Sermon: “Our Individual Contributions” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
Listen to the Sermon:
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.1 Corinthians 3:12-15
May the Lord bless the reading and preaching of his word as we study this together this morning.
Some of you are getting over the shock of realizing that you have something underneath that snow called grass. After that snow has been melting away, what was hidden from view for many months now, you see grass again and you begin preparations for spring. Pull out the lawn mower, change the oil, in order to mow the lawn again. It’s not just that we have to shovel snow in the winter, spring and summer are coming and we have to mow the lawn at that time.
When I was a child first learning to mow the lawn, I remember a time when everything was new and exciting. I still enjoy doing it to some degree, but not as much as when it was new. When I had first learned how to mow, I went to mow my grandparent’s lawn. They had a big lawn and they took immaculate care of their lawn. When they set me up to start mowing their lawn that day, they introduced me to a self-propelled mower. Now I had never seen this magic in my life, but apparently instead of pushing this heavy machine, you just pull a bar and walk behind it. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen, up to that point in time, in my life.
My grandmother warned me, she said, “Make sure you go at the lower speeds, you won’t do a good job unless you go at the lower speeds.” I did what she said, I was going at the lower speeds. It was a little slow for my taste. I thought to myself, “I don’t need to go this slow.” So, I bumped it up a bit. I didn’t misunderstand what my grandmother said, but I was pretty sure I would be okay.
So, I moved it up a little faster. I thought, “This is fun and if this is fun wouldn’t a little more be great?” By the end of the time I was racing; doing sprints through the lawn after this lawn mower and I was having a great time. By this time, I was really proud of myself and I went into my grandmother and bragged a bit. I said, “Did you see, I went at the top speeds.” My grandmother, who was a woman of very few words said, “I know, I told you not to didn’t I?”
My grandparents cared much about their lawn. I didn’t see the problem, I was a child. It didn’t seem to me like it would be a big deal if I went at a speed that she had forbidden me to go. What I didn’t realize that as I was racing to keep up with this self-propelled lawn mower, I wasn’t doing a good job. I was missing things. Their immaculate lawn was not up to the standard that they wanted from it.
There was a part of me then, and part of me even now as I relate to authorities in my life, and especially I think that gives us insight into the way that we often relate to God. Very often we think, why are there all of these rules? Why should I be constricted when quite frankly I don’t think I need it? Why do we need a whole book of things that I need to follow and obey? Won’t I be okay if I do things the way that I think that they should be done? What’s the big deal?
We become rubbed the wrong way and projecting unfair characterizations on those who are in authority over us. They are just micromanagers, really things would be okay if I we just did things my way as I cut these corners. Then we project on our authorities that nothing will ever be good enough. If nothing is ever good enough, then I’m just going to do it the way that I’m going to do it.
Is that true? God has a high standard certainly, it’s absolute perfection. Is he a micromanager and task manager? Is nothing ever good enough for him?
The scriptures tell us nothing less than perfect is good enough for him. The scriptures also tell us something remarkable. Our big idea today is, ”What God requires, he himself provides. What God provides, he rewards.”
God is not cruel. God is not a micromanaging task master for whom nothing is ever good enough. God has the perfect standards for us. Even though we have fallen shor; what God requires, he himself provides. What God provides, he then righteous.
You may be familiar with Augustine, one of the early church Fathers who wrote a book, “The Confessions”. The whole book is a prayer to God and at one point he breaks out and says, “Give me the grace to do as you command. Then command me to do whatever you will.” If you are the one providing for it, give me the grace and then command me to do what you will.
As we look at this passage, we will see three elements as we think about God’s grace toward us and the way that permeates every aspect of our lives.
- The Requirement of God’s Righteous Gospel
- The Revelation of God’s Righteous Gaze
- The Reward of God’s Righteous Grace
The Requirement of God’s Righteous Gospel
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 1 Corinthians 3:12, ESV
This foundation, what is Paul talking about? He talks about that in the previous verse, verse eleven.
11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.1 Corinthians 3:11, ESV
Paul is talking about the foundation that God laid when the Father sent his son into the world. When the Son took upon himself a human nature. When the Son in humble obedience did everything that he was required to do as a human being born under the law. Until that obedience took him all the way to the point of death.
Then our Lord, God the Son, the one who existed from eternity past, who had entered into human history, gave up his life as he suffered and bled and died on the cross. When Jesus Christ was crucified, God finally established the foundation that he had been planning to lay since eternity past. Jesus Christ and him crucified, the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The verse before that, in verse ten.
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.1 Corinthians 3:10, ESV
There he laid a foundation. Paul wasn’t the author of this foundation; he wasn’t the philosopher behind this foundation. He was just the one who built this church on the proclimation of what God had done by providing Jesus Christ and him crucified for our sins.
In verse ten, he said not only did he lay a foundation, but someone else is building upon it. The idea Paul says, is there is this foundation, Jesus Christ and him crucified. That is what I established in your midst. Not because I had done it, but I proclaimed to you what God had done. The church was based on that, but now all of you have this role and responsibility of building on that foundation. You are called to be construction workers, to build on top of what God has established in your midst, Jesus Christ and him crucified.
With that context, let’s go back to verse twelve. Paul is now talking about how we build on it. He talks about the materials we use. He says, “Now if anyone builds on the foundation”, then he lists six materials; gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw. We should notice, as many people point out, these are listed in descending value. However, Paul doesn’t make a point per say about the various values of these materials.
One commentator said, if gold is the most valuable, let us build with all the gold we can. That’s true, we should try to do the best job we can in this construction project that God has entrusted to us.
However, that’s not really the point that Paul is making. We are going to see the point that Paul is making isn’t the different values of gold vs. silver. He’s talking about a specific quality that they either have or don’t have. Either they are non-combustible, they can withstand the fire coming on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ when he tests the work of the temple, or they won’t. They are either non-combustible or they are combustible. Either they will withstand the fire, or they will burn up.
In this light, we see that there aren’t just six different materials, but there are two groups with three materials in each. The non-combustible materials involve gold, silver and precious stones. What Paul is saying is that if you want something that will withstand the fire, you will have to build with gold, silver and precious stones. We will have to define what he means in a moment, but just stick with the imagery for a moment. On the other hand, if you build with wood, hay and straw, those materials will burn up.
The issue is whether these materials will withstand the fire. But a third question we have to ask is, why these materials? If gold, silver and precious stones, why these materials instead of other non-combustible materials? The issue has to do with the specific construction project that Paul is talking about. He’s talking about a temple.
A few months ago, we looked at a text for the sermon from 1 Chronicles 29, the capital campaign. When God’s people were called to raise the materials needed for Solomon’s construction of the Old Testament temple. David said, so far, I have been able to provide for the house of my God as far as I was able. The gold, for the things of gold, the silver for the things of silver. Then skipping down he says he provided colored stones, all sorts of precious stones and marble.
Gold, silver and precious stones are materials that are fitting for the construction of the Old Testament temple. Not just the Old Testament temple, but you also see these materials shows up in the New Testament temple in Revelation 21. That great text at the end of time, when you see the church coming down out of heaven, like a city, like New Jerusalem. It’s filled with gold and precious stones.
18 The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.Revelation 21:18-21, ESV
These are temple building materials. Paul says make sure you are using materials fitting for a temple. What he is saying is, materials that will withstand the fire. What’s his point here? We’ve stayed on his imagery; we want to take care that we want to build with the right materials. Materials that are fitting for a temple. But what does he mean by here?
What Paul is talking about in this imagery is that it’s not only that Christ is the foundation of this temple, but as we continue to build every part of the construction of the church, which by the way this temple is the church. In 3:16, Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
He’s saying, not only must we build on the right foundation of Jesus Christ, but everything that we are building with, the gold, silver and precious stones, these also refer to church. This is about how we must build every aspect of the church upon the gospel of Jesus Christ. You see the gospel is not just the message about how we get saved initially, though it’s not less than that. The gospel is a proclimation of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ, but it speaks to the entirety to how we are to build the church.
Not as though we are the ones building it of our own strength. We are simple construction workers whom God uses. Not because he needs us, but because he chooses to use us as his instruments to build his church. He says we have to take care not to lay a foundation by starting to talk about Jesus and then moving on to talk about these different things that are not Jesus. In the context of what we have studied in 1 Corinthians, he’s talking about everything else in human wisdom.
Here’s how we apply this. Very often in our lives, it is very easy to think that we have gotten beyond the purity of the gospel. We think that we have gotten beyond the basics of the gospel. I get that Jesus thing, but I need something more than that. I need something to deal with how I’m struggling with this sin or what sort of job I’m supposed to take.
In fact, what God is calling us to do is to go deeper, or further up and further in, into Christ. The gospel tells us how to get saved. John 3:16 declares,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16, ESV
If you are here this morning trying to figure out what Christianity is all about, it’s about how God loved you so much that he gave Jesus Christ to be crucified for your sins. Great, extraordinary love planned from before the foundations of the earth were laid, that God lavished on you and for all those who turn to Jesus Christ in faith.
Anyone who looks to Jesus Christ in faith, the promises are that we will be saved. However, there’s nothing ever that’s less than that. But we are called to go deeper into that message. It’s much more than how to get saved. As we expand beyond the simple idea of one verse, we see the that scriptures testify to give rich and depth to what that means and how it plays itself out in our lives.
The way that we go further up and further in in Christ, is by studying more deeply God’s word. To see all of the fullness for what God has prepared for us in Christ. So personally, the way we apply this is by laboring to go deeper into God’s by his Spirit. We must read the Bible regularly, carefully, prayerfully. We must pray that God will give us hearts to see, ears to hear and hearts to understand what he has prepared in Christ for those who love him. Not only that, but to read it regularly, carefully, prayerfully as we ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit to apply it in our lives.
Personally, on a personal level, Christianity must be going further up and further in Christ by his word and by his Spirit.
At a broader level as a church, the word must be the foundation of our ministry and mission because God’s word testifies to Jesus Christ. More than the foundation of our ministry, the word must be the entirety of our ministry. That we build up upon the firm foundation as we continue to build people up in Jesus Christ.
It’s not that we move on from the gospel of Jesus. It’s that we go deeper into it. Any ministry that tries to deviate from it, something outside the purity of the gospel of Jesus, because we think that we’ve gotten this, is something that will inevitably lead us astray.
God’s requirement is what he himself provides, his own righteous gospel. We dare not take away from it, we dare not add to it. Instead we must try to grasp it for everything that it is worth. It will take all of eternity to do that. What God requires; he’s announced by his mercy in the gospel of Jesus.
We also need to take care, not only that we only build with gold, silver and precious stones, but that we continue to lead ourselves deeper into the gospel by the grace of God. Also, that we avoid the kinds of ministry that happen apart from God’s word. Ministry that Paul describes here as wood and hay and straw.
Why would we want to build with those materials? Those materials are cheap and easy to use. You can build a church that looks outwardly impressive. But here’s what Paul says; as impressive of a structure we may be able to build with things other than the gospel, when God is going to reveal the quality of our work by his own righteous gaze.
The Revelation of God’s Righteous Gaze
13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 1 Corinthians 3:13, ESV
Notice he’s not talking just in a general sense about our work as Christians. If you’ve ever been part of a group project and you’ve been just going along with the flow and when everyone turns in their project, you get the grade that everyone else has earned because you have just free ridden along with it. It doesn’t work this way.
This kind of gaze that the Lord Jesus Christ will bring, will expose each of our work. The work of each one will be made manifest. The teacher is going to come, and he will see everything that you specifically have done as you seek to build upon this foundation.
What’s this day he’s talking about? We know that this day is coming, but we do not know when it is coming. Paul talked about this earlier in 1 Corinthians 1:7-8, he says
7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:7-8, ESV
The day is the day of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s the day when Jesus Christ will return to judge the earth. The judgement that Paul is talking about here is not the separation of those who know and love and trust the Lord Jesus, going into their eternal glory, separate from those who reject Christ and will go to their eternal condemnation.
Rather, this is a judgement that has to do with those who are in Christ, verse twelve, these are the people who are building on the foundation of Christ and him crucified. At the end of the day, what Paul is saying is that our work will be judged by the chief building inspector. The Lord Jesus is coming to judge the temple, the way that we have built upon the foundation of the gospel. The way that Jesus is going to judge this is with fire, because the work will be revealed by fire and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
When Jesus comes as the consuming fire himself with blazing glory, he will test our work. Each one of our works will be judged on the scrutiny of his blazing gaze.
Perhaps you were like me a couple of weekends ago continuously watching as the news kept on saying, this dam has failed, this levee has broken. As the flood waters were spreading across our state, one by one all of the things that had seemed reliable these levee looked like they could do the job, though we never saw the water rise this high, we thought they would work even with a great hundred or two hundred year flood. Yet the day came when all of those things were put to the test. What seemed previously to be reliable and safe, eventually failed. Some things proved they were up to the test, but others did not.
This is why it is so critical that we are so diligent to build Harvest Community Church on the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s so easy to build a church with things that look externally impressive. It’s so easy to build a church around strong personalities. It’s so easy to build a church around the hot cultural and political topics of the day. Or to preach therapeutic messages to the emotional and psychological problems of people. It’s so easy to hold up a promise of material prosperity, if you just do these things you will be rich and have your best life now. You can draw huge crowds to that message.
Perhaps, a little closer to home, for those of us in our tradition, it’s so easy to build a church around smug theological pride. You can think of things to build a church on other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. They will look good and you can take pride in them and you can be pleased in them and think that they are solid and secure. But when the day comes, like when the dams and levees failed, and the damage was catastrophic.
The day is coming when the consuming fire himself, Jesus Christ, will come in fire to put everything that we have done to the test. whatever we have done outside of the gospel of Jesus Christ will be burned up. We are just unworthy construction servants. We have a duty. We don’t get to write the rules here. When Jesus tells us that the construction needs to be just so. We can’t pridefully ignore that instruction, like how I ignored my grandmother’s instruction on how to mow her lawn.
We may think it’s okay, we may think that it’s going to go faster than if we did its Jesus’ way. But at the end of the day the work will be tested and evaluated. God will reveal our work at the day of the Lord Jesus Christ when he inspects our ministry with the blazing fire of his righteous gaze. God has provided what he requires through the gospel. We’ve got to be faithful to build with that.
Here’s what Paul goes on to say. God isn’t this, nothing is ever good enough task master. What Paul goes on to say in verse fourteen and fifteen, is that the whole reason for testing our work, is because God intends to hold up a promise of a reward.
In section one, the requirement was God’s righteous gospel. The revelation that we just looked at was God’s righteous gaze. Now we see the reward.
The Reward, God’s Righteous Grace
I want you to think about that. Righteous means that the right thing has been done. If you have a righteous judge, it’s a judge who punishes the guilty and acquits the innocent. Yet grace means unmerited favor. It’s someone who doesn’t get what they deserve. Isn’t this a contradiction in terms, to talk about righteous grace?
Paul talks about this in verse fourteen and fifteen,
14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.1 Corinthians 3:14-15, ESV
That word for reward is a word that we just saw a few verses earlier, but it’s not translated as reward in the English Standard Version, so I want to show you what this word is, in 3:8. Paul using the agricultural image of a vine that grows and spreads through the entire earth to fill the earth with God’s glory. “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages, according to his labor.” That word “wages” is the same as is translated “reward” in 3:14. Paul says that if our work survives, we will receive a reward or wages.
How do we think about these things? Five principles that we will walk through quickly here.
1. When we think about what precisely these rewards are, the Bible doesn’t tell us the exact nature of these rewards. We should not speculate about the jewels in our crowns, or the mansions we stand to inherit, or the returns on the investments when we give financially.
All of the language in the Bible is metaphorical. It doesn’t mean that it’s not true, there are rewards to be gained. However, the Bible is telling us about something we can’t imagine, so we should be careful in speculating too much about the nature of these things.
2. The Bible differentiates salvation from these promised rewards and wages. Salvation is one thing; rewards are beyond mere salvation in Christ. Remember in verse twelve, whether they are people whose work survives or is burned up, are people who are building on the foundation. Now look at verse fifteen, those whose work is burned up will in fact be saved. Salvation is different than these rewards but notice that there will be a great loss. Their work will be burned up and there will be nothing left for which to receive a reward. You can be saved without receiving a reward is what this text is teaching.
One of the clearer insights into what rewards look like come in the parable of the talents. In Matthew 25 when Jesus is taking about the parable of the talents and the workers come a present, you gave me five talents, here’s five talents more. What the master says, he praises them, “Well done good and faithful servant.”
The reward isn’t something beyond the master, beyond Jesus. Imagine coming into the presence of Jesus, he accepts you into glory, you are saved, but while everyone else is told, “well done good and faithful servant”, the Lord doesn’t say that to you. For while you knew Christ, you squandered your opportunities, times, talents and treasures by spending them on things other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a terrifying thought. Don’t waste your life.
3. Despite the Bible teaching us about rewards, the Bible never suggests that God rewards us because of our personal merit or because we put God in our debt. Earlier when we sang “Jesus Paid it All”, there was a line that said, “For nothing good have I, whereby your grace to claim.”
I don’t have a right to claim anything from Jesus. In fact, 1 Corinthians is one of the clearest in all of the Bible about this. In the next chapter, in 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul says that everything we have is because God gave it to us by his grace. What can we boast about? Everything we have is only what we have received by grace. At the end of this letter, Paul says that even the work we do is because of God’s working in us to give us the motivation and energy to work.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.1 Corinthians 15:10, ESV
No human being will boast in the presence of the Lord, 1 Corinthians 1:29. Our rewards have nothing to do with our merit. You will not stand in the presence of God and say, “You owe me, look at what I have done.”
4. Even so, even though these are not in accord with our merit, what we deserve is hell and condemnation forever, everything we have is by grace. Even so, the Bible teaches that our rewards are in accordance with the work that we have done. 1 Corinthians 3:8, “Each one will receive his wages according to his labor.” 1 Corinthians 3:14, “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.”
We will be rewarded, not according to our merit, but in accordance with the work that we have done. How can this be? How can you put these two things together? This brings us back to our big idea. What God requires, he himself provides. What God provides; he rewards.
What we have, what God requires, he gives us by grace. By grace God gives us faith, calls us to salvation through Christ, gives us the motivation and energy to serve him obediently. It’s grace upon grace, until we get to glory and if any of our works survives, there’s one last extraordinary work of grace, that all that we have done that God has enabled and provided for us God is going to turn around and for some reason he’s going to reward us for that. Grace upon grace.
But we still have to ask the question is this righteous? Is God playing fast and loose with this? Is he unrighteous to reward us like this? The answer comes back to what God has provided for us in Christ. The reason God can reward us, the reason that God can save us and bring us into glory is because Jesus paid it all.
Jesus has accomplished everything. Because we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus because he was clothed in our sin. Because Jesus paid it all, we stand to be rewarded with what he deserves. To be fellow heirs, to be joint heirs with Jesus. We are going to inherit the kingdom not because we have personal standing to do so, but because Jesus Christ has adopted us as his brother. We stand as children of the highest God through Jesus Christ.
5. Here’s what we are supposed to do with these promises of rewards. That God has promised to righteously in Christ, demonstrate his grace through Christ. These rewards provide us with motivation. You might think of these are the opposite of apostasy. For all of those who God has taken ahold of their lives, you have an assurance of salvation that if you are in the Father’s hand, no one can pluck you out of the Father’s hand. You cannot finally apostatize, because the work is God’s from first to last.
Yet the scriptures are filled with warnings not to disobey. Those serve as guardrails to keep us from disobedience. Rewards then are like motivations to keep us toward obedience. Because Jesus wants to motivation both to keep us from harm and to keep us faithful by seeking the praise and condemnation, he will give us on the last day.
“Well done good and faithful servant.” Do you want to hear that? Is that your heartbeat to hear that on the last day? Do you live for that? Or, do the rewards and wages of this world tempt you away from what God promises to provide and reward you in Christ.
Here’s how to fight this. Personally, internally, we need to fight this fight by practicing the discipline of seeking God’s reward. Meditating on God’s word. Ponder the glories of the king and his kingdom. Take each of the promises and consider them. Pray that God will increase your desire for the spiritual riches that he has lavished on you in Christ. Pray that you will be filled with the Holy Spirit so that you will be given the energy to do all that God calls you to do. then rejoice in the promise that God piles grace upon grace.
Also, practice the discipline of sacrificing what this world has to offer. We don’t talk often about fasting, but it’s worth mentioning in this connection. Do you feel that you are addicted to the things of this world? Fasting is a practice that the scriptures hold out to us to teach us to be weaned off of the things that this world has to offer. There’s nothing wrong with food, we should praise God for the good gift that he gives us in food. But when we withdrawal for a time, from a good gift that God promises us in food by fasting, we train our bodies not to crave the bread that comes by the hands of man alone, but the bread that proceeds from the mouth of God. When our bodies fast from food our souls can feast on Christ in his word and by prayer.
This is also one of the reasons that we practice generosity. Whether we are talking about our regular tithing giving weekly or monthly. It’s an opportunity to wean yourself off of the stuff and money of this world. It’s also an opportunity in this campaign to practice generosity. We’ve been talking a lot about that.
If God doesn’t open your heart, in 1 Chronicles 29 everyone brought their contributions and they rejoiced. They weren’t thinking about how they were going to replace that. They rejoiced with a kind of spiritual joy that we can only have when we love the rewards that God gives rather than what we can gain from this world.
Externally we need to find ways as a church to proactively building on Christ the firm foundation. Is there someone you can initiate a regular Bible study with? Is there someone you could invite into your home through Biblical hospitality as you minister to them over food and at your table. Is there a ministry at Harvest where you could cheerfully and sacrificially give of your time and talents? It’s not whether God has called you to build on Christ, it’s how we will build on Christ.
Brothers and sisters, this isn’t work we are called to do begrudgingly for a task master. This is an opportunity that we have to experience grace upon grace as God lavishly showers his generosity upon us in Christ and then rewards us righteously in Christ on the last day. May we all take care how we are building upon Christ and him crucified.
Let’s pray. Father, we ask that you would give us grace to serve you, to follow you, to walk after you, to be humble in our obedience toward you. We ask that you do this to build us up in Christ. Never let us begrudge your generosity, never let us think of you as some who asks of us hard things, but as a God who loves to lavish generous mercy and grace in Christ upon us as your children. We pray that you would do this in the hope of glory that your provided for us in and through Jesus Christ our firm foundation. It’s in his name we pray. Amen.