The Spirit: Dwelling in the Temple
In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul continues his argument against sectarian attitudes which were dividing Corinth into warring factions. When James and John lobbied Christ for leading positions in the kingdom, it irked their fellow apostles and fomented division (Mt 20:24). The same spirit is in the Corinthians as the disciples of Paul, Apollos Peter and Christ each denigrate the others and seek to advocate for their own champion preacher.
Paul rebukes their sectarian spirit: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (3:16). This was vivid imagery to those who knew OT history. In the inner sanctum of both the tabernacle and the temple God’s presence was to be among the people:
Ex 25:8 – “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
Ex 29:45-46 – “I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the Lord their God” (cf. Num 35:34).
When David finally established his throne in Jerusalem he lamented, “I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains” (2 Sam 7:2). God responds to his desire to build a permanent structure for Him: “Would you build a house for Me to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle. In all the places where I have walked with all the children of Israel, have I ever spoken a word to anyone … saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’” (2 Sam 7:2, 6-7). To his credit, David wanted to honor God, but God reserves the right to say how and by whom He will be honored. David will not build the temple; his son Solomon will.
When the temple was completed, Solomon said this at its dedication: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built! Yet regard the prayer of Your servant … that Your eyes may be open toward this temple night and day, toward the place of which You said, ‘My name shall be there’ … When they pray toward this place, then hear in heaven Your dwelling place; and when You hear, forgive …” (1 Kgs 8:27, 29-30; emphasis jj).
Solomon understood that God would not literally and personally dwell in the building he had constructed. A thousand years later Stephen echoed this same truth which helped seal his fate: “But Solomon built Him a house. However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the Lord, or what is the place of My rest? Has my hand not made all these things?’” (Ac 7:47-50).
Some years later Paul made the same point in Athens: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Ac 17:24). What’s going on here? Is this doublespeak or a flat contradiction? God dwells among Israel in the Most Holy Place … but He dwells in heaven.
There is a progression from the tabernacle to the temple to the church. The first was portable, made of wood and fabric and fashioned metals while the second was a gargantuan edifice of stone with massive amounts of gold and silver. The common thread in these was the ark of the covenant. This is where the high priest would enter with sacrificial blood on the Day of Atonement and sprinkle it on the mercy seat between the cherubim. Thus God was teaching the people in a tangible way about holiness, fellowship and the importance of maintaining connection with Him through sacrifice and devotion. Even in the Mosaic system the dwelling of God among men was not some personal, mystical habitation but rather divine provision of favor, provision and protection for Israel. So long as they observed the conditions of the covenant, God guaranteed that He would bless and preserve them come what may.
These two material structures culminate in the church where fellowship with God reaches its highest expression in this world. Jesus promised shortly before dying: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (Jn 14:23). These are singular pronouns as are those in 1 Cor 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” Fellowship with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit is individually determined. Each one must decide to respond to God and forge a relationship with Him according to the Spirit’s conditions.
But corporately the church is also the dwelling place of the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). Paul establishes this point further by applying OT citations to the church: “As God has said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people’” (2 Cor 6:16). As the NT affirms that God, Christ and the Spirit all dwell among saints, two warnings are issued against desecrating the temple (church) of God:
1 Cor 3:17: “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.”
2 Cor 6:16-7:1: ‘“I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ Therefore ‘come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.’ Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
We can get distracted by focusing on the “mechanics” of indwelling, but the real danger is “tracking dirt” into the temple of God. Jesus graphically showed what He thought of defiling the temple both at the beginning and end of His ministry. Let us not incur His wrath by desecrating the purity which should characterize us as individuals and as a body.