The Bible’s opening pages use the commonest of the Hebrew verbs translated "to build" (A.V. "made", Gen.2.22) of construction work that took place before a man ever engaged in building. The Builder was the Lord God Himself; to man He brought what He had made. It was not a building where the man Adam might find shelter: to our knowledge there was no need of shelter in Eden, but a woman whom the Lord God had built. He brought the woman to Adam, who named her "woman, because she was taken out of man" Gen.2.21-24. The Bible closes with scenes that reveal "a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God" Heb.11.10, thus confirming that the Builder Whose work He allowed Adam to name, is still involved in construction.
The Old Testament also details much that men have built: the tower in the plain of Shinar, Gen.11.2-5; Pharaoh’s treasure cities Pithom and Raamses, Ex.1.11; the tabernacle and its furnishings, Exodus chapters 25-40; the first temple in Jerusalem and its furnishings, 1 Kings chapters 5-8, 2 Chronicles chapters 2-7; the other houses that Solomon built, 1 Kgs.7.1-12; the second temple in Jerusalem, Ezra chapters 2-6; and other buildings including, for example, "great Babylon" that Nebuchadnezzar built, Dan. 4.30. We know the delight the disciples took in the temple enlarged and embellished by Herod the Great, Matt.24.2; Mk.13.1; Lk.21.5. It was renowned for its magnificent architecture of cream stone and gold façade.
The New Testament is also replete with other references to building. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) closes with the Lord Jesus Himself using the figure of building to underscore the importance of hearing His sayings and doing them, Matt.7.24-27. He was illustrating that His sayings provided the only rock upon which a life might be built; all other foundations were sand and would not withstand the rain, floods and winds that inevitably would assail. He also used the same figure to describe a work in which He Himself would engage, indeed one in which only He would engage – the work of building His Church, Matt.16.13-18. The Lord also owned that there were others building who had no place for Him or His teaching in what they were intent on establishing. He exposed their clandestine plans, when He declared: "The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner" Matt.21.42. In what those builders (whom Peter clearly identified as Israel’s rulers, elders and scribes, Acts 4.11) were building He would be given no part. Little did they know that their building would have no future. Indeed, no more than 40 years later, all they were building would be like the temple in which they gloried; there would not be left one stone upon another that would not be thrown down, Matt.24.2. But what He would build would be for eternity and consequently there would be "glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end" Eph.3.21.
The vocabulary of construction is commonly used in the New Testament. The metaphor of building occurs in the Acts of the Apostles, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter and Jude. The word "edify", oikodomeo, that occurs much in the Pauline letters is the very Greek word elsewhere translated "build" in the New Testament. He uses it in respect of building up the Christian’s spiritual constitution with wholesome spiritual food, in the same way that a healthy balanced diet of wholesome food would build up the physical constitution, Rom.14.19; 15.2,20 et al. However, the individual’s spiritual development is not the focus of the building metaphor in passages like Matt.16.13-18; 1 Cor.3.9-15; Eph.2.19-22; Heb.3.1-6; 1 Pet.2.4-9. In four of those five passages, the context does not relate to building up an individual. There the construction metaphor is used of building "my Church" Matt.16.18; "an holy temple" Eph.2.21; "an habitation of God" Eph.2.22; "His [God’s] own house" Heb.3.6; "a spiritual house" 1 Pet.2.5. Clearly in each of these four passages individuals are seen as the building stones of which these spiritual edifices are constructed. The exception in that list of building metaphors is 1 Corinthians chapter 3, which is not about the individual being built up in his most holy faith, nor about him being a living stone in a building. In this present time, and until the Lord comes to rapture His saints, as we shall observe, there can be glory to God in a local assembly gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, as exercised saints build into it gold, silver and precious stones. As noted above, in the Church that the Lord Jesus is building, there will be glory to God eternally, as Eph.3.21 confirms.
Building is the third metaphor Paul uses in 1 Corinthians chapter 3. The first metaphor he uses is about feeding babies in a nursery, vv.1-5; the second about planting and watering in the field, vv.6-9a; the third is about building. The apostle makes it clear that he is describing metaphorically his ministry and that of others, for he describes the babies being fed as "babes in Christ" v.1; the field as "God’s husbandry" ("God’s tilled land", R.V. margin), v.9; and the building as "God’s building" vv.9b-15. The purpose of the metaphors is immediately apparent: it is not to make much of the servants, as the apostle will make plain in chapter 4, but to emphasise that everyone who is privileged to be a child in God’s family or a plant in His tilled field or a builder in His house is responsible to God Himself. How often we need reminding that the assembly in a locality is the assembly (or church) of God, 1.2! Later Paul will describe another assembly as "the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" 1 Tim.3.16. What holy privilege to be associated with the assembly of God! How solemn the responsibility! How sobering to consider: God Himself owns that assembly as His!
1 Corinthians chapter 3 is clearly about building in a local assembly context; albeit building up the assembly would also bring blessings to those in its fellowship, which would build them up as individuals. In chapters 12-14 and particularly in chapter 14, where the word group "edify" occurs seven times, the apostle will deal with how the building of the church, vv.4,12, builds up the individual whose understanding is not unfruitful. The Holy Spirit’s emphasis here is not on the individual saint, but upon the foundation and the materials used by the builder.
It is worthy of repeated emphasis that the materials in the building of which Paul speaks are not individual saints, who are "no more strangers and foreigners" Eph.2.19, and who "hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of hope unto the end" Heb.3.6. The apostle is not referring to stones which are they who have "tasted that the Lord is gracious" 1 Pet.2.3, and have "like precious faith" 2 Pet.1.1. In 1 Cor.3.12, the building materials, "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble", are not of equal value; it would be inappropriate to use of them the phrase "like precious". Indeed some of those materials will be "revealed by fire" to be of no value in the sight of God. When gold, silver and precious stones are built into that spiritual structure, clearly it redounds to the glory of God.
1 CORINTHIANS – PERMANENT GUIDANCE
1 Corinthians is an important letter from a number of standpoints. One interesting facet of its writing is that, whilst dealing with matters arising in the assembly at Corinth, the apostle Paul had deliberately stayed away from Corinth and communicated with them in this inspired letter. Its teaching being committed to permanent record was furnishing assemblies with the resources they would need in the period when apostles like Paul would no longer be with them. The apostles were foundational gifts given only in the first century, Eph.2.20. The risen Head never intended to gift another batch of apostles at any later time. The apostles have completed their work and left us inspired letters to guide us in their absence. Among the saints at Corinth, not all were spiritual enough to recognise that Paul was not absenting himself for selfish, carnal reasons. They could not be expected to recognise that Paul’s absence would bequeath to generations of Christians another inspired letter of lasting significance. But the Corinthians could be expected to have more confidence in Paul than they were evidencing. He had not lost interest in them, nor had he become occupied with others to their exclusion. His absence was testing the assembly’s preparedness to maintain conditions in which God would be glorified among them. It was in his absence from them that there was provided what was to prove permanent, written guidance to both the Corinthian assembly and others who in their day would seek to serve the same Lord. Moreover, his absence afforded them an opportunity to deal with corrupting influences that had been allowed to develop in the assembly.
Paul did intend to visit them shortly after writing 1 Corinthians, despite what his detractors were saying, 1 Cor.4.18,19. He knew that an immediate visit would mean using the apostolic rod: he would be obliged to judge the unjudged sin that was active among them like leaven in dough, 1 Cor.5.6,7. About 1550 years before Paul wrote this letter, Moses had also arrived at a point when he could not enter the camp of Israel. He had been carrying the tables of the law, which, if introduced at that time, would have meant death for so many. Misjudging the reasons for his absence, Israel had commented: "… as for this Moses … we wot not [do not know] what is become of him" Ex.32.1,19. Maybe some Corinthians were saying about Paul what had been said about Moses. But in the company there were those who were not of that persuasion, notably the house of Chloe: they valued the apostle, present or absent. On a human level, it was their contact with Paul that gave rise to this letter; they had communicated to Paul some of the problems besetting the assembly, 1 Cor.1.11.
The apostle stated emphatically that the relevance of 1 Corinthians should not be limited to Corinth. In his introductory greetings, Paul links Corinth with "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" 1.2. The same Lord was owned by others of that day and our day. The same God was, and is, faithful, to those who have been "called into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord" 1.9. In faithfulness to those who called upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord before the New Testament was complete, the exalted Head gave apostles through whom the truth of God might be unfolded. Paul reminded Timothy that he (Timothy) knew of whom he had learned those things that enabled him to stand firm in the face of "evil men and seducers" 2 Tim.3.14. Timothy had heard them of an apostle and so was assured of the veracity of all he had heard. The apostle John would write that the characteristic of Divine life is hearing the apostles. He insisted that genuine believers did not, and do not, doubt the teaching of the apostles: we, the apostles, "are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us" 1 Jn.4.6. Nor do genuine believers doubt today that 1 Corinthians is Scripture; they know this letter to the Corinthians is as much God-breathed as, for example, John’s Gospel or the Hebrew epistle. They know and respect the Scriptures as a whole to be complete, Col.1.25; unerringly accurate, being God-breathed, 2 Tim.3.16, and unquestionably authoritative. Paul will tell the Corinthians that the authority of his letter was no less than that of other Scriptures: "… the things I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" 1 Cor.14.37. Whether in respect of godly living or Christian responsibilities or church order, the commandments of the Lord are not the stuff of traditions passed from generation to generation, but the Scriptures. We conclude that the permanent guidance a child of God needs as to the assembly is contained in the New Testament. The epistle’s teaching is for "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" 1.2. It is permanent guidance for the period until the Lord comes. What glory a local assembly may bring to God where there is respect for the only foundation that has been laid, 1 Cor.3.11.
1 CORINTHIANS – PERMANENT GUIDANCE ON BUILDING
The permanent guidance 1 Corinthians provides on building into the local assembly belongs to the major section dealing with various contentions that had been reported to Paul by the godly household of Chloe. The section runs from 1.10 to 4.21. Paul boldly introduces the section by stating the report he had received: "… there are contentions among you" 1.10. He did not believe the report was false; the Corinthians had not been "slanderously reported" cf. Rom.3.8. Unlike the assemblies at Thessalonica and Philippi, carnality in the Corinthian assembly was strikingly evident, and as a result there were contentions. Paul identifies a number of features that were not begotten of the Spirit: party allegiances under banners like Apollos, Cephas and Paul, even a party that divisively claimed particular association with Christ Himself, 1.12-16. He adds that their celebration of the worldly and fleshly wisdom carried over from their pre-conversion days made little of the apostle and his teaching, 1.17-2.16. Their pride in themselves and their abilities made much of themselves, whilst they avoided the reproach of the cross, 4.1-21. Indeed they may have thought that being greatly endowed with spiritual gifts the assembly of God in Corinth was an example to others. Chapter 3 would not be teaching that they were an elite band of saints whose spirituality was respected from Jerusalem to Illyricum, Rom.15.19, or admired "in all the churches of the saints" 1 Cor.14.33. The Bible does not excuse carnality, neither does it restrict the commandments of the Lord to the spiritual. Sadly, there may be both carnal and spiritual saints in an assembly gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus. The permanent guidance on building contained in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 is for every saint in the fellowship of an assembly to observe. Paul’s introductory verse asserts that he speaks even to the carnal: "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal …" 3.1. Every brother and sister is to learn about building. How one might be building and what one might be building Paul will consider as guided by the Spirit of God: "how he buildeth", v.10; "what sort" of material, vv.12-15.
It should be emphasised again that the context is building in the local assembly. The presumption is that each believer will be in fellowship in an assembly gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus, both the Corinthians’ Lord and ours, who are Christ’s. What glory there was in the first century when every saint in a locality knew the meaning of being gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus and valued all engaged in building!
BUILDING ON THE FOUNDATION
When he spoke of the Corinthian assembly as a garden, Paul placed Apollos alongside himself: "What then is Apollos, and what is Paul?" v.3 (R.V.). In those verses he was able to employ the first person plural "we" v.9: "… we are labourers together". Now Paul acknowledges that this matter of building did concern others, but the distinction in roles was more pronounced, so he refers in v.10 to his own role in his use of the first person singular "I", and to the part that was not his by employing the term "another".1He writes in the first person singular, for at Corinth he alone had laid the foundation of which he will speak. Paul laid the foundation, whereas the other is building2 upon that foundation. The one now building has to take account of "how" he builds, v.10, and of the character of his building material, i.e. "of what sort it is" v.13. Having laid the foundation, Paul was concerned with how another might build. His had been the responsibility to lay the foundation. As a wise masterbuilder, he had been given the necessary wisdom for the task. Graciously, i.e. not on grounds of merit, God had equipped Paul for the task of laying the foundation. We should recognise that the laying of that foundation at Corinth is described in the historical passages of The Acts, and more fully in this epistle, so that there might be for every generation of Christians that would arise before the Rapture, an understanding of the foundation and building thereupon. That special wisdom given to Paul benefited Corinth and every city in which he laid the foundation of an assembly, and still benefits those who seek to follow the Divine pattern. Where that wisdom is lacking, the builder might foolishly proceed without a foundation, Lk.6.49.
1 Greek allos.
2 Tense is continuous present.
None should doubt the uniqueness of Paul’s claim to be "a wise masterbuilder" v.10. Wisdom had been granted to him, as it had been to Bezaleel and Aholiab who constructed the tabernacle, Ex.31.1-6, and to Solomon who built the first temple in Israel, Ex.31.3-4; 1 Kgs.5.7; 2 Chr.2.12. In a city known for its licentious living, he laid the foundation of a great work of God. However, the term "masterbuilder" (or architect) may infer more than his skilfulness. With due humility Paul uses the phrase "as a wise masterbuilder" v.10. He may be inferring that he established the pattern that should be followed in our day. No other person has been raised up by God to give teaching that we should follow as to assembly order and practice.
It is evident that the apostle expected respect for the foundation that he had laid, v.10. Indeed by the Spirit he adds: "… other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" v.11. It may be that the wording is so framed to insist that the only foundation that can be laid is that foundation God Himself has laid, "which is Jesus Christ". In laying the foundation of the assembly at Corinth, Paul preached Christ, His person and His work:
"… we preach Christ crucified" 1.23.
"Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" 1.24.
"Christ … unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification and redemption" 1.30.
"Christ our Passover" 5.7.
"Jesus Christ our Lord" 9.1; 12.1.
"Christ died for our sins … was buried and … rose again" 15.3.
"… the Lord Jesus Christ" 16.22.
How was each builder building upon that foundation? Was he building wisely, carefully and to the glory of God? What glory a local assembly may bring to God where all who build respect the only foundation that has been laid, 3.11.
But who is this other who is building on the foundation the apostle had laid? The builder is referred to as "another" but not named as Apollos, v.10. It seems unlikely that Paul has again "in a figure transferred" these building illustrations to himself and Apollos "for your sakes" 4.6. We have no reason to believe that Apollos would build with wood, hay or stubble, whom Paul has acknowledged without reservation as a minister of God, v.5, and whom Paul was urging to visit Corinth once more, 16.12. Paul is not slighting "brother Apollos" 1.12. He is cautioning "every man" (literally "each") vv.10,13; "any man" [literally "any one"] vv.12,14,15. The weight of the application of his ministry may be particularly pertinent to those who teach the saints, but it should not be thought that they exclusively build up the saints. Edifying may primarily be the teachers’ work, but others build up who exercise gifts differing according to the grace that is given to them, Rom.12.6; such "manifestation of the Spirit is given for profit" 1 Cor.12.7 (J.N.D.). In Israel, when the tabernacle was under construction, not only were Bezaleel and Aholiab specially gifted for the task, but "in the hearts of all that [were] … wisehearted" God had "put wisdom" Ex.31.6; indeed before Bezaleel and Aholiab are identified, God had equipped some with "the spirit of wisdom" to make Aaron’s garments, Ex.28.3. The Spirit acknowledges not only the ministry of Paul and Apollos, but others also who would be responsible to build upon the foundation that was laid.
It would appear that the Corinthian saints were unduly occupied with the more spectacular gifts God had "set in the church" 12.28, in particular the gift of tongues, so much so that the commandments of chapter 14 formed part of the first letter to Corinth. It is not within the scope of this chapter to deal with the temporary gifts listed at 12.7-28, and their purpose. Nonetheless the emphasis in chapter 14 on prophesying, edification and understanding is striking. Paul recognised the need for the saints to be taught. He asserts firmly that the gift of teachers was, and is, to that end, 12.28; Eph.4.11-16. It would be going beyond the evidence of this epistle to suggest that, when the gift of tongues was exercised in Corinth, nothing permanent was built upon the foundation. During that period before the completion of the canon of Scripture, Paul owns there was some limited value in the exercise of the gift of tongues, if accompanied by interpretation, but "five words with … understanding" were of more lasting benefit "than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue" 14.19. We, who live after the cessation of the gift of tongues, should not now be distracted as Corinth then was. Those, therefore, who teach in an assembly of God, should ensure that the saints are edified; in so doing they must build gold, silver and precious stones upon the foundation that is laid. And their efforts will not be without reward! The God who noted the names and the commitment of those engaged in the building of a wall in Nehemiah’s day knows every builder in this day, Nehemiah chapter 3, and, as Paul shows here, will reward each who builds to His glory.
BUILDING ON THE FOUNDATION, BUT WITH WHAT MATERIAL?
Paul lists six kinds of building materials that were to be seen in any first-century city as economically divided as Corinth: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and stubble. The Corinthians saw daily "sumptuous edifices of granite and marble, with ornaments of gold and silver, on the one hand, and the hovels of the poor on the other, with walls of wood and roof of thatch,"3 the crevices of which were stuffed with straw to keep out wind and rain. Are these just interesting metaphors? Or do they convey a reality we should note? That series of statements that begin with "If …"4 all have hypotheses that are true; Paul is saying: "Let’s look at actual cases, not just hypothetical ones. It is true that some will build gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and stubble, v.12; that some men’s work will abide, v.14; and some men’s work will be completely burned up, v.15; that some will receive a reward and some will suffer loss". Economic divisions marked that great city. Without the efforts of the poor there would have been no rich. But that is not how it should be among the saints. There was no need that any build with materials that will not "abide".
3 Conybeare, W. J. and Howson, J. S. "The Life and Epistles of St Paul." London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1862: p. 31.
4 All are Greek ei with the indicative.
W. E. Vine spiritualises gold, silver and precious stones: "The gold would seem to set forth the character and moral attributes of the Godhead, the fullness of which dwells in Christ … the silver, the redemption wrought by God in and through Christ; the precious stones, those truths which set forth the excellencies of the Person and character of Christ." Schrader more fancifully writes: "Some build with the gold of faith, with the silver of hope, with the imperishable costly stones of love; others again with the dead wood of unfruitfulness in good works, with the empty straw of a spiritless, ostentatious knowledge, and with bending reed of a continually-doubting spirit."5 It has also been noted that: "Man cannot manufacture the first three, whereas the others are the product of nature." There is of course a considerable difference in the values of the six materials. However, the difference is more likely to be between the combustible and the incombustible. The lesson the apostle teaches from his metaphor is about what will "abide", and what "shall be burned" vv.14,15.
5 Cited Alford, ibid: p. 493.
The Lord spoke of a day of assessment in His parables of the pounds and the talents. Peter speaks obliquely of an assessment that affords to some an abundant entrance into the kingdom, 2 Pet.1.11; John speaks of not being ashamed at His coming, 1 Jn.2.28; whilst Paul speaks clearly of the Judgment Seat of Christ in the figure of searching fire, making manifest every man’s work, 1 Cor.3.13. The possible outcomes of that day for the Christian, Paul insists, are two: either abiding or burning, vv.14,15, so either reward or loss.
When Rome appointed Mummius to take command of the Achaean War, his was an easy victory over the hapless Diaeus, who put up little resistance. Mummius entered Corinth and put to the sword all the men of Corinth; the women and children he sold into slavery, and the statues, paintings and works of art were shipped to Rome. Deliberately Mummius soon set Corinth ablaze. He acted in this way not out of malice, but in obedience to the direct instructions of the Roman senate, "prompted by the mercantile party, which was eager to get rid of a dangerous commercial rival." The ravages of the fire left standing only the stone-built edifices of the rich, but reduced to ashes the dwellings of the poor. So fierce was the blaze, it is claimed, that metals melted and blended together to form bronze for the first time. The use of bronze in Africa and China prior to the Great Fire of Corinth invalidates that claim. That any thought the origin of bronze could be traced back to the Fire of Corinth does show that the intensity of the fire that destroyed Corinth was legendary. The Great Fire of London occurred in 1666 and is still recalled. The Great Fire of Corinth in 146 BC was little over a century before Paul wrote, and would have been remembered centuries after it swept away all that was of wood, hay and stubble. Every Corinthian reader would have some understanding of the lesson Paul was teaching. They knew he was teaching that in that coming awesome assessment at the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Lord will make manifest what will abide and what will be burned, in the same way that the Great Fire of Corinth tested the fabric of every hovel and every architecturally-noteworthy edifice in its path.
Three verbs with similar meanings emphasise how evident then will be what we cannot see clearly now – "make manifest", "declare" and "reveal" v.13. Each man’s work will be made openly known "of what sort it is". The day will make visible the just verdict reached, for the fire will publicly unveil what may have been covered over - the true nature of a man’s work, v.13. The nature of that assessment will not be disputed by any; all will agree with the One Who sits on the Judgment Seat.
But who are those in the expressions "any man" v.12; "every man" v.13 (twice); "any man" vv.14,15? Above, the day is identified with the Judgment Seat of Christ and reference is made to the Christian. The context of building upon the foundation should have confirmed to the intelligent believer that the Judgment Seat of Christ is in view. Those without Divine life are wholly incapable of building into a local assembly, and, if they die without Christ, they will appear at the Great White Throne, Rev 20.11-15, not at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Every believer should have learned that the New Testament does not speak of one Assize before which saved and unsaved will appear at the one time. At the Judgment Seat, Christ’s searching assessment will manifest the nature of the materials the Christian built into the local assembly. The teaching of v.15 makes it abundantly clear that even those who build with wood, hay and stubble are saved. There is no doctrine of purgatory here or elsewhere in the Bible.
The value the Lord places upon building into the local assembly what will abide, will be made evident when the fire of Divine scrutiny assesses each builder’s work. The builder, who built acceptably with material that will abide, will be rewarded, v.14. The nature of that reward is not specified here, but both the nature of assessment and one aspect of its assessment are: the nature of the assessment is discriminatory; the aspect of service to be assessed is that "which he hath built thereupon", i.e. upon the foundation that has been laid. Elsewhere in the New Testament other matters that are to be assessed at that time are noted: the deeds done in the body and our disposition toward our brethren, 2 Cor.5.10; Rom.14.10.
The apostle indicates that not only will there be those who will be rewarded; there will also be those who will suffer loss, v.15. The same grammatical structure dispels any sense of this being merely a hypothetical case: he is emphasising that there will be such sad cases. It is equally evident that the terms "shall receive a reward" v.14, and "shall suffer loss" v.15, stand in stark contrast. Both individuals had been builders: one gained a reward, the other suffered loss. Lest any be unsettled as to their eternal security, the Spirit moved Paul to use the word "saved". Lest any be unconcerned as to the seriousness of losing one’s reward, the Spirit moved Paul to add, "yet so as by fire" v.15. Let every teacher strive to build with gold, silver and precious stones to the glory of God. Let all who exercise their gift ensure that they too build on the foundation with that which will abide.
BEHAVIOUR IN GOD’S BUILDING
Having unfolded solemn truth relating to the Judgment Seat of Christ, at v.16, the apostle Paul immediately draws attention to a building distinguished by the title "temple of God".6 He introduces it, as he does other matters in this letter, in such a way that first readers must have realised that he was saying: "you Corinthians, whose boast is in knowledge (1.5; 8.1,2,10,11; 13.2,8) do you not know that ye are the temple of God?" He does not say that those who built with gold, silver and precious building stones built this building. Its title "temple of God" may announce more than who dwells there and should be honoured there; it may also make clear that the builder is God Himself. It is not a partially completed construction where the builders are still engaged in building. The temple Solomon built was not indwelt until the construction work was completed, 1 Kgs.8.10,11; 2 Chr.5.13. The delay in the glory of the Lord filling the Holiest of all was not that Solomon was carelessly allowing standards of behaviour among the artisans to slip below acceptable standards. Indeed, in the House under construction there was not heard the noise of a hammer or axe or any iron tool, 1 Kgs.6.7. The stones that reached the site were already prepared and ready for assembly. Not until the work was complete did God condescend to dwell in the temple, as almost 500 years earlier, a cloud did not cover "the tent of the congregation and the glory of the Lord" or fill the tabernacle until Moses had "finished the work" of erecting the court around the completed tabernacle and the altar, Ex.40.33-34. This temple too is complete and functioning.
6 It has been observed that in the Greek text the definite article does not qualify "temple" in the three occasions it occurs in vv. 16-17. The apostle is indicating that the assembly at Corinth is characterised as God’s temple. Similarly the absence of the Greek article qualifying "body of Christ" 12.27, and "house of God" at 1 Tim. 3.15 identifies what the assemblies in Corinth and Ephesus were characteristically.
The noun "temple" in vv.16-17 is "naos" in Greek, which defines not the general buildings of the temple complex, but the inner sanctuary – the Holiest of all – where of old only the high priest could venture once a year and that not without blood, Heb.9.7. God no longer dwells in buildings made with hands, but among saints gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus. (Paul uses the more general noun, "hieron", for the temple buildings at 9.13. The more general word occurs often in the New Testament, e.g. Matt.4.5; Jn.2.14; Acts 2.46.) At 3.16, Paul poses the rhetorical question: "Know ye not that ye are the temple [naos, or inner sanctuary] of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" He does not say that the assembly in Corinth "groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord" Eph.2.21, rather he is describing them as already "an habitation of God though the Spirit" Eph.2.22. But only after the work of Calvary was complete and the Holy Spirit had come was any group of persons acknowledged by God as His temple in a particular locality. The Holy Spirit is not here speaking of the specific location where the assembly of God in Corinth met, but the to assembly of saints itself. The Corinthians should have known that the presence of God among them had constituted them as God’s temple.
As Solomon required reverence for the house he was building for the Lord, so as the temple of God in Corinth, Paul required of the Corinthians that none "defile the temple of God" v.17. In the context of 1 Corinthians chapter 3, the defilement (better, "destruction" or "corruption") would arise not from the immorality and the other sins that the assembly was asked to judge in chapter 5, but from human wisdom that gloried in men, vv.18-21. It is human wisdom that introduces false doctrines, the source of which is often the evil one himself. The seriousness of such corrupting, yea, destructive, doctrines is evident in the retribution specified at v.17: "If any man defile [destroy] the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy." God Himself will vindicate His own holiness. Lest any fail to perceive that Paul writes of the assembly of God at Corinth, he reminds them once more by adding: "… which temple ye are" v.17. The destroying of Ananias and Sapphira for lying against the Holy Spirit would be an evidence of God acting in government when they introduced deception, Acts 5.1-11. 1 Cor.11.30 may be another instance of Divine retribution visited upon destroyers.
Yet how different it was when the glory filled the houses Moses and Solomon built. Whilst the priests conducted themselves fittingly and respected the holiness of God, God was pleased to dwell among them. They had the privilege of honouring Him with voluntary offerings as their hearts were moved in thanksgiving for His blessings. In a spiritual house that Paul designated "the temple of God", God Himself was glorified. That privilege is now ours, whose offerings are spiritual sacrifices, 1 Pet.2.5; Heb.13.5. In a spiritual building that Paul would designate "the temple of God", God Himself is to be glorified. May that privilege be extended towards us until the Lord Jesus come, that God may be glorified in the assemblies of His people, gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus.
UNTIL HE COME
The guidance that God has given as to His pleasure in His people has been provided in permanent written form within the Scriptures. For almost 2,000 years the people of God have had access to that guidance, and some have sought grace to put into practice the ministry of Paul, that "wise masterbuilder". Despite much failure, across the globe there are expressions of that ministry in assemblies gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. But such God-honouring testimony will not continue to mark those lands where presently they shine as lights in a dark world. At the Rapture, all the saints of this present day will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, 1 Thess.4.13-17. The period of assembly testimony will be ended. Certainly God will not leave Himself without witness; He will raise up those who will bear testimony to Christ, but those He raises up will not build as "a wise masterbuilder" taught us to do. Building with gold, silver and precious stones is a feature of glorifying God that is the peculiar privilege of saints in the period that has extended from Pentecost and will end at the Rapture. Let us then be careful to build on the foundation and to build with gold, silver and precious stones. May every whit of what we build upon the foundation that is laid bespeak His glory, Ps.29.9.