Be Careful How You Build

1 Corinthians 3:9-17

Tom Pennington  •  July 26, 2015
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Well, tonight it is our joy as a church, and as the elders to ordain Peter to the full-time gospel ministry. I want to offer Peter my congratulations to you. I know that this is the culmination of many years of very hard and difficult work. Tonight is a special occasion where we reach really the culmination in many ways of what he's been preparing for. Peter, you have trained for many years to serve in Christ's church. And soon, and very soon you're going to be doing that as the Lord supplies for you to go and begin to do full time what God has called you to do.

And so, we're excited about that. And I thought about as you anticipate that opportunity and as you anticipate the beginning of a life of full-time ministry; I want to charge you tonight with the solemn charge that Paul gave to the leaders of the church in Corinth. It's really a fitting motto I think for our ministries, for all of us who serve in some capacity in the church, who are leaders in Christ's church. It's this, be careful how you build, be careful how you build.

Let me give you some context. In Corinth, the fleshly attitudes of some of the Christians there had caused them to exalt their leaders unduly, and then they rallied behind those leaders as if the Christian leaders in the church were somehow rivals. And apparently some of the leaders there were not only tolerating, but perhaps even encouraging this kind of partisan politics in the church. So in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul introduces two beautiful metaphors to teach the Corinthians and us, about the proper attitude and the mindset that we should have about leadership in the church. The first of those metaphors is an agricultural metaphor. You can see it in verses 5-9, planting and watering and reaping.

The second metaphor comes in verse 9. Let me read it for you. In the middle of verse 9 he says, "You are God's field, God's building". There he introduces the second metaphor.

According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

It's really not surprising that Paul would use this metaphor of a building to describe the church, because Paul was a son of the city. He was born and raised in Tarsus, one of the largest cities in the ancient world. He was trained in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, the great rabbi. And he spent 18 months in Corinth on his second missionary journey, a great city known for its massive buildings. It's where he developed a love for these people and why he writes them this letter. Paul probably wrote this letter, the first letter to the Corinthians, during the nearly three years that he spent in another large ancient city; a city I've had the privilege to visit along with Corinth, the city of Ephesus, home to one of the greatest buildings of the ancient world.

So, Paul was a man of the city, and as such, it's not a surprise that he chose this metaphor. The church he says, the church of Jesus Christ, a local church like the church in Corinth, is God's building. It's leaders are fellow workers on God's massive building project. It's in that context that Paul issues this sobering imperative. You see it in verse 10, "But each man must be careful how he builds." Now in the context it's clear that this command is issued primarily to the leaders of the church. In the first metaphor, the metaphor of a field, the believers of the field and the leaders of the Church are the workers. The same distinction rather, exists in the second metaphor. Believers are the building, and the leaders of the church are those who build. So, while this passage can be rightly applied to all Christians, and as we go through it tonight, I trust you will learn some things about your own life and your ministry for Christ; ultimately this passage applies to those who are committing themselves and are committed to ministry in the church, as the leaders of the church.

The warning here "be careful" is a common Greek word for seeing. Here it means, I want you to contemplate, I want you to direct your mind to this, I want you to think about this, to weigh it carefully. It's a command for every leader in the church to be constantly reassessing how he is building in the life of the church.

Peter, we can't deal with this text in the detail it deserves. There are a lot of verses here and you know how slowly I normally go. But my goal tonight is to persuade you to make this text the blueprint for your ministry. Because Paul does more here than give us a warning, he really tells us how to build in the life of ministry that God has called us to. He lays out the blueprint for the building of the church. He gives three foundational instructions for how to build the church. Let's consider these instructions together.

The first instruction is this: build on the right foundation; build on the right foundation. Look at verse 10, "According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it." Paul here likens his role as an apostle to that of a skilled master builder. It's a Greek word that occurs only here in the New Testament, the word is architékton. The Greek word, obviously the word from which we get our word architect. An architékton was the craftsman who had the greatest experience and skill on the particular job, and he was therefore given comprehensive responsibility over the entire building construction. Plato, the great Greek writer said that the architékton contributed knowledge rather than labor. He helped direct the work of others; a great parallel to the pastor/teacher in the church. He is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry. Paul is arguing here that God in His grace had chosen him to oversee laying the foundation of the church. He says like a skilled master builder, like an architékton, I laid the foundation.

In the ancient world, laying a foundation was absolutely crucial. It wasn't like we see today. Instead, large stones were meticulously and carefully shaped to make sure that the angles were exact, and they were laid in place. And then the rest of the building, every other stone in the building was laid and trued against those foundation stones.

Paul says, there's only one legitimate foundation for the church verse 11, "For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ." Now don't misunderstand. Paul is not saying here that it's impossible for a church leader to try to build the church on a different foundation. Happens all the time unfortunately, happens around us, we see it. We get flyers of churches where this is happening. What Paul meant is that if you build on a different foundation it will not be the church, or at least it won't be the church of Jesus Christ.

So, it's crucial to understand then what this foundation is. Notice here he simply says the one which is laid, or the one which is already in place. In other words, Corinthians, the foundation I laid when I planted the church there in Corinth. Paul is emphasizing his apostolic authority and the initial work that he'd already done there in Corinth. Notice the foundation itself, he describes it as simply Jesus Christ. What does that mean that he laid the foundation of the church Jesus Christ?

Well, about six years after Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians, he wrote another letter to the church in Ephesus and the surrounding churches there; and in that letter he further explains this metaphor of the foundation. Turn with me to Ephesians 2, Ephesians 2. He uses several metaphors here for the church. We're like a kingdom; we're like a family. And then in verse 20 of Ephesians 2 he uses the same building metaphor, the church is like a building. We have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. Here Paul fills out this idea of the foundation, and he gives us greater insight into what he means back in 1 Corinthians. Notice what he says, specifically, "the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets." That refers to those through whom revelation came in the early days of the church; and of the foundation, Christ is the cornerstone.

Dr. James Rosscup in his doctoral dissertation on this very passage writes this, "As a cornerstone then, Christ is the foremost stone placed at the corner, most determinative to the foundation, strategic for the lay of the walls and of the entire building." So, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians that he laid Christ Jesus as the foundation, he means, all the truth that God had revealed through Christ and about Christ that came through His apostles must be what the authentic church is built upon. He's talking about the truth revealed through the apostles and prophets about Jesus Christ.

Now put this in the context of 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. The Corinthians, they were tempted to build the church on human wisdom and human ingenuity. Paul wanted them to see, look, when it comes to building the church there are only two possible foundations. Either you will build your life in ministry on human wisdom, or you will build it on divine revelation. Those are the only two choices. To build on another foundation is simply to build on anything that isn't revealed in this Book.

If you want to build a true church, you must build on the foundation that has been laid, the New Testament revelation that came from Jesus Christ through the apostles and prophets and is about Christ and His work. In other words, the foundation, ultimately, is this Book. That's the point. If you build on a different foundation, it won't be a church. Notice in verse 10 Paul adds, "I laid the foundation, but another is building on it." Another here refers to the leaders of the Corinthian church. By application, the leaders of any church, the leaders of this church and Peter, as you go, to you ultimately; of course, to every Christian in one sense or another, we all contribute to the building in one way or another.

You see the picture behind this text is that of a massive ancient temple that took multiple generations to complete. This is how it was in the ancient world. They built things beautiful and majestic and to last, and that took a long, long time. It took the Ephesians 120 years to build the temple of Artemis. It took Herod 90 years to complete the temple in Jerusalem. When it comes to the church of Jesus Christ the cornerstone has been laid. The Master Builder has completed the foundation and everything that happens after that has to be squared up to the foundation that has been laid.

It's important for us who lead the church today to understand that for generations before us workers have followed the plans and have continued to build, and we're just part of the latest generation of workman who were just supposed to follow the plans, stick with the program, just build by the blueprint.

You know we live in a day when every guy who wants to, every guy who desires, without the laying on of hands, without the recognition of giftedness, just goes out and hangs up his shingle and starts a church in the nearest strip mall and does church however he wants to. Paul is saying here, "No, that's all wrong." We are part of a multi-generation massive building program, and the plans have already been set, just build by the blueprint. Just do what the church is supposed to do. Don't try to recreate the church. Build the church on the foundation of God's revelation. This is the priority of every New Testament leader of the church. Elders are supposed to guard the truth, proclaim the truth, live the truth and pass the truth on to the next generation. We're to build during our lives and pass the building program on to the next generation.

It's this focus on God's revelation that really marks a true church. Many of you have come from and been part of churches, and I've certainly seen them as well, where the Word of God was not central. But it's the centrality of God's revelation that marks a true church. Martin Luther wrote this,

"The only mark of a Christian church is following and obeying the Word. When that is gone, let men boast as much as they please, 'Church! Church!' There's nothing to their boasting. Therefore, you should say, 'Do the people have the Word of God there, and do they accept it too?' Whenever one hears the Word of God, there is the church of God."

Build the church on the right foundation, the revelation of God in and through His Son. So, if you want to be careful how you build, you must first build on the right foundation.

But Paul's second instruction is: use the right materials. We see this in verses 12 -15. Notice verse 12. "Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw." Now you have to put this in the cultural context in which Paul wrote. He's using a metaphor from his own times, his own culture. In the first century gold and silver were often used as the decoration on buildings, on important public buildings. And the other four materials that Paul mentions here, these were the main building materials of the time. Precious stones, that probably refers not to diamonds and rubies but rather to granite and marble. Wood was also used for the walls and for framing. In other buildings less important buildings, hay was often mixed with mud to form the walls, kind of primitive stucco of sorts; and hay and straw were used together for thatched roofs. So, these were the main building materials in the first century.

Although, as you look at that list of six materials there is a decline in value through this list. Paul makes it clear here that he's really contrasting two different kinds of building materials. He's not talking about six kinds of building materials. He's talking about two groups of building materials. There are a couple of key differences between these two groups of materials. They are obvious.

First of all, you know is this, the first group has more intrinsic value. Also, the two groups of materials are appropriate for different kinds of buildings. Wood, hay, and straw were all used in first century buildings, but primarily in less important public buildings and in private homes. But if you were going to build a great important public building, you would use primarily valuable stone like granite and marble, and then you would decorate the building with gold and silver. I'm thinking about asking for an increase for the budget for our new building. Just kidding. Relax Brian, it's OK.

But the most important difference between these two groups of materials is that the first group of materials is not combustible. That's the key issue. You see in the ancient world, the greatest threat to buildings was fire. The people in Corinth understood this very well. In fact, in 146 B.C., 146 years before the time of Christ, Rome had burned the entire city of Corinth. It wasn't rebuilt until a hundred years later. In fact, during Paul's time Corinth was still being rebuilt. So, if you were going to build a great, important building to endure generations, you had to build with materials that weren't combustible: with gold and silver, with granite and with marble.

But in the metaphor that Paul lays out here, what do these materials represent? I think the best way to determine that is to examine the context, because Paul comes back to the future judgment that he deals with here. He comes back to it in chapter 4, and in chapter 4 in the immediate context there, he tells us the two primary ways that God will evaluate the leaders of the church. Turn over to chapter 4 and notice first of all, God will evaluate the character of our teaching and preaching. Look at 4:1, "Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and as stewards of the mysteries of God." He's talking about revelation. We are stewards of God's revelation. In this case moreover, it is required of stewards. Here's what God expects of those who are stewards of God's revelation, that one be found trustworthy.

Peter, we will be evaluated based on how faithful we are in handling the Word of God, in what we do with our stewardship of the Scripture. Are we trustworthy? Are we faithful? You know, it's interesting to note that in the New Testament, "to build" is often used for teaching and preaching. It's to edify, that's the word that's often used. So, building with quality materials then has to do with the quality of our teaching. The wood, hay and straw do not necessarily in this context refer to outright error, but rather to inferior, poor-quality teaching.

We will not only be evaluated on the character of our teaching, but also on the content of our hearts. Notice how he goes on in verse 3 of chapter 4:

"But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted;" I don't know my own heart, "but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time," that is the time of judgment, evaluation, "but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God."

In other words, motives, motives in ministry are an essential part of what determines reward.

You know it's interesting when you look at Corinthians, the first couple of chapters, the first three chapters really, you see Paul lay out a series of contrasts and motives between himself and the leaders in Corinth. In fact, each paragraph highlights the contrast between Paul's motives and the motives of some of the leaders in Corinth. I wish I had time to take you through these passages, but let me just give you a brief outline. If you want to build well in terms of the motive for ministry, here's what you do. In 1:10-17 have this motive, a desire to encourage loyalty to Christ rather than loyalty to yourself. This is what was dividing the church in Corinth. Paul was all about promoting Christ; building loyalty to Christ not to himself. That's the motive we should have for ministry.

A second motive is found in 1:18-31. And that is, we should have a desire to elevate the glory of God in the gospel rather than our own glory. He contrasts the two in that passage. You can only live for one person's glory. Either it's going to be your own, or it's going to be that of Jesus Christ in the glory of Christ in the gospel.

In 2:1-16 we learn another motive we ought to have in ministry, and that is a desire to promote the wisdom of God in His Word rather than our own cleverness. We all know guys who stand up and want to appear clever. They want to be the object of attention. A true minister wants people to see the wisdom of God in His Word.

In 3 :1-9, we should have the motive of a desire to magnify the work of God rather than our own accomplishments. Paul says, "Listen, all I did was plant the seed. You know Apollos watered, but it was God, it was God who produced the results." This is the motive we have to have for ministry; to elevate the work of God rather than our own accomplishments.

Now don't miss Paul's big point here. You can build the church on the right foundation of God's revelation, and still use worthless materials; weak, inferior teaching, or you can do it with heart motives that are all about yourself, and someday Christ will evaluate the materials you've used. Look at verse 13, and this applies across the board folks, not just for leaders, but it applies for all of us. When we do ministry in the church, what's our motive; what are we trying to accomplish? Christ will evaluate the materials we've used. Look at verse 13, "Each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work."

Notice the extent of Christ's evaluation, each man's work. His judgment will be individual, it will be comprehensive, and it will be without exception. Every one of us will stand at the judgment seat of Christ. Notice the basis for the evaluation. It's the quality of each man's work. The nature of the evaluation is described for us here in four verbs in verse 13. The work will become evident. How? The day will show it. That is, the judgment will show our work in its true character for what it really is. The work will be revealed means to unveil its true character. It will be revealed.

And notice how he puts it, the fire itself will test the quality. Paul compares Christ's evaluation of our ministries to fire sweeping through a building. Now fire here represents the penetrating, all searching omniscience of Christ on the day of judgment as He evaluates the quality of every Christian's ministry, every Christian's work. And notice, there are only two possible outcomes on that day. Verse 14, "If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward." Paul here uses the ordinary language of work and wages. He basically says, "Listen, if your work passes the owner's inspection you get paid, you get your wages." Now, don't misunderstand Paul. He's just playing along with a metaphor. He's not saying that we actually earn a reward in the true sense. Any reward we receive will be just as much grace as our salvation. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10, "I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me." Grace is what enables us to serve and grace is what will extend rewards to us.

But here's a question, what will our reward be? Ever thought about that? If our work passes Jesus inspection, if our ministry is deemed by Him to be valuable, we receive a reward. What is the reward? Well, the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 seems to teach that our reward will consist of two things.

Number one, our Lord's praise. And even here in this text, as we saw in chapter 4, "Each man's praise," verse 5, "will come to him from God." Can you imagine what that will be like? To stand before our Lord Jesus Christ and having served Him faithfully, with the right motives, having done ministry His way, having given our lives to serve Him; we stand before Him and we hear, "Well done, well done good, faithful servant." That's part of the reward, is to hear our Lord's public praise.

But there's another part of the reward according to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, and that is a greater capacity for service in eternity. Our opportunities for service in eternity will be determined by Christ's evaluation of our effective service here.

But tragically there's a second possible outcome of the judgment. Some will receive a reward, but notice verse 15, "If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire." The Greek word translated "suffer loss" was another one of those words used in ancient building contracts. One writer explains that in the ancient building contracts this word was used to denote penalties that were levied on laborers for various offenses, including shoddy work. You suffer loss if you do shoddy work. Workmen had their wages reduced for poor workmanship.

Paul says in the same way, the Christian leader who builds with poor materials doesn't get paid. He suffers the loss of reward. But notice, he himself will be saved. His work will be lost, but his ultimate spiritual rescue from God's wrath is not at stake. He will be saved and yet notice this, "yet so as through fire." A lot of Christians worry about what does that mean. The picture here again, Paul is still in this building metaphor and the picture is of a builder who has done, shoddy work; who has short cut on the quality of the materials, and suddenly a fire breaks out, and he runs from the building that he created as it collapses, barely escaping with his life. He dashes safe from the flames, but with the smell of fire on him.

Six months after I moved to Texas, we had one of those super-cell thunderstorms sweep through the Dallas Fort Worth area. It was our first real exposure to that. And we huddled in our home and waited till it passed, and it passed, and we thought all was done. And then there was a stray bolt of lightning, and it was so close it shook the house. It was deafening in the roar of the thunder that was produced. We knew it had struck nearby, but we didn't think any more of it until about five minutes later we heard the sound of fire engines on our cul-de-sac. Went outside, and I stood with my arm around my neighbor as his house burned. The fire that night evaluated the lasting quality of every material it touched.

Peter, don't ever forget that someday you will stand before Jesus Christ, and He will evaluate the character of your teaching, your faithfulness to be a steward of the mysteries of God and the contents of your heart. What were your motives in serving Him? And if He decides that you didn't use the right materials, then everything that you've given your life to will be burned up. You'll get into heaven as one who barely escaped the fiery collapse of the building you created. But if you do build a church on the right foundation. If you do take care with your teaching, take care to your own life and your own personal holiness, if you do what the Scripture requires of us, if you do it for the right reason; then you will receive a reward, the praise of your Lord and a greater capacity to serve Him forever. D. A. Carson writes,

This ought to be extremely sobering to all of us who are engaged in vocational ministry. It is possible to build a church with such shoddy materials, that at the last day you have nothing to show for your labor. People may come, feel helped, join in corporate worship, serve on committees, teach Sunday school classes, bring their friends, enjoy fellowship, raise funds, participate in counseling sessions/self-help groups. But if the church is being built with large portions of charm, personality, easy oratory, positive thinking, managerial skills, powerful and emotional experiences and people smarts; but without the repeated, passionate Spirit-anointed proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, we may be winning more adherence than converts.

There's one last instruction that Paul gives to the leaders of this church. Not only build the right foundation, use the right materials.

Thirdly, remember the rightful owner. Look at verses 16-17. Verse 16, "Do you not know that you are a temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you?" The church that we are involved in building is nothing less than the temple of God. It's the sanctuary of God. In other places in the New Testament as you know, the individual Christian, his body is called the temple of God. But here the entire church is compared to a temple. In Old Testament Israel, God specially manifested his presence you remember in the Tabernacle, and then later in Solomon's temple. But in the New Testament, the church is where God manifests His presence. Not talking about this building; we sometimes talk about this is God's house. This isn't God's house. God doesn't live in this place. God dwells among His people, we the people of the church. We, the church at Countryside is the temple of God. The church is the modern-day Holy of Holies. The leaders of the church are not building; we're not building a house for ourselves, where we get to decide what materials we'll use, and what we think it should look like. We're building a temple for God.

Verse 17, "If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are." Now Paul is still talking here primarily to the leaders of the church, although the application is universal. The Greek word for destroy in verse 17 can mean "to destroy", but it can also mean "to injure" or to "mar." And I think that's a better translation here, because again this Greek word was used in ancient building contracts, in the context of a worker's personal liability, if he damaged the work that had already been done by others.

I worked in the building trade for many years. As I was working my way through college and seminary, I worked as an electrician. And let me tell you, it was very common for workers to carelessly damage the work of other trades. You'd have to come back and repair something where another trade or tradesmen had damaged the work you'd already done.

Paul's point here is that if you are careless with the church, and the leaders harm the work God has already done, then God takes that very seriously. He will deal with such leaders in kind. You harm God's sanctuary, God harms you. That's what Paul is saying. Perhaps nowhere in the New Testament does God make it clearer how important the church is to Him. Damaging the church, damaging the work that has been done by the generations that have gone before us is a serious thing, and it comes with a serious penalty. In the Old Testament, the penalty for defiling the temple was death, and God is just as jealous of His spiritual temple, the church, as He was of His physical one. How do we damage the church? How can we damage the church? D. A. Carson again in his excellent book on this passage gives us a sample list.

"Here's some ways we can damage the church; raw factionalism, rank heresy, taking your eyes off the cross and letting other more peripheral matters dominate the agenda will do it, building the church with superficial conversions and wonderful programs that rarely bring people into a deepening knowledge of the living God, entertaining people to death, but never fostering the beauty of holiness or the centrality of self-crucifying love, prayerlessness, bitterness, sustained biblical illiteracy, self-promotion, materialism. All of these things, and many more, can destroy a church and to do so is dangerous. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

Don't ever forget that what we're building doesn't belong to us. The church, the people of the church are God's temple, His Holy of Holies in which He dwells. And if you destroy or injure God's temple, He will harm you.

Peter, you've never borne the full responsibility for the church, but you soon will in the months and years ahead. And as you move into that role, it's important to remember that you don't get to decide how you're going to do it. You're part of a multi-generation, a two-thousand-year-old building program. The foundation's been laid. All you have to do is get in the line of the godly people who've gone before you and stick with the plan. Build it the way the foundation in the revelation's been laid. Do it for the right reasons. Use the right materials and remember the rightful owner. Be careful how you build.

Let's pray together.

Father, thank You for this amazing passage of Scripture. A passage that applies to all of us who are involved in the church, but Lord especially to those of us who are leaders in your church. Help us to take this challenge seriously. Lord, help us to be careful how we build.

Thank you for Peter. Thank you for their desire to serve you; for the work that's gone on in their lives to bring them to this night. Lord, may they take up the mantle that has been laid on us here, to simply do the work in their generation that was begun by our Lord and by His apostles. May we build on the right foundation. Lord, may he use the right materials. May he be concerned about the stewardship of Your Word. May he be careful in his teaching of and in his understanding of it. May he remember that one day he'll stand before You and give an account for that and for his motives. And Father, may he always remember that the work is not his, but that it's the work of our Lord, and He is the rightful owner, and He calls us all who build to account. Father, thank you again for this wonderful occasion, and yet a solemn and serious occasion.

We bless you in Jesus' name. Amen.