A Solemn Warning
NOTE: The following article serves as the basis of a message on 1st Corinthians 3:16-17 that was brought to the people of Shepherd’s Fellowship Baptist Church. I hope it blesses you as you read it, for it teaches what the true nature of the church is and that our Sovereign will destroy all those who are bent on destroying her.
In 1st Corinthians 3:16-17, Paul tells us what the church is and what happens to those who are bent on destroying it through divisions (1:10-3:23). In these verses, he further develops the argument that he was making in verses 9b-15 by describing the kind of building that he and other Christian workers have been erecting, namely God’s temple in Corinth. With this imagery he does two things: (1) he helps the Corinthians understand the nature and significance of their being God’s people in Corinth, and (2) he develops the imagery of judgment used in verses 13-15 and goes on to solemnly warn those who are destroying the church by their factiousness. In these wonderful verses, we will learn what the real nature of the local church is and what God will do to protect it against those who would take Him lightly and destroy His church through worldly wisdom and division.
The Temple of God: The Church of Jesus Christ – 1 Corinthians 3:16
1 Corinthians 3:16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
- “Do you not know that you are a temple of God . . . ?” – The word “you” here is plural, indicating that Paul is speaking of the church collectively. The word “temple” is pregnant with meaning, both for Jews and Gentiles. This is because the Old Covenant Jew had a physically locatable space called “the temple” to worship at, where God would come and make himself known to His people (Exodus 25:1-9; 1 Kings 8:1-13). The Gentiles in Corinth were also familiar with “temple” imagery since they were surrounded by pagan shrines and temples. As former pagans, many of them would have frequented the shrines in their city; and sadly, some of them were still in the habit of doing so (cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10). We’ll look now at the latter half of verse 16.
- “ . . . and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” – Paul is essentially asking the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit resides in you, the church?” It is true that the Spirit of God controls (i.e., indwells) each individual Christian (cf. 6:19), but Paul’s point here is more along the lines of a corporate dwelling. Paul means something like this: “Do you not know that you are the corporate place of God’s dwelling and that when you are gathered in Jesus’ name, you experience the presence and power of the Spirit in your midst?” (cf. 5:4-5) And so, for them the most important thing to remember is that the Spirit is the key to Christian living in the new covenant era and it is His presence in their midst that marks them off as God’s people in Corinth and as such, they provide the only genuine hope and holy alternative to the surrounding pagan world.
A Solemn Warning: God’s Protection of His People – 1 Corinthians 3:17
1 Corinthians 3:17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.
- “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him . . .” – Because of their worldly wisdom, boasting, and factions, some within the Corinthian congregation were quenching the work of the Spirit and in so doing were destroying the only alternative to paganism that God had placed in their city. This is what happens when cliques develop. People cluster themselves around certain people and certain teachings and then segregate themselves from the rest of the congregation. Unity is destroyed, factions are created, and heresy eventually develops as people follow the traditions of men rather than the wisdom of God. God hates this because it destroys the ability for the church to be the light of the world and a city set on a hill.
- Paul uses very strong language to warn that those who destroy the church can expect eternal judgment (Matthew 25:46; Acts 17:31). Some theologians have struggled with the fact that Paul seems to indicate in this context that it is a particular group within the covenant community who are in danger of being destroyed. The fact that Paul would warn those in the church of a genuine threat of eternal punishment in no way compromises the truth that nothing will separate God’s elect from the love of Christ, for we know from other passages that no one can snatch Christ’s sheep from the hand of the Father (Romans 8:33-39; John 10:27-29). It is important to understand that on the one hand, God’s warning the sinning professors in any church does not rule out the truth of the perseverance of God’s elect on the other. This is because the visible congregation in any given local assembly almost always consists of those who are not part of the true, invisible church, the elect of God. In other words, both God lovers and God haters will comprise the outward visible congregation of any local assembly because the latter group often looks and acts like the former group; at least for a time (cf. Matthew 7:15-23; 13:18-23; 1 John 2:19). And so, for God’s own sovereign purposes and for His glory, it is His will that the wheat and the chaff grow up together until the harvest at the end of the world (Matthew 13:25-30). At any rate, the warning of eternal destruction in verse 17a is directed towards those who are primarily involved in creating these factions. Now, we will move on to the reason given for such a dire warning.
- “. . . for the temple of God is holy . . .” – The word “holy” means that God’s new covenant “temple” is the exclusive, set-apart group that He chooses to use to bring Himself the maximum glory. Because the new covenant “temple”, the church, is to be set apart exclusively for the service of God, it cannot be desecrated in any way, either by those within it or those outside of it lest they risk eternal destruction (v. 17a). This is because God is a jealous God, meaning, He is a protective God (Romans 12:1; 1 Peter 2:9). You desecrate or profane a temple by treating it as a common thing, and when you do so, you are arrogantly declaring that that temple is no longer the exclusive domain of a particular person or persons and is thus no longer exclusively set apart for them.
- Just as one didn’t profane the old covenant temple sacrifices upon pain of physical death (Leviticus 22:9), you endanger your own soul when you profane the church because you treat the new covenant “temple” as a common thing; the very thing that the Creator has designated to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable and pleasing to Him and are designed to bring glory to Him (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 3:17). O’ the inexpressible danger involved in profaning God’s temple through a malicious heart that is intent upon destroying Christ’s church!
- “. . . and that is what you are . . .” – This language doesn’t mean simply a ritual holiness, something that was common amongst the Pharisees; but instead it indicates a true display of moral-ethical holiness that was to be continually lived out by this God-loving community. Since God is holy; His new covenant temple, the church, is also holy and set apart for His purposes; and as His temple, we are by implication to be holy. And so, these verses reveal that the church of God in Corinth has not been the poster child for moral-ethical holiness, but instead, after a stern warning to those factious people within the congregation; Paul lovingly calls them to be that which they must be by nature, if indeed they are truly a part of God’s “temple” in Corinth (1 Thessalonians 4:3; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Romans 6:19, 22).
Conclusion: The Take Home Message
1 Corinthians 3:16-17 has direct relevance for our contemporary church. It is by these verses that we learn that the church of Christ is not a brick and mortar building nor can it truly be located in any permanently fixed place, but it is found exclusively in the people of God, the Spirit controlled, new covenant “temple” of God. We also learn that God is jealous (read protective) of this precious “temple”, and to profane it is to bring to wrath of God upon your head and earn your own eternal destruction. This shows how important the church really is to God, and if He takes her this seriously, we should stop and consider why and what that means for us today. Most people in evangelical circles take the church way too lightly today, as if it is a playground for all the materialistic toys that the world has to offer to immature believers. As a result, most pagans see the evangelical church as irrelevant at best, and at worst; they view it as if it’s a disease that needs to be eliminated (i.e., atheists Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett). In some ways the latter group might be more correct in their assessment than they realize. There are indeed many professing local “congregations” that do need to close-shop because they bring such a terrible reproach upon Christ and His gospel; for many have long forsaken the gospel and its power to change sinful man. But in spite of the dire condition of evangelicalism in general, God is still on His throne, and as the High King of Heaven, He will always have a special, Spirit-empowered people called out for Himself; His true bride. They truly love Him, they always seek Him, and when compassing their entire Christian lives, it is proven by Scripture that they alone hunger and thirst for Him just as a famished deer craves a drink from the cold stream (Psalm 42:1-2; John 6:68-69). And it is through the testimony and work of that called-out people bride that God offers the only true alternative to the fool’s gold that worldly religion, pagan superstition, and rank secularism has to offer. Would to God that He would make this assembly His special, choice, and precious “temple” for the glory of His name (1 Peter 2:9)!