As I write this, people are working on their New Year’s resolutions – promises we make to ourselves in order to change the way we do things, in hopes that our lives will improve somehow. However, if we are really honest with ourselves, by the time you are reading this, many of these promises have been long forgotten.
As for myself, I have a collection of writing projects that I have been holding onto for what seems like forever. Every year, I plan to get at least some of these writing projects off the ground, but between writer’s block or real-life concerns and my own laziness, lack of discipline or inspiration, I find that these projects are still sitting in a digital folder labeled “writing projects” on my computer. I also have a list of books that I hope to read. Every six months, I list all of these books in an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of my progress, with my goal being 1000 pages per month. Like with my other goal, some months are better than others.
I admit that my resolutions are probably different than most. Those I’ve heard are more related to health and diet (especially after coming off the Christmas season of indulgent feasting). To piggypack on this trend, publishing companies and health gurus usually come out with their latest diet fads around this same time of year, and in the case of those advertising to Christians, many of them would quote passages like this one:
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, NKJV)
OUT OF CONTEXT MEANING:
Of course, these healthy eating regimens make us all feel more than a little guilty, especially right after Christmas, a holiday known for its overindulgence, insisting that if we do not look a certain way or have a certain “optimal weight”, then we are not really taking good enough care of “God’s temple.” Either that, or the more legalistic amongst us might use this verse to tell us why we shouldn’t touch alcohol or drugs, watch certain movies, or why we shouldn’t overeat and to stay away from certain foods and to get enough exercise. As if we needed more of a prodding toward self-obsession and narcissism from our culture – this time supposedly supported by the Bible.
Don’t get me wrong – it is important for us to care for our bodies. They are the only ones we will get – at least until Jesus comes back. And there are some things that would probably do us more harm than good (such as the indulgence in certain drugs). There is much to be said about wise use of our resources in the Bible, and our bodies are some of those important resources; and there is much that could be said about wise living and taking care of our bodies (Proverbs 17:22; 23:2; Daniel 1:8-15; Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Ephesians 5:29;). While the Bible doesn’t outlaw alcohol, it does warn against drunkenness (Proverbs 23:20-21; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:18; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:8), and as health experts will tell us, too much alcohol damages certain important organs in our bodies. Also, by eating too much fast food and sugary treats, not to mention the dangers of certain carbonated beverages or narcotics, we know that these put us at great risk for developing other health complications, which makes life all the more difficult. The Bible does talk about wise living and taking care of our bodies, as we could see from the examples cited above. But that’s not what’s actually being advised here.
DANGERS OF READING OUT OF CONTEXT
First of all, if you look at the actual verse itself, it doesn’t even mention the word “body” anywhere, in any of the major translations. This is the case where those preaching or trying to sell us their health-products have poured their own meaning and assumptions into the text and we, the audience, take it for granted. These voices insist that this must be what this scripture verse is talking about, even though the word they want to put in doesn’t even appear in the text itself. So, the first danger is that we could be led astray by listening to certain voices that tell us this must be what the verse means. There is another place later on in 1 Corinthians (chapter 6, verse 19 to be precise) where this link between the human body and God’s temple are linked, and so the advertisers in question likely assumed that both are talking about the same thing. However, judging from the context of what these two passages are talking about… they’re not. It’s possible that the inserting of ‘body’ in our minds into these verses is just confusion between these two verses. But even if it is because of legitimate confusion on our parts, we are still making the text say something that it didn’t originally intend.
But there is even more danger. By misreading this verse in the way described above, we buy into the aspect of our very individualistic culture in North America, which assumes that the self is the most important and central person in the world. It seems to be yet another example of our confusion between the singular “you” (referring to one person) and the plural “you” (referring to a group of people). This verse is yet another example of the plural “you”, not the singular. We then become obsessed with ourselves and our personal image in how we compare to those around us, especially to the standards of beauty that we assume for ourselves. When we obsess over things like this, guess where our focus is most of the time. That’s right – it’s on ‘me’. And, if we are harassed by guilt because we don’t measure up to those standards, how do we feel? Exactly. Terrible. Not good enough. Less than. But once again, just as in other verses I have tackled so far: it’s not about you!
For that reason, the biggest danger of reading this verse in this way (in its out of context meaning) is that we are missing the main point of what it’s talking about, but if we read it in the way it was meant to be read, it is actually a much needed rebuke for the church at large, which we ignore to our harm.
THE ORIGINAL CONTEXT
This verse is a rhetorical question as part of the larger letter we know of as 1 Corinthians, which was most likely a second letter to the church in Corinth, Greece. The first letter (mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9) is now lost. As a letter, 1 Corinthians was written by Paul, the apostle who had started that church several years before this letter. He was writing partly in response to a report that this church was struggling with several issues. The issue being addressed here, which is actually focussed on throughout his letter, is the issue of division within the church. In fact, in the first section of this amazing letter (which unfortunately is a letter often overlooked in favor of Paul’s other letters, despite its incredible relevance to the concerns of the church today), which is where this verse is located, Paul is specifically addressing the very topic of divisions in the church, along with so-called “worldly wisdom”. Because this first section is too long for the purposes of this chapter, we’ll just quote the passage around it. And like in similar editions of New Identity, for the sake of our understanding, chapter and verse numbers have been removed:
“… He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
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. Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:8-23, ESV).
Just looking at this in its proper context gives us some clues as to what is really being talked about here. In the first paragraph, for example, Paul begins using a metaphor that compares the church community to a building, then he continues this metaphor into the second paragraph, even getting into this rather cryptic allusion to the Day of the Lord – which is a well-known phrase to the Jewish believers of that time because it speaks of God’s final judgment on history: when all that is wrong with the world is finally done away with. We Christians usually associate this with the time when Jesus returns. Nowadays, we might refer to this as “end times” or “Armageddon”. It’s actually this reference to the fire, along with an obscure reference found in the Apocrypha (books written between the New Testament and the Old Testament that are included in the Catholic and Orthodox bibles, but not in the Protestant Bibles or the Jewish scriptures) where the Medieval church developed their idea of ‘purgatory’, which the Protestant reformers completely rejected. Just goes to show, we are not the only culture who takes the statements of scripture out of context, assuming they say things that were never intended.
But anyway, this article is actually focussed on verse 16 (the statement in bold). As we could see by following Paul’s metaphor, this really wasn’t talking about our individual bodies at all, but was actually addressed to the church as a collective group. The church, or ecclesia in the original Greek, was not so much the buildings or the programs or the institutions we associate with it today. Rather, it was the collection of people whose lives were transformed by the message of the gospel of Jesus and then gathered together with others who also chose to believe this gospel and follow this man they called Christ. An ecclesia, when used in its secular usage was like a town council or like a task force put together by a town, for the purpose of serving that town. In similar fashion, while being set apart as God’s special and chosen people, the church community was to exist for the purposes of worshipping God and serving the world, applying the much needed healing balm that is the gospel message it carried, to the hurt and brokenness of the world, as it looked forward to the day when God would heal and restore all which has been tarnished or lost. The people gathered were to function much like the temples of the time – places to pray and worship, to seek the will of God and wise council, and to remind us of and draw people into the reality of God and the majesty of this almighty Creator of all there is. This is what the church was meant to be.
HOW CAN WE REALLY APPLY THIS VERSE?
Unfortunately, this is not what we have become. As I mentioned before, this passage has a very sobering corrective and rebuke on the larger church that we ignore to our detriment. In fact, one of the reasons why many reject Christianity as being true is because of how divided we have become. Atheists would cite that there are over 30,000 different Christian denominations in the world. Granted, the majority of these are independent churches, and these critical sources don’t account for the fact that many of these “denominations” are really regional or national branches of the same denominational groupings. But that being said, there is still unfortunate divisions that still occur, and quite often over seemingly trivial matters. I’ve been in churches where a group left the church simply because a guitar was introduced to the sanctuary, or where someone of a different ethnicity was asked to speak during worship, or where they removed the old wooden pews for the sake of stackable chairs. I’ve also seen political maneuvering by certain associate pastors to eject their senior pastor for their own ambition to gain prominence in the church. And I’ve overheard attitudes – in seminaries, in churches, and even while talking to individual Christians – where there would be mistrust, or sometimes even contempt, toward those belonging to a different denomination, or even of a different cultural expression within the same denomination, or toward one who might hold a different opinion on periphery matters.
What this verse really is (and the passage around it) is a wake-up call to the church to unite together.
In response to these concerns that might go through certain minds, I can say with certainty that the Kingdom of God is about more than just my individual church congregation, and it’s also much bigger than just the denomination that my church just happens to belong to, or the unique cultural expression that my church brings to that denominational matrix (which, for those wondering, I am a Canadian pastor with mixed Western European background, and I am currently serving in a Chinese Canadian church). The Christian church around the world, despite its flaws and differences of flavor wherever you happen to go, is together described as a community, a body, a family, and, in the case of this verse and others like it, a temple. Imagine the travesty if that body, that family, and even the elements of that temple, decided to reject each other or fight against one another, or puff itself up at the expense of the rest of the body. If this were our body, this would be called a ‘disease’.
Right after our verse in question, we find the stern warning that if anyone destroys God’s temple (which, as we’ve been exploring together, means the church), then God will destroy him. In other words, this passage utters a curse on any who would cause such to happen to the Church. Being someone in a position of church leadership, I see that as very sobering, especially when there are times when I have been tempted by personal pride in my own interpretation of what I see Scripture as saying, let alone the occasional times of ambition or fear and mistrust of the ‘other’.
But on the flip side, I will leave you with two images, or two illustrations if you will, to ponder over. Both of them are experiences of mine that show the blessing and beauty of when that which is different comes together and forms a unified whole.
The first of these was in my previous church. Over the previous few years before I came, this church offered half-day day camps at the end of the summer, but they were burnt out when I came to them. It was difficult to find enough volunteers for this ministry. Actually, it was next to impossible. Meanwhile, there were three other churches in town, all with vastly different denominational loyalties, plus there was a Christian camp nearby. Before this point, each of these ministries looked at each other with mutual mistrust, and with some good reason. There were differences of belief and some bad history. When it was suggested that we ask the other churches if they would be willing to help, the first responses were a mixture of “it will never work” and “why do you want to ask them to be involved with a Christian ministry like this?” And yet, not only did they prove willing to help; there was mutual blessing for all involved. In fact, the capacity for ministry was increased, and during the week when that day camp would happen, it was as if Heaven had visited that town. Where mutual mistrust and negative feelings existed before, now deep friendships were formed across each of those ministries. In fact, the town even took notice and there were those not affiliated with any of those churches who showed up to help out. Bridges were formed with the community as they became aware that there were churches in their town that actually cared for them and were willing to put aside their differences for a greater cause, and these people wanted to become a part of that. And as for the kids, whereas before it was mainly the kids belonging to the one church in previous years (12 – 15 kids), when all four churches came together, this became 60 kids from the community, several of whom had never even heard the name Jesus, except as a swear word – which is a huge feat, considering the small size of the town itself.
The other picture is actually a smaller version of the vision that John saw in Revelation 7:9-10, of a multitude from every nation, all singing praises to God. At the end of 2015, my wife and I had the opportunity to attend the Urbana conference in St. Louis, MO. It was actually at that conference that I first met the staff of New Identity. If you have the chance to attend that conference, which happens every 3 years, I highly recommend going.
Although it was not the only main theme of the conference, one of the things that was very apparent throughout the week was the insistence that we enter into the stories and experiences of the other cultural groups present. Part of the reason for this insistence at the conference was the recent racial tensions and violence that were tearing that part of the USA apart. And trust me – there are different expressions in the various cultures, even in the form of worship. And yet, despite these differences, I noticed that as the week went by, groups that were separated by ethnicity at the beginning of the week soon began to embrace one another, and even began singing each other’s songs. Granted, as Canadians, the issues of racism are not as prevalent or front and centre in our minds. That’s not to say that we don’t have these issues, or that our history is all that much different. The atrocities done to the First Nations peoples here in Canada are still matters of contention. But if you can imagine, a gospel that not only reconciles each individual person to God, but that also heals the rifts that we may feel toward each other. That is the gospel I believe the New Testament gives to us. And that is also the vision of what the church is meant to be, a temple where those of every tongue, tribe and nation, can go to, so they could find God, gain wisdom, receive blessing and see this new way of being human. And who knows? Perhaps by seeing this, they will recognize God’s Holy Spirit as being among us, and they too will want to join in.