For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. I Corinthians 3:9-17
This is another one of those passages of Scripture that I never looked at in context. I think I always assumed that verses 9 and 10 were about Paul and his fellow builders, like Apollos and Peter. Read by themselves, verses 12-15 seemed to apply to some sort of self-building on the part of Paul’s readers and hence to us – meaning everyone’s own Christian life. In this way of looking at it, the gold, silver, and precious stones or the wood, hay and straw equal our works. And what Paul must be saying it that God will judge our works, but we will be saved anyway.
While this is close, it misses the deeper meaning of this passage. The thing about Paul, Apollos and Peter (since we tend to think of him by that name rather than Cephas) is that after the foundation was laid, they were building the Church. Paul is writing in the second person plural and if he were writing to the church in Corinth, Texas (pop. 19,935) he would be saying in verse 9, “Y’all are God’s building.” In verse 16, he’d be saying, “Dontcha know that y’all are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in y’all?” Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Church.
This is where I think there are two applications to this passage. First, he is writing about teachers and leaders in the Church, who have responsibility for building on the foundation on a larger scale. It may be a global scale, or it may be on a local scale, like Corinth – or sadly in this day of division, a sectarian segment of the local scale, as we now have with individual congregations.
It is a warning to be sure that we are building on the foundation with sound doctrine. Paul gives a lot of attention elsewhere to the importance of this and the consequence of not doing this. In this passage, the warning is that their false doctrines will be burned up with fire, even though they will be saved as long as their foundation is Christ.
However, we don’t just build the Church with doctrine and we don’t just build as leaders.
Just as the Church is the Temple filled with the Holy Spirit, each of us is a temple filled with the Holy Spirit. (Paul makes this explicitly clear just a little further on in this letter in 6:19.) Under the Old Covenant, the manifested presence of God rested above the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies. Ever since the Word came and pitch his Tabernacle among us and we beheld His glory and then He prayed to the Father to send to us the Holy Spirit, the manifested presence of God dwells in each of us.
We build in each other’s lives. We work to build up or tear down the Church as it is expressed in one another. We build into each other’s lives works of gold, silver and precious stones or wood, hay and straw. We are all either Temple builders or Temple defilers. We will be judged by how we build and the by the materials we choose to use.
This is an awesome privilege and responsibility. When we invest in the lives of others, we are adorning the Temple of God. Hopefully, we are adorning the lives of others in ways that glorify God. Hopefully, we are building with things that will withstand the fire in their lives and in ours.
Almost the entirety of this letter is about how we relate to each other, against the background of how the Corinthians were getting it all wrong. Chapter 3 fits into this theme. I encourage you read 1 Corinthians with this in mind, in order to become a better Temple builder.