(This is the sixth post in a series addressing the importance of the church in the life of the believer. Some time has transpired since the first post, but there have not been many intervening posts: so previous installments should not be too hard for you to find.)
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. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15
While I have never preached on them myself, these verses strike me as one those “preacher’s texts.” It is a text that is somewhat well-known, has powerful imagery, persuasive in nature, something that a preacher could go to when he wanted to press for a decision. It is a text that I imagine would be popular with evangelists and those preaching revival-type services. Unfortunately, as I have heard it preached, taught, and discussed, the text seldom given the true weight of its context.
It is easy to just rip these verses out of 1 Corinthians 3 and apply them to the rather general theme of “building one’s life.” They are applied in a moralistic manner of living the Christian life in obedience to the Bible. There is some support for the idea of your life being a building in Jesus’ conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount. But this idea is completely missing from 1 Corinthians 3. Paul is not talking about your life as a building, living morally, or getting rewarded for the general way in which you lead your life. Paul’s application is much more specific. In fact, Paul is speaking against building up your own personal life.
Paul introduces the building thought in verse 9 with the statement that Peter, Paul, Apollos, and any other apostle are only workers for God trying to do their part in the edification of God’s building: the church. The church is God’s building, more than that it is God’s temple (3:9, 16). The Corinthians had fallen prey to the party spirit of exalting men and identifying themselves by their earthly teachers. “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas.” Paul identifies this as foolishness because God is only building one building: his church. Peter, Paul, and Apollos were not cult leaders trying to form their own club. All worked together for the building up of the church.
After calling the church God’s building in verse 9, Paul continues: “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…” In verse 9 the church is called God’s building. In verse 16 the church is called God’s temple. Verses 10-15 address the subject of rewards for the way one builds. So in the context of 1 Corinthians 3, what is the building being specifically addressed in verses 12-15? Clearly it is the church.
Preachers dazzle their crowds with a false hope of receiving gold, silver, precious stones if they will only live a good Christian life, but that is not at all what Paul is teaching. The basis for rewards in heaven, at least according to this passage, is what one did to build up the church of God. What is the work that is examined on that Great Day (3:13)? It is the work of building (3:14). The work of building what? The work of building God’s building (3:9), God’s temple (3:16): the church of Jesus Christ. The value of your life is determined by what you have spent to build up the church.
Jesus died for the church. The apostles labored for the church. God rewards labors for the church. In short, the question this text asks is not, “How are you living?” but “What are you doing for the church?” As Gordon Fee comments, “This text has singular relevance to the contemporary church. It is neither a challenge to the individual believer to build his or her life well on the foundation of Christ, nor is it grist for theological debate. Rather, it is one of the most significant passages in the NT that warn—and encourage—those responsible for ‘building’ the church of Christ.”
If you are not building the church of Christ you are not living well.