So far in our series on the Holy Spirit, we have looked at the Old Testament promise of the Spirit and at its fulfilment in Jesus, the Spirit-filled Man who pours out this gift on his people. In this final article, we examine what it means to have the Spirit dwelling ‘within us’. We usually think of this in completely individual terms but, as we shall see, the Bible presents a slightly different perspective.
Are you a temple of the Holy Spirit? It sounds like a strange question, but it is an easy one to answer. If you are a Christian, you have the Spirit within you and if the Spirit lives in you, then you are a temple of the Holy Spirit since a temple is a dwelling place. The temple is an important biblical image for understanding the work of the Holy Spirit.
In the Old Testament, the temple is the house of God. God lives everywhere, but he chooses to dwell with the people of Israel and, specifically, within the tabernacle and then the temple when it was built.
In the New Testament, the temple is one of the important ‘Spirit’ themes which is fulfilled. It is mentioned in several different ways. Jesus says that he will tear down God’s ‘temple’ and rebuild it in three days, speaking about his own death and resurrection (Matt 26:61). The disciple, Stephen, recognized that the temple was a symbol of human sinfulness rather than God’s holiness. In Acts 7, he preaches against the physical locating of God in a building, calling the Sanhedrin ‘stiffnecked’ people who resist the Holy Spirit! Stephen understood that we don’t worship God in a building but in spirit and in truth.
Revelation 21 contains the famous description of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. He describes an important omission:
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
The writer explains that the whole city is the temple of God, because God is dwelling amongst and within his people.
God goes to church
Where does God dwell now? Is he in Jerusalem? In heaven? He is certainly in these places, but he particularly dwells in the hearts of his people, by his Spirit. The body of the Christian person is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit lives not only within individuals, but also within the congregation, within the church. This concept is a bit harder for us to understand, partly because of tradition and partly because of our modern individualistic way of thinking. Let’s make it clear. A church building is not the temple of God—it is only a rain-shelter or sun-shade. The real ‘church’, that is the gathering of God’s people, is the place where God’s Spirit dwells. God is peculiarly amongst us when we come together in the name of his Son. Consider the following passages:
2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers … For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
People use this passage to say that Christians shouldn’t marry unbelievers or be immoral. It certainly has applications in these areas, but it is firstly a command not to be ‘yoked with unbelievers’ in the context of false teachers leading the church. No-one who is teaching lies can be in union with the holy church of God because there is no fellowship between the temple of God and the temple of idols (v. 16). If God is living and walking among the church, we cannot tolerate people teaching falsehoods about him.
For through [Jesus] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit… 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.
The whole church—Jews, Gentiles, Australians, males, females—is the unified temple of God. We are brought together because we have the one Spirit who creates in us the dwelling place of God. The Spirit is the great provider of unity, and this ‘togetherness’ is symbolised in the image of the temple—a strong building which rises from the stable foundation of Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 3:16,17
Because we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the church is very important to God. Notice the high status given to the church in verse 17:
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.
Churchless Christianity is nonsense. You can’t be a Christian and not go to church. Going to church is as much a part of being a Christian as is praying. Gathering with fellow believers is an integral part of our response to the gospel. When Christians gather, there is the dwelling place of God and God guards it jealously—anyone who threatens his temple, he will destroy. This has big implications for our church activities. What we do in church is of prime importance and seriousness, because God gathers us together in unity. It is the presence of the Spirit of God in church which makes church so important.
So what should we do in church?
Building the Church
The reason we go to church is to have fellowship. We are there to meet God’s people and share with them in the presence of Jesus Christ. It may seem hard to believe, and even harder to be enthusiastic about, but church is a foretaste of heaven. All of the things that we do in church—reading the Bible, praying, singing—can be done just as effectively, and even better, at home on our own. It is the togetherness of church which makes it so important. We meet as God’s people to read the Word together, to pray together, to sing together. Fellowship is the reason why going to church is so crucial to the Christian life.
This side of heaven, church has another very important role, which we will call building up. Because we are still sinful, we need to build each other up in faith and perseverance. This metaphor is particularly appropriate to building the temple. We often use the longer and more difficult word edification to describe the activity of building up our brothers and sisters. A building is an edifice; edification is the activity of building; ‘edification’ and ‘building up’ are exactly the same thing. This is what Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 3:9-10, just before the passage mentioning the temple:
For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.
We are both the builders and the building, constructing the temple of God by our fellowship. But the foundation for the temple has already been laid and must not be tampered with. Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church and we must never attempt to build upon any foundation other than Jesus, lest we bring the temple to ruin (see 1 Cor 3:11-15). Jesus and the apostles are unique in the history of church building. They are, respectively, the cornerstone and the masterbuilders. We must not look for an alternative to Jesus and the apostolic words upon which the whole church building rests.
There are very few things in life that are more important than what we do in church. As members of God’s church, we have been given the noble task of being his fellow-workers (1 Cor 3:10). The church isn’t finished before heaven; God is building it-giving to us the privilege and abilities to share in his work.
Before getting all steamed up about our spiritual status, let’s look back to 1 Corinthians 3:5 and remind ourselves that the proper church-builder is a servant. If anyone seeks to exercise a ministry amongst the people of God without having it clearly in mind that it: is service, then the ministry will flounder because it is not based upon the servanthood of Christ.
Spiritual gifts, or pass the teatowel
It takes a lot of people to put a building together. We have all poked our head through those holes-in-the-wall at building sites, just to see what is going on. So long as you are not looking at the World Square building during a recession, we can normally spot dozens of people running about, all with different tasks and every one of them necessary if the building is to reach completion. The scene shouldn’t look too dissimilar from church. In church, each member is assigned tasks by the Lord, according to the gifts which God has given that individual (1 Cor 3:5). It is in this context that the positive teaching on ‘gifts’ is found.
The gifts of God to his children are for the purpose of church-building. They are not for self-glorification or Christian career development or for the gaining of wealth. God gives gifts for the completion of the tasks which he wants fulfilled in his church. There are many, many gifts, more than those which are mentioned in the New Testament. We need not restrict our thinking to the lists in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4. For instance, the wonderful gift of singing is not mentioned there. And how many people pray to God for the marvelous gift discussed in 1 Corinthians 7—the gift of celibacy? Perhaps we think this would be ‘quenching the spirit’!
Gifts are dispensed for the building up of the church, and this is the measure by which we should assess their worth. Is it an edifying activity? We should use or not use our gifts according to what is edifying for the church.
Some people believe that it is wrong and sinful not to use a gift, because God has given it and if we do not use it, he will take it away. This is not the Bible’s teaching. If ten percent of the congregation can play the piano, it would hardly be edifying for every pianist to play every Sunday. So some people will choose not to exercise their gift in piano playing for the sake of building up the church.
Others complain, “But what gift do I have? What use can I be in the church?”. Why not tackle the question of gifts in another, more positive way. Look around your church and see what needs to be done and then do it. If you can do it, then you have been given that gift! If you find that you can’t do it, that is because you haven’t been given the necessary gift. So pray for someone to come along who does have that gift. There are hundreds of jobs that need doing for a church to run well. We need to take our eyes off the jobs which bring glory to ourselves and look for the jobs which need doing for which we have the necessary gifts.
As a footnote to this, in the Greek New Testament, the phrase ‘gift of the Spirit’ or ‘spiritual gift’ is very rare—possibly only occurring in Romans 1:11. It is not the particular ministry of the Holy Spirit to be the giver of gifts. The Father (Romans 12), Son (Ephesians 4) and Spirit (Romans 1) are all involved. The whole discussion of ‘spiritual gifts’ as the work of the Spirit may be misdirected.
1 Corinthians 4 warns us that the ministers of God—referring not only to church leaders, but to the whole church—will be held accountable on the Day of Judgement for their building efforts. Paul explains how God will judge our ministry:
So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
1 Corinthians 4:1-2
The basis on which a ministry will be judged is faithfulness. It is very important to note that the judgement has nothing to do with the ministry’s success. The most godly, gifted evangelist in history may not make any converts! Jesus was the most faithful evangelist of all time and he often preached without ‘success’. It is God who converts people, not evangelists. Evangelists are required only to be faithful to the secret things of God which have been entrusted to them.
At first, this news comes to us as a welcome relief! We don’t have to be successful; we don’t have to turn those ratbags at youth group into Billy Grahams; we don’t have to make sure our Sunday School class can recite Romans from memory. However, when we think about the command to be faithful, to be diligent and to be trustworthy, we realize that we still have a great spiritual battle ahead of us. Teaching kids to memorize Scripture is easy when compared with making sure you have thoroughly prepared your Sunday School class, going to bed at a decent hour on a Saturday night and remembering to call the lonely eight-year-old outcast on his birthday. This is where real ministry takes place, and this is how God will judge our efforts to build his church. God’s judgement is total—he looks directly into our hearts:
He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
1 Corinthians 4:5
How To Build A Temple
Given what it means to be the temple of the Holy Spirit and how jealously God protects and nurtures his church, we must seek to build each other up by exercising the gifts God has given us. Here is a summary, then, of the Bible’s instruction about how we should live as the temple of God’s Spirit.
- beware of bringing harm to God’s church. We are not involved in a social club. We are part of the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is God’s own house. We should not divide it or cause its members to sin. Take warning from 1 Corinthians 3:17—God will destroy the person who harms his temple.
- base all our church activities upon the firm foundation of Jesus’ and the teaching of those whom God chose to spread the church across the world, the apostles.
- be faithful in our ministry. In whatever task we are given for serving the church, we should be reliable and trustworthy. We should not make success our primary goal, nor the yardstick by which we judge our work. We should examine our heart and stop seeking praise for ourselves, remembering instead that our faithfulness brings glory to God.
- bury our pride and remember that we only have our ministry and gifts because God has graciously bestowed them upon us. We must maintain a serving mentality to be truly like Christ. We should not ask the question, ‘What gifts have I got’, because that will lead us into the sins of the Corinthian church—pride and self-glorification.
- breed unity of the Spirit by aiming for a church full of servants endeavouring to edify each other. In recent times, the Spirit has been a factor in dividing churches. The goal of edification builds one temple which stands strong, filled with people who have the same Spirit. We achieve unity not by worldly achievements but by godliness.
For those who wonder if they are called to do Christian ministry, understand that the Christian church is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that your role, as much as anybody else, is to build it up. We are called already! Don’t wait for the still, small ‘yoo-hoo’ during the night or the flashing neon-sign, ‘Yes, you should hand out the hymn books’. Start ministering now, where you are needed, for as you do that, God is building his temple.
Adapted by Greg Clarke from an address by Phillip Jensen.