First Corinthians 3--Building materials for the temple
Mar 07, 2017
Although men are the foundation of denominations, Jesus Christ can be the only foundation of the temple that God is building. Of course, I know of no one who would admit that its founder is the foundation of his denomination. Jesus is always claimed to be the foundation, and often this is largely true at the beginning of its organizational history.
However, claims are only as good as the mindset of the people. The practical reality is that if God says one thing, and the leaders say another, the leaders always get their way. Leaders are responsible to discern the will of God and teach His word. But leaders are not immune from the influence of their souls, and many have never learned to distinguish between their soul and their spirit.
I have met many good leaders in various denominations, men of genuine faith and understanding who are a tribute to their organization. I do all that I can to share the revelation of the word that I have received, even as I seek to know their revelation. That is, after all, one of the main purposes of fellowship. The problem is that the soul cannot discern the mind of God, for that is the role of the spirit. The influence of the soul causes us to believe what Jesus called “the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9 KJV; Isaiah 29:13 KJV).
The soul does not know the difference between the word and its understanding of the word. It assumes that they are the same, and thus the soulish man is locked into beliefs that fall short of divine revelation. Their confidence is in creeds that men have established in the past, usually by the power of carnal minds voting to determine the truth. The majority is seldom right, and if they do get it right, they often enforce it by a spirit of violence and force.
In the end, all beliefs and all of men’s works will be tested by fire. 1 Corinthians 3:12 says,
12 Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw…
Here Paul continues his temple-building metaphor. After laying the foundation of Jesus Christ, he shows how other men may build upon that foundation, using good or bad materials. The “gold, silver, precious stones” are works done by faith. The “wood, hay, straw” are works done by man’s own will and effort.
Paul tells us in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes from hearing,” because in the Hebrew way of thinking, to hear (shema) is also to obey. Hearing requires a response to be genuine. Response proves faith, for as James 2:18 says, “I will show you my faith by my works.” He says again in James 2:26, “faith without works is dead.”
Such “dead” faith, then, is the “wood, hay, straw” in Paul’s metaphor. When men respond to the soul, it is not faith in God, but faith in man. Faith in man is not inherently evil; it is just not the same as faith in God. Men may do many good works, even as wood, hay, and straw are beneficial in the earth today. The problem is that they turn to dust and can be burned. We know from 1 Kings 6:9, 10 that Solomon’s temple was built from cedar wood. Does this destroy Paul’s metaphor? Not at all. First of all, Solomon’s temple was only an early type and shadow of the real temple that God was to build out of living stones. Secondly, cedar wood was used because of its enduring quality that closely simulated the material in the true temple.
The gold, silver, and precious stones in Paul’s metaphor represent genuine works of faith, or what he calls faith-obedience (Romans 1:5). When a person responds to the voice of God, his acts are acts of faith, which, when tried by fire, are enduring. All soulish works that men do are combustible and have no permanent value to be rewarded in that day.
Trial by Fire
Paul continues his thought in 1 Corinthians 3:13,
13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.
Paul says that the works of men will be proven one way or the other in “the day.” What day is that? Obviously, is the day of judgment. Paul speaks of it as a future event, because in his day the most of the works of men had not yet “become evident.” Disputes still remained, because the judgment of God had not yet clarified these things to all men. It is only at the Great White Throne judgment that the fire of God will test all that remains to be tested, and at that moment no man will be able to deny the validity of that test.
There is, of course, a present testing that occurs in our lives, if we are able to discern properly. I have found that every work of faith is tested here and now. God has many ways to test His word (that is, what we believe to be His word), so that our belief and understanding can be proven by the fire of God. Without such proof, we would be left with a degree of uncertainty, for even if we knew that we had heard from God, others might not have that same assurance.
The fire of experience and events prove many things here and now. However, only a few are privy to those proofs. At the Great White Throne, all will be made evident. So it is important to view the trial by fire as both present and future in order to see the full picture.
The Nature of Fire
The “fire” itself is not literal. It is as much part of Paul’s metaphor as the temple and the building materials. The character and nature of God is the “fire,” and for this reason God revealed Himself as “a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). All fleshly things are combustible in the presence of this Divine Fire. Hence also, Israel was commanded to burn all idols and all that was associated with idolatry (Deuteronomy 13:13, 16).
The law of God is an expression of his nature. If read with understanding, it reveals who He is. Thus, His nature is the measuring rod of all things, and whatever does not measure up to His nature will be burned up in the end. Deuteronomy 33:2 KJV speaks of “the fiery law.” Daniel 7:10 tells us that “a river of fire was flowing” from the Great White Throne (a symbol of law) upon the people rising from the dead. This river of fire is divine judgment upon all the people, and according to John in Revelation 20:14, this “river” forms a “lake.”
It is divine judgment according to the law of God. However, the law of God does not prescribe fiery torture as a normal form of judgment. The only time it may be permissible to use fire as a judgment is if the sinner has burned other people. Exodus 21:23-25 says,
23 But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
The divine principle in the mind of God is that the judgment must always fit the crime. If a monetary settlement cannot be reached between the sinner and the injured party, then the law says that they sinner must be injured in the same way that he did to his own victim. Hence, at the Great White Throne, those who tortured others, whether by fire or by other means, may be tortured in the same manner for the same length of time before being released.
Jesus referred to a similar law (Deuteronomy 25:3), saying in Luke 12:47-49,
47 And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given, much shall be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more. 49 I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!
Jesus was not referring to a classic “hell,” wishing that it were already kindled, but was showing how such flogging was the application of God’s fiery law. His point was to show that ignorance might reduce one’s liability. For example, church bishops who burned people at the stake during medieval times (ending only in the 1860’s) will be held more accountable before God than those doing similar injustices but who had no opportunity to study the Scriptures.
Of course, the judgment process will also include whatever levels of mercy are appropriate. Those who showed mercy will be shown mercy. Those who did not will be judged according to their own standard of measure (Matthew 7:2). Hence, church bishops who burned “heretics” at the stake without mercy will themselves be burned if “the day” proves that they too were heretics by the standard of divine truth.
Yet the fire is primarily a metaphor for the nature of God as revealed by His law, even though there may be some literal fire when applied at the Great White Throne judgment. The idea that “one size fits all” is foreign to the divine standard of justice. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), not a burning hell. The judgment will fit the crime. Furthermore, no man can commit crime for eternity, and so no judgment is eternal. The law of Jubilee always ends “debt” at the appropriate time.
The Hebrew word translated “eternal” and “everlasting” is olam, which means “hidden, unknown, indefinite.” It does not mean infinite. In fact, there are examples in Scripture where it cannot possibly mean everlasting, such as the so-called “everlasting covenant” that God made with Phineas (Numbers 25:13 KJV). His priesthood lasted only about 300 years (1 Samuel 2:30).
In the New Testament the Greek equivalent of olam is aionian, “pertaining to an aion (eon) or age,” and we must give the Hebrew definition to it.
Paul tells us that all of men’s works will be tried by fire. He was referring specifically to carnally-minded believers in the Corinthian assembly—those following the desires of the soulish man, as seen in their desire to follow men, rather than Christ. By extension, of course, all men will be judged by the same fiery law, but Paul was warning the church that their building material would all be tested (or refined) by fire.
This is part 15 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones