Summary: This text encourages believers to give their best in Christian service.
9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. 10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire (1st Corinthians 3:9-15)
In this segment of his letter to the Christians in Corinth, we see that the Apostle Paul, uses multiple metaphors to explain his concerns. In prior verses 1-8, Paul uses imagery of nurturing infants and agriculture to describe their state of immaturity and the collegial process by which ministry should be conducted. In verse 9, Paul transitions from imagery/themes of agriculture to architecture. Architecture was an excellent reference point for the Corinthians, especially since the Corinthian columns were one of the three famous Greek styles (Doric and Ionic were the other two column styles) for buildings. In short, Paul used multiple angles in an attempt to engage his audience.
Paul expands the edifice metaphor by identifying roles and responsibilities in the construction process. He does this to help the audience understand that the church was established upon the salvific work of Jesus Christ, and that the job of the believers is to build upon that work – ‘we are God’s servants, working together’.
Interestingly, Paul states that in this construction initiative, each builder has options concerning the type of material used. The materials are as follows:
3. Precious Stones
Paul says that the materials used will be quality tested by fire to ensure that they meet the standards of kingdom construction projects. The heat and light of God’s fire will reveal all.
If we look at these material options in terms of toughness, we see that God’s fire will identify enduring service. Service that starts out enthusiastically and then fades when the applause and novelty fade away will be distinguished from service that continues faithfully through times of comfort and trial.
If we look at these material options in terms of market value, we see that God’s fire will identify extravagant service. Service that is ad hoc, over promises and under-delivers will be distinguished from service that is prayerfully planned, under promises and over-delivers.
If we look at these materials options in terms of accessibility, we see that God’s fire will identify extraordinary service. Service that is done casually and with minimal effort will be distinguished from service that produced blood, sweat and tears.
Toughness, high market value and difficult accessibility – these three terms describe gold, silver and precious stones. Accordingly, fragileness, low market value and easy accessibility – these terms describe wood, hay and straw. By using these metaphors, Paul is giving us easily understood clues and advanced notice on how we should live for Christ and how we should serve the cause of Christ. While we still have time, we need to give Jesus ‘fireproof service’.
Admittedly, Paul‘s terms are colorful but not crystal clear. In verse 13 when he talks about ‘the Day’, to what day is he referring? The day of Christ’s return? The day of final judgment? Was this a term that the Corinthians understood? Is this an eschatological reference that could only be understood by cross-referencing epistles? And is the fire a literal fire? Does it refer to the persecution of the church in the first century? Without question, Paul was brilliant, but sometimes he spoke through a glass darkly.
So what is the takeaway for us? We know that we have been saved by grace through faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We know that the Holy Spirit is sanctifying us and molding us into the image of Christ. We know that we should read the bible, pray and attend worship. We know that we should love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. But how can we be sure that we are giving God ‘fireproof service’? We know that we are not saved by our works, but Paul implies that our works/Christian stewardship will be on the table for evaluation. Since God does not issue report cards or mid-year performance evaluations, then how can we know how we are doing? It will be too late for mid-course corrections when we stand before the Master. Is there a metric, a rubric – anything that can serve as a proxy for ‘fireproof service’?