Bible Studies


Destroying the Temple

Someone asked me:  “Would you please write a few thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3:16-17?  Does this mean individuals or the church? How does one defile the temple?  Paul seems to indicate that a Christian could do this.”

Looking at this passage in its context, we may start with 1 Corinthians 3:1-8; there Paul teaches us that we should trust in the Lord and not in the human instruments through whom he chooses to work in our lives.  Paul uses an agricultural metaphor to get across his point.

In verse 9, he changes the metaphor from one of agriculture — “you are God’s field” — to one of architecture — “you are . . . God’s building.”  Also, he contrasts those through whom God chooses to work — “we are God’s fellow workers” — with those in whom the work is done — “you are God’s field, God’s building.”

In verse 10, Paul talks about the work that he does as a “an expert builder” of the Temple. (Cf. my brief article, “Does God Want the Temple Rebuilt?” and Edmund P. Clowney’s eloquent “The Final Temple,” Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 35, Fall 1972, Page 156.)  Of course, Paul is not only a builder of the Temple, he is also a part of the Temple, one of its “living stones,” to use Peter’s analogy. (Cf. 1 Peter 2:5, “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”)  Two temples came before this one: 

The First Temple was completed by Solomon in 966 B.C. and destroyed in 586 B.C.  Like the Tabernacle before it, it was immediately filled with the Shekinah Presence of God:

When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the LORD because the glory of the LORD filled it. (2 Chronicles 7:1, 2)

Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work.  Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:33-35)

The Second Temple was completed in 516 B.C., over twenty years after the Exile ended.  Desecrated under Antiochus Epiphanes and cleansed in 165 B.C., it underwent massive remodeling beginning in 19 B.C., under Herod the Great, but it remained the Second Temple.  There is no record of any kind of Shekinah Glory coming on it, and tradition tells us that the Ark of the Covenant was lost during the Exile and never inside the Holy of Holies of the Second Temple.  To those who had seen the First Temple, the Second seemed to be but a paltry imitation, but Haggai foretold:

Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? . . . This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty . . . ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty. (Haggai 2:3-9)

The Second Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, on the ninth day of the Jewish month Ab, the same day of the same month as the destruction of the First Temple.  How was Haggai’s prophecy fulfilled?  Malachi gave the answer:  ‘“Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.’ (Malachi 3:1)

The Lord Jesus himself was anointed with the Shekinah Glory of God:

And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them . . . Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:1-7)

In his glorious person, the LORD came to the Second Temple.  He walked on its pavement, and drove out those who made merchandise of the souls of men. But who could abide his coming?  He authorized the destruction of the Second Temple and the building of the Third Temple.  He prefigures this in his own death and resurrection.  ‘“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” . . . But the temple he had spoken of was his body.’ (John 2:19-21)  As in the Consummation, the Lord himself is the Temple (Revelation 21:22), but we are built into this same Spiritual House, united with him and resting on the Foundation.

It is in a very public way, the Third Temple is filled with the Shekinah Glory of God:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1-4)  

The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. (Acts 5:12, 13) 

It is the Church, not individual Christians, that Paul has in view in 1 Corinthians.  As with the agricultural analogy (3:6, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”), so with the architectural (3:10, “I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.”) — it is always God’s sovereign work, and the Lord Jesus is the Foundation:  “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (3:11) Therefore, Christians who are engaged in building the Temple must be careful how they build it, for it must be built on the Lord Jesus Christ alone.

Furthermore, one must build according to God’s building plans; then the Temple will be adorned with gold, silver and costly stones.  After all, the Church, the Bride of Christ, is the Holy City, adorned with all manner of exquisite and beautiful things.  Revelation 21:9-21 makes it very clear that the Bride is the City:

“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he . . . showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal . . . The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.

This picture of the City as a person, as over against persons simply inhabiting the City, is found in other passages, too, such as Galatians 4:26 (“But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.”).  It is through the gathered people of God that we hear the gospel and come to believe; as many have said, “The Church is the mother of believers.”

Hebrews 12:22-24 makes it plain that when we gather with believers on earth, we are already united with the City that is above:  

But you (he is writing to flesh and blood humans who physically live on earth.) have come (Greek perfect tense, indicating past action with present, continuing results) to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.  

After all, God has already “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6)  Pondering this, undoubtedly, was what inspired Samuel J. Stone to write: 

Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.

The process of the sanctification and beatification of the whole earth under the New Covenant is foretold in Zechariah: 

On that day HOLY TO THE LORD will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the LORD’s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the LORD Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. (Zechariah 14:20-21) 

All of life is sacred; every calling is a priestly calling to worship God, whether I am preaching in public worship, crafting furniture, teaching little children or changing diapers. But this sacralization of earthly life is moving toward the consummation:  at the Return of Christ, when the City comes down to earth, the Building is complete and the Third Temple is God himself:  “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” (Revelation 21:22)  Yet we are united with Christ, who is the Head of the Body, and so we continue as living stones in the consummated Temple.

It is in that context that we must read the last half of 1 Corinthians 3.  It is not about individuals who don’t get enough exercise or who smoke or eat too much sugar and fat or drink too much alcohol.  It is about how we are to be engaged in building the Temple.

Some truly build on the Foundation of Christ and his Apostles, yet they use worldly methods to do God’s work.  Their edifice may be large and grand, but it will not stand the test of eternity, because the wood, hay and straw will be burned up.  Each builder’s “work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)

All believers, in all ages, form but one holy Temple, the Third Temple, the final temple, indwelt with the Shekinah Glory of God:  “Don’t you (plural) know that you yourselves (plural) are God’s temple (singular) and that God’s Spirit lives in you?”  (1 Corinthians 3:16)

True Christians can resort to worldly methods to build God’s Temple, but what about those false teachers who rob the Church of the gospel and by false teaching destroy it?  “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you (plural) are that temple (singular).” (1 Corinthians 3:17) 

As I ponder that dreadful passage, I am grateful for God’s wonderful promise of preservation, and I look to him alone for my salvation.

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 24, 25)

Bob Vincent