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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (I Corinthians 3:16)
The Jesus Movement was launched into a landscape dotted with temples.
As the earliest Christians took the Good News across the Mediterranean world during the first century, it was impossible not to notice scores of sacred spaces in and around urban areas.
A temple was a place where heaven was thought to touch Earth. The ancient Celts spoke of “thin places” – sacred precincts where mere mortals, at least for a few moments, could draw closer to the realm of the gods. Construction of the grandest temples was usually undertaken on the tallest hill or ridge in the vicinity. In the Greek-speaking world, that would mean the acropolis (akro + polis = “high place in the city”). Athens still boasts what has come to be called the Acropolis, but many Greek cities had a sacred elevation all their own – including architectural marvels that continue to amaze visitors in the 21st century.
What happened inside a temple?
That depended on whose divine house it happened to be.
A city might offer a smorgasbord of religious options, depending on the perceived needs of the resident god or goddess. Animal sacrifices might be presented. Incense might be burned and prayers offered. Some temples were akin to brothels. Priests or priestesses might declare forgiveness for wrongs committed, or offer guidance concerning future decisions. There might be secretive rituals of initiation or immersion into an inner circle of true believers.
It’s impossible to overstate how different things were in Jerusalem.
If each Greek community was a city with a unique constellation of temples, Israel’s capital was more like a temple surrounded by a city. An astonishing 25% of Jerusalem’s real estate was devoted to the one-and-only Jewish temple and its surrounding courts during the time of Jesus. The temple was central to every aspect of Jewish life.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that a significant number of scenes from the life of Jesus take place near the temple. His disciples, his listeners, and his opponents all want to know: What does Jesus think of this extraordinary building where the creator God lives out his unique relationship with Israel?
Jesus’ answer shocks his listeners.
The temple is temporary, he says. It’s going to disappear. Within a generation it will be reduced to a smoldering ruin, where “not a single stone will be left upon another” (Matthew 24:2). His prediction is fulfilled in A.D. 70 when Roman troops overrun the city and demolish the very center of Jewish life. As a result, the nation is paralyzed with grief. Now that the temple is gone, how can they ever meet with God? How can they ever serve God?
Something else that Jesus says is even more shocking.
When pressed to defend his claims to spiritual authority, he declares, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” His opponents are flabbergasted. Jerusalem’s worship center has been under construction for 46 years, and he’s going to match all that work in three days? John writes in his gospel, “But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said” (John 2:18-22).
Jesus, in other words, claims to be the new temple.
He has become the meeting place between heaven and Earth. He is the place where God can be consulted and where sins are forgiven. People will no longer trudge to a particular city and stand on a particular piece of ground in order to experience the creator. All of those realities have now been transferred to him.
The biggest surprise, however, awaits us in today’s “3:16” verse.
The apostle Paul, writing to the young Christians living in the temple-saturated city of Corinth, Greece, asks, “Don’t you know [as if it’s common knowledge] that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells within you?” The logic is compelling. If God’s presence is now uniquely available in Jesus, and if Jesus lives within his followers by means of the Holy Spirit, we ourselves have become the place where God resides.
The word “you” in this verse is plural, which means that the whole group of men and women following Jesus comprise a living temple where the one true God chooses to live.
Instead of climbing the steps of a beautiful marble structure to bow before representations of gods and goddesses, we can have access to the Father that Jesus talks about by spending time with that woman who, with God’s help, is still dealing with the shame of her past; with that man who sings even the simplest hymns offkey; and with the impoverished family who look to God every day because they have no idea what they’ll be able to give their kids for dinner.
Has God seriously called such ordinary people to represent his “house”? The answer is Yes.
Christians routinely speak of going to church, as if God resides at a particular corner that can be located via Google Maps. But Paul is making it clear that God’s temple, the church – the place where he dwells – is us. Whenever we are on the move, God is on the move.
If you take that thought to heart, your weekend just became a lot more interesting. Perhaps you’re planning on dropping in on a sick neighbor, picking up a few items at the grocery, and watching some college basketball with friends. Routine stuff. But now you know – in a way that’s hard to put into words – that God’s own Spirit will be at work while you’re offering words of encouragement, searching for a decent pork roast, and cheering for your team.
Your family room and your shopping cart, in other words, are where heaven and earth meet.
Which means you don’t need to schedule a trip to the Parthenon to see a really impressive temple.
Just look in the mirror.
I Corinthians 3:16
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