I Corinthians 3:10-23
The third chapter of I Corinthians begins with Paul stating that when he came to Corinth he spoke to them with words suited for babes (ones of limited spiritual understanding). Now (about four years later), there were divisions in the church. Why? They still lacked spiritual understanding. That which Paul writes in the text before us is applicable to churches everywhere because there are believers who have failed to grow in spiritual understanding. In the text before us, Paul instructs his listeners on spiritual things which they have ignored.
He does this in verse 10 by reminding the Corinthians (and us) that it is by the grace which God gave to him that he laid the foundation of the building (God’s building [v.9]) which they are. That which Paul laid was by the grace of God. It is by that same grace that the Corinthians (and all other believers) are saved — by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8).
“For other foundation can no man lay . . .” (v. 11). The foundation of which Paul speaks is that of God’s building. There are many religions founded by men that are built upon the false premise that man can save himself. The building that is of God is that which is built upon Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
Only God can build His building. The foundation of God’s building is Jesus Christ. All who believe that Jesus is the Promised One who came into the world, fulfilling the prophecy that one born of a virgin, should bruise the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15) are of the building which is of God.
In verse 10, Paul issues a warning concerning how one is to build upon the foundation which he laid down. All believers are of equal standing — all believe that Christ Jesus was sent by God the Father to fulfill the righteousness of the law and that Jesus gave Himself upon the cross for the their redemption. All who love God are called according to His purposes (Rom. 8:28). The works which a man does are to be according to God’s purposes. All works are built upon the same foundation — Jesus Christ.
Paul lists six building options beginning with gold (highest in value, low availability) and ending with stubble (lowest of value, abundantly available). In verse 13, each man’s works will be tried by fire to determine what sort it is.
Gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and stubble all have different appearances and easily distinguished without being subjected to consuming flames. Appearance does not distinguish the works built upon Christ. Fire alone is the test that reveals the true nature of that built upon Christ. Stubble and hay are quickly and completely destroyed by fire. Wood is consumed, leaving a charred skeleton. Gold, silver and precious stones endure. He who builds with gold, silver and precious stones shall receive a reward (v. 14).
If a man’s work be wood, hay or stubble, he will suffer loss but he himself shall be saved. In His sermon upon the mount, Jesus referenced them whose works would be completely consumed saying: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). The least shall be saved but shall be without reward. Those who live as God would have and teach others to do likewise build with gold, silver and precious stones. A man’s reward shall be determined by that which he does.
That which is built upon Christ is spiritual. Gold, silver and precious stones endure because they are of Him. The righteousness of men is as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). The righteousness of man fails the test of fire.
In verse 16, Paul turns the focus from that which individuals build to that of the entire body of Christ. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (v. 16). There is a difference between “you” and “ye.” In the KJV, ye is plural and you is singular. The temple of God is plural; it is the body of Christ. The Spirit of God dwells in each individual member of the body.
“If a man defile the temple of God . . .” (v. 17). There is a world of difference between building with wood, hay and stumble and defiling the temple of God. In the Greek which Paul penned this epistle, defile and destroy are both the same word, phtheiro. Defiling the temple of God entails harmful action. One cannot build upon the foundation which is Christ by inflicting harm upon the temple of God. All believers are the temple of God; all are of Christ. All believers are saved from destruction by God.
Believers cannot build upon the foundation of Christ through the wisdom of this world. The wise of the world imagine a vain thing (v. 20). They imagine that one can build separately. Paul, Apollos, and Cephas were all of Christ. All that each built was by grace and grace alone. There is no division. All which is built is by the grace of God upon Christ Jesus.