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Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Meditation on 1 Corinthians 3:16

The Temple and the City
A Meditation on The Epistle Reading
The Seventh Sunday of Epiphany

1 Corinthians 3:16: Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

Paul’s use of metaphor in this letter draws attention to the meaning of Christian community. The practices of the believers in Corinth were detrimental to the development of the fellowship of the saints and needed strong rebuke and correction by one of the spiritual founders of the congregation.
            One such image is the metaphor of the Temple: Paul describes the great building as having a foundation, which has been built upon by others. His desire is to draw the minds of the believers in Corinth to the then-standing wonder of the world that was the Temple in Jerusalem. He invokes the great tradition that understood the Temple as God’s location on Earth, the center of holiness and communication with the Divine. The Church, he says, is the new place where the presence of God is made manifest. It is in the community of the saints that God’s presence is experienced in the post-Pentecost era; therefore, anything that divides the holy community must be rectified and an emphasis placed upon preserving and extending the sacred community in Corinth.[1]
            Later in the Letter Paul employs a similar argument, but in this case (6:19) the temple is congruent to the individual’s body. This relationship between the Holy and the individual is highlighted to remind believers that whatever they do, whether in word or deed, all things contribute to the personal and communal participation in the Kingdom of God.
            The congregation, which in Baptist terms is a collection of professing, baptized believers, is then a two-fold Temple. On the one hand the community is the new Temple, the central location of God’s presence on Earth. On the other the individual is in relationship to God as a newly created and therefore differently-accountable person whose behavior should reflect that new status.
            The Temple in Jerusalem may not have been the first thing that came to mind for the Corinthian believers when they read Paul’s letter, though. It has been demonstrated that during the first generations after the resurrection Corinth hosted many temples to Greek and Roman deities, including the Emperor.[2] These relatively (when compared to the Temple in Jerusalem) small structures would have been everywhere in the city, standing as constant reminders of just how radical faith in Christ as Lord was for the Christians.
            Whether Paul uses a metaphor relating the community of faith to the Temple in Jerusalem or one calling the believer’s body a temple of the Holy Spirit, the preacher in me felt something stir when we read this passage this morning. If the believer (or the church itself) is the newly-fashioned Temple of God, then the both the exterior world of the faithful and the interior spirituality of the same must be in sync with what God would have us do and be. Clothed not in the ostentatious marble and gold and precious stones but in the humility and love of Christlikeness we are the presence of God in the world. We are not built as a Wonder of the World to which pilgrims journey to see and touch but are to go into the world and dot the streets and squares and turnstiles with little temples of the presence of Christ.
            And if we do just that, if we go and stand and bear witness to the fact that we are the temple of God and that the Kingdom has come and is coming, then we will have more than just a temple. We will have more than a network of fellowships; we will have made an entire city bearing witness to the presence of Christ. We will have fashioned the very City of God.

[1] Richard Hays emphasizes the second person plural form of the subject “you” in this verse. Paul is not here suggesting that the individual is the temple of God (as he will in 6:19) but that the Church’s community of believers has become that place of God’s special presence on Earth, a presence that is not confined to the Temple in Jerusalem but extends from Jerusalem to the ends of the Earth. See Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville: WJK, 1997): 56-8, 106.
[2] See David G. Horrell and Edward Adams “The Scholarly Quest for Paul’s Church at Corinth: A Critical Survey” in Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church (eds Edward Adams and David G. Horrell; Louisville: WJK, 2004): 6.

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