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Who is God’s Temple? (Monday with Mounce 5)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Key Passage: 1 Cor 3:16-17

It is always interesting to compare languages. There are some things so basic to one language that it feels strange to find that other languages cannot make the same distinctions.

For example, English indicates time in its verbal system. We use different forms of a verb to show that the action was in the past, is in the present, or will be in the future. So when we go to Hebrew and find that there is no time significance in the forms of their verbal system (i.e., there is no future tense, no past tense), at first glance many students think it quite odd.

But the same goes for the proverbial Greek speaker who is introduced to English (assuming some kind of time warp). Let’s call him “Alexander.”

Alexander comes to his first ESL class and finds, much to his astonishment, that “you” in English can refer to one person or to more than one person. It can be singular or plural. “Strange,” he thinks. “I have one word for you singular (su) and another word for you plural (hymeis). Isn’t it confusing to not be able to differentiate between one and more than one?”

So before we call other languages strange, we should look at our own language and the nature of languages in general.

Case in point in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17.

Paul has been talking about leadership issues in the church — did the current Leadership Wars start that far back? — and he issues this warning less anyone ignore his instructions. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (ESV).

If you are not watching the footnotes, you might think Paul is making the same point he does in in 2 Cor 6:19 with similar imagery. You might conclude, “I am God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in me. If someone destroys me, God will destroy him.”

The problem of course is that this is not what Paul is saying. The footnotes to the ESV state, “The Greek for you is plural in verses 16 and 17.” Paul is not talking about destroying an individual believer but about destroying the church as a whole. The translation “in you” is unfortunate. The ESV could have made the point clearer by translating en hymin as “among you.”

It is interesting to watch translations work with this problem. The NIV says, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple.” The NLT enlarges it to, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? … you Christians are that temple.”

God’s church, his temple, is not a building or a movement or an organization. It is the sum total of all believers, and what we generally call “church” is a local expression of the greater reality. True followers of Jesus Christ together are the church. We together are God’s temple, and his temple is holy. If anyone destroys God’s people, albeit in the local expression or a larger context, the promise of God is that He will destroy that person.

In a culture ridden with arrogant pastors, power-hungry elders, and American Christians who think they have the “democratic” right to control the church (I’m still looking for that verse), people had better pick up their heads and take notice. While there is plenty of blame to go around, I am shocked to be finding hundreds of what I call “Pastor Abuse Retreat Centers,” camps and cabins set aside for the healing of battle weary pastors. I’m still waiting to find a retreat for abused elders — not to say this doesn’t happen, but I think the absence of such is telling.

When shepherds of God’s flock fail to do their job, when they allow evil men into positions of power because they are rich or willing to work, when people lusting for power and control destroy a pastor’s ministry, family, and dreams, then the perfect and patient vengeance of God is promised to deliver the crushing blow. Perhaps the movement in America from “Church” to “Religious Mall” is the first stage of that punishment.

But the thing about God’s patience is that it is meant to lead us to repentance. But in always the right time, in always the right way, God will keep his promise and will destroy those who persist in destroying his holy temple—the true followers of Christ.

William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Visit for more info or read his blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at

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