Another in a series on St. Paul.

In modern times we have few occasions to use the word “temple.” It never caught on as a term for Christian places of worship. And other western religions have shied away from the term. (Reform Judaism, which sometimes calls its synagogues “temple,” is the exception.)

But the term is extremely important in the letters of St. Paul, and it’s fair for us to ask why.

Paul addressed Christians of two types: Jews and gentiles.

For Jews, Temple referred to one place only: Judaism’s central sanctuary in Jerusalem. Constructed by King Solomon, it was destroyed and later rebuilt, and then renovated in St. Paul’s lifetime. This was the only place Jews were permitted to offer sacrifice; it was the divinely ordained site of God’s presence. All Jewish males, no matter where they lived, were expected to make pilgrimage to worship there.

The gentiles’ idea of temple had some points in common with that of the Jews. Pagan temples were sites of sacrifice, and they were considered places where a god or the gods were present. Gentile sacrificial feasts, like those of the Jews, included sacred banquets that were occasions of great cheer.

But a gentile temple also differed from the Jewish temple in essential ways. Pagan worship made no exclusive claim on individuals; they were free to enjoy the sacrifices of as many altars as they wished. Also, pagan feasts included elements that Jews (and Christians) could never abide: “sacred” prostitution, drunken revelry, gluttony, the worship of idols.

Thus, St.Paul was careful to make distinctions as he spelled out a Christian meaning for “temple.” His theology of the temple is founded firmly on two realities: Jesus had identified himself as God’s temple (see John 2:19-21), and Jesus had identified himself with his people, the Church (see Acts 9:4).

Thus, for Paul, the temple was no longer merely a building. God intended the Jerusalem temple to foreshadow the worship of the New Covenant. The former temple now found fulfillment in Jesus’ body, the Church.

The Jerusalem Temple was still standing as St. Paul wrote his letters. Destruction came later, at the hands of the Romans, in A.D. 70. So his evocation must have shocked his Jewish hearers, who loved the Temple with a profound piety.

To them he explained that the Church was now the special place of God’s presence. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? … God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; see also 2 Corinthians 6:16).

No longer were God’s presence and rites confined to a single location. No longer was it the exclusive privilege of one ethnic group. Now the temple had no walls. It was universal, Catholic.

To the gentiles, Paul made a necessary clarification. The Church’s sacrificial feast was incompatible with the goings-on at pagan temples. “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy” (Romans 13:13; see also 1 Corinthians 11:20-22).

God’s temple is the holy place. If we’re becoming that temple, we have to become holy. We have to become saints.