The Temple of God, 1 Corinthians 3. 9-17

John B. D. Page, Harrow

Part 6 of 7 of the series Temple Teaching in the Epistles

In Bible times, not only had the Jews their Temple in Jerusalem but pagans had their temples, for most cities had a heathen shrine in the city square. The present Christian era is not without its Temple, termed by Paul as the "temple of God", which we shall now consider.

The underlying imagery of 1 Corinthians 3. 9-17 is undoubtedly that of a Temple. Although this may not be evident to western readers, it would have been to easterners of the first century. In fact, at the end of the paragraph under considera­tion, Paul confirms the Temple background by asking the rhetorical question, "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God?". When reading it, the pagan converts would have had in mind their famous Temple of Aphrodite at Corinth, whilst the Jewish believers in that assembly would have called to mind their Temple at Jerusalem and would have been familiar with their Scriptures describing Solomon's Temple which preceded it. In other words, Paul says to his readers, "Do you not realize that you believers collectively are a spiritual temple of God?"

God's Building. In introducing the subject, Paul says at the beginning of the paragraph in verse 9, "ye are God's building", by which he means that a local church does not consist of a material building where we meet but a mystical building comprising believers. The words "God's building" denote ownership, which is not denominational but divine, and so a local assembly of believers belongs not to man but to God.

Furthermore, ownership implies authority and, in an assembly, it should be that of God and not man. In matters of belief and behaviour, we should acknowledge the final author­ity of God through His Word, even if it differs from our personal opinion!

The trend in the world today is one of anarchy, rejecting authority. This is not surprising, because we live in the last days and the Lord's coming is near, but it is sad when believers become tainted by it, and this is apparent when they refuse to submit to the authority of Scripture upon any particular matter. To keep ourselves unspotted from this spirit of anarchy and likewise of humanism, we need to keep to the Word of God, not questioning its authority, and it will result in the acknowledgement of the authority of God in our hearts and lives.

Labourers Together. In founding the assembly at Corinth, for which he was given enabling grace, Paul claims to have been "as a wise masterbuilder", v. 10. The word "masterbuilder", which is the translation of architekton (cf. "architect" in English), does not denote a designer of buildings or a masterworkman overseeing others, but a principal worker amongst others. By saying that he was "wise", he means neither human wisdom of which the Greeks boasted nor the present day counterpart of religious intellectualism, but "skilful" in the knowledge and use of the Scriptures as directed by the Holy Spirit.

With his rabbinical training, which he consecrated to the Lord, Paul was well versed in the Scriptures, which he used skilfully for the furtherance of the Lord's work.

We must now look briefly at Paul's other fellow-workers. Silas, of whose background nothing is known, and Timothy, who had "from a child... known the holy scriptures", 2 Tim. 3. 15; 1. 5, both came from Macedonia to Corinth, and they assisted Paul in the pioneer work of evangelism, Acts 18. 5. In passing, we may note from Timothy's background the important part that parents may play in the spiritual welfare of their children, 2 Tim. 1.5.

Having laid the foundation of the assembly at Corinth during his eighteen months stay there, Paul left for Syria, travelling via Ephesus, Acts 18.18-22.

Soon after Paul's departure, Apollos, who was "mighty in the scriptures", came from Ephesus to Corinth. Before he left for Achaia, "the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him", and this letter of commendation, bearing the signatures of several "brethren", and not just one, served as an introduction to another assembly. At Corinth, Apollos would teach "diligently the things of the Lord", and so he was able to build up the newly founded church there, Acts 18. 24 to 19.1; cf. 1 Cor. 3. 6,10.

Without exception, all these brethren, who worked to found and build up this assembly, were "skilful" in the Scriptures and they were fellow-labourers together, none claiming a preferential position over the others (cf. 1 Cor. 3. 4, 9), but all acknowledging the pre-eminent position of Christ over them. This may be illustrated from Solomon's labour force for the building of his Temple. Solomon appointed Adoniram, who was the son of Abda, over the levy of 30,000 men, of whom 10,000 on a three monthly rota basis went to Lebanon for cedarwood, 1 Kings 4. 6; 5. 13-16. Remarkably, "Abda" means "servant", and "Adoniram", who was over the ten thousand, means "my Lord (or, Adonai, which signifies Master, or Sovereign) is high", all of which directs our thoughts to Christ Jesus. He "took upon him the form of a servant", humbled Himself, and is now "highly exalted", being "the chiefest among ten thousand" in the building of His spiritual Temple in this day of grace, Phil. 2. 7, 9; Song of Songs, 5. 10.

The Foundation. For the assembly at Corinth, Paul claims to have "laid the foundation". This is a responsible work because upon a foundation, a building, irrespective whether material or spiritual, will stand or fall. We may say that the future of a building, including that of a "spiritual house", is governed to a large extent by its foundation. Once a foundation has been laid, it cannot be changed, for "other foundation can no man lay than that is laid", says the apostle. The possibility of other workers laying another foundation is ruled out, and so the foundation already laid remains. How important for a foundation to be laid by men of God!

The laying of a foundation should be not only a work far God but also a work of God, for then it will be firm, as Paul told Timothy, "the foundation of (i.e. not 'belonging to', but 'laid by') God standeth sure", 2 Tim. 2. 19. To be certain of its being sure and steadfast, we need the "foundation... which is Jesus Christ", 1 Cor. 3. n, which means not Christ personally for the foundation but "the doctrine of Christ", cf. Heb. 6. i. At Corinth, Paul "testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ", Acts 18. 5. It undoubtedly involved proclaiming fundamental truths of the Person and work of Christ, through whom the need of salvation for sinful men is met. In these days of spiritual decadence, we must not deviate from such doctrine. Let us not be fearful of declaring the fact of sin, and not ashamed of preaching the coming of Christ into the world to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself, and His coming the second time for the consummation of our salvation.

These fundamental truths may be illustrated from Solomon's Temple, for which he used "great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones, to lay the foundation", 1 Kings 5. 17, thus making use of three types of stones, "great", "costly'*, and "hewed" for the foundation. Even in patriarchal times and the later period of the prophets, besides the apostolic years of the early church, a stone was used figuratively of Christ; e.g. Gen. 49. 24; Psa. 118. 22; Isa. 28. 16; Dan. 2. 45; Rom. 9. 32-33; Eph. 2.20, and others. Christ is the key to an understanding of all Scripture, and so "the doctrine of Christ", as set forth in the Pauline Epistles to the local churches, is illustrated by the three classes of stones used for the foundation for the Temple of old. The church Epistles, taken in canonical order, may be sub-divided into three groups:

Group I. Romans, Corinthians and Galatians. These three Epistles are as "great stones" of doctrine, because they set forth Christ and the Cross.

1.  Romans: Here, we have the great foundation truth that Christ died for us, and we are "justified by his blood".

2.  Corinthians: In evangelism, we are enjoined to "preach Christ...  crucified", and in worship to proclaim the Lord's death in breaking the bread and drinking the cup.

3.  Galatians: Christ has delivered us from the law and mere extemalism, and He has led us into liberty, but "God forbid that (we) should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ".

These "great stones" of truth concerning Christ and the cross are fundamental to our belief and experience, from which we must never deviate or depart.

Group II. Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. In these three Epistles, the truth, as "costly stones", is Christ and the Church. The words, "Christ loved the church and gave himself for it", express the Lord's high esteem for the Church.

1.   Ephesians: Its distinctive teaching is "the church, which is his body". The universal Church is here in view, and all believers are members of His body.

2.  Philippians: The theme is the unity of believers in the church.

3.   Colossians: The supremacy and dignity of Christ is the key thought, as conveyed in the verse, "he is the head of the body, the church".

The precious truth of Christ and the church was hidden from the saints of previous ages, but it has been made known to us in this age of grace. Let us ever cling to these "costly stones" of truth!

Group III. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. These two Epistles are as a quarry of prophetic truth, in which there are to be found "hewed stones", symbolizing the glorious prospect of Christ and his Coming again.

The two phases of Christ's second coming are set forth clearly in these Epistles.

1.   1 Thessalonians: The Lord Himself will come for the saints who, in response to the trumpet call, will be caught up to meet Him in the air.

2.   2 Thessalonians: Christ will come with the saints to the earth, and then the Lawless One will be destroyed by the brightness of His coming.

Compared with the past, there has been neglect in recent years in searching the Scriptures for the "hewed stones" of Christ's second coming. Let us not be neglectful in these last days, to avoid becoming like scoffers in Christendom saying, "Where is the promise of his coming?", 2 Pet. 3.4.

In these "great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones", we have figuratively "the whole counsel of God", as set forth so remarkably in the Pauline Epistles without changing their canonical order, which is necessary for a firm foundation of an assembly, and we must not shun from declaring it, Acts 20.27. Thinking of a material building for a moment, a firm foundation is essential, if it is not to be affected by sub-soil movement. This may be the underlying thought in Colossians 1. 23, "If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel". The word "grounded" signifies "to lay a foundation", or "to found". If we do not succumb to subtle attacks from Satan but continue in this foundation doctrine of "the hope of the gospel", the blessed hope of the Lord's return, then we shall remain settled and steadfast in the faith.