Defiling the temple of God


Number 558 August 30, 2020


Question: “Please explain the statement about defiling the temple of God. Is the temple the church or the individual Christian? If it is the body of the Christian, how can we ever be sure we are not defiling it? How can we glorify God with our bodies?” Also, how can a person be saved but his works be burned up?

There are, in the same letter of Paul, two references to the Christian as the temple of God. Your question alludes to both and we will discuss both. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 speaks of the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit. 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. This applies to both the local congregation and the church universal. See also Ephesians 2:18-22. The congregation is made up of its members – all the Christians who are its members. The congregation is not made up of non-Christians who attend (congregate, assemble) with the Christians. Visitors and other non-member attenders who gather with the members are part of the assembly, part of the crowd of people, but not really part of God’s people. The universal church is made of congregations of Christians, but ultimately of individual Christians in all the local congregated groups. Those who have died in the faith are also part of the universal church. Others, in the future, who obey the gospel of Christ and become Christians will be added to the universal church. We will return to this passage in the second part of this essay, but before that we will consider Paul’s reference to individual Christians.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 speaks of the individual Christian as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from God, and you are not your own? For you are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s. A non-Christian is not a temple of the Holy Spirit. He cannot glorify God in his body and spirit because they are not sanctified to the Lord. Being a temple is not just a matter shared with all other Christians although, in some sense it is, as we shall see in the second reference. It is important to notice from the present reference that the individual Christian is to consider himself – his body and spirit, his whole person – as a temple for the Spirit of God. Although it is stated only in 3:16-17, the warning against defiling or destroying the temple of God applies both individually and collectively. Many translations use the word destroy: “If anyone destroys the temple of God.” The KJV has defile: “If any man defile the temple of God, him will God destroy.” The word used in the Greek text is PHTHEIREI, and means literally to make corrupt; to render unusable or unfit for its intended purpose. No doubt that is the meaning: “If anyone makes the temple of God unfit for God’s purposes, unfit for God to dwell in, God will destroy that person.”

The question as asked has two parts: defiling the temple, and glorifying God in it. We will try to give both parts adequate attention. It may be difficult to emphasize the positive aspect of glorifying God more than the negative aspect of defiling the temple. But eliminating the negative will sometimes accomplish the positive. The practical aspects of defiling the temple are not the same on the individual and corporate levels. We will give brief attention here to defiling the church/temple and give more time to the individual’s care and keeping of his own temple. This was surely the intention of those who asked all or part of this question.

Two things are mentioned in the text prior to 3:16-17 which can be understood as defiling the church and making it unfit for God’s Spirit to indwell. (1) Division over leaders, doctrines, and practices. (2) The worldliness or carnality of individual members also defiles the church or congregation of which they are a part. Several other matters mentioned later in both letters to Corinth can render the congregation corrupt and unfit to be the temple of God: idolatry, improprieties in personal and social relationships, improper worship, especially in the Lord’s supper and the improper exercise of special spiritual gifts, usurpation of roles and functions, and much more – all of which we will discuss at another time.

Before we can present a meaningful discussion of the individual’s body as the temple of the Holy Spirit of God we need to establish the fact that Paul does refer to the person’s physical body in 6:19-20. The section begins at 6:13, where it is made clear that he speaks of the physical body, by reference to foods and fornication. One’s body is yielded to Christ – given to Christ, and used in his service. This is perfectly reasonable, since one was purchased (by the blood of Christ) from the destruction and degradation of his personal sin (6:20, 6:9-11; compare Rom. 6:12-13, 12:1).

What defiles the body? What makes the body unfit to serve as the temple of God? Obviously, from the context, illicit sexual activity defiles the body. Fornication is a sexual sin against one’s own body (6:18b). One’s body is involved in fornication in a way that it is not involved in most other sins. Because one who commits fornication becomes “one flesh” with a sexually immoral person – inextricably identified and joined at the most intimate level – the person himself is polluted and made immoral. If the body is dedicated to the Lord, fornication is equivalent to joining the members of the Lord to a harlot, a prostitute. Unthinkable! Because of the Lord’s words in Mark 7:15-23 (parallel Matthew 15:10-11, 16-20) some think that nothing one puts into the body defiles it (makes it unclean). You’d be amazed at some of the things people put into their bodies in one way or another. If the Lord’s words are to be taken literally then anything and everything one can take into his body would be permissible. It would not defile him. It could not be called sin. That would have to include alcohol, drugs of all kinds, poisons, non-edible and indigestible things – and who knows what else. From Matthew’s account it is clear that Jesus only includes what goes into the digestive system through the mouth. Not what one breathes into his lungs. Not what one pokes into himself through the skin and flesh or the veins. The Lord was certainly not saying that there was nothing unclean, nothing one is forbidden to put into his body. The Law under which Jesus himself lived specified clean and unclean foods (see Leviticus, chapter 11). Prohibited foods made one ceremonially or spiritually unclean, because eating them was a violation of the Law. But when the restrictions were lifted and the law changed, eating those foods no longer made one unclean, defiled. It is a travesty of truth to try to have Jesus saying that anything one can swallow, snort, inhale, or inject into himself is permitted. If that were so nothing should be prohibited or called sinful. One can put many things into his body that weaken and destroy it – defile it, if you prefer that word – and make it an unfit place for the Lord to dwell.

The Lord’s emphasis is on the origin of defilement. Food is external. But evil thoughts, fornication and adultery, murder, theft, coveting and lust, hatred, wickedness, deceit – and many other such things – come from within the person, out of the mind, out of the heart and soul of the person. They defile him. They render the guilty one unfit to serve the Lord or to glorify Him, or to be his temple. The point: sin begins in the mind, not in the body. The body may be used to commit sin, but the sin itself comes from the improper desires and motives which issue from the mind and prompt the body to act. It probably never crosses the mind of most people that diet and exercise have a good or bad effect on the body which one offers to God and uses for God. To paraphrase Paul: Exercising the body is good in some ways, but godliness is an attitude that leads to good in everything (1 Timothy 4:8). Does godliness have any effect on one’s choices of what to do with or in his own body? You know it does! Does misusing, neglecting, or deliberately abusing one’s body indicate a possible lack of godliness? You know it does! Sickness or disease or loss of physical strength do not necessarily defile the body or make it unfit for the Lord’s Spirit, although they can do so. Ordinary wearing out of the body because of age and chance infections or diseases does not defile it. God can still dwell in it. One can glorify God in an old, worn out, and broken down body. Please notice this: the scripture says “glorify God in your body” not with your body (1 Corinthians 6:20). One can serve God only in the body he has at any time. He can only use the body he has. He cannot use something he doesn’t have or no longer has. What one does in and with his body will either glorify God or not. One can use his body in ways that deny, reject, disobey, and dishonor God. He can also use his body to confess, accept, obey, and honor God.

CONCLUSION to Part 1: We have noticed that it is the person in the body and not the physical body of the person that serves as a temple for God and His Spirit (and His Christ) to dwell in. The physical body is temporary, not designed to last forever (it is not to be resurrected physically and dwelt in forever by the person). “Body building” in the physical sense of form and health, dimensions or measurements and strength is or has a limited benefit but godliness is beneficial in everything, in the life that is now and the life that is yet to come (1 Timothy 4:8). But Christians are to engage in building up the body of Christ, the church – that kind of “body building” should always be in our minds – but the results are variable, some acceptable and glorifying to God, some not. The end result for the body/church and for the individual builder must both be considered. That will be our aim as we continue the discussion in Part 2 of the essay.

To be continued. <><>