This morning we are going to consider one final image the New Testament uses to speak of the church. Scripture includes more than those we’ve looked at—the church as God’s sheep and God’s family—but I’ll end this series by considering the image of the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Some years ago when I was teaching a theology overview to undergraduates, one of my students came up to me after class about halfway into the semester. With tears in her eyes she shared that though she had grown up in the church she had never heard of anything that I had been teaching or talking about for the past eight weeks. I wondered about her comment. Though I certainly didn’t expect students to be familiar with Athanasius or Augustine or infra- or supralapsarian as a result of their church attendance—(though it would be wonderful if they were!)—I did expect churches to teach about salvation—about Christ’s redemption—and our justification by his work and our sanctification by his Spirit’s indwelling. So I asked her what she had been taught each week as she worshipped on Sundays. “That Jesus Christ is our Savior.” “Wonderful!” I replied. What else were you taught? “That’s it.” “Nothing else?” “No” she said. “Each week we were reminded that Jesus Christ died to save us.” My heart was heavy after this conversation. I didn’t blame the student. She was bright and inquisitive and eager to learn. But I did blame her church. How could it be that it had never thought to take its congregants beyond basic Scriptural truths to deeper ones?
Our passage this morning similarly addresses a church that should be farther along in its understanding and implementation of Scriptural teaching. Now something I’ve often pointed out to students is that we should not aspire to become like the New Testament churches but we should aspire to become the New Testament epistles’ corrective to these churches. What I mean is that these churches were a mess. Some were comprised of Jewish converts to Christ, some of whom wanted to maintain an exclusive Jewish identity that excluded the Gentiles, or non-Jews; others were comprised of Gentile converts who didn’t understand that in order to follow Christ, they too had to leave behind their former ways and become like Christ. The church at Corinth falls into the latter category.
So Paul begins with a rebuke. Though he is writing to adults, he tells them that they are mere infants in Christ (v. 1). Now by this he doesn’t mean that they were childish or that they weren’t holding jobs or caring for their families. Paul is specifically addressing their behavior with and towards one another. They were acting, we are told in verse 3, in a worldly manner—literally “according to the flesh.” In other words, they were behaving in a way that was more consistent with what their culture endorsed than with what Christ upheld.
Now cultural views don’t always contradict those presented in Scripture. In fact, one of the most well-known sayings from Scripture—that “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)—is actually a quotation from a Greek philosopher and poet named Epimenides who lived around the seventh or sixth century BC. In Acts 17 Paul uses this quotation—from a secular poet—to point out that Epimenides observation is one that is consistent with Scripture for Scripture, too, teaches that God isn’t far from any of us.
But in the case of these Corinthian believers, Paul is rebuking them for acting in a jealous manner. They were “feeling envious of [others’] achievements and advantages.” They were also quarreling with one another, that is, they were having—according to my trusty desktop dictionary—“angry argument[s] or disagreement[s]” And these were “.….between people who are usually—and we might add should be—on good terms” (v. 3). In verse 4 Paul asks: ““For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings?” And twice Paul chastises them by asking whether such ungodly—such unchristian behavior—isn’t an indicator that they “are…acting like mere humans” or, a more literal interpretation of the Greek, “are walking according to human [ways].”
Last week we briefly considered the oft-used phrase, “I’m only human” noting how it points to what low expectations this expression represents since we tend to use it only when we’ve messed up. What Paul is saying about acting in a “merely human” manner is consistent with our “I’m only human” version. Sadly, since the time of the Fall, to be “ merely human” is to be those who see such shortcomings as the norm of how human beings can be expected to behave. This is why we are so desperately in need of God’s revelation—of his communication to us by Jesus, by Scripture, by his Spirit, and by his people—to teach us what it means to be truly human, even as Jesus was.
In the case of the Corinthians, one of the issues they are dealing with—one of the issues in which they are acting as “mere humans”—has to do with division and jealousy. Again, in verse 4 Paul indicates that some are saying they follow Paul; others that they follow Apollos. And from what Paul goes on to say in verse 5, specifically these believers are bragging about who led them to faith in Christ. It would be as if some in our own congregation bragged about coming to faith through Pastor Pressy’s ministry but others through Pastor Stuart’s. But what, Paul asks, is Apollos? Or Paul? Or, we might add, Pastor Pressy or Stuart? Or, for that matter, even Billy Graham! Each of these is merely a servant through whom people have come to believe and understand the teaching of our common Christian faith in Christ. These Corinthian believers are missing the point, aren’t they? Our salvation isn’t about who first led or taught us about Jesus Christ; it’s about Jesus Christ himself!
Have any of you ever been involved with a church that has emphasized the “saving of souls”? My first introduction to Christianity—(I wasn’t raised in a Christian home)—was a church that had this emphasis. We were encouraged to talk about how many people we had led to Christ—how many people we had saved. But the problem with the question, “How many people have you saved?” is that the only correct answer is “zero!” And this is what Paul is getting at here. Though we are, of course, called to bear witness to others about who Christ is, in doing so, we—like Paul—need to remember that when we do so, we are only servants through whom others may come to believe.
Ron shared an anecdote with me not too long ago that well illustrates this point—and we think this comes from Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892), the well-known 19th c. English preacher, but we’re not positive so don’t quote us on this! One day Spurgeon was outside gardening and a passerby came along and said,
“Mr. Spurgeon, how is it that you’re here gardening when you could be out saving people? Don’t you know there are souls out there who are lost?”
Spurgeon looked up and replied,
“Right now I’m in my garden which is my job today. My job is not saving souls. God does the saving, not I.”
Isn’t that a great response?? That’s the attitude you and I ought to have—a humble recognition of the multifaceted tasks to which we are called and that when it comes to saving souls, only the God who made us in his image is able to accomplish such a task.
Again, don’t get me wrong. The task of bearing witness to the fullness of who God is, is something to which all who profess to be followers of Christ are called. But it is up to God to do the actual saving. It is only by the quickening of his Spirit—the work the Holy Spirit does in bringing us from spiritual death to spiritual life—that anyone can come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is what regeneration means—to go from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive because of the Holy Spirit’s work; to go from seeing Jesus as a mere human to embracing him as our Savior and Lord.
In verses 6 and 7 Paul goes on to illustrate the proper balance believers should have. He notes that he “planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” Planting has one purpose; watering another; and they’re all a part of a bigger design. All of these tasks will be rewarded according to their labor (verse 8) for God does seek to use his followers in bringing about his eternal purposes. But in serving him, we must remember, first, that God is the one who does the saving, and two, that we as individuals are to understand our work as part of the work that God is doing by means of the greater body of believers. As Paul admonishes in verse 9: “we are co-workers in God’s service.”
Now what is interesting in Paul’s admonishment is that he is speaking of his and Apollos’ work in the context of the Corinthian church which he refers to as “God’s field” and “God’s building.” Having been used by God to teach many of these believers about a saving faith in Christ, Paul and Apollos continue to care for them. A field needs tending; a building’s foundation needs to be built upon. In fact, in verses 10 and following Paul elaborates on this noting that
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
So what’s going on here? What is Paul getting at? I think, in part—and do bear with me!—Paul is saying that theology matters! Which is just another way of saying that discipleship—training in the Christian faith—matters. In other words, as Paul tells the Corinthians, we need to move from spiritual milk to spiritually solid food.
These believers haven’t moved beyond the milk of Christian life. The milk of our Christian faith is believing that Jesus is the Christ, God’s promised Messiah, who has come to save us from our sins and to create in us his image. But this truth is but the beginning of our Christian life and understanding for:
If we say we are followers of Christ, then we should desire to know more about him;
If we say we are followers of Christ, then the way in which we live our lives should reflect our profession of faith in him;
If we say we are followers of Christ, then even how we feel and understand the events of our lives should be shaped by that truth.
So we have three components:
1) Orthodoxy—or right thinking or doctrine about who Christ is;
2) Orthopraxy—or right acting—living according to what Christ teaches; and
3) Orthopathy—or right feeling—seeking to make sense of our lives by considering God’s perspective—by considering what he might be doing in our lives even when—or perhaps especially when—we are suffering or everything seems to be going wrong.
These Corinthians believers seem to be orthodox—to have the right belief—about who Christ is. They have come to a saving faith in the one who has delivered them from their sins. But as with my student who had only been taught—week after week—that Jesus Christ is Savior, their orthodoxy seems to be incomplete. And this may be due to having been presented with an incomplete picture of what salvation is.
In our passage, Paul highlights the importance of building on the foundation of Christ with equally solid components—gold, silver, or costly stones as opposed to wood, hay, or straw. The former will stand testing by fire; the latter will be burned up. I think this indicates a balance we should hold in tension:
On the one hand, we should share the good news of Jesus Christ’s love and sacrifice with others, even if we don’t feel up to the task of explaining the enormity of what he has done out of a feeling of inadequacy in knowing how to share it properly;
On the other hand, we should also become students of Scripture so that what we share is as faithful to Scripture as possible. We are all called to be students of Scripture and theology—of the bigger themes God presents us in his word.
Someone pointed out to me once how amazing it is that people have come to faith even through such poor, inadequate, and even incorrect cultural portrayals of Christ such as godspell or Jesus Christ, Superstar—and feel free to update these outdated examples! In other words, even when sickly seeds of the Gospel are spread, God is still big enough to be able to use them to draw others to himself. This should give us courage that even if we don’t get it exactly right, others may be drawn to Christ due to our testimony by the working of God’s Spirit. God is bigger than our limited understanding or inadequate testimony.
But this shouldn’t leave us content in those limitations. We should aspire to learn and study more the revelation—the communication of himself—God has provided for us in his Word and which his Holy Spirit uses to complete and fill out our limited understanding. Now interestingly, we have an example of this in Apollos himself. In Acts 18 we are told:
24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
So it appears that at one time even Apollos—a learned man “with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” needed to have his theology corrected by the more learned and more thorough understanding held by Priscilla and Aquila. We all need further instruction. We all need to have a more learned understanding of Scripture wherever we are in our present understanding.
Again, believing the right thing about Jesus Christ isn’t enough for one who claims to be a follower—for one who claims to be a disciple—of Jesus Christ. If we were to judge the Christian faith by this limited definition—that of knowing what is true—then Satan is one of the most orthodox creatures that has ever lived. As James reminds us, “19 You believe that there is one God.”—in other words, an orthodox understanding of God—“Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). The demons know who God is and what he is capable of and this knowledge causes them to shudder. So orthodoxy by itself isn’t enough, is it?
Orthodoxy—right belief—needs to be accompanied by orthopraxy—right actions or living. And this is where the Corinthian believers are falling short. Rather than getting along with other believers—with those with whom they should be on good terms—they are quarreling with one another. Their right belief hasn’t resulted in right action as it should. What is more, their orthodoxy—right belief—not only is lacking in orthopraxy—right actions, but it is also lacking in orthopathy—right feeling. Rather than being happy for each other’s achievements, they are expressing jealousy and division and envy.
If we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, then we should not only believe the right things about who he is—orthodoxy, but our lives should be marked by a desire to live according to his standards—orthopraxy, and to experience the events of our lives from his perspective—orthopathy. One of the things that theology—a study of God’s revelation to us in Scripture—should do for us is to help us view our lives through the eyes of Providence—through the eyes of God. So for instance, when we suffer, do we automatically feel—do we automatically assume—God has abandoned us? If we do, then Scripture can help realign that feeling for we are told in Scripture that not only does God never abandon us but there is nowhere we can go to escape God. Listen to a few verses from Psalm 139—and I encourage you to read the entire psalm for some rock-solid theological truth!
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
The psalmist reminds us that even if we tried to escape God, there’s no escaping him. His good theology can help us make sense of our feelings, leading us to right conclusions about who God is rather than wrong conclusions. We cannot escape God. And how much more is this true for those of us who live this side of Christ’s cross and are indwelled by his Holy Spirit.
Now in verses 16–17 Paul turns to the temple image—you didn’t think I was going to get there, did you?! “16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” We are God’s temple—by Christ’s work we have been devoted to the worship of God—by Christ’s work we are now the dwelling place of God. And this is true not only individually but corporately—we have a plural “you” here. And because we together comprise God’s temple, we should be concerned for one another, not envious of one another; not quarreling with one another. Because God’s Spirit dwells in our midst, we as God’s temple—as God’s field—as God’s building—should reflect that reality by teaching a proper understanding of Jesus Christ—orthodoxy; by caring for one another in tangible ways—orthopraxy; by rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep—orthopathy. This is how we can fulfill our call to be human as God intended. This is how we can fulfill our call to be human as Jesus demonstrated. This is how we can fulfill our call to be human by God’s indwelling Holy Spirit in our lives.
Our shared reality as the temple of God is so important that we are told in verse 17 that “17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” This is how important it is not only that we believe the right things but also that we live the right way with one another and care for each other. When we don’t believe, live, and feel rightly, we dishonor ourselves; we dishonor each other; we dishonor God. We are in danger of destroying the temple God has built
Paul tells us that we need to be careful not to deceive ourselves (verse 18). He comes full circle in emphasizing again that we should seek to be “wise” not by the standards of this age—by the things our culture values—by envy of accomplishments, by quarreling with one another about who is better or more important. We should be foolish with regard to worldly things but wise in things that pertain to God. We should remember the truth of ourlives— =that all things are ours (verse 21)—“22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are [ours], 23 and [we] are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”
In a paper I was once grading—and I regret not remembering who it was for I’d love to give her credit—a student observed that when we sin, we are acting in a manner that is less than human. I love this wonderful theology. It’s an apt conclusion to everything Paul has been saying in our passage this morning for:
To be God’s temple means we are called to study and understand Scripture—to study and understand God and his ways—to embrace a proper orthodoxy.
To be God’s temple means we are called to put into practice the truths we see in Scripture—to develop a proper orthopraxy.
To be God’s temple means we are called to view and make sense of our lives through the eyes of Providence—to learn orthopathy. To challenge feelings that God has abandoned us or that he doesn’t care about us by returning to Scripture and being reminded that he will never leave us or forsake us; that even if we are faithless, he will remain faithful.
To be God’s temple means that we do all of this not in isolation from one another—not individually—but together we help one another to be more like him recognizing that since the time of the Fall, holiness—seeking to become like Christ—is hard work and, sadly, does not come as naturally to us as we would like. We need God’s help and each other’s help.
To be God’s temple means we are called not to be “mere humans” nor “only human” but to be human the way Jesus taught and lived—the way God in Christ intended.
Brothers and sisters, let us pray….