The Gold, Wood, and Chaff: Rewards, Purgatory, Something Else?

Quick Notes for Monday, 5 January 2015

1 Corinthians 3:5-15 is a pretty familiar passage, and one which I think is often misunderstood. It’s the one about the church being the temple of God, and about building on the foundation of Christ with gold or silver or wood or hay or straw, and the day of fire where each one’s work will be tested. I’ll quote here, from vs.9-15:

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The way I always hear this text explained and applied is something like this: Our lives are built on the foundation of Christ, and the way we pursue growth in our Christian life builds on that foundation. If we pursue godliness (that would be the gold, silver, etc), the work is good and lasting. If we pursue lesser things (the wood, hay, and stubble), our work will be burned up, but we ourselves will still be saved. It is generally understood as dealing with personal rewards in the resurrection life. In some circles this would even be seen as biblical support for a post-mortem purgatory of some sort. But this is not exactly what’s going on in this passage.

Consider: All the way from 2:1-4:21, Paul is talking about his own ministry and that of his fellow workers like Apollos. Paul came to the Corinthians determined “to know nothing except Christ and him crucified” (2:1-4). He and his apostolic associates impart the revelation of God “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” (2:12-13). Paul and Apollos, moreover, are not rivals with each other for the Corinthians’ allegiance, they are just “servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (3:5). Paul then describes his own work as “planting” and Apollos’ work as “watering” (3:6-7).

cathedral_pan_web4So then, in our passage (v.9), he distinguishes himself and Apollos from the Corinthians, in that he and Apollos are God’s fellow workers, and the Corinthians are the building or structure that Paul and Apollos are working on: “We” are God’s fellow workers; “you” (the Greek pronoun is plural—he is speaking to the body, not individuals) are God’s building. Paul has laid the foundation in the gospel, and Apollos has helped build on it, and now Stephanas and others are overseeing the work in Corinth. The exhortation then in v.10—Let each one take care how he builds upon the foundation—is made first of all to those who are building up the Corinthian church, the apostles and pastors; and the materials that the house is being built with—gold, silver, wood, hay—are not the works that an individual adds to his own life in Christ, but are the type of people which the whole house is built of. The building after all is not any individual life, but the church body. The individuals in the church are the bricks. It is they, not their deeds, that are the gold and silver, or wood and hay.

The issue is whether the Corinthians themselves prove to be gold or straw, and thus how the temple representing the work of the shepherds overseeing it, will fare in the day of testing. “Each one’s work” in v.13 is not the work of the Corinthians, but the work of Paul and Apollos and others, and the Day will manifest whether the church they have labored with God to build has proven to be made of gold or straw. That’s why if the work survives testing, the apostles will have those believers who prove genuine as a reward, as a crown of rejoicing (cf. Phil. 4:1; 1 Thess. 2:19-20). On the other hand, if some of the Corinthians prove to be straw, Paul and his fellow-workers will still be saved, even if the materials they were providentially given to work with are burned up. It should be an encouragement to pastors: God sends you the materials. Be faithful with them, and God will judge at the last day. If some of what he gave you was chaff, that is not on you.

So the passage is not really about the rewards an individual Corinthian or Christian might expect if he builds his life on the foundation of Christ with gold or with straw. It’s about the materials (people) to be found in the church, as the project of God and his co-laborers, and whether the building would survive the day of fire that was coming.

Texture_FireAt first sight, it may seem like this disconnects normal believers from the passage, and makes it apply only to pastors and shepherds. Actually though, it raises the stakes for normal believers, because it makes us consider not simply the quality of our works, as though we personally can indulge in trivialities or sin and it’s OK, because even though those works will be burned up we will still be saved. What we should consider rather is whether we ourselves are genuine gold, or whether we are hay and straw. Because wood and straw will not “still be saved,” they will be burned up like chaff. And if this understanding of the passage is correct, it gives no support at all to the theory of purgatory.

One thought on “The Gold, Wood, and Chaff: Rewards, Purgatory, Something Else?

  1. Spot on. The list is a little like the list of stuff required to build the Tabernacle in Exodus 25. And of course, it explains the list of Temple riches in Revelation 18. Jerusalem rejected Pentecost, tried and executed the saints (the tribulation), so the Temple was tried by fire. But the Church remained.
    “Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars!” (Zech 11:1)


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