There is only one verse in the New Testament that teaches specifically that a believer’s physical body is a temple:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? (1 Cor. 6:19)
But it seems like believers today have removed this verse totally from its immediate context, its greater context, and from the many similar verses that clarify the full meaning of this truth. Let’s take a look.
A Variety of Passages
Now, there are at least seven passages in the New Testament that compare believers themselves to a temple or building, but we commonly only hear that our bodies are temples. In fact Paul is emphasizing different things in different passages, but we’ll note some patterns that bring them together.
You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor. 3:9)
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. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)
What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them ...” (2 Cor. 6:16, q. Ezek. 37:27)
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are … members of the household of God … Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure … grows into a holy temple in the Lord … (Eph. 2:19-21)
The main thing you should notice is that Paul is talking about the entire, invisible Church as God’s temple in the New Covenant—not the individual believer, or the physical church—and that none of these verses are talking directly about physical health.
Health Is Never Mentioned—Sexual Purity Is
In none of these verses does Paul mention working out. 1 Corinthians 6:19, so often trotted out in that sense, is actually about avoiding sexual immorality by keeping away from sexual immorality and prostitutes, which are still so common in many of the world’s cities.
Prostitutes were kept in pagan shrines, and money from sex funded the work of these temples. Shrine prostitutes are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. So it makes sense for Paul to say to them, you shouldn’t be going to the shrine of a pagan god for sex, when you yourself are the shrine of the one, true living God.
Indirectly, you can of course say that a miniature “temple” demands respect and care. I’m not saying that health isn’t important, or that Christ’s workers shouldn’t live long, healthy lives. That may be true and implied, but it’s simply not directly what this verse is saying. If anything, rather than teaching on working out, we should teach from this verse against pornography and its vital role in maintaining the wicked global sex trade. Any believer that supports this sins against much more than his own body.
I Am Not God’s Temple—We Are
The subject is plural in every case except for 1 Corinthians 6:19. So Paul teaches that we are God’s dwelling place much more often than he teaches that our individual bodies are. (The singular/plural distinction was clear in the early modern English of the King James: “Ye/you/your” was plural, while “thou/thee/thine” was singular.)
Paul used the singular just once, to emphasize the sense of personal responsibility, and the personal defilement that comes from misusing your body sexually. But in most of the New Testament he teaches not that God dwells in me, but that God dwells in us.
When Paul compares the body to a temple, he is taking a cue from Jesus, who compared his body to a temple. Now, in the same passage where he says that “your body is a temple,” he uses the word “body” to mean Christ’s body:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (1 Cor. 6:15)
So each of us is only one part of the picture. Even the most commonly quoted verses on Christ’s indwelling, like Colossians 1:27, where he says that “Christ in you” is “the hope of glory,” are plural, and being addressed to a group. “The Holy Spirit dwells in us” (2 Tim. 1:14). “He put his Spirit in the midst of them” (Isa. 63:11).
We Are Not a Religious Building—We Are a Sanctuary
The word used for temple in these verses is slightly more specific than ‘temple’; it is the sanctuary of the temple. Richard Trench points out that the distinction is well maintained in New Testament Greek. Whenever Jesus is teaching “in the temple,” we are to understand that he is in the courts of the temple; whenever Zechariah goes into the temple and has a vision, we can understand that he was in the sanctuary, the Holy Place.
Every verse that compares believers to a temple uses the word for sanctuary. The implication is not that it is a grand, important building, consecrated to a religious purpose, but that it is a sacred place, consecrated to God, whatever else it may be.
The teaching that says that our physical well-being honors the indwelling Christ, may be true in some sense. But is this to say that people with lifelong illnesses are dishonoring Christ? That is not what the Bible teaches, and we dishonor the sick when we try to create a karmic link between health and spirituality. There is no mystic link between physical fitness and spiritual fitness.
A Church Is Not God’s House—The Church Is
Another misunderstanding about God’s dwelling is the still-frequent usage of the phrase “house of God” for a church building. This phrase, when used in this way, is essentially a vestige of Judaism, or a holdover from heathenism. It is not the language of the New Testament. Paul and Peter both teach that the church itself—that is, believers—are the house, or family, of God.
If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in [or among] the household of God, which is the church of the living God … (1 Tim. 3:15)
Some versions say “house of God” in 1 Timothy 3:15, but only a medieval interpretation of the Bible would say that Paul was referring to a physical church.
We are his house. (Heb. 3:6)
You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house … (1 Pet. 2:5)
The word for house also means household. In the time when Paul wrote this, when most churches were still meeting in houses under threat of persecution, Paul could not have conceivably taught that a church building is God’s dwelling place. He taught something much more shocking—he taught that we are.
When Jesus said that the Comforter was with the disciples, but would be in them, he was teaching the fulfillment of multiple prophecies given over hundreds of years. He was teaching that Moses’ wish, that all God’s people could prophesy, was one step closer to fulfillment. He was teaching the end of the Old Covenant—in which God dwelled in limited believers and limited places—and the beginning of a new economy of grace, in which God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh.
That pouring out began on the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish celebration centered around the assembly of men at the temple. But now this outpouring has broken the bounds of upbringing, ethnicity, gender, age, and nation. It is not limited to any physical church or temple, but has entered the hearts of a manifold spiritual assembly, “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). This assembly now gathers to no physical meeting place, but under the spiritual banner of the slain Lamb.
Each person who is part of this assembly is like a single stone of a sacred building, or a single cell of Christ’s body, which he said was the temple. Each cell contains the DNA blueprint that represents the whole, which is why we can point a finger at a fellow believer and say, “You yourself are God’s dwelling place.” But it would be far better to imagine every believer from Pentecost onwards, from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and say together, “We are God’s dwelling place.”
Your body may be a temple. But Christ’s body is the temple.