I have been preaching through 1 Corinthians on Sunday evenings, and plan to preach most of my upcoming sermons by continuing our study of this powerful letter from the Apostle Paul.
Thus far we have seen in this letter that Paul is in the middle of an ongoing argument. From chapter 1 verse 10 all the way into chapter 4, Paul is making a sharp and direct case against the quarreling and division going on in the Corinthian church, specifically quarrelling and division surrounding ministry leaders.
The Corinthian believers had gotten distracted. They had steered away from the central focus of the Christian faith. They had let worldly values and worldly desires creep into their minds and hearts, and the church had been suffering for it.
To counter this, Paul has been seeking to re-align their priorities, to re-anchor them to what is of first importance. The foundation of Paul’s argumentation has been a clear understanding of the cross. The cross is what demonstrates true wisdom, as opposed to worldly foolishness. The cross is what explains to us who God is, who Christ is, who we are, how we are made right with God, and how we ought to live.
And then goes into another discussion in chapter 2 about the Holy Spirit. This may seem like Paul himself has become distracted, but this discussion of the Spirit is an important part of his arguments against divisions. The only way we come to see the cross as the wisdom of God and foundation of the Christian life is by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit reveals true wisdom, because true wisdom is only spiritually discerned. Thus, if the Spirit’s prior work is the only reason we’ve come to embrace Christ, then what is to come of our pride and boasting? It is brought to nothing.
Then we get to chapter three, which takes the theme of the Spirit, of being made spiritual and having true wisdom revealed to us, and compares that with what is found in Corinth. The Corinthians believers had been acting in a way that was contrary to the Spirit. They were acting like spiritual babies, infants in the faith, as demonstrated by their strife and division. These were the fruit of their immaturity.
And he moves from there to begin re-casting their understanding of who their ministry leaders actually are, and what they actually do. Rather than fighting and splitting over our favorite preachers and leaders, we need to rightly understand their role, particularly in relation to God’s role. And that role is of a servant. Of a worker. Of a table waiter.
He then uses the farming analogy in verses 5-9 of chapter 3. He says “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” God gave the growth. Not Paul. Not Apollos.
Ministry leaders are to faithfully plant and to water, but without the work of God giving growth, all ministry labor is done in vain. Thus, our faith must rest in God alone, and not in mere men.
And that leads us to our text today, verses 10-15. In this passage, Paul switches to a different but complementary analogy, comparing the work of ministry to the construction of a building. He moves from an agricultural metaphor, to an architectural metaphor. We’ll see that we all have a role to play in God’s plan, not just our leaders.
Let’s read 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
We’ll examine our text this morning by asking ourselves 4 questions, and answering them by moving back and forth a little bit in our passage. 4 questions for us to consider, both corporately as a congregation of believers, and 4 questions for each of us to reflect upon as individuals. And each of these questions relates to the idea of foundation. Foundation.
First question from our text: What was their foundation? What was their foundation? This is a pretty easy question to answer, and that’s ok. I thought I’d start with a softball. The answer is Christ and Christ alone.
Look again at verse 11: “11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” This is a wonderful and well-known verse. In fact, this verse is actually carved into a beautiful piece of stone on the East side of our North wing, facing the live oaks right out there. If you’ve never seen it, you should go look at it after the service.
“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” This is a fundamental principle that Paul feels he must re-emphasize for the struggling church. It is what is of prime importance. And it is significant for every church and every believer of every age to consider because we are always tempted to build a church and build our lives upon other things.
Churches sometimes build their congregations upon preferences: what kind of music, what kind of style, how many services, what kind of programs they offer. Sometimes, even doctrinal preferences become the foundation. I’ve seen some congregations get so wrapped up in a doctrinal label (like Reformed or Wesleyan or even Baptist) that they actually undermine their foundation of Christ alone in favor of whatever their favorite doctrinal predilections are.
Or sometimes the foundation is built upon demographics. We can have a church for the rich and a church for the poor, and a church for the white people and a church for the black people, or whatever demographics you like, to the exclusion of others, which undermines the foundation that Christ has laid.
Sometimes churches even build themselves upon the foundation of otherwise good things, like ethics. We can have a church built upon a common ethical framework or endeavor. We can be a church devoted to social action and seeking justice in society. A church devoted to helping the poor. A church built upon shared pro-life activism. Pick your favorite ethical battleground, and you can build a congregation upon it. Just know that you can’t build a church upon it.
But the temptation doesn’t stop there. Congregations are also tempted to build themselves upon the foundation of charismatic leaders. You can see it throughout church history; people will follow a winsome and articulate leader right off a cliff. Arius was a worship leader in the early church, and he nearly split the church through his false teaching. Socinius was another who, through his unbiblical doctrine of Christ, led thousands astray around the time of the protestant reformation.
Joseph Smith is another, who has led millions astray with his teachings around Mormonism. Don’t be fooled by their inclusion of the name Jesus Christ in their church’s title: the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Christ they preach is not the Christ of the New Testament, and they have sought from the beginning to lay another foundation other than the one that was laid at Calvary, a foundation instead laid upon Joseph Smith and his golden plates from “god.” Winsome and charismatic leaders can be a subtle temptation to drift from the only true foundation for a church.
But what about us personally? Have you ever considered what the foundation of your life is? Is it Christ, or something else?
Are you building your life upon something in your past? Maybe you had some religious experience long ago, and that’s what you point to as your ticket to heaven. Or maybe you point to being baptized, as if that alone is a foundation that can support genuine faith.
Or maybe your building your life upon something in the present: your identity, your job, your family, your wealth, or even how you feel in the moment. It’s easy to build our lives upon these things. We can be fooled into thinking that we’re doing OK spiritually because our kids are well-behaved, or our finances are stable, or our job is secure, or our conscience isn’t bothered.
Brothers and sisters, be warned, if you are building your life upon such things, you are in danger. Any one of those things can be washed away in a moment. They are fleeting, and the only reason you possess such blessings is because of the sovereign good pleasure of our God. Like Job, they could all be taken from you in an instant, and thus none of them make for a lasting foundation.
We must always remember that Christ alone is the only possible and lasting foundation, both for our church and for us as individuals. We must be like the wise man who builds his house upon the rock, and not the man who builds his house on sand. Christ is our rock, the stone of our salvation. He is our foundation. He is the only one that cannot be moved when the rain comes and the floods rise.
Trials will come, and if you’re built upon worldly things, your structure will collapse. But if you are building upon Christ as your foundation, you will stand secure. No trial can crack him, no stock market crash can undermine him, no calamity can shake his sure footing. He is the only stable foundation.
Are you building upon him alone as your foundation? Ask yourself a few questions to find out.
- When trials come, who or what do you run to?
- When you’re really anxious, what is it fear?
- When you’re stressed, how do you cope with it?
- Do you seek to medicate the pain with drink? Do you retreat into distraction through social media, or entertainment?
- Or do you run to Christ, as your only sure foundation of hope?
If you’re not built upon the rock of Jesus Christ, be warned that you are on unstable ground and your whole world will collapse, either in this life or the next. Christ alone is to be our foundation. That’s the answer to our first question.
Second question is this: How was this foundation laid? How was this foundation laid? Look back at verse 10:
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.”
From this verse we see that great care was to be taken in laying a foundation. Great care is to be taken.
Paul came to Corinth and went with intentionality about his work. We see that throughout the first two chapters. His ministry effort was marked by intentionality, by great carefulness. Chapter 2 verse 2: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He decided to do it that way, and any wise decision requires care and consideration.
He even uses a technical term for his role in verse 10. He says that he worked as a “master builder,” which we might equate to a foreman or a superintendent. He had an eye on the plans and an eye on the project. He was dutifully overseeing the laying of the foundation, checking its edges, check to ensure it was level, checking to make sure it was plumb and in line with the plans of the architect.
In short, he was making sure that the Corinthian church was founded upon the doctrine of Jesus Christ and him crucified, not on anything else. He took great care to ensure that their faith, their lives, and their congregation were all upheld by the deep footings and re-inforcement that only Christ as their foundation could provide.
We would do well as individuals and as a church to often reflect upon ourselves to ensure we’re founded upon Christ and Christ alone. This is similar to our previous point, but we must take care, like a master builder, to ensure that we’re still founded upon Christ and Christ alone.
More than once in the New Testament do the Apostles encourage us to examine ourselves. Examine your life, examine your faith, test yourself, to see if you are still founded upon Jesus, depending upon Him and Him alone for salvation and life.
Here are some diagnostic questions for you, to perhaps help you carefully examine your foundation:
- When you look at your life, do you see that you are growing in your faith, or have you remained stagnant?
- Do Christ and the things of God bring you joy? Or do you see the things of God a hindrance to your joy in this life?
- Do you demonstrate more of the fruit of the spirit than you had a year ago, 5 years ago, a decade ago? That’s a tough one, but not even global pandemics excuse us from the duty to mature in the faith, to grow in holiness.
- Are you now, this moment, trusting in Christ alone as your only source of life and strength? Or are you depending upon your own faithfulness, your own good works, your own virtue?
We would be wise to often reflect upon questions like these, and to examine ourselves with great care, in order to make sure we’re still building our lives upon Christ and him crucified.
Jordan will be preaching tonight on the nature of genuine faith, and I can’t wait to see how his message complements what Paul is saying here. I hope you’ll come back to hear more about biblical, joyful, authentic, Christ-dependent faith.
How is our foundation to be laid? With great care to ensure that Christ alone is our foundation.
Moving on to the Third question for us to consider from Paul’s statements: Who laid the foundation? Who laid the foundation of the church in Corinth?
The answer, again, is not difficult: it was Paul. Paul laid the foundation. But what makes that significant for us, what makes that important, requires a little more attention. Part of the significance lies in the fact that God makes fit any person who lays a foundation. God makes suitable any master builder, any minister, any preacher, indeed, any believer who is working on this heavenly construction project.
And who was this Paul? Let me read a couple verses from Acts chapter 9, and let’s hear a little bit at the history of this master foundation layer.
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Rather than being a master foundation builder, Paul actually started as a man on a mission to destroy the foundation. He sought to snuff out the fledgling church, to destroy its members, to undermine God’s heavenly buildling plan.
Now listen to Acts 18, where we can see a little more of the biography of this now master foundation layer. It is in Acts 18 that we of Paul’s work in founding the church of God in Corinth.
Acts 18, starting in verse 9: “9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.”
Paul goes from being someone who delighted in hunting down God’s people, into someone who was specifically called by God to the work of building up God’s people in Corinth.
That’s the power and glory of the gospel: it transforms once enemies of God into co-laborers. The message of Christ and him crucified, the only foundation, changes us from those that were actively opposed to God, into those that actually conform to and love his plan.
On our own, we sought to destroy God’s work, we were like Paul: we lied, we stole we coveted, we lusted, we argued and bickered and demanded our own way, like the Corinthians were doing.
But God has come, he has sent his Son to come and bear the weight of our sin and to take upon himself the punishment and condemnation that we deserved. That is the message of Christ and him crucified. Not merely that he has died. But that he died in the place of his people. He was the substitute. Our sinfulness and guilt have been counted to him on the cross, and his righteousness and atoning death have been counted to us.
And all we have to is believe. All we have to do is to trust in this great savior proclaimed in the message of the gospel, and by trusting, turn away from the sin that so greatly dominated our lives up until that point.
God is the one who transforms. God is the one who makes any of us acceptable and fit to be a part of his building, just like Paul transformed Paul and made him the fitting apostle to the gentiles.
Back in our text, Paul says he laid the foundation. But even more than that, Paul says that others are building upon it. “like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it.”
This is significant for us to see: in the mysterious plan of God, he not only transforms us, but grants that each worker in his building has a role to play. Each of us is called, each of us is transformed and made a part of the building project of God, but we’re not called to salvation and that’s it. We’re called to be fellow workers.
Just as one example, Hebrews 10:24 says, “24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” We’re all to be used by God to stir one another up, not to bickering and fighting like the Corinthians, but to stir one another up to love and good works.
That means your role is vital in the building plan of God’s church. How could I not take part in the body, somebody might not get the stirring up that they need, and suffer for it? They may not get their needed encouragement. How could I not play an active role in the life of the body?
This is important. The plan of God is for His encouragement, His stirring up, to often come through the lips and presence of other believers, and if I am regularly missing from the assembly, I will be preventing part of the body from having all the encouragement and stirring up that it was intended to have. That’s why the very next verse in Hebrews 10 warns us against neglecting the gathering of the church.
All believers have been transformed, just like Paul, and all of us have a role to play in the building up of the church upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Let us not neglect the body, not rob the body of its needed encouragement and stirring up, and instead lean into the body of Christ, the building project of the Lord, and stir one another up by pointing back to the foundation that was laid for us at Calvary. Let us remember together our foundation.
Next, moving to our final question: How is the building project tested? How is the building tested? The shorter answer is by fire. But the full answer we see in verses 12-15:
“12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
This passage of scripture has been abused and contorted with immense frequency throughout church history. I’ll not spend much time addressing each of those problematic interpretations. However, I will take a moment to explain that this passage has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory.
Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that there will be a time, after death but before the final state in Heaven, where each person not in hell but not yet in heaven will be purged of their remaining sin, by fire, in a place called purgatory.
And you can see how imagery from this passage might make someone think of that doctrine of purgatory: there is mention of fire and testing, mention of burning up and exposing what is genuine and precious, and mention of “THE DAY.”
But, let’s think about this connection for a moment. Is Paul connecting his theology here to a doctrine of purgatory, as Roman Catholics contend?
I think that he certainly is not. And I think that because absolutely nothing is said about the tormenting of the builders, nothing is said about purging of sin from them, and nothing is said about the flames being used to purge remaining impurity.
Rather, Paul is speaking about the quality of the work being done by the builders. Thus, the emphasis is placed upon a clear accountability that will be given for the work of the ministry leaders.
Even where the foundation is Christ and him crucified, like in Corinth, there is still the temptation, still the danger, of later shoddy work being done.
The workers have to choose what kinds of work they will do. Builders may use “gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw.” And these six different materials are divided into two categories: the precious materials that will survive, and the worthless materials that will be burned off.
Thus, on the last day, every builder’s works will be tested by fire. They will be weighed in the light of God’s perfect knowledge and His all-seeing gaze, and will be exposed for their actual value. Either the works will survive the blaze, having their dross burned off, and thus proved of genuine value. Or they will be burned up, demonstrated as useless and worthless.
The picture here is not of purgatory, but of a building catching fire, and of someone running out. That person, the builder, will escape. That’s verse 15: he will be saved. But he will suffer loss. How much of the building that he has been working on for decades will survive the blaze? How much of his work will stand after the trial? How many leaders will make it into heaven, but whose clothes will still be smoldering because they built their entire ministries with shoddy materials?
This ought to be deeply sobering to any of us involved in any level of church leadership. It is possible to work for the church, to labor on behalf of church, to labor in the name of Christ and with the best of intentions, and have labored with shoddy materials that will prove to be worthless on the last day. To quote one author:
“People may come, feel ‘helped’, join in corporate worship, serve on committees, teach Sunday School classes, bring their friends, enjoy ‘fellowship,’ raise funds, and participate in counseling sessions … but still not really know the Lord. If the church is being built with large portions of charm, personality, easy oratory, positive thinking, managerial skills, powerful … emotional experiences, and people smarts, but without the repeated, passionate, Spirit-anointed proclamation of ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified,’ we may be winning more adherents than converts…The fundamental non-negotiable, that without which the church is no longer the church, is the gospel, God’s ‘folly,’ Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Brothers and sisters, if we are to be faithful, we must allow our work of building to be marked by two clear perspectives, two clear emphases: quality and eternity. Quality and eternity.
If our work is to be marked with quality, that means that we will be working with proper materials of gold and silver and costly stones. These might seem to be seem to be strange building materials, but Paul chose these because they are the ones that will pass through the fires of judgment unscathed. But even more than that, these are the materials that featured prominently in the building of Solomon’s Temple, the great structure that pictured the church of God and God’s redemptive plan, as we will see next week.
We build with quality when we build on the proper foundation and proper tools. We must build only upon the foundation of Christ alone, like we discussed earlier, and we must build with the proper materials of God’s own choosing. God’s word reveals for us what we are to build with, how we are to build the church, and how we are to build our lives. We can’t succumb to the temptation to build what is easier, or what is more convenient, or what is more desirable to the world, what will get us more followers or more likes. We’re called to faithful building according to the design God has laid out for us in His word, with prayer-soaked faithfulness to our only foundation, Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
But we’re not merely called to build with quality materials. We also need to build with eternity in view. With eternity in view.
Our works will be made manifest. God will expose and reveal what we have done. And this helps us to build with greater care, like we talked earlier.
Paul says in verse 14, “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.” God will reward you for faithful service. God sees your labor. God knows your sacrifice. He observes you working in ways that nobody sees.
And don’t think that I’m merely talking about the pastors and teachers, though it most directly pertains to them. God sees each of your labors, even the ones done in private, and will reward you accordingly.
As one example, for every mother who works daily at home with children, doing the same old things, changing diapers and washing dishes and managing the house: be encouraged. You’re doing glorious work that God sees, and he will reward you for such faithfulness.
Or, whenever we labor in prayer on behalf of another, remember that God sees it, and he will reward you on the last day.
Or when we give generously, God will see it, and he won’t forget. He will reward.
Of course, Paul doesn’t confuse works and grace. Read chapters 1 & 2. It’s all of grace, but we can still be encouraged that God will reward our faithful building, our slow plodding, our long-obedience in one direction, as Peterson defines discipleship. I love that: “long obedience in one direction.” That’s what the heavenly building project really is.
Before I close, I must also say that it is not just the faithful ones who will have their works tested by fire. The fire is coming, and if you are not building upon the foundation of Christ alone, then your structure, your life project, will come crashing down. That means that if you are not trusting in Christ Jesus alone for your salvation, you will be sent from the fire of testing in to the eternal lake of fire in hell.
Don’t be found burning. Don’t be without a proper foundation. Believe in him. Hear of his gospel. Trust in his work on your behalf, and you will be saved.
Come to Christ this morning, trust in his goodness, and know that no one can lay any other foundation that what has been laid in Jesus Christ.
Are you ready for that final day?
If you’re built upon the foundation of Christ, you are ready. Amen.
 DA Carson, “The Cross and Christian Ministry” (Baker, Grand Rapids: 2012), 80.