1 Corinthians 3:10-20 ~ Building Wisely a Church, a Life
My dad came out of retirement to help me pay for college. For three summers, he went back to work with his brother and me. Together we laid block and brick to build homes all over Raleigh. Do you remember Mark Twain’s saying about his father? “When I was 16, my father was an idiot. When I was 21, I was amazed how far my father had come.” When I watched my father work, I was amazed. He could mark off the corners of a foundation using only a transit, a tape measure, and the principles of geometry. Who knew that my dad knew geometry? Turns out, Dad had been a foreman in a shipyard, he’d been in the Army Corps of Engineers. He could make anything. He was a skilled master builder.
When it came to churches, the apostle Paul was a skilled master builder. He said as much in his letter to the believers in Corinth. He’d spent eighteen months there building the foundations of their church. Later he got some reports that the church was getting, shall we say, out of plumb and un-level. So he wrote to them about how to straighten up. As I told you last week, Paul didn’t blast them like he could have. What he did was simply to be clear with them about his role among them, and then be clear about who they were as a church, and then challenge them with what their church could still become.
We, who eavesdrop on this letter centuries later, get a good picture of ourselves — of what our life together as a church is like, and what it can be. We learn from the master builder how to build a church, and for that matter how to build a life.
PAUL IS THE MASTER BUILDER
“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation…” (1 Cor 3.10) So Paul told the Corinthians how he saw his role as church starter. Then he told them that there can be only one foundation for a church, Jesus Christ. It was a word the Corinthians needed to hear. They were becoming divided according to who they thought had been their best church leader, Paul or Apollos or Cephas or whoever. It was a spitting contest over who was the best and brightest and most impressive speaker. In other words, it was a contest of status. They were getting way off-plumb from their foundation, the Crucified One, who was the antithesis of power and status.
After all, Jesus Christ was hung on a cross. If trappings of status are your thing, you won’t want anything to do with him. You won’t even understand him. The whole Jesus story will be nothing but scandal and folly to you.
But make him the foundation of your life, and you will build on the opposite of status and power; you will build your life on sacrifice and servant-hood. The rest of the world will think you’re crazy, but it will be the wisest thing you have ever done. So Paul invited the Corinthians to build their lives and their church a different way.
Then Paul gave them a warning: they would be accountable for the life they build together. They would be accountable for how they build their church…
…the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. (1Cor. 3:13)
This is serious judgment day language here. It scares me to read it, as much time as I spend trying to build this church. You and I, we all have some part in building this church. Eventually the quality of our work will become very clear. When the fires of hard times come, will this church stand? When the final judgment of Jesus comes, you and I will be held accountable for what we’ve done here. It will become clear whether we have done good work, or whether we have done shoddy work that won’t last. And by the way, woe to any of us who somehow managed to damage the Church, even if we thought we were building it up.
Did we build this church as a place for the upper class and the movers and shakers of Wilson? If we did, it will not endure but crumble away. Did we build this church on the power of personality or prosperity? If we did, then it will fade away. Did we build this church on the power of classical music? That will fade away. Did we build this church on the power of contemporary music? That will fade away. The only foundation that will last is the foundation of Jesus Christ.
After you and I have taken our turn in building this church, will we leave behind a mess to clean up or a healthy and growing fellowship? Again, it will all depend on whether we build on the foundation of Jesus Christ.
When I do funerals here, and I have done a few, it’s so interesting to meet sons and daughters of this church who grew up here, then moved away, then come back for a loved one’s funeral. I listen for their memories of what it was like to grow up here. I remember one funeral for a member; his adult children flew in from far-away corners of the country. One son told me that being here had nearly soured him on church and God forever, for as a teenager he realized that some of its leaders then were the biggest hypocrites in town. Then his sister told me that being here truly drew her closer to the way of Christ, because she was so impressed by one leader who bravely and publicly spoke up for people who were being mistreated and put down, and did so no matter how crazy or how foolish the town thought he was. That brother and sister were in this same church at the same time a generation ago, and they saw clearly where the church was being built up and where it was being torn down.
After you and I have had our turn, time will tell, and the Lord will judge, what we have built. The only thing that will last is that which rests fully on the foundation of Jesus Christ, a foundation that to the world seems nothing more than crazy foolishness, but a foundation that is wise and strong and enduring.
So Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth: that he was a skilled master builder of churches, that the only foundation is Jesus Christ, and that all their work to build that church would be judged on the day of Jesus Christ. That’s how Paul saw himself and his work.
YOU ARE GOD’S TEMPLE
But Paul had more to say about how he saw the Corinthians. He told them, “you are God’s temple.” In the Hebrew tradition, the Temple was the dwelling place of God. I read somewhere that when one walked into the Temple of Jerusalem, one walked into a vision of what heaven was like, a vision of beauty and purity, a vision of the sun and moon and stars in the heavens. So to say that you, a particular group of followers of Jesus, are God’s temple, is saying something. Can we really be anything like that? Can we be a vision of what heaven is like, a vision of where God is?
One thing that keeps me coming back here is that when I am among you in worship, it feels like a foretaste of heaven. When I am with you in this fellowship, I see hints of God’s presence. When I see you serving this community, I have sometimes an overpowering sense of God’s Spirit among you. Many of you have said the same thing to me.
Now Paul added something here quite amazing, “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Cor. 3:17) If you remember anything about the people in this particular church in that particular city, then you remember that they were far from a model church: divided, prideful, contentious, infected with immorality. And yet Paul called them a holy temple. Amazing. What made them holy was not their purity. They had a long way to go on that. What made them holy was the fact that God had set them apart to be a people founded on the way of Jesus.
YOU SHOULD BECOME FOOLS
So Paul described himself as a wise master builder of churches. And Paul described them as the holy temple of God. And then Paul challenged them to become something; he told them, “you should become fools.” (1 Cor. 3:18)
Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.
Their trouble was their pride in their own wisdom. That was how they got so troubled and so divided. So forget about being wise. Try being fools. That is, admit that you don’t know everything. Admit that you have a lot to learn. Admit that much of what is conventional wisdom in this world is wrong. And then you will be humble enough to learn from the Crucified One, no matter that the world says his way is the essence of madness. “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor. 3:19)
So look to Paul, and see a wise master builder.
Look to yourselves, and see a holy Temple of God.
And look to the Church’s one foundation, the Crucified Lord, and become a fool like him. In him, you will see the wisdom of God.
- Douglas E. Murray