1 Corinthians: Chapter 3 (verses 10-17)

July 9, 2024

by Peter Amsterdam

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

Earlier in this chapter (v. 6), Paul used the metaphor of a planter, whereas now he refers to himself as a master builder who has laid a foundation. While he had done the original work of founding the Corinthian church, others were building on his foundation. He made the point that he only served to lay a foundation through the grace God had given him.

Paul reminds the readers that there will be a number of people who are called to build. He may have in mind only those leaders currently working in Corinth, but what he says applies to all Christians. Later, he will show that all Christians have gifts from God for building up the church. All Christians are challenged as to how they “build.”

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.2

Paul makes the same point he made earlier,3 that it is Christ alone upon whom the church must be built. Many might attempt to lay other foundations and to build on them, but they won’t succeed, as all other than Him are foundations of sand.

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—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.4

He now focuses on the judgment that will come upon those who build wrongly and the reward that will come to those who build properly. He uses the first of four conditions (the other three will be covered in verses 14–17). Paul assumes that some people’s work will last (v. 14) and that some people’s work will be burned up (v. 15). He is concerned about the people who are building and the materials they are using, as some works will be burned up while others will not.

Paul looks to “the Day.” He has previously referred to it as “the day of our Lord” in verse 1:8, where it is seen positively as the day when God’s people will appear before the Lord’s judgment seat. In the Old Testament, the Day refers to the coming time of judgment.5

Verse 13 shows what Paul means when he says that each one’s work will become manifest. The Day will disclose it because the work of building, and the materials used to that end, will be revealed for what they are through fire.

From the earliest times, fire has been linked in Scripture with the presence of God as one who is righteous and is Judge and Savior. He judged Sodom and Gomorrah with fire,6 He appeared to Moses in a flaming bush,7 and He descended on Mount Sinai in fire.8 In Hebrews 12:29, we’re told that our God is a consuming fire. In the New Testament, when it states that fire judges or tests, it conveys the meaning that the Lord himself will judge and test.

If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.9

Paul indicates that the builder whose work lasts, surviving the test by fire, will receive a reward. Those whose work is “burned up” will suffer loss, but they will still be saved.

Each person bears responsibility for their contribution to the building, and will receive a reward or a loss based on the quality of the workmanship. If the building goes up in smoke, the builders discover that they have labored in vain. If the building stands, the builders will be rewarded for faithful service. The phrase he will receive a reward means to receive wages for the work done. The loss referred to does not mean the loss of salvation, but rather the loss of a reward.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?10

Paul re-emphasizes that the Corinthian church is to be regarded as God’s temple and thus the believers are obliged to be unified in Christ. They are God’s temple because the Spirit of God dwells among them. Do you not know is a rhetorical question, and Paul expects them to agree with what he has written. He uses this rhetorical question phrasing eight times in this letter.11 The question usually introduces a section of the letter in which Paul is especially concerned about the practices or behaviors of the believers. Paul is emphasizing through this wording that what he is saying is foundational and should be accepted by all.

The “temple” in this passage doesn’t refer to the temple complex in Jerusalem with all of its courtyards, but rather to the building itself, the holy place. Paul sees the believers as God’s building.12 Later in this letter, Paul will refer to the believer’s body being the temple of the Holy Spirit.13 In this instance, Paul wants the teachers, leaders, and believers to understand the significance of the church.

If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.14

This is a strong warning, a decree. It may be that there were some leaders in the church that Paul was thinking about when he wrote this, those who had been promoting factionalism and causing division. Paul has moved on from talking about the works of the leaders being judged or rewarded. Now he speaks of the destruction of anyone who has played a role in the destruction of the church. In doing so, he is warning the whole church. It seems as if much of the church had been tempted to look to certain leaders due to their status, rather than looking to the Lord.

(To be continued.)

Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 1 Corinthians 3:10.

2 1 Corinthians 3:11.

3 1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2.

4 1 Corinthians 3:12–13.

5 Isaiah 66:15–16, Zephaniah 1:7–18, Malachi 3:2–3.

6 Genesis 19:24–25.

7 Exodus 3:2.

8 Exodus 19:18.

9 1 Corinthians 3:14–15.

10 1 Corinthians 3:16.

11 Verses 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19; 9:13, 24.

12 1 Corinthians 3:9.

13 1 Corinthians 6:19.

14 1 Corinthians 3:17.