Paul continues his instruction to the Corinthians using the parallel of constructing a building. Historically, cities are alike in this basic reality: there are always construction projects. Modern America may see highways being built more often than buildings, but the process is the same idea. Foundations are laid, work is done to build on that foundation, and then the results are visible.
First, though, Paul had to begin correcting problems in the Corinthian church. They lacked the maturity to build on in the first place. The division within the church had to be addressed before the true building on the church can begin. And keep in mind: he’s using a physical building as a parallel. This is not about a lovely, ornate structure in brick and stucco. 1 Corinthians 3:4-5 highlights the problem: there was an adherence to personalities over the Person of Jesus.
The remainder of the chapter turns toward the Corinthians and how they are the Temple of God. One can imagine the situation: Corinth is home to many
temples, to many gods, as most of the cities of the Roman Empire were. As the Christians grew in number and began to see converts leave those temples and join them in the worship of the One True God, the questions start to come: When do we build our temple, like the temples here in Corinth? If our God is the real God, we need to build something more amazing than even what they have in Athens!
Paul’s response is here. The people of God are His temple.
1 Corinthians 3:16 should draw our focus in this chapter. Paul’s argument makes the turn here because without this verse one could mistake the opening half of the chapter as recruiting high-value gifts for the building of a physical building. The further concepts presented, of using gold and precious stones instead of wood, hay, and stubble, present the idea that this building should be fire-resistant. That is not Paul’s point.
The point is that the people of God are the Temple of God. The Corinthians needed to understand that they needed no new buildings to contain the presence of their new God. He dwelt, through his Spirit, in each one of them. The precious gemstones come from the obedience of each believer to the Lord Jesus Christ. In this, we also see Paul affirm that those who are saved remain saved, as 1 Corinthians 3:15 is a fairly clear statement that a believer’s work, their life, may be of such low quality that it will all be destroyed, but that person will still be saved.
What do we do about it?
We could respond by destroying all of our church buildings without asking about why we have them. If we mistake the church for “God’s house,” then it does become a potential stumbling block. We need to understand that church buildings are tools God allows us for specific purposes, that they are resources for His people to use for His mission. It’s not a Temple of any sort. Pick a tool that has value but can get worn out, and realize that’s what we’ve got.
That, though, should be obvious. The real issue is not “what is not being said” but actually “what is being said?” So, what is being said?
First, our lives are wound together. Paul consistently interchanges the use of singular and plural words here, reflecting that God indwells the individual believer but that our Christian experience is neither independent nor isolated. We are intended to be in community together, forming a grander temple of the presence God than any one of us could be alone.
Second, our work matters. There is a disconnect at times in Christian’s minds where we act like God will do everything and we have no responsibility to act. That’s nonsense. While we cannot work our way to God’s presence nor win His salvation—only through the death and resurrection of Jesus do we have that!—we still hold the responsibility to
honor God through working for His kingdom.
And that work matters enough for God to judge it and reward it.
This isn’t really nerdy, but take a look at the ending verses of this chapter. 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 reflect a mindset that we have problems with these days as well. Who do we belong to? Too often, we adhere to the ones that have helped us follow Christ. And we do that to their dismay (I think) as much to our detriment. We all belong to Christ and therefore, He is the
center of what we do. Remember your inspirations with fondness, but keep your allegiance focused on Jesus.