Building God’s church – part 2 (1 Cor 3:14-17)

Yesterday, we saw how we have a choice of materials with which to build God’s church: perishable materials (relying on human effort) or imperishable materials (relying on the power of G0d). Today, Paul ends with a warning for those who seek to build God’s church.He says our work will be tested when Jesus returns. Like fire tests a building. Then we’ll see how we have built God’s church. Because only that built with imperishable materials will survive into eternity.

3:13b-15 It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

This is not salvation-by-works. Our salvation is already based on the completed work of Christ in our place. But how we have worked to build God’s church will be judged when he returns; there will be degrees of reward for our faithful service.

What that reward will be, Paul never elaborates. Maybe it will be the joy of seeing our work last, as opposed to the shame of seeing it burned up – or seeing those whom God has saved through us. Who knows? Paul’s point is not to present a theology of reward, but to use the idea of reward as a motivation to get it right. For whatever the reward is, we can be sure that it’s worth building with materials that will withstand the test of eternity.

But if we build with perishable materials, we’ll have nothing to show for our work. Like many of the stories we’ve heard of bushfire survivors, we’ll escape the testing fire with nothing but our lives. What an awful feeling that would be: to throw your life into building God’s church in your own strength – and then watch it all come to nothing.

But there’s one thing that’s worse than trying to build God’s church in our own strength. And that’s actively destroying God’s church. Because God takes his church seriously! We see this in the next few verses, where Paul identifies the building we’re constructing as the temple of the Holy Spirit, his dwelling place.

3:16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?

The tabernacle and then the temple was where God chose to dwell on earth in Old Testament times. But now, post-Easter, post-Pentecost, God dwells in his people by the Holy Spirit. So Paul rightly calls us, the church, God’s temple. And the word used refers not merely to the outer temple precinct, but to the shrine; the holy of holies that a priest could only enter once a year. That’s now in us. We are now the place where God dwells, and where people from all nations can come and find him.

So if we – the church – are God’s temple, that explains why God is so serious about his church. And about its unity. In fact, God will destroy those who destroy his church:

3:17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

This is serious stuff. Contrast this with those who build with perishable materials: at least they’re trying to build God’s church. And their salvation is secure, if nothing else. But those who actively destroy God’s church – who tear it down through ego, infighting, hatred, abuse… they will face the wrath of God. The word ‘destroy’ is used, which commonly refers to eternal damnation. By acting this way, these church-destroyers show that their professed faith was a sham, that they were only in it for themselves, and so God will deal with them.

Don’t mess with God’s church, because you’re messing with God. Don’t have anything to do with factions or rivalries. With gossip about leaders. With tearing down leaders. A harmonious church is a fragile thing; it doesn’t take much for things to turn ugly. In fact, it takes everyone working together to keep it harmonious; but only one or two to destroy it.

There once was a man who was stranded on the proverbial deserted island for many years. Finally one day he spots a boat on the horizon. The man frantically waves and gets the captain’s attention. The boat comes near the island, and the captain himself comes ashore to meet the man. As they’re getting in the launch to go back to the ship, the captain spots three huts on the beach. He asks the man: ‘why are there three huts here? I thought you were alone on the island.’

‘Well the first one, that’s my house there,’ replies the man.

‘What’s that next hut?’ asks the captain.

‘I built that hut to be my church.’

‘What about the third hut?’

The man looks down and kicks the ground with his feet, and mutters, ‘Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.’

We laugh because it’s very close to the truth. In reality it takes more than one solitary Christian to split a church: but only one more. Don’t mess with God’s church.

To think about

How does God’s fierce protectiveness of his church make you feel?

How should we deal with those who consistently behave in a way that divides and destroys God’s church?

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