Being and Building a Better Church: Temple Language in Paul

buildingIn Jesus the Temple Wheaton professor and New Testament scholar, Nicholas Perrin, makes an important correction on the way we read “temple language” in the letters of Paul. He writes, “When we come to the apostle Paul, we find a corpus of literature permeated with temple imagery” (65). What Perrin observes is the way Paul’s Second Temple Judaism forms a vital backdrop for Paul’s choice of words. Instead of being an incidental metaphor, Perrin argues Paul is leaning heavily on his Jewish background and its temple theology.

Whereas modern Christians might use temple language in more abstract or metaphorical ways, Paul uses it in specific, concrete ways. After all, he writes in a day when Jews continued to worship in a physical building. Therefore, when he speaks of the church as a “temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; Ephesians 2:21), “building” (1 Corinthians 3:9), or “household” (1 Timothy 3:15), when he speaks of the apostles as “pillars” (Galatians 2:9), or when he speaks of the body as a temple of God (1 Corinthians 6:19), his life as a sacrifice (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6), and ethical living as ritual purity (2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1), he is not using an accessible metaphor. He is speaking concretely about the fact that the church of God, erected from the cornerstone of Christ, is the new and living temple of God.

Perrin makes his point emphatically as he comments on 1 Corinthians 3:9–10.

Although some readers suppose that Paul’s analogy between the Corinthian community and ‘God’s building’ was more or less arbitrary, as if ‘God’s building’ could just as easily have been exchanged with, say, ‘God’s pyramid,’ with limited difference in meaning, I find this approach unconvincing. After all, had any building served Paul’s analogy, he could have quite easily omitted the qualifier ‘of God,’ but obviously chose not to do so. Second, the effortless slide from ‘God’s field’ to ‘God’s building’ in v.9 is not an abrupt mixing of metaphors, but an appeal to two lines of imagery (architectural and horticultural) that in the Jewish literature finds their convergence in the temple. Third, the very fact that vv. 16–17 of the same chapter explicitly compare the Christian believers to a divinely inhabited temple — and from the Jewish point of view there was only one of these — should further disincline us to think that Paul has anything but the temple in mind here. God’s building is not any old house belonging to God; it is God’s unique temple. (67)

In truth, a brief survey of Paul’s letters shows that “temple language” shows up in a variety of places and a variety of ways. Sometimes the language speaks directly of a temple, a building, or “parts” of the edifice (e.g., foundation, pillar, etc.). Other times the temple language is more veiled, as in the metaphorical “building up.” Such language can be read without any recognition of the temple, but that’s the problem. Such a reading misses the fuller picture.

To correct our vision, let’s consider a number of these references. (Feel free to suggest others in the comments).

Romans 14:19

19So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Romans 15:1–4 

1We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.2Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up3For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:20

20and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation,

1 Corinthians 3:9–10

9For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.

2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1

14Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you,18and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” 1Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.

2 Corinthians 10:8

8For even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed.

2 Corinthians 12:19

19Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved.

Galatians 2:9

9and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

Ephesians 2:14, 19–22

14For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility . . . 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Ephesians 4:12

12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, . .  16from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:29

29Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Philippians 2:17

17Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.




1 Timothy 3:14–15

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.

Being and Building a Better Temple

While we can understand the meaning of statements without considering their reference to the temple of Israel, to do so denudes the language of its full effect. Better, we should read Paul’s temple language as an intentional decision to contrast the multi-ethnic people of God (i.e., the church made of Jews and Gentiles) with the doomed temple which would be razed shortly after Paul’s death (A.D. 70).

As a polemical argument against the old temple and a positive affirmation for God’s commitment to dwell in his new temple (the church), Paul is showing how to make sense of the Old Testament promises about the temple. With Christ as the cornerstone of a new temple, we learn God’s new temple is to be built with flesh and blood (see Ephesians 2). What Peter calls living stones, the members of Christ’s church are being fitted together as a bride and body and temple for Christ. Accordingly, we find in Paul’s letters an intentional mixing of metaphors that foreshadow the city-bride imagery of Revelation 21–22.

While resisting the temptation to conflate the already and the not yet, reading Paul with an eye toward his temple language helps us see how he is making sense of the new covenant. In Christ’s death, the temple of stone was defiled (the veil was torn). At the same time, the new temple was being erected. Christ, as a greater Bezalel and a greater Solomon, is now constructing a new temple by means of hewing stones from every quarry on the planet and fitting them together in the church.

In this way, Paul is showing us how to read the Bible and teaching us who we are: The church is God’s vineyard, God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:9). This not only instructs us how to think, but how to live. To a church tempted to run to the temples of Corinth, Paul teaches them of their status as a holy temple, believing (rightly) that such renewed identification (being God’s dwelling place) and mission (temple-building) would transform them.

Indeed, might we learn to read Paul more carefully and live more radically. We are not simply awaiting a temple to fall from heaven. By the Spirit, we are called to be planters and builders who participate in the glorious mission of preaching the gospel so that dead men would become living stones, resulting in God’s temple on earth reflecting his dwelling place in heaven.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds