
The temple, Paul asserts, must be built with precious and permanent materials that will endure the fires of testing, lest a man’s work be revealed as vain and inglorious. In fact, the structure of the argument proceeds something akin to, “You must build your life (and I must build my audience up) with only the best materials or the structure constructed will be shown as fraudulent, worthless, and unworthy of our God. This is important because we are the temple of God.”
It is important to note here that Paul is not speaking of the temple grounds or complex when he uses the word “temple.” Rather is referring to the sanctuary itself, the holy place, the Most Holy Place. He is almost talking more about the idea of a sanctuary that he is a physical reality but, the idea must have a tangible aspect for it to be true to itself. A metaphorical sanctuary is no sanctuary at all. So to speak of building it with precious and permanent materials is to speak both of spiritual things, such as Truth, Grace, and Love, but also of physical things such as time, energy, mental space, and actions.
Furthermore, the temple must be where God is encountered. If God dwells in us as surely as He did the Most Holy Place, then He must be encountered in us as surely as He was there. The presence of God could not be seen in the temple, except on certain occasions where it took on physical manifestations, but it was still there and its presence there had real-world consequences. It was not physical, but it was tangible.
So too ought to be His presence in our lives. No one will see it like one would see a shadow, nor feel it like one feels the wind on their face. But it still ought to be real and show itself to be so through our words, our deeds, and our composures. If people can regularly encounter the church and her members and not come away with the distinct impression that we, as a whole and as individuals, are in possession of something unique, then we are missing something. This uniqueness ought to be obvious in our interactions as the living presence of God within us compels us to acknowledge, value, and reach for the latent, dormant Imago Dei in the lives of those around us.
Lastly, the church, as the temple, is to be set apart. The NASB uses the word “destroy” when it speaks of what man ought not to do to the temple, but the word “defile” is also applicable since the defilement of a sanctuary space is tantamount to the destruction of its purpose. Do not, Paul warns, defile the temple. Be holy. Be set apart for the purposes of God.
This calls us to discard both the obvious defilements and the less obvious ones. For instance, we are no-less called to set aside arrogance than we are adultery, or gossip than godlessness, or prejudice than pleasure-seeking. The sins that “doth so easily beset us” in Hebrews are not that way because they are obvious, but because they are subtle. They are the discreet parasites burrowing deep within our spiritual bodies and often require the assistance of other community members in order to be detected and extracted.
But sometimes the church body as a whole can be infected with a near-invisible parasite that needs purging in order for the church, for the temple, to truly be set apart. One such sin is an over-zealous sense of nationalism in which a church becomes more tied to its national identity than to its Kingdom identity. The church can only be the conscience of a community when it does not fear estrangement from that community; it can only be a transformative presence in a place when it is not already part of that place’s wallpaper.
To be truly set apart and holy and most clearly and powerfully manifest the presence of God within her the church must be fully invested in her community, but also possess a fully-formed identity apart from the community. That is, the church maintains doctrinal, ideological, and practical fidelity in whatever place or time it happens to land. We cannot change culture we are continuously changing with it.
In Old Testament times the sanctuary of God was the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a portable ‘temple” that focused on functionality as much as it did fashion. Wherever the people went it could be set-up quickly and then taken down quickly when the need arose. So the setting of it changed every time they Israelites moved, but the look and practice of it was unchanging. So we ought to be.
The world may change around us but in the midst of it the church remains as singular as ever in its purpose and as faithful as ever in its devotion. We are where the world comes to find God, and so we must make sure our individual lives and our communal existence display the proper hallmarks.
We must be proper temples.