1 Corinthians 3:10–17
In 1987, a great embarrassment for the University of Washington played out on the daily Seattle news. The University had started building a new covered seating section for fans at their football stadium. Construction was progressing, and the girders for the roof were taking shape. But it all went wrong in an instant. Something snapped and in short order all that metal twisted and crumpled, leaving a tangled mess of useless steel. Where once had been the promise of a glorious emblem of University progressiveness, now stood only a heap of embarrassment.
In today’s passage, a similar scenario seems to be in view—or more exactly, a warning to prevent such a scenario. According to 1 Corinthians 3:13, “Their 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 person’s work” (TNIV). Paul was urging the Corinthians to use proper building materials and methods so that the coming fire of judgment would not destroy their work.
Fiery judgment would have been a familiar concept to the Corinthians. They would have known the Old Testament background (for example, Isaiah 66:16 and Amos 7:4). But they would also have understood destruction in the physical sense. Some 150 years before the writing of 1 Corinthians, Corinth had been destroyed by Rome. None of Paul’s first readers would have witnessed the conflagration; nevertheless, the stigma associated with the ruin would have been close to the surface of their consciousness. Thus, Paul’s language here would have landed powerfully on the ears of his hearers. Perhaps some of them might have cringed at the reference.
But, of course, Paul is not speaking about literal, sticks-and-stones constructions. He means the spiritual structures that the Corinthians should be raising. In v. 11, he indicates that the foundation is Jesus Christ, and the following verses refer to building on that foundation. The referent of his building metaphor, however, is uncertain. It could refer to building up of doctrine, but the context of our passage suggests that the referent is the building up of people. Verse 16 (TNIV) says, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple…?” Christ is the foundation of the temple, and believers are the metaphorical building blocks rising course-by-course into a magnificent edifice that proclaims God’s glory.
What, then, does it mean to build upon this foundation? It seems to me there are two possibilities, but I think both are in view. First is the quarrying and transportation of the rock to the building site. To interpret the metaphor, this would correspond to evangelization. Second comes the placement of the quarried stone into the structure. The craftsman chips and shapes as needed until each piece is perfectly formed to both contribute to the beauty of the whole and to accentuate the beauty of the individual stone. This, I would suggest, corresponds to discipleship.
But we cannot push the metaphor farther, for doing so would lead us to say that some people are gold, silver, or precious stones (the good ones) or wood, hay, or stray (the bad ones). Yet Paul is not talking at this point about the quality of the construction material (the metaphorical people). He is talking about the quality of craftsmanship, whether the craftsman made wise choices in his or her construction.
The same issue resonates with us today. We, too, must make wise choices when it comes to our work for the “temple” of God. We must invest in the lives of people, for people endure to eternity. And we must invest in their lives in such a way that our investment, our labor, will pass the test of time. We do this by attending to what we do, what we say, and how we say it. Thoughtful deeds, words, and attitudes can make a lasting impact—but careless ones can, too. Make a positive investment in eternity today!