Text: 1 Cor. 3:8-17
Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.
What are you looking for in a church? There are a few common answers pastors hear to this question. Usually some variation of “community” comes first. People want a church that loves its members and where they can have a family. Others will mention solid preaching and teaching. Some say that they want activism and social change. Still others mention charity work. And all of these answers get at a part of the right answer. But there’s a more basic answer that I don’t hear. Over the past 7 years of my time in the ministry, I have never had someone tell me that they are looking for their church to be a holy dwelling place for God. Does that sound like a strange thing to say? Is it too strong? Yet that’s precisely what the New Testament says about the church. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16).
This statement comes up in chapter 3 of 1 Corinthians as Paul is answer the problem of worldliness and division in the church. Paul has been dealing with the problem of partisanship and celebrity Christianity, and he answers this by pointing the Corinthians back to themselves. He shows them what they are in light of salvation. They belong to God and are His field and His House. Ultimately they are the temple, and so, Paul says, they should act like it. They should be who they are.
Understanding what the church is teaches us about our worth in the sight of God, and it teaches us about how we should relate to one another within the Church. We need to see each other as members of the temple, and we must not defile that temple. This morning we will look at these images of field and temple in more detail. We will discuss what becomes of our good and bad works. And we will conclude with the command to avoid defiling the temple. In all of this, our central message is the same. Be who you are.
Field and House
Paul uses two images to describe the church: a field and a house. “You are God’s field, you are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). The “field” image comes from Paul’s earlier statement about the workers planting and watering. The “crops” which spring up are the people, and these people belong to God. This sort of imagery is used throughout the Bible. It’s similar to a garden, and you see gardens in several key places, but the specific use of field imager also appears in important places. There’s Jeremiah 32, where Jeremiah is told to buy a field in order to represent Israel. Jeremiah 32:15 makes the connection to Israel clear. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land.’”
Then are also Jesus’ words about a field, notably the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13, and then his statement in John 4:35 that the fields “are already white for the harvest.” Again we see that the field symbolizes the people, and the harvest will be those men and women who are converted to Christ. Similarly, the last judgment is also called a “harvest” (which is why death is often called a reaper), and the good crop will be separated from the bad, as those redeemed by Christ are allowed to enter into their inheritance while those who have not known him perish in everlasting fire.
The second image that Paul uses is that of a building, specially a house. As we continue reading in 1 Cor. 3, we see that the house isn’t just any house. It’s the temple. This image is the more prominent one for the people of God, and it is the one which will continue to appear in 1 Corinthians. Throughout the New Testament we learn about the temple, and we learn that it is the true temple, of which the Old Covenant temple made from stone was always just a type. Jesus is the temple first and foremost (John 2:19-21), and as believers are His body, they are also His temple.
This identification of the people of God with the temple of God is made several places in the New Testament:
And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.” (2 Cor. 6:16)
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)
You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)
The biblical teaching is clear. The true temple of God is the people, believers in Christ. We are the house in which God dwells. And so since we are the temple, we need to see ourselves as unified, as one and the same. We also need to understand what happens within us, both singularly and corporately. God lives in us. This is a huge truth. God lives in us, and we need to act accordingly.
What both of these images teach us is that the Church belongs to God. It does not belong to us. It is not the pastor or elders’ church. It is not even the people’s church. It doesn’t belong to those who have given the most money, attending the most functions, or volunteered to serve the most. It belongs to God, and we have to keep that straight. What our church “produces” is dedicated to God and belongs to Him.
And since it belongs to God and is even the house in which God chooses to dwell, we must value it. We need to respect it. We need to honor it. Do you take this seriously? Do you come to this church as if you are coming to meet God? Do you interact with this church as if you are doing business with God Himself? If not, then you need to remember who you are, you need to remember who we are. We should respect and honor the church, and in so doing, we will honor God. This is the main reason that we should live holy lives, and it is the main reason that we should be kind to one another. We belong to God.
Building with Our Works
The temple is a house, and like all houses it begins with a foundation. That foundation is Jesus Christ Himself, and it was laid by the apostles. We now build on top of this. We don’t reset the foundation but rather stack ourselves on top of it, and this primarily has to do with how we live our lives. Paul explains:
But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear. (1 Cor. 3:10-13)
This refers to doctrine and living, as the following chapters will demonstrate. Sanctification matters because it is how the temple is built. Are you building a quick, cheap home that will need an overhaul in just a few years, or are you building something that will last?
When we moved to Central Florida, we had to get used to a number of new things, some better and some worse. Among the better were the amazing birds and waterfowl, the great beaches and scenery, and city governments that actually function properly. But there were some changes “for the worst,” and neighborhood design and home architecture tops the list. We’re very thankful for our current rental, but we’ve noticed that it was a quickie build with a number of weaknesses. The interior paint is the worst. The homeowner decided to use flat paint, and so every spec of dirt and greasy handprint shows up. And you can’t clean it. My wife was scrubbing a spot in the kitchen, and the paint came right off! Now we just have to live with the mess. This is what our sin is like in God’s house. When we sin, we blemish the temple. We can choose to make it beautiful and lasting, through our love and righteousness, or we can make it shabby and defaced through our sin. It will stay that way until God comes to clean it up.
Paul goes on to say that God will judge how we build this house. Our works will be tested by God’s righteous fire, and we will see what we’re made of:
…the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:13-15)
“The Day” in question is the Last judgment (see also 1 Cor. 1:8), and our works are revealed when we see whether they can pass through the fire without being consumed. If they are lasting works, like the gold, silver, and precious stones, then they will be purified and endure. But if they are wood, hay, or straw, then they will be burned up in the fire.
Now, this passage has been misused throughout the history of the Church, and so we need to pay attention to the details. The first thing to note is that all of the people in this context are saved, and so there is no works’ righteousness in view. The works don’t save you. It is the works themselves which will either be preserved or destroyed. The fire is the judgment of “the Day,” and so this is not a reference to purgatory. The works are done in this life, and the judgment is made on them at the Last Day
Keep the Temple Holy
All of this leads to Paul’s main command—keep the temple holy. This is the driving point. If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. “For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Cor. 3:17). When you think about how you live your life in Christ and how you relate to other Christians, you should be asking if you are keeping the temple holy or if you are defiling it.
This statement, “the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” is a statement about the church. The “you” in the sentence is in the plural, and it could be translated as “y’all.” “Do y’all not know that y’all are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in y’all? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple y’all are.” (1 Cor. 3:16-17). Putting it this way also makes it clear that the temple is the people together. It isn’t the church as an institution, a corporate entity, or a denomination which is the temple of God but rather the believers who gather together to worship and live alongside one another. They are, quite literally, the dwelling place of God on earth.
So, are you keeping us holy?
This begins with your own holy living. Paul is going to get into that in more detail in the following chapters. Your sins with your body are sins against the church. But in this section, he’s talking about living together with fellow members. The way you treat your pastor and elder is a form of keeping the temple holy. The way you treat one another is a way you keep the temple holy. Are you angry at one another? Do you think the worst of one another? Then you are defiling the temple. If you continue to do this, then Paul says God will destroy you.
We also need to cultivate a holy community. We need to promote moral living. Our church shouldn’t be legalistic, but we should encourage one another towards good works and admonish one another when we fall into sin. We should help keep the house.
This section of 1 Corinthians is all about church infighting. The Corinthians are divided, playing favorites, and forming smaller cliques within the Church. Paul answers that question by reminding them just who they are in Christ and what their calling is as the Church. They aren’t just humans who get together for a social club. No, they are the temple of the living God.
And this is true for us today. We must remind ourselves who we are. When we fall into worldly thoughts and complain against one another, we need to remember our calling as the church. When we become self-centered and self-focused, we need to remember that the other members of the body are also living stones in God’s temple. We fall into sin, we need to remember the holiness of God and that we are to be His house. We are God’s temple, a holy place where God dwells among us. Be who you are.
Let us pray.