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“An Eternal Perspective”

1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Bob DeGray
March 5, 2006

Key Sentence

You’ll make better choices if you take the long view of things.


I. Building to last (1 Cor. 3:10-15)
II. Respecting God’s work (1 Cor 3:16-17)
III. Seeing eternal realities (1 Cor 3:18-23)


        There have been several times in life when I’ve seen the value of having a long perspective on things. The first was back in Boy Scouts, hiking on the Appalachian trail and other places around the East Coast. I learned it’s possible to hike five, eight, even ten miles without ever lifting your eyes off your feet. On those rocky trails it’s easy to get pre-occupied with simply finding the next place to put your foot down. And that gets old really fast. If you never look up to see the view, to see the mountains and valleys and the vistas through which you are hiking, it’s just not much fun. If you never look up to see the goal then you might as well hike on a treadmill. I learned early on that it helps a lot to take the long view.

        Another example of this is in ministry. I’ve been in full time ministry here for thirteen and a half years now, and sometimes you get this claustrophobic feeling that ministry is like hiking - you do the same things over and over and you’ve always got to watch where you put your foot down and you’re not getting very far and it’s not a lot of fun. Early on I began to recognize that involvement with the Evangelical Free Church at the District level and through attending National Conferences was a good antidote - it gave Gail and I the opportunity to see some vistas where God was at work. We began to view these times as a chance to get our eyes off our feet.

        In between those examples came my experience with the Navs. The Navigator ministries were founded by a guy named Dawson Trotman, and his legacy is still felt. One question he’d ask people was ‘What things are eternal?’ And the expected answer was ‘God, his Word, and the souls of men’. He’d ask ‘are you investing in these things?’ Do you have an eternal perspective about the use of your life, or are you just looking at your feet, shuffling along through life with no perspective on where you’re going? As Paul wraps us the first section of his letter to the Corinthians, he is calling for an eternal perspective. He reminds them that today’s works can be invested in things that last or things that burn; he reminds them that God’s work is to be respected, and he reminds them there are eternal realities godly wisdom reveals and human wisdom conceals. The bottom line of 1 Corinthians 3:10-23, is that you’ll make better choices if you take the long view of things. You’ll make better choices on what to do with your life if you have an eternal perspective.

I. Building to last (1 Cor. 3:10-15)

        Let’s begin with Paul’s command to build with eternal materials. 1 Cor. 3:10-15. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. 14If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

        How we are built and how we build into the lives of others makes an eternal difference. Paul already mentioned a building in verse 9: ‘You - the Christians at Corinth - are God’s building’. He has told us Christians are to grow as infants grow from milk to meat, as a field grows from seed to fruit, and as a building grows under the hands of careful craftsmen. Paul continues by reminding us that it isn’t his strength that has been at work in his ministry, but God’s grace. Paul is a fan of grace, he knows it’s a grace system, not a works system, and he often speaks of the grace God has given him not only to save, but for ministry.

        Through this grace Paul was able to expertly lay a foundation of Christ in the lives of these converts. He was an expert builder, a wise builder, an ‘architekton’, literally the first builder. The Greek word obviously gives us our English word architect, the man who prepares for the work of building, often done by others. Paul has done more than prepare, however, he has also laid the foundation for this building by clearly proclaiming Jesus Christ, so that the faith of the Christians at Corinth could rest securely on the power of God and on Jesus himself.

        Jesus as the only sure foundation of our faith is a great image. He himself contrasted a house built on sand and one built on a rock. Matthew 7:24-25 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” Christ and his words are the foundation for a life that lasts. Paul loves this metaphor. He tells the Ephesians that “you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” The apostles and the prophets do their part, but it is in Christ that the building grows to become a holy temple in the Lord. So Paul sees himself as having laid the one foundation that’s sure, the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. He is the foundation of every church that stands and every Christian life that stands.

         But now, Paul says, someone else is building on that foundation - maybe Apollos, maybe Cephas, maybe the other leaders of the Corinthian Church. Paul cautions that each one should be careful how he builds. In the context Paul is certainly describing the quality of workmanship done by those building up the church at Corinth, but there is a more general application.

        Every believer builds on the foundation of Christ in his own life, as well as in the lives of others, and it is not a stretch to see these verses in terms of an individual Christian’s own life and workmanship. What we build with, whether in reference to our own lives, or ministry in our families, or ministry in and through the church determines what lasts. An eternal perspective reminds us that what we spend our time building with now ought to have eternal value.

        So the foundation is Jesus and that never changes, but the structure of the building depends on those who build into our lives and on what we build in our own lives and build into the lives of others. Paul lists several building materials, and ingenuity has at times been used in trying to find edifying meanings for each one. But in reality Paul seems to be talking about just two kinds of things: the valuable, typified by gold, silver and costly stones, and the worthless: hay, wood, or straw. The workmen may try to make the building as worthy of the foundation as possible, or, in a worldly fashion, they may be content to put into it that which costs them little or nothing. But these workmen need to remember there will be a time of testing for all we build, a ‘day’, which is not defined but is clearly the day Christ returns. That day is often thought of in terms of a believer’s joy at being with the Lord; but it will also be a time when the works of God’s people are tested. And it is a searching test, like fire sweeping through a building. It consumes all that is combustible. Thus the quality of the work will be revealed, for that day will show its true character.

        So what kinds of things are gold, silver, and precious stones, and what kind of things are wood, hay, and straw? Many answers have been given. In terms of our discussion last week, we can contrast worldliness or carnality to true spirituality. For example we saw the acts of the sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies. If you are the kind of person who indulges these things in your life, or the lives of others you are building a life of straw, hay and stubble. But in the same context the precious metals and jewels of Christian character are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. These things will survive judgment. So one of the things you long for as a leader is to see these fruits growing in the lives of others - and something to examine is whether they’re growing in your own life.

        But let me give you another way of looking at this: the things that really build up the church, and that also result in maturity for individuals are the things we mention in our vision statement: the Word, prayer, worship, fellowship and outreach. Is there any doubt in your mind that if you are growing in these areas in your own life, and if you are building in these areas in the lives of other, your work has value? There’s no question. It is no small thing as a church and as individuals to commit ourselves to to learn and obey His word, to depend on Him in prayer, to exalt Him through worship, to love and care for one another, and to share His love with others.

        But if these are the purposes of our lives and the results of our ministries, there will be little in the way of wood, hay or straw in our construction. If on the other hand we drift off into discord or factions, if we neglect the ministry of the word, if prayer dries up in our lives, if we invest our time in the world’s distraction instead of in fellowship and outreach, we will be building with hay, stubble and straw.

        Paul says it’ll all burn. None of the world’s satisfactions: riches, pleasure, self indulgence or power will survive that fire. C.T. Studd was a rich and famous English athlete who sold his entire estate, gave the money away, and went to the mission field to serve Christ. This is the way he summed up his attitude: “Only one life ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” This is the reward for building with God’s materials. Verse 13 “his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. 14If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.”

        There is a reward - but notice that it is not salvation. Verse 15: If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” The distinction here is not between the lost and the saved, but between believers who built well or poorly. Someone who has lived a worldly life, or built into others in worldly ways, escapes to safety like a person passing through fire. This should make us more careful how we build. There are too many Christians who will regret in that day that so much that occupied their lives or constituted their ministry was consumed. We ought to fear that: not loss of salvation, but anguish at not receiving the Lord’s ‘well done’, not having pleased him. We should have an eternal view of how we spend our time, what we build into our own lives and what we build into the lives of others. Don’t waste your time on things that are going to burn; invest in eternal things - God, his Word and the hearts and souls of men.

II. Respecting God’s work (1 Cor 3:16-17)

        The next two verses teach us to respect God’s work. 1 Cor. 3:16-17. 16Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

        ‘Do you not know’? Paul uses that little phrase ten times to remind the Corinthians of things they should know, and would if they’d been listening. In this case ‘that you - plural - are a temple of God.’ The plural is important: Paul is again speaking of and to the church in these verses, though still with individual application. We’ve already seen this temple metaphor in Ephesians, where Pauls says that Christ himself is the chief cornerstone, and that “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” This theme - of the church as a temple, a holy dwelling place being built - is also part of Peter’s teaching, and like Paul he emphasizes that Jesus is the cornerstone.

        1 Peter 2:4-6 “As you come to him, the living Stone--rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him-- 5you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For in Scripture it says: "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone; the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation of the temple, and those who believe - notice again the emphasis on that word as the summary word of the Gospel - they become living stones, built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.

        So Peter sees individuals within the church as the stones with which the temple is being built and through whom the ministry is being done as the Holy Spirit dwells therein. And Paul would agree with that - he sees the church as a dwelling place of God through his Spirit. And he goes on to say “17If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.” To destroy is to ‘defile’ or ‘corrupt’. The divisions among the Corinthians and their worldliness had damaged the church, the temple of God. But the temple of God is holy and set apart, and God is well known for not allowing what is unclean to touch what is clean and holy. Old Testament examples are easy to find: think of Leviticus 10:1-3 Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. 2So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3Moses then said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: 'Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.' God is jealous for the holiness of his dwelling place and will not allow defiling of it. If anyone in their ministry, does damage to the church, God says he will do damage to him: this refers to verse 15, where the person building with wood, straw and stubble escapes as through flames.

        But I want to put this positively before we move on. What should our attitude toward this temple be? Clearly it should be to respect the work God is doing in building it and to participate. The eternal perspective on the church is that she is the bride of Christ, being prepared for her bridegroom, beautifully dressed in white. She is a temple built of gold, silver and precious stones, a dwelling place for God’s Spirit. And though we are the stones, we are also the workmen putting the stones in place: as Paul said in verse 10, we are God’s fellow workers. The noted English architect Sir Christopher Wren was supervising the construction of a magnificent cathedral in London. A journalist thought it would be interesting to interview some of the workers, so he chose three and asked them this question, "What are you doing?" The first replied, "I'm cutting stone for 10 shillings a day." The next answered, "I'm putting in 10 hours a day on this job." But the third said, "I'm helping Sir Christopher Wren construct one of London's greatest cathedrals." That’s the attitude we need to have: to respect God’s work and see ourselves as part of this great building up of God’s people.

        Paul says to the Ephesians “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” What tears down is division and worldliness, gross sin and pride and worldly wisdom where there ought to be Scripture. What builds up is the application of the word of God to the lives of his people, in humility, and with the display of the fruits of the Spirit in the lives of the builders. This is how we show that we respect the eternal work God is doing in the church.

III. Seeing eternal realities (1 Cor 3:18-23)

        Finally, we gain an eternal perspective when we focus on eternal realities. 1 Corinthians 3:18-23: 18Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"; 20and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." 21So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future--all are yours, 23and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

        Paul is obviously summarizing here and concluding much of what we’ve talked about for the last three weeks. ‘Do not deceive yourselves’ in this area of wisdom - the human wisdom that so appealed to the Corinthians. Human wisdom is also the standard of this age, but it can’t hold a candle to God’s wisdom. We’ve talked about how human wisdom shows up in doing church, how it shows up in our value systems and attitudes, and how it shows up in every age in the inability of men and women to accept the simple Gospel message of Christ crucified. People are constantly drifting toward robbing the Gospel of the blood and the cross and the resurrection, or imposing a weight of good works on God’s grace. But if these people call God’s ways foolish we ought to be ‘fools’ as we cling to God’s simple good news. I was listening to the radio this week and heard the wisdom of this world when a commentator literally said that most believers in Christianity are too intellectually inferior to question the simple faith they’ve been fed. Those, he said, with a bit more intellectual capacity, but who still need spiritual things develop subtleties that allow them to cling to faith. But the most intellectually gifted, like him I presume, had seen through religious myths. That’s the wisdom of this world: if we’re called foolish and stupid by intellectual elitists, we wear the title proudly.

        Paul says “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"; 20and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." Paul quotes first from Job, in words actually spoken by one of Job’s false comforters, Eliphaz, a man who is later rebuked by God. How can Paul cite these words as a proof text? Commentator Robert Deffinbaugh points out that Eliphaz, like his friends, was not wrong in what he said about God; he was wrong only in how he applied this truth to Job. God does trip up men by means of their own futile wisdom; Eliphaz and Paul both know it.

        Paul’s second quote is from Psalm 94:11 "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." It’s interesting that the Psalm actually reads: “The Lord knows the thoughts of man”, but Paul says ‘the wise’. In the context of the Psalm, it becomes clear that the unbelieving man thinks himself wise, and so Paul is expressing the thought of the Psalm. He says the thoughts of arrogant men are futile or useless, because they are temporal. Man’s thoughts are restricted to “this age”; God’s thoughts are eternal. Merely temporal truths are thus “useless” truths.

        So we need to be committed to an eternal perspective on wisdom and on all things. This is how Paul concludes. Verse 21 So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” When Paul says ‘all things belong to you’ he is saying because Jesus has overcome the world, so have we, and there is nothing in the world or it’s wisdom that is now our master. So, he says to the Corinthians, why do you limit yourselves by claiming that you belong to a particular teacher? That’s such a limiting perspective: the teachers are there for you. Paul wants his readers to know that nothing owns God’s people. The world does not own them, they don’t’ need to serve it’s wisdom; it belongs to them. Life and death need not dominate them - as we heard Paul say a few weeks ago, to live is Christ and to die is gain. The present and the future are not things to be feared, but the realms in which God is at work. All these things are the possession of the believer - they are to be approached with confidence and not fear.

        Some of you may have already recognized in this list echos of Romans 8. There Paul was assuring his readers that nothing could separate them from God. He says “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These are not things to be served, but things to be embraced for his glory.

        But Paul doesn’t stop there. Believers have great possessions, certainly, but only because they are Christ’s. We should probably start verse 23 with the word ‘but’: All this is yours ‘but’ you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. Paul isn’t adding to our possessions; he is making us the possession of another. Our security ultimately comes not from what we possess, but from the one who possesses us, not from what we are above, but from the one who is above us. We are in Christ, and it is there and only that our safety and victory are found over all things worldly. This is the eternal perspective folks: you are not your own, you were bought at a price, you belong to Christ, to serve and obey him, just as Christ belongs to God the Father, whom he voluntarily submits to and depends on and serves.

        So this is the eternal perspective on human wisdom and the world around us. We will make better choices in life if we keep our eyes on this eternal perspective. If we don’t cater to human wisdom, if we don’t run our lives out of the pressure of the present or the fear of the future. We are not to live out of the natural tendency to be selfish in this life so that we seek comfort or safety above service. These things are no longer to have a hold on us - but Christ is to have a hold on us, and the choices we make are to be made in that security. They will be choices to build wisely, to build into our own lives and the lives of others with gold, and silver and precious stones; to build with the Word of God and fruit of the Spirit and the humility of Christ. They will be choices that respect God’s work in building up the church and which allow us to take our place as stones in that living temple, and to build each other up through love. They will be choices made in obedience to word of Christ to ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness’. They will be choices made from an eternal perspective.