One day a kindergarten teacher was reading the story of the three little pigs to her class. She started by explaining how the first little pig was looking for straw to build his house, so he asked a farmer: “Pardon me, sir, may I have some of your straw?” At that point the teacher paused and asked her class, “And what do you think that farmer said?” One little boy raised his hand and answered, “I think he said, ‘Holy cow, a talking pig!’”
If you’re wondering why I’m reminding you of the story of the three little pigs, it is because in 1 Corinthians 3 the Apostle Paul compares the ministry to the kind of house-building that the three little pigs were engaged in. Speaking of himself and Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5-9), he said,
“For we are labourers together with God… ye are God’s building” (v. 9).
When Paul said of himself and Apollos that “we” are God’s laborers, and then told the Corinthians that “ye” are God’s building, that’s his way of saying, “We’re God’s builders, you’re the church that we’re building.” The Corinthians were household members of “the house of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15).
Of course, Paul and Apollos were only “labourers together” when it came to the actual work of the ministry. Paul went on to make clear that he was the “masterbuilder” of the church (1 Cor. 3:10), and the Greek word for masterbuilder there is architekton, from which we get our word architect, the guy who draws the blueprints for a building. The blueprints for the church of this dispensation are found in Paul’s epistles!
Hail to the Chief
But if Paul is the architect of the church, why did our King James translators translate the word architekton as “masterbuilder”? Well, the “arch” part of architekton means chief, as when we read about “Michael the archangel” (Jude 1:9). Michael is said to be “one of the chief princes” in God’s angelic host (Dan. 10:13). And the “tekton” part of architekton is only used elsewhere to describe the occupation of Joseph, the Lord’s father, who was a carpenter. So when you put those two Greek words together, you come up with chief carpenter, or “masterbuilder.”
That’s what an architect was back in Bible days. He did more than just draw the blueprints of the building. As the building was being erected, he rolled up his sleeves and participated in the actual work of building the building.
That makes “masterbuilder” the perfect word to describe Paul, who wasn’t just some highfalutin apostle sitting in an ivory tower somewhere mailing out epistles to people. He labored together with men like Apollos on the construction crew of the church, traveling from city to city doing what we might call the “grunt work” of the ministry.
But don’t let that cause you to lose sight of the fact that Paul is the architect of the church, as it does with the many Christians who think Paul was just one of many ministers like Apollos that God used to build His church. If you fail to recognize that Paul is “the minister of Jesus Christ” for the present dispensation (Rom. 15:16), you’ll never understand how Paul could say of the church, “I have laid the foundation” (1 Cor. 3:11), and then add,
“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).
Those who fail to see, or refuse to believe, that Paul is “the apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13) can’t explain how Paul could say that he laid the foundation of Christ. They know Paul wasn’t even saved when the Lord came to be “a precious corner stone, a sure foundation” (Isa. 28:16) for the kingdom church in Israel (Matt. 16:18, 19). The only possible explanation is that Paul laid the Lord Jesus as the foundation of a new church building, “the church, which is His Body” (Eph. 1:22, 23).
Grab a Hammer
But when it came to doing the actual work of the ministry, Paul and Apollos were “labourers together with God.” And they weren’t the only builders doing the grunt work of this new church. When Paul went on to say, “if any man build upon this foundation” (1 Cor. 3:12), he made it clear that laboring on this new church building wasn’t the exclusive privilege of “ministers” like him and Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5). Any members of the church can participate in this epic building project, and all of us should.
But Paul cautions us, “let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon” (v. 10). Building God’s house on the foundation of Christ is crucially important, of course. But it’s not just important what you build a house on. It’s also important what you build it with—as a couple of those three little pigs found out the hard way when they built their houses with straw and sticks that the big bad wolf easily blew down.
We know that God’s house can also be built with things like straw and sticks, for after telling the Corinthians to take heed how they built on Christ’s foundation, he added,
“… if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble” (1 Cor. 3:12).
As you can see, inferior building materials like straw and sticks are certainly available to use in building God’s house. But it doesn’t take a realtor to know that building it out of things like gold and silver and precious stones will ensure that God’s house is constructed in such a way that will make it of much greater value.
People Who Live in Gold Houses
Now here you might be thinking, “But who builds a house out of things like gold?” If so, the answer is Solomon. Look what it says he built the temple with:
“And the house, that is, the temple… was forty cubits long.… And… Solomon overlaid the house within with pure gold…” (1 Kings 6:17-21).
And that house of gold was a type of what God will someday make the house of Israel into—a sort of living temple! That explains what John says about people who will overcome the temptation to take the mark of the beast in the Tribulation:
“Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God…” (Rev. 3:12).
That’s a reference to the living “temple” of God, the one He had in mind when He said of the people of Israel, “I will dwell in them” (2 Cor. 6:16).
But as we’ve already seen, the house of Israel isn’t the only house of people that God has in the Bible. Today, in the dispensation of grace, “the house of God… is the church of the living God,” “the church, which is His Body.” That’s God’s other house of people in the Bible. And that’s the house that Paul had in mind when he talked about building on the foundation of Christ.
In speaking of this house to Timothy, Paul wrote,
“But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour” (2 Tim. 2:20).
Here the word “great” refers to the size of God’s spiritual house, as when the Bible sometimes speaks of things “great and small” (2 Chron. 36:18, etc.). In a house as great as God’s church there are bound to be members who are vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor. But why would he call us “vessels”?
Well, a vessel is a container that is used to hold things, usually so you can carry those things from one place to another. There’s a reason that ships are called vessels. They contain people and cargo that are being carried to other places. The Bible uses the word “vessel” this way as well, as we see when Jacob told his sons:
“…take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present” (Gen. 43:11).
And the reason Paul calls us vessels is that God has put something in us that He wants carried to other people, something we read about in 2 Corinthians 4, where Paul talks about the gospel (v. 3-6), and then says,
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (v. 7).
God made Adam out of the earth, and since you’re a son of Adam, you’re made of the same stuff he was. And if you’re saved, you’re the earthen vessel in which God has placed the “treasure” of the gospel.
But He didn’t put it in you just so you can be a container of it and live happily ever after in heaven. He expects you to carry it to others—just as He put it in Paul, and said of him:
“…he is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
The Lord put the gospel into Paul and told him, as it were, “Bear it in your vessel to other people.” That’s how the Lord built His church in Paul’s day, and He expects us to build it today by doing the same.
Swabbing the Deck
And the Lord believes in running a tight ship! So he inspired Paul to tell the Thessalonians,
“…ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour” (1 Thes. 4:3, 4).
God doesn’t want the vessel that’s carrying His gospel dishonored by sin. So when Paul says that in the house of God there are “vessels of honour, and some to dishonor” (2 Tim. 2:20), he means that some believers are possessing the vessel of their bodies in honor and some are living in sin instead.
But we know that being a vessel of honor involves more than just purging acts of sin from our lives, for after speaking to Timothy about the vessels in God’s great house, he added,
“If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use” (2 Tim. 2:20,21).
The “these” here are not sins, like he talked to the Thessalonians about purging. They’re the things that Paul mentioned earlier in the context, when he counseled young Timothy to
“Shun profane and vain babblings…” (2 Tim. 2:16).
Profane and vain babblings are also things you have to purge to be a vessel unto honor. You have to purge your words of wood, hay and stubble, not just your stubbly works.
Purge the Verbage
You say, “What kind of profane and vain words do we need to shun?” Well, Paul doesn’t leave us guessing. He went on to describe those stubbly words, saying,
“Shun profane and vain babblings… saying that the resurrection is past already…” (2 Tim. 2:16-18).
Now saying that the resurrection is past isn’t a doctrinal error, it’s a dispensational error. That is, they weren’t denying the doctrine of the resurrection as the Corinthians were doing. The false teachers Paul is talking about there had simply misplaced it.
And teaching dispensational errors like that will make you a vessel unto dishonor and unfit for the Master’s use just as readily as living in sin will. The Master wants to use you to carry Pauline truth to other believers in addition to carrying the gospel of salvation to unbelievers. If you’re not “rightly dividing the Word” (2 Tim. 2:15), you’re probably carrying the wrong gospel to the lost, and you’re certainly not building God’s church with the gold, silver and precious stones of truth. You’re building the church with wood, hay and stubble, and you’re a vessel unto dishonor, because you’re not taking heed how you build on the foundation that Paul laid.
And as you can imagine, the Lord is very concerned about how you build His church. That’s why Paul went on to tell the Corinthians:
“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” (1 Cor. 3:13).
The work you do to build the Body of Christ is not work that everyone sees, and the results of your labor involve much that even you never see. But there is coming a day when our work will all be “made manifest,” a day that Paul calls “the judgment seat of
Christ” (Rom. 14:10).
Your Final Exam
When you stand before this judgment seat, your entire body of work as a Christian will be made manifest, all the service that you rendered for the Lord after coming to know Him, all the work that you did to build God’s church on the foundation that Paul laid. The purpose of this review will be to determine if you qualify for “a reward” or if you must “suffer loss” of reward in that day (1 Cor. 3:14,15). To make this determination, Paul says that the Lord plans to “try” or test your work by “fire.”
What kind of fire? The fire of God’s Word (Jer. 23:29). Of course! What else would He use to evaluate our work? In that day, the Lord will assess our work with God’s rightly divided Word to make manifest “what sort it is.”
Now here it is important to notice that Paul didn’t say that the fire of God’s Word will test your work to reveal how much it is. That wouldn’t be fair to Christians who don’t live as long as others, or who don’t get saved until later in life and don’t have as much time to work for the Lord as those who are saved at an earlier age. If God were interested in the quantity of your work, He wouldn’t use a fire to judge it. He’d use a scale to weigh it, or a measuring tape to measure it.
Instead, He is going to use the fire of His Word to judge “what sort it is.” That word “sort” means kind, as when Moses wrote,
“Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together” (Deut. 22:11).
Wool and linen are different kinds of cloth, and God says if you’re wearing a shirt made of both, it’s time to change your shirt! Or at least it would be if you were under the law instead of grace.
Trial by Fire
It’s easy to understand how the fire of God’s Word will determine what sort of work we did for the Lord, for fire burns up combustible things like wood, hay and stubble, and leaves things like gold, silver and precious stones standing. Durable things of that nature can “abide” the fire, as Paul went on to tell the Corinthians:
“If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward” (1 Cor. 3:14).
Now here it is important to point out that the Lord doesn’t plan to put you in the fire to see if you abide or burn. That happened when you got saved and you were identified with Christ as the fire of God’s wrath fell on Him for our sins. You were able to abide that fire because you were baptized into Christ and identified with Him when you got saved. But at the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Lord is going to put your work in the fire of His Word to see if it burns or abides that fiery test.
This reminds me to say that I’m often asked if our sins will be judged in that day. I personally don’t believe that our sins will even be brought up at the Judgment Seat of Christ, for Paul says the Lord will judge our “work,” not our works. He plans to judge the entire body of work that we rendered while building His church, not our individual works.
But if you think otherwise, I would invite you to consider that if our sins are brought up in that day, they will only be evaluated as they affected our work, the work of carrying the gospel to the lost and edifying the saints with Pauline truth. That is, our sins wouldn’t be judged because they hurt God, but only because they hurt the work that God has given us to do.
Tarnishing Your Testimony
As you may already know by experience, unbelievers are naturally skeptical when you tell them how to be saved from their sins if you yourself are still living in sin. And when you live in sin and try to tell believers that they are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14,15), they naturally conclude that you must think grace is a license to sin, and are quick to dismiss the grace message because of it.
This is why Paul tells us to “adorn the doctrine of God” (Titus 2:10) with the kind of “holiness” he described in that passage (vv. 1-9). But the apostle never says that our individual works will be judged and rewarded, only our entire body of work as builders of God’s church.
Now when I say that, I’m often asked about Paul’s instructions to servants in Colossians 3:22-25:
“Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God… Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance.… But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done.…”
Here Paul promises servants that if they serve their masters well the Lord will reward them, even if their masters don’t. But when he says that servants will “receive for the wrong” they do, this has caused some Christians to wonder if the Lord will withhold rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ to punish us for our sins.
But let me ask you, what are the wages of sin? Romans 6:23 declares that “the wages of sin is death,” not a loss of reward. And Christ fully paid for your sins when He died your death, so there will be no additional death for your sins at the Judgment Seat of Christ. But then, what could Paul have meant when he wrote that servants will “receive” for “the wrong” that they do?
What’s Wrong With My Work?
Well, the first definition of the word “wrong” in my dictionary has nothing to do with sin or moral evil of any kind. It has to do with being not right, with being incorrect. For example, if you use the wrong letters to spell a word, like my dad used to do—he could do trigonometry, but one time he asked me how to spell “paper”!—if you spell paper with a “w” or a “z,” you’re wrong. You’re incorrect. But you’re not sinning. Likewise, if you give the wrong answer to a question on a test in school, as I often did, you’re incorrect, but you’re not guilty of moral evil.
No matter what you do in life, there’s always a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. And in the context of Colossians 3, the right way for a servant to serve his master is to obey him. The wrong way is to disobey him. Service like that does the very opposite of adorning God’s doctrine, it mars it.
And this is what Paul means when he says that servants will receive for the wrong they’ve done. Not obeying your master is a sin. But if it is a sin that will be brought up at the Judgment Seat of Christ, it is a sin that will only be judged there because it is the wrong way to serve a master, and that damages a servant’s work on the church. If a disobedient servant shared the gospel with his unsaved master, his words were more likely to fall on deaf ears, for they would be colored by the servant’s tarnished testimony.
That’s an attempt to build the church with the wood, hay and stubble of disobedience to Paul’s instructions to servants, and it would cause the servant a loss of reward.
When a servant obeyed his master instead, he was working with gold, silver and precious stones. The difference in these valuable commodities is the difference found in “what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2). That’s talking about how, in any area of our spiritual lives, there is always a good way to go, a better way to go, and the best way to go. It is good for a servant to obey his master and not disobey him. It is better to serve him without eyeservice. But the best way to serve is “in singleness of heart… heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” (Col. 3:22,23).
That’s building the church with gold, silver and precious stones. And if the Apostle Paul were here, he would tell you to go for the gold!