Paul’s words have caused a lot of confusion for Christians in the past two-thousand years. In 1 (pronounced one) Corinthians 6:19, he made a statement that has been interpreted in various ways:
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
There have been some creative exegetical ventures exploring exactly what Paul meant when he wrote this to the Corinthians. The results are humorous when neglecting to distinguish between singular and plural.
In the passage, “body” and “temple” are singular, but in the phrase “do you not know,” the verb is plural as is the possessive pronoun in “your own.” The pronouns “you” and “your” throughout the verse are also plural. This should immediately inform the reader that Paul is not talking to an individual or communicating that each of them is their own temple, but rather the cumulative people are a temple, i.e. a dwelling of the most high.
In 3:16 of the same letter, Paul had made this statement:
“Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”
Here again, the pronouns and the verbal phrase “do you not know” are plural as they are in chapter 6. Also notice “a temple” not the temple. What’s the deal?
Because of the Hellenistic paradigm that pervades western culture and subsequently Christian thinking, the interpretation of this passage has largely - and anachronistically - focused on the individual; me, my and mine rather than the Pauline presentation of a community house, aka. temple.
Part of the reason the Church has lost the sense of community and participatory attitude is because no longer do most look for it, neither do we read the Bible that way. It has instead been replaced by singular faith, personal salvation and eternity, my mansion, my personal Lord and savior; I think you get my point.
Sometimes I feel like I am overusing the word, but context is crucial for a correct understanding of what Paul intended his recipients of this personal correspondence to perceive. Paul’s cultural context is relevant in how and what he thinks about temple, salvation, eschatology and his place as an observant Jew. Paul was addressing the “church” as a collective assembly, not the pastor or (under) shepherd, but the people. If you doubt, start at the beginning of the letter.
Throughout the NT it is observable that certain writers refer to the community of God with temple imagery. The picture conveyed is that within the community, the people of Yahweh, the Sheep of his pasture, is where his presence dwells. He set-up his temple/tabernacle among his people, ultimately desiring them to be a royal priesthood and exhibit to the nations around what he is like. That is – at least in part - what the temple signified. It is not that of individualism where his people are little individual temples walking around, the picture is all together his people comprise a temple, a metaphorical habitation.
In 1 (pronounced one) Peter 2 (pronounced two) the imagery is used:
“You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 1Pe 2:5.
Here, the writer uses the plural pronoun “you” as well to describe a singular house. Don’t get the idea that this was a way of replacing The Temple in Jerusalem. Paul had written before the destruction in 70 A.D. and no thought of such a replacement is found in Paul’s writing.
The point is that Paul is focusing on the role of believers and the intimate dwelling God intends with his people. This is not a new concept. The prophets continually spoke of God being with or among his people in various ways. The writer of John also subtly alludes to this reality (although often distorted beyond recognition from what the author intended).
The writer of Revelation in chapter twenty-one also describes the phenomenon a slightly different way. In the description of a Jerusalem (v. 10) coming out of heaven, her measurements represent an enormous cube. The only cube existing in the Scriptures is the Holy of Holies, the most intimate place of the Temple/Tabernacle where the presence of God resided. The habitation of the saints vis-à-vis Revelation and the “holy city,” “the Lamb’s wife” is this magnificent Holy of Holies. It gives a whole new meaning to “kingdom of priests.”
This is of course a metaphor, like Paul used with the Corinthians. They are all building blocks, components and representatives of God’s presence. God does not live in our physical and mortal bodies; this is not what Paul was saying. The first (not pronounced one) century Christians with their ancient physiology did not even think this. It is rather about presence, anointing, authority and relationship.
Lastly, I don’t mean to insinuate that there is no amount of individual responsibility in our personal relationship with God, of course there is. It begins with you and me. God’s presence is with each of his followers, but not at the expense of his community. We (collective) have been bought with a price (6:20, 7:23 guess what, plural again).