Dear Radio Friends,
In our broadcast two weeks ago we took note that in I Corinthians 3 Paul addresses once again the carnality of the Corinthian saints. Paul states it pointedly: you are carnal. You are not spiritual. You are worldly. Your sights are set on the things of the flesh and of this world. Yes, that accusation carried a bit of a sting. Paul explains the reason for this accusation in verse 3: there is among you envying, strife, and divisions. As long as you are characterized by such foolish divisions, you walk as men and are carnal.
Paul tackles in this chapter once again this whole matter of the party strife that existed in this congregation. Paul was not finished addressing this important flaw or weakness in this congregation, so serious did he deem it. It is then that Paul in a patient, careful, and simple way explains the place of those whom God had appointed to preach to this congregation. He does this using two figures.
The first is that of a vineyard. If you recall, we spoke of that at length a couple of weeks ago. The church is the vineyard of God. Paul was used of God to plant the church in Corinth. Apollos later watered her. But after all is said and done, it was God that gave the increase—not men. They were but laborers in God’s vineyard. For that reason, neither of these men were anything in themselves. It was God, in both planting and watering His vineyard, who was giving to this congregation both numerical and spiritual growth. That being established, Paul furthers his argument in the verses we consider in our broadcast today.
He does that by means of a second figure that he brings to our attention: the church is a building. Paul expands on that figure in verses 10-15 of I Corinthians 3. We read,
According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 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.
These verses not only explain that God uses various men to build His church, but they also give stern warning to those called upon to build it. We learn today therefore of God’s calling to pastors and preachers. God will judge the preaching of men. The members of the church may not do that themselves. It is God’s place to judge these men and their labors. That then is behind the exhortation of the Scripture we consider.
I. Builders of the Church
In verse 10, Paul identifies himself as the wise master builder used of God to lay the foundation of the church in Corinth. He was the missionary sent to establish the church in this city. He was the first to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ there, calling many to faith and repentance. In this way he laid the only foundation of the church: Jesus Christ Himself. We read in verse 11, “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” The foundation Paul laid was that of the gospel itself. In this way Jesus Christ became the very foundation of the church in Corinth. He is the foundation of every local congregation, just as He is the foundation of the church universal. By laying this foundation, the apostle Paul became a wise master builder, or literally architect. That was both his privilege and his claim. That does not mean that Paul is the foundation of the church. The church is not founded on men. It is founded on Jesus Christ. No man can or ever will lay a different foundation than that! Christ is the church’s only foundation! Both Paul and others are called to build the church on Christ and Him crucified alone. Paul did that—wisely. He speaks of himself as a wise master builder.
This Paul established already in chapter 1! The preaching of the cross is the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation! But neither does Paul boast of himself in this regard. He says at the outset in verse 10 that he did this “according to the grace of God given unto me.” Paul recognized that it was only according to God’s grace that the Word he preached took root in Corinth. It was only by God’s grace that his preaching was used of God to work faith in the hearts of these saints in the church.
Is that not true with everyone who preaches the gospel? What credit can any man give to himself? The preacher sows the seed of God’s Word, but God by His Spirit alone opens the heart of the sinner. Paul recognized therefore that this church in Corinth existed by means of God’s unmerited favor alone! God showed that grace to Paul in blessing the labors of his hands in Corinth. But Paul was used of God only to plant the church in Corinth. Paul was used by God only to lay the foundation of the church there. The gracious God used Paul to lay the basis on which every true church of Jesus Christ is built: Christ and Him crucified! If anyone is truly going to build on Christ’s church it is going to be on that foundation. If a man chooses to go his own way and build the foundation of the church on man, he is a heretic of the first degree. And there are many false teachers—heretics—that have gone out into the churches of today. These do not build the church of Jesus Christ. They only build a structure that has the trimmings of the true church.
Paul now addresses in these verses before us those men who do build on this foundation, when he states in verse 10 that another builds on the foundation that he has laid. The exhortation of our text, “take heed how one builds on the foundation,” speaks of preachers in the church who actually do build the church on the foundation of the gospel contained in the Scriptures. When Paul at the beginning of verse 12 writes, “Now, if any man build upon the foundation,” Paul speaks of men who in their preaching and teaching build upon Jesus Christ. He is not referring to heretics in the church. As we said, heretics do not build on the foundation of Christ in the Scriptures. Paul speaks then in the verses we consider of men who do not stray from the one foundation, but who in one way or another differ, for the better or for the worse, in how they build on that foundation.
There are two types of builders or preachers that Paul describes for us in the verses we consider. The one type is a preacher who builds on the foundation of the church gold, silver, and precious stones. The other type of preacher is one who builds on the foundation wood, hay, and stubble. Gold and silver were used in part to build the temple. Costly stones were likewise used, such as marble and granite. But the point is, there are preachers who in their preaching and labors in the church build gold upon its foundation. Others build on it silver. Others build precious stones. In other words, their preaching is in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Their labors are by the Word fruitful in the church where they labor. They are laborers that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth. They are set for the work of the ministry and expend themselves to feed the church of Jesus Christ with the rich preaching of God’s Word. They faithfully labor to bring their members to the cross of Jesus Christ. As a result, the saints are so built up in their faith that they are not easily blown about by the strange winds of doctrine. They speak the truth in Christ in order that the members of the church might grow up into Christ in all things. Their preaching builds up the church in order that the lives of God’s people make increase unto the edifying of the church. Such preachers feed God’s people the meat of the Word, so that they grow in the strength and knowledge of God.
On the other hand, there are preachers of the gospel who are not heretics, but who do little to build up God’s saints on the foundation of Christ. They build on that foundation, Paul explains, wood, hay, or stubble. Again, it is true that a structure requires wood to build it, but that is not the point of God’s Word here. The point is, wood in itself is not strong or stable enough to hold up a temple when strong winds blow against it. If exposed to the weather, it will soon decay and crumble. Hay was used by the Israelites to make their bricks of clay, but the idea of our text is that hay, in itself, that is, a straw hut, does not last long. And stubble is completely worthless! Stubble is the chaff that is left over after wheat or other grain is threshed. It would not even hold the shape of a temple, much less endure. Some pastors in their labors are such. They may preach the gospel. They will not deny the firm foundation of the church, that is, Scripture as it reveals to us Jesus Christ. But their preaching is weak and shallow. They do not give the milk of the Word, much less the meat of the Word. The preacher, on the one hand, tries to impress the members of the church with his sophistry, that is, his philosophical, intricately detailed treatise on some theological subject. Members are impressed because he seems to be such a deep thinker. But his preaching is dry and dogmatic and not able at all to feed the souls of God’s saints. He enjoys his own rhetoric.
On the other hand, some preachers fail to expound carefully the Word of God in applying it to the lives of God’s people. They are more interested in humor or story telling than preaching. They superficially explain a number of verses, or choose a topic and allude to several verses out of God’s Word without truly explaining them. These men do not deny the Christ of the Scriptures, but they utterly fail to build up the church of Jesus Christ on that foundation. They are not workmen that are approved of Christ, rightly dividing the Word of truth.
II. Judgment of their Work
Of such preachers Paul writes in verse 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.” Now, once again, we do not wish to lose sight of Paul’s point here. The ministers of the gospel are appointed by Christ to do His work! They will have to give an accounting to Him of their labors in the church. They, as every man, will stand in judgment before God, but in that day they will have to give an account of whether they have built up the church or tore it down!
Again, verse 13: “every man’s work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it.” This refers to the day of the Lord, when Jesus Christ as Judge shall pass judgment upon all men according to their works. Scripture teaches us clearly that every person will stand before Christ in judgment at the end of time when Christ comes again. This does not exclude believers—nor preachers! Ministers of the gospel are not exempt from this judgment. They too will be judged according to their works. They will be judged in particular on what they did specifically as pastors and teachers in the church. Did they build the church on the church’s one foundation? Did they build gold, silver, and costly stones on that church? Did they warn God’s people from ways of sin? Did they apply the balm of salvation in the cross of Jesus Christ? Did they faithfully expound the Scriptures in order to mold God’s people into soldiers of the cross? Or did they build wood, hay, and stubble on that church? What did they do to build up the church of Jesus Christ in the faith? Did they preach in order to gain the favor of men? Did they preach because they wanted to impress the saints with their deep understanding or their light and frivolous manner? Were they worried more about the judgment of man than the judgment of God upon them? The very thoughts of their hearts will be exposed in that final day of judgment. Their work will be made manifest to them and others because that day of judgment will declare it. Let every preacher of the gospel labor to show himself approved of God. This Word of God ought to humble every man called to perform the work of the preaching of the gospel! May every pastor and teacher keep the instruction of God’s Word here before his heart.
I say this because in the final judgment men will be tried as by fire. The end of verse 13 reads, “the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.” This fire is the fire of God’s wrath against all those who preached heresy and led the church away from Christ. Such heretics will be burned together with their works. But the fire of God’s judgment here in our text speaks of something a little different. You see, God is Himself an all consuming fire. The fire of God’s countenance is His holiness. He is a holy God. In Him is no evil, no wrong, no sin. He is pure, unadulterated goodness. The fire of God’s countenance tries or tests every man’s work of what sort it is. It is as a refining fire. It burns away the dross and purifies that which is meant to last. In the judgment, God will reveal our works as by fire. In that day of days when our works are made manifest, they shall be burned as by fire. The sins that were evident in our lives will be burned. Those works that flowed out of a true faith will abide and follow us into eternity. In that day, every child of God will be saved in the blood of Jesus Christ, and the works of sin he performed during his life will be burned as by fire. This is the final judgment. And it applies to every minister of the gospel, too. Every pastor and teacher will be judged by God according to the labors he performed in the pastorate and will receive his just reward. With such knowledge the preacher must preach God’s Word with fear and trembling.
III. Their Just Wages
Paul writes in verse 14, “If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.” The faithful pastor who labored conscientiously in the work of the ministry will receive a reward. His labors will pass through the fire of God’s judgment and will not be burned. Gold, silver, costly stones do not burn. They are purged by fire but are not consumed. Those works of labor will abide in the day of judgment. They will be a testimony of the faithfulness of such preachers and teachers.
Now, it is true that these faithful labors are the fruit of the work of God’s grace in a man’s heart and life. Paul qualifies this at the very start of our text when speaking of himself: “according to the grace of God which is given unto me as a wise masterbuilder.” God graciously works in and through that man of His choosing in order that such a builder of the church is faithful and fruitful in his work. Neither is the term reward here in our text the proper translation. It should be wages. If any man’s work abides, he shall receive his wages. In the day of judgment, God will pay him by His grace for his faithful labors in the church. God will send him into glory and his works shall abide. They will follow him there as a crown. These are the just wages God gives to that faithful pastor.
What about that man who built wood, hay, and stubble on the church? We read in verse 15, “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” Wood, hay, and stubble are burned in God’s judgment. In the day of judgment Christ will declare the unfaithfulness of such a servant. His labors in the church were empty and vain. He will not be judged worthy of eternal punishment. He did believe in his own salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ alone. For that reason, he will be saved in that day. He did not deny the foundation of the church. He did not preach against Jesus Christ and Him crucified. For that reason, his failure in the ministry will be covered in the blood of Christ in that day. But he will be saved as by fire. His labors will be consumed in the fire of God’s judgment. It is as if he will be in a house that is burning in fire and is able to escape that house, but only with the shirt on his back. Everything in that house is consumed by fire. What a judgment!
“Let every man take heed how he builds on that foundation!” What a horrible judgment on that pastor and teacher whose labors in the church amount to nothing! Take heed, pastors. Be very careful. Examine your own works and make sure that you heed the command of Jesus Christ. Take heed, people of God. Examine whom you follow. Follow after the Word of God that is faithfully preached. We must look at the ministry of the gospel through spiritual eyes. Not carnal. We must understand its importance. We must understand the importance of faithful pastors. God uses these men for your sakes. All are yours and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. Let us glory in God alone.