If you would please turn with me in your copies of the Scriptures to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3; 1 Corinthians, chapter 3. We’re going to be thinking about the words of verses 9 through 17; page 953 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. 1 Corinthians 3, verses 9 to 17. Paul, remember, is thinking about the problem of divisions in the church at Corinth. In the first part of chapter 3, he uses two metaphors. The first, to diagnose the problem – it is a familial metaphor. They are infants who ought to have matured but have remained immature. They ought to have been on solid food but are only capable of receiving milk. So there’s the problem. Their divisions have stunted their spiritual growth. Then in verses 5 to 9, he changes the metaphor from a familial metaphor to an agricultural metaphor. The church is like a field. Paul and Apollos and other ministers are like farmhands working in the field, planting the seed of the Word, watering the seed of the Word, but God is the one who gives the growth. So if the Corinthians are to grow up, they ought not to look to men either to lionize or demonize their leaders but to look to God. God is the one in whom their growth is uniquely sourced.
And then in our passage, he continues his treatment plan of their spiritual immaturity and he uses a third metaphor. Not familial, not babies who need milk; not agricultural, a field in which the seed is sown, where God gives the growth. But now, architectural – a great construction site where God is building a great edifice it turns out, in verses 16 and 17, to be His temple. You will see verse 9 how Paul brings all of those metaphors together and there’s sort of a transition from the agricultural to the architectural. We are God’s fellow workers, you are God’s field, God’s building. That’s now the metaphor that he is going to be working on. And as he amplifies that metaphor, he will take us through three principles about the Christian life that if we will grasp them and begin to implement them, will change us and help us to mature. Before we read the Scriptures then and see how Paul does that, let’s bow our heads first as we pray together. Let’s pray.
O Lord, would You open our eyes to behold marvelous things out of Your Law, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 3 at verse 9. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 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. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
Let’s try to fix the image in our minds. Here’s a great construction site. First of all, the foundation must be excavated then carefully laid. And then each layer of the superstructure build upon that foundation with equal care. And there are, on that great construction site, different workers with different roles, swarming all over the place about their tasks – architects, project managers, structural engineers, electrical engineers, electricians and plumbers and stone masons and heavy machine operators and glaziers and roofers and many others besides. Each has a distinct, vital role and contribution. And that, Paul, is telling us, is a picture of the church and each of us is engaged in a great construction project. And as Paul explains and amplifies that metaphor, as I said a moment ago, he brings out three exhortations, three encouragements to us that will help us to grow in unity and in maturity to the glory of God. You will see the first of them if you will look with me at verses 10 and 11. Verses 10 and 11. Here’s the first principle of Christian growth. Very simple. Here it is. Be sure you build on the correct foundation. Be sure you build on the correct foundation.
Be Sure You Build on the Correct Foundation
The Washington Monument, you may know this, when it was first being built, almost ended in disaster. It was supposed to be, at the time at least, the tallest stone obelisk in the world – 600 feet tall; it was supposed to have a flat top with a statue of Washington riding a horse at its pinnacle. But the shaft, rested on a foundation of about eighty square feet, exerting 10,000 pounds per square inch of pressure on a bed of clay and sand. Now you know very well don’t you – I’ve been in your living rooms; I’ve seen the cracks – what a foundation of clay and sand will do! And so of course, the Washington Monument began to lean, actually almost two inches off vertical, and cracks began to appear. Then for twenty years, the project lay unfinished and neglected. Everyone thought the thing was doomed to failure I suppose until a colonel in the Corps of Engineers managed to resolve the problem and completed the work with a simple pyramid at the pinnacle so that we have the monument that you know today. But for twenty years there, the great monument to America’s founding father was an unfinished, cracked and listing, leaning tower that looked like it was about to fall over at any moment.
As we know very well, with all our homes built on Yazoo clay, a good foundation really matters if what you build on it is going to last. Isn’t that so? A good foundation really matters. And so look at verse 10. Here’s how Paul puts it. “According to the grace of God given to me like a skilled master builder” – pause right there. He’s not boasting. He’s not sort of shining his nails and saying, “I’m a particularly skilled builder.” The word is a technical term for a sort of project manager, architect, a principal leader on a building site. “Like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Paul’s role is to lay the spiritual foundation for the church. It is the only foundation that will work, he says. You can’t lay any other. Try it, and your Christian life will begin to lean, off-center. Cracks will start to appear. You do not build to last unless you build on the foundation that is Jesus Christ.
Christ Our Only Secure Foundation
And the metaphor is so helpful, isn’t it, because it is the most basic of things. This is step one. This is foundational. This is the beginning of the Christian life. Get this wrong, whatever else you build will inevitably come tumbling down. The only secure foundation for your life is Jesus Christ. What are you building your life on? Some of us, perhaps, are building our lives on moral foundations. We have a strong work ethic. We strive to treat others as we wish ourselves to be treated. We pride ourselves on the nobility of our motives. And so we feel quite assured that if there is a God at all, He must certainly join us in holding our own characters in the highest esteem. Others of us, perhaps, have built our lives on the attempt to win approval. First from mom and dad, then from our peer groups. The great animating principle that directs all our efforts is the affirmation and praise of others. And then there’s some who may be living in a make-believe world of their own invention. We’ve trained ourselves to bury ourselves in the sand to avoid facing up to reality or taking responsibility. Our response to problems is to run and hide; it is duck and cover. To drown out our stresses with entertainment or spending or self-medication, to hope that it all just goes away somehow.
But Paul is telling us here very clearly, isn’t he, that whatever we’re building on, if it is not the foundation of Jesus, cracks will start to appear eventually. Only Jesus can take the weight – unmoving, solid, secure – until we come to the place where we are able to say truly from the heart, “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand,” until we come there, we will find our lives listing and leaning. The cracks will start to appear. You’re not built to bear the weight of your life. Only Jesus can take that weight. Are you resting on Him today? The first foundation – be careful that you are building on the right foundation.
What Are You Building On?
Then there’s the second principle. Paul asks us first, “What are you building on?” then he asks us secondly, “What are you building with?” Notice how in verse 12 he lists different construction materials that we might select for use – gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw. They are listed in decreasing value and increasing flammability. When I said that at eight-thirty my brain sort of jammed up because I suddenly realized the word “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing and so I was sort of stuck on the horns of the dilemma about which to use and froze for a minute or two which gives you an insight into my bizarre head! So decreasing value, increasing flammability. And Paul’s exhortation is, “There’s a fire coming. Build so that what you build lasts. Make sure you build so that it lasts.”
Now, why is that so important? Surely as long as you’ve got Jesus you’re good. Right? As long as your life is resting on Christ as the sure foundation, it doesn’t really matter all that much how you build. Does it? Take a look at verse 13. “Each one’s work will become manifest,” Paul says. “For the day,” he means the return of Jesus, “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.” At the final judgment, our lives will fall under the scrutiny, the white-hot combustible scrutiny of the Lord Himself. All of our work for Jesus will be put to the test and the criterion is not how much we did. It’s not volume. It’s not busyness. It is quality. “Let each one take care how he builds,” Paul says, verse 10. “The fire will test what sort of work each one has done,” verse 13. Not how much, simply how. Not what volume, but what sort of work. That’s the test!
You may rule yourself out. “You’re not famous, important; you’re not a preacher. You’ve not written any books; you’re no evangelist. You’re not a missionary; you’ve not been around the world serving the Lord Jesus. No one will remember me,” you tell yourself. “What has my contribution been?” And so you think that you have been building with wood, hay, and straw, but when you sat nursing your aging parents, through tears till they crossed the finished line, in Jesus’ name, ministering to them so selflessly, you were building with gold, silver, and precious stones. When day after day after day, for years and years you faithfully prayed for that loved one who did not love the Lord, and no one saw and no one knew, the Lord saw and the Lord knew and then you were building with gold, silver, and precious stones. When you opened your mouth, risking reputation or worse in your workplace to speak for Jesus, then you were building with gold and silver and precious stones. When the opportunity comes, will you step forward in humility to serve or will you be willing only to work when there is the possibility of plaudits and praise? That’s the difference between gold, silver, precious stone work and wood, hay, and straw work. How have you been building? Why have you been building?
And look at verses 14 and 15 would you please? It’s one of those uncomfortable passages we often overlook. It really is very important for us to understand, however. Verse 14, “If the work that anyone built on the foundation survives, he will have a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved but only as through fire.” Now let’s be clear. The Scriptures teach and promise eternal rewards for work in this life that survives the coming test of our motives and our methods. That’s what Paul is teaching us here. I wonder if you have room in your thinking for this idea? This great doctrine of differing rewards according to works in the Christian life. Not salvation according to works, not salvation by works, but rewards according to works. Every Christian will get to heaven, but not every Christian will have the same reward in heaven.
Jonathan Edwards has a marvelous passage in one of his miscellaneous notebooks that I think might help us understand how that works a little bit. Listen to Edwards. “Christ, by His righteousness, purchased for everyone perfect happiness. That is, He merited that their capacity should be filled with happiness.” Okay, so he’s saying Jesus died to make Christians gloriously, fully happy in heaven; filled to capacity with joy and blessedness. So far so good. But then he develops a metaphor to get at this whole question of different degrees of reward in heaven. Listen to Edwards again. “The saints, Christians, are like so many vessels of different sizes cast into a sea of happiness. Where every vessel is full, this is eternal life, for a man forever to have his capacity filled. But after all, tis left to God’s sovereign pleasure. Tis His prerogative to determine the largeness of the vessel.”
You see what Edwards is saying. He’s saying we’re like different sized containers and our works in this life, in Jesus’ name, determine the size, the capacity of each container. Some of our works are better, humbler, purer, more filled with faith, more aimed at Christ’s glory, more animated by zeal for God’s praise and the salvation of sinners. But others of our works are poorer, more self-serving, more unbelieving, more lukewarm, more half-hearted and joyless. And all of these works are shaping the dimensions of the vessel. And when we get to glory in heaven, it’s as though Christ takes the vessel and plunges it into the sea of blessedness so that the vessel is completely full, filled to capacity. Our cups will overflow. We will lack for nothing. But we will not all have the same capacity. Some vessels will be shallower than others, smaller than others. Some built on the foundation, you see, with wood, hay, and stone, more than with gold, silver, and precious stones. Our reward will match how we have built on the foundation. We will all be filled to capacity, but we will not all have the same capacity for fullness.
Therefore, Paul is trying to help the Corinthians understand, therefore, let us labor for Christ’s glory, seeking to build with gold, silver, and precious stones, something that will last. He wants them to understand we are shaping the dimensions of that vessel here that will be filled to capacity with glory hereafter. “I want that vessel to be as deep and wide with a capacity as full as I can make it that I may have as much of Christ as it is possible for me to have in the world to come.” That’s what he wants the Corinthians all to say. So that instead of the stunted, mediocrity that characterized their lives, they might begin to grow and get past their divisions and kill their pride and go hard after Christ as they begin to serve Him and to serve one another.
Be Careful How You Build
And then Paul raises the possibility, it really is a sobering possibility isn’t it, in verse 15, that all or most of our works might be burnt up on the Great Day. You see that in verse 15? We ourselves will be saved, Paul says, but only as one escaping through the flames. The image is of a house fire. You’re asleep in the home that you’ve built with your own hands but you had cut corners, truth be told, in the construction process. You didn’t build it according to code, you didn’t use the best materials. The electrical wiring is dangerous. The gas is unsafe. And so as the flames engulf your handiwork, you jump from the window with the smoke still rising from your clothes and soot on your face. Everything is lost but you. That’s the picture; that’s the warning. A child of God can’t be lost, the final conflagration will not consume him, but the same can’t be said for his work. Be careful how you build. Be careful how you build. Build so as to make your vessel deep and wide, filled with much of the glory of Christ in the world to come. Build with gold, silver, and precious stones. Build for eternity. Build in humility. Build selflessly. Build joyfully. Build in faith, resting on the foundation that is Jesus Christ. Build for His honor and His praise. Build for the salvation of the lost. Be careful how you build that you build for eternity.
You might know a little of the story of the great pioneer missionary, C.T. Studd. He was one of the seven young students in Cambridge University who offered themselves to Hudson Taylor to go to the interior of China in the early days of the China Inland Mission. Studd is probably most famous for his saying – this is his sort of life mission statement, as it were. This is why he went to China. He said, “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” That’s how he understands the mission of the church – a rescue shop within a yard of hell. And Studd came up with a little two-line poem, at least it’s attributed to him, though someone was quibbling with me after the eight-thirty service. So let me say it’s attributed to him, save your breath! But here it is. I think it actually captures Paul’s point really well. He says, “Only one life twill soon be past.” Do you know the rest of it? “Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Isn’t that Paul’s point? “Only one life twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Is what you’re building going to last? How much of your labors are you spending for yourself, for your pleasures, for your own distractions? Are you giving your life for the glory of King Jesus?
Beware of Destroying the Building
So, he says to be sure you build on the correct foundation first. Then he says be careful how you build on that foundation secondly. Then finally, he says, beware of destroying the building. He’s anxious about the foundation. He’s anxious about the construction but he’s also anxious about the possibility of destruction. Verses 16 and 17, “Do you not know that you” – the “yous” there are plural by the way. He’s talking about the church collectively. “Do you not know that you (plural) are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you (together)? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.” So now the building, apparently, we see at last is the temple of God, holy to the Lord. That’s the church. He dwells there. He delights, therefore, in His dwelling place, that is His people. And Paul is still thinking about this problem of division. And he is saying in effect, “If you Corinthians insist on these worldly, divisive patterns of behavior, in the end, they will demonstrate that you are not building on the foundation at all. You’re not really a child of God.” Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this shall the world know that you are my disciples: by your love for one another.” Love for one another is an evidence that you are a follower of Christ, that you are building on the foundation.
A Sobering Warning
And then on the same token, the opposite is true. If you are giving yourself in the pursuit of division and party spirit until you destroy the church of Jesus Christ, you show that you are not building on the foundation at all. You are not a follower of Jesus Christ. Your divisiveness, your partisan attitude, your commitment to one-upmanship, all driven by pride, reveal a heart that does not know His saving touch. And if you are the one who destroys the church, you will face the destruction of the Lord. It’s a sobering warning and it is challenging for us in our day as we think so little of the church – we come at the church with a consumer attitude – to see how Paul thinks of the church, how God thinks of the church.
So, Paul says to be sure you have the right foundation, that you’ve laid the correct foundation. There is only one that can bear the weight of your life for time and eternity – the foundation that is Jesus Christ. Are you resting on Him? Are you resting on Him? Then he says be careful how you build on that foundation. There’s only one life twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last. And then he says let’s be careful not to destroy the unity of the church. Those who do show they’re not building on the right foundation at all. And those who destroy God’s temple, God Himself will destroy. May the Lord give us grace, as we search our hearts in light of His Word, to be sure we are resting on the one, true foundation, building in such a way that our labors will last to the glory of God and that we avoid any possibility of destroying God’s temple. Let’s pray together!
Our Father, we give You praise for Your Word, for its truth. We pray for forgiveness for sometimes being too willing to build with poor products – wood, hay, and straw; easily consumed in the final judgment. Help us instead to be sure we are resting on the true foundation that is Christ and to build for eternity, to build for Your glory. Help us to build with gold and silver and precious stones that our labors might magnify and make much of Jesus. For we ask this in His name, amen.
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