Another building imagery Paul uses is that of the temple of God or of the Holy Spirit. It is the image of a costly and valuable building. Along with 1 Corinthians 6:19, where the image refers to one’s personal body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 uses the image to refer to the most holy and precious edifice of the ancient Near East, God’s temple.
Read 1 Corinthians 3:16-17. What does it mean that the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit? What is he warning about in verse 17?
Obviously, Paul does not, in referring to the church, have in mind a physical temple or place of residence for God. The Greek of the New Testament makes a distinction between a “you” singular, in order to refer to one person, and a “you” plural, in order to refer to many people. In this case it is the latter. This metaphor refers to a corporate entity: together the Christians in Corinth form the temple of the Holy Spirit, and in a spiritual sense God resides among them.
For Paul, God resides within the Christian fellowship; hence, his warning that anyone who attempts to destroy this fellowship will suffer the consequences of the judgment. The unity of believers is at the core of this fellowship and of God’s presence in this temple. Though this text is often used in the sense of taking care of one’s physical body (which is, of course, what Christians are supposed to do anyway), that’s not the specific point that Paul was making here. His message was, instead, a warning about those who would destroy the unity of the church.
Earlier in the chapter, Paul referred to what he considers as challenges to unity: “for where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you” (1 Cor. 3:3, NKJV). These attitudes and behaviors are real threats to Christian unity and cause the withdrawal of God’s presence from His temple. In other words, conflicts in the church can destroy God’s temple. Thus, he wants members to put away the attitudes and behaviors that do threaten its unity.
When conflicts erupt in the church, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is still applicable today: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10, NKJV).
Envy, strife, and division-these are not just problems the church faced in Paul’s day. We face them today, as well. What role does each one of us have in seeking to work through these problems in ways that will not threaten our unity?