You’ll be hard pressed to beat Notre Dame. No, sorry, I’m not talking about the football team. I’m talking about the cathedral. But now that I have your attention, can I tell you a little about the great Cathedral of Notre Dame? Yes, for you Disney fans, it is the famous cathedral in the movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This awesome cathedral was constructed in Paris (with a few interruptions) from 1163 to 1345. Yes, it did take that long—182 years from the time the cornerstone was laid until the final elements were put in place—almost 200 years to build a church! The construction was quite a process. Several buildings were demolished, a brand new road was built for transporting materials, several architects and scores of workers were employed, and of course, an astonishing amount of money was spent on it. But what a church it was! As almost all cathedrals, it was shaped like a cross and topped with a tall, soaring spire that was intended to point people to heaven. It was dressed with dazzling stained glass windows, a magnificent organ whose musical notes echoed from the ceiling, great columns and arches, five grand bells that filled the city with music, treasures of gold and silver, and many intricately carved sculptures. Even today, it still stands as a remarkable building and serves, for many, as a reminder of the splendor and majesty of God.
In our day and age, it is hard to imagine building such a colossal and ornate church building. But in that culture, the cathedral was everything. People would journey for miles and miles on pilgrimages to the cathedral to worship God. It was where they believed they could experience the presence of God in a supernatural and powerful way.
In the Bible, there is a building spoken of that parallels the great European cathedrals: the temple. It too was constructed with great carefulness, fine materials, and beauty. It was called “The House of God” and God, Himself, called it “His House.” In the midst of the temple was the inner sanctuary called the “Holy of Holies,” where only the High Priest was allowed to enter and even then, only once a year and with strict restrictions. It was in this inner sanctuary that the presence of God was experienced most powerfully. The Jews made pilgrimages to the temple to worship and experience God’s presence. It was their gateway to God, and God connected with His people in a supernatural way through the temple.
But Jesus changed all that. In New Testament Christianity, there was no purpose for the temple. God no longer connected with His people through a stone building. Instead, He connected with them through a different kind of building…a special building. And it’s not just a little ramshackle shanty by a creek. This building is designed by a master artist. It is more extraordinary than any temple or cathedral could ever be. This temple is filled with treasures of exceptional value. In this building, God’s presence resides in a powerful way. And perhaps most importantly, this building was designed to display the splendor and majesty of God for the whole world to see.
So what is this building? Well, we see it described in the third chapter of 1 Corinthians. Up to this point in the book, Paul has been exhorting the believers about divisions in the church. In this chapter, he strives to correct their misguided thinking by teaching some essential truths about the nature of ministry. Using a gardening metaphor, he warns them not to put their church leaders on a pedestal, making them the center of attention which can lead to rivalries and disunity. They are simply the ones who plant and water God’s field, humble servants of God. To the contrary, at the center of the Corinthians’ attention should be only one person: God, the one who causes everything to grow. Then, transitioning from agriculture to architecture, Paul goes on to make a very powerful statement: “You are God’s field, God’s building” (v. 9). Yes, the believers, themselves, were the building of God.
Don’t miss the power of this truth: believers are God’s building! Furthermore, we are described as being God’s temple. Paul exclaims, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?…God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple!” (v. 16-17). This word for temple in the original language is not just the word used for the temple’s outer building and courtyards, this is a word that was used for the inner, holiest part of the temple: the sanctuary, where God’s Spirit dwelt. I love the way the original Greek brings forth the emphasis here. It reads, “God’s temple is sacred. And that temple is you!” Wow! That temple is us! The all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe has chosen us to be His temple. Do you see how incredible this really is?
Now, here, Paul is not talking about each individual believer being the temple of God, but he is speaking of the community of believers. This is also not the brick-and-mortar church building, but the people. We are the dwelling place of God. And thankfully, we are not built on some shoddy foundation done by an amateur builder that will quiver and quake at the slightest breeze. But our foundation is rock solid, for it is Jesus Christ. In other words, all of us together form a spiritual building that rests on the foundation of Jesus and all that He did. And as was true with the cathedral of Notre Dame, it will take many, many, many years to complete!
Who is building it? Well, as Paul tells us, the builders are those doing the work of ministry. So, whether we are helping with Sunday worship, leading a small group, teaching kids about Jesus, sharing our faith, or other work to expand the Kingdom, we are building God’s temple! And He has a special job for each and every one of us to do. So how about you? Do you have a place of ministry in God’s house? Are you on the building team or are you sitting on the sidelines watching as others lay the bricks?
Building the Cathedral of Notre Dame was extremely hard work, but it was also a great privilege. It was a tremendous honor to be involved in the construction of a building that would display the splendor and majesty of God to everyone who looked upon it. How much more of an honor is it to be called to help build God’s cathedral! It is the house of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords! It is truly the greatest honor anyone could ever be given.
And all our hard work will pay off. God is looking forward to rewarding us one day for our service to Him. Paul speaks of this truth when he talks about a “Day” when all that we do will be brought to light. At this time, our works will be tested by “fire.” There were two things the Corinthians knew about fire. One, it completely destroys perishable items, like the wood, hay, and straw mentioned here. Two, it is used to test the purity of precious metal as it separates the impurities from the pure gold or silver. Whatever this “fire” will look like literally, we may not be certain. But the message is clear: some of what believers do in the work of the church will “make it through the fire.” It will last eternally and for those things, rewards will be given. But some of what believers do in the church will not make it through the fire, and no rewards will be given for it. Unfortunately, Paul does not give a list of qualifications for what makes it through the fire and what doesn’t. It most likely has to do with matters of the heart, our motives and intentions, and whether we are doing ministry according to God’s principles or the principles of the world. When our ministry is in line with God’s desires, our work for God’s Kingdom will survive the tests of fire and will last for eternity.
Paul also warns us that we are not to destroy this temple. This temple is sacred. It is holy. It is special. Things we do in the midst of the church that cause division, spread worldly philosophies, and lead others to sin, are destructive to God’s building. Many times in history, the cathedral of Notre Dame was damaged through revolutions, wars, or vandalism and needed restoration. But it survived. And God’s church will too. But God warns us here that we are to preserve His building, not damage it.
There is one other important lesson here in this chapter. This building is not ours; it is God’s. It belongs to Him. This is true for the worldwide church and every local group of believers. It doesn’t matter if we are a founding member, or how much we give financially, or what our role is. It is His church, to do with what He desires to do with it. Can we trust him with it? Can we lay our desires and agenda aside and say to Him, “Okay, God this is Your house, not mine.” It belongs to Him.
The ancient cathedrals of the past are truly awe-inspiring. They can take your breath away. But nothing compares to the beauty and the glory and the splendor of God’s building, His temple, His cathedral. It may not be shaped like a cross, but it certainly rests on a cross as its foundation. It does not have bells or an organ, but from it echoes the worship of the King of Kings. It has no stained glass windows for the sun to shine through, but the Light of the World is within it. This amazing building, although it does not have tall spires that stretch to the heavens, is the very thing God created to point people to heaven. And there is no building on this earth that can top this glorious cathedral in its greatest purpose of all: displaying the splendor and majesty of God to the world.