Exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Grace and a test by fire

1 Corinthians 3:10-15

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved even though only as one escaping through the flames.

Paul consistently gives credit to God, but he does not hesitate to speak about the responsibility God has placed on him. When Paul mentions the grace God has given me (1 Cor. 3:10), Fee says, it would refer especially to his apostolic task of founding churches.[1] The updated NIV says Pauls role was builder, but most other translations say master builder (ESV, NET, HCSB, CEB, NASB, NAB, RSV, NEB, KJV) for the Greek architekt?n, a combination of recognized skill and project oversight.[2] In matters of identity, details matter because it is God who has given us our identity in Christ. In relation to the Corinthians, Paul was not merely a wandering teacher, he was the God-appointed master builder.

Paul changes from the metaphor of the church as a field (verses 6-9) to the church as a building. What makes him a skilled master builder is that he laid the foundation of Christ crucified (1 Cor. 3:11). Now others are building on that foundation, but with what skill? Each one should build with care (1 Cor. 3:10).

Ben Witherington makes the notable point that Pauls work could be harmed either by the Corinthians tinkering with the foundation and changing it or by the Corinthians building the wrong sort of superstructure on the right foundation.[3] The reason to build carefully is based on the certainty that a fiery day of testing is coming to test the quality of each persons work (1 Cor. 3:13). Garland pointedly says, Whether ones work will endure awaits more than the test of time; it awaits the test of the end time.[4]

Whether or not the Corinthians have concern for Pauls opinion, the Day (1 Cor. 3:13) is coming when the fire will test the quality of each persons work. David Garland says, The day refers to the end-time judgment (cf. Rom. 13:12; 1 Cor. 1:8, 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 1:6, 10; 2:16; 1 Thess. 5:2, 4; 2 Thess. 2:2). The more fully expanded name is the Day of the Lord, an Old Testament term that Paul converted into the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:8).

Verse 14 seems plain enough — if what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward — and yet it has produced controversy. Gordon Fee says: The theme of reward harks back to v. 8, and suggests that appropriate pay will be given for appropriate labor. For some this has been a difficult idea to reconcile with Pauls doctrine of grace [Gods kindness toward us in Jesus Christ] . . . . How can grace receive pay?[5]

Your understanding of grace — Gods kindness — will be greatly enhanced if you pay attention to what it says about God rather than what is says about us. Out of a heart of love, God sent his Son to die for the sins of the world (John 3:16). This act had nothing to do with obligation and everything to do with the merciful nature of God. On this basis of Christ crucified, this gift of grace, God made it possible for us to accept the amnesty he offered and be saved from eternal judgment.

In a similar way, God was not obligated to offer reward for faithful service, but it pleased him to do so. Jesus expressly taught his disciples that he expected their faithful stewardship until he returned and that they would receive reward commensurate with that service, some more than others. See Luke 19:12-27, Matt. 25:14-28 and Matt. 24:45-51 for the details.

There will be some whose work is consumed by the fire of judgment (1 Cor. 3:15), and yet their salvation will stand. Garland aptly summarizes both outcomes by saying, Brilliant work does not earn salvation; lackluster work does not lose it.[6]

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 137-138.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 308.

[3] Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) 133134.

[4] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003)117.

[5] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 143.

[6] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 118.

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