In 1 Corinthians 3:16–17, the apostle Paul wants believers to understand that the church of Jesus Christ is a holy sanctuary where God’s Spirit dwells: “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).
In this passage, the Greek term for “you” is plural; thus, Paul is speaking to the whole body of Christ. The New Living Translation reads, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17, NLT).
In the Old Testament, God’s name and presence resided in the wilderness tabernacle (Exodus 25:8; 33:9–10; 40:34–35) and later in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:29; 2 Chronicles 6:2). The Lord instructed His people to keep themselves from uncleanness, disobedience, and idolatry, which would defile God’s dwelling place (Leviticus 15:31; Numbers 19:13; 2 Chronicles 29:4–5; Jeremiah 7:30; Zephaniah 3:4). The New Testament temple is the body of believers. The Holy Spirit resides in this temple made of “living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God” (1 Peter 2:5, NLT).
Elsewhere in the New Testament, this image of the “temple of God” is applied to individual believers who must recognize that their physical bodies are “the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God[.] You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20, NLT). For this reason, Paul urges Christians, “let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God” (2 Corinthians 7:1, NLT). As temples of the living God, we should be holy in everything we do, just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15–16).
In the same way the Jerusalem temple unified the people of Israel, the metaphorical New Testament temple is designed to unite believers in one harmonious community. “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5; see also 1 Corinthians 12:12–27; Ephesians 4:25). There ought to be no division in Christ’s body.
The Greek verb translated as “defile” in 1 Corinthians 3:17 means “to make a mess of or create disorder in; to corrupt, destroy, ruin.” When Paul wrote, “If anyone defiles the temple of God,” he was addressing a specific problem of division in the church (see 1 Corinthians 1:10–17; 11:18). The Corinthians were split in their loyalties to different leaders of the church. Some were devoted to the teachings of Paul, others followed Apollos, and some aligned with Peter. The “super-spiritual” ones declared, “I follow only Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 1:12 and 3:4–6).
Exalting our Christian leaders to the point where we see them as making us “better” or “wiser” and therefore divided from our brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul argues, is to be deceived by human, worldly wisdom, which in God’s eyes is foolishness (see 1 Corinthians 3:18–23). Church leaders are God’s servants, called to build and preserve the integrity and unity of the church. We should not defile the temple of God through unnecessary divisions.
Paul’s warning not to defile the temple of God is meant for believers. Christians must be careful not to create disorder and ruin the church through cliques, jealousy, and division. The church is torn apart and destroyed when its members are divided. The most dangerous brand of defilement comes from the inside, not the outside.
Paul’s warning is meant to be taken seriously: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred” (1 Corinthians 3:17). If we defile and destroy the community that God has designed as a spiritual hospital, a sacred refuge, and a place of encouragement, healing, and spiritual life, then we are in sinful opposition to God’s holy purpose. We invite God’s punishment. When Paul said, “God will destroy that person,” he wasn’t talking about eternal destruction (see 1 Corinthians 3:15) but a punishment that would fit the crime. The judgment is severe because the temple of God is sacred.
God has called us to work together in the church so that “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 2:21–22). We are not to defile the temple of God but to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).