Is 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 about Rewards for Believers?

1 Corinthians 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. 11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13 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. 14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? 17 If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”

It is commonly taught in evangelical churches that verses 12-15 are talking about the rewards that will be given to believers just after the “rapture of the church”, at the “Bema seat judgment”. This very popular view rests, in part, on the many universal expressions used throughout the context, which I have italicized above. No less than eight times, expressions such as “every man” and “any man” occur in these nine verses in the Authorized Version. The conclusion seems to be obvious, at least to those who have been taught the popular view, that these persons are believers; but if we accept the words at face value, they might just as well mean any and every man, without respect to his faith or lack of it. Why should we limit these terms to believers?

The popular interpretation hangs upon an extra-biblical assumption. Verses 9-10, and indeed the whole passage, are interpreted in the light of that assumption. We must first consider a bit of history. The source of this interpretation is a fellow named John Darby, associated with the “Plymouth brethren”, which does not consider itself a denomination; but simply pure Christianity in practice. They are the anarchists of Christian professors, rejecting the distinction between ministers and people (and thus special training for a ministerial class), and local church membership. Darby was one of the principal teachers of this — whatever it was — when he began to think that the old way of viewing old Israel and the church as one people was wrong. By about 1830, he had developed a system which contained the essential features of Dispensationalism. That is enough to know for our purposes, at present.

Rejecting, as he did, a class of Christians set apart to teach and rule the church, he had a different view of this passage, consistent with his principle that all Christians engage in the ministerial work as equals.

His new interpretation of verse 9 is that the “we” means all of us. We are all equally laborers in his fields and builders of the church. He admits that “The subject, then, is ministerial labor…”, (This is why he must interpret “every man”as every Christian, and so forth.) But there is no mention of the ministry in his entire discussion of this passage. And he passes over the obvious difficulty with the contrast between “we” and “ye” without mention. This is a common feature of Darby, and of Schofield, his cohort. Whenever they could not think up an explanation of a difficulty, they acted as if it did not exist.

9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.

Verse 9 makes a distinction between “we” and “ye”. “We” refers to the Apostles and other duly appointed ministers of the gospel who labor together in God’s field, on God’s building. “Ye” refers to the members of the churches that are in their charge. This distinction is important, as we shall see.

In v. 10, the subject of the sentence is Paul, under the figure of “a wise master- builder”. He has laid the foundation, the gospel of Jesus Christ. When he says, “another buildeth thereon”, he is talking about another “builder” — that is, another minister of the gospel, building on the same foundation, responsible to work (together with others) toward the completion of the building. So when we get to the phrase “every man” we understand that the meaning is not “every man on earth” or “every Christian”; but “every man who builds on the foundation”. This is confirmed by the last clause, “how he buildeth thereupon”. “Every man” can only mean “every builder” because only builders are in view; and not all Christians are set aside to the role of builders.

“But what”,you ask (and rightly so) “does the Greek say?” The word translated “every man” is hekastos, an adjective which means “each” or “every”. What it refers to must be determined by the context. There is no word in the Greek text that must be translated “man”: the adjective is used as a substantive, and the word, “one” or “person” or “man” is implied. In short, the Greek word is literally “each one”, “each person”, or “every person”. If we choose the first translation, then the sentence will read thus: “But let each one take heed how he buildeth thereupon.” This is consistent with the context, and makes it clearer that it is other builders besides Paul that are intended.

So there is no reason to claim that such language requires a broader scope in vss. 11-15. In other words, it is the same persons who are referred to throughout the passage and its context. And this is especially so, because there is nothing in it to hint that any other persons are pointed at.

The interpretation I have given fits the context; nay, more, it is required by the context. In the earlier chapters, we note that Paul often uses the pronouns, “we” and “us” (1:23; 2:6, 7, 10, 12, 15, 16) The first occurrence, “we” in 1:23, is used of those who preach the gospel. There is a distinction made here, between those who preach the gospel (we) and those who are called by it (them, ye).

1:23 “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; 24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:”

Next, notice the explicit distinction between “we” and “ye” in 3:1-9. Paul is speaking as a pastor to the people throughout. Verses 3-5 show us that he is developing his main theme: divisions in the church. In 6-8, he illustrates his point by drawing an analogy between the gospel ministry and the care of growing things. One man plants and another does the watering; but nothing grows without God’s blessing. The ones who plant and water in this analogy are Paul and Apollos. The main point of this analogy is the equality of the ministers of the word; and that only God should get the glory when a man is converted.

Verse 9 concludes this analogy and begins another with a similar point:

“For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.”

“For we are labourers together with God” would be better rendered, “For we are God’s co-workers.” Paul, Apollos, and other ministers are co-laborers in God’s field, sharing the planting and watering. They are co-builders of the house of God; Paul having laid the foundation, and others building upon it.

Notice the two parts of both analogies: the “we” who are laborers; versus the “ye” who are God’s husbandry (his cultivated field) in the first analogy, and God’s building in the second. The second analogy begins here and Paul will develop it in vss. 3:9 through 3:17. Notice the words, “masterbuilder” and “buildeth” in v. 10, “build”, v.12, “built” in V.14, “work” in 13, 14 and 15. Finally, observe that the word “temple” in vss. 16 and 17 explains what they are building, by incorpor-ating many believers into the one structure. There is one foundation, one building, and one temple. Paul uses the same figure of speech in Ephesians 2:20-22:

“And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”

“Ye”, the many, being built upon one foundation, being “fitly framed together” “grow unto an holy temple in the Lord.” “Ye also are builded together for an habitation of God” (a temple). So even as far as 3:17, there is an implicit reference to the analogy of the builders and the house.

Verses 11-17 are predicated on the warning in v.10 “I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.” “Every man” obviously means “every man who builds thereon“, and no other. Verses 12-15 explain what happens to the man who builds with the right materials: those which in God’s sight are as gold, silver and precious stones; and what happens if he builds with unsuitable, base materials. It is appropriate that Paul uses the figures of gold, silver and precious stones, because they are impervious to anything but the hottest fire; while wood, hay and stubble are easily ignited. The warning is further enforced in verses 16 and 17, by the consideration of the holiness of God’s building:

“16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? 17 If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”

Paul is still using the analogy of the builders and their work. The holy temple of God, His habitation, is the building that they are working on. It is, you remember, composed of “living stones” to use Peter’s words. The warning in v. 17 is once again, as in v.10, directed at the builders of the temple — ministers; and the most natural sense is that those who are building with inferior materials are the ones who are “defiling” the temple. They will be punished in some way that is severe — “saved as by fire”.

The word, destroyed” (v. 17) is too harsh, since it is later said “but he himself shall be saved”; and also because it is the same Greek word phtheiro that is here translated both “defile” and “destroy”. Interestingly, the two occurrences of the word in the Greek text are right next to each other. A strictly literal translation might read, “If anyone the temple of God is destroying, destroy that one will God”. The point is that, whatever the man does to God’s temple, God will do the same thing to him.

There would be no need to explain to the Greek reader why the same word is used, but with two slightly different meanings. The word phtheiro has enough range of meanings to cover both cases. The reader would know that when it is used of inanimate objects, it means “damage”, but when used of living things, it means “to injure”, or possibly “to ruin”.

But it is hard to find a single word in the English language that will serve for both instances. No doubt that is the reason why phtheiro is not translated the same way both times in our Bible.

What has been said above is more than sufficient to prove that the rewards and punishments are for ordained ministers of the word; and not for believers in general. “My brethren, be not many masters (teachers), knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.” (James 3:1) “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” (Luke 12:48b) This answers the question we set out to answer; but there is more to be said. there are other questions to answer; and an explanation given of the passage as a whole.

Explanation of the Passage

Having studied certain aspects of the passage in the course of answering the first question, we are now ready to look at alternative explanations of the passage we set out to study, verses 11-15. The passage in its context is as follows:

3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. 11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13 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. 14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? 17 If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.

What are the parts of the analogy and what do they represent? It is plain that the builders represent the apostles and other ministers of the gospels. The foundation is not Jesus Himself; but the doctrine of Jesus Christ, the gospel,which Paul and the Apostles laid down in the New Testament for all time. The other parts are not so easy to identify, and there are differing views. But let us make the attempt.

The Consensus View

What are the various materials employed by the builders? Most of the commentators say that it is the doctrines that the minister preaches. (See Gill, Barnes, Clarke, Calvin) In this view, the people of God are not mentioned, only their ministers. The gold, silver and precious stones are the pure doctrine and practice taught in God’s word. The wood, hay and stubble are the doctrines of men, lesser errors of interpretation, and imperfect instruction in Christian practice that defile and corrupt the church.

“The day” is the day of final and general judgment, when all men, even Christian ministers, must stand before God.

The burning up of the false doctrines is figurative of their ceasing to exist after the judgment. The truth endures to all eternity.

The salvation of the minister “so as by fire” means that He will be rebuked by God for the work of his lifetime; and suffer severe grief and shame, and the terrible accusations of conscience for a time.

This is an orthodox interpretation, plausible, and answers most of the demands of the context. But it fails to take into account what the building materials of God’s church are. And it fails to explain how false doctrines can be considered the “work” of a man; and how they can be burned up.

Dabney’s Interpretation

It may seem presumptuous to go against such a formidable consensus; but the Word of God is the final authority, and not the words of men. The question is, does that interpretation satisfy all the demands of the context?  R. L. Dabney did not think so.

His view was that the caution enjoined upon the builders in v. 10 is directed against incorporating false professors into the church through a lack of diligence and due caution. The materials used in the building of the church are those who profess a belief in the Christian faith, and are received into the church. He cited Isaiah 28:16, Matthew 16:18, 1 Peter 2:4-5 to show that Scripture everywhere teaches that it is the church that is built upon God’s foundation; and the church is composed of persons; not doctrines. (He could also have cited Ephesians 2:20-22.) Peter says that we are “living stones”.

In this view, the precious materials represent true believers, who are able to pass the scrutiny of the one “whose eyes are as a flame of fire” on the great day of God’s judgment. See Job 23:10, 1 Peter 1:7, Malachi 3:17.

The base materials used to construct the building are hypocrites and false professors, who will not only be fit for burning (John 15:6), like the wood, hay, and stubble used in the illustration; but will actually be consumed by the fires of Hell. The work of the builder is cementing stones in the walls of the building. To put wood, hay, or stubble in the place of stones is an absurdity, and it is meant to be. These terms reflect the disdain that Paul had for the doctrines of men.

“The day” is the day of judgment. It is in Scripture not a separate judgment for the people of God only. There is nothing like that in the whole of Scripture. Each of us, considered simply as men, Christian and non-Christian, will be judged individually immediately after death (Hebrews 9:27); otherwise no one could go to heaven or to hell immediately: a doctrine that is clearly taught in Scripture. (Luke 16:22-23, 23:43; John 14:2-3)

The loss suffered by the incompetent or careless minister is the loss of people whom he had thought to be Christians; but who were not. Some of these were people for whom he had affection, and were his friends. These were people whom he ought to have taken greater pains for. And now he must witness their destruction, knowing that he must take the blame for his failure, and, in part, for their damnation. What a horrid thought! How his heart must then break, and his conscience accuse him!

Being saved “as by fire” may be understood of this fiery trial, or of having to give an account to God of his failure to use the care that was enjoined upon him. Either one or both may be intended.

I think that Dabney is right in his interpretation. It gives every part of the analogy a scriptural meaning and is totally coherent. It is appropriate to the context, and consistent with the teachings of Scripture in other places.

The Bema Seat Judgment

But whether you agree with this particular interpretation or not, it is clear and indisputable that this passage does not teach what is popularly taught; that Paul is talking about believers in general, and the rewards given to them at a special judgment, for believers only, at the so-called “Bema seat”, before the end of history.

It might be appropriate to discuss the Bema seat idea a little further. What is the biblical basis that is used to prove its existence? The main texts are Romans 14:10-12 and 2 Corinthians 5:10.

Let’s look at the one in Romans first:

Romans 14:10 But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11 For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. 12 So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.

The question hangs upon v. 10, the third clause, “for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.” The whole chapter, up to this point, has had believers as its focus. So there can be no question that the word, “we” refers to us who are saved by Jesus Christ. All of us shall stand before the judgment seat.

The first thing that I want to say is that just because we believers must stand before that judgment seat does not necessarily exclude others who may also stand there and be judged. This should be obvious from vss. 11-12. Every knee and every tongue shall submit to Christ. This cannot be limited to believers. This quotation is from Isaiah 45:23, where it is spoken of the godly and the ungodly indiscriminately (vss. 22, 24). Likewise, when it is used in Philippians 2:10, it is not limited at all; but emphatically of every intelligent creature — even angels and demons. It points to the final and general judgment which occurs at the personal return of Jesus Christ.

Second, the fact that it is said to be the judgment seat of Christ does not prove that it is a separate judgment from the final judgment depicted in Revelation 20:11-15, for Scripture teaches that Christ will be the one sitting on that throne. (See Matthew 25:31-34,41; 28:18; John 5:22; Jude 14-15; Acts 17:31)

Third, Scripture never speaks of separate judgments in any context. It only speaks of “the day of judgment” (Matthew 10:15; Romans 2:5; 2 Peter 3:7; 1 John 4:17; Jude 6), which would be wrong to say if there were more than one. (There are many judgments of men and nations in Scripture: but they are of a different kind, for none of them involves the physical presence of Christ.)

Fourth, the passage in Romans 14 cannot contradict Romans 2, where we read:

Romans 2:3 And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? 4 Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?

5 But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; 6 Who will render to every man according to his deeds: 7 To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: 8 But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, 9 Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; 10 But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: 11 For there is no respect of persons with God.

I have quoted the entire immediate context for the convenience of my readers, should they wish to see it. The heart of the matter is found in vss. 6-7, and v. 10. Paul has begun with a warning for evildoers (vss. 1-5). In v. 5, he begins to describe the day of judgment with which such men are threatened. He calls it “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God”. Verse 6 tells us that, on that day, God “will render to every man according to his deeds”. Then he explains what that means: “To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath,” (7-8) and further, that God will render “Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God.” (9-11)

So we have here Jews and Gentiles, believers and unbelievers all being judged at the same time, according to their works, by Jesus Christ, sitting on his judgment seat.

Fifth, as for the difference between the Bema seat and the Great White Throne (thronos); it exists only in the minds of some teachers and the ones they have misled. Both words refer to a judgment throne. Is an automobile a different thing from a car? Different words are used for the same thing in every language. Scripture is full of synonyms. Interestingly, the only word John ever used to refer to either a throne or a judgment seat in the whole book of Revelation, 46 times.  He said nothing about any bema seat judgement at all.

Paul, on the other hand, sometimes uses thronos: four times in the book of Hebrews, and twice elsewhere.  He only uses bema these two times.

I have yet to comment on 2 Corinthians 5:8-10:

2 Corinthians 5:8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. 9 Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.

This is also supposed to be proof of a special judgment for believers only. Men-tion is made of the desire that Paul had to be accepted of Christ in this life and in the next. While he is confident of his condition and destiny as a saved man, he said that he labors to obtain that acceptance. We have a judgment according to works. How does this differ from the general judgment of Romans 2? Compare them if you doubt. Once again, the use of the first person pronoun in v. 10 does not exclude others besides believers, and once that argument is seen for what it is, the whole doctrine of a separate judgment collapses.

The reader may ask, “If what you say is true, then why would anyone propose something so radically different?” I have already touched upon the answer to this, when I mentioned John Darby and the inception of Dispensationalism. Rejecting, as he did, the distinction between ministers and people, he was forced to interpret it the way he did. But when he invented (for that is what he did) the Dispensational system, he had other reasons for holding to that interpretation. Most evangelicals, at least the ones we hear from most often, on television and radio, are Dispensationalists. They divide the Bible into parts or “dispensations” that are said to have no relationship to one another.

The present age is called, “the church dispensation”, and it has nothing to do with the dispensation of law that preceded it or the dispensation of the kingdom which will follow. The church age ends with the rapture of the church; in which all Christians, dead or living, are raised up to meet the Lord in the air and go with Him back to heaven.  But the entire kingdom age must run its course before the final judgment; and they will be going to heaven a thousand years before that happens.

Why is that a problem? Because there are those texts which say that we shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ! The Christian era, the age of grace, having ended, how can they be expected to participate in a judgment that belongs to the Jewish kingdom age? There must be a judgment of the saints before they go to heaven! It must be after the rapture, for it cannot be held on earth; and the Christians are not going to be all together until the rapture. But it must be before they go to heaven; for there are no tears in heaven, and this judgment will involve loss and sorrow, some of us being saved as if by fire! So it occurs in the air after the rapture. Just as no one on earth will know that the rapture has taken place; this tribunal will be unseen and unheard on earth.

Furthermore, it must be a judgment consistent with the principle of grace. Christians are not under the law; but under grace. They know that they are eternally secure: it makes no sense for them to be tried for their lives. So, while it is a judgment based on works, it must be a judgment which determines whether they receive rewards, and what their rewards will be. In short, the Dispensational interpretation of this passage, instead of being based on sound hermeneutical principles, is for the purpose of maintaining a system.

And that is the end of our study.

Howard Douglas King

May 31, 2019