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In 1 Corinthians 3:4-9 Paul had been describing the work of preachers. His purpose was to help the Corinthians avoid placing improper emphasis on the human abilities of preachers. He had used the illustration of a farmer who plants and waters, then in v9 he moved to the illustration of a builder working on a building. Here he continues this illustration, drawing further lessons from it.
He compares his work in Corinth to that of a wise master builder who laid a foundation. Then other workers built on that foundation. Paul preferred preaching in areas where the church was new or not yet existing. He refers to this as laying the foundation (cf. Rom. 15:20; 2 Cor. 10:15,16). Other preachers (such as Apollos) would come later and do further teaching, hence building on the foundation Paul had laid. This is exactly the same point as the illustration of the farmer who plants and another waters what he planted (vv 4,5).
Several other passages refer to the church with the illustration of a building, especially a temple (cf. v16; 1 Peter 2:4,5; Eph. 2:20-22. One who is in charge of erecting a building knows how important it is to have the proper foundation. Paul knew that this is equally important in the church. In the next verse he defines what foundation he used.
He further warns that those who build on the foundation must take care how they do so. It is not a matter of putting into the building just whatever one wants. He will later make the point that a man can work properly, yet the part of the building he made may be destroyed and he will still be saved. But this should not be taken to mean it does not matter how one builds. Sometimes the builder's shoddy work is responsible for the fall of the building. This is of especially grave consequence when one is working on the Lord's building, the church. One must be careful to build properly -- i.e. to teach the truth and do so diligently (2 Tim. 4:2-5).
Here Paul clearly states what foundation one must build on: Jesus Christ.
The foundation is the most fundamental part of a building, upon which all else is built (Cf. Matt. 7:24-27). It is possible to build wrongly on a good foundation, but if the foundation is wrong, nothing else can be truly right.
Jesus is the foundation of the church (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-8; Eph. 2:20; Isa. 28:16). Paul states without possible equivocation that there can be no other foundation. This forever destroys the Catholic concept that Peter or the office of Pope is the foundation of the church. Neither Matt. 16:18 nor any other passage can properly be used to teach the church has some other foundation. In fact this verse shows clearly that the "rock" in Matt. 16:18 must be Jesus, not Peter.
It is entirely right that Jesus should be the foundation, since He is Deity and the Savior who died for the church. He purchased it with His blood (Acts 20:28), and is the Head of it (Eph. 1:22,23; 5:22-25). It is folly to think that any man or office occupied by a man could serve as a proper foundation for Jesus' church.
Paul is not saying, of course, that it is impossible to try to use any other foundation. He is only saying that such would be, not the true foundation, but a false one; and anything built on that foundation could not be the Lord's true church. This then forever forbids the possibility that any church, including the Catholic Church, could possibly be the true church when it openly professes to be built on a foundation other than Jesus.
Now Paul turns to that which is built on the foundation. Clearly, in the context, he is still referring to the work of preachers in preaching the gospel. Their work refers to those they have converted, thereby laying them on the foundation. Christians are the building which the preachers are building up, as is clearly stated in vv 9,16,17. This agrees with 1 Peter 2:5, which says Christians are the living stones built upon the foundation of Jesus. That is Paul's point here.
However, he goes further to point out that, as one builds on the foundation (i.e., converting people to become part of the church), the materials used may turn out to be gold, silver, or precious stones, or wood, hay, or straw. The contrast in these materials is made clear in v13. The gold, silver, and precious stones can withstand fire and continue to endure, but the wood, hay, and straw will not last but will be consumed.
He explains that the materials put in the building will be tested by fire, and the fire will reveal what sort of material it is. This could refer to temptations and hardships. If so, the point is similar to the parable of the soils (Matt. 13:1-23). People of all kinds will accept the gospel. Some will accept and then fall away in time of temptation or hardship (they will be destroyed in the fire that tests them). Others will endure and be faithful. Among the latter, there will be those who produce 30, 60, or 100 fold (cf. gold, silver, and precious stones). They are all faithful, but some simply are able to accomplish more, as in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30).
Others think the fire refers to the day of judgment because of the reference in v13 to the "day" (cf. also 4:5). In any case, the point is similar. The materials refer to different kinds of Christians. Unlike a real building, preachers cannot know ahead of time what kind of material the people they teach will turn out to be. This can only be determined by the passing of time and ultimately the judgment day. Some people will prove to be weak and unable to stand. They will be destroyed like the parts of a house that burn up in a fire. Others are faithful and strong and will endure, like parts of a house that are not destroyed in a fire. Yet even among these, though all endure (are saved), some are more productive than others.
This is the only sensible explanation that fits the context and harmonizes with other passages.
As preachers labor, some souls they convert will endure and be saved. Others, however, will fall away. Paul often expresses the joy that rewarded him when the people he taught are faithful. He also mourns the loss of those who become unfaithful. See 1 Thess. 2:19,20; 3:5; Phil. 2:14-16; 4:1; Gal. 4:11; 2 John 4; 3 John 3; etc. According to the context, this must be the reward or loss a preacher suffers.
Yet the preacher himself can be saved eternally, provided he did his work faithfully, regardless of whether or not the people he taught remain faithful. This does not excuse lazy or indifferent work. One should take heed how he builds (v10). But it is a comfort to know that, if we are diligent in our work of teaching, then our salvation does not depend on whether or not the people we taught remain faithful. The final outcome of any man's salvation is between him and God. If we do our part, we will be saved no matter whether others whom we taught are or are not saved.
Again, this explanation fits the context, which is discussing the work of preachers. It also harmonizes with other passages. There have been other "explanations" offered that fit neither this context nor other passages.
Calvinists say this teaches "once saved, always saved": even if one lives a disobedient life, his works will be "burned up," yet the man himself will be saved in the end. This has no relationship to the context and clearly contradicts many passages including some in this very epistle (John 15:1-6; Acts 8:12-24; Romans 6:12-18; 8:12-17; Galatians 5:1-4; 6:7-9; 1 Corinthians 9:25-10:12; 1 Timothy 1:18-20; 5:8; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; Hebrews 3:6,11-14; 4:9,11; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 2 Peter 1:8-11; 2:20-22). For further information, go to our Bible Instruction web site at /instruct/ and study our free article about eternal security or once saved, always saved.
Catholicism, I am told, uses this passage to teach purgatory: people who do some bad works (venial sins) will suffer in purgatory till their sins are "burned up," yet in the end they will be saved. This contradicts numerous passages (cf. Luke 16:26). But among other problems, it has nothing whatever to do with this context.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2007
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.