This expression was applied to the company of believers at at Corinth, and not to the individual believer. True, a similar expression, “the temple of the Holy Ghost,” is applied to the body of the individual and a powerful plea for personal sanctification is based upon that solemn truth. But the expression we are now considering is applied to the assembly as such.
In Christendom, great importance is attached to the buildings which have been erected for the worship of God, and it is probable that the impressiveness of some religious services owes a great deal to the sensuous effects of massive architecture. There can be little doubt that the immense expenditure of skill and labour and wealth involved in the erection of these temples was often due to genuine devotion and a sense of what was due to the majesty of God, but the effect has frequently been to draw attention away from the fact that, in this age, the true temple of God is the assembly of His people and not the building in which they gather.
Human nature being what it is, it is not a matter of great surprise that some who have grasped this truth have swung to the other extreme, and because they have seen that no material building can be the temple of God, they have acted as though the building they use is of no consequence. We believe that a proper sense of what is due to God would lead to the assembly’s building being made as suitable as possible for its purpose, and of a character likely to commend itself to the public. It indicates a spurious spirituality when saints live in exceptionally well-appointed houses, but are content to meet in a shack.
Nevertheless, we must stress that the temple is not the material building but the saints who gather together in the Name of the Lord Jesus for the worship and service of God.
There are, we suggest, two leading lessons we may learn from the truth that the assembly of the saints is the temple of God.
It would not make very great demands on the least imaginative of us, to realize how a young priest would have felt when he was first -privileged to enter into the Holy Place in the Temple of old. Such is the infirmity of human nature, that it is at least possible that with the passage of years he would become accustomed to his privileges and gradually take them as a matter of course, but there can be no reasonable doubt that the young priest would be acutely conscious of a sacred joy and thankfulness as he was admitted to the ministry of the sanctuary. It might be argued that in some respects it was easier for him than for us, because he was surrounded with so much that would appeal to his senses; but surely it does not demand a super-spirituality to realize that, as the Temple of old was but a shadow and we have the substance, our privileges spiritually are greater than his.
Each believer helps to form this temple, just as each stone in a material building goes to make up the complete structure. In this temple every believer, even the youngest, is a holy priest (1 Pet. 2. 5) whose sacred function it is to offer up spiritual sacrifices of worship and praise. This does not necessarily involve taking some audible part - it is fully time we realized that far more depends on the state of heart of the believers than upon the ability of those who may lead the congregation.
It is quite a mistake to confine the idea of worship to the gathering specially convened for the remembrance of the Lord at the Lord’s Supper - every meeting should be a worship meeting. All our service should be undertaken in a worshipping spirit, and where this is true of a company of Christians the whole tone of the gathering is raised and the Holy Spirit is able to move amongst them with greater freedom and power. Of course, if is only natural that when we come to meetings we hope to receive blessing, but there is a nobler motive than this - remember how the Greatest Giver said “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” When saints wend their way to meetings with hearts dancing for joy and overflowing with praise, at the realization that they are to be privileged to join in heart with their fellow-priests to worship God, they will prove the truth of these words.
We have already suggested that there is the danger that in freeing ourselves of the artificial thraldom generated by massive architecture and ornate ritual, we may become too casual in our attitude. God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of His saints and to be had in reverence of all that are about Him (Ps. 89. 7), but we fear that those who are fond of claiming God’s presence do not always give evidence of the reality of their convictions by a reverent manner. God, of course, knoweth the heart and it is not for us to judge, but we wonder whether it has not often been the case that devout though poorly-instructed believers, who have been attracted to the principles we profess to hold, have been stumbled by a deportment inconsistent with our profession.
This is not to be interpreted as a plea for a formal manner - true reverence is not at all inconsistent with all that would properly flow from the warmth of Christian love and genuine interest in each other and pleasure in one anothers’ company. How often it has been the case that as our hearts have been kindled by the warmth of Christian fellowship, God’s presence has been made all the more real - it is difficult to imagine this stumbling any but the most inveterate ritualists. Nevertheless there can be no excuse for the unconcerned and careless air.
Maybe, however, more irreverence springs from long familiarity with the various forms of assembly-meetings than from almost any other cause - and irreverence which is not always recognized as such. To take but one example: when we lead the assembly in prayer, do we really believe that we are actually addressing the Most High God? Do we? Here again, God is the only Judge of the heart but it is sometimes difficult to resist the conclusion that prayer is used as an opportunity, not of speaking to God, but of imparting news or exhortation to others. This might be done with the very best of intentions, and simply as a habit unconsciously acquired over the years - possibly from the example of others - but it at least raises the question whether such a one has really paused, before rising to his feet, to consider the implications of professing to draw nigh to God. If we honestly believe that certain news should be imparted to our brethren, let us do the plain and honest thing and tell them, but do not let us use the cover of prayer for this purpose.
The same considerations would deter us from reliance upon well-worn phrases, either picked up from others or which were once used by us in freshness but have now worn a track in our minds from which it is difficult to deviate. There are limits to the vocabulary of the most accomplished, and there is no advantage in forsaking an expression which beautifully clothes an important idea, so long as we are watchful to resist the tendency to repeat the expression when it no longer answers to the feeling of the heart. Surely if we love God and really believe we are approaching Him on matters of vital and ever-fresh importance, we shall not be content to repeat a string of phrases which may be more like shackles than aids to warm and reverent expression of our spirits? It would be a thousand pities if drawing attention to these things quenched the spirit of prayer - we are not suggesting that there is any necessary virtue in novelty of expression. Striving after novelty might be the greater of two evils - all we plead for is exercise of heart so that forms of words are ever kept as the servants, and not the masters, of our hearts and minds.
It is a great comfort to know that God knoweth our frame and remembers that we are but dust, and we may reverently believe that He graciously makes allowances for that frailty of human nature which finds it exceedingly difficult to resist the cramping power of habit. Even so we may well exercise our hearts, to learn the tremendous lesson which brought Isaiah down in humiliation before the Lord «(Isa. 6). Here were the seraphim, who for ages had served God before His very Throne, yet were so filled with awe that they covered their faces and cried “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts.” When it fell to the lot of one of them to apply a live coal to the prophet’s lips, he felt the things of God to be so sacred that, though no flame could have hurt his hand, he took the tongs. Is there the danger of becoming so accustomed to ministry in the sacred things that at last we get used to handling the things of God and cease to exercise our hearts to maintain a due sense of their solemnity?
From this state of heart it is but a step to that more serious form of irreverence - self-will. How much damage has been caused by a determination to have one’s own way. This is always disastrous for the Christian, but never more so that when self-will intrudes into the church of God. To this sin, more perhaps than to most forms of irreverence in the assembly, the solemn warning is apt - “If any man mar the temple of God, him will God destroy.”
What must angels think, awed as they still are with the holiness of God, when they see puny man, redeemed at infinite cost from well-deserved doom, acting carelessly in the presence of his Redeemer God?
It is a comfort to know that God never despises a contrite heart and if we have been guilty of conduct unbecoming His presence, there is grace available for us which will enable us to retrieve our mistakes, and learn to serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.
This spirit will not rob the gatherings of the saints of any of their warmth and joy - on the contrary it will so raise the spiritual level and give such reality to our worship, that all occasions of church-fellowship will deepen our appreciation of the things of God. And since these occasions will normally take place in the assembly hall, that building, whilst never being confused with the real temple of God, will nevertheless be a place permeated with fragrant and sacred memories.
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