In 1 Corinthians 3:16, Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16-17, NKJV). In what context did he make this well-known statement, and what did he mean when he wrote these words?
Paul was concerned about “jealousy and strife among [the Corinthians]” (1 Cor 3:3, ESV). He explained, “For…one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos…’” (vs 4). Right in the beginning of this letter, Paul appealed to the Corinthians “that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10). How did the apostle know that divisions were developing in the Corinthian church? He explains that “it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you” (vs 11). What was the nature of these divisions? Paul explains, “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’or ‘I follow Christ’” (vs 12).
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul uses two analogies to describe the God’s people in Corinth: “You are God’s field, God’s building” (vs 9). Continuing with the metaphor of the church as a “building” Paul refers to himself as “a skilled master builder” who “laid a foundation.” Here he is referring to the fact the he founded the church in Corinth. Then, continuing with the analogy, “someone else [probably Apollos] is building upon it [the foundation laid by Paul]” (vs 10). Paul goes on to allude to the fact that some are being faithful in the work of building on his foundation, while others are not (vs 11-15).
Finally, he comes to a solemn warning to the one(s) who may be provoking partisan strife and divisions among the Corinthians. “Do you not know,” he says, “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” (1 Cor 3:16-17, ESV). The Corinthian church is God’s building/temple. Paul laid the foundation, and others, like Apollos, is building on that foundation. Apparently, someone is guilty of destroying or defiling (NKJV) God’s church in Corinth, rather than building it up. How is this happening. Based on the context, it is through sowing seeds of discord among the believers. It is by promoting a partisan spirit among the Corinthians. It is by suggesting that one apostle is better than another.
Paul considers this partisan attitude to be foolishness (vs 18-20). “So let no one boast in men,” he appeals. “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas…all are yours, and you are Christ’s…” (vs 21-23).