“If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” – 1 Cor 3:17
This verse is difficult, and not just for you and me.
It is difficult because it is written by the apostle of grace, who elsewhere speaks plainly about salvation being a gift “not of works” to “the ungodly” who are justified “freely by his grace”.
This verse says if a man does the bad work of defiling the temple, he gets destroyed. He loses his life because of his works. This is contrary to the teaching of salvation by grace. Do you see the difficulty?
A Warning About Hard Passages
When confronted with a hard passage, our first thought should not be that the text or context is wrong. This would be to sacrifice the clear on the altar of the confusing.
Rather, our first thought should always be, “maybe I am reading it wrong.“ This allows God to be true, the clearer context to remain, and prevents you from falling into bigger error as a result of trying to solve a hard passage.
When faced with difficult passages, handle with care. Don’t be careless and reinterpret easier passages to make a hard passage fit a theory. It is better to have small problems than big ones in Bible interpretation.
The main difficulty in this passage is created because of the destruction that comes upon the defiler. If it read, “his work shall God destroy” then it would align smoothly with the context, but it doesn’t say that.
Yet is it possible to read “destroy” this way? Is it possible that the destruction here is not the destruction of the soul and body in hell, but the destruction of something else, such as his work?
A study of Pauline passages shows that there are times where Paul talks about “destruction” not referring to taking someone’s life, but rather knocking them down, or removing something from them, like their zeal, peace, motivation, or faith.
Romans 14:15 speaks of a stronger brother potentially “destroying” a weaker brother with his meat. This is not referring to a man slaughtering another with a pork chop, but to a weaker brother’s faith being destroyed due to the stronger brother being a stumbling block. He is hindered. His work is stopped.
In 2 Corinthians 10:8 Paul contrasts edification (building up) with destruction which would then be defined as tearing down.
Galatians 2:18 uses destruction to speak of things being torn down that were once built.
1 Corinthians 8:8 talks about a brother “perishing” but it is not in hell, but it is his conscience that is destroyed or wounded. It is his faith that is torn down. Other passages speak similarly about destruction not speaking of the body and soul in hell (Rom 14:20; 1 Cor 5:5; Gal 1:23; 1 Tim 6:9).
That said, there are plenty of Pauline passages where destruction is used as taking life or eternal damnation (Rom 9:22; 1 Cor 10:9-10; Phi 3:19; 2 Th 1:9; 2 Th 2:8).
Could we read the word “destroy” as not being eternal damnation and thus make it align with the passage? Yes, we have seen from the passage above it is possible, but it is not a certain solution. It does not change the text, which is good, but there are still unresolved questions.
Who is this man that defiles the temple of God?
The difficulty also exists because the assumption is made that the man in the verse is someone saved by Paul’s gospel of grace.
The verse says he is a man who can be destroyed by God for his work. Assuming “destroy” means a removal of life, this would be contrary to the gospel of the grace of God that Paul preaches. This is a problem.
However, looking carefully at the verse, it is impossible for the man to be someone saved as such.
Though the first half of the verse is difficult, the second half has no difficulty whatsoever: “for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” The audience Paul is addressing is the temple of God. It says clearly, “ye are”.
If the defiler is part of that temple, then the defiler is defiling himself, and God would be destroying his own temple, which is clearly described as holy. This creates its own confusion.
Rather it reads more naturally to recognize that the audience is the temple of God (as 1 Cor 3:16 affirms), and that the man doing the defiling is not part of the temple.
If he was not part of the temple, then he is an unsaved deceiver or a false teacher defiling the temple with wrong doctrine. This would clear up the difficulty with Paul’s gospel of grace, for the man being destroyed is not one saved by grace already.
This would align with Paul’s point that both Apollos and he are just workers laboring together with God, building on the same foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11). The defiler would then be someone denying the foundation and not anyone who stands in salvation on the common foundation.
There are plenty of places where Paul speaks about these corrupters. 2 Corinthians 11:3 speaks of those who corrupt the “simplicity that is in Christ” and “preacheth another Jesus”.
Galatians 1:6-8 says if anyone preaches any other gospel “let him be accursed.” That strong language of judgment would align with the destruction of 1 Cor 3:17 and speaks to those teaching the wrong foundation: false gospels.
If the defiler is not one saved by Paul’s gospel of grace, the difficulty is once again resolved without changing the text or destroying the context.
It still leaves a question about why Paul refers to his audience as the “temple of God.” Isn’t that language for Israel’s religion?
The Temple of God
The temple of God was part of Israel’s religion and laws.
The temple of God was holy. It was so holy that if anyone tried to defile it, they would be killed.
According to the law, Leviticus 15:31 says that if an unclean man defiled the temple of God, they would die.
Leviticus 20:3 says that men are put to death with stones for defiling his sanctuary.
Numbers 19:20 says the soul shall be cut off who is not pure and clean because he defiles the sanctuary. Uzzah died for touching the ark in the way he shouldn’t (2 Sam 6:8)!
Why did these men die? The temple of God was holy. It did not get destroyed by uncleanness, but whomever tried to come in the wrong way did get destroyed.
The children of Israel were instructed to bring sacrifices according to their work and for their sins. If they did not come to the temple or work in the temple according to the word of God, they were destroyed.
Those sacrifices were subsequently slaughtered and burned with fire. There was a lot of fire in that temple, but the temple was not burned.
The temple did not get burned up. Because the temple of God was holy. The temple was the house of God.
A Mystery About the Temple
In Israel’s religion, the children of Israel were separate and distinct from the temple. Even in the new testament epistle to the Hebrews, the heavenly tabernacle is distinct from the Hebrew believers.
Jesus referred to himself as a temple in John 2:19. Jesus Christ was the manifestation of the earthly tabernacle in Israel made of skins. He put on human flesh to die for the sins of the world. He promised to raise up the temple of his body if they destroyed it. That temple would be preserved.
Unlike many teachers today, Paul knew the old testament scriptures and referenced them liberally in his epistles.
Perhaps Paul was referencing the scriptures to prove his point about the temple of God today being holy. Has he done anything like this before? Yes, frequently.
In Ephesians 6:1-3 Paul quotes the ten commandments when giving the instruction about children obeying their parents. This does not put the children under the blessing or curse of that law.
He quotes Psalms 69 in Romans 15:3 speaking about bearing infirmities. He alludes to Solomon in Ecclesiastes in 1 Timothy 6. He speaks of David and Abraham in Romans 4, and Adam in Romans 5. He uses an illustration from the law in Galatians 4 and quotes the prophets in Eph 5:14.
Could 1 Cor 3:17 be Paul quoting scriptures like Lev 15:31 referring to the holiness of the temple of God to show the holiness of the body built upon Paul’s foundation today? It is entirely possible, and if so, we have once again resolved the difficulty.
Difficult but Not Impossible
What is being communicated in 1 Cor 3? Paul is talking about the foundation of every worker being that of Christ, and the work of some laborers being burned with fire (1 Cor 3:15). Then immediately after he says:
“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)
This is in accord with the mystery preaching of Christ among the Gentiles, which says that we are in the body of Christ, and he in us (Eph 3:6; Col 1:25).
If you are made the temple of God in Christ, then you are holy, sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 1:30; 1 Cor 6:11). The temple of God in Christ does not get burned, it does not get destroyed, it is preserved being built upon Paul’s foundation of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:9; Rom 8:39).
In Israel’s religion, the temple of God is not burned, because it is holy. The product of man’s work is burned, because it was not.
In this dispensation, salvation is manifestly declared to be not of your works which lead to you being burned up. Salvation is on the foundation of the grace of Jesus Christ, which is not based upon your works, but the finished work of Jesus Christ.
If you believe another gospel that is not Jesus Christ according to the gospel of grace, then you are not the temple. If you preach another gospel that is not the gospel of Christ according to Paul’s foundation, then you are not building the temple of God. Your work will be burned. It will be destroyed.
Paul is not teaching a message of wrath and destruction on those saved by grace if they sin after being put into Christ’s body. What an absurd thought!
If this were so, there would be no one that could remain in the body of Christ!
The temple of God today is holy, because it is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ: it is the body of Christ. If ye are in the body of Christ, then you do not face the destruction of your body and soul by God. Know ye not, that ye are the temple of God!
Others might still face the destroying judgment of God, depending on how ministers build upon the foundation, whether it be good or bad. This is why ministering grace requires a lot more accountability than receiving grace. Let every man take heed how he builds thereupon.