W. Ross Rainey is the Associate Editor of our magazine. He lives in Michigan, but has a wider ministry —his parish is the world. We value his contribution to Ministry in Focus.
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Midst today’s sphere of Christian profession it seems especially easy for many believers to be impressed to the point of being “swept away” by men’s personalities, rather than by or with their spiritual work. As a result, large numbers of believers are often “taken in” by someone who will not really build them up in the Lord, although considerable entertainment is afforded to his listeners and would-be followers, such entertainment having a definite appeal to the flesh. In dealing with this, and other matters in 1 Corinthians 3, the Apostle Paul compares true Christian service to building a house, thus pursuing the metaphor of 3:9.
The Firm Foundation (3:10-11)
Continuing with the thought of building, Paul relates that as a “wise” or “skilled master builder” he had gone to Corinth, preached Jesus Christ and Him crucified thereby laying the foundation, and now it remained for all other preachers and teachers to “take heed” how they built on that foundation. The Apostle took no credit for himself, but with manifest humility stated that whatever was accomplished was as a result of God’s grace given to him.
Having preached the Person and work of Christ to them, he declares in verse 11 that there is only one foundation — namely, Jesus Christ. No other will do. Yet, some had either come to Corinth or else had risen from within the local assembly who were effectively preaching divisive doctrines contrary to God’s Word. Of such they needed to be warned.
The Fiery Test (3:12-15)
These verses and their context relate particularly to preachers and teachers, although extend, of course, to all true believers.
The Scriptures disclose at least three judgments of the Christian:
1. In the past as a sinner (Isa. 53:6; Gal. 3:13; Rom. 5:8; 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 10:17).
2. In the present as a son (1 Cor. 11:29-32; Heb. 12:5ff.; 1 John 5:16).
3. In the future as a servant (Rom. 14:10; 1 Cor. 3:9-15; 2 Cor. 5:10-11).
It is this last judgment with which these verses are concerned. It is yet future and will take place either “in the air” or somewhere within the precincts of Heaven itself. In the Word of God it must be distinguished from two other future judgments which take place after this one. They are:
1. The judgment of the living (existing) nations at the “throne of His glory” at the beginning of the millennium (Matt. 25:31-46; Rev. 20:4).
2. The general or “great white throne” judgment of the wicked dead after the millennium (Rev. 20:11-15).
The erroneous Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is based on passages like 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, but these verses clearly reveal that the fire will try the works of the individual believer, not the worker himself. Thus, the service of the believer, not his salvation and security, is the issue of the judgment seat of Christ.
As already stressed, this judgment has only to do with believers, and it is on the basis of the quality of their service that rewards will be given. The standard of judgment will be faithfulness, not success (1 Cor. 4:2), and with Christ as the Judge. A sobering note is truck in verse 14. Some believers will receive no reward, but will “suffer loss.” What does this expression really mean? Elaborating on this point J. R. Caldwell has given the following helpful explanation:
“What loss, then, will he suffer? I say he will be an eternal loser. He will lose the reward that he might have received. There is a kingdom coming, a manifested kingdom. Christ will be the King and His saints are to reign with Him. It is with reference to that coming kingdom that our works will be tried The place we shall occupy in that kingdom — the place of honour and authority — will be determined according to faithfulness in the smaller stewardship of our service on earth. This is shown in the parable of the nobleman (Luke xix. 12, etc.). The same is taught in 2 Peter 1:11 ‘For so an entrance shall be ministered to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ This may be illustrated by the cases of Abraham and Lot; the one was called ‘the friend of God,’ and maintained the path of faith and obedience. Such an one will have an abundant entrance into the coming kingdom. Lot, on the other hand, was ‘saved so as by fire” — all his works destroyed, a saved man — but his life was a lost life” (The Charter of the Church, 1, pp. 96-97).
W. E. Vine has interestingly pointed out that in Greek contracts a workman who put in bad work was fined (First Corinthians, p. 52).
What kind of materials are we building on the one foundation (3:12)?
Let us make sure that we seek at all times to build for the eye of the Architect.
The Fearful Warning (3:16-17)
The opening “know ye not” in verse 16 marks the first of a series of such appeals in this letter (cf: 5:6; 6:2; 3, 9, 15, 16, 19; 9:23, 24).
While it is true that every believer is a temple of God indwelt by the Holy Spirit, here the collective aspect of the local church is in view, the same being God’s temple. Verse 17 forth-rightly declares that if some professed teacher comes along and in any way wrecks the local testimony, God will destroy him. Obviously, false teachers are in view, yet Vine has given the following caution: “Those who teach the Word of God should tremble lest even unintentionally they injure the structure they are seeking to erect” (Ibid., p. 53).
At this point we do well to recall the words of James, who wrote: “My brethren, be not many teachers, knowing that we shall receive the greater judgment” (James 3:1).
The Foolishness of Worldly Wisdom (3:18-20)
“Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this age, let him become a fool, that he may be wise” (3:18). These words readily recall the teaching of 1:18-25 (see 4:10). Those who are true followers of Christ are esteemed as fools in the eyes of the world.
A number of years ago I recall a friend of mine telling about a Christian man who used to walk the busy streets of a large mid-western city wearing signboards and seeking opportunities to witness to curious passersby. To be sure, he must have been an unusual sight to all who encountered this “sidewalk evangelist” sauntering along with his head sticking out between two signboards. On the front board were the words, “I’m a fool for Christ’s sake,” and on the back signboard was the question, “Whose fool are you?”
Not all Christians would agree with this dear man’s method, but we certainly can’t argue with his message. How infinitely better to be called “a fool” for Christ’s sake than to end up being the Devil’s fool.
The opening words of verse 19 —”For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” — sum up the teaching of 1:20-25. In turn, Paul uses two Old Testament quotations (Job 5:13; Psa. 94:11) to confirm God’s estimate of human wisdom.
The Fathomless Wealth of Believers (3:21-23)
Christians are not to glory in men, not even in a Paul or an Apollos, as though somehow we belonged to them. On the contrary, they belong to us. In other words, all the gifts which God has given to the Church are for the benefit and blessing of His people.
As I sit at my desk and write this article, just to my left are numerous shelves holding hundreds of volumes, and I see such names as Barnhouse, Chafer, Darby, Gaebelein, Goodman, Hodge, Kelly, Lloyd-Jones, Mackintosh, Morgan, Robertson, Scroggie, Thomas, Unger, Vine, Walvoord, Wolston, and dozens of others. Some of these gifted men I have been privileged to know personally, while others wrote long before I was born. Now, the point is this, God gave these men as gifts to the Church, and as a member of that Church, they all belong to me. They were placed in the Body of Christ for my blessing and edification — and for yours, too — and many times I have expressed my gratitude to our Lord for these gifted servants whose writings and ministry have been, and continue to be, such a blessing and help in my own personal study of God’s Word.
Someone has called verse 22 “an inventory of the possessions of the child of God.” Christian workers, the world, life, death, things present, and things to come all belong to us because we belong to Christ, and Christ is God’s (3:22-23). What folly, then, to form parties and cause divisions in the church!
In conclusion, observe that in this passage (3:10-23) there are three kinds of service: 1. indestructible (3:14); 2. invalid (3:15); and 3. injurious (3:17).
What kind of service are you rendering in your life?