1 Cor. 3:5-15

1 Cor. 3:5-15

SERIES: Christ Is the Answer When the Church Is in Crisis

Building the Church

Introduction:  Did you know that the manner in which you serve in God’s church will determine how you spend eternity?  

Now some of you are probably saying to yourselves, “Did I hear him right?  Is this Pastor Andrus, who has always preached salvation by grace, not works, now telling us that our service in the church will determine how we spend eternity?”  

Yes, that’s what I’m telling you.  But please note, I didn’t say where you spend eternity, but rather how you spend it.  The question of where has nothing to do with your hard work or service or faithfulness, but has only to do with your relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  But the question of how has a great deal to do with your work, your effort, your service, and your faithfulness.  I want to try to prove that this morning from our Scripture text in 1 Cor. 3.

This passage is about the planting of God’s field and the construction of His building–both analogies to the Church.  It describes our responsibilities in the church and the consequences of accepting or neglecting those responsibilities.  Please turn in your Bibles and follow as I read verses 5-15:

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. {6} I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. {7} So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. {8} The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. {9} For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. 

{10} By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. {11} For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. {12} If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, {13} his 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 man’s work. {14} If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. {15} If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

What makes this passage especially intriguing to me are a couple of statements that appear to be contradictory.  We are told in verse 7 that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”  But then at the end of verse 10 it says, “But each one should be careful how he builds.”  Well, if you don’t amount to anything, why do you have to be careful how you contribute to the building? 

I would respond by saying that in the first analogy Paul is simply saying there is no basis for elevating human leaders to the status of spiritual superstars.  Our allegiance should be to Christ alone, not to one human leader over another, for God is the one who produces the results.  But at the same time, that doesn’t make one’s labor for Christ insignificant.  On the contrary, it enhances it.  God, who doesn’t need us, is willing to use us to cultivate His garden and build His Church, and that gives us tremendous worth and value.  It also gives us incredibly high responsibilities, and how we handle those responsibilities is subject to divine scrutiny and divine judgment.

To many in our pluralistic, tolerant, subjective, and relativistic culture, the notion of future judgment seems crude and self-righteous.  But that is only because our society rejects moral absolutes.  If there is a creator God, and if He is who He says He is, then judgment is not only possible; it is inevitable.  It is the only way the books can be balanced.  The prosperity of the wicked in this life is evident for all to see; they simply cannot be allowed to prosper in the next life as well.

But today’s passage doesn’t deal with the judgment of the wicked, but rather the judgment of believers.  That’s a subject we don’t dwell on as much.  Some Christians even assume they are free from judgment because of verses like Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  But that verse doesn’t tell us we are free from judgment–only from condemnation. 

Rest assured I am not suggesting we will be judged in the same way as unbelievers.  The fact is the Bible makes it clear there will be two separate judgments–the Great White Throne Judgment and the Judgment Seat of Christ.  All those who die without Christ have a guaranteed reservation at the Great White Throne Judgment, while all those who have received Christ as Lord and Savior have a guaranteed appointment at the Judgment Seat of Christ.  Neither of these judgments is to determine where you spend eternity, that is, heaven or hell–that is already determined by the time you get there.  They are to determine how you spend eternity, that is, the degree of punishment for unbelievers, and the degree of reward (or loss thereof) for believers.  Today we are principally concerned about the Judgment Seat of Christ for believers.

Nothing could be clearer than that this passage is speaking of believers.  Paul starts out in the first verse of the chapter calling them spiritual brothers.  And even when addressing the unfaithful builder who sees his efforts burned up at the Judgment, he says bluntly, “he himself will be saved.” (15)  But before we get to the building metaphor, we need to take a look at the garden metaphor.

The Church is God’s garden.  

The apostle states clearly in verse 9, “You are God’s field.”  Just as a field needs workers for ploughing, planting, watering, fertilizing, cultivating, weeding, and harvesting, so also the church needs workers for spiritual plowing, planting, watering, fertilizing, cultivating, weeding, and harvesting.  And just as a farmer can do all these things and still not get a harvest—due to acts of God in nature—so also the workers in God’s church are dependent upon God for the results.  In other words, there is work we must do, but there is also work only God can do.

The work we must do is indicated by the phrase in verse 5: “the Lord has assigned to each one his task.”  Take Paul and Apollos, two leaders over whom the church in Corinth had chosen up sides.  Who were they?  Only servants through whom people came to believe.  Paul was primarily a planter, i.e., an evangelist.  Apollos was primarily a waterer, i.e., a teacher.  Others, unmentioned, did other important tasks.  But none could produce a harvest on his own.  Therefore, none should be elevated as the be-all and the end-all of the church.

You know, that’s still true today.  Billy Graham is a great evangelist, but I want to tell you something:  If Billy Graham had come to St. Louis a year ago and tried to conduct a crusade by himself without the literally thousands of people who worked for months in preparation, who trained counselors, who prayed, and who served, he would have been a miserable failure.  Let’s bring it closer to home.  If Dick and I tried to put on a worship service without the hundreds of servants who work the parking lots, operate the nursery, teach the children, prepare the music, gather on Sunday mornings to pray, etc., we would have very little to offer.  

But while each servant has a different assigned task, they all have the same purpose.  Verse 8 says, “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose.”  Paul doesn’t state the purpose here, so it must be something very obvious.  I suggest it is to make the field as productive as possible, i.e., to help the church fulfill its divine mission, including evangelism, worship, fellowship, and discipleship (which, by the way, are the four pillars of our own church’s reason for existence.  They are visualized on the large quilt in the old foyer, as well as on the back of every worship folder).  

The inference is clear that if the workers have the same purpose, there should be no jealousy or quarreling among them.  We shouldn’t be choosing up sides.  There’s a level playing field; no servant is superior and none is inferior.  Recently we have begun to de-emphasize titles on our staff.  We used to have a Senior Pastor, a Senior Associate Pastor, Associate Pastors, Assistant Pastors, etc., but now we refer to one another by function: worship, children’s ministries, youth ministries, adult ministries, etc.  

I’ve been reading The Cat in the Hat a lot lately, and I’ve found a lot of good theology in it.  My grandkids love it.  The two rascals the cat lets out of the box are just called Thing One and Thing Two.  I like that.  I think we should just be Servant 1, Servant 2, Servant 3, etc. 

Then we are informed in verse 8 that each servant will be rewarded according to his own labor.  We won’t be judged or remunerated in comparison to anyone else, because everyone has a different assignment.  Our job is simply to be faithful to our task.  This means we need to do less comparing of ourselves to others and more self-examination regarding the gifts and abilities God has given us.  

But while Paul is clear regarding the work we must do, he is equally clear about …

The work only God can do.  “Only God makes things grow.”  He says that in verse 6 and again in verse 7.  I take this to mean we are not ultimately responsible for the results, only for faithfulness to do our task.  I am so glad the results of ministry are not my responsibility.  The spiritual needs are so great, my efforts seem so futile, and the task seems so overwhelming, that I need to constantly remind myself that “only God makes things grow.”  In 26 years of ministry I have yet to convert a single soul; the only conversion that takes place is through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.

Now in verse 9 Paul switches metaphors on us, and for the rest of our passage he pursues the metaphor of a building rather than a garden, but the message is the same.  

The Church is God’s building.  

The building.  Verse 9: “You are God’s building.”  The building belongs to Him and He lives in it, according to verse 16.  Wow, that really gives significance to the Church, doesn’t it?  Paul then examines this building from start to finish.

The architect is Paul himself, as a representative of the apostles.  The Greek word translated “expert builder” in verse 10 is actually the word architekton.   Paul’s words here might sound a little egotistical except for the fact that he makes it clear his involvement is only “by the grace God has given me.” (10)  God appointed the apostles, including Paul, to lay a doctrinal foundation for the Church.

The Foundation itself is Jesus Christ.  There is no other foundation upon which the true church can be built–not any person, not any philosophy, not any creed, not any principle, but Christ alone. 

The construction workers are believers, the members of the church.  He says in verse 10, “someone else is building on the foundation.”  In verse 12 he speaks of “any man building on the foundation.”  Clearly the implications are that the job of building the church belongs to each and every member of the family of God.  Now this does not contradict the claim Jesus made that “I will build my church.”  Rather it recognizes that the means Christ uses to build His church is generally to employ believers as evangelists, teachers, mentors, pray-ers, subcontractors if you will in the building process.

The materials for the building are gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw.  At first glance it looks like there are six different kinds of building materials spoken of here.  But in fact, there are only two kinds–costly or cheap, imperishable or perishable, permanent or temporary.  

What are some examples of these two kinds of materials?  I would suggest to you that a heart of service is like gold, silver, and costly stones, while spiritual laziness and the attitude, “Let others do it, I’ve done my time,” is like wood, hay, and straw in God’s sight.  Generosity with the Lord and with His people is gold, silver, and costly stones, while selfishness and stinginess are wood, hay, and straw.  Coming to church with a heart of worship is the former; coming to impress others is the latter.  Doing ministry only after it has been bathed in prayer is the former; doing it in one’s own strength is the latter.  

When a teenager stands up to peer pressure and maintains a strong testimony, that is gold, silver and costly stones in God’s sight; when he or she bows to the pressure of the crowd, that is wood, hay and straw.  What about prejudice, both racial and social?  When a church is built through exclusivism, whether open or subtle, isn’t that wood, hay and straw?  What about politics, either preached from the pulpit or practiced in church government?  Wood, hay, and straw again.

When a pastor feeds people the Word of God he is using gold, silver, and costly stones; when he just tells interesting stories or does book reviews, it is wood, hay and straw.  Even evangelical, Bible-believing preachers can be guilty of building with wood, hay and straw.  I came across a sermon preached by Charles Haddon Spurgeon in 1875 to a group of fellow clergy.  It’s a little lengthy but extremely profound.  Listen to that prince of preachers:  

“I know a minister whose shoe latchet I am unworthy to unloose, whose preaching is often little better than sacred miniature painting–I might almost say holy trifling.  He is great upon the ten toes of the beast, the four faces of the cherubim, the mystical meaning of badgers’ skins, the typical bearings of the staves of the ark and the windows of Solomon’s temple:  But the sins of businessmen, the temptations of the times, and the needs of the age, he scarcely ever touches upon.  Such preaching reminds me of a lion engaged in mouse‑hunting or a man‑of‑war cruising after a lost water‑battle. 

More and more I am jealous lest any views upon prophecy, church government, politics, or even systematic theology, should withdraw one of us from glorifying in the Cross of Christ.  Salvation is a theme for which I would fain enlist every holy tongue.  I am greedy after witnesses for the glorious Gospel of the blessed God.  O that Christ crucified were the universal burden of men of God.  Your guess at the number of the beast, your speculations and conjectures concerning the antichrist‑‑forgive me, I count them but mere bones for dogs; while men are dying and hell is filling, it seems to me the veriest drivel to be muttering about an Armageddon at Sebastopol or Sadowa or Sedan and peeping between the folded leaves of destiny to discover the fate of Germany.

Of all I would wish to say, this is the sum:  my brethren, preach Christ, always and evermore.  He is the whole Gospel.  His Person, offices, and work must be our one great, all‑comprehending theme.  The world needs still to be told of its Savior, and of the way to reach Him.  Justification by faith should be far more than it is the daily testimony of Protestant pulpits; and if with this master‑truth there should be more generally associated the other great doctrines of grace, the better for our churches and our age.” [i]

The reason Paul exhorts us so seriously about the materials we use in building God’s church is that someday there is going to be an inspection.

The inspection will be concerned with the quality of our workmanship.  Look again at verse 13 and 14: “His work will be shown for what it is, because the Day (i.e., the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgment) will bring it to light.  It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.”  Nowhere are we told that God will test the quantity of our work.  If quantity were important, the thief on the cross wouldn’t have a chance at the Judgment Seat of Christ.  He didn’t have even one day to serve Christ.  

But God isn’t numbers-driven the way we often are.  I don’t think I will ever be asked by God, “How many people did you preach to each Sunday?”  But I do expect to be asked questions like, “How faithful were you to my Word?  Did you preach in the power of the Spirit rather than in your own power and intellect?  Did you live at home what you preached at church?”  And I think you will be asked similar questions.  “Did you honor my name in your business?  Did you teach your children the truths of God’s Word?  Did you love your spouse as Christ loved the Church?”  

None of these questions involve official positions in the church, but they are, nevertheless, critical issues to building the church, the family of God.  Church building has as much to do with thought life, prayer life, motive, parenting, hospitality, and love for people as it does with teaching Sunday School or preaching or ushering.  

Now consider the result of this inspection of the quality of our work.

Remuneration: i.e. reward or loss.  Consider first:

1.  Reward for workmanship of eternal quality.  There are literally dozens of passages which speak of rewards in heaven.  Much of this comes in the form of word pictures about crowns: a crown of rejoicing for bringing people to Christ (1 Thes. 2:19); a crown of righteousness for loving His appearing (2 Tim. 4:8); a crown of life for enduring testing with love for the Lord (James 1:12); a crown of glory to elders who are faithful to their responsibilities (1 Pe 5:4).  I don’t know the exact nature of these crowns, but they are at the very least signs of honor.  There is an indication in Revelation 4:10 that we may not even wear these crowns, but rather lay them before the throne in gratitude for our salvation.

But there are other passages that speak of rewards in terms of responsibility and privilege.  In His parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19, Jesus talks about the servant who is faithful investing his resources (ten minas) and is therefore given commensurate responsibility (he is put in charge of ten cities).   Another faithful servant, who received five minas, is put over five cities.  And a third servant, who did nothing with the resources entrusted to him, not only receives no cities but is stripped of his resources; they are given to the first servant.  In response to the objection, “But he already has ten!” Jesus says, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.”  (19:26)

The cities the Lord assigns in this parable are probably representative of the privilege and responsibility believers will receive in the coming Kingdom.  The reward for faithful work here is more work there.  Now to a lazy person that might not seem very attractive, but most of us know that work is itself a gift from God.  When it is meaningful and not overly stressful and exhausting, it is incredibly satisfying.  I strongly suspect that one of our rewards in heaven will involve meaningful, satisfying work.  

None of these passages on rewards teaches that we can earn our salvation.  Eternal life is a free gift; it comes to us by grace through faith.  But rewards are a different matter.  I wouldn’t exactly say they are earned in the sense of a day’s pay for a day’s work, for God rewards His children out of His generosity, not because He is under obligation.  Nevertheless, our reward or lack of the same isrelated to what we do in this life.  Dependability and faithfulness on earth translates into greater responsibility and privilege in heaven.  

I have already hinted at the fact that the remuneration coin has another side, but let me speak more directly to that issue.  There will also be … 

2.  Loss for workmanship of shoddy quality.  Have we as believers given sufficient attention to this issue of loss?  I think if we’re honest, most of us would have to admit that we have viewed the Judgment Seat of Christ primarily as a kind of awards ceremony where we will pick up our ribbons–some blue, some red, some white, but everyone will get a ribbon.  It’s not unlike Little League today, where every kid gets a trophy, whether his team won every game or lost every game.

But does that do justice to the severity of the picture offered here in 1 Cor. 3?  In the first place, the inspection involves fire.  “The fire will test the quality of each man’s work.”  We have generally assumed that fire belongs only to the wicked in hell, but here we are told there will be a fire of sorts for believers at their judgment as well.  Probably a figurative term, it nevertheless conveys the possibility that much of what we do in this life may go up in smoke.  That’s serious, friends!  Total loss of reward!  Standing naked before God with no trophies to lay at His feet! Barely saved by the skin of one’s teeth! 

Then it says in verse 15, “If (what a man has built) is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”  Clearly some believers are in for something other than rewards.  They will receive divine chastisement for slothful, careless living at the Judgment Seat of Christ.  Alan Redpath writes, 

Any conception of the judgment seat of Christ which gives us the idea that it is going to be–what shall I say?–a happy prize-day for the Christian when everything else about his life is completely overlooked and forgotten, is far from the truth.[ii]

Consider some other well-known verses that we have too often ignored when it comes to our judgment:

(Romans 14:10‑12)  “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. {11} It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'” {12} So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

(2 Corinthians 5:10) “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”

(Hebrews 4:13) “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Just the thought of being laid bare, stripped of every outward facade of respectability, and openly revealed for what we really are should cause many of us to tremble.  Erwin Lutzer has a chapter in his book, Your Eternal Reward, that is entitled “Tears in Heaven.”  He writes,

 “I believe there are good reasons why there will be tears in heaven.  When we reflect on how we lived for Christ, who purchased us at such high cost, well might we weep on the other side of the celestial gates.  Our tears will be those of regret and shame, tears of remorse for lives lived for ourselves rather than for Him who “loved us, and released us from our sins by His blood” (Revelation 1:5).  Perhaps we would never cease crying in heaven if God Himself did not come and wipe the tears from our eyes (Revelation 21:4).” [iii]

Now to understand how our sins can be forgiven and, at the same time, we are judged, we must distinguish between punishment on the one hand, and discipline on the other.  Both are painful, but they have very different purposes.  Punishment has a backward view–making you pay for something you’ve done.  Discipline has a forward view–helping you to become all you can be.  Christ bore our punishment and paid the only penalty possible for sin.  We will never have to face the fire of punishment or condemnation.  However, the fire of discipline and chastisement at the Judgment Seat of Christ is something we will have to face.  

That shouldn’t be so difficult for us to understand, for it is a spiritual law built into the very warp and woof of God’s universe that consequences follow behavior like night follows day.  Remember Galatians 6:7?  “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”  We know plenty about the present consequences of sin, whether it be STD’s for promiscuity, liver disease for drunkenness, poverty for gambling, etc., but what we often ignore is that the consequences of how we live will follow us even into eternity, even for believers. 

Conclusion:  Let me close with an analogy I have used before, but I think it is sufficiently helpful to repeat.  Graduation ceremonies are one of those milestones everyone looks forward to.  Everyone who graduates is glad to get out of school–there are few tears at graduation other than tears of joy. Those who have studied hard and have done their best will receive commendations on their diplomas which read, cum laude, or magna cum laude, or even summa cum laude.  The valedictorian and salutatorian may even receive cash awards, in addition to the privilege of addressing their classmates.  Some of the athletes who went the extra mile may get trophies.  

Everyone at graduation is happy to be there, but some are happier than others.  Some may have remorse at the knowledge they frittered away their time and barely graduated.  They may feel even more remorse when they see the top students receiving responsible jobs with excellent pay, while they go to work in a fast-food place because they are under-qualified.  

No analogy is perfect, of course.  The criterion at the Judgment Seat of Christ will have nothing to do with IQ or academic achievement or natural physical gifts.  The criterion will be faithfulness to the work God has assigned each member of His family.  

It’s also important to realize that a person’s life is not always evaluated correctly in his own time.  We’ve all heard of musicians whose work was never appreciated until long after their deaths.  By the same token, some people who were considered great during their lifetimes have had their reputations seriously downgraded after their deaths because of revelations of serious character flaws.  It is possible for a builder to hide lousy workmanship or second‑rate materials for a while.  But in time the plaster cracks, the ceilings sag, and the wiring breaks down and starts a fire.  

So also in the church.  It is possible to hide lousy workmanship and second‑rate materials under a facade of enthusiasm, busyness, sensationalism, and numerical growth.  But each man’s work will eventually become evident, “for the day will reveal it.”

I have a very simple question to ask as we close:  “Is your contribution to the building of the Church of Jesus Christ fireproof?”  Or perhaps another question is appropriate for some, “Are you even going to be at graduation?”  Will you be judged at the Judgment Seat of Christ, or will you instead be called before the Great White Throne Judgment?  If the latter, there will be no lawyers there to argue your case.  (Oh, there will be lawyers there alright, but they won’t be able to help you).  However, you can move your reservation from the Great White Throne to the Judgment Seat of Christ by putting your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for you that you might have the gift of eternal life.

DATE: October 15, 2000


Local church



Great White Throne

[i] From Selected Readings in Preaching, by Al Fasol (Baker Book House, 1980).

[ii] Alan Redpath, Blessings Out of Buffetings, 84.  

[iii] Erwin W. Lutzer, Your Eternal Reward, 9.