From Arsy Varsy — Reclaiming The Gospel in First Corinthians, by Phillip A. Ross, ©2008, 352 pages, Pilgrim Platform.
Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God shall destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which you are. Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this world, let him become a fool so that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God; for it is written, “He takes the wise in their own craftiness.” And again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.” Therefore let no one glory in men. For all things are yours, whether it is Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. — 1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Paul has established that the Spirit of God dwells with believers. He makes an analogy to the Old Testament Temple by saying that believers are the Temple. It is important that we understand who Paul refers to here. The Greek word translated as you is a second person plural present indicative. That means that the best translation is y’all. It is a plural term and indicates that the people of God are the temple, not simply an individual believer.
Peter built upon this theme when he said, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Yes, the Spirit of God inhabits believers as they are born again, and each believer must protect the purity (or health) of his or her own body as part of the discipline of faithfulness. But the analogy primarily applies to the corporate nature of the church as the body of Christ. The purity of the church must also be protected.
Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 12:12-ff, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Just as individual bodies are not divisible, which is the root meaning of individual, so, the church is also individual—not just specific churches, but the Church Universal is individual—whole, complete, without division. Christians are bound together in a bond of love and fellowship with one another across the face of the globe and throughout the centuries. Christian unity is not something to be achieved, rather it is something to be realized. It is already the fact of the matter in that Christian unity has been decreed and is in the process of realization.
Love and Fellowship
This bond of love and fellowship between believers is not based upon how we feel about one another, or on what we think about each other. How we feel about each other and what we think about each other are secondary concerns or less—minor concerns—because the love of Christ is stronger than whatever appreciation or disdain we may have for other believers. The bond of Christian fellowship is not based on our love or respect for one another, but on Christ’s love for His people—all of His people. Our feelings for each other are not the bonding element of Christian fellowship.
Nor are Christians bound together by their understanding of biblical doctrine. Doctrine is not the bond of Christian fellowship, either. Christ is. Our bond is not doctrinal or denominational, but personal. Jesus Christ is the bond of Christian fellowship. Christians have Christ in common, and all Christians are growing into “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes,” said Paul in Ephesians 4:13-14.
I am not disparaging the value of right doctrine, nor the importance of the love of the brethren—both of which are biblically mandated. Doctrine is important and we are called to love and honor one another in Christ. We are stewards of the temple of God, which is no longer a building made of stones, but is now in Christ a church made of believers (1 Corinthians 3:16, 1 Peter 2:5).
“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (v. 17). The KJV translates it, “If any man defile the temple of God” (italics added). The Greek word translated defile means to pine or waste, to shrivel or wither, that is, to spoil or to ruin by moral influences, to deprave, corrupt or destroy. I prefer defile to destroy because it better suggests the process that leads to destruction. It tells us that contamination of the purity of the church can be lethal. It tells us that moral contamination or moral synthesis produces death.
But is the Church of Jesus Christ morally or doctrinally pure? No, not yet. But it is growing in purity over time as it grows in faithfulness through the sanctification of its individual members, in spite of what it may seem. The growth of the church is like the growth of the stock market in that there are cyclic fluctuations but an overall increase. Because we are not pure, because we are still sinners wrestling with a boatload of sin in our personal and corporate lives, and yet are members of Christ’s body nonetheless, the purity of the church is retarded by our spiritual immaturity. I am equating spiritual immaturity with moral depravity because we are all saved from sin into Christ’s righteousness. We are growing in faithfulness and in understanding in as much as we trust and depend upon Jesus Christ and the Word of God and not on the foolishness of men.
At the same time, we cannot deny the moral demand that Paul lays at our feet in this verse. Inasmuch as we defile the church, God will defile us. It appears that God will give back to us what we give to Him. If we give Him love and honor and praise, He will give us love and honor and praise. But if we give Him hate and dishonor and spite, He will give those very things right back to us. Being made in the image of God means that there is a reflectivity in our relationship with our Creator. The positive side is that we reflect His character inasmuch as we are true to His Word. And the negative side is that our failure to reflect His character results in the defilement of the church, and leads to our own destruction.
If the church were just another autonomous gathering of people with common interests, that would be one thing. But because the church is the moral linchpin of the greater society the defilement of the church produces the moral decline and eventual destruction of the greater society. This is the issue that has faced humanity since Adam and Eve left the Garden. When God told Adam that he would “surely die” (Genesis 2:17) in the day that he ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, he had this death in mind. He didn’t mean that Adam would die before the sun set that particular day. Rather, He meant that human society would inescapably collapse from the moral rot that would ensue from the disobedience and/or disregard of God’s Word.
“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile’” (vs. 18-20). Again the KJV is instructive. It translates aion as world rather than age. “If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world….” This is the primary theme of First Corinthians so far, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20).
What appears to us to be the wise thing to do is foolishness compared to the truth of Christ. This has a very wide application in our lives, but for the most part we ignore it. We have been trained by the world, by the values of secular humanism through our public education, through the secular values and practices of the media and the workplace. That training has taught us to ignore the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit when that testimony is not in conformity with the values and practices of secular humanism. And Christians are not immune from the pervasiveness of secular humanism in contemporary society. It is virtually everywhere in contemporary culture. Yet, not quite everywhere. For a few people in a few churches cling to the truth that worldly wisdom, secular ideas and ways of doing things, are utterly foolish in the light of Christ. It’s not a popular position, even in most churches.
Oh, Christians agree with such an idea when they’re at church. When we see it in Scripture we do not deny God’s truth. Yet, when we walk out the doors of the church, we are confronted by the common values and practices of secular humanism that categorically and comprehensively deny the validity and applicability of Scripture. Nowhere do we see the wisdom of Jesus Christ lived out in the world! Another way to say it is, everywhere we see the wisdom of the world and the implementation of science and technology without any reference to Christ. Everywhere we see the domination of nature and the apparent success of market forces through the application of the values and practices of secular humanism. The experience and history of the modern world teach that the world has made foolish the wisdom of Christ.
The result is that Christians live out schizophrenic lives, believing one way in church and another way outside of church. No matter how faithful we are, no matter how much we believe Scripture and trust Christ, we are bombarded by the opposite teaching because of the pervasiveness of secular humanism in the contemporary world. We cannot escape it.
To seriously challenge the common wisdom and values of secular humanism makes life difficult because people react negatively when their most basic beliefs are contradicted or suggested (or shown) to be false. Trust me, I know! The more you try to systematically and comprehensively apply the wisdom of Christ in the world, the more people will think that you are crazy, and the more successful you are in this effort, the more angry they will get.
I often hear people joke about themselves being thought of as a little odd or crazy in the sense that eccentricities are increasingly tolerated because of the recent emphasis on cultural diversity. You’d think that the diversity police would like people who don’t conform to the current cultural standards. And they do, to an extent. They will tolerate every kind of social nonconformity, except conformity to Jesus Christ. And the more serious you are in that effort, the less people are willing to tolerate you, and the less funny (or cute) the joke becomes. Nonetheless, Paul said that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:20).
Paul has been contrasting wisdom and foolishness. Sometimes he uses the same word to mean both the real wisdom of Christ and the false wisdom of the world. The contrasts are laid out several different ways to insure that we don’t misunderstand what he is saying. In verse 18 he urges his listeners to become foolish in the eyes of the world by proclaiming and acting upon the wisdom of Christ. Earlier he admonished his listeners to abandon the foolishness of the world. But the point is clear—God’s wisdom and the world’s wisdom are not the same.
“For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’” (v. 19). Paul quotes from Job 5:12. Take a moment and read Job 5:8-16 and see exactly how God deals with foolish people:
Truly, I would seek to God, and to God I would put my plea, Who is doing great things, even beyond searching; marvelous things without number, who gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the field, to set on high those who are low, so that those who mourn may be lifted up to safety; frustrating the plans of the crafty, nor did their hands do wisely. He takes the wise in their own craftiness; and the counsel of the wily is carried headlong. They meet with darkness in the day time, and grope in the noonday as in the night. But He saves the poor from the sword, from their mouth, and from the hand of the mighty. And there is hope for the weak, and injustice shuts her mouth. —Job 5:8-16
Notice that He doesn’t just smite them from the face of the earth. Rather, He “frustrates the devices of the crafty” and “catches them in their own craftiness.” The Hebrew words translated as devices are interesting. The basic idea refers to the employment of the mind or the activity of thinking. It does not refer so much to understanding, as it does to creating new ideas, to what we call creativity. It is used most frequently to suggest planning or devising. Let me also suggest that it applies to the fruit of such planning, the devises designed and developed by the exercise of creative thinking and planning—technology. It refers to what we call technological development.
I’m not suggesting that technology itself is a bad thing, only that—like everything else—when it is used apart from God, apart from God’s wisdom—it has the potential for great evil and destruction. The issue is not technology itself, as the fruit of creativity, but the faithful development and use of technology and creativity. We must be faithful as we develop it and faithful as we use it.
Again, God doesn’t stop people from creative thinking and planning. He lets us do it. And when our creative thinking and planning are in harmony with His Word we are blessed by the fruit of His providence. But when our creative thinking and planning are not in harmony with His Word, or when we ignore God’s Word and think and plan our own ideas apart from God, he also lets us do it. In Romans 1:24-28 Paul said that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” and further, that “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”
God’s way is to let the sinner sin. But why? Shouldn’t God stop sinners from sinning? Have you ever tried to tell a two-year-old child not to touch a hot stove? You can do that. You can tell the child. You can threaten the child. You can create all the rules you want. But the child will touch the stove, and you cannot stop it from happening.
Is it a bad thing? No, because sometimes we learn from painful experiences better than we learn from careful explanations. Is it painful? Yes. Is it bad? No. In the same way, God allows people to carry out their evil plans because he knows two things: 1) His justice will prevail, and they will get their comeuppance; and 2) many other people will learn from their experience and the consequences of their actions to avoid evil. And God will get glory from both—from the exercise of justice and from those who learn to heed His Word and avoid evil.
The same idea is found in Psalm 9:15, “The nations have sunk in the pit that they made; in the net that they hid their own foot has been caught.” It’s sort of a reverse Golden Rule. Rather than “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12), we see that we should not do unto others what we don’t want done to ourselves. The operative principle here is that you get what you give.
“So let no one boast in men” (v. 21). I’ve talked about pride many times before. Pride is a sin. Pride is theft—it’s stealing glory from God. Too many people discount the sinfulness of pride and boldly proclaim their pride in their children or grandchildren, or their pride in their boss or their employees, etc. But being a proud parent or grandparent is still pride, and is no less sinful than any other kind of pride. Can’t people be “pleased” with someone, or “happy” about something they did without being “proud”? Of course they can. But our language betrays us. Too many people are even proud to be Christians!
The problem with pride is that it suggests that the source of a person’s success is his own effort. A proud person takes credit (or glory) for the accomplishment of something. Whereas Christians know that the only source or cause of any success they might enjoy belongs entirely to God. Christians don’t work in the flesh, they work in the Spirit. Those who work in the flesh are proud of themselves and their accomplishments. But those who work in the Spirit give all the glory to God.
Let’s not be proud of anything, remembering that pride is a sin. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:5-6).
Finally, Paul calls for a spirit of unity among Christians. “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (vs. 21-23). How can all things be ours?
Paul prayed that Christians everywhere “may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:18-21).
Note the hierarchy. The fact that all things are ours seems to put us at the top of the hierarchy. But they are ours only inasmuch as we are Christ’s, only inasmuch as we live in love and obedience to the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). And all things belong to Christ only because Christ belongs to God. Now we see the real hierarchy. We are not at the top, God is! We are at the bottom, under the authority of Jesus Christ.
And this fact of Scripture is the very fact that the world denies. The repentant are glad to be under the authority of Jesus Christ because that is the fact of their salvation. But the Godless deny that they are under Christ’s authority, and that denial is the foundation of their foolishness. In the fullness of time they will come to understand that they actually are under the authority of Christ, whether or not they believe it right now. For just as Jesus Christ will reward the repentant in heaven, He will also condemn the unrepentant to eternal hell and damnation without regard for what they themselves think or believe.
The issue is not whether the unrepentant can make sense of the world without God. The fact that they think they can make sense of the world without God only adds fuel to the fire of their foolishness because we are not judged on our ability to make sense of the world. We are judged on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and the propitiation He made for His people at the cross. Christ’s righteousness is like an umbrella under which His people live and move and have their being, protected from the wrath of God.
The issue is whether or not we are under the umbrella of Christ’s righteousness. We cannot afford to fool ourselves about this matter. The issue is not whether we go to church, or where we go to church. The issue is not walking the “sawdust trail” or praying a prayer. Oh, all of these things are fine, but they do not make a person Christian. The issue is repentance, not sin. The issue is faithfulness, not church membership.
No one is kept from salvation by sin. Rather, people are kept from salvation by a lack of repentance. Jesus Himself said, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). And to repent is to have your mind changed by God, to change the way you live. To repent is to actively seek to flourish in the shelter of the umbrella of Christ’s righteousness.