Temple language is particularly prominent in Corinthians and Ephesians. First readers had the advantage of Paul’s own extensive teaching — these were two cities we’re told he spent most time in — and of reasonable Old Testament literacy. Reviewing the relevant background helps us appreciate the huge demand Paul makes of us.
“Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit!” How readily we invoke the maxim, especially when challenging the intake of some noxious substance. Where does this line come from? What’s the argument behind it? And how might it apply beyond tobacco or alcohol, illicit drugs or tattooists’ ink?
This temple language is particularly prominent in Corinthians and Ephesians. First readers had the advantage of Paul’s own extensive teaching — these were two cities we’re told he spent most time in — and of reasonable Old Testament literacy. Reviewing the relevant background helps us appreciate the huge demand Paul makes of us.
The Temple and Holiness
Hardly an early adopter, I’m just getting into The West Wing. The famous television show introduces us to the staff surrounding the President of the United States and the primary building in which they serve him. Along with complex story-lines and an able cast, the series works for one simple premise: we get to experience what few others experience. The cameras usher us past fences and security checkpoints and penetrate successive layers of corridors and offices. We are no longer common citizens; we bypass queues, assistants, and aides to join the core advisers and the man himself in the Oval Office. We attain privileged access to the center of power.
The temple complex in Jerusalem (and the portable tabernacle before it) pervades virtually every book of the Bible and operates on the same principle as the White House. We describe God as “omnipresent,” and of course he can operate throughout his universe. But he chooses a place on earth where his presence is somehow more concentrated. God’s oval office is actually a cube at the innermost depth of the temple. Matters of national and international life and death are enacted not at an ornate desk but above the ornate ark of the covenant (esp. Exod. 25:1–22).
The parallels are instructive. Among many Christian assumptions about “holiness,” the best definitions relate to access and security clearance. To draw closer to God, one must be increasingly holy. The proverb “cleanliness is next to godliness” might be recast better as “holiness is next to godliness.” God himself is the ultimate standard of holiness. Indeed, to say that God is holy is almost redundant.God himself is the ultimate standard of holiness. Indeed, to say that God is holy is almost redundant.CLICK TO TWEET
Layers of security guarded access to God in the temple. Scholars talk helpfully about “graded holiness,” akin to successive checkpoints in the White House or rings on an archery target. A person had to be increasingly “holy” to move closer to God, especially to enter the two rooms at the heart of the temple: the “Holy Place” and the “Most Holy Place” with the ark. Several sacrifices in Leviticus increased one’s holiness rating. And some levels of holiness couldn’t be bought. The closest access to God was reserved for the holiest Israelite: the eldest male born into the right tribe (Levi’s) and the right family (Aaron’s). This high priest could enter closest to God’s presence but once each year, wearing his turban and its gold emblem engraved with the title “Holy to the LORD” (Exod. 28:36).
“Holiness” is thus a measure of privileged access. It is then secondary and derivative to think about how being suited to God’s presence makes one appear “set apart” or “distinct” from the wider godless world or more “pious” in behavior.
The Holy Spirit
Perhaps not directly linked, and perhaps equally surprising, the Holy/ Godly Spirit was similarly inaccessible in Old Testament times. Certainly the Spirit was at work within Israel, but his primary work was to empower individual leaders. We read of specific judges being empowered by the Spirit to rescue God’s people (e.g., Judg. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25). Moses’ administrative spirit was shared with other judicial leaders (esp. Num. 11:16–30). King Saul lost God’s authorization—and the Holy Spirit—once David was anointed as the next monarch (1 Sam. 16:13, 14). (We should think twice about using parts of David’s confession prayer in Psalm 51:10–12. David there feared a loss of the king-making Holy Spirit in a way that Christians never face.) Specific prophets recognized the Spirit’s special work in their ministries (e.g., Mic. 3:8; Ezek. 2:2).