The popular interpretation which makes Paul’s words about building gold, silver and precious stones, refer to the individual believer’s responsibility to cultivate in his personal life those qualities which please God, obscures an essential but much neglected line of teaching as to responsibility in the local assembly.
Earlier in the chapter the Apostle has been telling the Corinthians that he and Apollos were ministers by whom they believed (v. 5). In this they were “labourers together with God,” and the Corinthian believers as a company (“ye” – plural) were God’s husbandry (v. 9), Turning from this agricultural metaphor to architecture he adds, “ye are God’s building” and the special character of that building is indicated in v. 16 – “ye are the temple of God.” Certainly, later in the Epistle (6. 19) he touches on the truth that the individual believer’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and upon this truth bases his argument for personal sanctification, but here he is speaking of the believers as a community – it is the assembly which is the temple of God. With the building of the believer’s body as a temple of the Holy Spirit Paul obviously had no part, but in connection with the building of the local assembly at Corinth as the temple of God he claims that as a wise master builder he had laid the foundation. In other words, during the eighteen months he had been preaching the Word of God among them (Acts 18 11) he was laying the foundation upon which the growing assembly was to rest.
When Paul departed from Syria, the responsibility of continuing the work he had commenced fell on the shoulders of other men who must build on the foundation he had laid – “another buildeth thereon” (v. 10). Since every assembly similarly owes its foundation to some servant or servants of God, and its progress to the labours of those who succeeded, this message of Paul’s should be taken to heart by all upon whom rests, or will one day rest, the responsibility of caring for the wellbeing of an assembly.
Any attempt to build for God on a foundation different from that which Paul laid for Corinth will be futile – “other foundation can no man lay” – but even on such a solid foundation each must take heed how he builds. Furthermore he must be careful as to the material which he builds into the structure because “every man’s work shall be made manifest, for the Day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is” (v. 13). The words “made manifest,” “declare,” “revealed,” “try,” invest this test with a peculiar solemnity and may suggest a searching scrutiny which penetrates even to the hidden motives.
Perhaps it will be helpful (adopting the style of v. 10) if we consider Paul’s exhortations as four cautions, i.e. :
(1) Let every man take heed, where he builds (“Other foundation can no man lay” – v. 11).
(2) Let every man take heed how he builds. (“Let every man take heed how he buildeth” – v. 10).
(3) Let every man take heed what he builds. (“If any man build … gold, silver, precious stones,” etc. – v. 12).
(4) Let every man take heed why he builds. “Every man’s work shall be made manifest” – v. 13).
Although all four cautions are thus suggested by the passage we have been considering, it is useful to look upon them as corresponding with the first four chapters of the Epistle.
1. THE FOUNDATION. WHERE WE BUILD.
Read Chapter ONE.
God recognises only one foundation for an assembly, for “other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” We take this to mean that unless our work is carried on in practical subjection to the acknowledged Lordship of Christ, we are not building for God. The assembly is His, and His will must be supreme at all times and in every situation. There is no place for self-will and it is a solemn thing for any man to thrust himself forward with a view to having his own Way.
How much havoc this has often caused – yet the solemn warning stands, “If any man mar the temple of God, him will God mar” (v. 17).
Christendom affords examples of communities which rest upon some humanly devised constitution, and it would be perversity to deny that in many cases they have been strong and vigorous in their early stages, but the foundation has been unsatisfactory and it is instructive to notice that when in such circumstances decline or departure sets in, the process is usually irreversible, so that we have today the warning spectacle of communities which once made a valiant stand for Gospel truth, being hopelessly riddled with Modernism. On the other hand, where a company rests solidly on the Lordship of Christ, so that His will is sovereign, there is a constant ground of appeal adapted to every situation, and it is always possible to rebuild.
Hence it is that when Paul was led to write to the Corinthians with a view to remedying the serious abuses which had crept in, he first stresses the Lordship of Christ, evidently realising that the success of his appeals would depend upon the Corinthians’ willingness to accept this fundamental ground in all the questions which had arisen. As they listened to the Epistle being read, could they have failed to notice how the full title of Jesus Christ as Lord, ran like a refrain through the opening sentences occurring no less than six times in various impressive and significant connections?
Call upon the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Grace and peace from . . the Lord Jesus Christ.
The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
I beseech you by the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
They would notice, too, how before he commences to speak of the means by which his work in Corinth was done, he winds up (what we call) Chapter One with, “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” In keeping with such an introduction the title “Lord” is constantly mingled with his appeals, occurring over sixty times in the Epistle.
2. THE MEANS. HOW WE BUILD.
Read Chapter TWO.
Here Paul elaborates the means by which his work at Corinth was accomplished – no confidence in the flesh, in natural ability, but utter reliance on the Holy Spirit, Who is frequently mentioned in this second chapter.
Paul’s natural gifts and qualifications would have enabled him to appeal to the Corinthians’ love of “wisdom”; he could have charmed them with excellency of speech and enticing words of man’s wisdom and obtained an enthusiastic following – for a while, until some new philosophic fashion took the field. Against this temptation he resolutely set his face, in the conviction that results obtained by such means would be transient – the work would not “abide.” He knew full well that not only does the natural man not receive the things of the Spirit of God, but that they are foolishness unto him (v. 14), and it could not have come easy to a man of Paul’s temperament to rest his whole appeal on a Christ Who not only appeared weak and foolish to the worldly wise, but the crown of Whose work involved a death of unspeakable disgrace. It was not only “Jesus Christ,” but “Him crucified” (v. 2). To preach Jesus Christ was an offence – to preach a crucified Christ was an insult. We to whom the Cross has become the symbol of the triumph of Divine Power and Wisdom (1. 24) cannot hope to understand how abject seemed the preaching of One as Saviour, the ground of Whose saving power was that He had meekly submitted to a degrading death. Jew and Gentile joined in hurling at Christians such scornful and scathing jibes as Lucien’s, “A gibbeted Christ!”
The Athenian’s contempt for such a message, even when very carefully presented (Acts 17. 18 and 32), made quite clear what kind of reception Paul could expect at Corinth, and he confesses that he was with them,” in weakness and in fear, and in much trembling” (v. 3). Nevertheless allied to human weakness was “the demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v. 4). What a contrast to the self-confidence and the brave show with which much of spiritual (? religious) work is conducted today, which can neither be said to be in weakness and in fear and in much trembling – nor, alas, in demonstration of the Spirit and of power If we saw less of the self-sufficiency of man, we plight see more of the adequacy of the Spirit’s power (2 Cor. 3. 5). Any genuine concern at the low ebb to which the tide of spiritual blessing has receded, is cause for deep thankfulness, but unfortunately consideration of the remedy is too often confined to exploring the possibilities of new methods it would surely be a mistake to discourage enterprise, but the crucial need is not new methods, but the old power. The most elaborate machinery is useless without the power to drive it. Probably there never was a time when religious work was better organised than it is today – the machine is well-nigh perfect, but organisers, valuable as they can be, will accomplish nothing in the absence of agonisers.
There is an ever present danger of substituting activity for spirituality indeed there may be willingness to be self-deceived because activity demands far less of us than does spirituality. It is easy to assume that because an assembly is alert and enterprising, and its affairs are conducted with business-like efficiency, that it is necessarily healthy. It is in such an atmosphere that the intellectual, the organiser and the business man, take the place of the spiritual man. It is no credit to any assembly if its affairs are conducted in any but an efficient manner, but this is no guarantee of spiritual prosperity, which after all, is what matters.
Of the various translations proposed as an improvement on the A.V. in v. 13, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” the one most appropriate to the context seems to be, “imparting spiritual things by spiritual means.” In other words only spiritual power can procure spiritual effects. There are various kinds of power and each secures results only in its own realm. Physical power can accomplish physical results – and physical results only. Much that goes for spiritual ministry may be merely the outcome of intellectual power – the ability to grasp and to impart to others certain truth. Clear and accurate exposition of the Scripture is not to be despised, but if it is simply intellectual it is merely a case of mind imparting to mind. If it ends there, no work for God is done – it is in word only (1 Thess. 1. 5). Some can discern what is merely intellectual, who nevertheless fail to make another and equally important distinction between soulish (psychic) power and spiritual power. Men with certain gifts of soul have the ability to influence the emotions of others – soul imparts to soul. These sensations are mistaken for spiritual operations, but soul power produces only soulish results and the effects soon evaporate. This is not to say that God does not use the intellectual or soul powers of His servants – we simply contend that if the work goes no deeper, nothing of abiding spiritual value is achieved. Spiritual power, which is characterised by the Holy Spirit’s operations upon the spirits of men, results in enlightenment, whereby convictions are formed and wills are moulded to the will of God. No doubt this is usually preceded or accompanied by intellectual processes or emotional experiences, or both, but these are secondary – the crucial thing is the application of spiritual power to men’s spirits. This was the only thing in which Paul placed confidence – “that your faith should not stand in the. wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (v. 5).
Not one of us will dispute that only what is wrought by the Spirit’s power is acceptable to God, but how many of us have paused to apply this disconcerting test to all that we fondly regard as service for Christ? Yet apply it we must if we are to escape the humiliation of seeing our work burned up. Only the work which “abides” will count permanence is the criterion, not the spasmodic appearance of success.
3. THE MATERIAL. WHAT WE BUILD.
Read Chapter THREE.
Here our thoughts are directed to the materials to be built into the spiritual structure of the assembly – the character of the work done. Gold, silver and precious stones refer to those many forms of ministry which contribute to the consolidation and adornment of assembly life and witness. Space does not allow of a detailed study of the many suggestive lessons to be learned from a comparison of the two classes of materials, one so inflammable, the other so indestructible – we must be content to notice that the keynote is quality, not quantity. God is not so much concerned with the apparent size of our work – the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. How slow we are to learn this lesson, and how easily we are deceived into thinking that the value of our service is proportionate to the amount of work we attempt – not infrequently the reverse may be the case.
Wood, hay and stubble may make an imposing pile and yet be worth only a fraction of an apparently insignificant amount of gold, silver and precious stones. Similarly a man whose work looms large in the public eye, whose natural gifts enable him to occupy sphere upon sphere with acceptance and every appearance of success, may actually be accomplishing less for God than an obscure saint who is content to fill a little sphere – but a sphere to which God has called him – and to fill it with prayerful and devoted subjection to the guidance and empowering of the Spirit of God. His contribution to the spiritual structure of the assembly may be overlooked, or, at the best, under-rated, and it may be the other man who is regarded as the assembly’s chief ornament and support. But “today” must soon give place to “the Day” when so many of earth’s verdicts will be reversed.
We may well ask ourselves whether we are allowing our natural eagerness to do as much as possible, to be misused by the devil to trap us into occupying so many spheres that we can bring to none of them that spiritual depth and reality which alone can hope for true success. Maybe many a true servant of Christ would accomplish more if he were content to attempt less, because his real work for God would then be of a better quality. Alas, the trouble is that he often finds the decision very hard to make – he would gladly do less if so many of his brethren were not so content to do nothing. On the other hand, his attitude may be excusing if not encouraging their idleness.
4. THE MOTIVE. WHY WE BUILD.
Read Chapter FOUR.
Do these verses give us to see what fire it is which reveals every man’s work – is it the searching scrutiny of our Master’s all-seeing eyes, which John describes as a flame of fire? (Rev. 1 : 14). Those eyes in examining our work will try not only the quality of the materials (what sort it is) but will also bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts (v. 5). Then will be seen not merely what we really did build, but why we built it. Not merely the materials but the motives. Unless we are very watchful we easily become swayed by mixed motives, when the glory of Christ ought to be the main-spring of our service. How the human heart covets the prominent place and the praise of men. If we go in for these things we shall probably get them – in that case we have had our reward – and need not expect to get in addition, the reward we never valued until too late – the praise of God (Matt. 6:2). What we shall get is the exposure of our real motives.
“Then shall every man have praise of God” (v. 5). can hardly mean that all will be praised. If this be the meaning, how are we to explain the contemplated case of a man’s work being burned up and he being saved, yet so as by fire? (3 : 15). Will he have praise of God? Does it not rather mean that whereas now the praise of men may count for much in the eyes of some, then the praise of men will have no place – any praise which is given will come from the only One whose praise has any real value.
In the full realisation of this, Paul (whilst never indifferent to his brethren’s genuine convictions, or scornful of their commendation) thought man’s estimate of him, favourable or unfavourable, a matter of very little consequence – “with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment” (v. 3). Indeed, he did not presume to assess the value of his own work – “yea, I judge not mine own self.” Certainly he judged himself in the sense that he was careful to keep a clear conscience, and this priceless boon he enjoyed, for having judged himself in this sense, he “knew nothing by (against) himself” (v. 4). Nevertheless he realised that his knowledge of himself was very imperfect – his honest verdict on his own service was no guarantee of his Lord’s final approval – “He that judgeth me is the Lord.” He mast be content to wait for the Judgment Seat of Christ.
In like manner we are to “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come” (v, 5). Certainly we are to examine ourselves and to judge and put away what we see to be contrary to the mind of God, but we are competent neither to assess the value of our work, nor to guarantee the purity of our motives. Similarly, though we are justified in bringing the teaching of the Scripture to bear upon the service of others, for our guidance, we must resist the temptation to pass judgment on the quality of their work, and most certainly we are not to be so impertinent as to dare to pronounce on their motives. “Who are thou …?” (Rom. 14. 4). Enough for us, that we have to answer for ourselves.
Paul reminds us that “it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (v. 2). If we honestly strive to be faithful and yet are not allowed to enjoy very much apparent success, it should certainly call for exercise of heart, but not for despondency – it may be a mercy which would keep us from its pitfalls. At any rate, we cannot command success – but we can be. faithful, and that in the last analysis will prove to have been true success.
Happy is the assembly whose leaders are builders, who recognise only one Lord, and His Word as the one ground of appeal, who have no confidence in the flesh but rely utterly on the Holy Spirit, who know and are content with the sphere of God’s appointing, and there render service characterised by spiritual quality, and whose master-motive is not the glory of self, but the glory of Christ. They are the builders whose work will “abide.”