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In I Corinthians 3:16-17, Paul writes:

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. (ESV)

It occurred to me today that Paul might be contrasting the faith of Christians (in whom God lives) with the Jerusalem Temple (where God was thought to live) and its rituals in these verses. I checked a few commentaries and while a couple mentioned the Temple, most did not.

So my question is, how likely is it that Paul was referencing The Temple, as opposed generic/Gentile temples, here?

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    More of Paul using temple imagery of people: 1 Cor. 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16, Eph. 2:19-22.
    – Susan
    Oct 1, 2015 at 11:33
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    Honestly as worded it's a little puzzling to me what you see as the alternatives here, but maybe that's for answerers to sort out anyway…
    – Caleb
    Oct 3, 2015 at 16:44
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    The Greek pronoun for "you" is plural in both these verses. So I'm not sure what other interpretation we can take from "You all are God's temple" and "you all are that temple". Paul was certainly aware of Jesus own use of temple that we read in Mark and Matthew when he speaks of destroying this temple and rebuilding it in three days. His body was truly the temple he was referring to. The temple being referenced isn't a building at all, it is the tabernacling of the holy spirit which Paul is reminding them now abides in them.
    – Joshua
    Nov 27, 2015 at 17:57
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    He says it twice: you are God’s temple and For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. What is unclear? Sep 30, 2022 at 18:05

4 Answers 4

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It's unlikely Paul is saying the Temple in Jerusalem is replaced with human beings:

  • Paul doesn't use "true Temple" terminology, as if to say the Temple of God in Jerusalem is no longer God's house. There's no textual requirement to read his words this way.
  • Paul took part in the Temple service (Acts 21) and sought to be in Jerusalem during the Biblical festivals (Acts 20:16) which centered around Temple service. If Paul was saying the Temple in Jerusalem was no longer God's house, it betrays his actions recorded in Acts. (Indeed, the actions of the disciples also who are found to be taking part in the Temple services after Messiah's resurrection.)

A better and more harmonious interpretation is one in which Paul is likening redeemed human beings to the Temple in Jerusalem: a house of God, set apart for divine purposes, clean and righteous, inhabited by the divine presence.

Reading this passage as an analogy, rather than a contrast/replacement, is more harmonious and, in my opinion, a more authentic interpretation.

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    Welcome to the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange and thanks for answering. I hope to see more of your work in the future.
    – ThaddeusB
    Dec 1, 2015 at 0:01
  • Meeting at the 2nd temple for worshiping Jesus is not the same thing as relying on Old Testament sacrifices. 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Tearing of the veil was symbolic of the Old Testament sacrifices ending. Sep 30, 2022 at 18:03
  • Maximus, that's a separate question. The question is whether Paul is arguing that Christians are the true temple, replacing the Temple in Jerusalem. My answer to that question is no: Paul and the disciples kept attending the Temple in Jerusalem, even after Jesus' death and resurrection. Additionally, Jesus said that the Temple in Jerusalem is "my Father's house", to be a "house of prayer for many nations." Jesus was "consumed by zeal for God's house" (John 2), such that he threw money changers out of it. That all points to the Temple's ongoing relevance, not its obsolescence. Nov 9, 2022 at 17:46
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The temple building in the city of Jerusalem was just as real when Paul wrote that as it had been from the start of Herod the Great beginning to build it in 20 B.C. It was really there, it was really spectacular and gloriously impressive at 15 storeys high. It truly did function as intended, with sacrifices and offerings and a priestly system administering everything.

However, when Paul wrote that, the Roman army had not yet surrounded Jerusalem for the second time, to utterly destroy it, and to kill and capture the Jews. In 70 A.D., what Jesus prophesied in Matthew 24:1-2 about the destruction of that temple took place. Then Christians would understand what Jesus meant - that it was not just a symbolic destruction, but a literal one. Thereafter, the Jewish nation never again had a temple to worship in.

There is a parallel with how Jesus foretold his own death and resurrection. The disciples just did not get it - until after it happened. Once they saw the risen Christ, and he spoke and ate with them again, and once they saw him ascend bodily up into heaven, they got it. Same with the temple. They did not get it until after 70 A.D. Despite the immensely long, thick tapestry-like curtain in the temple being rent from top to bottom at Jesus' death, it did not seem as if anything had really changed. But, oh yes, it had, from God's point of view. The one perfect sacrifice for sin had been given by Jesus, and thereafter no more sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple would be worth anything, in God's estimation. Everything had changed.

This is where the Christians needed to switch their thinking from the literal and the fleshly to the symbolic and the spiritual. Just as it took them a while to grasp the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection, so it took a while to see how the literal temple had fulfilled its function and would be literally destroyed.

The Apostle Paul was God's man to explain such things to the new Christians. He combined the Hebrew prophecies with what Jesus did, and after A.D. 70, the Christians finally got it. God was no longer dealing with a physical, literal temple built from stones; he was 'building' a new, glorious Church with 'living stones' - Christians - with Christ as its foundation, and his sacrifice as the one needed to make the transformation from literal to spiritual, from dead stones to living stones - the people of Christ.

It is not the faith of Christians, however, that is to be contrasted with the literal temple in Jerusalem. A temple is where worship to God is offered. So when God turns people into 'living stones', it is his work alone that causes the switch from literal to spiritual, so that their worship of him is acceptable. His Spirit brings to life spiritually dead people, who then become these 'living stones'. Thereafter, their worship of God is accepted by God because the Spirit of Christ indwells them. Their faith is his gift to them, whereby they offer acceptable worship, for his glory. That is what verse 16 in the text states. And the earlier verses (from 9 to 15) use the analogy of them being "God's building", with Christ as the foundation upon which this spiritual building must grow.

"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service... Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." Romans 12:1 & 1 Peter 2:4-5 K.J.

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Paul was a Pharisee before he was converted. He does use a lot of Hebrew traditions throughout his work to make his points more clear. God lived in the Temple of Solomon as in the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. With the coming of the Holy Spirit God lived in peoples Spirits.

He was referencing The Temple in clear contrast with the old believe.

Damaging The Temple is most probably not bodily harm but would refer to Spiritual harm. As it is your spirit that would worship God.

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  • Welcome to Stack Exchange and thanks for offering an answer to my question. When you have a chance, be sure to check out the site tour and read up on how this site is a little different than other sites around the web. This is not a comment on the quality of your answer, but rather a standard welcome message.
    – ThaddeusB
    Oct 28, 2015 at 14:36
  • This is a good start to an answer - that Paul was a Pharisee is a reasonable argument in favor of a Jewish Temple understanding. Your answer could be strengthened by adding analysis showing the the context in I Corinthians also supports this interpretation and/or showing this is what Paul has in mind when he describes people as "temples" in other letters.
    – ThaddeusB
    Oct 28, 2015 at 14:39
  • I did felt at a moment that I could be wrong as Paul was writing to Corinthians and they were not Jews or at least most of them. But the message is still the same and the person reading it would interpreted it as to were you come from Spiritually. But in Paul's heart it would be The Temple in Jerusalem as that is where he came from Spiritually.
    – Jan Malan
    Oct 30, 2015 at 15:07
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Paul has more likely referencing the Jerusalem Temple.

The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.

Psalm 11:4 (ESV)

Identifying the temple of God as the believer portrays the relationship of God with his people via universal priesthood (cf. Hebrews 4:16; 1 Peter 2:9)

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 Corinthians 2:16-17 (ESV)

Paul may have been making a connection with what Jesus said in GJohn. The substance of the matter is that the Jerusalem Temple typifies the believers in whom God's Spirit dwells.Approaching God has never been like this -- so close and so unlimited.

21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4:21-24 (ESV)

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