1Co 3:12-15 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; (13) 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. (14) If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. (15) If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
The ministry and mission of the church is from Jesus and about Jesus. Woe be unto the minister who forgets this. That is the solemn truth set forth in this passage. This is an awful passage; one whose import no man to whom has been committed the care of souls can realize without trembling. But it has a lesson for all, those in the ministry and those who receive the ministry.
Paul was much troubled by an account which had reached him of the state of things at Corinth. He had laid the foundation of a flourishing church there, and God had greatly prospered His work; but dissensions had arisen. The Apostle’s authority was decried. Rival teachers were set up; rival parties formed. Paul protests against this state of things. It is an evidence, he tells them, of their immaturity in Christ. They thought they were spiritual, but they were acting as those who were still dominated by the fallen nature. Charles Simeon wrote:
At Corinth it prevailed, and rose to an alarming height: and St. Paul was obliged to exert all his influence in order to counteract it. He reminded the partisans, that, as “God’s building,” they should be cemented together with brotherly love: that they should study to shew themselves worthy of the place they held in the Church, in expectation of that day when all their works should be tried by fire: and that, instead of fomenting strifes and divisions, they should unite with each other in cleaving steadfastly to the one foundation, whereon they stood.
Having given a broad view of the passage, let us consider,
We have here, first, the builders. These are primarily teachers, preachers of the Word, ministers. Such only seem to have been before the Apostle’s mind. Each minister is seen as building up a work for Jesus Christ. This building, which we will see in a moment is the church, the temple, the holy habitation of God.
But let me say that while it is primarily Paul’s intention to speak of the minister’s work in the church, we may also say that in a secondary sense the passage has a lesson for private Christians; forasmuch as every Christian has a building to build for God in his own soul, on the foundation first laid at his conversion. It is not merely that the church is a temple, but each soul is a temple wherein the Holy Spirit dwells. Warren Wiersbe is right when he states,
The usual explanation of this passage is that it describes the building of the Christian life. We all build on Christ, but some people use good materials while others use poor materials. The kind of material you use determines the kind of reward you will get.
While this may be a valid application of this passage, it is not the basic interpretation. Paul is discussing the building of the local church, the temple of God.
Let us next consider,
This foundation the Apostle describes in one phrase—Jesus Christ. On the cardinal truth of Christ’s crucifixion the hopes of the Church, the hopes of every individual Christian, rest. Let us look to ourselves that we do not lose hold of it. But let us say a few words here.
When we say the Lord Jesus Christ, we are speaking of the fact that it was already built upon Him as its historical foundation. He was the reason and account of its existence, so that if He had not lived and died, its existence, as Paul found it, would have been inexplicable. Some hold that Paul, not Christ, was the founder of Christendom–a theory he by anticipation contradicted. “Was Paul crucified for you?” No, no! While the Church is built on the labors of apostles, we must always remember that apostles themselves rested on the Chief Corner Stone.
We must also insist upon something else here. Christ Himself is the only foundation on which the soul can build. I am underscoring Him as a person. It is not mere doctrines abort Him. We are not disparaging Scripture texts, the creeds, the systematic teaching of these; we are extremely thankful for them for His sake, but we do no prize Him for theirs; and we surely do no rest upon them as distinct from Him. Someone has said that this would be like “building on a measuring rule instead of on the granite of which it has given us the dimensions.”
Moreover, we must add that it is not the mere feelings about or towards Him. These are great aids to devotion; yet nothing is more fleeting and unreliable. While they are directed to Christ, they stem from us; or as some rightly noted, “their root is in ourselves, and we cannot supply the foundation stone out of the exhausted quarries of unrenewed human nature.” That is where the doctrine comes into play; it provides a revelation of God in propositional sentences which are true about Christ.
Now, let us remember the focus of Paul. He is speaking of the ministry. Each ministry must build upon the person of Christ. There can be no other ground of confidence for the justification, sanctification and salvation of men than the person of Jesus Christ. God has made Christ to be wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. All of this is found in Christ, and in Him alone. The Apostles through their preaching of Christ laid this foundation for the church, and Christ is the foundation for every true Christian.
Let us also consider,
The superstructure which Paul supposes to be built on this foundation is the result of the ministry. And it is manifested in the lives of the converts whom he has won, or of the people who have been committed to his charge. The Apostle sets before us two distinct superstructures, the foundation being the same in both. On this, J. J. Lias correctly commented:
It must be remembered that it is not the conduct of Christians, however applicable the principles here enunciated may be to it, but the doctrine of teachers which is spoken of here. The materials mentioned are of two classes, those that will endure fire, and those that will not. We may dismiss from our consideration such preaching as is dictated by vain-glory or self-interest, for the simple reason that it is not building upon Christ at all. The two kinds of preaching thus become, on the one hand that which leads to permanent results, the glory of God and the real well-being of man; and on the other, that which, though the offspring of a genuine zeal, is not according to knowledge.
Some builders he represents as raising a solid and substantial fabric, gold, silver, costly stones. Their doctrine and the result of it were in keeping with the great truth which himself had laid as the foundation; the doctrine uncorrupt—the result, holiness of life and conversation on the part of those who received it, and what he may be thought to have had specifically in view—a spirit of charity and brotherly love. Speaking of Paul’s overall meaning,
The six materials in 1Cor. 3:12 are arranged to denote a descending scale by moving from a unit of three good qualities to a unit of three bad ones. The verse uses pictures to represent what Paul calls ‘work’ in 1 Cor. 3:13-14. Paul’s main point is to encourage building with quality materials that will meet with God’s approval and receive eternal reward. Interpreters sometimes restrict the meaning of the symbols either to doctrine, to people, to activity, or to character. The [proper] conclusion is that Paul in the symbols combines several things that lead to Christ’s good pleasure and a believer’s reward. These are sound doctrine, activity, motives and character in Christian service.” [James E. Rosscup, “A New Look at 1 Corinthians 3:12-‘Gold, Silver, Precious Stones,'” Master’s Seminary Journal 1:1 (Spring 1990):33.]
But there were others who building upon the foundation with doctrine that was not consistent with the foundation. It did correspond to the person of Jesus Christ. Or, they were acting in principles that were no congruent with Christ and Him crucified. Consequently, it promoted the spirit of contention and division, which was so prevalent at Corinth. Such is nothing more than “wood, hay, stubble.” David Brown comments that this ‘wood, hay, and stubble’ is “not positive heresy, for that would destroy the foundation, but teaching mixed up with human philosophy and Judaism, curious rather than useful.” For this reason, Calvin stated,
As there is an agreement thus far as to Paul’s meaning, without any controversy, it follows on the other hand, that by wood, stubble and hay, is meant doctrine not answering to the foundation, such as is forged in men’s brain, and is thrust in upon us as though it were the oracles of God. For God will have his Church trained up by the pure preaching of his own word, not by the contrivances of men, of which sort also is that which has no tendency to edification, as for example curious questions, (Titus 1:4,) which commonly contribute more to ostentation, or some foolish appetite, than to the salvation of men.
I say, then, that both doctrinal and practical are this inferior and inappropriate building material; it is incongruous with the original foundation. Such is still going on in our day. Largely, we can see this in the philosophy of Willow Creek and the seeker-sensitive church movement. Though these movements have somewhat fizzled out, their impact has left scares on the face of American Christianity and ruts in the ecclesiastical landscape. One man’s critique shows the wrong motives of the ministry of such:
The size of the crowd rather than the depth of the heart determined success. If the crowd was large then surely God was blessing the ministry. Churches were built by demographic studies, professional strategists, marketing research, meeting “felt needs” and sermons consistent with these techniques. We were told that preaching was out, relevance was in. Doctrine didn’t matter nearly as much as innovation. If it wasn’t “cutting edge” and consumer friendly it was doomed. The mention of sin, salvation and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and sensitivity. (Bob Burney Live, ‘A Shocking “Confession” from Willow Creek Community Church’).
This is one example, and there are myriads of others wrong ways in which the ministries of Evangelicalism can build with wood, hay, and stubble. Now, this has immediate results as well as future implications, to which we shall now turn, as we note in,
The Apostle speak of the day which will declare, will make manifest, before men and angels, the character of each man’s work. In many cases, no doubt, that character is only too apparent now. The unsoundness and worthlessness of the building are open beforehand, going before to judgment. But in others they follow. After a hollow show, conformity with the popular taste and the like gain them a wide acceptance, while true and honest work is depreciated and condemned. The day in which the Lord will come will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.
This is set forth by Paul as a reminder that faithfulness is the key; it is not always how men appraise a work. The 19th century Scottish pastor and trainer of pastors, John Brown, wrote a letter to one of his students newly ordained over a small congregation and extended this word to him:
I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ at his judgment seat, you will think you have had enough.
Now, what is meant by the fire, of which it is said, “The day shall be revealed, and by which every man’s work will be proved?” Immediately, we can reject the interpretation that this speaks of purgatory. This is positively the case for a number of reasons. David Brown outlines some of them:
The fire (probably figurative here, as the gold, hay, etc.) is not purgatory (as Rome teaches, that is, purificatory and punitive), but probatory, not restricted to those dying in “venial sin”; the supposed intermediate class between those entering heaven at once, and those dying in mortal sin who go to hell, but universal, testing the godly and ungodly alike (2 Cor. 5:10; compare Mark 9:49). This fire is not till the last day, the supposed fire of purgatory begins at death. The fire of Paul is to try the works, the fire of purgatory the persons, of men. Paul’s fire causes “loss” to the sufferers; Rome’s purgatory, great gain, namely, heaven at last to those purged by it, if only it were true. Thus this passage, quoted by Rome for, is altogether against, purgatory.
There are other interpretations. Some have understood this in reference to persecution, and no doubt persecution has many times served as a test, sifting the Church and separating the wheat from the chaff. But it is a test which has only partially been applied. Many workmen have never had their work subjected to it, and even where it has been applied, it has not always proved an infallible test; there have been confessors and martyrs to heresy as well as to the truth.
But Paul is speaking of a trial to which every man’s work shall be subjected; it is a test wherein God searchingly scrutinizes all works, and no unsoundness or dishonesty in the work will escape. The fire of which the Apostle speaks is doubtless that searching scrutiny, repeatedly referred to elsewhere in Scripture, to which at the great and dreadful day of judgment every man’s work will be subjected, when the great white throne shall be set, and the dead, small and great, shall stand before God, and the books shall be opened, and the dead shall be judged out of those things that are written in the books according to their works; and among these works, the work of each man’s ministry, in the case of God’s ministers, will hold, we may be sure, the very foremost place.
But there is something else here that we must address. The Apostle, when he speaks of the unskilful builder being saved, must of course be understood to do so on the presumption that the man himself has personally retained his hold on Christ, and that for Christ’s sake the failure of his work—whether owing to ignorance, infirmity, or any less pardonable cause—is mercifully forgiven. Such a one, the Apostle says, shall lose his reward. He will appear before the Lord empty-handed, with no offering to present of souls won from Satan’s kingdom or strengthened and confirmed in faith and holiness. He will be happy only in this, that while he takes with shame the lowest place and marvels, while he takes it, that such grace should be extended to him, that place is still within his Father’s house.
As we come to a conclusion, let us apply this. First, we must rest upon Christ alone as the sure foundation of our salvation. We must renounce all other foundations. They are but sand (Matt. 7:24). And we must come to Him, telling Him that you are sensible of your need of Him and that you are undone without Him.
Second, we must be those who build upon Him. After we are saved, this is the great business of the church and the Christian; we must rest in Him as our sure foundation. We must be beware what we build upon this foundation, in opinion and in practice (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Horatius Bonar wrote:
The object of the Christian ministry is to convert sinners and to edify the body of Christ. No faithful minister can possibly rest short of this. Applause, fame, popularity, honor, wealth – all these are vain. If souls are not won, if saints are not matured, our ministry itself is vain. The question, therefore, which each of us has to answer to his own conscience is, “Has it been the end of my ministry, has it been the desire of my heart to save the lost and guide the saved? Is this my aim in every sermon I preach, in every visit I pay?”
And let us build ministries that are consistence with the Lord, as understood by His teaching and work. Let us remember that the day is coming that will sift this work. Let us realize that we must do all for Him, by Him, and according to His plan. All else will be burned up.
Last, let us not judge ministries according to numbers or even activities. We are all very prone to do this. And this places a stress upon ministries that have can have a terrible impact. I end with these words of advice from Spurgeon that are fitting:
May I beg you carefully to judge every preacher, not by his gifts, not by his elocutionary powers, not by his status in society, not by the respectability of his congregation, not by the prettiness of his church, but by this – does he preach the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation? If he does, your sitting under his ministry may prove to you the means of begetting faith in you. But if he does not, you cannot expect God’s blessing.