Here is a powerful passage about the church, eternal rewards, and temporal judgment. There is much in this passage for every believer.
Rewards are in view. After all, Paul says “he will receive a reward [misthos, wages].” However, there are some well-intentioned misunderstandings which can be quickly eliminated.
Misconception #1: This Means There Will Be Believers With Zero Good Works
I recently received an email from a person who cited this passage to prove that there will be some Christians who do not do one single good work in their entire lifetimes. After all, he argued, doesn’t Paul speak of someone whose work is burned up and yet who is saved yet so as through fire?
I do not think that the context supports that view.
Misconception #2: The Issue Is Good Works versus Bad Works
Note the contrasting building materials. On the one hand we have wood, hay, and straw. On the other we have gold, silver, and precious stones. What is the difference between these two groups?
I don’t think that the issue is good versus bad building materials, but building materials that endure versus those which lack enduring value.
Misconception #3: Verses 5-15 Deal with the Local Church and Verses 16-17 with Smoking and Fried Foods
As we shall see, the final two verses, vv 16-17, continue the topic of how we are to treat the local church.
Verses 5-15 deal with those who build up the local church.
Verses 16-17 deal with those who tear down the local church.
Paul and Apollos Are Wise Master Builders (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)
This passage, 1 Cor 3:5-17, breaks into three paragraphs: 3:5-9 is one paragraph, 3:10-15 is a second paragraph, and 3:16-17 is a third paragraph.
All three paragraphs concern the local church.
Paragraph 1 discusses Paul and Apollos as “God’s fellow workers,” whom Paul goes on to describe as “wise master builders” (v 10).
Paul and Apollos are examples of spiritual men (2:14-14; 3:5-9). These spiritual men led the Corinthians to faith (planted) and built them up in the faith (watered).
Paul and Apollos are “ministers through whom you believed.”
Verse 6 is the third verse in a row that mentions Paul and Apollos.
Repetition is important to notice. It is a key to Bible study.
Though verses 7, 8, and 9 do not explicitly mention Paul and Apollos, they are still in view. The one who plants is Paul. The one who waters is Apollos (see v 6).
Verse 8 shows that the context concerns Bema rewards: “each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.”
Verse 9 again says concerning Paul and Apollos, “We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.”
So in vv 5-9, we are not looking generally at the Bema. We have no unfaithful believers in view. Paul is discussing faithful workers like himself and Apollos.
How Wise Master Builders Will Be Evaluated by Christ (3:10-15)
Verses 10-15 now look further into the ministry of Paul and Apollos.
In v 10, Paul reiterates that he and Apollos are church builders.
When he says, “But let each one take heed how he builds on it,” he is expanding the discussion to all wise master builders of every generation. In Greek a master builder is an architektōn, from which we get architect.
Verse 11 is a reminder that the foundation is Jesus Christ. The foundation is not what sort of music we play. The foundation is not what type of building we have. The foundation is not what Bible translation we use. The foundation is not how many illustrations we work into our teaching. The foundation is not how good of a communicator the pastor is.
The foundation is a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ. If this local church is built on anything other than Jesus Christ, then it has a bad foundation.
Verses 12 gives two types of building materials. Wood, hay, and straw were good building materials then. Today as well. There is a lot of wood in most homes and church buildings.
Gold, silver, and precious stones have enduring value.
A house fire will burn up wood, hay, and straw, but not gold, silver, and precious stones.
The issue here is whether the works have lasting value or not.
Verses 13-14 explain that the type of building materials will be clear on that Day. “The Day” (hemera in Greek) refers to the Day of Christ, or the Bema, the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The value of the works we have done in this life will be tested at the Bema.
“Fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.”
Verse 14 shows that Paul is speaking of figurative fire at the Bema. He is saying that the Lord will test all his works, the works of Apollos, and the works of all master builders, and those works which are shown to have enduring value will be rewarded.
If the work passes the test and shows it has enduring value, then “he will receive a reward.” That is, he will receive a reward for those works which have enduring value.
Verse 15 warns that even for wise master builders there will be losses at the Bema. Again, thinking of Paul and Apollos and people like them, he says that “if anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss.” The word for suffer loss is zēmioō in Greek. It is a word that was used of contractors not being paid for part of their job. If some of what a contractor did was shoddy, he would suffer loss. That is, his pay for the job would be less than what was contracted because the contractor failed to do the entire job properly.
Paul realizes that he and Apollos will not be rewarded for those works they did which lacked eternal value.
This salvation is yet future. Regeneration is past for believers (Eph 2:8-9).
Compare 1 Cor 5:5, that is also in a Bema context. The point there is that we will only be spiritually healthy at the Bema if our fleshly desires are destroyed.
The point here is similar. Again, the salvation in 1 Cor 3:15 is being spiritually healthy at the Bema.
The spiritual Christian will be healthy at the Bema, but that does not mean all his works will be rewarded. He will be tested. And some of his works will not pass the test and thus will not be rewardable.
We need to invest our lives in that which has eternal value. Everything we give, say, or do which has lasting value will be rewarded at the Bema.
But we should watch out for morally neutral time gobblers like cell phones, television, video games, youth group ski trips, movies, sports, hunting, and fishing. There is nothing wrong with morally neutral things. But there will be little or no rewards for those things.
How Foolish Church Destroyers Will Be Judged (1 Corinthians 5:16-17)
After an extended discussion of taking care how spiritual men and women build the local church (3:5-15), Paul ends with two verses about what will happen if instead of building it up, we tear down the local church.
Paul says, “Do you not know that you [plural] are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you [plural]?”
The word translated as temple in 1 Cor 3:16-17 is naos.
In their Greek NT, Hodges and Farstad say concerning naos, “When used figuratively, naos refers to Christians either corporately (as probably here in 1 Cor. 3:16) or individually (as 1 Cor. 6:19), as a spiritual temple, God’s true dwelling place” (Interlinear, p. 591, note on 3:16).
Nearly all commentaries on 1 Corinthians understand “the temple of God” in 1 Cor 3:16-17 as referring to the local church (or the church).
Concerning verse 17, Ciampa and Rosner say, “the punishment fits the crime: if anyone destroys the temple…God will destroy that person…The reason God will destroy anyone who destroys the church concerns the holy status of the church” (p. 161).
Leon Morris in his commentary on 1 Corinthians says, “To engage in making divisions is to destroy the divine society and thus to invite God to destroy the sinner” (p. 67).
This is a sober warning, don’t you think?
The point is this: If we destroy the local church, God will then destroy us. That means that He will bring temporal judgment on us, possibly leading to premature death. But it says nothing about eternal condemnation. Paul is writing to believers, and believers cannot be eternally condemned.
The issue here is not once saved, always saved. “He who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:26). “He who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). “He who comes to Me shall never hunger; he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). “He who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
But being eternally secure does not mean that God will not act when we destroy His temple, the church. Temporal judgment will fall on all who destroy the church.