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Paul laid the foundation of Christ in the Corinthian church when He preached the gospel of Christ for the first time in that city. However, in the bigger picture, God Himself laid this foundation by sending Jesus to the cross to die, and His burial laid that foundation.
God’s work was done to fulfill His New Covenant vow to make us His people and to write His law in the heart of our “earth,” but Paul and others laid foundations in specific cities and communities. The apostolic work was therefore subordinate to the divine work. Hence, the body of Christ was participating in Christ’s own work.
Paul says in 1 Cor. 3:14, 15,
14 If any man’s work which he has built upon it [the foundation] remains, he shall receive a reward [misthos, “wages due for work”]. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.
Paul was referring to God’s labor laws, seen in Lev. 19:13,
13 You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.
More details are given in Deut. 24:14, 15,
14 You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets, for he is poor and sets his heart on it; so that he may not cry against you to the Lord and it become sin in you.
In those days payment for labor was expected at the end of each day. The law forbids robbing a man of his wages and even forbids delaying payment beyond the expected time. The law protects both Israelites and foreigners equally. God Himself follows His own law, and so Paul assures us that God will indeed pay His employees fairly and on time. Not oppressing a hired servant also implies equal wages for equal work, for we read in Eph. 6:7-9,
7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free… 9 and there is no partiality with Him.
Again, we read in Heb. 6:10,
10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.
Paul tells the Corinthian church that he himself, along with Apollos and Peter and all other believers, had labored to build the temple on the foundation of Jesus Christ. All were to be given fair wages for their labor, as long as they used the building materials specified by the Contractor.
The use of wood, hay, or stubble was not to be rewarded. The use of gold, silver, and precious stones was to be generously rewarded, even as highly-skilled labor with integrity deserves high wages.
The fire is necessary to test each man’s work, because this temple-building work does not use physical materials that can be easily identified. The work is either soulish or spiritual. To put it another way, it is either religious or spiritual. By implication, Paul was telling the Corinthians that if they were following men (Paul, Apollos, or Peter), then they were yet soulish, and their works were based upon faith in men, rather than in God. Such works were classed as wood, hay, and stubble, all combustible in “the day” when “each man’s work will become evident.”
The fact that Paul was speaking to believers is evident, because in verse 14 he says, “he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.” He will suffer loss, but he himself will not be lost. More than this, carnal believers will be judged along with their works, but their judgment will be temporary, not permanent. Luke 12:47, 48 pictures believers being flogged according to the law in Deut. 25:3, but floggings were limited to 40 stripes, after which time the sinner was to be released.
Divine judgment does not mean a loss of salvation itself.
Both Jesus and Paul speak of such judgment upon believers in terms of fire. Fire is the application of the divine law to sinners, whether they are unbelievers or carnal believers. The judgment of the law upon carnal believers is pictured in terms of flogging, which is for misdemeanors, while the judgment upon unbelievers is in terms of being sold into slavery for a specified period of time (Exodus 22:3).
In both cases the judgment is limited. The limits of judgment are either 40 lashes or 49 years of slavery (ending with the Jubilee).
It is fortunate for everyone—including carnal believers—that the “fire” is not literal, except in cases where the sinner has burned others literally. The popular evangelical concept of a burning hell as a one-size-fits-all judgment is foreign to the Scriptures. Fire is a metaphor for the fiery law, and, as we have seen, Jesus referred to floggings in terms of “fire” in Luke 12:49.
The purpose of divine fire is not to punish, but to purify by burning up all carnal works (wood, hay, stubble). This causes a loss of reward and may induce emotional pain and regret, but it is for their own good, for it also purifies the believers themselves.
“Fire” is from the Greek word pur, which is where we get the word purification. To purify is to apply fire to something, at least in its Greek word picture. This seems to be what Paul had in mind in his letter to the church. Such purification was designed to destroy impurities in order to add value to the object itself.
Paul then turns his attention to the building project itself. 1 Cor. 3:16 says,
16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
A temple was known to be a house of God. Hence, Solomon’s temple was inhabited by the Spirit of God, and Scripture records the moment when God came to inhabit it (2 Chron. 7:1-3). That temple, of course, was only a type of a greater temple yet to come, made of living stones (1 Peter 2:5). The Spirit of God came to inhabit this greater temple on the day of Pentecost.
Temples made of wood and stone were good, but they were not God’s dream house.
The spiritual temple in Paul’s day was a Pentecostal temple, for it was filled at Pentecost. But Solomon’s temple was filled on the eighth day of Tabernacles (1 Kings 8:2). The Pentecostal Age has been a temple-building era, as Paul describes more fully in Eph. 2:19-22,
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
In a Pentecostal sense, this temple had been completed and filled with the divine presence. But in a Tabernacles sense, this temple was still “growing” and “being built.” In other words, the work of building was not yet completed, but when finished at the end of the Pentecostal Age, this temple will be filled in a greater way at the feast of Tabernacles.
So in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul tells the Christians that their works were building on the foundation of Christ. In other words, the church was still working on an unfinished temple. Pentecost did not end the work. The Pentecostal temple was just another phase in a broader temple work that was to culminate at the feast of Tabernacles.
This Tabernacles temple will be the final form of temple that God inhabits. I do not believe that God intends to downgrade His residence by again inhabiting a physical temple in Jerusalem, as so many teach. Ezekiel’s temple prophecies about a so-called “end-time temple,” complete with animal sacrifices and Levitical priests, were given in Old Covenant terms, and if it had been built in that age, it would have been a literal, physical temple. However, it was NOT built during that time, and the Old Covenant is now obsolete, along with all biblical interpretations that rely upon Old Covenant fulfillments.
The Levitical priesthood has been replaced by the Melchizedek priesthood. Animal sacrifices have been replaced by the true Sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The old Jerusalem has been replaced by the New Jerusalem.
The physical temple in Jerusalem was abandoned by the Spirit in Ezekiel 11:23, and forsaken as Shiloh (Jer. 7:12-14). When God abandoned Shiloh, Ichabod was born, prophesying “the glory has departed” (1 Sam. 4:21). The glory of God’s presence never returned to Shiloh, for God never looks back.
So also is the case with the old Jerusalem. God abandoned it as Shiloh, said Jeremiah, and that is why the glory did not fill the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem seventy years later. Instead, a new temple was filled on the day of Pentecost, one made of living stones. And even that temple was only an interim temple to service the church until its final form in the Tabernacles Age.
Paul concludes his comments about the temple by saying in 1 Cor. 3:17,
17 If any man destroys [phtheiro, “corrupts”] the temple of God, God will destroy [phtheiro] him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.
Paul and the rest of the church was familiar with the biblical history of Solomon’s temple and how it was destroyed by the Babylonians more than six centuries earlier. At that time, God took the credit for destroying His own temple on account of its corruption into religious forms. But when God began to inhabit people as His temple, the baptism of the Holy Spirit was supposed to purify the people by fire so that it would not need to be destroyed.
Paul uses the term phtheiro, which means “to corrupt or destroy its integrity.” The corruption among the Corinthian church through soulish motivations, evidenced by submission to men, rather than God, threatened to destroy this temple as well. Paul was warning the church that its soulish tendency to follow men, rather than Christ Himself, had the long-term potential to destroy this Pentecostal temple in the same manner as with Solomon’s temple.
Paul says that God would fight corruption with corruption. If they continued in their soulish ways, following men rather than Christ, they were corrupting/destroying God’s temple, and so God would do the same to them as individuals. Each person was a mini-temple under Pentecost, while collectively, each was a living stone in the Tabernacles temple that was yet under construction.
If the mini-temple became corrupted, God would remove those stones from the Tabernacles temple. In other words, some Pentecostal believers might not qualify to be part of the Tabernacles temple. The disqualifier appears to be soulishness, as evidenced by following and submitting to men, rather than Christ.
Such people, metaphorically speaking, are undermining or tearing out the foundation of God’s temple and replacing Christ with Peter, Paul, or Apollos.
Such corruption destroys the very foundation of the true church, and for this reason, those who are of Peter, of Paul, or of Apollos will lose their places in the Tabernacles temple that is currently under construction. God’s temple is holy, and such corrupting influences must be purged in order to build a perfect structure for the Age to come.
It appears that most believers do not fully understand the seriousness of the denominational spirit. Yet we only have to see how much time and space Paul devotes to the subject to know how seriously he took this problem. It is the first and foremost problem of Pentecost. It began on the first Pentecost at Mount Horeb when the people wanted to follow Moses rather than God (Exodus 20:19). It continued under King Saul, who was crowned on Pentecost when the people demanded a man to replace God's direct rule (1 Sam. 8:7). And finally, Paul saw the problem in the Corinthian church.