A Study of 1 Corinthians 3b
Introduction: I grew up in church. My father was a deacon and both my parents were Sunday School teachers. We went to church on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings and Wednesday nights and just about whenever the church doors were open. We had weeklong revivals and went every night. We had Vacation Bible School and went every day. I was occasionally bored, but overall I’ll have to say it was a great experience. In my adult life, I’ve devoted myself almost around the clock to the work of the church for nearly forty years. And yet I do not believe – even to this day – that I fully appreciate and understand the uniqueness and wonder and specialness of the church. The church is unlike any other organization or entity on earth. The church is not a club; it’s not like saying, “Let’s go to the Rotary Club.” It’s not an activity; it’s not like saying, “Let’s go to the theater” or “Let’s go to the ballgame.” The church is the unique group of people called out of the world for the sake of fulfilling God’s plan for evangelizing this planet. We are the corporate extension of the actual person of Jesus Christ. Several times, the Bible compares this to a living building and to a walking temple. See 1 Peter 2:4-9. The apostle Paul used this same analogy with both the Ephesians and the Corinthians. Ephesians 1 and 2 says: The church is… His body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way… One new humanity… one body… His household built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit (Ephesians 1:22-23; 2:15 & 19-22). We are His body… His fullness on earth… His new humanity… His household… His building… His temple… His dwelling place. Paul wrote those words to the church at Ephesus, which was his most successful church-planting project ever; but he wrote just about the same thing to the church in Corinth, which was his most disastrous church-planting effort. But even as we read 1 Corinthians 3b, we begin to touch upon the precious uniqueness of the church and, by extension, our own church here.
Background: In 1 Corinthians 1-4, the apostle Paul appealed for unity among the members of the church in the city of Corinth. They were badly divided, and they were largely divided because they had been listening to and following different teachers. As a result various cliques and fractions developed. In the first half of 1 Corinthians 3, Paul described the church as a field in which he had planted the seed, Apollos had watered it, but God had made it grow. What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each His task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field.
But now, look at that last phrase in verse 9: God’s building. The apostle Paul uses two analogies to describe the unity of the church here in 1 Corinthians 3. In the first half of the chapter he calls us God’s field, and in the last part of the chapter we are God’s building. Now he proceeds to give us four points in this analogy.
1. The Foundation (verse 10-11)
Verse 10: By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. The churches one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. As Paul said in Ephesians, He is the chief cornerstone; and as he said here, He is the complete foundation.
2. The Materials (verses 12-15)
Verse 12: If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. The apostle Paul mentions six different building materials, but they fall into two categories. Three are fireproof; three are combustible. Here are two different buildings. One is made of pure gold, and pure silver, and costly stones like marble. The other building is made from wood, and perhaps the roof is made of hay or straw. One day God is going to judge the quality of our churches. He’s going to judge the quality of our work.
Verse 14-15: If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames.
I believe this is referring to sound biblical teaching and preaching. We have to present the right message with the right methods and the right motives. There is a great erosion of biblical teaching in our day, but strong churches are built on sound doctrine, and nothing is more important than the sound preaching and teaching of God’s Word. An eternal work can only be built on an infallible Word.
3. The Inhabitant (Verse 16)
Verse 16: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? This is one of the great 3:16 verses in the Bible With this verse, the apostle Paul becomes even more specific. The church isn’t just any kind of building; it is a temple. And the very essence of the idea of temple is a dwelling place for God Himself. There is one permanent inhabitant in the church—and it’s the Lord. In Exodus 40:34-38, the Glory of God filled the Tabernacle. In 2 Chronicles 7:1-3, the same thing happened with the Temple of Solomon. In Acts 2, we have a very similar scene as the Holy Spirit descended from heaven and filled the 120 people in the Upper Room, and this represents the church. See also 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 and Revelation 1:12-20.
4. The Enemies (verse 17)
Verse 17: If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. The implication is there are forces in the world that oppose the church, that are trying to destroy the church. This would include false teachers who come from within the church, and those who persecute the church from without.
In view of all this, says the apostle Paul, we must carefully guard the church’s unity and oneness. Verse 18: Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
I read about a man who grew up on the Atlantic coast and as a youngster he spent many days building sand castles and town and cities on the beach. One year several days in a row, he was accosted by bullies who took great delight in kicking in his elaborate creations. Then he tried an experiment. He placed bricks and cinder blocks beneath the sand, and he began building his temples and palaces and cities on a solid foundation. He found they endured against the tides much longer, and they also provided an element of surprise for the enemies who tried to knock them over. Sometimes we think churches like ours are endangered. We’re afraid the bullies and the foes will destroy us. We think the tides of time may wash us away. But we have a hidden foundation, for Jesus Himself said, “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” So don’t be afraid to give yourselves fully to the unity and work and progress of this church and of the universal church around the world. If it’s worth His blood, it’s worth our sweat. We are God’s field. We are His building. We are His temple.