Question: "What does it mean that we are the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16)?"
Answer: In 1 Corinthians 3:16–17, the apostle Paul hit on the true nature of the church as the body of Christ when he asked, “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” (NKJV).
We are the temple of God means that we—Christians, believers in Jesus Christ—who are joined together in one family as “the church” are a holy dwelling place for God’s presence.
The Greek word translated as “you” in verses 16 and 17 is plural. So when Paul said, “You are the temple of God,” he was referring to the believers as a group—the local church. The temple in Jerusalem was a sacred building dedicated to the worship of God. According to Paul, the church was the equivalent of the temple. God’s presence resided in the church, and the church was to maintain holiness.
This passage is part of a more extensive teaching on maintaining unity and not letting the church become divided over loyalties to human leadership (1 Corinthians 3:1–23). The sacredness of God’s house requires extreme care from church leaders. The Corinthian leaders needed to safeguard the unity of God’s temple, and the believers needed to avoid any moral corruption that would “defile” the sacredness of “the temple of God.”
From humanity’s beginning, God has desired to live among and commune with His people. In the Garden of Eden, God walked and talked with Adam in Eve in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8). When He made His covenant with Israel, the Lord promised, “I will put my dwelling place among you. . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11–12).
As the Israelites wandered in the desert, God wanted to inhabit a place with His people (Exodus 25:8). At that time, the people lived in portable tents, so the presence of God dwelled in the tent of the wilderness tabernacle (Exodus 27:21; 40:34–38). His presence was the guiding force that told the people when to stay put and when to pull up stakes and continue on their journey (Exodus 40:34–38). Later, after the Hebrew people entered the Promised Land and lived in fixed dwellings, God affixed His name to a place, sanctifying Solomon’s temple as the Lord’s holy dwelling place (1 Kings 8:10–11).
In the New Testament, God’s presence was manifested in a new way: in the person of Jesus Christ—the Logos, who is the living, incarnate, eternal Word of God (John 1:1–4, 14–18). The Logos took on human flesh and made His home among us. Through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, God lived among His people. His name is Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:21–23).
Jesus Christ became the new earthly temple of God (John 2:21). “For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body,” says Colossians 2:9 (NLT; see also Colossians 1:19). The complete image of the invisible God is revealed in Jesus our Savior (Colossians 1:15). Yet Christ is only the initial installment of God’s indwelling presence.
Today, the New Testament church—the body of believers who gather in the name of Jesus—constitutes the temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23).
Paul also taught the Ephesians that, as members of God’s household, the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20–22).
The church of Jesus Christ is a spiritual temple made of “living stones . . . being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Not only is the church as a whole or as the local body the dwelling place of God’s presence, but individual believers are also to consider themselves the temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:16, NLT).