READ : 1 Corinthians 3:12-13
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble – each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
1 Corinthians 3:12,13, rsv
I want to think with you today about your life-work, and mine. What have our lives amounted to? What has been our contribution to the purpose of God in this world? What is the real significance, the lasting value, of what you and I have done? Let’s seek an answer to those questions in the light of the gospel, in the light of Jesus Christ and what He has done.
Evaluating our own life-work is never easy. We are so close to it that objectivity is well nigh impossible. Some of us may be inclined to over-estimate the importance of our contribution. We think more highly of our particular work than may be warranted. More often, we’re tempted to despise it, to consider it of little value. We fear that what we have done and given doesn’t amount to much. It’s a good thing, a merciful thing, that we aren’t the final judges in these matters.
The estimates of others about our performance may be more reliable, but not necessarily. Sometimes the judgments of the world about us are as biased and superficial as our own. The fact that multitudes acclaim your work is certainly pleasant, but doesn’t guarantee its lasting value. On the other hand, what you have done may not be noticed or prized by anyone, but that doesn’t mean that your contribution hasn’t been significant. Thank God that public opinion is not the final arbiter, either.
The vital question is: “What does the gospel say? What does God say about your life-work and mine?” The first thing the apostle writes about that in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3, has to do with the foundation for all our work. Listen to his words in verses 10 and 11:
According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation and another is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Now the apostle is speaking specifically here about his apostolic labors as a church planter and the follow-up work of his fellow ministers. He is saying that Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, is the church’s one foundation, the only basis on which Christian workers can build. But there is also a wider application to what he writes.
Remember what Jesus said at the end of His Sermon on the Mount? Listen: Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it (Matthew 7:24-27).
Jesus was saying here to everyone who heard Him that response to His call, obedience to His Word, was the only solid basis on which a person could build the house of his or her life.
God has given us a foundation on which to base our lives, and that great rock is Christ. When we trust in Him, the crucified and risen One as our Savior and Lord, we are planting our feet by faith on the firm ground of God’s faithfulness. We are establishing ourselves, building our lives, on His unchanging love. To hear His call and then turn away, to know His will and then reject it, to hear His Word and act as though we never had, is to build on sand and finally to lose everything.
When Jesus told His followers that He was the vine and they were the branches, He went on to say that without Him they could “do nothing.” What did He mean by that? Obviously, people who do not trust in Christ and walk with Him can do many things. But Jesus insisted that they could not bear real fruit. They could not communicate His life. They could not make a contribution that was alive and lasting. Nor can we. The first thing, the essential thing, that we need for a significant life-work is to build it on the rock, the one foundation which is Jesus Christ.
Though there is but one foundation, there are many builders. Paul’s ministry of the gospel was used by God to get the church started in Corinth but then Apollos and others carried on the work. Today multitudes of laborers throughout the world are similarly engaged. They are seeking to build up the church of Jesus Christ. By preaching and teaching, leading and serving, caring and praying, they aim to raise a structure that will be to God’s praise.
There’s a sense in which we’re all doing something like that. All of us who have trusted in Jesus Christ have established ourselves on the one foundation and are now erecting something upon it. You can look at your whole life-story as that kind of construction project. In all your labors, all your relationships, all your stewardship of resources, all your times of rest and recreation, even in your struggles and sufferings, some kind of building is going up. Everything you do and say, everything you think and are as a Christian has some kind of connection to the Lord in whom you have put your trust. We’re all in the construction business. One foundation, many builders.
TWO KINDS OF MATERIAL
Further, according to the apostle, there are essentially two kinds of building materials. Every one of us presumably is making use of one kind or the other. On the one hand are gold, silver, and precious stones. On the other, we have wood, hay, and stubble.
We sense immediately the contrast here. Some materials are strikingly beautiful, others quite drab. Some are valuable and others of little worth. Some are rock-solid, others flimsy. Some will endure; others won’t.
What did Paul mean by these two categories of materials? As far as ministers and church workers are concerned, Paul was clearly concerned about the doctrine which each was teaching. The apostolic gospel was the precious metal. The faith once delivered to the saints was the treasure. Any worker who was teaching and preaching that was building for eternity. On the other hand, those who were preaching another message, trying to substitute anyone or anything for the all-sufficiency of Christ, were giving the church something of no value, were not contributing at all to its life and growth. That is still the case today.
Paul was probably thinking also of the lives being molded under each person’s ministry. Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fruits.” Are people growing up under our ministry, through our influence, to be devoted to Jesus Christ, to be obedient to the will of God, to be the loving servants of others? That’s the kind of building that counts for something.
Or is the characteristic effect of our life and work something different? Are we attracting people to ourselves rather than to our Lord? Are people around us becoming more our followers than His? Are they learning from us more of self-centeredness than of self-giving? That’s the kind of building that has no beauty in it, that won’t endure and shouldn’t.
Maybe Paul was thinking also of the motives behind what we do. He talks later on in this letter about “things now hidden in darkness,” about the undisclosed “purposes of the heart.” Whatever is done for Jesus’ sake, out of a heart-felt desire to honor Him and serve His kingly rule, that surely is the gold and silver and the crown jewels. But whatever we do for appearances, to win for ourselves a name and an empire, whatever springs from pride or panders to personal advantage, that’s the cheap stuff that won’t last.
This is not to say that anyone’s motives are completely rotten or anyone’s perfectly pure. But apparently, in Paul’s mind at least, there is a prevailing drift with all of us. Each has a master passion, a major motive in life. And that goes a long way toward determining the quality of what we build. Why, and for whom are we doing it?
ONE FINAL TEST
Next, Paul talks about a test that will be applied to everyone’s life-work. Listen: “Each man’s work will become manifest; for the day will disclose it because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” There’s a day coming, says the apostle, when the life-work of each one of us will be revealed. Its true character will become known. Its real value will be determined for everyone to see. I ask you today: Is any more sobering thought than that one imaginable for you? The day, says Paul, will declare it. What you and I have actually been building for a lifetime will finally come to light.
And the test will be more than light. It will be flame. Your life-work and mine will go through a kind of trial by fire. Now we see the deeper significance of the two kinds of building material. What happens to wood, hay, and stubble in a raging inferno? When it’s all over, there’s nothing left. What about the gold, the silver, and the precious stones? The impurities in them will surely be burned away. The precious metal may be melted down. But after the test, the diamonds will still sparkle and the silver will still shine. Then we’ll all know what mattered and what didn’t, what counted for something and what merely took up space, what had abiding value and what was there only for show. On that day, imagine it, we’ll either see our life-work going up in smoke or coming through as gold. This is what the apostle describes elsewhere as “the judgment seat of Christ.”
After the test, then, there will follow two different results. Hear Paul on the subject one more time:
If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Now think of that, friend. If what you and I have built endures, if it survives the fiery test, we will receive a reward. What do you suppose that will be? As I think about it, being able to see our work survive will be in itself a great reward. To know that in spite of all our sin and failure, all our weakness and wandering, still something we’ve done, some contribution that we have made, endures – won’t that be wonderful?
It’s hard to imagine how there can be any reward for the people of God beyond the wonder of simply being with Him. To see the Lord face to face, to be made like Him, made perfect in love, to join in the worship around His throne, what can we receive in addition to that? No one really knows. One suggestion that has helped me is that the reward may be in terms of capacity for enjoyment. For everyone there, the life to come will be a fountain of living waters, genuine fullness of life. But perhaps the faithful labors of God’s people here and their earnest seeking of His face may prepare them to enjoy the reality of His presence in a way that would not otherwise have been possible. I say maybe. No one knows. But we have His Word for this: crowning the privilege of having lived for Him and served Him, there will be also some kind of reward.
On the other hand, it’s possible that our life-work will be substantially consumed, that very little about it will last. What will that be like for us? First, says Paul, we’ll suffer “loss.” We don’t know exactly what that is either. I tremble at the “loss” of possibly seeing such a thing happen, of knowing that I might have contributed significantly to the Lord’s kingdom, but didn’t. That would be grievous enough. But if that’s the case, we’ll also suffer some further loss. Again, that’s unimaginable to us. But somehow it will happen.
It doesn’t mean that we ourselves will be lost. If we have trusted in Christ, relied on Him for salvation, God will never cast us off. But our experience of salvation will be only as through fire, as though we barely escaped with our lives and brought nothing with us. If this be true, as the apostle describes it here, then what that I can say about it, or anyone else can say, could make it more urgently compelling?
When I ponder all this, here’s the clarion call that comes to me: Whatever else you do in life, build on Christ, abide in Christ, labor for Christ. Yes, believe the gospel, share the gospel, live the gospel. Make the great aim of your life that of serving faithfully your Lord and always rely on Him for grace and power to do it. Then you will build something truly glorious, whether you or anyone else is aware of it at the time. Your life-work will endure and you’ll face that Day of all days unafraid.