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A Believer's Life Is Judged by Christ (I Corinthians 3:5-23)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: Judgement is Coming

From Leadership Magazine comes this interesting true account. It goes like this:

"During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy often closed his speeches with the story of Colonel Davenport, the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives. One day in 1789, the sky of Hartford darkened ominously, and some of the representatives, glancing out the windows, feared the end was at hand.

Quelling a clamor for immediate adjournment, Davenport rose and said, “The Day of Judgement is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.”

Rather than fearing what is to come, we are to be faithful till Christ returns. Instead of fearing the dark, we’re to be lights as we watch and wait."

The fact is that Scripture does teach us that all of us must one day stand in judgment. For the believer, it's not a judgement for sin. That was taken care of by Jesus on the cross. Our judgment is for rewards, or a loss of them for what we did or didn't do for the Lord after we were saved.

In his second letter to the Corinthians (5:10), the apostle Paul clearly tells us:

"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive compensation for his deeds done through

the body, in accordance with what he has done, whether good or bad."

By looking at his first letter, we see that Paul gives a clearer picture of what he is referring to when talking about this judgment seat. In I Corinthians 3:5-23, he is continuing his reprimand of the Corinthians who are promoting sectarianism. By that I mean that they are promoting conflicts between several parties who are following various leaders and saying that their leader is better than the rest.

Paul wants them to know, and makes it abundantly clear, that the only person they are all following, including the leaders, is Jesus Christ. Because it is He and no one else who is the final judge of our actions upon this earth.

Paul gives us a logical argument in this section as to why we should never put our leaders on a pedestal but should honor Christ above everyone and everything else. The argument goes something like this:

I. Ministers are Merely Servants of God (3:1-9a)

II. Jesus Judges Our Work, Not Men. (3:9b-17)

III. Therefore Boasting in Men is Foolish (3:18-23)

Let us begin now to break each of these sections down and see what Paul has to say about them.

I. Preachers are Merely God's Servants (3:1-9a)

First of all, if you remember from chapter 1 verses 1-17 the Corinthians were fighting over who to follow when, in reality, all Christians should be following Christ. Then in 3:1-4, Paul just got finished telling the Corinthians that all of the sectarian fighting that they were doing shows that these believers were carnal or fleshly. They were acting like the people of the world. Further, they were still babes in Christ even though they should be farther along in their faith by this time in their lives.

Now in I Corinthians 3:5-8, he begins his proof that Jesus is the One whom the Corinthians should be following and not a human leader, by saying that the ministers whom they are putting on a pedestal are merely servants of God by whom they heard the gospel and believed.

Paul uses a metaphor here. He compares the Corinthians to a field in which these ministers plant seed that will grow into what God wants it to be. The various ministers had different jobs. For example, Paul planted the gospel in the hearts of these saints. Apollos watered or nurtured them along. But make no mistake about it. It was God who caused them to grow. The Lord gave the increase.

Truthfully, none of us are indispensable in the process of salvation because salvation is of the Lord. All we can do is to preach, teach and model it in our own lives to those whom the Lord has placed in our path.

All of the human leaders that are willing to allow God to use them to produce salvation are considered equal by God. They are 'fellow workers' and are each rewarded for giving God their lives according to their individual labor. But the ultimate glory for the whole process of salvation and growth goes to the Lord alone.

Therefore, all of this talk of "My leader is better than your leader!" is silly and must be condemned.

II. Jesus Judges Our Works, Not Men (3:9b-17)

Next Paul starts to develop the second part of his logical syllogism by pointing out that they will one day be held accountable for what they have done for the Lord or what they haven't done. As we pointed out earlier, this judging is not for salvation but for reward. Jesus paid for our sins in full at the cross of Calvary. Paul, as we have noted, calls this time he is referring to the Bema or judgement seat of Christ (II Corinthians 5:10).

According to Don Stewart in the Blue Letter Bible:

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"The bema is a tribunal for rewards. In the large Olympic arenas, there was an elevated seat on which the judge of the contest sat. After the contests were over, the successful competitors would assemble before the bema to receive their rewards or crowns. The bema was not a judicial bench where someone was condemned; it was a reward seat. Likewise, the Judgment Seat of Christ is not a judicial bench. The Christian life is a race, and the divine umpire is Jesus Christ. After the race is over for each believer, He will gather every member before the bema for the purpose of examining each one and giving the proper reward to each."

In order to explain the works that God will judge, Paul shifts his imagery from an agricultural analogy in calling us a field that is sown, to a construction comparison. Paul sees himself as a wise master builder who has laid the foundation for the building. The Greek word here is the root word for architect. However, it contains the idea of builder as well as designer.

The apostle may have laid the foundation, but it was up to someone else to build upon it. He says in verse 10 that each Christian is responsible for this. The implication is that the things which are being built upon this foundation are the good works of ministry that a person does in the name of Christ.

Paul goes on to say that Jesus Himself is the foundation for the spiritual building that is being built (11). The apostle didn't design the foundation. He only laid it down by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Each person lays on that foundation either one of two types of materials. Those that can be refined by the fires of judgment, or those that are destroyed by it. Gold, silver and precious stones represent those things done for Christ that help build the Church of God. They are done, not for self but for the Lord. Wood, hay and stubble, or straw, are the things done which have no eternal value and are done for self. Here is what the apostle says of each of these materials in verses 12-15. He states:

"Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire."

The idea in verse 15 that the person may be saved even though it seems that he has nothing of eternal value to show in this judgment, is a further indication that salvation is completely by God's grace, apart from works. However, it further seems that this 'suffering loss', which Paul mentions, could be a source of embarrassment for a believer who lives a full life without anything of eternal value left to show at the judgement.

But the apostle isn't finished with the idea of judgment, for in I Corinthians 3:16,17 there is a stern warning to those who would destroy God's temple. If they do, then God will destroy them.

In the context it looks like a continued warning to those he just addressed who will be saved so as by fire. If they would try to interfere with or destroy the building of the church on the foundation of Christ by their actions, there will be consequences for this. It cannot be a loss of salvation here for Paul just said that they would be saved, yet so as by fire. But possibly it could mean an early loss of physical life to keep them from harming the work of God on earth.

III. Therefore Boasting in Men is Foolish (3:18-23)

In verse 18, Paul moves into the conclusion of his syllogism. After showing that ministers are merely God's servants and saying that God, or Jesus is the one who judges our work and not men, he finally concludes his long discourse on why it is foolish to boast in man's wisdom. Here are his words:

"Let no man deceive himself. If any many among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, 'He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness. And again: 'The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless. So then, let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God." (3:18-23).

It is so strange how we tend to put people on a pedestal in life, especially if they are beautiful, or wise. However, compared to the God of the universe, who created everything, including the wise and beautiful of this world, we are utterly stupid. So, the first step to real intelligence is to stop relying on our own so-called wisdom and start relying on the One who is all-wise.

Those that don't think that they need God are the most foolish of all, no matter what their I. Q. The Bible, more than once tells us that:

"The fool has said in his heart that there is no God." (Psalm 14:1; Psalm 53:1).

It is God who has given us the brains that we have for His glory. And it is utterly foolish to deny the one who has made us what we are.

And why should we boast in any other man either? Why rely on them for anything when all things belong to us in the first place by Christ who has given them to us. All believers share equally in God's most important and valuable provisions in this life in the here and now. And we share in Christ's glory to come. We ultimately belong to Christ whose death and resurrection has provided for all of our needs. And Christ belongs to God the Father. God and not man is who we should be boasting about. Not because we deserve what He has given us. But we boast in His grace that has provided it all.


As we conclude this section of Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, we must ask ourselves who we are following in this life. God has indeed given to us godly leaders, but they are there to lead us to a closer relationship with Christ and God the Father. They should never be put above the Lord in our lives or our ministries. For all true godly leaders are His instruments for our good and His glory.

Further, we must realize that they are not the ones that we are to seek to please. God is the final judge of this universe, and we will all stand before Him and answer for everything done in this life. The question is: "Who are we seeking to impress?" Those leaders we follow will one day die and stand before the same God that we are going to stand before and will have to answer for what they have done with the life that the Lord has given to them. Just as we do. Though we should always respect their God-given authority, we must never make them objects of our worship and devotion. That is idolatry.

Finally, if we just realize that in Christ, we have all that we need, we will not seek to fulfill those needs in anything or anyone else. We are complete in Christ, both in this life and in the one to come.

It is my prayer that all who hear this message will seek never to be people-pleasers but will live their lives so that the judge of all the universe will one day tell them: "Well done, good and faithful servant!" Because He has the final say over our life and over our eternity, it is ultimately His opinion and His alone that counts. We are judged by Him, in the end, and not by any man. So, let us truly make Christ the head of our life. Because, when He is in His proper position, everything else will eventually fall into place.

© 2022 Jeff Shirley

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