Have you ever had someone show you a piece of paper with thousands of dots on it, but with no immediately discernible pattern, and then tell you that if you stare intently at the dots long enough an image will appear, as if raised from the page? Some of you know what I'm talking about. You've seen these "things" before and you've stared at them and sure enough an image appeared where no image, i.e., a butterfly, hammer, etc. apparently was before. Do you remember the 3-D like figure?
The same is true of Bible study. Sometimes we have to stare at the text long enough to recognize a discernible image. We don't create the image ex nihilo (from nothing); the text has to surface it in our minds, even though it's been there in the text all the time. The problem is not that our eyes aren't working properly; it's that we've been biased against seeing it. This is especially obvious when it comes to recognizing the corporate focus in the apostles' teaching. Because we live in the West where there exists an infatuation with the individual as opposed to the group/community, we have a much harder time seeing Paul's community focus and valuing it.1 For example, in 1 Corinthians 3:16 Paul says:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? 3:17 If someone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, which is what you are.
Now in English grammar the personal pronoun "you" can either indicate a singular or plural referent. That is, it can refer to one person or to many; the context must determine. But it's amazing how many English readers, when they glance at Paul's statement in 1 Cor 3:16, simply assume that the repeated reference to "you" is singular. They assume that Paul's focus is on the individual. They read it and say to themselves: "I am a temple of the Holy Spirit." But this completely misses Paul's point. The pronoun is plural in Greek.2 The apostle is not saying that each one of the Corinthians is a temple of the Holy Spirit, but that the church as a whole is God's temple. The image is corporate, not singular. But we don't have to know Greek to understand this. We just have to have our blinders removed by sensitively reading the immediate context. Then we'll "see" that Paul is talking about the local church in Corinth as a whole, not just individuals within it (cf. 1 Cor 3:1-23).
We automatically do similar kinds of things with the idea of "old man" and "new man" in Paul's writings. We individualize these expressions and, especially in our culture, we psychologize them. But they are expressions referring not (primarily) to "you" as an individual (or something within you), but to "you" viewed within a certain set of relationships. Hence they have a corporate focus with an ethical/spiritual slant; they are not primarily personal and psychological.3 In short, we have taken what is a mountain in Paul and made it a moll hill!4
So what does this mean for us? What does the corporate focus in the New Testament entail for the church today? Well it probably necessitates several things, but here are a few important considerations: First, we need to plead with God to forgive us for our self-centeredness. Then we need to ask him to help us genuinely perceive the reality of our oneness in the body of Christ. We did not create this body nor did we earn our way into it; it took a cross to save us all and it is the work of the Holy Spirit that brings us together as one in Christ. So there is no room for boasting or ego trips.
Second, we need to realize that our beliefs, attitudes, and actions have consequences in Messiah's new community. We cannot simply believe or live in any way we want without it affecting others.5 We impact our brothers and sisters by our decisions, though all of us have heard time and again, that as long as "my actions don't hurt anyone else, they're ok." But if you're stealing from your employer or killing your soul on pornography, even though you do the latter in the seclusion and privacy of your own home, both will have serious consequences on those around you. You simply do not live in a vacuum; you live in relationships. Nine times out of ten, if you're hooked on pornography, your present addiction came about in large measure through relationships, i.e., a friend, classmate, or acquaintance. But, even if this is not the case, you cannot feed your soul on moral filth and then walk uprightly in your interactions with others! This is true because as the more we feed our souls on evil, the more our desires for the "good"weaken.
Third, we need to realize that it is primarily, though not exclusively, in body-life and worship that the love of God becomes deeply personal and comprehensible to us. In Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul says:
3:14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 3:15 from whom every family in heaven and on the earth is named. 3:16 I pray that according to the wealth of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner man, 3:17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, by being rooted and grounded in love, 3:18 you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 3:19 and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. 3:20 Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, 3:21 to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen
Thus, it is through corporate life, interaction, and worship that we learn the meaning and significance of Christ's atonement and that we experience his present work in the church and in the world. The New Testament really knows nothing of the rugged, individualistic mentality deeply ingrained in much of European, American, and Canadian life. We were never destined to go it alone and we delude ourselves if we think we can really do it and prosper spiritually. Now it is true that there are more or less pure churches, and that joining any church requires prayerful wisdom and guidance, but "going it alone" is not an option open to the obedient Christian. Commit yourself to a church, to receiving from them and to serving them with the strength God supplies.
Fourth, communities of people have often been compared to chains and the strength of any local community is often said to be only that of its weakest link. Now when a person who does not have the Spirit of God hears this truth, he often says to himself, "I must strengthen myself so that I won't be the weakest link." But when the Christian hears this truth, his primary focus is not on how he can become stronger, but how he can strengthen his brother so that his brother will be all that God intended. Incidentally, in so looking to the needs of others, a person is living out the very life that into which God has called them and promised His presence in blessing.
Take these thoughts to heart today and see what the Lord teaches you. If you're struggling with a particular sin, ask for help from a pastor or a trusted and godly friend. You don't have to escape sin's clutches on your own. God's people are here to help. If you feel you have nothing to contribute, well...go, ask the leaders of the church how you can learn more about your spiritual gifts and then put those gifts to use loving and serving others. Also, learn to read the Bible through this corporate lens and you'll begin to "see" God's focus on the community as well as the individual. In the end, remember that you're part of a tightly knit community where "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it, and if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (1 Cor 12:26)!
1 The recognition of the corporate focus in the NT is growing within Evangelical circles, but quite slowly.
2 The pronoun is actually imbedded in the verb oijdate and ejste, and uJmi`n is clearly plural as well. But someone may respond by saying, "the apostle was addressing the entire church so, of course, he used the plural pronoun. But this does not necessarily mean that he's focusing on them as a unified group. He may have just wanted each individual member to realize that the Spirit of God was in said person."
While this is possible, it is entirely improbable. First, the problem in 1 Corinthians 1-4, of which our passage forms an important part, included divisions over Christian leaders. It is highly unlikely in dealing with this question of divisive attitudes, that Paul would deepen this spirit of individualism by assuring each one as an individual that he/she had the Spirit of God. Second, he refers to them as "the temple of God" not as individual "temples of God" (cf. 1 Cor 6:19-20 for a text that focuses more on the individual though such a text does not promote individualism). Thus, it is clear from the historical and literary context that Paul is referring to the Corinthians as a corporate whole.
4 Obviously we could cite hundreds of passages, but space does not permit. Yet this only makes the point more ironic, that those who claim to be a people of the book, i.e., evangelical Christians, so often miss what's obvious in it!
5 By the way, therein lies our dignity, i.e., our capacity to affect others for positive change, good, and godliness, but now in a fallen world, therein also lies our depravity, i.e., our potential to impact others for evil, sin, and godlessness.