1 Corinthians 3:12-17
Why should we be interested in living for the Lord as Christians? We have our salvation. We are Heaven-bound. If we sin, we have forgiveness and grace just a prayer away. The Bible says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Why should we live for the Lord at all? There are multiple good and correct answers to that question, including what I see at the main one—the Christian serves the Lord because his heart is full of love and gratitude for what Jesus did for him on the cross.
But alas, we are human, and often that love and gratitude gets buried under the the weight of self-centered laziness. Our immaturity causes us to be bored with serving the Lord. So God provides more than one incentive to motivate us to serve and live for him.
Paul reveals what that motivation is in 1 Corinthians 3. He has been talking about how it not us who grow the church, but God. We are to be involved, however, planting and watering. We are to be involved as builders, building on the foundation of Jesus Christ. So Paul says…
12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. 14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. (1 Corinthians 3:12–15)
The motivation to serve Christ that is revealed in this passage are rewards given to us for the quality of our service. These rewards are not given immediately, but on a certain day, and will affect the rest of our eternity.
Some Christians balk at the idea of rewards, because they think that a loving God wouldn’t use a system of rewards and incentives to get his people to serve him. It seems unspiritual to them.
I hope to show you that God does indeed use rewards to motivate us and that truth is found all over the New Testament.
Every parent wants their children to obey out of love for them, but they also realize that, while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak…so it’s appropriate to promise rewards for good and correct behavior—potty training would never happen otherwise!
But another might object and say that, while it may be in the Bible, wouldn’t it be more spiritual not to be motivated by rewards?
At first glance that may seem to be true, but when you look deeper, it’s merely our old prideful nature speaking, “Look at me, God, I did all this and you don’t have to reward me!”
Those folks may also misunderstand that God wants to reward us. We’ve encouraged our kids reading ability by promising them a Kindle when they reach a 7th grade reading level.
As a father, I want them to get that Kindle. In fact, I was more eager than they to see the results of their latest reading level test—and more disappointed than they where when they hadn’t got there yet.
And, while there were rules about how long they had to wait to try again, I was the most eager to push the time frame so that they could have another opportunity earlier.
Now, imagine that one of my kids would say after earning the reward of a Kindle, “No thank you, I don’t want it.” I would feel hurt because they had rejected my reward for them.
To refuse to be motivated by the rewards God offers us is like an insult against his giving and gracious attitude toward us.
Another objection that people have about rewards is how is it that one Christian can have more in Heaven than another Christian? That seems unfair. The short answer is that God can do whatever he likes, who are we to hold him to our standards what is and isn’t fair?
Yet, there is an analogy that’s helpful to me. Every Christian is a different sized jar. In Heaven all our jars will be full, but some will hold more than others (Alcorn).
What Bible is saying is that the size of our jar in Heaven depends on the service that we do for the Lord on the earth. “Lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven” is about increasing your capacity of your jar.
Let’s look at this passage and learn about these rewards and how they are to motivate us to serve the Lord here on earth.
The Bible describes the work that a Christian does in terms of building materials that one might use to build a house or a temple.
1 Corinthians 3:12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
The “foundation,” as we learned in the last passage is Jesus Christ (verse 11), especially as understood in the gospel.
Obviously, Paul is speaking figuratively when he says “if any man build on this foundation,” with any of the various materials.
Many a person has tried to figure out the figurative meaning behind each of the six materials listed here. That is an effort in futility because it distracts one from the point that is being made here.
What is clear is that there are two kinds of building materials: “gold, silver, precious stones” are materials that are good quality and relatively fireproof. On the other hand, “wood, hay, stubble” are materials that are cheap and not at all fireproof.
What he means that Christians build spiritually on the foundation of Jesus Christ, and the two categories of materials indicate whether we are doing a good job or a poor job.
Once upon a time there were three little pigs who went to build houses for themselves.
The first pig was quite lazy and so built his house of straw because it was quick and easy.
The second pig was not as lazy, and was a little more concerned about doing a good job, but, in the end, he wanted to relax and watch tv. So he built a fairly quick house out of sticks.
Then there was the third pig, a diligent and level-headed fellow who, despite the work and time involved, built his house out of bricks.
Well, then along came the big bad wolf. He approached the straw house and said, “Little pig, let me in.” And the first pig said, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!” So the wolf huffed and puffed and blew the straw house down—it was pretty easy for him to do.
Then the big bad wolf approached the stick house and said, “Little pig, let me in.” And the second pig said, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!” So the wolf huffed and puffed and he huffed and puffed and blew the stick house down—it was still pretty easy for him to do.
But then the big bad wolf approached the brick house. He called out again, “Little pig, let me in.” And the third pig said, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!” So the wolf huffed and huffed and puffed and puffed, but no matter how much he huffed and puffed—he could not blow the brick house down that the diligent third pig had built.
So he gave up and went to find Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s house.
As Christians, the type of service and life that we live for the Lord can be compared to weak materials like straw or sticks, or strong materials like bricks. What kind of house are you building with your life?
We build on the foundation of Christ in many ways. One way is selfless service, even the smallest sort of service—Jesus said:
42 And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward. (Matthew 10:42)
Another way of earning rewards is by loving our enemies:
35 But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. (Luke 6:35)
We will be rewarded for our devotion to Christ above all others:
29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. (Matthew 19:29)
Rewards are promised to those who are persecuted (Luke 6:22-23), to those who persevere under trial (Hebrews 10:34-36), for living godly lives (2 Peter 3:11-14), and there are other passages as well.
All these—service, loving enemies, living godly lives and so on, are ways that we can build on the foundation of Christ with good materials—“gold, silver, precious stones”
And, just like in the story of the three little pigs, there will come a day when our work will be tested.
1 Corinthians 3:13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.
What is the “day” that is being referred to here? It is first, and most importantly, the day that Christians appear before Christ.
When exactly that happens has been debated, whether each Christian will do this immediately after they die or, most likely, if this occurs at some point after the rapture of the church. The point is—we all have a day to face Christ for what we’ve done in this life, good or bad.
10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10, cf. Romans 14:10)
At this judgment, Paul says…
“the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is”—Now, we understand what the different materials were all about. The burnable ones will disappear, leaving only the ones that are durable—“gold, silver, precious stones.”
As a boy, I had a place next to the garden where I could dig and play with my Tonka trucks. It was actually ashes that I played in, ashes from my grandparent’s house that had burned down before I had been born. I found little treasures in the ashes every time I played there—usually old nails, but also pieces of glass cookware and so on. Only the things that weren’t burnable remained.
The fire that tests the Christian’s works does not purify him or his works—it’s not a kind of purgatory—it reveals what sort of works they are. It isn’t about whether or not we have salvation, it’s about what we did with the salvation given to us by grace.
In Matthew 25, Jesus used a parable to describe this truth—
14 For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. 15 And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. 16 Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. 17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. 18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. 19 After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. 20 And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. 21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord…(Matthew 25:14–21)
Jesus also said—
19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: (Matthew 6:19–20)
So the questions that we’ll be confronted with before Christ are: Did we lay up treasures in Heaven? Did we invest our lives in things that really matter? Did we build for eternity, or merely for our earthly pleasure?
Jesus implied in the parable that those who live for eternity will find themselves rewarded when the Lord returns (“I will make thee ruler over many things”), and Paul confirms that in the next verse.
1 Corinthians 3:14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
Again, just to be clear, the “reward” in this verse is not the reward of salvation. That becomes clear in the next verse:
1 Corinthians 3:15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
Salvation is a free gift, not earned by works—
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
To receive the free gift of salvation, you must realize that you need the gift of salvation…that is, you must understand that you are a sinner on his or her way to Hell.
Then, you must understand that Jesus died in your place to take the judgment that belongs to you. When you place your trust in him you will be saved! There’s no earning salvation, it’s a gift to all who believe in Christ.
Rewards in Heaven, however, are another story—they are earned. Randy Alcorn distinguishes salvation and rewards like this:
Belief (trust, faith) determines our eternal destination: where we will be. Behavior (obedience) determines our eternal rewards: what we will have there (Alcorn).
Well, what is the “reward” that Christians get for a life of faithfulness and service for their Lord?
1) One reward that comes up in the Bible several times is that of rulership with Christ after his return. In Revelation 3:21; 20:6 and 1 Corinthians 6:3 the idea of believers reigning with Christ is mentioned.
In the parable of the talents that we read earlier, Jesus said that he would make the diligent servant a “ruler over many things” (Matthew 25:21). In Luke 19:17-24 he refers to one person having rule over “ten cities” and another having rule over “five cities.”
Those believers who strive harder here in service and investing in eternal things will find themselves ruling more in the life to come.
2) Another reward mentioned often in the Bible is that of various crowns.
Five crowns are mentioned in the New Testament:
1. The Crown of Life—given for faithfulness to Christ in persecution or martyrdom (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10).
2. The Incorruptible Crown—given for determination, discipline, and victory in the Christian life (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
3. The Crown of Rejoicing—given for pouring oneself into others in evangelism and discipleship (1 Thessalonians 2:19; Philippians 4:1).
4. The Crown of Glory—given for faithfully representing Christ in a position of spiritual leadership (1 Peter 5:1-4). (Note that a prerequisite is being “not greedy for money, but eager to serve.” A Christian leader’s preoccupation with money can forfeit this reward.)
5. The Crown of Righteousness—given for joyfully purifying and readying oneself to meet Christ at his return (2 Timothy 4:6-8). (Alcorn)
God gives hints at what our rewards might be, but perhaps the best thing to say about God’s rewards for us is what we sometimes say to our kids, “Work hard at this and later, I’ll give you a surprise!”
Don’t worry so much about what the rewards will be, just know that your Heavenly Father will not let any of your effort as his child go unrewarded.
I ran across this question, “What things, that are important to you right now, won’t mean anything to you five minutes after you are in Heaven?”
You might argue with that question saying, “Of course, nothing that is important now will mean anything to me in Heaven. The question isn’t fair, I have to think about the things that are important now.”
But Jesus said that we are supposed to be prioritizing our lives right now according to Heavenly priorities.
19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: 21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19–21)
Are your priorities today laying up for yourself rewards in Heaven?
Alcorn, Randy. Money, Possessions, and Eternity. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2003.