The Sanctuary of God

Paul consistently applies the term “sanctuary of God” to the church, and he also uses related language when describing Christian congregations, terms used originally in the Hebrew Bible for the Tabernacle and Temple. While the Apostle’s language is metaphorical, it describes new realities and the identity of God’s new covenant people.

In his epistles, the English term “sanctuary of God” translates the Greek clause ton naon tou theou, and the noun naos means “sanctuary.” In biblical Greek, most often it refers to the inner sanctum, the sanctuary proper, and not to the entire Temple complex.


Paul applies “sanctuary of God” to the church four times in his letters to the Corinthians, and once he uses the noun naos by itself in Ephesians for the assembly of God that is now comprised of Jewish and Gentile believers:

  • (1 Corinthians 3:16-17) – “Do you not know that you are a SANCTUARY OF GOD, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man defiles the SANCTUARY OF GOD, him shall God destroy; for the SANCTUARY OF GOD is holy, and such are you. – (See also 1 Corinthians 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16).
  • (Ephesians 2:19-22) – “So then you are no more strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, is growing into a HOLY SANCTUARY IN THE LORD; in whom you also are being built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.

And in Ephesians, not only is the language metaphorical, but Paul mixes his metaphors. The church does not consist of men who are made of stones or goatskins. And tents and stone buildings do not “grow,” at least, not organically.

None of this means that Paul's language is not serious, or that he is not describing genuine realities brought into existence by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The church is the “sanctuary” of God because, like the ancient Tabernacle and Temple, it is where the presence of God dwells (“habitation of God in the Spirit”). And it is His presence that makes the church “holy,” and therefore, something not to be violated, sullied, disrespected, or otherwise desecrated.


The language about preserving the holiness of the “sanctuary” and the punishment that awaits anyone who “defiles” it reflects the purity regulations for the Tabernacle in the Torah. For example, Numbers 19:20, “But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly BECAUSE HE HAS DEFILED THE SANCTUARY OF YAHWEH.”

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is quite explicit - “And what concord has Christ with Belial, or what portion has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the SANCTUARY OF GOD with idols? For we are a SANCTUARY OF THE LIVING GOD; even as God said, I will dwell in them, and I will walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” – (2 Corinthians 6:15-17).

The Apostle calls the Corinthians to live holy lives by learning to remain “separate” from sin and idolatry. As before, he identifies the church as the “sanctuary of God,” the place where He dwells. To fortify his point, he cites two passages from the Old Testament:

  • (Leviticus 26:11-12) – “And I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.
  • (Jeremiah 31:33) – “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Previously, he linked the “Spirit” to the presence of God that now dwells in the assembly. The gift of the Spirit demonstrates that God is dwelling among His people, and collectively, they constitute the “sanctuary of God” in the present age.

Thus, Paul identifies the church as the “sanctuary of God,” and that identification is built on promises from the Hebrew Bible.

Moreover, as he teaches elsewhere, the institutions of the old covenant were “types” and “shadows” of the true realities that Jesus has actualized in the New Covenant - (Colossians 2:16-17).

The Tabernacle and Temple foreshadowed the greater reality when God would indwell His people. And wherever the church is gathered for worship, the Spirit of God is present.


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