This is not the first time in 1 Corinthians 3 that Paul has switched from one metaphor to another in describing the local assembly. In verse 9, he moves quickly from depicting the assembly as a field to a building. As he concludes the analogy of a building, he adds yet another figure by telling the Corinthians the specific type of building they comprise – God’s temple (vv16-17).
It is important to point out here that Paul is still talking about the local assembly, not individual believers (compare with 6:19). This is shown by the “you” (plural) being called God’s “temple” (singular) in verse 16.
Nearer My God to Thee
When we consider who we are and Who God is, it is both amazing and humbling that God desires to dwell among His people. In the OT, the people of Israel went to the Temple and drew near to God. In a NT assembly, we do not go to the temple, we are “temple” in character. And when we gather together as a local assembly, we are not merely near to God, nor is He merely near to us, but we are His actual dwelling place. It does not matter how fancy the building is where we meet (it could hardly compare to Solomon’s Temple), nor how humble the structure may be – the building itself is not God’s temple – we are!
There are two main Greek words translated “temple” in the NT. The word hieron is used to refer to the entire temple property. However, the word in our text is naos, meaning the inner shrine or the very dwelling place of God. Paul emphasizes this meaning of naos by asking his readers, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (ESV).
A practical, searching question to ask ourselves is, “Would God be ‘at home’ in our assembly?” Perhaps you have stayed at another residence while traveling where your host instructed you to “make yourself at home.” It is not difficult to be “at home” in a place where you are appreciated, respected, loved, and cared for. Is the atmosphere in your local assembly one where God and His Word are appreciated, loved, respected, and obeyed?
Holy, Holy, Holy
Paul adds that “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (v17, ESV). I don’t think it’s at all out of place to remind ourselves of the reverence suggested by the metaphor of God’s temple. When the high priest in OT times went into the naos, you can be sure there was reverence; one mistake and he was dead! We can be glad we are not under that system now, but we all could probably adjust our behavior a little more when assembly meetings are taking place, for “God’s temple is holy.”
In some places, there has been an encouraging cultural shift within a generation, so that assembly believers are now more involved in one another’s lives. With that comes more interaction when we are together at local assembly meetings. Although we can and should enjoy one another’s presence when we are together, we need to remind ourselves that we are also in God’s presence and that He “is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about Him” (Psa 89:7). We should be careful to avoid extremes on either side, neither mandating certain “reverent” behavior (which might actually be personal preference), nor disregarding the seriousness of being in God’s presence by inappropriate, irreverent behavior. “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Be Careful Little Hands What You Do
In the metaphor of the building, Paul warned the Corinthians against shoddy work (i.e., building with materials like wood, hay and straw). In the metaphor of the temple, Paul warns them against destructive work (v17 –“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him,” ESV). The word “destroy” (found twice in our text) does not refer to demolition, but appears in ancient building contracts referring to some type of damage.
Sadly, it is possible to damage God’s assembly. And Paul says that the person who does will suffer the same kind of damage to himself. Thus, punishment is in kind (see Gal 6:7). The type of damage and consequent punishment Paul has in mind is not stated, yet contextually “jealousy and strife” (v3) and a party spirit (v4) would certainly be included.
The heading suggests that we need to be careful with our hands (which is true), yet our tongues are even more likely to inflict damage in God’s assembly. Things said in the flesh to or about other believers are words we can never retrieve, and often cause untold harm. We should be careful that our words and deeds do not levy damage on the assembly, God’s temple.
Brethren, We Have Met to Worship
One of the main ideas suggested by this metaphor is collective worship. Israel’s worship as redeemed people was centered around the Temple because God was there meeting with them.
When we gather in assembly meetings as a company of redeemed people, we should also worship collectively. There should be worship at every meeting, not just the gathering for the Lord’s Supper. Nowhere in the NT is the Lord’s Supper referred to as a “worship meeting.” If the local assembly is God’s naos, His dwelling place, how could there not be worship each time we gather together, whether for the Lord’s Supper, prayer, teaching, preaching, etc.? Furthermore, worship by definition is “an acknowledgement of worth.” Our acknowledgement of God’s worth should characterize us 24/7, including those times when we gather with believers of our local assembly.