In the Old Testament God had promised that part of the New Covenant, a key part of the New Covenant, would be God again dwelling amongst his people. Ezekiel 37:26-28 is a good example:
26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’ “
For Paul the Spirit is how God now dwells with his people. It is significant to note that Paul uses Temple imagery to describe this new reality. The Spirit is both the fulfilment of the New Covenant and the fulfilment of the renewed temple imagery. Paul speaks of the Spirit in this New Covenant/new temple combo four times. As would be expected he speaks of the gathered community in temple language, much like God dwelt amongst his gathered people in the Old Testament in both Tabernacle and Temple. What is surprising is that Paul also uses this temple language for the Spirit’s presence in individual believers. We’re going to look briefly at each of the four passages.
First is Ephesians 4:22. The context is Gentiles, who were far from God and excluded from fellowship have now been brought near to God through the death of Jesus. Jesus has achieved peace with God for both those far away (Gentiles) and those near (Jews). And now in Christ a new humanity is established because through Christ both Jews and Gentiles have access to God by the one Spirit. Then Paul writes:
19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
This is probably the most explicit incidence of this Spirit/Temple idea. The Ephesian Christians are being built into a Temple, a dwelling place where God will be present by his Spirit.
Next is 1 Corinthians 3:16-17. Here Paul is discussing the foolish team-spirit that has been building around different leaders, and the contention and segregation on the basis of “wisdom” that has ensued which is destroying the church. To which Paul says,
16Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.
The temple imagery really starts back in verse 9 where Paul refers to the Corinthians as God’s building with the foundation being Jesus Christ. The Corinthians are warned not to metaphorically build the building with materials unsuited to the foundation but rather with gold, silver and costly stones – imagery from 1 Chronicles 29 and 2 Chronicles 3 and the building of Solomon’s temple.
The gathered community in Corinth was God temple is that city. Amongst all the other Pagan temples in Corinth God people gathered, accompanied by the Spirit, was God’s alternative. And the Corinthians were in danger of destroying God’s temple by their factional in-fighting. And so comes one of the strongest warning in Scripture: those responsible for the destruction would in turn be destroyed by God!
This is perhaps the most important word in Scripture about the importance and magnitude of the local church – the other frontrunner for me is Ephesians 3 with the cosmic significance of the church on display. The local church is God’s temple in the place where it is to be found, and it’s God’s temple because of the presence of the Spirit because it is by the Spirit that God has returned to be with his people.
The same idea is seen in 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1 where the people are commanded to leave behind the idolatry of Corinth and purify themselves from idol practices precisely because they are the temple of God in Corinth. They themselves are God’s temple and so God’s alternative to the temples and idols in Corinth, so of course they had to come out from and separate themselves from the idols of Corinth.
16What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
17“Therefore come out from them
and be separate, says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
18“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
1Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Paul takes the temple imagery and makes the stunning and surprising shift from gathered community to individual believer. The argument seems to be that the Corinthians believed that the spirit was what mattered and the body was inconsequential. What you did with your body had no impact on your spirit. And so you could sleep with a prostitute because it was just your body. Paul vigorously disagrees,
19Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.
You were purchased, the whole person, by the death of Christ and now indwelt by the Spirit as a temple for the Lord. A temple made and purchased by his own hands. And this reality has ethical implications. Individual believers being indwelt by the Spirit as a temple means that your body matters and what we do or don’t do with our bodies matters.
By His Spirit God has revisited his people. Both the gathered church functions as a temple of God’s presence in their community and also the individual Christian is a temple of the Lord through the personal presence of the Spirit residing within. Both truths have massive implications for how we think of church and how we think of ourselves and our own personal ethical piety.
Next week we’ll finish our thinking about the Temple and God’s presence by looking at the Temple and the New Jerusalem.