It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of the temple in Jerusalem to the Jews. It was the centre of their religious system, and the centre of their identity as God’s people. It was the place that God had chosen to be present with his chosen people (Deut 12:5), and was the centre of their sacrificial system. Paul was a Jew, so it is not surprising that he used temple imagery in his writing. He brought the Jewish Gospel to Gentile lands, where there were many pagan temples and sanctuaries in every town and city, so temple imagery would also be meaningful to Gentiles. The essence of a temple, in both Jewish and pagan thought, was that was where the presence of a deity was manifest. To enter a temple was to enter into the presence of the deity.
There are two different Greek words for temple. Although there was not much distinction between them in secular Greek writing, in both the Greek Septuagint and the NT they had distinctly different meanings.
The first is 'hieron', which is used to refer to the whole temple complex in Jerusalem, including all the extensive outer courtyards and precincts. In the NT this always refers to the physical temple in Jerusalem, occurring most frequently in the four gospels and in Acts, when Jesus or his followers entered the Jerusalem temple. In his letters, Paul only uses this word once when he asks about those who are employed in the temple service receiving their food from the temple (1 Cor 9:13). In both Jewish and pagan temples the priests who served in the temple were permitted to eat some of the sacrificial food, so Paul could possibly be referring to either, but the Jerusalem temple is more likely.
The second word is 'naos', which is the Greek word for a shrine or sanctuary, including a pagan shrine, where the gods were thought to dwell. In the NT it is used to describe the special place of God’s dwelling, the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple (eg. Mt 27:5). In his speech in Athens Paul also used this word for pagan shrines (Acts 17:24). In other places in the NT, Jesus used it to describe his own physical body (Jn 2:21), and it is used many times in Revelation to describe the heavenly temple, the place of God’s glorious presence.
In his letters, Paul uses this word six times. Five of those times it is clear that he is referring to either the church (Eph 2:21, 1 Cor 3:16-17, 2 Cor 6:16), or to the physical body of the individual believer (1 Cor 6:19). In the other place there is great debate over whether he is referring to the temple in Jerusalem, or to the church, when he predicts that the man of lawlessness will take his seat in the temple of God (2 Thess 2:4). He also refers to the temple more indirectly, when he refers to the dividing wall of hostility (Eph 2:14-15).
The temple as a symbol of the church
There are hints of this imagery of the temple being the people of God in the OT, although Israel is never directly described as God’s temple. In the wilderness, God set his dwelling in the tabernacle which was set up in the midst of his people, who camped around it in their different tribes (Num 2), so the presence of God was literally in the midst of his people. The Psalmist described Judah as becoming God’s sanctuary (Ps 114:2). In Ezekiel’s eschatological temple, God promised to reside among his people forever (Ezek 43:9). There are three passages where Paul describes the church as God’s holy temple: (1 Cor 3:16-17,2 Cor 6:16 - 7:1, Eph 2:21), which we will look at separately.
First passage (1 Cor 3:16-17)
When addressing issues of disunity in the church, because there were different factions favouring different apostles (1 Cor 1:10-13), Paul challenges the Corinthian believers in their understanding of the nature of the church. He asks, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (3:16). We should note that the 'you' is plural, referring to the people corporately, rather than individually. The Corinthian church is the place where God’s Spirit dwells. Later Paul wrote that the Spirit dwells within each individual believer, but here the church as a corporate identity is the place were God’s Spirit lives. It is the presence of the Spirit in the church that gives them a new identity as God’s people. In the context of their pagan past, the Corinthians would need to come to realise that instead of many pagan shrines, there is now one single temple in Corinth. This is God’s temple, the church.
Through chapter three of 1 Corinthians, Paul was addressing their preference for Apollos, and explaining the function of the two servants, himself and Apollos. Both were described as servants who were together constructing God’s building (3:9). Paul laid the foundation by being the first to preach the Gospel in Corinth and establishing the church there (3:10). Now others were building on that foundation, these being Apollos, the other apostles, and the Corinthian church themselves. Paul warns that those who build on the foundation must take care how they build on that foundation, which is Jesus Christ, because the quality of the building will be disclosed by fire on the day of judgement (3:12-15).
He warns them that their disunity, boasting and worldly wisdom is destroying the church, which is God’s temple, the dwelling place of his Spirit. Because God’s temple is holy, God will destroy the person who destroys it (3:17). Paul’s first aim is to show the believers the true nature of the church as God sees it. They are God’s holy temple, therefore the church should be treated with the same respect that the Jews had for their temple in Jerusalem, and that pagans would have had for the temple of their favourite deity. The church has been sanctified by God, as his holy dwelling place. His second point is to bring a severe warning to those who are causing the disunity, that they will face the fiery judgement of God for profaning his holy temple. This is because their disunity is destroying the church.
Today we need to see that, according to Paul, church is not the building we meet in, but is the corporate group of believers, whether locally, or around the world. It is important for us to grasp the idea that the church is the holy temple of God, his dwelling place on earth, and treat it with awesome respect. The church should be a radical community of people amongst whom the presence of the Spirit is real, which attracts people to forsake the pagan world to find the genuine presence of God.
Second passage (2 Cor 6:16 - 7:1)
In his second letter to the Corinthians, he describes the believers corporately as the temple of the living God (2 Cor 6:16). Here he is arguing that because the church is God’s holy temple, they should not have fellowship with unbelievers, otherwise they will be defiled.
Paul uses a collection of four quotations from the OT to make his point (6:16-18). One of these is from Ezekiel, when God promised that, “My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Ezek 37:27). Ezekiel was repeating God’s covenant promise that he will dwell in the midst of his chosen people. The implication is that if they holy God lives among them they must live holy lives. This was true for OT Israel (Lev 20:26), and continues to be true for the church. Although this passage is frequently used to teach that believers should not marry or have romantic relationships with unbelievers, the original context is the church as a whole, calling the church to be distinct from the world and not to compromise with the worship of idols.
Third passage (Eph 2:21)
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes how the enmity between Jew and Gentile has been broken down by Jesus, to create a new humanity in himself (Eph 2:15). There is now peace between the previously hostile groups. Paul says that he has “broken down the dividing wall, the hostility between us.” (2:14). This is undoubtably an allusion to the wall in the temple beyond which no Gentile could pass. Gentiles were permitted to enter the Court of the Gentiles, so they could listen to the teaching of the rabbis and hear the worship of Yahweh. Surrounding the central sanctuary was a low wall. Beside the gates in this wall was the following inscription, written in Greek and Latin: “No Gentile may enter within the railing around the sanctuary and within the enclosure. Whosoever should be caught will render himself liable to the death penalty which will inevitably follow”. This wall became a symbol of the deep division between Jew and Gentile in the first century which has been torn down in Christ, so both Jew and Gentile can now enter the presence of God in Christ, and become one new community.
Paul continues to describe how Gentiles are no longer strangers and aliens, but are also members of the household of God (2:19), a new community of both Jew and Gentile with Jesus at the head. He describes this community as a living structure which grows in to a holy temple (sanctuary), which is the dwelling place for God (2:21). In this passage, Paul is using the same temple imagery as he used to describe the Corinthian church, but here he is applying it to the entire world-wide church. The church is a living community, which continues to grow and develop, but it is a community where God’s Spirit dwells, making it a holy and sanctified temple. This new community transcends all divisions between peoples, whether of status, culture or gender.
The physical body of the believer as a temple (1 Cor 6:19)
Only once in his letters does Paul use the word 'naos' to describe the believer’s physical body, but it is employing the same imagery as when used to describe the church. Because the 'naos' is the dwelling-place of God, the Spirit of God now dwells in the body of the believer, making each individual the temple of God. When telling the Corinthian believers to flee from fornication, and not to have sexual relations with prostitutes during secular banquets, he asks them, “Do you not know that your body is a temple (naos) of the Holy Spirit within you ...?”. To have sex with a prostitute is to become united with her as one flesh (6:16). However Christ has redeemed them so they can become united with him in one Spirit (6:15,17). If the believer is spiritually united with the Lord, then they become his holy dwelling place, his temple. They should not join themselves with a prostitute because their body belongs to the Lord, which he has bought with a price (6:20), which was the death of Jesus.
This would have been a challenging concept for the Corinthians, who tended to have a negative view of the physical body. Instead of the body being less important, being spiritual means that the importance of the body is affirmed, as it is the dwelling place of the Spirit of God. This has challenging implications for every believer in their every-day lives. If we are the dwelling place of God, then we should continually be aware of his presence with us, which should have profound implications on the way we live. Paul concludes this passage with the instruction to glorify God in your body (6:20). All we do with our body should have the aim to honour and glorify God, giving this passage a far wider application than the immediate issue of fornication.
Paul only uses temple imagery a small number of times in his letters, but he uses it on different levels to give a powerful description of the church as God’s holy dwelling-place on earth. God’s temple is the individual believer, as well as the local fellowship, and the whole world-wide church in every nation. God’s presence through his Holy Spirit is with his people on all these three levels.