God’s Temple

I Corinthians 3

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
October 2023

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (I Corinthians 3:16-17 NIV)

Today we come to two short verses.  They are two very important verses.  These verses were a rebuke to the Corinthians, and they have something to say to us as well.  They are fascinating.

They are misunderstood.  People misquote them all of the time.  Some preachers misquote these words of Paul.  They contain a very serious warning.

They contain a solemn warning about temple destroyers.  It is probably one of the strongest warnings in the Bible.  What does the warning say?

If anyone destroys God’s temple, GOD WILL DESTROY THAT PERSON; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple (I Corinthians 3:17 NIV).

What does that mean?  What does it mean to DESTROY God’s temple?  What is God’s Temple?  How do you destroy it?  Do you do that by smoking?  Do you do it by taking drugs?  Do you do it by overeating?

Do you do it by self-harm or suicide?  If you commit suicide, does this passage mean that you can’t be saved?  Is suicide an unforgivable sin?

What does it mean that God will DESTROY the person who destroys His temple?  Does it mean you will die?   Does it mean you can lose your salvation?  As you see, these two verses raise all kinds of questions.

They also contain a very important truth about the church that we have lost sight of today.  Ever since COVID, we have this idea that we can have church but not meet in person.

These verses tell us the church is important and why we need to meet in person and be involved in a local church

They tell us what God thinks of the church.  We have seen in I Corinthians what God says about preachers.  This passage tells us what God thinks of the church.

This is an important verse.   This passage will radically change how you view the church.  My wife said that she has been in church for fifty years and never heard the message contained in these verses.

3:16 Passages

It is found in one of the 3:16 passages of the Bible.  Everyone knows John 3:16 but many do not know the many other important 3:16 passages of the Bible.  Let’s look at a few of them.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Colossians 3:16 NKJV)

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16 NKJV)

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (I John 3:16 NIV)

So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:16 NIV)

Paul’s Questions

Today, we come to another 3:16 passage of Scripture.  Paul begins with a probing question.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (I Corinthians 3:16 ESV)

Paul did not just teach.  He did not just preach.  He asked questions.  That is one of the best ways to teach. I was not aware that he asked so many questions.  Paul did this in many of his letters.

He asked a lot of questions in the Book of Romans.  One man online listed fifty questions in the first eight chapters of Romans.[1]  Did you know he asked so many questions in Romans? That is just the first eight chapters.

Paul did the same thing in Corinthians. He asks many questions.  Over and over again in the book he says to them, “Don’t you know?”  Let’s look at some of them.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  (I Corinthians 3:16 ESV).  That is a question about the local church.

Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? (I Corinthians 5:6 NIV).  That is a question about cooking.

Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? (I Corinthians 6:3 NIV).  That is a question about prophecy.

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?  (I Corinthians 6:9 NIV)

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? (I Corinthians 6:15 NIV).  That is two questions: one about your body and one about prostitution.

Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?  (I Corinthians 6:16 NIV).  That is a question about sexual immorality.

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  (I Corinthians 6:19 NIV).  That is a question about your body.

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? (I Corinthians 9:13 NIV).  That is a question about religion.

Eight times Paul asks the Corinthians a rhetorical question.  Rhetorical questions are questions with an understood answer.

These questions are asked not to get information but to give information.  Eight times he tells them, “Don’t know something that you should know?”

It makes us wonder how many times today would Paul ask a question like this to the American Church?  There are many things that Christians today should know but don’t.

There are some basic things that Christians do not know.  Some have been in the church for forty years and they still know very little.  Some leaders, some small group leaders and some elders do not know basic things.

Four Important Truths about the Church

Today, we are going to look at four important truths that we desperately need to see today.

1) The local church is God’s Temple

We think of the church as a hospital for sinners.  Jesus is the great physician and there a lot of sick people with all kinds of addictions, sins and problems.  They come to church to find answers.

We think of the church as a family, and it is a family.  God is our Father.  We have brothers and sisters in Christ from all over the world in all different races.

We think of the church as a body, and it is.  It is a body of believers.  It makes up the body of Christ.  Jesus is the head.

Paul says that the church is not just a hospital or a family or a body, it is a TEMPLE.  He says it three times in two verses.  Every church is a temple.

The Jews had a temple in the OT.  It was a beautiful temple.  It was massive.  It was tall.  It was ornate.  It had tons of gold and silver in it.

The old temple had a Holy of Holies.  It had the Ark of the Covenant in it with the Ten Commandments in it.

There are plenty of pagan temples in the world today.  There were plenty in Corinth.  God does not have a physical temple today on earth.

We can argue about whether there will be one in the future but right now, there is none.  The Romans destroyed it in 70 AD, and it has never been rebuilt.

There is no temple on earth with the ark of the Covenant in it, but God still has a temple today.  God has a temple today on earth.  It is the local church.

Even imperfect churches are temples of God on earth.  Even dysfunctional churches with imperfect leaders (which describes many churches today) are temples of God on earth.

The Corinthian Church was a temple of God, and it was carnal.   You don’t have to be a Spirit-filled church with a twenty-four-hour prayer meeting to be a temple of God.

In I Corinthians 6, Paul says that every Christian individually is a temple of God but in I Corinthians 3 he says that Christians collectively are the temple of God. The pronoun “you” in Greek is plural (ὑμεῖς), not singular (σύ).

Paul says in I Corinthians 3:16, “You (plural) are a temple (singular) of God” (I Corinthians 3:16 ESV).  He did not say that they were a bunch of temples.[2]

He said that the local church collectively was a temple.   Paul says that “you together are that temple.” (I Corinthians 3:17 NIV)

The OT Temple was a physical temple.  The NT temple is a spiritual temple.  Israel HAD a temple in the OT, but the church IS a temple.  What does this mean?  That is the big question.

A temple is a place where God dwells.  It is a place that God inhabits.  He dwells in us and walks among us.  That is an incredible privilege.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells IN YOUR MIDST? (I Corinthians 3:16 NIV)

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my DWELLING among them and WALK among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (II Corinthians 6:16 ESV)

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a DWELLING in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:21-22 NIV)

That should radically change the way we view church.  Many professing Christians say that they don’t need church.  They can worship God on their own.

They can watch the service online, eating a bag of chips, like they are at a football game.  That is not worship but it also has another problem.

When we stay at home, we miss out on the presence of God in the midst of the church.

Church is not just a worship center, but the place of the divine presence.  When the church gathers together, God is present.  Are you committed to regular church attendance?

In the OT, the Shekinah Glory dwelt in Solomon’s Temple.  You could see it.  A cloud filled the Temple (II Chronicles 5:13-14).

I have been in many churches.  I have been in many different kinds of churches.  I have never seen this cloud in the service, but God’s presence is still manifested in the gathering together of believers.  He is still at work, even if you can’t see Him.

Jesus is there.  He said, “For where two or three are gathered together (not just one but two or three)  in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20 KJV)

The Holy Spirit is there. It is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  That proves that the Holy Spirit of God.

He does not just indwell us individually.  He is in the midst of the local church corporately.  That is the context of the passage.

Some do not believe that the Holy Spirit is God.  Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that the Holy Spirit is God.

In fact, they do not believe that the Holy Spirit is even a person.  They believe that the Holy Spirit is just an impersonal force.

This passage proves that that the Holy Spirit is God.  The church is called a temple.  A temple is where God lives.  God dwells in the midst of the church.

2) The local church is holy

Temples are holy.  They are considered sacred spaces.  There is something special about the church.  There is something sacred about the church.

Paul says that the Corinthians Church was holy (I Corinthians 3:17 ESV).  It is sacred (I Corinthians 3:17 NIV)

He does not just call them a temple.  He calls them “the Holy of Holies.” There are two Greek words for “temple.”  There is the word ἱερόν and there is the word ναός.

The word ἱερόν refers to the outer sanctuary.  It refers to the whole building but ναός does not refer to the whole building.

It refers to the inner sanctuary where the Holy of Holies was located.  It was so holy that only the High Priest could go into it and then only once a year.

That is the word used three times in I Corinthians 3:16-17.  The church is not just the temple of God.  It is the inner sanctuary.  It is the Holy of Holies.

Does that mean that little children run in church because it is the house of God?  What is sacred is not the building but the people.  God does not dwell in a building today. He dwells in people.

Many churches today have some incredible buildings.  That is not wrong, but the early church did not even have a church building.  They did not exist in the early church.  Church buildings did not exist until the third century.

Where does the Bible say that God dwells in people?  Paul says to the Corinthians, “YOU are God’s building” (I Corinthians 3:9 NIV).  He says, “YOU are God’s temple” (I Corinthians 3:16 NIV).

He does not say that you worship in God’s temple.  He says YOU are the temple.  Peter says that this building is made up of living stones, not dead stones.

You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house (I Peter 2:5 NIV).

God is not dwelling in a temple made of stone today.  He is dwelling in living stones. These stones are alive.  They are flesh and blood.

The temple is made up of real people.  It is made up of living stones, not lifeless bricks.

3) The local church can be destroyed

If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.  That implies that God’s temple can be destroyed.  That does not make any sense if the temple cannot be destroyed.

The KJV reads, “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy.”  The NJKV is very similar.  It reads, “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him.”

The problem is that the word “defile” and the word “destroy” are the same word in Greek.  The same verb is used in both clauses (φθείρω).  It should read, ““If anyone DESTROYS God’s temple, God will DESTROY that person.” “

Didn’t Jesus say that the church could not be destroyed?  Didn’t He say to Peter, “on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it?” (Matthew 16:18 NKJV)

Satan cannot destroy the universal church, but he can destroy local churches.  He can destroy local manifestations of God’s Temple today, as C.K. Barrett points out.[3]

Many churches close their doors all of the time.  Many are up for sale.  Between four to five thousand close every year.

The next question is this:  How are churches destroyed?  There are many ways a church can be destroyed.

It can be destroyed by persecution from the outside.  It can be destroyed by the inside.  It can be destroyed by false teachers who come into the church.  People start believing false doctrine.

It can be destroyed by division.  That is what was happening at Corinth.  Division not only divides a church; it can destroy a church.  Disunity can destroy a church.  It can destroy a marriage.  It can destroy a family.

4) Be careful about hurting the church in any way

We need to be very careful how we treat God’ temple.  There is a serious warning in this passage.  It is a stern warning.  It is one of the strongest warnings in the NT.

If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person (I Corinthians 3:17 ESV)

The punishment will fit the crime.   The same thing that they did will happen to them.  God will destroy the destroyer of His temple.

What does that mean?  Many people have completely misinterpreted it.  It has been used to apply to people who damage their body.

We should not sin against our body, but this verse has absolutely nothing to do with smoking.  One preacher delivered a sermon on this passage against cigarettes.

The preacher meant well.  Smoking is bad for the body, but it has absolutely nothing to do with this text.  We should glorify God with our body, but this passage is not talking about your body.

The temple in I Corinthians 3:16-17 is not the body.  It is the local church.  Other preachers have used this passage to say that if you commit suicide you will go to hell. “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.” 

Now suicide is a terrible thing.  It is not God’s will for anyone but, once again, this verse is not talking about suicide.  It has nothing to do with suicide.

It is not talking about doing harm to your body.  It is talking about doing harm to a local church.  It is talking about destroying a local church.

One of the most dangerous things a person can do is to destroy a church.  God says that He will destroy the person who does this.

There are two types of people: builders and destroyers.  Paul mentions two types of builders.

Both built on the foundation of Jesus.  They used different materials.  Some were better builders than others, but they were both builders.

In I Corinthians 3:17, Paul is not talking about builders but destroyers.  He is talking about someone who wants to destroy the church.

He is talking about someone who wants to destroy God’s Temple.  They are not part of the construction crew but the wrecking crew.

The question for us is this: Are you a builder or a destroyer?  Are you a good builder?  Do you build with gold, silver or previous stones?

Are you a bad builder?  Do you build with wood, hay or straw?  Are you a destroyer?  Are you tearing down the temple?

The person who builds even with bad materials will be saved but this individual will not be saved but destroyed.  Which are you?

[1] https://leadingwithquestions.com/latest-news/you-missed-the-big-10-year-anniversary-party-good-news-you-can-now-view-the-recording-2-2/


[3] C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Harper NT Commentary), 91.

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