The Expository Files


 “He Will Suffer Loss; But He Himself Will be Saved”

1 Corinthians 3:1-15

The chapter begins (vss. 1-3) with Paul telling the Corinthians that he could not speak to them as to spiritual men, but as to babes in Christ. For they were acting as babes, being swayed by the prejudices and passions of the unregenerate life out of which they had been born, and to which they were not wholly dead, even after all this time. This effected how Paul dealt with them. Instead of giving them solid food, he could only feed them with the milk of the word – the first principles of the oracles of God.

The Corinthians would have denied that they were babes. How could Paul think or say such a thing, especially since the congregation was in possession of every sort of miraculous gift? However, as proof of their immaturity, the apostle offers them their sectarianism. “For when one says, 'I am of Paul,' and another, 'I am of Apollos,' are you not mere men?” (vs. 4)

It was never God’s intention that His people divide into various factions – Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. Sectarianism is contrary to the will of Christ and is an indication of carnality. As Paul told the Galatians, as no one was ever lead by the Holy Spirit to fornicate or to commit adultery, as no one was every lead by Him to become a drunk or an idolater, no one was ever lead by Him to form a sect (a denomination) or to join one. Men do such things only as they are guided by the flesh. What will be their end? Paul says they will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21)

The Corinthians were thinking carnally, like babes and their divisions were proof of it. Some were saying, “I am of Paul,” while others were saying “I am of Apollos.” Therefore, Paul asks, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.” (vs. 5) “Servants,” that’s what Paul and Apollos were, servants through whom others came to have faith (cf., Jhn 17:20). However, it was God who made them effective in this work; He was causing the growth. (vss. 6-7) Therefore, who should get the glory: Paul, Apollos or God? Paul’s answer is, “So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”

Furthermore, in their service to God Paul and Apollos were not rivals. “He who plants and he who waters are one.” They were a team, not competitors. They were fellow laborers, co-workers in God’s field, working toward the same end. The only difference between these co-workers will be in their reward: “… each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” The wonderful thing about this “reward” is that it will not be based upon the result of each man’s work; that is, by how many each one converted through their teaching. For remember, it is God who gave the increase. Instead, each one will receive a reward based upon his labor – his faithfulness as a laborer “in God’s field.” Paul concludes this section by saying: “For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.” Paul and Apollos were not fellow-workers with God, but with each other under God. The Corinthians were God's field in which they labored, or His building which they reared; but workers, field and building all belonged to God. (J.W. McGarvey)

From describing the Corinthian church as God’s field and he and Apollos as laborers in that field, Paul changes metaphors. The local church is now called God’s building. “According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (vss 10-11)

Under this metaphor Paul is “a wise master builder” who lays the foundation that others build upon. Paul cautions those builders who follow him to be careful how they build on this foundation. For the foundation he laid is Jesus Christ. He is not only the only foundation upon which the universal church rests (Matt 16:18, cf., 1 Pet 2:4-8), but the only legitimate foundation upon which the local church is to rest upon.

Paul laid the foundation of the church of God at Corinth through teaching the gospel. Likewise, those who build on it will do so through what they teach. Be careful, says the apostle, how you build. In other words, you must keep on teaching the doctrine of Christ and not those derived by men; you must keep on speaking the whole gospel and not just those parts that make others feel comfortable.

As he continues to address those builders who would follow him to Corinth, Paul says,

“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.” (vss 12-15)

The gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw do not refer to what these men taught, nor are they a reference to the good works (righteous behavior) or to the bad works (unrighteous behavior) that Christians may or may not do. Though this latter view is popular, it ignores the context and must be rejected.

The gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw refer to the materials that make up the structure; namely, the people who believe through the preaching of men like Paul and Apollos. The gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and the straw are two kinds of building material. One is fireproof, while the other burns. This is the point of Paul’s concern. These building materials represent two classes of disciples a teacher may have. The task of the teacher is to teach the whole counsel of God to the disciples so they might be equipped to withstand fiery trials through which they must eventually pass. Through such teaching the wood, hay and straw can become the gold, silver and precious stones. (2 Tim 2:20-21)

This is the task of God’s workman in God’s building (the local congregation) – to fireproof the whole congregation. However, if the teacher does not teach whole message of God and if he does not live this message before the people, he will be a careless builder. As Paul said to Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” (1 Tim 4:16)

If after building faithfully, the teacher’s work passes through fire and endures, he shall receive a reward. If his work does not endure, he will suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved.” (vss 13-15) The “reward” the builder receives or does not receive is separate from his salvation. But what is his reward if his work passes through the fire and endures? It is knowing that those whom he taught and encouraged have remained faithful. This will be his reward in this present life and on that final day when we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. (3 Jhn 2-4; Phil 2:14-16; 1 Thess 2:19-20)

What if the teacher’s work does not endure, what if, “it is burned up”? Paul says, “he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved.” How he suffers loss is by knowing that some of the people he worked with, that he taught and that he encouraged have not endured the fire – the fiery trials that we must all pass through in this life (1 Pet 4:12-14; Jas 1:2-4, 12). This is a discouragement to him, but it does not affect his salvation. He shall be saved, says the apostle, yet so as through fire. The NIV renders it: “he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” The teacher is saved independently of his disciples, “for salvation is a gift and not a reward; but he will be saved as a steward who has lost the things of his stewardship; as a tenant who has had his harvest burned, or as a contractor whose structure has gone up in flames.” (J.W. McGarvey)


By Keiran Murphy
      From Expository Files 18.6; June 2011