Paul the Priest - The Presence of God - Part 2
Stephen Fellowes, Skibbereen, Ireland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
On two occasions in the Epistles to the Corinthians the apostle Paul describes the church of God at Corinth as ‘the temple of God’, 1 Cor. 3. 16; 2 Cor. 6. 16.
The word ‘temple’ naturally takes our minds back to the temple of Solomon, or possibly the post-captivity temple of Zerubbabel, or forward to Ezekiel’s great millennial temple. However, when we look a little closer at the word used in the Corinthian Epistles, we discover that it carries the basic idea of ‘shrine’ or ‘sanctuary’, as adopted by Young in his literal translation and Newberry in the margin of his Bible uses the term, ‘inner temple’. These renderings give us a very sound basis to connect the teaching of Paul with the principles that are established in the books of Exodus and Leviticus relative to the tabernacle and the priesthood, principles with which every priest was fully acquainted.
The words of Jehovah to Moses in Exodus chapter 25 verse 8, ‘Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them’, reveal a striking parallel with those of Paul when addressing the church of God at Corinth, ‘Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?’ 1 Cor. 3. 16.
Every Israelite would have been aware of the significance of the tabernacle as God’s dwelling place, and if the common people were aware, how much more were the priests conscious of the significance of the presence of God in their midst! After all, this was to be their sphere of service; their lives were governed by a keen sensitivity to the character of the God who was present amongst them, the God who said, ‘ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy’, Lev. 19. 2. The priest’s life was one which in every sense was linked with ‘the holy place and the most holy’, Exod. 26. 33.
Paul reminds the Corinthian saints, and, by extension, reminds us all, of the need for an awareness of these same issues in an assembly setting. An oft-repeated statement in the First Epistle to the Corinthians is the expression, ‘know ye not?’ This is not to be understood as Paul’s revelation of something they didn’t know, something new to them, but rather it is the reminder of that which they should have known and should have continually kept before their minds.
The apostle highlights the need for an awareness of their position when he says no less than three times in the two letters, ‘Ye are the temple of God’ and ‘which temple ye are’, 1 Cor. 3. 16-17, and again, ‘ye are the temple of the living God’, 2 Cor. 6. 16.
What a stark contrast is this glorious standing with that which they once held when they were defiled and stained by the filthiness of sin, 1 Cor. 6. 9-11. God in His wondrous sovereign grace moved and they came under the cleansing power of the blood of Christ. The result was their being called out of this world and brought together to compose the ‘church of God at Corinth’, a holy entity in a defiling scene, the very temple of the living God, 1. 2. How significant is this title used by Paul: ‘the living God’, the God who is alive and active in their midst, not like the dead, lifeless idols of an idolatrous world but the living God abiding in the midst of His temple – the sanctified company of His people!
Are we really conscious of what we are? Are we sufficiently in touch with the dignity, gravity and purity of our position in the local assembly? Have we got our spiritual bearings? What a preservative it would be if we ever kept before us that we are the temple of the living God!
Next it is our awareness of His presence that is mentioned, ‘the Spirit of God dwelleth in you’, 1 Cor. 3. 16, and again, ‘I will dwell in them, and walk in them’, 2 Cor. 6. 16.
At the end of the book of Exodus, after Moses had meticulously followed the divine directions, we read these striking words, ‘the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’, Exod. 40. 34. The next book begins with Jehovah speaking unto Moses ‘out of the tabernacle of the congregation’, Lev. 1. 1. God had presented Himself in the midst of His people.
How simple and yet how profound a truth this is. It should never be taken for granted. We can glibly cite Matthew chapter 18 verse 20, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’, without considering that to be gathered in His name means to walk according to that name, to honour it in our lives in every aspect. Just as Moses acted ‘according to all that the Lord commanded him’, Exod. 40. 16, so the prerequisite for the conscious enjoyment of His presence is willing obedience to His word.
Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in the assembly and in chapters 12 and 14 he develops the operations of the same Holy Spirit in the up-building of the local company. His authority, sovereignty and sensitivity are all to be considered as we move in priestly capacity in the divine presence.
In the second letter, it is the distinctive nature of the assembly that His presence signifies, ‘what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?’ Although the context of 2 Corinthians chapter 6 is separation from unbelievers, v. 14, nevertheless the principle is clear, the temple of God is a separated company, cut off from all that is represented in an idolatrous world.
The priest of old would never have dreamed of putting a foot outside of the divine centre; his understanding was that there was one exclusive place where Jehovah dwelt. Can we learn from him the same conviction in a day where much is being compromised as to the uniqueness of the gathering? When the danger of fraternization with denominationalism is a real danger, it is well to ask oneself the question ‘Why are we here?’ Hopefully, the only answer is – ‘because He is here’!
Further, a weighty consideration follows, the price of playing fast and loose with His presence, ‘If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are’, 1 Cor. 3. 17.
Such language is strong, but we ought not to lose the force of it. Some feel that it could not be said of a believer being one whom God would destroy, but surely the principle is far-reaching, highlighting the possibility of any person defiling the temple of God!
This demonstrates God’s holy jealousy for His own honour. We see it also in operation in Acts chapter 5 with the discipline of Ananias and Sapphira who played the hypocrite before the Lord. In a priestly context we recall a day of most solemn consequence, where the fire of Jehovah slew the two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Lev. 10. They offered ‘strange fire before the Lord which He commanded them not’, v. 1. Such reckless disobedience and indifference to God’s honour and authority! God must act and He did, immediately and impartially. How touching that the scripture records of their father, ‘and Aaron held his peace’, v. 3. Mackintosh says, ‘he could only bow his head in silent awe and reverent acquiescence’. 1
One fears a casualness in the Lord’s presence. We want happy gatherings but never at the expense of holiness. The Lord help us all to walk humbly.
Finally, and as a foundation to all these matters, we must have an awareness of the purity of the sanctuary, ‘for the temple of God is holy’, 1 Cor. 3. 17.
Holiness is the hallmark of the book of Leviticus, and indeed the subject features heavily in the book of Exodus as well. We have seen how the Jewish priest was linked with the ‘holy place’, wore ‘holy garments’ handled ‘holy things’, and was anointed with ‘holy anointing oil’. 2 In short, he lived and moved in a sphere where holiness was the great guiding principle in every matter.
Holiness is not optional in the believer’s life, rather it is essential and paramount. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to ‘cleanse [yourselves] from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’, 2 Cor. 7. 1. The maintenance of the holy character of the sanctuary of God’s assembly is dependent upon the diligence of each member to pursue the perfecting of holiness in his or her life. The word ‘perfecting’ denotes an ongoing, continuous exercise, it reminds us of the need of effort and commitment with divine help to reach the goal. It does not come naturally, the flesh hates holiness. The world is more geared than ever to corrupt and defile the child of God, and the devil, of course, is always active. What, then, is the secret to keeping ourselves pure? How can we possibly pursue this worthy cause?
Paul’s answer is to do so ‘in the fear of God’. A fear of grieving Him will serve as the great preserving force in our lives. May our spirits join in the hymn writer’s sentiment when she said:
‘Lord, I desire to live as one,
Who bears a blood-bought name,
As one who fears but grieving Thee,
And knows no other shame’,
As we consider these things, may we be enabled by His grace and motivated by His fear to tread carefully and to act reverently in the Lord’s presence, to free ourselves from all casualness and undue familiarity because ‘holiness becometh thine house, O Lord, for ever’, Ps. 93. 5. May we say with devoted hearts as David said, ‘Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where Thine honour dwelleth’, 26. 8.
1 C. H. Mackintosh, Notes on the Pentateuch.
2 Exod. 28. 4, 29; 30. 25.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Stephen Fellowes, originally from Belfast, is in fellowship in the assembly in Skibbereen, West Cork, Ireland. Married to Rachel, they reside in Skibbereen with their three young children. Stephen is active in the little assembly and in gospel outreach work throughout this needy part of Ireland.