1 Cor. 3:16-23

1 Cor. 3:16-23

SERIES: Christ is the Answer When the Church Is in Crisis

Destroying the Church

Introduction: I have always been fascinated by ancient ruins.  Especially intriguing are the temples that archeologists have unearthed and preserved for posterity.  There is the great Acropolis in Athens, the Temple of Aphrodite in Corinth, Petra in Jordan, Karnak and Luxor in Egypt.  

These great temples conjure up visions of ancient cultures, of gods created in the image of man, and of man’s futile search for meaning in a pagan world.  They stand as stark reminders of the truth of Paul’s assertion in 1 Cor. 3:11: “For no man can lay any foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ,” as well as the truth of Psalm 127:1: “Except the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.”  

Did you know that it is possible for God’s temple to end up in ruins?  Listen to what Paul has to say in the opening verses of our Scripture text today, 1 Cor. 3:16-17: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred and you are that temple.”  I suppose you have heard this passage used to urge believers to take care of their bodies–to avoid smoking, drinking, overeating, or sexual promiscuity because one’s physical body is a temple of God.  

That’s not what Paul is saying here.  Oh, I think it’s a legitimate point to make, but not from this passage.  Turn over to 1 Cor. 6 and you will find a wonderful text to teach that from in verses 19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore, honor God with your body.” 

You are perhaps thinking, “These two passages are saying the same thing.”  No, I don’t think so, and I want to offer you two reasons.  First, the context is very different.  While the context of the 1 Cor. 6 passage is all about the believer’s physical body (and particularly the misuse of it when one engages in sexual misconduct), the context of our passage in 1 Cor. 3 is the local church.  

Last week we learned that God has a building called the church.  God will hold each of us responsible for the quality of workmanship and materials we use to build His church upon the foundation of Jesus Christ.  Those who build responsibly and in a manner that lasts (using gold, silver, costly stones) will receive a reward, but those who build sloppily (using wood, hay or straw) will find their work burned up at the Judgment Seat of Christ, and they will suffer loss.  The loss is not the loss of salvation, for verse 15 promises that the person he is talking about will himself be saved.  Nevertheless, it’s a serious matter, for he will be saved only “as through fire.”

The second reason why I believe these two passages are talking about very different things has to do with the number of the little pronoun “you.”  In English “you” is ambiguous.  Sometimes it refers to one person and sometimes to many, but it is always spelled the same.  Texans, of course, have removed the ambiguity.  When they mean more than one, they say “you’all.”  Well, here in 1 Cor. 3:16 Paul uses the Greek word for “you’all,” a plural “you.”  In effect it reads, “You’all are a temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells among you’all.”  This is in contrast to 1 Cor. 6:19-20, where the “you” is singular. 

So, my conclusion is that in 1 Cor. 3 Paul is telling us that the local church is a building, but it is not just any building–it is a temple of God.    

The local church is a temple of God.  (16-17)

Notice how he begins: “Don’t you know?”  Inasmuch as this phrase appears ten times in the book of 1 Corinthians, it might be wise to make a brief comment on it.  It is one of Paul’s favorite sayings and he invariably uses it to refer to something his listeners definitely should know (not least because he had previously told them), but for some reason they have forgotten it or ignored it.  In other words, this question is a rebuke.

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple?” (16)  The word “temple” is a very interesting one.  There are two principal words used for temple in Greek.  One signifies the entire Jewish temple, including the outer courtyard, which even Gentiles could enter.  But the other word denotes just the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, which could not be entered by anyone except the High Priest, and by him only once a year on the Day of Atonement.  Paul uses the latter term here.

He is saying that the group of believers at Corinth who constituted the church in that city were a holy of holies.  Imagine that!  This little church, which was only a few years old, which didn’t even have an organ, which was meeting in rented facilities or in homes, and which received very little respect from the ecclesiastical community, was actually a Temple of the Living God, of far greater significance than the Temple of Aphrodite which stood on the Acropolis overlooking the city of Corinth.  And by extension I assume the same is true of any local body of believers, including this one.  

But the Apostle goes further: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you, or among you?”

The local church is a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.  (16)

One of the great truths one learns when studying the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is that the Spirit indwells the life of every believer.  The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit actually comes to take up residence at the moment of conversion, and never leaves.  The Christian can grieve the Holy Spirit and he can even quench the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit will never abandon the true believer.  

In fact, if the Holy Spirit were ever to leave, Rom. 8:9 makes it clear that person would no longer be a Christian: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.”  In view of that, I would say that the prayer David prayed in Ps. 51, “Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me,” is not a prayer that the believer today needs to pray, for since the Day of Pentecost the indwelling of the Spirit of God has been a fact for all believers.  

So, Paul seems to be saying, if the Holy Spirit indwells the members of the Church, then He must also indwell the Church.  I don’t mean that He lives within these four walls, because the bricks and mortar and pews are not the Church; we are.  But the Holy Spirit is present whenever and wherever this Body of believers gathers to worship and fellowship, creating unity, confirming truth, and ministering to needs.  

Well, so far we have seen that the local church is a Holy of Holies, and that the Spirit of God dwells among the members.  I want to share with you a third truth I see in this passage. 

The local church is the apple of God’s eye.  (17)

We speak of something being the apple of one’s eye when that thing is so important and of such a high priority that the person would go to any lengths necessary to protect and preserve it.  The Church is exactly that for God, and this is conveyed to us by means of a threat.                                           

         The threat:  Destroy it and you will be destroyed.  “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him.”  Now this is not just a theoretical and hypothetical warning, for the grammar Paul uses here in the Greek makes it clear that this is a real possibility.  

How does one destroy a local church?  Well, Paul has already twice–in chapter 1 and again here in chapter 3–mentioned those who choose sides among pastors, present and former.  Some were so fond of Paul’s teaching that when he left, they decided they would leave, too.  Others were so enthralled with Apollos’ ability to communicate that they were demeaning Paul and his inferior rhetoric.  

But choosing up sides among pastors is not the only way to destroy a church.  One can destroy a church by sowing seeds of discontent through destructive criticism of programs or church leaders.  Or one can destroy a church through indifference and non-involvement.  After all, how can a body function if its members refuse to use their gifts? 

Pastors too can destroy churches.  One way is to preach false doctrine.  Another way is to lull people to sleep spiritually by telling them just what their itching ears want to hear.  I have seen pastors destroy churches through riding hobby horses.  The little church that was my wife’s home church while growing up in Andover is a case in point.  Many years ago, a pastor was called who began to delve deeply into the exorcism of demons.  Over time he developed a reputation for being an expert on the subject, and troubled people from all over the Midwest came to him to have demons cast out.  The more they came, the more he preached on the subject, until eventually his entire ministry revolved around demonism.  There was no balance to his preaching.  When he finally left, the church was down to just a few families.  They wisely changed the church’s name in an effort to live down their reputation.  

Let me state very clearly that I believe that destroying a church or contributing to a church-split is a sin which God will deal with very severely, no matter whether the guilty party is a layperson or a pastor.  

I think we would profit from hearing the following paragraph from C. Peter Wagner, a man who has devoted much of his life to helping churches grow: 

“How do you handle church-splitters?  Look behind whatever superficial reasons might be given and locate the carnality that certainly exists.  Divisions in the church can inevitably be traced to carnal Christians who have allowed themselves to be governed more by worldly attitudes than spiritual ones.  In obedience to the Word of God, when essentials are not involved, each of us today should strive to heal the divisions which exist and do our best to prevent the occurrence of new ones.”[i]

But aren’t there legitimate reasons for leaving a church?  Yes, certainly.  God may call a person to another body because He has a greater ministry in mind for that person in a new location.  Or a person may be led out of a church because of excessive legalism or because the truths he is teaching his children in the home are not being reinforced at church.  

But the fact of the matter is most who leave one church for another do so for reasons far less noble and spiritual.  More often we hear reasons like, “Too many hypocrites in the church,” or “The pastor’s dull and boring,” or “The music is too loud.”  I think lay people ought to examine their motives when changing churches just as carefully as a pastor should examine his when he moves to a new pastorate.  If God calls pastors to churches (and most of us would agree that He does), then why shouldn’t we expect Him to call lay people to churches too.  Neither pastor nor parishioner should make a change until God calls them elsewhere.  

I might add that even if a person has a legitimate reason to change churches, there is a right way and a wrong way to leave.  The right way is to leave quietly, grateful to God for what was learned, eager to accept the challenges and opportunities of a new place of service, willing to forgive anyone who has caused hurt, and committed to praying for the Body left behind.  The wrong way is to leave with anger and bitterness, stirring up others to leave, writing letters, spreading rumors, distorting the truth.  The latter way destroys the church and brings the judgment of God.

Just how serious is this matter of contributing to the destruction of a church?  Verse 17 says that if anyone destroys the temple of God, “God will destroy him.”  Notice that the discipline fits the crime.  Destroy and you will be destroyed.  Does this mean eternal punishment in hell?  A quick look at the word translated “destroy” in a lexicon informs us that it is never used in the NT to refer to destruction in hell.  It can, however, refer to physical judgment.  And there certainly are cases where God took someone’s life prematurely because of sin.  We read about that in the institution of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11:29: “Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.  That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

What we can say for sure here in 1 Cor. 3 is that God threatens to bring harm to the one who harms His church.  What form that harm might take, I cannot say, but it is serious.  

In verse 17 Paul gives us the reason God makes this threat:

         The reason:  the temple of God is holy.  (17): “For the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.”  In the Old Testament the Holy of Holies was so sacred that anyone caught desecrating it, or even touching the forbidden objects within it, was summarily judged.  Well, the local church is also holy to the Lord.  If God judged the desecration of His temple in the OT, do you think He will overlook the desecration of His temple in the NT?                    

Friends, the bottom line is that I think the local church deserves more respect than it gets from many Christians today.  Some people actually dress down when they come to church, wearing clothes they would never think of wearing to the office.  That’s even true of pastors.  I was privy to a conversation recently among a group of mega-church pastors concerning what they thought was appropriate dress for preaching.  Oddly, the larger the church, the more likely it was that the pastor wore jeans with his shirt hanging out!  Does that show appropriate respect to the office of pastor?  I am reminded of a little-known fact about Ronald Reagan.  He never went into the Oval Office without a coat and tie, not even when he was all by himself.  The reason?  Because he had such enormous respect for the office of the presidency.  

Of course, there are even more important ways we can show respect at church than how we dress.  Do we hold the church and its mission in high regard?  Do we pray regularly for its leaders and its outreach?  Do we prepare our hearts ahead of time to receive the message?  Do we listen actively?  Do we sing with a heart of worship?  Do we seek to defend our church and speak well of it, as opposed to always pointing out its faults?  Do we attend only when it’s convenient, or do we make it a godly habit?  

Just as we should seek to avoid grieving the Holy Spirit or quenching the Holy Spirit in our private lives, so we should avoid grieving or quenching His ministry to the Body.  Friends, don’t forget that the local church is the apple of God’s eye.  

The local church must reject human pride and seek God’s wisdom instead. (18-23) 

Let’s read together the remainder of our text for today, 1 Cor. 3:18-23:

18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

The connection between this paragraph and the previous portion of 1 Cor. 3 seems to be that one of the quickest ways to destroy a church is to substitute human wisdom for God’s wisdom.  In fact, it may be true that every case of desecration of God’s temple begins right at this point.  

False doctrine, which we earlier mentioned as one way to destroy a church, invariably has its origin in human wisdom.  The same is true of division in the church.  Listen to William Barclay’s insight on this:  

“It is by this very intellectual, worldly wisdom that the Corinthians assess the worth of different teachers and leaders.  It is this pride in the human mind which makes them evaluate and criticize the way in which the message is delivered, the correctness of the rhetoric, the weight of the oratory, the subtleties of the arguments, rather than think only of the content of the message itself.” [ii]  

         The folly of confidence in one’s own wisdom.  (18-20) What does Paul mean when he says that a person must become a fool in order that he may be wise?  Does it mean that a person must denounce education, reject rational thinking, and become an anti-intellectual mystic?  Does God put any premium on ignorance?  Of course not.  The very Apostle who wrote the words before us was a brilliant thinker, with a great education, and his very writing here is based upon logic and sound reasoning.  

What then does it mean?  I think it means that a man must never consider himself a final authority, especially on matters spiritual; he must be humble enough to learn, humble enough to say, “To the best of my knowledge and understanding, this is truth, but I could be wrong.”  There is an old proverb which states, “He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not is a fool; avoid him.  He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a wise man; teach him.”

But it means more than that.  I believe Paul is condemning any approach that seeks to find truth primarily through philosophical reasoning, as was common in Greek circles.  I have a graduate degree in philosophy from a secular university, and I am well aware of the aura of wisdom that philosophers sometimes try to exhibit, having been schooled in logic, debate, and sophisticated argumentation.  But friends, if our content is not true to God’s Word, our philosophical reasoning is foolishness.  No man has the right to set himself up above the Scriptures and proclaim ultimate truth from any other source.  The wisdom of the world is foolishness before God. 

The solution, of course, is not to stop thinking or to trash logic.  The solution is to make sure that we never let our reasoning become authoritative over the Word. The apostle uses two OT quotations in verses 19 & 20 to press home his argument about the folly of putting confidence in one’s own wisdom.  The first comes from Job 5:13, which quotes a speech by Eliphaz against godly Job.  Eliphaz wrongly applied his point, but it was true, nevertheless, that “He catches the wise in their craftiness.”  In other words, a person may have such brilliant, water-tight arguments that no one else can refute him, but if that person’s arguments are human in origin, God will eventually bring him up short.  The other quotation is from Ps. 94:11: “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”  The wise here again are those seeking ultimate truth apart from the Word of the Lord.  

But not only is there folly in placing confidence in one’s own wisdom; according to verses 21-23 it is also folly to place confidence in any other person’s wisdom.

         The folly of confidence in another human’s wisdom.  (21-23) Listen to verse 21: “So then, no more boasting about men!”  I remember in my seminary days how some students would almost worship the ground certain profs walked on.  If Charles Ryrie took a certain theological position, that settled it.  If Howard Hendricks suggested that a Christian should live a certain way, then that’s howeveryone should live.  If John Walvoord said the European Common Market was the revived Roman Empire of Revelation, then that’s what it was.  

Today there are other names that are treated as virtually infallible.  But friends, as godly as those men may have been, they were also wrong sometimes.  No human teacher has the right to our full allegiance.  Only the Word of God deserves that kind of allegiance.

And here’s the principal reason why we should not place our confidence in human teachers: “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollo or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”  

You are rich, he says, filthy rich, if I may use that expression.  Why act like a pauper by restricting yourself to what just one teacher has to offer?  You own the world!  Think for a moment about the implications of that statement.  Sometimes I feel rather poor, but God says here that the whole world belongs to me.  Those beautiful homes in Eastborough all belong to me–I’ve just got them rented out right now.  The Lake of the Ozarks belongs to me; I’m just letting the Corps of Engineers run it for me until I need it.  The Rocky Mountains are mine, and so is the moon.  One of these days I’m going to go check it out. 

But not only do all things belong to us; it is also true that we belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.  What a heritage is ours as God’s children!

Conclusion:  Let me ask you a question: “What does God think of temple ruins?”  Well, he’s laughing at the ruins of pagan temples.  Ps. 2:4 reads, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them.”  But when the temple being desecrated is the Church, that holy of holies of which Jesus Christ is the foundation and the Chief Cornerstone, God isn’t laughing anymore.  He takes that very seriously, and so should we.  

Much of this message has been pretty heavy, as was last week’s sermon.  So, I’d like to leave you with a final encouraging thought this morning.  We here at East Evangelical Free church are a temple of God!  The Holy Spirit dwells here among us.  Imagine the significance that gives to what we are doing here today, and what we are taking with us when we scatter to our jobs tomorrow morning!

May we not forget it.  

Note:  This sermon was preached at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita in 2011.  


Local church

Temple of God

Holy Spirit

Human wisdom

[i] C. Peter Wagner, citation lost

[ii] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, 34.

1 Cor. 4:1-7