There were divisions in the Corinthian church because people were claiming loyalty to certain teachers against others instead of being united in Christ. Paul rebukes their immaturity in Chapter 3 and emphasizes that he and the other teachers God has used are only instruments in God’s hands. They are God’s “fellow workers,” Paul says in v. 9. He compares the church in which they work to God’s field or God’s building. Now Paul continues with the building analogy as he addresses how God deals with those who seek to build His Church…
Few things are as detailed in Scripture as the instructions and descriptions of the building of the tabernacle and the Temple in the OT. We are told the precise dimensions of the structures – exactly how long, wide, high; what each component was made out of – whether it was wood, bronze, stone, gold; what kind of fabric was used on the curtains and what color it was. We are told the exact placement of each piece of furniture and what figures are carved into the walls and furniture. Only the most skilled craftsmen worked on the Tabernacle and Temple, because these were no ordinary buildings, they were the dwelling place of God with His people. The greatest of care was taken in building them.
In our passage today, Paul speaks of those who build up God’s Church through their ministry. He says that they too must take the greatest of care in their ministry, because they are also building the Temple of God, now called the Church. First, he says…
1. We must build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ (10-11)
Paul says in 1 Cor. 3:10 that according to the grace of God given to Him as an apostle, sent to proclaim the good news of salvation through Jesus, he laid a foundation like a “skilled master builder.” The word for master builder is Architecton, from which we get “Architect.” Paul began building the Church in Corinth like a skilled architect. He knew the church needed a strong foundation. He laid that foundation. He notes “and someone else is building on it,” probably referring to Apollos and perhaps other teachers that had come after him.
Many Summers ago I went on a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico, a border town across from El Paso. We did various kinds of ministry there, but our main work project was to build a wall around an area which was to be a school. We were only there for two weeks, which wasn’t long enough for us to finish the whole wall. Mostly, we got the foundation laid, which was hard work, but without it the wall would never stand. We had to dig down to solid ground and make it level. Then cement was brought in and we carefully poured and shaped it into a strong foundation which would support the wall. Others would come behind us and build upon it. But they would have to use the foundation which we had laid.
Paul uses the image of laying a foundation for a building for the initial work he did to plant the church in Corinth. But he says at the end of 1 Cor. 3:10 that each one should take care how he builds on the foundation. He goes on in 1 Cor. 3:11 to warn that no one can lay a foundation for the Church other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. The Church must be built upon the person and saving work of Jesus Christ. Paul has already said in 1 Cor. 2:2 that he had determined to know nothing else among them except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. If a group does not believe in the Biblical revelation of who Jesus is and what He has done to save sinners, then it is not a church. It may believe many things that are true. It may do many good things. It may help people in many ways and have a good reputation in the community. But if it is wrong about Jesus and His work, it is not a Christian Church.
As we encounter other ministries and teachings, we must ask whether they are built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. What is their view of Him? Do they acknowledge Him as the eternal Son of God, fully God, who was born of the virgin Mary and became man? Do they acknowledge that He was without sin and lived a perfect, righteous life, and offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross for our sins? Do they acknowledge that He rose again from the dead, and ascended to heaven, where He is seated at the right hand of God? These things are summarized well in the early creeds of the Church, like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
As we seek to minister to others, Jesus’ person and work is the foundation, and the only foundation for ministering God’s word and love. We must point people to Jesus, to come to know Him personally through faith and rest upon what He has done to save them. What we say and do must be consistent with the reality that what we all need most is Jesus and only what is built on a relationship with Him through faith will stand. We must build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ…
2. We must build what will endure God’s judgment (12-15)
Paul has said that each Christian minister should be careful how he builds on the foundation. Now he goes on to explain why. He mentions various building materials in 1 Cor. 3:12…
1 Chronicles 22:14-16 describes how David prepared materials for Solomon – an abundance of gold, silver, bronze, iron, precious stones (for building: granite, marble). These were costly materials which would make the temple last. The materials Paul mentions in 1 Cor. 3:12 seem to fall into two groups of three. The first three, gold, silver, and precious stones, are more enduring, like those used to build the temple.
The other materials Paul mentions were used to build ordinary houses. Wood was used for the doors and posts; hay was mixed with mud for walls; straw was used for the roof. Paul uses these different materials to represent works of ministry that are able to endure and works that will not endure. He says in 1 Cor. 3:13 there is a Day coming that will reveal the nature of each one’s work, because it will be a day of fire which will test the work. Fire is often a symbol of trial and judgment in the Bible. Paul is referring to the Day of Judgment, at the return of Christ, when everyone will stand before God and give an account of himself, including his works. He will go on to speak of this day in 1 Cor. 4:5…
In 1 Cor. 3:14, Paul says…
What is likely to survive Christ’s judgment and be rewarded by Him? Jesus’ own ministry was characterized by words of truth and deeds of love. That is what He asks of His servants, and that is what He will reward.
But in 1 Cor. 3:15, Paul says…
Believers who choose not to build with the enduring truth of God’s word, but instead substitute their own ideas or the latest philosophies of their day, mixing the truth of God with error, will see their work consumed by God’s judgment. Those who live and act in selfishness rather than love will also see the loss of their works. They will not only apparently suffer the loss of their work, but of their reward. Notice that they will not lose their salvation, if they have built on the right foundation of Jesus Christ. Paul says he will still be saved, but only as through fire.
Paul likens the judgment of some of these teachers to the man who wakes up and discovers his home on fire. All he is able to do is to get out himself. He himself is saved, but all he can do is watch as his house and his property which he has worked for all of his life is consumed in the flames. All that is left is the foundation. It does not burn away.
This is a sobering passage for ministers, but would seem to apply to all teaching and serving. We may teach a Sunday School class or a small group in the church, or teach our children, or teach one another informally as we talk and advise one another. We have numerous opportunities to share the love of Christ with one another and with others. When we are teaching and loving for the sake of Christ, we are working on the Temple, as we should be. But we must be careful to work and build with God’s word and in God’s love. There are many helpful tools, but they must be consistent with God’s word and God’s love.
There are many things we could be doing and working on. In this world there are many things we must do just to live day to day. As we focus on that Day when Christ returns to judge, however, we are reminded that what we will take into eternity is our relationships – our relationship with God, and our relationship with fellow believers. Living well now means living for that Day when everything done in error or self-glory will be cast out, everything done in truth and love is rewarded, and what remains is our relationship with God and one another in His Church, taken to the level of glory.We must build on the foundation of Jesus, what will endure God’s judgment (and be rewarded), and…
3. We must build to escape God’s judgment (16-17)
After describing the judgment that Christian teachers will face for their work in the Church, in case the Corinthians think God is making a mountain out of a molehill, Paul asks them in 1 Cor. 3:16…
Paul asks this as a mild rebuke. They should know this. When a soul is converted to Christ through faith, the Holy Spirit comes to take up residence in that person. God dwells in His people individually and is with them corporately by His Holy Spirit. It is this corporate idea of God dwelling among His people in the Church that is in mind here, because the “you” is plural in v. 16.
When we work to build the Church of Jesus Christ, it is no ordinary thing we are working on. The Church is the possession and dwelling place of God Himself. We’re not talking about a church building (reason I always try to distinguish the building from the church). The Church is the “Assembly” – the people of God.
After Solomon built Israel’s Temple, at first it stood as a glorious, empty building. But then after the ark was brought in the presence of God came in a glorious cloud and filled the Temple. God came in a cloud and showed His people that He would set His presence there in a special way and reside with them there. It was there continually over ark in Holy of Holies. For that reason, an offense against the Temple was an offense against God. Those who defiled the Temple in Israel by coming in an unclean manner were in danger of the penalty of death or of being cut off from God’s people.
Paul says that God will defend His church in the same way in 1 Cor. 3:17…
The divisions in the Corinthian Church were destructive to her. Any false teaching or selfish ambition or immorality spread in the church is also destructive. Paul says that God will meet those who are destructive to His Church with a punishment that fits the crime, even destroying them. God will do this because His Temple is Holy – set apart for Him. God’s Temple is His people. They are set apart for Him. He will not tolerate anyone destroying His Holy people with whom He dwells, and will judge those who do.
You, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, are God’s Temple, His dwelling place. You are holy. You have been set apart from this world for Him. There are many important institutions in our society, established by God, but none are more important than you – the Church of Jesus Christ, because you are the Temple of God.
So, our teaching in the church, whether from this pulpit or in our Sunday School classes, or in our homes, must be from God’s Word and according to His truth. We must not tolerate false teaching, because we are a holy people set apart for Him. We must not tolerate corrupt behavior which is not according to God’s commands, because we are a holy people. We must be careful how we treat the Church of Jesus Christ (all congregations), because she is God’s Temple. Not only false teaching, but slander, gossip, quarrelling, etc. can be attacks on the Church, and upon God. We must build in such a way that we will escape God’s judgment and truly build the church rather than tear it down.
I have never visited Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home, but I would imagine it is not a very impressive sight in itself. Lincoln is known as the boy who grew up in a humble log cabin and through hard work and faithfulness became our best-loved President. But I am sure that log cabin is far from the most impressive looking home in its neighborhood. In comparison, it is very simple, without the spacious rooms and conveniences that we have today, or even that many may have had then. But what makes the home special, and a travel destination for so many, is not what it is in itself. You can see log cabins in all kinds of places. What makes it extraordinary is the one who lived there.
There is nothing particularly extraordinary about any one of us, or even all of us together. And yet, you and I are the Temple of God, because God lives in us, His Church. Let us take great care how we build God’s Temple, for He is Holy.
Heavenly Father, how thankful we are that You would choose to make Your home within us – the infinite, eternal, holy God, stooping to mingle with His frail, sinful creatures. We thank you for Jesus, our strong foundation, who, through His saving work has made us and is building us into Your Holy Temple. Help us to live and build with Him in a way that pleases You, and in a way that will endure, and be worthy of receiving your reward.
- 1 Corinthians 3:10 - 17