I am temporarily reviving an old series I did on hermeneutics called “straight outta context.” For this installment, I want to look at 1 Corinthians 3:10-17.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:10-17)

I had always heard verses 10-15 used to exhort people to good works. As Christians, we need to make sure that we are doing works that will endure for eternity (gold, silver, precious stones) and for which we will receive a reward, rather than doing things that have no eternal value (wood, hay, stubble). However, in context, this is Paul’s warning to teachers to make sure that they are discipling God’s people correctly.

Starting all the way back in chapter 1, Paul addresses factions in the church caused by different allegiances to different ministers. Some claimed to follow Paul, while others claimed to follow Peter or Apollos (1:10-12). Paul resumed this topic in 3:1 – 4:21. In 3:5-9 Paul declares that all ministers are God’s servants to help God’s people, but each has a different focus. Some ministers focus on converting sinners (planting), while others focus on discipling those converts (waterers). Verses 8-9 are particularly instructive for interpreting verses 10-17: “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.” Whereas Paul had been utilizing an agricultural metaphor for how this works (planters and waterers), now he shifts to an architectural metaphor. Paul is picturing God’s people as buildings, and God’s fellow workers as laborers who construct that building.

Paul reveals his part in this process in verse 10. He is the one who laid the foundation for the Corinthians’ faith. It was through Paul that they came to believe in Jesus. Paul planted the gospel in their hearts as a foundation for their faith. However, other ministers continued his work, building on that foundation to create a holy temple for God. That Paul is referring to other ministers and not to the saints personally is evident from the fact that he said “and someone else is building on it.” If he had the Corinthian saints in mind, he would have said “and you are building on it.”

It is at this point that Paul warns those who are discipling the Corinthians to take heed as to how they go about their discipleship. If they try to build God’s building using perishable materials (wood, hay, stubble), then their work will not endure when it is tested on the day of judgment. All of that labor will have been for naught. Only if they build God’s building using imperishable materials (gold, silver, precious stones) can they expect for what they built to endure the fire of judgment. Ministers won’t be punished for their worthless labor, but will only be rewarded by God for the labor utilizing imperishable materials. Paul will receive a reward based on his foundation-laying labor, while those he deemed “waterers” will receive a reward based on their work to build a spiritual building on that foundation.

Paul never identifies the kind of labor that constitutes wood, hay, and stubble versus the kind of labor that constitutes gold, silver, and precious stones. Given what Paul says in verses 18-19 about those who follow the wisdom of this age, I think Paul has truth in mind. Those who are using the Word of God to construct these living buildings are building with gold, silver, and precious stones, while those who are instructing God’s people in the wisdom of this age are trying to construct God’s buildings with wood, hay, and stubble.

This contextual understanding for verses 10-15 also sheds light on verses 16-17. Let me quote them again: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” I have always heard this verse used to say that those who abuse their bodies will go to hell. This verse was appealed to in support of prohibitions on smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and even tattooing. When you consider the context, however, this interpretation is clearly ruled out. Remember, Paul said the Corinthians were buildings of God in verse 9, and then described the two ways in which ministers might build those buildings in verses 10-15 (one perishable, one imperishable). The building refers to the Corinthians’ spiritual development, not their physical bodies. The “anyone” who might destroy God’s temple is not the individual Christian, but the minister who builds on their spiritual foundation with perishable materials. In doing so, he destroys God’s temple (the individual Christian’s spiritual development). If a minister is guilty of destroying a Christian’s faith because he taught him worldly wisdom rather than divine truth, God will hold that minister accountable.

First Corinthians 3:10-17, then, is not an exhortation to Christians to do things worthy of eternity or avoid things that would hurt their bodies, but an exhortation to Christian teachers to accurately and faithfully teach God’s people God’s truth.

I think this has direct application to so many churches today. Too many pastors spend an inordinate amount of time teaching their churches about leadership, time management, managing stress, overcoming depression, and the like, and little time teaching Bible doctrine. I’m not saying that they are teaching falsehoods, but they are ignoring the Biblical teachings that will matter most for eternity.

Keep it in context….