Vol. 8, No. 4
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The passage from which the topic comes is 1 Corinthians 3:16-17:
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.
In order to properly understand the meaning of these verses, several questions need to be answered: (1) What is the Temple of God? (2) What does defile mean? (3) What constitutes defiling the Temple of God?
Primarily, the temple of God is the church as a whole. The context of the passage shows Paul is addressing the brethren at Corinth--the congregation, the church (1:2).
Paul is addressing Christians collectively; hence, he is saying that the Spirit dwells in the Church. Christians have the Spirit dwelling in them individually (6:19; Rom. 8:9; Acts 2:38). Collectively they make up the Church (12:12-27). The conclusion seems inevitably, then, that the Spirit dwells in the temple, the church, the body, through Christians. This states a fact: the Spirit dwells in God's temple. (Winters 44)
Consider Ephesians 2:20-22 as well.
And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
From this verse one can see that "all Christians form together one vast temple. The expression is not, 'ye are temples,' but 'ye are the temple' collectively, and 'lively stones' (1 Pe 2:5) individually" (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown). In 1 Corinthians 6:13-20, we see the same idea expressed. The body is for the Lord. Our bodies are the "members of Christ." Christians are all "one spirit." The idea is that the collective church is the temple of God.
At the same time, however, each individual Christian is also the temple of God. Some of the above cited passages show Christians are the "building blocks" of the church who are "builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:20-22; 1 Peter 2:5). Christ, the foundation, was laid by the apostles. Each Christian is then a part of the building, the church, which is built on the foundation of Christ. Since this is the case, would it not require each Christian, or block, to be undefiled? If the building materials for a house are corrupted, would the house also be corrupted? "In order for the temple to be holy, each living stone in it must be holy. Thus holy people make up the holy temple" (Winters 45).
There are several sources to which one may turn to gather an understanding of what defilement is. Some of them are as follows:
(to pine or waste); properly, to shrivel or wither, i.e. to spoil (by any process) or (generally) to ruin (especially figuratively, by moral influences, to deprave) (Biblesoft's)
signifies "to destroy by means of corrupting," and so "bringing into a worse state"... (b) With the significance of destroying, it is used of marring a local church by leading it away from that condition of holiness of life and purity of doctrine in which it should abide, 1 Cor 3:17 (KJV, "defile"), and of God's retributive destruction of the offender who is guilty of this sin... (Vine's)
To put it in other terms, defilement is the opposite of holy. Holy is sacred, morally blameless or consecrated (Biblesoft's). One who is holy is "separated from sin and therefore consecrated to God, sacred"; one who is holy is devoted to God; one who is holy is cleansed "from all defilement, forsaking sin" (Vine's).
A wide variety of things can defile the temple, both as the church and as Christians, the building blocks of the church. Anything that is said or done by individuals that brings corruption or marring to the body of Christ would constitute defiling the temple. In the context of the passage, Paul points out some problems within the church at Corinth. Those causing these problems are guilty of defiling the temple. "The division (1:10-17), the jealousy and strife (vv. 1-3), among them would destroy the church at Corinth (or anywhere else) and those causing the division would be proven to be wood, hay, stubble (v. 12). Him shall God destroy..." (Winters 45). "The figurative sense is, 'If any man by his doctrines or precepts shall pursue such a course as TENDS to destroy the church, God shall severely punish him'" (Barnes'). "This refers to him who willfully opposes the truth" (Clarke).
In addition, anybody that brings upon themselves such things that would mar the soul or spoil the body would be guilty of defiling the temple of God. We are to live a life of holiness as described in the Bible.
If we are the temples of God, we must do nothing that shall alienate ourselves from him, or corrupt and pollute ourselves, and thereby unfit ourselves for his use; and we must hearken to no doctrine nor doctor that would seduce us to any such practices. Note, Christians are holy by profession, and should be pure and clean both in heart and conversation. We should heartily abhor, and carefully avoid, what will defile God's temple, and prostitute what ought to be sacred to him. (Matthew Henry's)
Whether one renders the temple of God as the collective body of believers or the individual Christian, the same truths are revealed. Anything done to mar one's soul has the capability of also marring the collective body. Anything that mars the collective body also mars those who are a part of that body.
The lessons of care and sanctity and reverence taught concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem are examples to teach how reverential and careful we must be in reference to the spiritual temple and how we should make it after the pattern given. It must not be neglected; it must not be defiled; it must not be made secondary to anything in the world. (Lipscomb 53)
Barnes' Notes. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Biblesoft's New Exhaustive Strong's Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft and International Bible Translators, 1994.
Clarke, Adam. Commentary on the New Testament. CD-ROM. Austin: WORDsearch, 2004.
Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset and David Brown. Commentary on the Whole Bible. CD-ROM Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Lipscomb, David. A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles: First Corinthians. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1989.
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition. CD-ROM. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991.
Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. CD-ROM. Nashville: Nelson, 1985.
Winters, Howard. Commentary on First Corinthians. Greenville: Carolina Christian, 1987.