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1 Corinthians: The Church the World Needs: How to Become a Temple
1 Corinthians 3:16 - 3:23
October 31, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
One of the dominant themes running all through the Scriptures is the Temple. In this sermon, we explore the deeper meaning behind this theme and how the temple serves as a symbol to illustrate God’s future promise.
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Everybody is familiar with the saying, “your body is a temple,” which comes from 1 Corinthians 6, but I think most people interpret that to mean something quite different from what the Apostle Paul originally intended. Most people probably assume that the phrase means that your body is sacred and therefore you need to take supremely good care of it in terms of health and wellness.
Let me give you an example. Consider Equinox, the luxury fitness club. Equinox calls itself not a mere gym, but a temple of well-being. Some have even referred to it as a church—a church where people do not gather together in order to worship some transcendent deity, but rather to worship the self. One of the most recent ads that Equinox put out features the mythical character of Narcissus, the person who fell in love with his own reflection. Rather than telling the story as a kind of cautionary tale against self absorption, this advertisement lifts Narcissus up as a role model for the 21st century. This is someone whom we should emulate. In Equinox’s telling, Narcissus was committed to perfecting every inch of his body. The voiceover states, “He would persist until self-worship turned him into a gift—a gift not just for him to treasure, but a gift that brought the whole world pleasure.” In this video, you see people, including children, gawking at the figure of Narcissus, and the ad ends with this final caption, “Make yourself a gift to the world.” The message seems to be that if you look like a Greek god with chiseled abs, and bulging biceps, then you will make the world a better place. But I'm sorry. I think that a person who is obsessed with their own image is not a gift to anyone except perhaps to the luxury gym that is making bank off of his membership dues. The Instagram account for Equinox posted this statement, “Self-worship makes us healthier, more whole; better versions of ourselves. One step for each of us leads to a better path for all of us.” I think the opposite is true. Self worship distorts our humanity, and it makes us more insular, worse versions of ourselves. It's Halloween, so I can say that I found this video to be rather creepy. It's a little bit disturbing, especially in the way that it uses children, but this kind of advertising must resonate with someone, right? Or else they wouldn't do this. Equinox is a very popular brand when it comes to fitness, so how do we account for that?
There's one writer who describes himself as an Equinox fan. He's a millennial, so he writes as a millennial. He explains why he's so supportive of the equinox chain. He says that Millennials demonstrate success through their lifestyle, not material possessions. The rise of social media gives us an outlet to broadcast our lives. People don’t go to social media to see what their friends own. It's not about material possessions. No, people follow their friends and influencers to see what they’re doing and what they stand for. In addition to the boost in physical appearance that frequenting the gym offers, belonging to Equinox says you’re deeply committed to health. It makes you cool. That's related to his second point, which is that health is now a status symbol. The rise of health as a status symbol is a byproduct of the view millennials have towards health. On average, Boomers and Gen X’ers define health as not being sick (that's probably my definition: not being sick), or having appropriate height/weight proportion. Millennials have a different perception of what it means to be healthy with a bigger focus on day-to-day routine, living an active lifestyle, eating well and taking care of their minds. Then he makes this one final point. Why is he so drawn to Equinox? It has to do with the need for new communities. As the world becomes more secular, younger generations will find new ways to foster community and friendship. For hundreds of years, humanity has turned to the church and their neighbors for these ubiquitous human desires. With the rise of globalization and urban migration, cities are increasingly diverse, crowded, and secular. Taking inspiration from its subsidiary SoulCycle, Equinox is adding fitness classes and meetups to build stronger ties between its members.
It's clear that many people have transformed the pursuit of health and wellness into a new religion where the gym becomes the temple where you gather. Your god becomes your own body that you worship, and the group class, filled with committed devotees, is the place where you form friendship and find community. Health becomes a defining aspect of one's identity. It's not just something that you do, it's who you are, and that's actually related to Equinox’s motto, “It's not fitness, it's life.” It's not just something you do. It's who you are. Many people are devoted to this enterprise with cult-like zealousness and religious-like fanaticism. I'm not knocking Equinox. There was someone who said to me after the first service, I guess I have to give up my gym membership. That's not the point. I was a member of Equinox at one point in the past, and Paul himself spoke approvingly in 1 Corinthians 9 about the importance of disciplining the body. To this day, I still work out on a regular basis, so that's not the issue. The point here is that we are a long way away from what the Apostle Paul first meant when he said that your body is a temple.
What I'd like us to do is to try to figure out what Paul actually means by taking a closer look at 1 Corinthians 3, as well as 1 Corinthians 6. I'd like us to consider, what is a temple? How do you become a temple? Why does it matter? So if you'd like, you can open up a Bible to 1 Corinthians 3 or you can follow along in the bulletin. I'll be reading 1 Corinthians 3:16-23.
16Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? 17If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.
This is God’s word. It’s trustworthy, and it’s true, and it’s given to us in love.
What Is A Temple?
As we've seen over the last several weeks, Paul is writing a letter to the church in the Greek city of Corinth, which he had previously founded. He had spent 18 months investing in the church in that locale, but then after he moved on to Ephesus, he received a troubling report that this church he had worked so hard to build, is now in danger of collapse. Rather than functioning as a healthy, united organization centered around the person of Jesus, people have divided into groups. They've aligned themselves with different leaders. They've formed cliques within the congregation. They were doing whatever they wanted. In some cases, they thought they were helping the situation, but in fact, they were tearing the church apart because they were abusing God's gifts and the freedom that they thought they had in Christ to live and do and say whatever they wanted. As a result, the church was being torn apart.
What's interesting about the church in Corinth, and what set it apart from so many of the other churches that the Apostles write to in the New Testament, is that the church in Corinth was not fundamentally facing external opposition. The threat to the church in Corinth was internal division. It stood in danger of crumbling from within, so the Apostle Paul dashes off this letter from the city of Ephesus in order to try to set things straight. In the beginning of our passage, he says in v.16, “Do you not know?” Do you not know? In fact, he repeats this expression 10 times in this one letter, so it seems that the issue is one of ignorance. Either these Christians in Corinth have forgotten something or they'd never learned it in the first place, so he asked them, “Do you not know that you are God's temple?”
If you want to understand what Paul is driving at here, you have to understand what a temple is, so what is a temple? The most simple definition would be to say a temple is a place where people gather to worship. That's right, but the temple actually means far more within the Old Testament Scriptures. You could think of the temple as the place where heaven and earth meet. We tend to think of heaven and earth as two different locations. We usually think of heaven as some ethereal place, up away above the clouds, and earth is this ordinary place down here below. But it's better to think of heaven and earth not as two different locations, but rather two different dimensions that overlap and intersect in different ways within the one single created order that God has made. Very simply, heaven is God's space. It's the place where God dwells. And earth is human space. It's where human beings dwell. These are two dimensions of the one reality—one unseen, one seen. A temple is simply a place where heaven and earth come together, where they are one, where God dwells in the midst of his people.
How Do You Become A Temple?
If that's what a temple is, then what does it mean to be a temple? Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God's temple?” How do you become a temple? In many ways, I could retell the whole story of the Bible from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, centered around the theme of the temple. I'll do it. I'm going to give you a summary of the Bible, from the beginning to end, around the theme of the temple.
In the very beginning, what does God do? He creates the heavens and the earth. heaven and earth overlap and intersect. They are one. Human beings have unhindered access to God. When God first creates the world, he sets human beings in a garden. The whole earth is filled with his presence. There's nothing hindering their access to God. I love this evocative statement from Genesis 3:8, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” Now, if God is a spirit, how do you hear him walking? I don't know, but it's such a wonderfully evocative statement. There is nothing hindering their relationship with God. Therefore, human beings could hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, but as soon as human beings rebel, and turn their backs on God, alienation sets in. Now, we are alienated in our relationship with God, which means that now heaven and earth no longer overlap. They are no longer one. Where there was once unity and harmony, now there is division and separation. But God is on a mission to bring heaven and earth back together again, and we get the first glimpses of that mission in Genesis 3.
One of the ways in which we know that God is going to bring heaven and earth back together again is because he gives us the temple. The temple is meant to be a sign of God's future promise. This comes through the Book of Exodus. God rescues his people from their bondage and oppression in Egypt, then he leads them to Mount Sinai where he not only gives them the 10 Commandments, to instruct them in how to live their lives in response to his grace, but then he also gives them instructions for how to build a portable temple—a tabernacle. Then eventually this portable, temporary temple will become a permanent temple in Jerusalem. The temple is the place where heaven and earth overlap and intersect once more. It's the place where God dwells in the midst of his people. God says that he will dwell in the Most Holy of Holies in the inner sanctuary. Even though sin has alienated human beings from God, God still will be in the midst of his people. That will be the one place where heaven and earth continue to overlap. But that temple was always meant to be a symbol pointing beyond itself to something greater.
If you pay attention to the details in terms of how the interior of the temple is described, it's actually quite striking because you realize that all the carved imagery and furniture within the temple would have been evocative of flowers and trees. There's almond flowers and lilies, closed buds and open blossoms. There's palm trees and pomegranates. So what's the idea here? It's obviously very deliberate and intentional. The thought is that when you stepped into the temple, it would be like you were stepping into a garden. The temple was meant to be evocative of a garden, which means that the temple was supposed to be a microcosm of the whole world. It's not as if the temple was just this little slice of heaven plopped down on earth, but rather the temple was meant to give us a picture of God's ultimate purpose, which is to fill the whole world—the whole creation, the whole earth—with his presence and his love. The temple was always this sign, this symbol pointing beyond itself, to something more—a promise of what God would do in the ultimate future.
But as is so often the case, people mistake the sign for the thing signified. You know what this would be like? This would be like going all the way out west to the Grand Canyon, but when you arrive on the outskirts of the Grand Canyon, you stay fixated on the sign that tells you the Grand Canyon is this way. The only thing you ever do is look at the sign, pointing to the Grand Canyon rather than taking in the beauty of the canyon itself. That was the problem in Jesus's day. Most people mistook the temple as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, something that was pointing beyond itself to a greater reality.
That's why when Jesus begins his ministry, he declares that he is the true temple. Jesus, in his own person, is the ultimate temple, the place where heaven and earth come together, where they meet, where they overlap and intersect, where they are one, because Jesus is fully God and fully human. That's why Paul says in Colossians 1:19 that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus in bodily form, and that's why he can go on to say that through him he will reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Jesus not only embodies the fullness of God, and therefore, is the place where heaven and earth come together perfectly, but through his work on the cross, he reconciles heaven and earth in order to bring them together again. That's why Jesus famously said in John 2, “Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up again.” At the time, people thought that Jesus was out of his mind because they thought he was talking about the physical temple in Jerusalem. They said, it took us 46 years to build that temple, do you really think that you could rebuild it after it is destroyed in three days? Jesus, of course, was talking about the temple of his body. After Jesus was raised from the dead, following his crucifixion, his disciples remembered that he had said these words and they realized what he meant—that he was talking about the temple of his body because Jesus is the true temple.
Then if you scroll to the very end of the Bible, to Revelation 21, you see a glimpse of the future world that God has promised. There the seer John realizes that God's goal for humanity is not to take us up and away from this world, and to carry us into heaven, but rather to bring the life of heaven down on earth in order to renew all things. John sees the New Jerusalem, the Holy City, descending out of heaven from God, and the heavenly life that God has promised, makes all things new. This new creation, this new world that God has promised is not a return to some primeval garden, but rather its movement forward to a city—the holy city with a garden at its center.
That's the future that God has promised, but here's the curious thing. You would think that when heaven and earth come together again, in the form of a holy city, that this city would be chock full of temples. There'd be a temple on every corner so that everyone everywhere would be worshipping God, but John deliberately tells us in Revelation 21:22: He saw no temple. He saw no temple there. So what's with that? Why would there not be a temple in God's holy city? John explains it. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” There's no need for a temple because God has filled the whole creation, with his presence, his power and his love. God has brought heaven and earth fully and finally together so that nothing is hindering our access to God. God is present, always and everywhere. There's no need for a temple. That is why John hears a voice telling him that the dwelling place of God is now with human beings. God will dwell with his people. They will be his people, and he will be their God. There you go. I did it. The whole Bible, in six minutes, centered around the theme of the temple.
Here's the best part: You don't have to wait for that day. You don't have to wait for that moment when God brings the life of heaven to renew all things on earth because you can experience it now. You can experience a little taste of what God has in store for all of us, now. That's what Paul's talking about. If you are a Christian—if you have placed your trust in Jesus, then the very moment that you put your faith in him, God's Spirit dwells within you. The very God of the universe comes and dwells within you, makes his home within you, which transforms you into a temple. Now, you are a place where heaven and earth come together, where they overlap and intersect because now God is dwelling in you through the power and presence of his Spirit. So you become a mini temple. You can experience God's future blessings in your life now and your own life becomes a sign of what God has promised for all of creation in the middle of history. God's Spirit dwells within you, filling you with his power, his perspective, and his presence. That is awe inspiring. That is incredible. We human beings can become a temple of God himself. God dwells within us through the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, we take that for granted. We take it for granted, and we forget all about it. We go about living our lives as if nothing has changed, and nothing is different. That's why Paul says, “Don't you know who you are?” “Don't you know that you are God's temple?” This changes everything. God's Spirit dwells within you. That's what makes you holy, but that doesn't mean sinless. God is not saying that as soon as he dwells within you that you no longer have sin in your life. We all know that's not true. But to be holy means to be set apart for God's special purposes. It means that God has made you the object of his love. To be holy simply means to be devoted to God. That is who you are. God has devoted you to himself, but that's also who you are to become. You are supposed to live out that new identity. You are supposed to live into that holiness. You are devoted to God: Now, live that way.
Why Does This Matter?
Here's the all important question: So what? God has made us mini temples, where he dwells in us through his Holy Spirit. Paul is concerned that we can forget this stunning truth, or perhaps we never knew it in the first place. Why does this matter? There are massive implications for what it means to be God's temple, both personally and corporately.
Let me take the personal first. In this particular passage, the word “you” is plural. Paul is addressing the church as a whole, but there's also a very personal aspect to this, which comes clear in chapter six of this same letter. When Paul asks a similar question, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” That's where we get this saying, your body is a temple. Do you not know that your body—and that is singular, Paul's talking about you, your physical body—do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you—and there that's plural. He's addressing the church as a whole. This is true of all Christians. Paul is not saying that your body is a temple and therefore you should worship yourself, nor is Paul saying that because you are a temple, you should offer yourself as a gift to the world. No, he has something more specific in mind in 1 Corinthians 6.
I have to say that the ancient Greek city of Corinth has a lot in common with the modern city of New York. One of the issues in Corinth is that people believe that if God relates to us on the basis of grace, then that means we can do whatever we want. They figured, if God accepts me, not because of who I am or what I've done, but because of who Jesus is, and what he's done for me, then that's a great deal, because then I can do whatever I want. Specifically, they were confused when it came to sex. They would say, if I'm free in Christ, that means that I can have sex with whomever I want, whenever I want, however I want, as long as there's mutual consent, and no one gets hurt. That sounds very modern, doesn't it? That was what was going on in Corinth. The Christians in Corinth thought that the biblical sexual ethic was too restrictive. They figured it's not really a big deal. If God accepts us on the basis of grace, then God doesn't care who I sleep with. But Paul says, no. It doesn't work that way. Yes, God relates to us on the basis of grace. He accepts us not because of who we are, or anything we've ever done, or will do, but because of who Jesus is, and what he's done for us on the cross. But if you think that God's grace gives you license to do whatever you want, then you haven't understood it at all because God's grace always leads to a transformed life.
Paul says, because you are a temple of the Holy Spirit, because God has made you holy, because he has devoted you to himself, any form of sexual intimacy outside the context of a permanent and exclusive covenant of marriage between a man and a woman is out of bounds. It's out of bounds, Paul says. In 1 Corinthians 6:13 Paul uses this Greek word porneia, which is the root for our English word pornography, but he's talking about far more than simply illicit images. The Greek word porneia was a technical term, and it applied to any and all sexual intimacy, real or imagined, that took place outside the context of a permanent and exclusive covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. It was that specific. Paul is saying that anything outside of that context of marriage is out of bounds for the Christian. He goes on to say that the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. In other words, what we do with our bodies matters because if you're a Christian, united to Christ, if you have his Spirit dwelling within you, then whatever you do with your body affects Christ. Christ cares quite a bit about what you do with your body because it's a part of him.
This is yet one more place where the Corinthians failed to think things through from the standpoint of the cross. This is why I've been saying that you never grow out of the cross and move on to some more advanced teaching or form of discipline. No, you grow deeper into the cross, and all of its implications for our lives because here's the logic. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” You see the logic of the cross here? He's saying, Jesus went to the cross for you, in your place as your substitute, and he paid the ultimate price—his life—in order to rescue you, in order to rescue you from the down drag of sin, in order to free you from sinful patterns of thought and behavior, and therefore, you're not your own. He's redeemed you at the cost of his very own blood. You're not your own. You belong to him, and therefore, glorify God in your body.
There are massive personal implications for what it means to be God's temple, but then there's also corporate implications as well. That's the emphasis in 1 Corinthians 3. Here, he says, “Do you not know that you are God's temple, and that God's Spirit dwells in you?” The you there is plural. God's Spirit not only dwells within you as an individual, but also within us—the local church, the congregation. So every local church, without exception, that is centered on the person of Jesus becomes a temple of God's Holy Spirit. God dwells in our midst. Is that not awesome? This is what Jesus meant when he said whenever two or three are gathered together in my name there am I, in the midst of them. God dwells in our midst by his Spirit corporately as a community. That is why we have to be very careful about how we live in community with one another.
What was the presenting issue in Corinth? The church in Corinth was an absolute mess. It was being torn apart by dysfunction and by infighting because there were some very gifted leaders who thought that they were doing the right thing. They thought they were trying to make things better, improve things, but in the end, they were actually causing the church to crumble from within because they were being divisive, and therefore destructive. They criticized the Apostle Paul, and his gospel message as being inadequate and insufficient. They said that Paul was a weak stick, and his gospel was too basic, too simplistic. They wanted deeper stuff. They wanted to take everybody into the deep end of the pool. But Paul says, no. They might have thought that they were doing the right thing, but they're making things worse.
What's striking about this is that Paul never says these people were not Christians. You know, the issue in other churches, in other places, was with false teaching or false teachers, but not here. He never says that they're not Christians. No doubt they were very sincere and very devoted in their faith, but their ministry, and that's how they saw it, but their ministry was divisive and destructive. That's why Paul says, You are destroying God's temple in v.17. But how could that be? How could they be so misguided? The answer, in v.18, is because they were deluded. “Let no one deceive himself.” The prophet Jeremiah says, the heart is deceitful above all things, who can understand it? The fact is, it's so easy for us to deceive ourselves, to think we're on the right side, then we find out we're on the wrong side.
What do you do about that? How do you avoid that? Paul goes on to say beginning at v.18, “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ So let no one boast in men.” Let no one boast in human beings.
The fundamental problem was that people were causing all this division by creating cliques within the community centered around certain leaders, saying, "I belong to this person, not that person. I'm siding with this person, not that person" Paul says, if you're truly wise, you know you've always got more to learn. If you think you're wise, trust me, you're not. If you know that you're not wise, if you know you still have so much to learn, then you're on the right path. If you're open, if you're humble, if you're teachable, then you're on the path to true wisdom. What does Paul want us to see here? Rather than trying to side with certain people against others, we have to realize that God gives leaders to the church for all of us. No one person belongs to us, rather than them. No, he's given all the leaders of the church for us to learn from, and therefore if you are in Jesus, you have everything you need. In this world, as well as in life, or in death, in the present, or in the future. Paul says, all are yours. Everything is yours. You don't need to be jockeying for position and creating friction in your relationships. But more importantly, not only do Paul or Apollos or whatever other leaders belong to you, but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. So quit playing these games. Keep your heart and your mind focused on the things that matter.
What Paul is showing us here is that the only way to solve any problem in the Christian life is by centering it on the cross. He says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” Jesus has redeemed you at the cost of his own blood. You're not your own. You belong to him, therefore glorify God in your body. It's not just about the personal, it's also about the corporate. You are God's temple. God's Spirit dwells within you. Therefore remember who you are. Live out the unity that you already have in Christ who has shed his blood for us in order to make us one. We are God's temple. In us, personally and corporately, heaven and earth have come together, and we give the world around us a sign of what the future world God has promised will be like. Let's live out the identity that we have received as a gift of his grace, both in our individual lives and as a church.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we thank you for this central defining image of the temple and all that it conveys. We pray that we would not forget, but we would remember this towering truth that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, that you by your grace dwell in our midst, that we are many temples where heaven and earth come together. Give us the grace and the power to live that way. We ask in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.