Tag Archives: Scripture metaphors

Pentecost_mosaic cred Pete Unseth

Christ’s Body Is the Temple

There is only one verse in the New Testament that teaches specifically that a believer’s physical body is a temple:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? (1 Cor. 6:19)

But it seems like believers today have removed this verse totally from its immediate context, its greater context, and from the many similar verses that clarify the full meaning of this truth. Let’s take a look.

A Variety of Passages

Now, there are at least seven passages in the New Testament that compare believers themselves to a temple or building, but we commonly only hear that our bodies are temples. In fact Paul is emphasizing different things in different passages, but we’ll note some patterns that bring them together.

You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor. 3:9)

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)

 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them ...” (2 Cor. 6:16, q. Ezek. 37:27)

You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are … members of the household of God … Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure … grows into a holy temple in the Lord … (Eph. 2:19-21)

The main thing you should notice is that Paul is talking about the entire, invisible Church as God’s temple in the New Covenant—not the individual believer, or the physical church—and that none of these verses are talking directly about physical health.

Health Is Never Mentioned—Sexual Purity Is

In none of these verses does Paul mention working out. 1 Corinthians 6:19, so often trotted out in that sense, is actually about avoiding sexual immorality by keeping away from sexual immorality and prostitutes, which are still so common in many of the world’s cities.

Prostitutes were kept in pagan shrines, and money from sex funded the work of these temples. Shrine prostitutes are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. So it makes sense for Paul to say to them, you shouldn’t be going to the shrine of a pagan god for sex, when you yourself are the shrine of the one, true living God.

Indirectly, you can of course say that a miniature “temple” demands respect and care. I’m not saying that health isn’t important, or that Christ’s workers shouldn’t live long, healthy lives. That may be true and implied, but it’s simply not directly what this verse is saying. If anything, rather than teaching on working out, we should teach from this verse against pornography and its vital role in maintaining the wicked global sex trade. Any believer that supports this sins against much more than his own body.

I Am Not God’s Temple—We Are

The subject is plural in every case except for 1 Corinthians 6:19. So Paul teaches that we are God’s dwelling place much more often than he teaches that our individual bodies are. (The singular/plural distinction was clear in the early modern English of the King James: “Ye/you/your” was plural, while “thou/thee/thine” was singular.)

Paul used the singular just once, to emphasize the sense of personal responsibility, and the personal defilement that comes from misusing your body sexually. But in most of the New Testament he teaches not that God dwells in me, but that God dwells in us.

When Paul compares the body to a temple, he is taking a cue from Jesus, who compared his body to a temple. Now, in the same passage where he says that “your body is a temple,” he uses the word “body” to mean Christ’s body:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (1 Cor. 6:15)

So each of us is only one part of the picture. Even the most commonly quoted verses on Christ’s indwelling, like Colossians 1:27, where he says that “Christ in you” is “the hope of glory,” are plural, and being addressed to a group. “The Holy Spirit dwells in us” (2 Tim. 1:14). “He put his Spirit in the midst of them” (Isa. 63:11).

We Are Not a Religious Building—We Are a Sanctuary

The word used for temple in these verses is slightly more specific than ‘temple’; it is the sanctuary of the temple. Richard Trench points out that the distinction is well maintained in New Testament Greek. Whenever Jesus is teaching “in the temple,” we are to understand that he is in the courts of the temple; whenever Zechariah goes into the temple and has a vision, we can understand that he was in the sanctuary, the Holy Place.

Every verse that compares believers to a temple uses the word for sanctuary. The implication is not that it is a grand, important building, consecrated to a religious purpose, but that it is a sacred place, consecrated to God, whatever else it may be.

The teaching that says that our physical well-being honors the indwelling Christ, may be true in some sense. But is this to say that people with lifelong illnesses are dishonoring Christ? That is not what the Bible teaches, and we dishonor the sick when we try to create a karmic link between health and spirituality. There is no mystic link between physical fitness and spiritual fitness.

A Church Is Not God’s House—The Church Is

Another misunderstanding about God’s dwelling is the still-frequent usage of the phrase “house of God” for a church building. This phrase, when used in this way, is essentially a vestige of Judaism, or a holdover from heathenism. It is not the language of the New Testament. Paul and Peter both teach that the church itself—that is, believers—are the house, or family, of God.

If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in [or among] the household of God, which is the church of the living God … (1 Tim. 3:15)

Some versions say “house of God” in 1 Timothy 3:15, but only a medieval interpretation of the Bible would say that Paul was referring to a physical church.

We are his house. (Heb. 3:6)

You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house … (1 Pet. 2:5)

The word for house also means household. In the time when Paul wrote this, when most churches were still meeting in houses under threat of persecution, Paul could not have conceivably taught that a church building is God’s dwelling place. He taught something much more shocking—he taught that we are.

Conclusion

When Jesus said that the Comforter was with the disciples, but would be in them, he was teaching the fulfillment of multiple prophecies given over hundreds of years. He was teaching that Moses’ wish, that all God’s people could prophesy, was one step closer to fulfillment. He was teaching the end of the Old Covenant—in which God dwelled in limited believers and limited places—and the beginning of a new economy of grace, in which God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh.

That pouring out began on the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish celebration centered around the assembly of men at the temple. But now this outpouring has broken the bounds of upbringing, ethnicity, gender, age, and nation. It is not limited to any physical church or temple, but has entered the hearts of a manifold spiritual assembly, “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). This assembly now gathers to no physical meeting place, but under the spiritual banner of the slain Lamb.

Each person who is part of this assembly is like a single stone of a sacred building, or a single cell of Christ’s body, which he said was the temple. Each cell contains the DNA blueprint that represents the whole, which is why we can point a finger at a fellow believer and say, “You yourself are God’s dwelling place.” But it would be far better to imagine every believer from Pentecost onwards, from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and say together, “We are God’s dwelling place.”

Your body may be a temple. But Christ’s body is the temple.

Mosaic credit: Pete Unseth
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Books and Bottles

“You have kept count of my tossings [or ‘wanderings’]; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8, ESV)

In the psalm quoted above, David recounts to God all that his enemies have marshaled against him. They have haunted his steps; injured his cause; plotted against him; oppressed him daily. But God is not unaware of David’s enemies. He keeps the books in heaven. His knowledge is infinite, eternal and all-encompassing, and there will be a day when God settles David’s account.

When we read of books and scribes in Scripture, we must keep in mind that literacy was a specialty, reserved for a privileged few, and still is in some parts of the world. Study was a luxury, and books were priceless. How much more priceless are they when we consider the books that God must keep.

Thou hast a book for my complaints,
A bottle for my tears.

Tears and Tossings

“You put my tears in your bottle.”

In most biblical contexts, a bottle would mean a skin, such as the wineskins Jesus refers to. In this verse, the psalmist is probably referring to a ceramic bottle used in ancient funeral rites. Ornate containers called lachrymatories were commonly added to graves all over the ancient world.

The symbolic act of putting tears in bottles is well-known to historians. Tear-bottles were added permanently to graves, perhaps both as a symbolic goodbye and an honor to the memory of the lost. Museums still hold plenty of examples of these from various centuries as well as regions. They were ceramic in New Testament times; glass was invented later on.

The fact that God puts our tears in his bottle suggests that God shares in our grief with us. The Creator alone knows the innermost self, in its sin, its suffering, and its solace.

Alabaster

“She broke an alabaster jar.”

Bottles were also used in funeral rituals to pour ointment on a body for burial in several ancient cultures. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus, she truly was proclaiming his death beforehand, preparing him for burial. (Mark 14:8) She understood what the disciples were blind to: Jesus had to face a shameful death. (John 12:7)

If we take Matthew’s estimation, the value of the alabaster jar was about a year’s wages. Alabaster was mined in Egypt and carved into exquisite containers; the rare spice inside, nard, grows at elevations above 12,000 feet, and is only found in the Himalayan Mountains. Why then did Mary have this priceless jar? Was it like a life insurance policy, saved for the day of death? Is it possible that she had been saving it for her deceased brother’s grave? In the light of Lazarus’ resurrection, did she surrender to Jesus the safekeeping that would follow her own death? He who holds the keys knows.

There is no blessing in being comfortable, but “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus himself wept at the grave of Lazarus. He wept not only because of Lazarus and his family, but because death is an enemy, and a result of the curse that our sin has brought to us.

God’s Books

“The books were opened.”

Daniel says in his end-times vision that court was convened, and “the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:10) We think first of the Book of Life, and those who are blotted out. God calls it in some places “my book.” (Rev.) The most important record that God keeps is those who receive his salvation.

There are other books in heaven though. Both Daniel and John mention that God has books. Malachi tells us that one of them includes the records of our fellowship, our faithful prayers, and the results they wrought in lives changed:

“Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.” (Malachi 3:16, ESV)

There is a crumb of comfort here for ministers with few visible successes. We struggle to reconcile our experience with the thrilling accounts of missionary biography. We could read of the apostolic triumphs in Uganda, and how Bishop Hannington perished on the forbidden road, and yet a church rose in his wake. We could read about the Palm Beach Five in the jungles of Ecuador, facing death for Christ, but giving life to a marginalized tribe. These sacrifices and successes are what fill our books. These are the ingredients of bestsellers.

But heaven has a different best-seller list. The prophet tells us that God writes it down when two believers sit and talk of him. If Malachi’s words are to be taken seriously, God keeps each of our biographies in heaven, and a page-turner to him is when his people take heed, and fear him, and talk about how they may follow on to know him

What God Values

“The Lord paid attention.”

Books and bottles are both vessels of preservation. They tell us what is precious. Precious tears are preserved in bottles; precious thoughts are preserved in books.

God values our thought life. God noticed those that feared him, and thought upon his name. We could spend our whole lifetime in the library, scouring a thousand volumes on theology, history, religion, and ritual. But one honest moment thinking about his name, dwelling on who he really is, drinking in his character from his revealed Word, would outweigh a whole lifetime of any other study.

God values our fellowship. They “spake often one to another.” Speaking to one another about spiritual topics should not be rare or specialized. One preacher said, “We are not called upon to talk theology, but we are called upon to talk gratitude.”  We need to talk to God and of God long and often.

God values our mourning. We are not the ones who treasure up our tears; God puts them in his own bottle. Our suffering is not taken lightly by God, even when he leads his children into it. One prophet said, “In all their suffering he also suffered”; and another, “He does not willingly afflict the sons of men.” He treasures the pain that we have been through, not for its own sake, but because of the eternal weight of glory that it’s working in us. Shouldn’t we?

Never a sigh of passion or of pity,
Never a wail for weakness or for wrong,
Has not its archive in the angels’ city,
Finds not its echo in the endless song.