“Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's.” (1 Cor 3:12-23)
In the first half of the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul describes the nature of spiritual growth using metaphors from agriculture and architecture. In both analogies, the operation is the same—the growth comes from the Lord, and our part in the process (whether visible or invisible) is simply a matter of obedience to Him. His is the power and the glory, ours is the work of faithfulness. To assume any other source (human leaders are Paul’s focus here) for our strength as believers is not just misguided, but dangerous, leading us to pride and weakness rather than maturity: “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (3:11).
Now, he continues by instructing the Corinthians on what their work in building up the body of Christ should look like—and what it shouldn’t. “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” (3:12-13). The various building materials in the picture Paul paints have been subject to differing interpretations over the years, but in the context it makes little sense for Paul to bring up differences in wealth, skill, or quality among the body of believers. Rather, his list is meant to draw distinction between that which has weight and endurance and that which is flimsy and quick to decay. The things that we do in service of the Church either point toward the eternal (building one another up to glorify God) or the temporal (petty or self-aggrandizing work).
The nature of our workmanship becomes evident when “revealed with fire”—at the end of the age when the Lord returns. Paul calls this a “test” for our work, in the sense that everything that glorifies someone other than Christ will not stand. At that time, Paul says, the Lord will reward those followers who have honored Him, but those who have pursued other things will have them stripped away. “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” (3:14-15).
This passage can present some confusion, but it seems to flow naturally if you follow Paul’s extended metaphor. Rather than seeing that someone may be “saved, yet so as through fire” as some special dispensation of God’s grace for “stragglers”, it stands to reason that Paul is talking about spiritual fruit instead of redemption. All the “builders” in this passage are believers, but some have been sidetracked by “jealousy and strife” (3:3) instead of pursuing the glory of God through the good of the Church.
The work he speaks of here is not justification (which is always God’s prerogative) or even sanctification (the Spirit’s work in us as we pursue holiness) but edification. Paul’s concern is for the health of the Church, and he sternly warns the Corinthians to put aside their divisions and indulgences to build each other up. His injunction is similar in substance (though very different in tone) to Moses’ prayer that God would “confirm for us the work of our hands” (Ps. 90:17). He has given us life and a calling, and only that which glorifies Him and contributes to the flourishing of His people will be preserved when He returns to judge.
Concerning the Church, Paul’s warning turns sterner still, challenging the Corinthians to take serious stock of their actions toward each other. “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (3:16-17). Again, interpreting these verses is made simpler by keeping the contextual flow. The “you” in these verses is plural, referring to the Body of Christ, and the warning of judgment against those who would destroy the Church is akin to Jesus’ statement that “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18). It seems that Paul’s warning is designed to shock the Corinthian believers into repentance. The logic is straightforward: 1) our divisions and sinfulness are destroying the Church, 2) God will destroy those who destroy His Church, 3) so we should examine ourselves and confess our sins when we seek to tear down our fellow believers rather than build one another up.
Here Paul returns again to the distinction between man’s “wisdom” and God’s that drove his argument in chapter 1: “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, ‘He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness;’ and again, ‘the Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless’” (3:18-20). The Corinthians had become so convinced of their own learning, their own leaders, and their perceived “specialness” that they had turned against one other to puff themselves up. After Paul’s harsh warning in verse 17, they should have seen his reminder here about the folly of worldly wisdom more clearly. Whatever they thought of themselves, God would not be deceived and He would hold them accountable.
Closing this phase of his argument, Paul states again the key command of the early part of this epistle: “So then let no one boast in men” (3:21a). Nothing eternal comes from men, so why should we put our hope in others who are as much in need of salvation as we are? Further highlighting the stupidity of such boasting, Paul contrasts it with the powerful truth that we have been blessed with eternal life by God Himself: “For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God” (3:21b-23).
The breadth and depth of God’s riches are fully bestowed on us through Christ—everything is from His hand. God is the one who sent His Son to suffer and die on our behalf. God is the one who has adopted us as His children and sealed us with His Spirit. God is the one who holds us fast both now and in eternity. He is the one who raised up the men and women who shared the Gospel with us and discipled us in the faith. Though we may thank and honor those messengers, the praise for their work is due to Him who “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). All of us together belong to Him!
As we walk with Christ and serve one another in His strength, we must not forget that our salvation and our work are His gifts. When we are tempted to assign credit elsewhere, we ought to heed Paul’s reprimand to avoid all foolish boasting and focus again on the magnitude of what we have been given in Christ. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Once we see that clearly, our own accomplishments fade into the background and we can only respond in worship.
Justin Lonas is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, TN.
He served as the editor of Disciple Magazine from 2009-2016.
He blogs regularly at jryanlonas.wordpress.com.