Building Gold, Silver, Costly Stones (1 Corinthians 3)
Arthur Shearman, Worcester, England
From the language of the early verses of 1 Corinthians 3 it is evident that Paul was very disappointed with the spiritual condition of the Corinthian believers. He would have loved to share with them values of truth that befitted maturity. Instead, all that he felt they were ready for was 'milk', food only for babes. That which was for spiritual men, meat for the strong, was not for them. They were carnal and walked as mere men. It is good to note this in the light of what he says later on. Their attitude to those who were ministers of the word gave evidence of their carnality. It had other byproducts, such as envy and strife; and it brought division.
It could well be that these saints had not left behind their ways before they came to Christ. The men of the schools of philosophy had held their allegiance and they were aligned to their particular schemes of wisdom. Now they had transferred the same approach to those who ministered the truth of God. But to exalt the men at the expense of their God-given ministry was displaying carnality. It posed a major problem for the church at Corinth. We need to note that carnality dwarfs and also divides the testimony of God.
From verses 6 to 9, the apostle describes a PROCESS by which the work of God develops and grows. He puts the servants of the Lord through whom they believed in their proper perspective. This is again an important part of the context of later verses. He uses the metaphor of planting and growth in the tilled field. So Paul planted, Apollos watered. Each had his own part to play in the production of fruit. But they were nothing compared to the God who gave the increase. How very skilfully the apostle weaves his teaching into the pattern he has in his mind. While each plays his part, as individuals, they are one in the overall work. Their united activity contributes to growth, and yet in the final assessment each will receive his own reward. Thus Paul begins to develop the thought of accountability in the service of God, a thought which reaches its climax in verses 13-15.
The metaphor changes in verse 10 from a tilled field to a building. In each sphere we are labourers together with God. What a privilege this is, and how wrong it is to forget that the accent is on what is God's. His are the priorities and His is the purpose. Paul emphasizes two vital matters which concern himself. His involvement was according to the grace of God given to him. He takes the lowly place, although he works as a wise masterbuilder. The great Architect is the God who has given him the responsibility of building. The second matter is that he has laid the foundation, that upon which the superstructure is to be erected. There can be many builders but Paul knew the burden of laying a sound foundation, and that foundation was unique and precious. The glorious person of the Lord Jesus, in all His perfections, is the only right and proper foundation upon which the church and its testimony could be built. Thus the character of the superstructure must in all things accord with the perfections of the foundation. 'If any man build'; Paul looks at the possible materials that can be built into the superstructure. Gold, silver, precious stones represent one set of values. These are related to quality and preciousness, that which is durable and of worth. Wood, hay and stubble represent another type of material that can be used. These would more readily sug'gest quantity, those things which are easily demolished and destroyed. It is good to pause to ask ourselves what we count as of worth in our contribution to the growth of the assembly.
Let us think of the character of gold, with silver and precious stones, Gold is incorruptible, not manufactured, and of great worth. We think back to the building of the tabernacle and the vital part that pure gold played in its construction. Silver and precious stones played their part, but the ark of the covenant, the table of shewbread, the altar of incense, and the lampstand were associated with pure gold. The wooden furniture was overlaid with it, and the beautiful solid lampstand and mercy seat were made of pure gold of beaten work, Exod. 25-27. The very glory of God had shone out in the different parts of His dwelling place. These precious values are consistent with the foundation that Paul had laid. An interesting quotation from Calvin stresses this. 'Therefore Paul means by 'gold, silver and jewels', teaching that is not only in keeping with Christ, but is also a superstructure in harmony with such a foundation'.
As we build all that is akin to gold in our service in the assembly, the carnality that destroys will be thwarted. The focus will not be on men as the saints at Corinth were guilty of, but centred on the One who is the foundation, our Lord Jesus Christ. There will be integrity and sincerity in motive, and love and devotion in action. The aim will be to glorify God, and the functions will be selfless and humble. These are some of the values that gold, silver and precious stones would suggest. Let us take heed how we build upon the foundation.
The apostle puts the quality of building in the assembly in the perspective of the ultimate testing, when each man's work will be manifest, vv. 13-15. Notice that the day shall declare it. The day that Paul always had in mind when he considered rewards for service was the Day of Christ, the judgement seat of Christ. How searching are his words concerning this. It shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall try or test each man's work of what sort it is. There will be no evasion and no escape, 'for we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ', 2 Cor. 5. 10. What will happen then? When we look at the way in which Paul describes this day, we realize that this is not judgement for our sins, but assessment of our service. There will be rewards, such is the amazing grace of the One who has called us. But there will be the realization of loss, the consuming of all that is akin to wood and hay and stubble. It will be possible for one to be saved only, with everything else burned up. What terrible words are those, 'yet so as by fire'. They challenge us in our commitment to the Lord's service. But gold can come through the testing of the fire, and by it be purified and refined. The precious things of Christ which we build in our labours for Him, will contribute worthily to the assembly now, and will ensure us an eternal reward when we stand at the judgement seat of Christ.