“Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, NKJV).
Before we consider the implications of this passage, we should realize that the original message has the potential of being lost in translation. The problem is not due to any ambiguity in the text but to the limitations of the English language. These words were first penned in Greek, where the difficulty does not occur. But when the passage is rendered in English, the meaning can be obscured.
The second person pronoun “you” in English can either be singular or plural, depending on whether an individual or multiple persons are being addressed. If I want to speak to an entire group (“you, class”) or to just one person (“you, Tom”), there is only one pronoun from which to choose. However, those of us from the southern United States have rectified the problem by regarding “you” as the singular form and “you all” or “y’all” as the plural. [Note: in the King James Version “ye” = the plural “you all”]
In 1 Corinthians 3:16 Paul used the second person plural form of address, and if we read it in the language of the southern United States, the point is much clearer: “Do y’all not know that y’all are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in [or ‘among’] y’all?” Paul is not speaking here about the individual Christian but rather the collectivity of Christians, the body of Christ, the church. It is God’s church (the community of the saved) that serves as his spiritual temple and the dwelling place of his Spirit.
Next the apostle writes: “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him” (v. 17a). Again, the description here is not that of the individual person (as in 6:18-20). Neither should we consider the church building (a physical structure of brick and mortar) as some kind of hallowed sanctuary, despite what we may have inferred as children from the song, “Tip toe, tip toe in God’s house.”
When as faithful Christians we assemble together, work together, and collectively represent God’s presence in our community, we are God’s spiritual temple. Accordingly, may none of us ever be guilty of defiling this temple by such things as ungodly behavior (5:1, 2; 6:1-11), spiritual apathy (11:30, 31), false teaching (15:12, 34), corrupt worship (11:17-22; 14:2, 4), or unnecessary division (1:10, 11; 3:3). Our primary aim should be that of building up the temple of God.
From the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, we are reminded of how very important the church is, the great privilege of being part of it, and the solemn responsibility we all have to devote ourselves to godly living, active involvement, and faithful service. “For the temple of God is holy, which temple y’all are” (v. 17b).
–Kevin L. Moore
First appearing in The Voice of Truth International 70:47-48.
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