These days many people are interested in taking care of their bodies, and health advice can be found almost anywhere. The Bible verse that comes to my mind is 1 Cor. 6:19 “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” But what does this mean? For Paul, as for any other ancient Jew, “the Temple” meant the one in Jerusalem. I’d like to start by taking a look at what associations the Jerusalem temple might have had for Paul, to see if this throws any light on what he might have meant by saying that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.

The Temple Building

Right from the first time the temple is mentioned, it’s clear that its location was chosen by God. 2 Sam. 24:16-25 tells the story of how David built an altar on Ornan the Jebusite’s threshing floor, and stopped a plague. 1 Chron. 21:18—22:1 tells how David realised that this was where God wanted the temple to be built. And 2 Chron. 3:1 says, “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mt. Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” No wonder, then, that the Old Testament refers so often to the temple as God’s house, or God’s dwelling place.

For example, in Jer. 7:1-14 God in a prophetic word to Jeremiah repeatedly refers to “this house, which is called by my name.” And in Ps. 76 the Psalmist exults, “In Judah God is known; his name is great in Israel. His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion.” Haggai 2:9 assures the returned exiles that the rebuilt temple is still God’s house, and that God himself will make it more splendid than the first. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Israelites considered the fact that God’s temple, God’s home on earth, was in Jerusalem a sign of Israel’s election as God’s people.

Not that God could be limited to a building. Even as he dedicates the temple Solomon prays, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). But God can be both on earth and in heaven at the same time. “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 11:4). And even during the Exile, when the temple was in ruins, the Jews turned to face the mountain where the temple had been, to pray (1 Kings 8:28-29; Dan. 6:10).

The temple is also seen as a symbol of victory. It was only built after David had completed the conquest begun under Joshua. It was not built by David but by Solomon, who was a man of peace. The brass sea, or reservoir, in the Court of the Priests symbolised God’s victory over chaos in creation. All this means that the temple symbolises not only victory but the Sabbath rest that comes after victory. No wonder the Psalmist calls the temple God’s resting place (Ps 132:8,14).

The temple was a place of holiness. In Ps. 24 the question is asked, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” The answer comes back, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not answer deceitfully” (Ps. 24:3-4). It is noteworthy that the closer one got to the innermost part of the temple, the greater the holiness that was required. Anyone could come into the outermost court, the court of the Gentiles. But only Israelites could go beyond that, and only Israelite men could go beyond the Court of the Women. Only priests and Levites could go through the Court of the Israelites into the temple building itself. As for the Holy of Holies, the room where the Ark of the Covenant which symbolised God’s presence actually stood, only the High Priest could go in there, and that only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And even then he did not dare to go in without an offering of blood. All this shows not only that God is holy, but that he wants his people to be holy too. In the decades before Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the prophets warned Israel of the dangers of following the temple ritual while letting sin into other areas of their lives.

Our Bodies as Temples

Let’s get back to Paul. He trained as a rabbi under the greatest teacher of his day (Acts 22:3), so he would have known about the temple tradition that we’ve been talking about. Given all this, what would it have meant to Paul to say that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit? I think that the central idea for Paul was that the temple is God’s dwelling place, his home on earth. Under the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, each individual believer is God’s home on earth. This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “On that day you will realise that I am in the Father and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20). Only a few verses earlier he promises that the Holy Spirit will be with them and in them. Just as the temple was to be a holy place because it was God’s home, so also our bodies are to be holy places because they are God’s home. It’s this principle that determines much of what Paul says about Christian conduct.

But if our bodies are God’s home on earth, what does that mean? We have to notice that Paul is talking about our bodies, not our souls. Now the body is the sphere of actions; it concerns what we do in this world. God’s people should act like people in whom the Holy Spirit is living. When God the Holy Spirit indwells a person, he becomes the control centre for that person’s body. That body is then given over to the Lord’s service, not the service of sin.

In the immediate context of 1 Cor. 6, Paul is talking about sex sin. Sex creates a bond between the partners, whether they intend to make a connection or not. So there’s really no such thing as casual sex. If a prostitute represents forces opposed to God, a Christian who goes to her joins what should be given over to God to what has been given over to sin. That’s why Paul speaks so forcefully about this matter.

If in this context Paul is talking about sex, the principles that he sets out here can also be applied to other areas of our lives. If our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, we ought to take care of them and maintain our physical health. Of course, diet and exercise come under this category. But I’m not going to say too much about that, because I’m a theologian, not a doctor. But I will share with you my grandfather’s two health rules. He used to say, “Eat a little bit of everything, but not too much of anything.” I guess that’s a good way to eat a balanced diet without overeating. It also means we won’t feel deprived, which is a major cause of not sticking to diets. My grandfather also used to say, “The best exercise you can get is walking, and the best place you can walk is away from the table, before you’ve eaten too much.” My grandfather wasn’t a doctor either, but he did live to be 91, and he was hardly sick a day in his life, so he must have been on to something.

At this point I also want to say a brief word about “comfort eating.” Let’s be honest with ourselves and with God about when we’re eating to feed our bodies, and when we’re eating to satisfy our emotions. Am I the only one who has caught herself eating when the real problem is that I’m upset, frustrated, depressed or just plain bored? Didn’t think so. The problem is that the comfort in “comfort food” is temporary at best, and worse, we often end up feeling worse afterward when we realise that what we’ve eaten is going to make us gain weight. We must be careful to distinguish between physical hunger and hunger that is spiritual or emotional. If the hunger is spiritual or emotional, we need to take it to the Lord, because only he can satisfy it. As the apostle Peter puts it, “Cast all your cares on him, because he cares about you” (1 Pet. 5:7). But we must avoid focussing too much on our health or our appearance; that is idolatry. We must also avoid gluttony or excessive dieting, both of which abuse the body. God made us, and he loves and accepts us the way he made us. We mustn’t think that he won’t accept us because we don’t conform to some worldly standard of beauty.

But it’s not just a matter of taking care of our bodies and not abusing them. Acting like people in whom the Holy Spirit is living also has to do with how we act toward others. Paul also has something to say about this, and what he says can be summed up in two simple rules. The first is, “Insofar as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). Remember also that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” Having a peaceable relationship with someone takes two, so it isn’t always possible even with our best efforts. But we must make our best efforts to get along with everyone, as long as getting along doesn’t mean violating our consciences or God’s standards.

Paul’s second rule can be summed up in the phrase “mutual consideration.” This is what Paul means when he says that believers should submit to each other. We need to put other people’s needs ahead of our own, and trust the Lord that our own needs will be met. One facet of this is highlighted when Paul calls on believers who have strong consciences to be sensitive to those whose consciences are more tender, and not allow their exercise of Christian freedom to be a stumbling block to a brother or sister (1 Cor. 14:1—15:6).

I said above that the temple is a symbol of victory. When the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us, that’s a victory over the sin in our lives. After Adam and Eve fell into sin, they passed their sin nature on to all their descendants, including us. As Paul would say, we are slaves of sin, our bodies given over to the service of sin. But Jesus by his death and resurrection destroyed the power of sin over us. When we invite him into our lives as Lord and Saviour, our bodies are given over to his service instead of the service of sin. To put it another way, he gives us victory over sin. Now I’m not saying that after we’re born again we’ll never sin again, or that a Christian who sins isn’t really born again. But we’re no longer trapped in a downward spiral of sin, and we can grow into the people God wants us to be. The only way Jesus could give us that victory was to become fully human, while remaining fully divine, and die a real death, and then rise again. As the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, so that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). That is the message of Easter.

The Rest of God

I said above that because the temple is a symbol of victory, it’s also a symbol of the Sabbath rest that follows victory. The first eleven chapters of the book of Joshua describe how the Israelites entered Canaan and gradually conquered the land that God had promised them, killing their enemies or driving them out, for the most part. In Joshua 11:23 the narrator says, “So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.” Chapter 12 lists the kings defeated by Joshua and the Israelites; and chapters 13 and 14 describe the division of the land and its allocation to the various tribes. Then in Joshua 14:15 the narrator repeats, “And the land had rest from war.” Here we see rest associated with victory and the occupation of the land by the people of God. Did Jesus rest after his death, resurrection and ascension? I can’t find a Scripture that specifically says so. But the writer of the book of Hebrews may be hinting at his when he says, “When he had made purification for our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). That same writer says clearly that there is a different kind of rest for the new people of God, those who have faith in Jesus. He discusses this in chapter 4, where he says that “there remains a rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from their labours, as God ceased from his” (Heb. 4:10). And Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-30).

Am I saying that once we receive Jesus as Saviour all our troubles are over, and we’ll have nothing but peace and rest for the rest our lives? No. God never promised us a rose garden. What I am saying is, first, that there’s no longer any need for us to try to earn our way to heaven. The truth is, we can’t earn our way to heaven, no matter how hard we try. For some people, that’s the hard thing about Christianity—it means admitting that we can’t make it on our own, that we need help. The good news is that Jesus has earned our way to heaven; he’s the only one who could. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). What he has done by his death and resurrection is all that needs to be done for our salvation.

The other thing that we can say about God’s rest is that we can have rest and peace even in troubled times, because this rest comes from knowing that God is in charge. If we keep that in mind, we can know that even the difficult things are part of God’s plan for us, and he’ll take us through them. That’s what it means to rest in the Lord.

Let’s try to sum all this up. To a trained rabbi like Paul, the temple was seen as God’s home on earth, a symbol of victory and Sabbath rest, a holy place. I suggest that Paul is thinking of all this when he tells the Corinthians, “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” The main principle, I suggest, is that of the temple as God’s home on earth. This means that we need to act like people in whom the Holy Spirit is living. In the immediate context Paul is talking about sexual conduct, but the principle can be applied to other areas of our lives. Those who discuss the idea of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit often talk about diet and exercise, but again there is more to be said. Acting like people in whom the Holy Spirit is living also has to do with how we act toward others. It means being peaceable and considerate toward them.

The temple is also a symbol of victory and Sabbath rest. When the Holy Spirit indwells us, that’s a victory over the sin in our lives. Our bodies are given over to his service, not the service of sin. We don’t have to live in bondage to sin any longer. That means that we can have genuine peace and rest.

Jesus by his death and resurrection made it possible for the Holy Spirit to indwell us and make each of us his temple. Let’s commit ourselves to live, with God’s help, like temples of the Holy Spirit.