This article is on 1 Corinthians 3:10-17.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1999. 3 pages.

1 Corinthians 3:10-17 - Jesus Christ: The One Foundation

According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.

1 Corinthians 3:10-17

In our studies in 1 Corinthians, we now come to chapter 3:10-17. Here the apostle compares the church in Corinth to a building. You are God's building, he says. Paul is not talking about an ordinary building, of course, but he is comparing the church to a sanctuary in which the Holy Spirit has taken up residence. All who believe in Christ, together make up the temple of the living God. The apostle also tells us that God makes use of sinful human beings to build that temple to his praise and the salvation of his people.

Who are these builders of the temple of God? In the first instance Paul is referring to himself and the other apostles who have been commissioned by Christ to do this important work. Paul is a master builder. The Greek word here is architekton from which we get our word architect. In Paul's day, how­ever, an architect was a builder as well as a designer.

The apostle combined these two functions in himself; he was both architect and general contractor. As an apostle, Paul's specialty was laying foundations. A wise master builder, he calls himself. This may sound like boasting but that was not his intent, for he gives all the credit to God. 'According to the grace of God which was given me', I have been able to do this, he says. Paul had worked among the Corinthians for about a year and a half and during that period he had faithfully preached the gospel, thus lay­ing the foundation of the church in their city.

The next phase of the building process was the construction of the super­structure on that foundation. Here is where the other apostles come in. I have laid the foundation, Paul says, and another builds on it, and then he adds, let every man take heed how he builds on it. Every man refers primarily to evangelists, pastors and teachers who are building on the foundation laid by the apostles. These men were responsible for teaching Christian doctrine during the formative period of the New Testament church, but others are included also: non-ordained workers in the church, whether they be Sunday school teachers, Catechism teachers or young people's leaders. All such are involved in the work of building Christ's church.

Everyone should be careful, however, how they will build the church. I do not think the apostle merely means that we should all be active in church work. There is plenty of activity going on in churches of which Paul would probably disapprove. Why? Because it is not in harmony with the foundation of the church as laid by the apostles. When a builder erects a superstructure on the foundation that supports it, it is very important that he builds it in such a way that the walls, roof and all the rest of the building follow the line and contours of the foundation. There must be harmony and consistency between the building and its foundation. That is what Paul means when he says, 'let every man take heed how he builds on the foundation I have laid'. What is that foundation? Jesus Christ. He is the church's one foundation. Paul says in verse 11 that no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, namely Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen.

Paul's concern is that those who would build on that solid foundation use the proper building materials, such as gold, silver and precious stones rather than wood, hay and stubble. In New Testament times important buildings such as temples and palaces were constructed with durable materials. Precious stones means solid materials such as granite and marble. Gold and silver were used to adorn such buildings, especially temples. Less expensive structures were made with cheaper materials such as wood, hay and stubble: wood for the doors and posts; hay or dried grass mixed with mud for the walls and straw for the roof.

What exactly Paul had in mind with this assortment of building materials is not so easy to say. Perhaps he was thinking of doctrines and their comparative value for the church. Gold, silver and precious stones would then symbolize the key doctrines of the Christian faith, such as salvation by grace through faith alone, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the necessity of holiness, etc. These are teachings which agree with and are consistent with the foundation on which they are built. The others, represented by wood, hay and stubble might refer to less important things which are not conducive to the edification of the church, such as fables and endless genealogies, human traditions, rites and ceremonies which those coming from a Jewish back­ground might want to impose on the church. We know that this was a real problem in the New Testament church and that Paul had to deal with it wherever he went. On the other hand, wood, hay and stubble could also refer to the so-called wisdom of the philosophers, the speculative ideas with which believers with a Gentile background had grown up and which they might want to mix with evangelical truth. In both cases, the materials used would be incompatible with the foundation and therefore the building erected on it would not last.

Paul's point is clear enough: let those who labour in the church of Christ see to it that they use the proper materials. That is, they must preach, teach and live the true and tried doctrines which will save sinners and build up believers. Paul is not comparing true and false preachers necessarily. Throughout, he is speaking of men who preach the orthodox faith. But such men do not necessarily preach that faith in a wise and balanced way. It is possible for a preacher to do good work at one time and not so good work at another time. There are ministers who for years build on the one foundation, Jesus Christ, with many excellent truths, raising a superstructure of gold, sil­ver and precious stones, only to cover the edifice later with things of little value, with the result that no one benefits.

While this is going on it is not always possible to assess the value of any­one's work. Paul says, Every man's work shall be made manifest of what sort it is. We may be impressed with the work of a certain minister or elder, while God has quite a different opinion of their labours. That is because he alone knows the heart. He alone knows what motivates us.

What is not known and really cannot be known for sure now will be made perfectly clear in the future. The day shall declare it, says Paul, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work, of whatever sort it is. What does Paul mean by the day? No doubt the reference is to the day of judgment on which the secrets of men's hearts will be revealed. On that day Christ will carefully examine our works. Whatever we erect on the founda­tion of Jesus Christ will be tested as to the quality of the materials used. If combustible materials like wood, hay and stubble went into the structure, the fire will consume them, leaving only the foundation intact. Where solid materials such as gold, silver and precious stones were used, the building will survive the fiery trial.

Depending on the quality of our work, the Lord will hand out rewards or he will withhold them. Paul says in verse 14, 'If any man's work which he has built upon the foundation remains, he shall receive a reward'. When a minister preaches sound, solid doctrine he is building constructively. When a Sunday school teacher teaches the Word faithfully, he is working with the right materials. When 'ordinary' Christians employ their God-given talents serving others, they are building for the Lord. All such builders will receive their reward.

Scripture speaks of rewards quite apart from salvation and it exhorts us to live in such a way that we shall be found worthy of them. This is the issue addressed in this and many other Scripture passages. God's rewards come in great variety and they are all imperishable. Paul describes these rewards in terms of incorruptible crowns. For those who are faithful until the Lord's return and who look forward to that day there will be a 'crown of righteous­ness' (2 Timothy 4:7-8). For faithful soul-winners there will be a 'crown of rejoicing' (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20). For faithful pastors there will be an 'unfading crown of glory' (1 Peter 5:4). For all who love the Lord there will be 'the crown of life' (James 1:12).

Paul himself certainly was concerned to get his crown. By crown he did not mean salvation, but a reward in addition to salvation. He was anxious not only to die and be with Christ, but also to hear from his Saviour's lips the words:

Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.Matthew 25:21

What about those whose work will be judged to be below standard? Their work will not survive the test and therefore no reward will be given them. The apostle says in verse 15: 'If any man's work shall be burned he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.' He will not lose his salvation, but he will lose his reward. They shall be saved, so as by fire, Paul says. Who does not think here of Lot who was pulled out of Sodom like a brand plucked out of the fire?

Of course, our first concern should be salvation. 'What must I do to be saved?' is a more basic question than, 'How shall I live to get my reward?' In this passage Paul also reckons with the possibility of losing not just the reward, but salvation itself. This is the meaning of verses 16-17. 'Know ye not', he asks there, 'that ye are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.' Here is a warning addressed to those who not only do not contribute anything to the Lord's cause but who hurt or damage his cause. They defile the temple of God, Paul says, either by false teachings or immoral conduct. Such people God will destroy; not just their works, but themselves!

It all comes down to this: Whatever we do in this life must be done from the proper motive, and that motive is the glory of God and the wellbeing of his church. May we be found to be the right kind of builders in the day of God's fiery trial.

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