Recently I blogged briefly on what the Apostle Paul had to say about the baptism in the Holy Spirit, where he taught that it is something that all members of the church (metaphorically called the ‘body of Christ”) take part in, just by virtue of the fact that they are spiritually counted as members of the church.
My friend Geoff made a comment on that blog that prodded my memory. He said, “I’ve always wondered if what’s in view here is the difference between the old covenant (the temple, and therefore John’s baptism), and the new covenant, which means closer more personal relationship with God through Christ, and therefore the Spirit.” Geoff’s reference to the temple reminded me of another important New Testament passage that talks about the relationship between the Holy Spirit and believers.
I’ve heard it said plenty of times by evangelicals that we, each of us as individual Christian people, are temples of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God literally lives in each of our bodies. As a way of encouraging us to show respect for our bodies I suppose the idea might have a positive spin off. But theologically it really misses the mark, and it prevents us from seeing something important in the New Testament.
The apostle Paul refers to the church as the temple of God or the temple of the Holy Spirit five times, and if we look at these examples, it is clear straight away that for Paul the idea of the temple of God or the temple of the Holy Spirit is not an idea that applies primarily to individual people. Part of the reason for the misconception is that English, unlike Greek, has only one form of the word you. Our language does not distinguish between singular and plural, but Greek does. I remember listening to a talk given by Joel Green where he whimsically commented that he wished that the New Testament had been written in the southern states of America. There, at least, the language enables one to specify that one is talking in the plural by using the word y’all. I certainly agree that a distinct word for the plural form would be very helpful when it comes to understanding what the writer was actually say. For example here’s a significant case where the apostle Paul says that “you” are the temple of God or “you” are the temple of the Holy Spirit. I have used the word y’all wherever Greek is plural.
1 Corinthians 3:16-17 – Don’t y’all know that y’all are God’s temple [singular] and that God’s Spirit dwells in y’all? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and y’all are that temple.
One thing is strikingly clear. There is one temple, and it is composed of y’all. Not one of you, but all of you. These are two of the verses out of the five. One verse that uses the temple metaphor does appear to be different, yet not consistently so. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, Paul is telling the people of God not to engage in sexual immorality with prostitutes, and he says “do you not know that your [plural] body [singular] is a temple [singular] of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” I actually find this a little strange. In context Paul is telling individuals not to commit immoral acts with their bodies, but he still says that the church, collectively, has a body that is the temple of the Holy Spirit. I confess, I just put that in the “I don’t know why the writer chose exactly those words” category.
The remaining two examples in Paul’s writing where God’s people are directly referred to with the temple analogy agree strikingly with 1 Corinthians 3 as quoted above. Here they are:
2 Corinthians 6:16 – 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 and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.”
The Old Testament quote is especially revealing. The thought is not that God dwells within each of us as something that we carry around with us, but rather as the people of God together forming God’s temple, God is among us. I’ll quote at a bit more length from the final example in Ephesians 2:18-22. This is because it really sets the temple metaphor perfectly in its proper theological context. It’s really a bit like 1 Corinthians 12:13, which I looked at in the blog on Spirit baptism. Here it is:
For through him [Jesus] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
We are not built as individuals into dwelling places for God by the Spirit, but rather we are built “together” into a dwelling place, a new temple. This idea of believers being part of the temple of the Holy Spirit (rather than each of us being a temple all by ourselves) is where the idea of “living stones” comes from. The Apostle Peter says this in 1 Peter 2:4-5 –
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
The old temple was made quite literally of stones. Now, God dwells with us, in our midst, and the temple is made up of stones of a sort, but not literal stones carved out of the rock. We are the stones – living stones – that make up the household of God, the temple.
What I think these texts call us to do is to move towards a view where the Holy Spirit has come into the church, the new temple, the body of Christ, and we take part in that Spirit by being part of that temple, by being united to the body of Christ. They draw us away from a mindset that says “Give me the Spirit.” Our approach should not be one that invites the Spirit of God to inhabit us, like our own possession, but rather we should be caught up in the larger work of the Holy Spirit in this world, which involves being part of the place where the Spirit dwells, namely the church.
For those to whom the title of this blog entry made no sense, hopefully it does now. And for those on whom the historical reference is lost, see here.