I Corinthians 3. Wood, Hay and Stubble.

Key Notes: Multiple labels for a missionary. Judgment of Paul's work. What will survive the fire? Our daily work and God's work, a controversy.

After explaining in Chapter 2 that spiritual knowledge comes through the Holy Spirit and not through human wisdom, Paul goes on to argue that the Corinthians must build with solid materials on Christ, the true Foundation. He describes himself and Apollos as servants who help in the building.

He uses many other descriptive words to describe their work:

Bottle-feeders for baby believers. 3:1
Servants. ("diakonos"; deacon is derived from the word) 3:5
Seed-planters and waterers. 3:6
Fellow-workers. (“synergized”) :3:9
Master-builder. (“architecton”) 3:10
Servants. (The Greek word is for a rower in a warship) 4:1
Stewards. The steward is the keeper of the house.("oikonomous") 4:1. ( “Economist” is derived from the word.)
Spectacles. (The Greek word is “theatron”) 4:9
Fools. (The Greek word is ‘moros” from which we get “moron”). 4:10
Apostles. Those who are sent. 4:9
Off-scouring. The dish-water. 4:13
Their father in the Gospel. 4:15

We get the impression that the work of a missionary / evangelist / teacher is complex, demanding on the body and mind, and emotionally wrenching. But his point is that God is the primary driver, and not people. They must not allow divisions to divert their attention from Christ.

3:10–16. When applied to building the temple of God on the foundation of Christ, they appear to have promoted four buildings—for Peter, Apollos, Christ, or Paul—instead of for Christ alone. That would be destructive to the Church and to the leaders.

Apollos had a large impact on the Corinthians. Paul refers to him by name six times. (1:10–17; 3:1–10; 4:6–7; 16:12). He came from Ephesus to Corinth newly charged with the Gospel message he had learned for Priscilla and Aquilla. With his fervor and eloquence, he would be an instant success. But Paul was their spiritual father (4:16) and disciplinarian and he includes Apollos ("we") as a fellow-worker and waterer (3:5), countering the Corinthian efforts to foster division and encourage jealousy. He will encourage Apollos to return for another visit. 16:12

We must be wary of segregating people as charismatic or evangelical, Calvinist or Arminian, reformed or Baptist. Ideally, we would absorb biblical truths from all these viewpoints. We are prone to play favorites with Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Tony Campolo, John Perkins, Billy Graham or Bill Hybels. Who are they? Builders, fellow-workers, stewards, fools and apostles. Let us take the good they offer, applaud their ministries and keep our eyes on Christ.

3:11–15 This passage is important. It tells us that there will be a judgment of believers, although not a condemnation. “There is therefore no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom.8:1), That has been promised. But our work will be judged and rewarded. Those whose works are trash--wood, hay and stubble—the materials for building a hut-- will lose because the trash will be burned. Those whose works are of great value (gold, silver, precious stones)--suitable for building a temple--will be rewarded.

The conventional explanation is that the precious materials are pure doctrine suitable for the Temple of God. The burnable materials are for other houses. That fits the context, but there are questions. Is the temple of God built with doctrines? Aren't the apostles and prophets different from doctrine? (Eph.2:20). Is not the temple of God made up of individual believers? “…as living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house…to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God….” (I Pet.2:5–6)

Is Paul talking about the church as the builder, or about individuals as builders? Is he not primarily concerned with their worldly wisdom and divisions? Paul uses the word “each man ” or “any one” five times in this passage (3:10–15). I think he is addressing individuals, digressing from his previous topic.

Then what is trash, really? Whatever does not survive the fire.
What does survive the fire? The soul of the believer, for certain.
Then what can one bring to the judgment that will survive? The souls of other believers.

Everyone’s work will be tested. This brings us to the very large question of the nature of work and particularly work for the Christian. We need to tell the difference between work, --normal human activity for maintaining ourselves, and works, which have a moral dimension and may be connected with our salvation. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us….” (Tit.3:5) We understand Paul here in ICor.3:11 to be talking about ordinary work.

In summary, I think “anyone” means anyone; “work” means work; and that which survives the fire is the saved soul.

  1. Work is essential.

*God put Adam in the Garden to till it and keep it (Gen.2:15). Work was, and is, a blessing, initiated by God. The curse on work came later.
*God Himself did the work of creation and rested on the seventh day. Gen.2:3
Jesus said “My Father is working still and I am working.” (Jn.5:17).
*Everyone is expected to work. “If anyone will not work, let him not eat.” (IIThes.3:10).
 “…do their work in quietness and earn their own living.” (IIThes.3:12)

*Good quality work is expected. “He that is slack in his work is brother to him who destroys.” (Prov.18:9).
*Work is rewarded. “You reward a man according to his work.” (Psa.62:12)
*Work may be appropriately prayed for. “Establish the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands establish Thou.” (Psa.90:17. Note, the whole Psalm is about the brevity and futility of life in contrast to the eternity of God.
*We are to work as if for the Lord. “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ… rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same again from the Lord….” (Eph.6:5–7)

  1. There are rewards. “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay everyone for what he has done. Matt.16:27

*For the persecuted and martyrs. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt.5:12)
*For peacemakers. “But love your enemies and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High….” (Lk.6:35)
*For caring for the poor. “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be bless because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Lk.14:13–14)
“And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” (Matt.10:42).
*For evangelism. “…and those who turn many to righteousness [shall shine] like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan.12:3)

The believers are Paul’s reward: “….my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown….” (Phil.4:1)

  1. How is work exemplified in Scripture?

Joseph was a genius in administration in Egypt, but is remembered primarily for saving his people.
David was a shepherd, called away to be ruler of Israel, a type of the Messianic king.
Peter and John were fishermen, called away to fish for people.
Matthew is a tax-collector, called away to follow Jesus.
Paul was a tent-maker, but only so that he would not burden the young churches.
Jesus was a carpenter but we know nothing about his carpentry.
Obadiah was Ahab’s steward, a man of God working under the shadow of Jezebel, known only for protecting the prophets of God.

Other examples might be cited. It appears that there is no teaching model of secular work in Scripture. Work, in Scripture, is the obligation of all of us, to earn our bread, to be independent economically, and to demonstrate integrity, justice, and love in everyday life. Ninety-eight percent of us are consigned to do this work-a-day secular work.

We might ask what work God values the most. I would say it is the work that He is doing! And what work is that? He put His greatest investment into bringing us salvation, because He gave up His only Son for that.
 That was also the high calling of Paul and others:

“I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (ICor.9:22).
“I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” (Rom.11:14)
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.” (Rom.9:3)
“Convince some who doubt; save some, but snatching them out of the fire….” (Jude 23)

At this point we may fall into one of two errors.
*We may decide to go into full-time ministry because that is the only thing God blesses, even when it is quite clear that God has called us to do something else.
*We may decide that since we cannot do full-time ministry, we cannot do ministry at all because we have so much other work to do. We will present to God our job—broker, housewife, clerk, surgeon, student, or manager—and hope He will reward us.

Perhaps CS Lewis will say it better:
"{Religion} must occupy the whole of life. There is no question of a compromise between the claims of God and the claims of culture, or politics, or anything else. God’s claim is infinite and inexorable. You can refuse it; or you can begin to try to grant it. There is no middle way. Yet in spite of this it is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. “ (The Quotable Lewis. W. Martin dale, J. Root, edit.; p.260; Tyndall, 1969).

My personal struggle is to reconcile the fact that I was not able to give myself completely either to my occupation (physician educator), nor to my avocation (Bible teacher). My academic mentor wrote “I happen to know that he spends all his spare time in religion.” A Christian colleague in geography was passed over for promotion because his Christian commitment appeared more important than Geography. That does not win the approval of one’s colleagues. Christians are often downgraded because their evaluators think they do not give 100% to their work. Some are rightly chastised for missing duty because they wanted to help a youth group or prepare a service.

Our inadequacies are also obvious to any conscientious pastor who finds our Sunday sleepiness a lack of spirituality. Why don’t people come out to a prayer meeting? Why don’t they study their Bible more? Why aren’t they visiting the sick?

On one hand, we must do due diligence to our everyday work. But we must not think that our responsible job as nurse, company executive, teacher or lawyer is so important that God cannot ask any more of us. I find physicians generally to be indifferent to the Gospel because they are helping to heal people. What more could God ask of them? I do not think that “serving humanity” in our secular occupation is sufficient. We must invest in the Kingdom.

Simply put, I think the greatest treasure we can lay at Jesus’ feet is another saved soul. How that happens will vary for each of us. But that is the goal. That saved soul will endure the fire--and will be like gold or a precious stone in the eyes of God. There is joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents. Lk.15:7

P.S. The interpretation that saved souls are that which will endure the fire is not found in any of my six commentaries and therefore must be regarded with caution.

My view of work is different from the prevailing view that is well described in Every Good Endeavor by T.Keller and K.L.Alsdorf; Dutton, 2012.