The apostle himself had laid the foundation of the work of God in Corinth. “The preaching of the Cross is … unto us which are saved … the power of God” (1: 18). This was the theme of Paul’s message, “and many of the Corinthians hearing, believed, and were baptized” (Acts 18:8). With such dynamite he blasted in these quarries of nature, with the result that there were now “living stones,” builded together for a Habitation of God, in that city. The assembly thus brought into being was, at the very commencement, set in Divine order according to the pattern given by the Lord, and communicated by the ministry of this wise master-builder.
The pattern is preserved for us now in the inspired writings of this skilful architect, and our highest privilege is to build according to it.
The exhortation of the apostle is, “Let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon” (v. 10). These words of solemn warning, addressed primarily to those who minister the Word among the saints, doubtless apply ultimately to everyone in the assembly. It is a principle clearly taught in 1 Cor. 12 (though the figure used is a different one) that we each have been put into a place of Divinely appointed responsibility, in order to exercise spiritual influence in the community of saints. It follows therefore that we all contribute, as responsible to maintain the flow of spiritual nourishment in the assembly. By such means, godliness of character is built up, and the building is garnished for the pleasure of the Divine Indweller.
“Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: … the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (vv. 12, 13). It would seem that the apostle has in mind, on the one hand, the quality of ministry that would develop the beauties of Christ in the saints, that so the assembly may become a concentration of Christlikeness, and its character built in powerful witness for God; and, on the other hand, the unsound, unwholesome ministry that would poison the spiritual life of the saints, and encourage carnality, with its fearful results for assembly life and witness.
If, so far, we have correctly interpreted the thought of the apostle, a heavy burden of responsibility is laid upon those of us who minister the Word among God’s people. By our ministry we build. The health of the saints depends upon their food. The development of the assembly depends’ upon the character of its ministry. Teaching expresses itself in the character it builds. Evil doctrine results in evil behaviour (1 Cor. 15: 33). Unwholesome ministry undermines spiritual health. Therefore we are not surprised to find emphasis laid upon this in the Pastoral Epistles. Timothy and Titus were in positions of responsibility in this very matter, and for that reason the apostle stresses the importance of “the sound (healthful) teaching.” The healthful teaching is the teaching that is wholesome; the food that contains the elements that promote spiritual health; the ministry that develops spiritual stamina and builds Christian character in the saint.
It was an evil day for Israel when they “were without a teaching priest” (2 Chron. 15: 3). The priest was appointed to be “the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 2: 7), and the people were expected to “seek the law at his mouth.” In the place of priestly communion with God, he acquired understanding of His will, and was therefore qualified to give guidance from God for the steps of His people. But Israel “were without a teaching priest,” and the priests of the remnant were unfaithful to their charge, so that wrong guidance was communicated.
It is vitally important that those who minister the Word and, by their ministry provide guidance for the movements of the saints, be priestly men. If not, the steps of God’s people will be ordered in ways that are contrary to His will. How much, then, depends upon the faithful ministry of the Word by faithful men, who come to us in the power of the Spirit, from the sanctuary of the Divine Presence.
In all their labours the workers have in view the building of the assembly. Twice the apostle uses the word “thereupon”; once he uses the word “thereon”; and once he uses the phrase, “upon this foundation.” It is a searching, conscience-exercising question that we each should ask ourselves, “What am I building by my ministry?” “Is it my object in all my service, to unify the saints of God according to the pattern of assembly life and, witness, provided in the New Testament, and does my ministry accomplish that end?” How much of our energy is probably misspent, building an edifice of wood, hay, stubble, which, however it appears before the eye of man, and is approved in “man’s day,” will be found to lack Divine quality when at last “the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.”
These verses speak to us of two workmen:
(a) A good workman whose work is good.
The day of manifestation will reveal the quality of his service of selfless love and devoted labour, for which there will be eternal reward.
(b) A workman whose work is worthless.
“He himself shall be saved.” But the test of that day will manifest the lack of quality, in which, much more than in quantity, God is interested. “He shall suffer loss.”
We leave it here. Let us each labour in view of the day that will test the quality of our work, serving the Lord so as to hear Him say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”