Paul continues to talk about his own ministry, the example he set when he served as pastor in Corinth for a-year-and-a-half. He and Apollos are God’s fellow workmen and the congregation is God’s garden (v. 9). Today, we see the importance of quality in the preaching and teaching ministry of the local church, which equips individuals and sets the example for the work of the whole congregation.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15
According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
The foundation (v. 10-11)
According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it.
Paul planted the church in Corinth according to the grace of God given to him. Recall, Paul has determined to know nothing but Christ and Christ crucified (2:2). He planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (v. 6). The only way any Christian can accomplish any gospel work is by God’s sovereign grace. I have noticed that people don’t often care enough about gospel work to give of themselves for it. I pastor a local church and participate in the gospel mission around the world today. People are glad to receive from my work but not many care enough to contribute. People love to benefit from the work but not invest in the work. Only by God’s grace and conviction do we see growth of any kind or participate the way we each get to participate in His work—the work accomplished through Christ’s crucifixion. Anyone who labors in God’s field does so only by the grace of God which is given to him.
Paul laid a foundation. Paul describes himself as a wise master-builder who laid a foundation. He did so by determining to know nothing but Christ and Christ crucified. Thus, the gospel was the foundation he laid for the local church at Corinth. He was not building with any earthly material, which he mentions later in the pericope. Paul built with spiritual material—the teaching about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Consider Paul’s self-described role, here. It is true that Christ is the one responsible for building His own church (cf. Matthew 16:18). It is also true that God’s fellow workers are called to be master-builders participating with their foreman (Christ) in the foreman’s work. Though the building up of Christ’s church is a monergistic work, our participation in Christ’s work is active, not passive. Christ is building. We are building with Him. Therefore, we are also building as stewards of Christ. The work depends only on Christ. Thus, our participation is by His grace alone.
Another is building on that foundation. Apollos followed Paul by “watering” what Paul had planted. Paul planted the church in Corinth. Apollos discipled the congregation. Now, someone else is pastoring the congregation. With each new pastor or elder, someone builds on what was previously built. In this case, Paul laid a proper gospel foundation. Each new pastor builds upon that foundation. In my current context, Ted Goodnough laid a gospel foundation. I am building upon the foundation he laid. If Christ does not return, the next pastor will continue building. Regarding this truth, Paul issues a warning. The faithful work of laying the proper foundation, the work of church planters and founding pastors, is more important than we often recognize.
But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Each man, here referring explicitly to those given the primary teaching and training responsibility of the local church, must be careful how he builds. We cannot replace a gospel foundation with any other kind of foundation made from any other materials. A new preacher is not starting a new work. He is one with his predecessor. Jesus Christ, according to Paul in this letter, is the only secure foundation of the local church.
Here, I want to issue a warning against generalizing any illustration in the text. Sometimes, the apostles are referred to as the foundation of the church (cf. Matthew 16:18; Revelation 21:14). We should be careful to recognize illustrations as illustrations in their context and ask what the author intends by using those illustrations. Paul means something different when he refers to Jesus as the only foundation than to Matthew and John when they refer for the apostles as the foundations. These are illustrations, not literal realities—the kingdom of heaven needs no literal cement foundation and we should not think that anyone will walk on Christ like they do the foundations of their homes. Jesus Christ is the one upon whom the kingdom of heaven stands. The apostles are the first to write the explicit gospel. “Foundation” is an illustration that describes both realities respectively.
The frame (v. 12-15)
Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.
If any man, here explicitly referring to those given the preaching and teaching responsibilities of the local church, builds upon the foundation with any material other than the gospel, his work will become evident. No one should build upon the foundation of Christ and Christ crucified with any earthly materials or any spiritual materials other than the gospel. The house of the Lord, His true temple, is built with the gospel from the foundation upward. Such a truth does not mean it is wrong to consider inexplicit doctrine. It does mean that it is wrong to build the church on anything other than the explicit gospel—the teaching about Christ and Christ crucified, Christ’s person and work.
If anyone uses material other than the gospel to build upon the proper foundation, the day will reveal it by fire. What day? Paul, here, is referring to the day of the Lord—which is a term used with reference to God’s judgment and the coming of the Messiah. The phrase is used to refer to general judgment against nations (cf. Isaiah 1:12; 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 30:3; Amos 5:18; Zephaniah 1:14; Revelation 6:17), the incarnation of Christ (cf. Joel 1:14; 2:31; Obadiah 1:15; Malachi 4:5, Zechariah 14:1; Acts 2:20), and the second coming of Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:2; Philippians 1:6; 2 Peter 3:10). In Chapter 1, verse 8, Paul has already referred to the day of Jesus Christ as a future event. Here, he is again referring to the bodily return of Jesus Christ to the earth. On that day, there will be fire. Part of Paul’s eschatology is revealed, here. The fire Paul writes about is a testing fire, not a destroying one. It meant to reveal the quality of each man’s work, with particular regard to those who preach and teach.
If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Judgement Day, the apocalypse, or the final judgement, as we often hear the second coming of Jesus called, will be a day on which the ungodly people and things that remain on the earth will be burned away. All that will be left is that which withstands the testing fire of God. The fire on Judgment Day will not be a fire that destroys the whole earth. It will be a purifying fire. God’s objective will not be to remove the righteous from the earth but to remove the unrighteous so that the righteous, at that time, fully inherit the earth. Such has always been and will forever be God’s divine judgement. We should never think that He would break His promise to Noah and all creation, an everlasting covenant for every generation following never to destroy the earth but renew it (Genesis 9:11-17).
If anyone’s work remains, he will receive a reward in heaven based on the quality of his work—a wage if you will. For those pastors who are technically in Christ but do not work hard at preaching and teaching so to build up the congregation, their work will be burned up and they will be saved through fire—not having earned a wage for their labor. Salvation and sanctification are by grace alone; wages are paid according to each one’s quality kingdom work.
Even though preachers and teachers are particularly in view, the principle applies to every Christian. We will present quality work to God and thus receive a heavenly wage or not and thus be saved barely through purifying fire. Whatever your trade, then, do it for the Lord and not for money. Work hard and present quality goods and service to others as a slave rather than for sordid gain. Seek to glorify Christ by your quality work. My trade is preaching. Most people are not preachers by trade. If you ranch, raise the best quality animals and sell them at a fair price. If you cook, be the best chef you can be and do not extort your customers. If you are retired from your earthly career, you are free to work more explicitly for the Lord practicing your spiritual gifts. Always build up for yourselves treasure in heaven rather than on the earth. Whatever you do, do it well. Whatever you do, do it humbly. Whatever you do, may it exalt Christ alone. He is more concerned about quality than quantity. He is worthy of our quality work in every endeavor.
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