“Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:12–15, NASB95)
Paul had just finished addressing that the foundation of the church is Jesus Christ and that everyone who builds on it is to be careful in how he does so. Paul may have been the like the wise master builder who started the work, but there were others who were significant in the subsequent work, a work which includes both the pastor teachers who followed and the very members themselves who had roles in the overall work and who left a mark along the way.
This passage is about believers. It is not about those who have not trusted Christ for their salvation. It is in this context that some may have left indelible marks for good and others may have done otherwise. In the short term, the work may or may not have been highly valued and it may or may not have accomplished some form or visible good or have even been seen. People may have come to Christ and grown significantly in Christian maturity through their service. Others may have been prayed for intently during a difficult time, or even benefited from someone quietly or even anonymously reaching out to help them in a time of need. And, contrary to God’s intent, some may have even been hindered, given cause to stumble, or even harmed because of another’s disservice. Some may have worked humbly for God’s glory and some (even the same person at a different time) may have done things with their thumbs under their armpits for their own glory. No matter what we do or the motive we have in doing so, it is all done on the foundation of the church laid before of which Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone.
In the end every single person’s will be fully evident. Paul wrote that whether the work is accomplished as with enduring materials of value such as gold, silver or precious or with less durable ones like wood, hay, and straw every person’s work will be tested with fire. When exposed to the intensity of a consuming fire there will be those things which burn up and perish and there will be those that are further purified and show their true value. On this side of eternity, we might not be able to clearly see the difference, but once having been tested by fire the quality of our work will truly be seen.
Notice here that Paul is talking about the quality of a person’s work and not the eternal state of the person. For us who are in Christ there will be a day when all that we have done will be judged by God as described here, and for all that remains we will receive a reward. We may or may not sense a reward now, but nothing has missed God’s sight. And, similarly where we may have patted ourselves on the back big time for something we have done we might also be surprised to see that this very thing did not survive the fire because our reward was of the moment and not eternity.
Speaking of open religiosity, Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1–4, NASB95)
It is then in the next verses that we have what we know as the Lord’s prayer. “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’” (Matthew 6:5–13, NASB95)
Clearly there will be a dividing of the work done for self-adulation and that done for God’s glory, and we read that there will be a “day” when this happens. In 2 Corinthians 5:10 we read, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10, NASB95) There will be a day when Jesus looks at our work and we will be recognized for what we have done. The bad will be as if our works were burnt away, and the good will lead to some form of reward known to and given by Him.
These rewards or lack thereof are not the determinant of whether we are ultimately saved. These words of Paul were written to believers whose eternal foundation has already been eternally established in Christ. Paul affirms this in verse 15 where we read, “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” This is a pretty amazing statement, because it could conceivably include all of a man’s works being burnt and him being saved. This is a truth that is clearly affirmed in passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9, NASB95) But even Ephesians 2:8-9 are followed immediately by an affirmation of what should happen by all of us once we are saved, which is good, and thus enduring, works. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10, NASB95)
The Corinthian believers seemed to have not grasped doing work for the glory of God. They were fixated on following particular men and doing things according to their ways. In these verses Paul clearly writes to shift their focus pointing out that these men were given to serve Christ for His glory as His workers, and subsequently they were to do the same as leaders came and went and the church continued to grow even here as we enter 2018.