1 Corinthians 3:10-17
November 19, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 17:10 in the audio file.
Or, Building That Passes the Fire Code
These are the best days in church history. We have more resources and more opportunities than any Christians in any generation. Copies of the Bible in our native language are ubiquitous, or at least easily obtained for not much money in not much time. Access to the Scriptures in the original languages, as well as access to learn about the original languages, surpasses any Reformer’s imagination. There are books that are about books that are about the books of the Bible. We could (search and) read notes from Spurgeon’s sermons while listening to this sermon. We could download and listen to any number of sermons before the drive home.
We also live in a time when it is easy and cheap to make websites for our local churches and ministries. We can print brochures for our “brand” of church, host conferences and seminars to promote a certain style or emphasis of theology, even create business (or buy from them) that provide strategies for reaching more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. In today’s market, if we have an Internet capable phone and a logo, what can stop us?
This spirit of building is at least American if it isn’t Christian. Entrepreneurial Evangelicalism, which is different from individual Evangelicals who are entrepreneurs, grows richer every day, claiming to produce a rising number of conversions and claiming to have transferable answers for how to see increased interest and attendance wherever we minister. This is amazing, and, I don’t use this phrase willy-nilly, a lot of it is going to burn.
The spirit of building is Christian. The question is not whether or not we should build. We will build, the question is how? In 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 Paul likened the church to a field and compared his work to that of a farmer. In this paragraph, verses 10-17 (one paragraph in the Greek New Testament, though understandably two paragraphs in most English translations due to the change from mostly third person to second person in verses 16 and 17), Paul refers to the church as a building and work on the building to that of a contractor or construction worker. Building is Christian, as a verb and as a noun; we build and we are a building, but a day is coming when not everyone’s work will pass inspection.
There are two main ideas in these verses. The first is building on the foundation of Christ in verses 10-15 and the second is destroying the temple of Christ in verses 16-17.
In these verses there is an assumption and an admonition.
The assumption is that, like any building, there is a foundation, and for “God’s building” (οἰκοδομή, verse 9) the foundation is Jesus Himself.
Paul begins, According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation. Was it God or was it Paul who laid the foundation? Yes. It was God’s grace giving Paul wisdom, and “wisdom” would be a more fitting translation than skilled due to the fact that he’s already referred to the wisdom of God numerous times in the first part of his letter. He was a wise architekton, a chief carpenter or mason, doing more than drawing plans but laying the groundwork on which the entire building would rest.
In verse 11 he clarifies, For no one can lay a foundation, at least not a solid one, other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. The church of God is built on the cornerstone, rejected by the builders of men but “chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:6-7). This is the assumption, not because it is unspoken but because it is the necessary condition. Paul brought the gospel of Christ and laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it.
The admonition is at the end of verse 10 with explanation in verses 12-15 that fills in the picture. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. As I said earlier, it’s not whether or not but how. Building will happen because nature abhors a vacant lot. So, preachers, “Beware.” Watch what you’re doing and what you’re using.
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
There are different materials that a builder could pull off the shelf. Paul lists six types, though they really could be distinguished into two according to their flame resistance. Gold, silver and precious stones don’t burn up, in fact they are refined and brightened by fire. The fire shows their quality. On the other hand, wood, hay, straw, like used for patching holes or for making a thatched-roof, these are consumed. Wood lasts a little longer, but still turns to ash. It is an interesting quality standard, since we don’t usually give rewards to contractors based on how much of their building survives fire.
The Day is the day of the Lord, the day of His coming (see 1 Corinthians 4:5), the day of judgment, a day that had not and still has not arrived. It is coming, though, and it will make each one’s work…manifest, it will be revealed. The Day will show our work, and it is God who makes the inspection.
The apostle depicts two ways of working, a wise way and an unwise way, with two possible outcomes after the fire. First, If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. This is the best case scenario. The work will be judged by fire, and some of the work survives. The word more simply means “remains” (so NASB). If there is something left over after the blaze, then the worker will receive a reward, the same word as in verse 8. Honestly, compensation for planting and watering sounded a lot less intense than this. There you just may not have as big a harvest, here you may not have anything at all.
The second possible outcome, If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. This builder is still building on the foundation of Christ. This builder is still saved by Christ. He himself will be saved, he has not lost his justification by faith. But it is possible that a Christian preacher/pastor could spend his whole life doing work that will burn, especially if that work was to build up himself and his wisdom. “Those attempting to build with human wisdom construct a flimsy house of straw” (Garland). We tend to hear preachers talk about how so much work in this world will burn, but it is preacher’s work that God will burn up. The preacher will go to heaven, but only as through fire. This is a proverbial way to say that he will “just get out in the knick of time.”
Because the fire hasn’t come yet we can’t know the quality of a man’s work with complete certainty until the Day. One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed mowing my yard is because the progress is evident with every swath; not so in pastoral work. We must be patient and careful not to consider our judgments absolute. We can’t see all motivations or perfectly evaluate every method. The Corinthians who had been judging should settle down.
At the same time, preachers certainly ought to examine their work as best as possible now, in light of these words and the certainty of the coming fire. We are in the path of flame. This is Paul’s point in saying let each one take care of how he builds so that more work will “survive.” There is work that survives and the worker rewarded, there are workers that survive but the work is burned.
The paragraph promotes the opposite of a laissez-faire approach; “Meh, do whatever work you want and don’t worry about the quality because you can’t know until later.” No, stop building with dried out stubble. Stop using human wisdom and man-centered techniques to build a crowd. Preach the word of the cross.
And isn’t there application from this admonition for those hearing the preaching, too? The letter addresses all the Corinthian listeners, not just their leaders. Ought not the building care about the work being done on it? Ought not your desires be different from the sorts of flammable materials that the world finds easier to work with?
Here is Paul’s third metaphor for the church in the chapter. The church is a field, a building, and now most specifically, it is the temple. It is also more urgent than the planting and watering in verses 5-9, and it is different activity than the building in verses 10-15. After addressing the teachers, now he addresses the temple.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? The way Paul asks the questions he expects that they should know the answer. He starts ten questions in 1 Corinthians like this. He didn’t need to qualify “the Day” in verse 13 because it must have been a major part of his teaching. So with this truth.
God’s temple is the place where God dwells. God is omnipresent, meaning that He is present everywhere at the same time. But there is something special about His dwelling place. There had been a few temples throughout Israel’s history, great buildings in Jerusalem where God called His people to come and worship in His presence. Solomon’s temple, in particular, was built using gold and silver and precious stones (see 1 Chronicles 29:1-7). Paul says that the people are the place of God’s presence; God’s Spirit dwells in you. In chapter 6:19, each individual believer’s body is God’s temple, but here there is no doubt that in 1 Corinthians 3:16 temple refers to the whole catholic church. Instead of the grand architecture and splendor of the brick and mortar temple in Jerusalem, this small, mostly Gentile, still fleshy yet founded on a crucified Christ group was part of something much more glorious.
This makes any attack on the people of God a serious matter. If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. This is not building badly on the foundation, this is battering the foundation, or at least the walls. The word destroys means to ruin, to corrupt, and with the building metaphor, to tear down or knock down. When it comes to home improvement projects I am much better at rough demolition than finish carpentry, but such destruction of God’s temple leads to the destruction of the worker. This worker isn’t saved.
Paul doesn’t describe the precise difference between building with less valuable materials and destroying the temple. The line of division between the two may not be that thick. By implication, jealousy and strife and division are an attack on the temple.
Cicero (De amicitia 7.23), for example, maintains that no house is so strong, no state so enduring, that it cannot be fundamentally overthrown by animosities and divisions. Paul allows the readers to imagine that their petty jealousies (3:3), boasting (1:29; 3:21; 4:7), arrogance (4:6, 18, 19), and quarrels (1:11; 3:3) might qualify for this bleak judgment. The survival of the church and their salvation is at risk. (Garland)
Christians may behave in ways that are much too human, but so may non-Christians. God is holy, His Spirit is holy, His people are to be holy. Paul affirms that the Corinthians are the temple, they should be acting according to that holy reality. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
Without knowing Christ’s conclusive judgment on our building, I can say that we take seriously the problem of faith that rests in the wisdom of men rather than in the power of God. We are concerned about how much wood, hay, and stubble is being used in the universal church, used by those who seem to be ashamed of the gospel.
You are here, at least this morning, and so you have not chosen the easiest path for church involvement. Our worship week by week expects each believer to offer themselves as a sacrifice of worship. We do not see you as an audience, you are not given too many opportunities to feel comfortable as if that’s all you were. We confess our sins for sake of forgiveness in Christ. We put ourselves under the knife of Christ’s Word to flay us open as living offerings. We commune with Him at His Table, knowing that He judges those who do it unworthily.
We are seeking to build with gold, silver, and precious stones. We are certainly not the only ones who are working in such a way as to have a lot of the work remain. But it is also true that there is junk building going on around us. Not all of it is up to fire code. It is certain that much of what we see marketed to and by the church in the name of Jesus will burn. Christian celebrities may not have much of their work remaining after the Day.
Beloved, you have work to do before feasting on Thursday, and you have work to do while feasting on Thursday. Your spouse and your kids and your guests will not remember your menu as much as they remember your attitude, one way or the other. What you serve in the wine glasses is one thing, how you serve it, with a generous hand and a thankful song in your heart, is the better thing. You are blessed, may that get stuck in your mind.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21)