You’ll remember, I’m sure, that Paul is addressing the problem of divisions in the church in Corinth. The people were quarrelling with one another; and they were disagreeing with one another; and they were exalting themselves over one another instead of loving and serving one another, which is how we’re meant to treat one another in the church. And they were boasting about this preacher and that preacher. ‘I follow Paul’ said one group; ‘I follow Apollos’ said another group; ‘I follow Cephas’ said another group; and perhaps there were other preachers which they followed and boasted about.
And so, Paul wrote to address this problem. And we saw last week how he made clear that preachers are really nothing at all. And he did this by picturing the church as a field and as a building under construction. And so, if the church is like a field, then the preacher is like the farm-labourer who is sent by God to preach God’s word in the church. And whether the church grows or not is due, not to the preacher, but to the Lord God. God is the one who causes the church to grow, not the preacher. God is the one who counts; and he’s the one we should praise and not the preacher.
And then Paul compared the church to a building under construction. And if the church is like a building under construction, then the preachers are like builders. And just as it’s important that builders use the right materials, so it’s important that preachers use the right materials when working on the church. So, instead of relying on excellence of speech and all those clever techniques the sophists used in those days to impress the people, and instead of relying on excellence of human wisdom to impress the people, the faithful preacher is to rely on the Spirit of God to build his church in his way and in his time. And in that way, the Lord receives all the praise and honour and glory, because he’s the one who sent his Son to die for sinners, and he’s the one who sends his Spirit to enable sinners to repent and to believe the good news of Christ crucified, so that they are added to the church which the Lord is building throughout the world.
Well now, we could have studied verses 16 and 17 last week, because Paul continues in verses 16 and 17 to compare the church to a building. However, we didn’t have time for them last week, but we have time this evening. And in these two verses Paul compares the church, not to any old building, but to a special kind of building. He compares the church to a temple. And so, this evening, we’ll look at these two verses And first of all, in verse 16, there’s Paul’s question about the church as God’s temple. And then in verse 17 there’s a warning about destroying God’s temple.
So, let’s turn to Paul’s question in verse 16. He asks his readers:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?
Don’t you know this? Surely you know this? Surely this is something you learned a while ago? Well, Paul is like a school teacher who is reminding his students of something they learned several weeks ago. Perhaps the class is struggling to understand something and the teacher needs to remind them of a principle they learned before which is the key to helping them understand what they’re struggling with now. And so, Paul the school teacher wants to remind his readers of this key principle: You’re the temple of God and God’s Spirit dwells in you.
Well now, whenever the Corinthians pictured a temple, they probably pictured all the pagan temples in Corinth. You see, overlooking the city of Corinth, high up on a mountain, was the temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty and fertility. And there were other temples and shrines in Corinth, dedicated to this god and to that goddess. Probably most of the members of the church in Corinth were from a pagan background; and they would have worshipped in these pagan temples at one time, before coming to believe in the Saviour. So, when Paul compares the church to a temple, his first readers may have been picturing in their minds one of the temples in Corinth. Paul, on the other hand, was probably thinking about the temple in Jerusalem: where the Jews gathered to offer their sacrifices to God.
And the important feature of the temple in Jerusalem for what Paul is teaching his readers is that the temple was originally designed to be God’s dwelling place. It was his home among his people. So, whenever Moses and the people finished making the tabernacle — which was a portable version of the temple — the glory-cloud of the Lord — which signified the Lord’s presence — moved from the top of Mount Sinai to cover the tabernacle. In this way, the Lord was showing the people that he was moving into his new home. And then, in the days of Solomon, when the temple was built, we again read how the glory-cloud of the Lord filled the temple. The glory-cloud was the sign of God’s presence and when the glory-cloud of the Lord filled the temple that was the signal that the Lord had moved into his new home. It was to show that from then on, the Lord dwelt there, among his people.
Now the people understood that the Lord is great and glorious and that no building can contain him. They understood that he is enthroned in heaven, where he’s surrounded by angels and from where he rules over all things. However, they also believed that God was present in the temple in a very special way, so that whenever they went up to the temple in Jerusalem to worship, they were coming into the Lord’s house to meet with them. Though the Lord ruled over all from his throne in heaven, he had graciously promised to dwell among his people in the temple.
And that was the case until the Lord’s death and resurrection, because after the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead, he ascended to heaven from where he poured out his Spirit upon his people. And in this way, the Lord now dwells in each one of his people. He dwells in us by his Spirit whom he sends into our lives to enable us to repent and to believe and to devote our lives to obeying him. Instead of dwelling in a stone temple in Jerusalem, the Lord now dwells in every believer personally by his Spirit.
However, he also dwells in the church corporately. Whenever the church gathers together for worship, the Lord is with us by his Spirit. That’s the point Paul is making here in verse 16: Don’t you know that you yourselves — corporately or collectively — are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? And the ‘you’ there is plural. We might say: ‘God’s Spirit lives in yous.’ So, in Old Testament times, if someone wanted to meet the Lord, they had to go to the temple in Jerusalem. But now — now that the Lord Jesus has died and has been raised and has poured out his Spirit upon his people — if someone wants to meet the Lord, they’re to come to church, because when God’s people assemble for worship, the Lord is with us by his Spirit.
And wasn’t Paul implying this in what he said earlier about preaching? Back in chapter 1 he spoke about how — through the preaching of the gospel — God was at work to call his people to himself. So when a preacher stands up to proclaim God’s word, the Lord is at work among us by his Spirit. And then, in chapter 2, Paul said that his own preaching was accompanied by a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. So, whenever God’s people meet together and hear his word, God is present by his Spirit and he’s working powerfully among the people to accomplish his purposes in their lives. So, he’s with us whenever we meet together. And then later in this letter, Paul will write about how someone might come into the church and hear the preaching of God’s word; and they’ll be convicted by what they hear; and they’ll say to the members of the church:
God is really among you!
God is really among us, because the church is his temple and he dwells among us by his Spirit. And, of course, doesn’t that have important consequences for how we come to church on Sundays? Since the Lord God Almighty is here, then we need to act appropriately. Throughout the service — from the moment he calls us to worship him to the moment his sends us away with his blessing — throughout the service we need to be careful that we behave in a way that is fitting for those who are in the presence of the Lord God Almighty. And the most fitting way to come into his presence is with reverence and awe. That’s what the writer to the Hebrews tells us, because our God — the God who is with us when we worship him — is a consuming fire. And so, with reverence and awe, we’re to give thanks to him. And with reverence and awe, we’re to confess our sins to him. With reverence and awe, we’re to pay attention to the reading and preaching of his word. We’re to come before him with reverence and awe, because our God — the God who is with us by his Spirit — is a consuming fire, before whom even the angels hide their faces. And we’re to be careful that we worship him in the way that he has commanded us and in no other way, because he is a consuming fire.
So we’re to worship him with reverence and awe, but also with joy, because what a privilege it is for sinners like us to be able to come into his holy presence. We’re able to come into his presence, because of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died to deliver us from condemnation and whose blood cleanses us from all our unrighteousness. Think of Isaiah the prophet in the Old Testament, who had that vision when he saw the Lord, sitting enthroned in heaven. And do you remember how he fell down on his face and cried out:
Woe to me! Woe to me! I am ruined, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.
He knew — in fact he felt it, didn’t he? — that sinful men and women cannot come into the presence of such a holy God and live. But how wonderful, because through faith in the Saviour who died for sinners, we’re pardoned by God and the guilt of our sin is washed away by his blood. And so, having been pardoned and washed clean, we’re able to come before the Lord to give thanks to him and to seek his help. So, we come with reverence and awe; but we also come with joy, because we have been pardoned by God for the sake of Christ who died for sinners.
And, of course, whenever we meet in God’s presence today, we’re able to look forward to that day when we will come into his presence in the new creation to be with him for ever and for ever. That’s the great hope the Saviour gives to all who trust in him. Right now, when we meet together for worship, God dwells among us. But when the service is over, we’re sent out of his presence to live in the world, where we have to struggle against sin and temptation; and where we face all kinds of troubles and trials. But the day is coming when we will come into God’s presence in a renewed heaven and earth; and we’ll never have to leave his presence; and nothing unclean or sinful will be allowed into his presence to spoil our fellowship with him. So that’s what we’re hoping for and longing for. And when we meet in God’s presence every Sunday to worship him, we’re able to look forward to that day. And in the meantime, we believe he is with us when we meet for worship; and when we meet with him, we’re to worship him with reverence and awe and with joy.
So, that’s Paul’s question: Don’t you know. Don’t you know that you yourselves — the church of Jesus Christ in this place — are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? Then he goes on in verse 17 to warn them:
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.
Well, there you have it again: you are that temple. The church is God’s temple. This is true of the universal church; that is, the church in every place in every generation. And it’s also true of every local church. It was true of the church in Corinth in the days of the New Testament; and it’s true of Immanuel Presbyterian Church today. We’re the temple of God, because God dwells among us. And that temple, says Paul, is sacred. In other words, it is holy, which means it has been set apart by God to belong to him. We belong to him; and therefore whoever destroys the church or harms it in any way has to deal with God. They’ll have to answer to him, because by harming the church, they’re harming what belongs to him.
And so, here’s the warning:
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.
Well, in Old Testament times, the people were warned that whoever defiled God’s temple would be cut off from the people. They were no longer to be regarded as one of God’s people. Defiling God’s Old Testament temple was a serious thing; and it’s no less serious now, because Paul warns his readers that if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.
Now, during the week I was listening to another preacher who was preaching on these verses. And when he got to this warning, he said Paul was referring to those who persecute the church. So, according to this preacher, Paul was re-assuring the believers in Corinth that whoever persecutes them will not get away with it, because God will punish them. Now, that’s true, isn’t it? The Lord knows all things; and he knows how his people have been persecuted in every generation. He knows what wicked men and women have done in their efforts to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. And the Lord knows it when you too suffer for your faith and when people despise you and mistreat you because of your commitment to him. The Lord knows all about these things. And the Lord will not overlook the sins of those who persecute his church. He will hold them responsible for what they have done, unless, of course, they repent and believe the good news, because whoever repents and believes the good news will be pardoned by God. Think of the Apostle Paul before he was converted, when he was known as Saul. Do you remember how he went about, from place to place, breathing out threats against the church and hunting down Christians in order to arrest them and have them imprisoned? Here was a man who was once absolutely committed to destroying the Christian church. And yet, the Lord was gracious and merciful to him, and he did not treat him as his sins deserved. Instead the Lord pardoned his sins and the Lord changed his life and made Saul the great persecutor into Paul the great preacher.
But is that really what Paul is referring to here? Is he really talking in verse 17 about those who persecute the church? It seems to me that those who say that have forgotten the context surrounding this verse. Paul has been writing about preachers and preaching, hasn’t he? And in the previous verses he was referring to those preachers who are like builders who use the wrong materials when constructing a house. So, when a builder is contracted to build a house, he must use the best of materials, materials which are tested and which will be long lasting. But then there’s a builder who comes along; and instead of using the best of materials, he uses cheap materials which will not last. Well, eventually he’ll be found out. Or Paul could be thinking of builders who have been careless, and in the course of their work, they damage part of the building. So, they’ve been contracted to build an extension. But in the course of their work, they destroy the original house. Well, they won’t get away with it.
That’s the picture Paul has in mind. And so, he’s not thinking about outsiders who are persecuting the church, but he’s thinking about preachers in the church who are damaging the church and harming it by what they preach. Instead of relying on the Holy Spirit to bless the preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified, they’re relying on the wrong things: they’re relying on the wisdom of the world, instead of on the power of God. And so, instead of doing us good — by preaching to us the message of the cross — they’re only harming us, by teaching us things which cannot have any lasting good. And instead of relying on the power of God to convince and convert sinners, they’re relying on clever techniques and clever ideas and on the wisdom of the world, which does not know God.
Paul is not referring here to those outside the church who persecute the church. He’s thinking of those inside the church who harm it by what they teach and by how they teach it. And he’s probably also referring to those who were dividing the church in Corinth and who had split the church apart by quarrelling with one another and by arguing with one another and by exalting themselves over one another. They too were harming the church; and by the things they said and by the things they did they were destroying the church, which is God’s sacred temple.
And it’s the same in every age. Yes, in every generation Christians have to contend with persecutors outside the church. But when Christians are persecuted, it often makes the church stronger — doesn’t it? — because persecuted believers need to rely on the Lord more and more; and they need to rely on one another more and more; and the persecution draws them closer to the Lord and closer to one another. Persecution sometimes makes the church stronger. But much more damaging to the church are those inside the church who divide the church by the things they say and do. And instead of working hard to maintain the unity of the church, and instead of loving and serving one another, they do what the believers in Corinth were doing, and they quarrel with one another, and they exalt themselves over one another. And just as cracks might appear in the wall of a building, so the members of the church make cracks appear in the church of Jesus Christ, the temple of the living God. And so Paul issues us with a stern warning:
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.
Well, Paul probably isn’t referring here to eternal condemnation. He’s not saying that those believers who destroy God’s church will lose their salvation. After all, in the previous verses he told us that those preachers who rely on the wrong things will themselves be saved, even though their work is burned up and destroyed. They will be saved, because the blood of Jesus Christ is able to wash away all our guilt.
So, it’s unlikely that Paul is referring here to eternal condemnation. But it’s still a very serious and sobering warning, isn’t it? Paul is making crystal clear that those who damage the Lord’s church will not get away with it, but will answer to the Lord for it. And that’s important, because often we are so very careless in the church, aren’t we? We are careless about the things we say; and we’re careless about the things we do. We think we can say whatever we want and get away with it. We think we can do whatever we want and get away with it. Instead of putting a guard over our mouth, we feel we can go ahead and say whatever we want; and we don’t stop for even a moment to consider what impact our words and actions will have on the peace and unity of the church. Instead of building up believers, we tear them down. Instead of loving and serving one another, we harm them. And we think we can get away with it.
And so we need to stop and consider Paul’s words, because here he warns us that if anyone — anyone — destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. We need to pay attention to Paul’s warning; and if we have done anything to damage God’s temple — the church of Jesus Christ, the people who worship here — we need to repent and believe. We need to turn from our sin in repentance and believe again the good news that for the sake of Jesus Christ who died for sinners, God will forgive you for what you have done. So, repent and believe the good news, and you’ll discover once again the grace of the Lord who does not treat us as our sins deserve, but who is willing to pardon us again and again and again for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And we ought to seek the help of his Spirit, who lives in each one of us, and who is working among us when we meet for worship; we ought to seek his help to guard our mouths and to guard our actions so that what we say and what we do will not weaken the church, but will strengthen it.
And so, there you are: the church of Jesus Christ on the earth is the temple of God and God dwells among us by his Spirit. So, the pagans in Corinth went to worship in their pagan temples. But their gods were false gods and couldn’t do anything and couldn’t speak to them. And because of the hardness of their hearts and their unbelief, the Jews still went to the temple in Jerusalem, and they did not realise that the Most Holy Place in the temple was now empty, because the Lord was no longer there. So, what a privilege, because whether the Lord’s people meet on the Lord’s Day in big, fancy cathedrals, or in plain style Presbyterian buildings, or in someone’s home, they are the temple of God, because God has promised to meet with his people and to work among them and in them by his Spirit and through the preaching of his word. What a privilege to be a member of Christ’s church.
But what a responsibility we have as well: a responsibility to guard what we say and to guard what we do, so that we do not do anything to divide Christ’s church or to damage the Lord’s temple, which he is building on the earth, and which he will continue to build until the Lord Jesus comes again. And then, when he comes again, the Lord God will dwell with his people for ever and for ever in glory.