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First Corinthians 3:10-15


Paul has sharply corrected the believers in Corinth, who were following along with those who presumed to
add worldly wisdom to the gospel of Christ. Far from making the Corinthians more spiritual, Paul
showed them that they were conducting themselves like men in the flesh, with their philosophical
arguments that were creating rifts in the assembly.
We saw that Paul used a farming illustration to show the Corinthians that he and Apollos were just servants
that the Lord has appointed to bring and explain the gospel to them - they operated solely under Gods
authority.
Paul intended the Corinthians to glean from this that no one who ministers to Gods people is selfappointed, nor does he promote an agenda of his own. Ministers share the Word under the direction of
God, united with one another in His work. The Corinthian believers could hardly help but see that this was
not the case with those who were promoting the divisive thinking, in their assembly.
Paul ends this illustration in verse 9, on the note of Gods authority over those who ministered the Word in
Corinth, as well as those who received that Word, by faith. Then, abruptly, in the middle of this verse, Paul
switches to a different illustration - he turns from farming, to building. Knowing why he does this is key to
a correct understanding of the passage that follows.
Now, Paul always intends an illustration to help his listeners better understand the point that he is making.
If an illustration that he is using continues to support what he is saying, Paul continues to use the
illustration - like the farming illustration - we had workers, planting and watering seed, germination of life,
ownership of the field, etc.
So if Paul switches to a new illustration, what does that tell you? That he is making a new point, which
cannot be explained with the old illustration.
Paul intended the farming illustration to bring out Gods absolute authority in the ministering of His Word,
and in the giving of His Life - eternal Life, to those who believe.
But now, having laid out Gods part, Paul wants the church in Corinth to see that they have a part, as well in the living of that Life - a part which involves individual responsibility, for each believer there.
Paul cant show this, with the farming illustration; plants dont have any responsibility. Plants simply take
in the sun and the water provided, and they grow. But the believer is to grow in the grace and knowledge of
his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18) - a responsibility that involves personal choice. So Paul
switches from farming to building, in order to illustrate this choice - and the consequences of the choice,
for the believer.
Lets read the passage, starting at verse 9.
[First Corinthians 3:9-15]
So as Paul switches from his illustration of farming to building, we see he is shifting his emphasis from
God - the giver of eternal Life - to the church in Corinth - the believers, who received that Life.
In verse 9, the you is plural, referring to the believers in the church in Corinth, collectively. They were
the field, in which Paul planted, Apollos watered - and God gave the increase of eternal Life.

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And as Paul switches his illustrations, we understand that the church in Corinth, collectively, is what he is
calling Gods building, here. So Pauls statements that we just read are specifically pertinent to the
believers and the situation at Corinth, which sheds light on his meaning. But as we will see, what Paul is
saying certainly has a general bearing on all believers, throughout time.
Now a little grammatical drudgery - hang in there, and youll see where Paul is going, with this. In verse 9,
Paul begins with you, in the plural - the church in Corinth - but notice that he then changes that in verse
10, as he issues his warning. Then it becomes each one, and anyone - and Paul continues to speak of
one through verse 15.
Well see next time that as we continue in verses 16 through 18, Paul will do the same thing; he will begin
with you in the plural, then speak of anyone. This is not haphazard language, on the part of Paul, but
very intentional. He is speaking of the church in Corinth, in general, but then he is addressing the personal
actions of individuals in the assembly, there.
The section that we are dealing with today is about the individual believers, in Corinth - to whom Paul is
issuing a caution - take heed - be careful. The section well be looking at next time deals contains a far
stronger warning of pending judgment - Paul is saying, beware. This is directed at the individuals who
are promoting their own agenda of philosophical wisdom in Corinth.
So lets take a closer look, now.
v. 9-11 Remember that Paul is speaking of the church in Corinth, specifically. Thats the building, in this
passage. Who laid the foundation of that building, in verse 10? Paul did. Paul calls himself a wise master
builder.
What was so wise, about Paul? He had the wisdom to lay the only foundation that anyone can lay, in
Corinth - and what was that foundation, in verse 11? Jesus Christ. As Paul had said to the Corinthians, he
was determined not to know anything among them except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (2:2). Paul
intends this as a contrast to the self-promoting wise ones in Corinth, with their worldly wisdom.
We can clearly see that Paul is alluding to Jesus Christ as the Cornerstone of Gods building - that essential
first stone, which must be perfect in shape and quality, as well as perfectly laid, because the entire building
depends on it. That was Jesus - perfect in His person, perfect in His works - the Cornerstone of the entire
church, down through the ages; the universal church.
But Paul doesnt use the word cornerstone here, does he? The Greek word for foundation doesnt even
pertain specifically to a foundation stone, although we can see that is what Paul is implying.
Paul uses foundation instead of the more explicit cornerstone because foundation is used
metaphorically of elementary doctrine or instruction. It is used that way almost exclusively in the NT, by
Paul. So what Paul is saying is that he laid the foundation of the church in Corinth through his preaching of
the gospel, and his teaching of the fundamental truths concerning Jesus Christ.
This was in accordance with what God had graced Paul with, through the Spirit. The Lord had given to
Paul a foundational ministry; he preached the gospel where the name of Jesus had never been heard (Rm
15:20-21), and in this sense, laid the one and only foundation - in Corinth, and elsewhere.

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So Paul laid the foundation, and another - singular - built on it. Who does Paul have in mind, here? It
corresponds to the farming illustration. Paul planted, and another followed him in the work, watering the
seed he had planted. Who was that? Apollos; not that he was the only one, but Apollos was most likely in
Pauls mind, as he draws from that illustration.
Apollos built on the foundation that Paul had established, in Corinth. What did Apollos add, to Pauls
foundational teaching, concerning Jesus Christ? More teaching, concerning Jesus Christ; further explaining
the gospel and its ramifications, so that there was more of an understanding of the truth, in Corinth, and so
that more came to believe.
But now, Paul moves on with his building imagery, leaving the first illustration of farming behind, to make
his new point. He begins to speak of each one, in verse 10 - each one must take heed how they build on
the foundation, Jesus Christ.
We might think that Paul had specifically in mind anyone teaching the assembly in Corinth - building on
the foundation that he had established, there - cautioning them about what they are building with. But Paul
will address those who are misleading the assembly with a stronger warning, starting in verse 16 - as well
see, next time.
So who does Paul intend, here, by each one? Who, in general, has Paul been correcting, in this letter?
All of the believers, in Corinth; all of those who were following the lead of others, to incorporate worldly
wisdom into the gospel of Christ.
These believers were acting like men in the flesh; like babes, who were still absorbing the elementary truths
of the gospel. They werent ready to receive deeper truths yet, because they were not firmly established in
the faith - as is evidenced by their attraction to Greek philosophy.
Each one of them had believed into Jesus Christ, to be saved; each one had received His Life - eternal life
for their body. Each one was responsible now, as a son of God, to live that Life. And living that Life
depended on them continuing to take in the truth, and believing it; being built up in the faith. For the truth
is the fuel for the life of the faith.
So Paul has tweaked his illustration, to show the Corinthian believers their responsibility, as sons of God, to
build themselves up, in the faith. And before we continue, Id like to show you that this thought - of
believers building themselves up, in the truth - is not unprecedented with Paul - as well as another NT
writer.
Turn first to Acts chapter 20. Paul was returning to Jerusalem with the love offering from the Gentile
churches for the impoverished church in Jerusalem. The Spirit had shown Paul that chains and tribulations
awaited him there.
Paul stopped in Miletus and sent for the elders of the church in Ephesus, to bid a final farewell to them, and
to warn them of false teachers that would come from without and even within their assembly.
Paul charged them to diligently watch over the flock of God - as he had done, when he was with them.
Then Paul committed them to God, and to His Word. Notice how Paul expresses this to the elders.
[Acts 20:32] As the elders study the Word of God in the light of the Holy Spirit, they will have a greater
understanding of the truth. Believing the truth will enable them to be built up in the faith, empowering
their lives, their ministry, and their witness. Through faith, light becomes power.

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Notice that Paul says that this will also give them an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. As
believers, they already have received eternal life for a body of glory; thats guaranteed.
The inheritance of which Paul speaks of here is the reward that each believer will receive personally - as
Paul said in our letter, each according to his own labor - which well be discussing further today, in our
passage in Corinthians.
Well look at one more example of how believers build themselves up - we find this in Judes letter.
Jude, writing later than Paul, was warning believers regarding ungodly men who had crept into their
assemblies, unnoticed. These men were not drawn to the Lord, but instead denied the Father and the Son,
intent on promoting their own agenda in the assemblies. Jude warns of their certain judgment, by the Lord,
and then encouraged those who truly believed.
[Jude 17-21]
v. 17-19 Jude reminds them that the apostles warned them of such ungodly men - just like we see Paul
doing in our letter to the Corinthians. Notice how the mixture of thinking is causing division in this
situation, as well.
v. 20-21 So Jude exhorts them to build themselves up on their most holy faith - by growing in the grace
and the knowledge of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18). As sons of God, Jude is encouraging
them to take responsibility for the life that they have been given - to learn to live it.
[Return to First Corinthians]
So not only are believers being built up a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5), which is Gods doing, they also have a
part in the building process, in the individual living of their lives, to build themselves up on their most holy
faith - on their foundation, Jesus Christ. This is what Paul wants them to see - and he cautions each one be careful how you build on that foundation.
v. 12-15 So Paul is still speaking about each one, anyone - the believers in Corinth, individually. In verse
12, Paul continues with his building illustration, listing prospective building materials that the believer
might use to build on his foundation, Jesus Christ - six different materials.
Paul is not intending each material to be representative by itself, here. Instead, we see the materials fall
into two distinct categories: gold, silver, precious stones; and wood, hay, straw. Two very different
categories. Then, in verse 13, there is a testing of the building materials, by fire; and finally, in verses 14
and 15, there are two very different outcomes.
In this context, precious stones refer to costly stone, as in marble. Along with gold and silver, these were
materials used in the construction of the temple - where Gods presence dwelt (Hag 2:8; 1 Ch 22:14, 16,
29:2; 2 Ch 3:6). The materials were valuable, and mined with great difficulty, either because of their rarity
or the laborious effort involved.
Of course, thats not true for wood, hay and straw - theyre everywhere on the earth, and quite easily
obtained - easy to pick up, right off the surface of the earth. But what a difference in the structure, built
with them - with coarse wood sides, and a thatched roof - where vermin nest! Now, lets look at the two
buildings they would make, side by side in our minds eye. Can you see the glory of the one; and the
commonness of the other?

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What you just did is what the Corinthians would have been doing, as they listened to Pauls words. Paul
had been warning them to be careful what they built upon their foundation, Jesus Christ, whom they had
received by faith - that precious Cornerstone. The work of building on that foundation was now in their
hands.
Some in Corinth were building themselves up, on their most holy faith, mining those truths of great value,
from the Word of God, as the Holy Spirit shed His light on them. And the life of the faith that they were
building on the truth of God was well-fitting of their foundation.
But most of the believers in Corinth were like babes. They had yet to move on to solid food - because they
were not yet well established, in the faith (Col 2:7). In fact, they had begun building with some very shaky
materials - wood, hay and straw.
They had picked up that worldly wisdom that was everywhere to be found, in Corinth - and placed it
squarely on their precious foundation of Jesus Christ. It was so easy to do - and it made life a little easier,
because this way, they were more like everyone else. Common. Not so set apart. And till now, they were
willing to live - with the vermin in the attic.
But in all of their building, they have forgotten something of vital importance; of eternal importance. The
church in Corinth is Gods building. The entire church, down through the ages, is Gods building. And as
God owns that building, anything that is not of God will not endure.
And this is the key aspect of Pauls two categories of building materials. One set is flammable; the other is
not. Gold, silver and marble are not combustible, and will not be destroyed by fire. But how about wood,
hay and straw? Theyll go up, like a match.
Just as Paul is using building materials for his illustration, the fire is also not intended literally. So what
would this fire represent? A fiery judgment of punishment? It couldnt represent that, could it? These are
believers.
In this very letter, Paul has said that those who believe in Jesus Christ will be confirmed by Him to the very
end, blameless (1:8); having been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath, through Him (Rm
5:9).
The fire here does not punish; this fire tests, and cleanses. This is the fire of Gods holiness. It is a proving
fire, that searches out and consumes anything that cannot withstand its flame. In so doing, it purifies that
which endures - a transformation by which what remains is transmuted into Gods likeness - holy as He is
holy (1 Pet 1:15).
For those believers in Corinth who were building their lives on the truth of God, this was good news
indeed, as Paul indicates that their work of building will receive a reward.
But what about the many believers in Corinth who were building their lives based on the wisdom of this
world? There is nothing of God in that thinking; the fire of Gods holiness would consume that structure.
Paul makes it clear that the believer himself will not perish - because of his foundation, Jesus Christ. So
the believer himself will be saved, but he will suffer loss.
What will he lose? Hell lose whatever he has built of his life. It will come to nothing - and so he will also
lose the reward he could have had.

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Its like a person who is being rescued, plucked from the very flames that are consuming his house, which
contained everything he owned; everything he worked for; everything he valued. Its all lost. And, without
a reward, this means he will have nothing to show for his life - and that, for all eternity.
Now, Pauls example shows two complete extremes, in building - a glorious temple; a common house. And
we tell ourselves that we, as believers, are certainly not building a common house on our foundation, Jesus
Christ.
But the question is, are we building a glorious temple - befitting our precious Cornerstone? Are we
building ourselves up, on our most holy faith? Or have we built in some of the worlds thinking? Pauls
emphasis in the passage is not on the purifying aspect of the fire, but on the loss that it will mean, to the
believer - who chooses, time and again, the worlds lies, over Gods truth - and lives accordingly.
Although Paul is using an illustration, there are certain things in it that are literal. There will be a literal
Day, when every believers work of building will become clear - what they have built upon the Life, that
the Lord has given them. And there will be a literal reward, for those whose work of building endures. The
loss is literal, as well.
At first glance, it seems that Paul is saying the testing of the work, the reward and the loss, and the
manifestation of this all happen at the same time - on the Day. But there are subtle differences that we
find in the Greek, which suggest that this is not so.
In verse 13, Paul speaks of the Day as future, but uses the present tense when he speaks of the revealing
by fire, which is not brought out in the English translations (it can be found in the Interlinear, a literal
translation).
Also, on the Day, each ones work will become clear; the Day will declare it. These terms refer to
manifestation, or outshining.
But the testing fire instead reveals - it uncovers that which is concealed. These are not great differences,
but I believe that Paul is intending them to distinguish between the Day and the testing, to indicate that
they happen at different times.
Do we have evidence elsewhere in Scripture for this? We do. The testing of each ones work corresponds
to the Judgment Seat of Christ. We find it described in Pauls letter to the Romans. Turn to Romans chapter
14. Paul is admonishing the Roman believers not to judge one another, or to cause a fellow believer to
stumble, over mere differences of in customs.
[Romans 14:10-13]
v. 10 In the Greek, the word judgment seat is bema, which literally means footroom. It denotes an
elevated place, or platform. The term was used for the tribunal of a ruler or a magistrate, where he
delivered his judgments.
In this context, the bema is the divine tribunal of Christ, where He will judge those who have believed in
Him. Believers will stand before the foot of his tribunal, or throne, and He will deliver His judgment of
them.
v. 11 Paul includes this verse from Isaiah (45:23) to make it clear that every person who ever lived will be
judged by the Lord. But not every persons judgment is the same.

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Those who did not believe in Christ will be judged by Him at the Great White Throne judgment, following
the 1000-year reign of Christ, on the earth. That will be a judgment of condemnation (Rev 20:11-15).
The judgment Paul describes here, the judgment seat of Christ, is for believers only; it is not a judgment of
condemnation, but to determine reward.
v. 12 The phrase each one of us means each one of any number, separately. This means that the
judgment of each believer will be done on a personal, individual basis. It will be just between the believer
and His Lord, face to face.
In the Greek, the account given by the believer indicates that it is by word of mouth; each believer will
verbally give an account to his Lord and Master.
Pauls second letter that we have to the Corinthians brings out that this is an account of what the believer
has done in his life, whether good, or worthless; that is, of no eternal value (bad; 2 Cor 5:10).
We can easily see how this judgment, the Judgment Seat of Christ, corresponds to the fire that will test each
ones work, of what sort it is, in our letter to the Corinthians. But when will this judgment take place?
The passage in Second Corinthians suggests that the judgment takes place at the time when the believer has
left his mortal body; when he is absent from the body, and present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8); that is to say,
when each believer dies, thats when the judgment takes place, for him, personally.
The fire of the Lords holiness removes all that is not of God, consuming it. What remains is the truth of
God that the believer had built his life upon, on earth - a treasure that he had in his earthen vessel (2 Cor
4:7), which is now his heavenly treasure; his reward (Mt 6:20).
And then there will come a day when the reward that the believer received will become manifest. Its the
Day for believers. What day is that? Its the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:8); the day when He
returns from heaven, for His bride - the true church.
At that time, the spirit-beings of those believers who have died will return with Him (1 Th 4:14). Their
corrupt bodies will be raised, incorruptible.
We believers who are alive and remain will be changed, into our bodies of glory - presumably, our
judgment by Christ will take place in that brief moment, in the twinkling of an eye (1 Cor 15:52).
And as Christ catches up His bride to Himself (1 Th 4:17), each individual will receive in their body their
reward (2 Cor 5:10).
And what is that reward? The truth of God, that they had built their life in Christ upon, is now manifested
through their bodies of spirit life as the outshining of Gods glory, and it will shine out from their body,
forever.
Some will shine more; some will shine less (1 Cor 15:41); as Paul said, each one according to his own labor
(1 Cor 3:8). But all will be glory. And in that moment, Christ will present His bride to Himself - a church
of glory (Eph 5:27). That Day will bring everything to light - and that light will be seen, for eternity.
Reading: Matthew 19 and 20.