The nature of our works

During the Middle Ages many Gothic churches were built. Gothic churches were elaborate and beautiful buildings. They required great time and energy to build. Yet what is most fascinating about these churches is the manner in which they were constructed. A mine was established, often as much as 50 miles from the place where the church was to be erected. When the rocks were mined volunteers from all over the countryside would form a living chain from the mine to the building site. The rocks would then be passed from hand to hand all the way to the construction site. If anyone in the rock chain dropped the stone or failed to do his or her part the church could not be built up.

Today, the church is still dependent upon believers faithfully working together to build the church. If we fail to properly build Christ’s church she will never be all that God desires her to be. More importantly, the Bible declares that our future reward comes from building Christ’s church, here and now. In other words, what we do with our lives here on earth will have serious ramifications on our heavenly experience. Consequently, the time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

In 1 Cor 3:9-15, Paul describes the church as a building. He stresses the quality we should strive for in constructing each stage—from laying the foundation, through the actual construction, to the final inspection. And in this image he gives some of Christianity’s nuts and bolts, in the form of two construction tips.

  1. Make sure to build on the right foundation(3:9-11). In 3:9 Paul writes, “For we [Paul and Apollos] are God’s fellow workers; you [Corinthians] are God’s field, God’s building.” Verse 9 is what is called a “hinge verse.” It closes out 3:5-8 and opens up 3:10-15. In 3:9b, Paul transitions with the statement: “You are God’s field, God’s building.” In the previous section (3:5-9a), Paul used Apollos as an illustration. Yet, in 3:9b he deliberately changes metaphors from watering to building, because the section that follows (3:10-15) is not addressed with Apollos in mind. Rather, it is addressed with the Corinthian church in mind. In this simple phrase Paul informs us that the church is “God’s building.” What a great reminder that God’s desire is to work in and through the local church. This is a message that we need to be reminded of today. Many Christians have given up on the church. Consequently, they are critical and cynical of the church’s potential. This grieves the heart of God. As Christians who are called to build the church, we ought to be the biggest fans of the church. Today, if you have been guilty of having a cynical or critical attitude toward the church, confess your sin to the Lord. Remember, the church is God’s building, so when you say something critical about Jesus’ building you need to make things right with Him. You can do that today by praying, “Lord Jesus, forgive me for having a bad attitude about your house. Help me to see the church the way You do. Help me to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. I have confidence in You that You will build Your house.” This is a critical step. You and I cannot build the church until we share Jesus’ perspective and attitude.

In 3:10-11, we will learn how to build on the right foundation. Paul explains, “According to the grace of God which was given to me [Paul], like a wise master builder I [Paul] laid a foundation, and another [you, Corinthians] is building on it. But each man [you, Corinthians] 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.” In 3:10a, Paul is careful to state that his ministry is “according to the grace of God.” He can’t take credit for who he is or what he has accomplished because it is all God’s grace. Likewise, you and I have been called to serve God in His building, the church. Whatever we are able to accomplish is an expression of His grace. Paul states that he served “like a wise master builder.” The term “master builder” (architekton) is used only here in the New Testament. Paul intends a wider meaning than today’s “architect” who is only a designer of blueprints. After all, he has personally done the construction work of laying the foundation. An architekton is a skilled church planter who wisely constructs a strong foundation.

The foundation that the architekton builds upon is Jesus Christ (3:11). When Paul came to Corinth he determined to preach only Christ and Him crucified (2:1-2). He laid the only foundation that would last. The foundation is the most important part of the building, because it determines the size, shape, and strength of the superstructure. A ministry may seem to be successful for a time, but if it is not founded on Christ it will eventually collapse and disappear. The question for every church must be, “Is our church and its ministries built upon Christ?” By that I mean, “Do we do what we do because we love Jesus Christ and are committed to His glory?” To the degree that Jesus Christ is the foundation and bedrock our church will be successful, at least in God’s eyes.

It is worth noting that Paul urges us to be careful how we build on the foundation. The word “how” (pos) emphasizes the method or manner of building more than what is done. The point seems to be: It is not how much we do for Christ, but what we do and how we do it. It is quality over quantity. This is why I have said, “Choose one ministry and do it well.” If you and I try to do everything we will fail miserably. God calls us to find our niche and use our spiritual gift to build up the body. Have you found your area to serve? Are you serving with a desire to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ? If so, God will reward you for your faithfulness to Him. The time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

 

[Paul has urged us to make sure that we are building on the right foundation. This occurs when we build upon Jesus Christ. Once we have started the work of building on the right foundation, we must raise the question, “What is the next step?” Paul will tell us in 3:12-15.]

  1. Make sure to build with the right materials(3:12-15). God is concerned that we build with quality. The church does not belong to the preacher or to the congregation. It is God’s church (cf. 3:9). If we are going to build the local church the way God wants it built we must meet certain conditions. Looking back to 3:10b, Paul wants the Corinthians to be careful how they build on the foundation. To build properly requires using the right materials. Hence, in 3:12-13 Paul writes, “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[the works] is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.” At first glance it looks like there are six different kinds of materials here. But in fact, there are only two kinds: costly or cheap, imperishable or perishable, permanent or temporary. In light of Paul’s discussion and concerns in 1 Corinthians, “gold, silver, precious stones” are quality materials, fit for construction on the foundation of Christ crucified. These materials are worthy of that foundation and fit to endure fire. Conversely, “wood, hay, straw” are inferior materials, unfit for construction on the foundation Paul laid because they are not “fireproof.” Rather, these materials are the perishable stuff of human wisdom that finds the gospel foolish. The focus is on the quality of the building. Paul urges his readers to use only the best materials—long-lasting ones, not temporal and flammable ones.

What are some examples of these two kinds of materials? I would suggest to you that a heart of service is like gold, silver, and precious stones, while spiritual laziness and the attitude, “let others do it, I’ve done my time,” is like wood, hay, and straw in God’s sight. Generosity with the Lord and with His people is gold, silver, and precious stones, while self-centeredness and stinginess are wood, hay, and straw. Coming to church with a heart of worship is the former; coming to impress others is the latter. Doing ministry only after it has been bathed in prayer is the former; doing it in one’s own strength is the latter.

A wealthy woman died one day and went to heaven. An angel then took her to her heavenly abode, which was a plain old ordinary building. Right next door to her was her gardener who had a palatial mansion. She said, “How did my gardener get a mansion and I get a plain old ordinary building?” The angel then said, “Well, we only build with the materials you send us.” If you’re sending to heaven junk, junk is then what God uses. He uses only what you send Him! Thus, the time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

Paul wants to emphasize the truth that the builders of the Corinthian church will one day have their work (even their secret or unknown activities) judged by Christ. As a result, each person will be rewarded according to his or her efforts in building up the church. This day of testing will take place at the judgment seat of Christ. The purpose of the testing is to give an examination of the worker as to the nature of his “work,” not a condemnation of the worker as to his person. In a context dealing with work and its reward, it is reasonable to understand that loss is a loss with respect to reward. The worker loses in reference to the measure of potential reward he might have received for the burned “work,” had Christ appraised it as work that “remains.”

Paul tells us that there is a fire coming and only quality building materials will survive the fire. In the Bible, the word “fire” means either hell or judgment. When it is referring to unbelievers it means hell; when it is referring to Christians it means judgment in time or in eternity. In this context fire purifies gold, silver, and precious stones, but it extinguishes wood, hay, straw. The reason that our works have to be subjected to the flames is because the natural light cannot easily tell the difference between these building materials. Not even Paul was confident that he could always separate junk from gems. From our perspective, a believer might have nothing but an impressive pile of combustible material; but when torched, nuggets of gold might be found embedded in the straw. Conversely, what we thought was a gold brick of some notable saint might just be the end of a wooden beam. Only the fire can separate the real from the fake.

If you have built or sold a home, you know how important inspection day is. Yet no matter how confident you are that your home will pass inspection, there is still apprehension that the inspector will find your craftsmanship lacking. If you have been cutting any corners the inspection day will bring it to light. This should cause each of us to humble our heart and prostrate our soul before Christ. The time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

Imagine that your father, a multibillionaire, purchases two one-acre tracts of land for you and your sibling. He pours a foundation on each piece of land and then gives each of you one million dollars, with these instructions: “I am going to give you one year to build the most beautiful home you can construct. At the end of the year, the one who builds the most elaborate house will receive twice as much of my estate as the other.” You and your sibling are thrilled with the possibility. You begin work immediately. You hire architects to draw up the plans, you ask contractors for estimates, and you establish a rigid schedule to make sure you complete your work on time. When the deadline arrives, you have a home that rivals the Taj Mahal. However, your sibling is not as industrious. Family responsibilities, work, and hobbies keep him from the task at hand. Not only that, but he has some immediate needs for that one million dollars: college tuition, a new car, and a swimming pool. The night before the deadline, he decides to get busy and construct the best home he can with little money and only a few hours of time. A grass hut is all he can manage to build. The next morning your father surveys the two homes. He praises you for your efforts and rewards you with the promise of a large portion of his vast estate. As he walks around your sibling’s grass hut, however, he expresses his disappointment. As a result of procrastination and squandering of resources, your sibling forfeited billions of dollars of future wealth. He is still in the family but he does not receive the same reward.

Many Christians have ignored the command to build carefully. As a result, they will lose out on the rewards that God had in store for them. Now you may think, “Well, that’s okay by me, just as long as I make it into heaven.” I can assure you that when you stand before Jesus Christ, you will wish more than anything in this world that you had obeyed His command. The time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

[Why is God so concerned that we build on the right foundation with the right materials? The reason Paul exhorts us so seriously about the materials we use in building God’s church is that there is going to be an inspection.]

In 3:14 Paul writes, “If any man’s work which he has built on it [the foundation] remains [survives], he will receive a reward.” The word “if” (ei) in both 3:14 and 3:15 is used in a first-class conditional clause where the condition is assumed to be true. This does not demand that both statements are true, but for the sake of argument Paul presents each statement as true. Thus, Paul states that each individual bears responsibility for his or her contribution to building upon the foundation, and will receive a reward or loss on the basis of the quality of workmanship. The phrase “he will receive a reward” means to receive wages for work done. Since God is a just and gracious God, He will ensure that each Corinthian receives his or her due. God is no man’s debtor. While the specific nature of the reward is not laid out in this passage, three areas seem to be related to rewards: (1) privileges (Luke 12:37; 2 Pet 1:11; Rev 2:7), (2) praise (Matt 25:21), and (3) positions (Luke 16:10-12; 19:17-19). These rewards all allow us to experience God more intimately and reflect His glory more effectively (Dan 12:2-3; 1 Cor 15:40-41; Rev 4:10-11).

So what is God looking for? The Bible is clear that God will reward us for our deeds (Matt 16:27;Rom 2:6; 2 Cor 5:10; Eph 6:8; Rev 2:23), our words (Matt 12:36-37; Jas 3:1-12), and our motives (1 Cor 4:4-5; 10:31; Col 3:23-24). As our perfect Judge, He will take all of these areas into consideration and render a just verdict. Therefore, the time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

 

Personally, I don’t think I will ever be asked by God, “How many people did you teach each Sunday?” But I do expect to be asked questions like, “How faithful were you to my Word? Did you teach in the power of the Spirit rather than in your own power and intellect? Did you live at home what you taught at church? And I think you will be asked similar questions. Did you honor my name in your business? Did you teach your children the truths of God’s Word? Did you love your spouse as Christ loved the church?” None of these things involve official positions in the church, but they are, nevertheless, critical issues to building the church—the family of God. Church building has as much to do with thought life, prayer life, motives, parenting, hospitality, and love for people as it does with teaching Sunday school or preaching or ushering.

Paul closes our passage by disclosing another type of builder. In 3:15 Paul writes, “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” It appears Paul conceives of the possibility that a member of the Corinthian church could have his or her work “burned up.” The result is that such a person will “suffer loss.” This means that the Christian worker will lose his or her reward, like a workman fined of his wages for poor workmanship. This Christian will lose the measure of reward he or she might have had. This loss may be diminished praise and increased shame before Christ’s judgment seat, when the Corinthians realize how much of their lives were spent in activity of no eternal value.

Contextually, it appears that the individual in 3:15a was potentially guilty of partiality and disunity (1:12; 3:1-4), human wisdom (1:17-25), and human evaluation of calling (1:26-31). Warning is given to those who are wise in their own eyes (3:18-20) and those who boast in human leaders (3:21-22). This does not mean that he was “fleshly” in every area of his life. It is possible that he excelled in areas of individual holiness, yet failed miserably in his ministry of corporate building. Hence, this careless builder will “suffer loss” for his or her failure to build well on the foundation of the church. Paul’s concern here seems to be a wasted life of corporate service.

The loss of rewards seems to be an even greater motivation than the gain of rewards. Think back to the time when you were a child. If your dad offered to take you out to pizza if you cleaned your room, you may have been motivated to do so. However, if your dad gave you five dollars for cleaning your room and then took a dollar away every time he found it messy, this would be agonizing. The loss of reward would hurt the most. This serves as a motivation.

Christian service that has no lasting value is like junk food—it may look and taste good and fill your stomach, but when it’s melted down there is nothing left but grease, sugar, calories, salt, and fat. So the next time you go to the donut shop or the drive-through at the local hamburger stand, think of the judgment seat of Christ. When all that grease and sugar and fat are melted away there isn’t much of nutritional value left. You and I don’t want to present a life full of spiritual junk food to Christ, because it is going into the flames. We want to present Him with a life of sincere quality service that will survive the test and receive a reward.

Paul concludes this section with the statement, “but he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15b). The Corinthian believer who builds poorly will suffer the loss of his or her work and potential reward, but will be eternally saved. The phrase “as through fire” is an idiom meaning “to escape with difficulty, to have a narrow escape.” The idiom is occasioned by the reference to the fire that tests the work of the Corinthians. It is likely that the phrase had become a metaphor, like “a firebrand plucked from the burning” (Amos 4:11), comparable to “saved by the skin of one’s teeth.” This further demonstrates the solemn nature of the judgment seat of Christ.

Perhaps this analogy will help you understand how heaven will be a place of joy and regret for some Christians. Imagine last year that your insurance agent said, “I’ve been reviewing your homeowner’s policy, and I believe you are underinsured by $50,000. I would recommend that you increase your coverage.” But suppose you had said, “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you in a few weeks.” That very night you are awakened by the smell of smoke. Hearing the screams of your children, you stumble through the thick fog until you reach their bedrooms. Grabbing your children, you grope through the darkness, searching for a way out. But all of the exits are blocked, so you throw a chair through the window and climb through the broken glass. Once safely outside you watch in horror as your home is consumed by the flames. What emotions do you feel at that moment? Certainly you are relieved that your family made it safely through the fire. No one could place a price tag on their lives. Nevertheless, you also feel a deep sense of regret as you consider the financial loss that you are about to experience because you made a wrong choice about your insurance. Your joy of survival is tempered by your feelings of regret.

If what I have suggested of the Corinthians is correct, the particular loss that they will suffer stems from their failure to properly build on the foundation of the church at Corinth. It does not appear that the loss concerns every area of his or her life. Jesus Himself said, “And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you the truth, he will never lose his reward” (Matt 10:42, NET, my emphasis). Like a loving father, Jesus appears to be gracious and generous with rewards for His children. Therefore, it seems improbable that a member of the Corinthian church who was building on the foundation (teacher or otherwise), would be without one single work in every area of his or her life. It seems that Paul is expressing his deep love for the church and suggesting that one who builds poorly on the church will jeopardize one’s reward.

My desire is for you realize that the time to prepare for tomorrow is today. The great reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546), is quoted as saying, “There are two days on my calendar: ‘Today’ and ‘That Day.’” If we live like that, we can prepare for our eternal home.

Do you remember Holiday Inn’s ad a few years back? “The best surprise is no surprise at all.” Their promise was that if you visit some new place, they’ll make it seem like a place you’ve been before. This should be our heavenly experience. We should not wind up in heaven surprised that we have no works to offer Jesus. We should know, from our experience here on earth that we served our Savior and loved His church. The time to prepare for tomorrow is today.

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