Read 1 Corinthians 3:1-15 to start.
Before we get started, let’s take a short trip down memory lane. Back in October, I preached a sermon that I titled Work In Progress, and I started by talking about Sarah Winchester and the Winchester Mystery House. For that sermon, I read most of this same passage from 1 Corinthians. In that sermon I talked about how God is working on every believer, and how we are His handiwork, His workmanship as it says in Ephesians chapter 2, verse 10. The comparison of a building under construction is certainly a very apt one for this concept, because putting up a house or a barn or a tower or some other large project takes time, takes effort, and requires a design and a plan in order for it to come to a successful outcome. If we allow God to work on us and in us, if we are obedient and willing to let Him work, then that is what the result will be, even if it’s not at all what we first expect.
Every building, every construction project, needs the things we just mentioned in some measure, there needs to be effort, time, a plan, and of course some sort of input, some materials. But every building also needs something more than that if it is to be a lasting structure of any sort. It needs a foundation.
In our red hymnbook there are a bit over 500 songs. I can’t provide you an exact count, because while the numbers go to 518, there are songs on the front and back covers that do not have numbers, and there are several songs that are repeated. I believe it’s only four that are repeated, someone can correct me on that if they can find a fifth or sixth example.
My point is that one of the repeated songs is “How Firm a Foundation” which you will find with two different tunes at numbers 38 and 39, right after “My Hope is in the Lord.” How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord / Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word / What more can He say than to you He hath said / To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled? I’m not going to say that this is the most important song in the book, because really, that is entirely a matter of opinion, but the message of that hymn is of vital importance. Foundations are important, not just important, but essential, both in construction and in life. Without a good foundation, what are we building on?
Back in 2020, during the height of the first summer of Covid, I built a new deck on my house. At the front of it I dug two holes and poured in some gravel and mixed up a bag of concrete to secure 4×4 posts to hold up the front edge and the privacy fence. The middle of it and the back end sits on shorter posts on deck blocks that I put on gravel pads to keep them level and to resist frost heave and washout from heavy rain. Those have held up just fine, although there’s part of me that wishes I had perhaps dug more holes and used more concrete.
That’s because last summer I added an extension to the deck. It’s not huge, it’s 8 x 12, but it adds a nice amount of square footage. I simply anchored it to the existing beam on the back of the 2020 deck, then put three more deck blocks 8 feet away to hold up the other side. Apart from the nails that hold the new beam to the old one, it was basically a floating deck. At least it was until Hurricane Fiona arrived. Those winds lifted the new section and flipped it upside down onto the rest of the deck. The foundation, or lack of foundation, did not hold. My efforts, my materials, my plan, those were simply not good enough to withstand the storm.
This likewise applies to a human life, to yours and mine. If God will work in your life then there needs to be a stable foundation. The passage we read to start is unmistakeable as to what our foundation should be, or rather who it must be. The foundation, the starting point, the base layer for the believer must be the Lord Jesus Christ. No other foundation will do, no other foundation will hold, not in the long term.
There’s a passage in Matthew’s gospel which talks about the same thing, it’s in chapter 7. Reading from verse 24 (Mat 7:24) Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: (Mat 7:25) And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. (Mat 7:26) And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: (Mat 7:27) And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. (Mat 7:28) And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: (Mat 7:29) For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
This is at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount, which we have as three full chapters of Christ’s teachings as delivered to a crowd of those who gathered to listen, and who were challenged deeply by what they heard. I don’t have time this morning to do a deep dive into the Sermon on the Mount, there is an incredible wealth of instruction to be found, and many of the most recognizable, quotable, and essential verses in all of scripture are contained in those three chapters. So many topics are addressed and answered, both philosophical and more abstract subjects, such as the idea of being salt and light in this world, to practical and relatable, personal topics such as justice, anger, revenge, and the law, or lust, marriage, and divorce. And that’s only from part of the first chapter. A thorough study of the entire Sermon on the Mount would be a most beneficial exercise for any believer, and even as I’m saying this I’m considering whether or not I’m up to the task in perhaps a series of sermons, because it’s not possible to do it all in one.
That’s the foundation that Christ has given us to build upon, His own words and deeds. But even more so is the completed sacrifice of Christ on the cross of Calvary, that is the essential element upon which our faith rests. Without that, we have little more than the world at large has, or that any flawed and false belief system has to offer. We have a risen Saviour, one who is both God and Man, and that paid the price for all our sins. No one else can offer that. That’s the foundation that Paul speaks of to the Corinthian church in the verses we read to start. That’s the foundation upon which our beliefs depend, and on which the church, both the church universal and our local meeting, as well as our individual ministries, and indeed our Christian lives, must stand.
In verse 11 Paul cautions that no other foundation can be put in place other than Christ. But in truth many people try to put down all sorts of other foundations, or they seek to add something to at the foundation level, whether it be good works, or baptism, or signs and wonders, or mysticism, or the particular teachings of another person, or any number of other false ways. None of those work, not as belief systems in general, and certainly not as a foundation upon which to build. False teachers and false teachings come and go, and while they may seem heavily favoured and highly popular at one time or another, quickly they fade into obscurity as folks see through them. When you realize that there is no substance, no grounding, no solid foundation, then it becomes obvious that there is no reason to stay, no reason to believe. That is what we see in Matthew 7, with the wise man and the foolish man and their respective houses on the rock and the sand. One lasted, and one did not, and it came down to what they stood upon.
False foundations have done great disservice to the gospel over the centuries, because people experience error and deception and it sours them to the truth. Then when things do go wrong, their trust is shattered, and they may turn their backs entirely. I would caution anyone to be exceedingly careful of what they believe, to be like the Bereans of Acts chapter 17, who when they heard the preaching of Paul and Silas, they received it and then searched out the scriptures to confirm if this was indeed true. That is what we should do. It is vital that we know why we believe what we believe, and what we say, and most importantly, what we teach. If it cannot be supported by the Word of God, then it should not be taught. It should not be something upon which we stand.
A word of explanation here, when I say supported by the Word of God I mean directly supported, not “I heard a preacher say this one time so it must be the truth, even though he never used any scripture references or I never went and looked them up to be sure it was true.” That is one way in which error can spread, because sometimes those of us who preach make mistakes. We may misspeak, or we may be confused or in error, or we may have unscriptural ideas that creep into what we say. Not necessarily out and out falsehoods, but things that are not actually according to God’s Word.
I would invite everyone hearing this sermon, or for that matter, any sermon that I have ever preached or will ever preach, to listen carefully and if I do teach something that may be wrong, or that causes you to question if what I have said is scriptural, please come and challenge me on it. This is an open and standing invitation. I am far from perfect, and I do not want to steer you wrong. If I make a mistake, please let me know about it.
I can’t say this for every preacher, but I would think that the vast majority of those who seek to preach the Word of God in earnestness and truth would want the same thing. If we are seeking to build upon the solid foundation of Christ as found in the Bible, then we want to be sure that we are providing true and faithful instruction. Because it’s hard enough to build upon a foundation already, we all need all the help we can get.
The thing about a foundation is that it meant to be built upon. A foundation without a building may be solid, may be impressive, and while it may last, it is not a finished product. It is incomplete.
I am not for a moment suggesting that Christ is somehow incomplete without the church. But the church is to be the bride of Christ, and much as I am blessed to have a wife whom I love and who loves me, and without her I would definitely be lacking in many ways, so Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. He would not have come to this world, nor would He offer Himself as a foundation, did He not want and expect His followers to build.
The passage in 1 Corinthians tells us, at least in metaphorical terms, what we should and should not build upon our foundation. The good choices are gold, silver, precious stones, the lesser choices are wood, hay and stubble. We may know what those materials are, as well as the differences between them, but we might not be at all clear as to what they represent.
Gold and silver are of course the two best known precious metals, and have been such since ancient times. There are certainly other metals more rare and more costly today, but not nearly so universally recognizable for their worth. Gold and silver have been used as currency, as fine jewellery, and as an indicator of high value for millennia. We give out gold and silver medals for winning races, because they are perceived as being the top tier. Gold is awarded for first place, silver for second.
I would suggest that these picture the results of a life spent following and serving the Lord. Paul writes elsewhere of how the Christian life is like a race or another athletic competition, and how he seeks to run well. The writer of Hebrews likewise instructs his readers in chapter 12 to run the race that is set before them. I know that in ancient times those who won races did not receive gold medals, they received laurel crowns, so this analogy is not perfect, but the idea still stands. Gold would be the best outcome, silver perhaps not as triumphant but still profitable and pure. Both represent success and accomplishment.
These metals have lasting value, as do the works they represent. As gold and silver have only increased in price over the centuries, so does a life lived for the Lord have a worth that is not limited to only a few short years on this earth. It has enduring value. What we do in the service of the Saviour is not measured in time, but in eternity. That is what we should build upon our foundation.
I have a few additional thoughts on these precious metals, and how this would apply to the Christian life. Both are most highly prized and worth the most when they are pure. A mixture of gold or silver and any other metal is worth far less than the purified product. You do not find pure gold or silver sitting around in nature, both have to be refined, generally by fire, in order to separate out the other, less worthwhile elements, and obtain a pure result. God will work in our lives to refine us and improve us if only we will allow Him. He may work on us without our cooperation as well, but it will likely be a far more painful process.
The finished result of refining gold or silver is pure gold or pure silver. That is regardless of the quality at the start. It may take longer and yield less overall finished product when the material is poor to begin with, but the output of refining gold is still gold. And gold is gold, no matter how much work went into it.
God works on us and in us, and it doesn’t matter how wonderful or how wicked we were when He begins, what matters is the end result. We may look at other believers and fail to see much worth in their lives, but God does. He works on us anyway, because if we had to meet a certain standard before God could begin on us, then we would certainly fall short. It is only because of Christ that we are anything at all, that we even have a foundation upon which to start.
Now what about the precious stones? We are not given a specific list of exact stones here, and of course elsewhere in scripture on many occasions we see assorted lists of gemstones, from the breastplate of the high priest to the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem. While gold and silver tend to be homogenous, one piece of gold is generally worth the same as another piece of the same weight, precious stones are special and often unique. A ruby is not an emerald and an opal is not a diamond. The size, the colour, the cut, the clarity of each of these is different one from the next.
I would suggest that this may picture individual works, or more likely individual believers, souls saved through the efforts of those who follow and obey, those who share the gospel with a dying world. Like a gemstone, picked up from the earth and treasured, so we are precious jewels, as we read in Malachi chapter 3, verse 17, where the Lord says of those who fear Him and that think upon His name (Mal 3:17) And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.
I can’t definitely say that was the original intention of Paul’s metaphor here, but I like the thought that believers added to the church are much like unique gemstones in their value and preciousness. Certainly we see elsewhere how the Lord taught that a single sinner who comes to repentance is worthy cause for rejoicing.
While I do like this interpretation, I did consult several commentaries to see if they agreed with me, and they did not. More than one commentary made the suggestion that the precious stones would indicate valuable stone material, such as granite or marble, as would be used in the construction of a temple. That is also a viable interpretation, and certainly stone is a very long lasting substance; it withstands the test of time better than most other materials with which we might build.
Certainly stone is longer lasting than the other three materials mentioned, which are wood, hay, and stubble. What do those represent? The commentaries had some general ideas about these being teachings of lesser and lesser value, and while that is reasonable, I have a different thought.
Wood, in my mind is a picture of quality human endeavour. We use wood as our most common building material. We build fine furniture out of wood, this pulpit is made out wood, the platform I’m standing on may be covered by carpet, but underneath you find wood. My deck as mentioned earlier, apart from the screws and joist hangers, is entirely made of wood. We no doubt all have many wooden items of various types and quality in our homes. Wood represents the best that human efforts can do.
The best that humans can do of our own strength only lasts so long, though. Wood, even if cherished and well taken care of, will deteriorate with time and exposure to the elements. It is of the earth, and it lacks the permanence of metal or stone. Whatever we do in this life that is for this life alone, no matter how prized it may be, no matter how much we may value it, how much the world may value it, it will not last into eternity. And so whatever we build upon the foundation of Christ that is purely our own efforts, and is not founded upon the truth, but it purely for the here and now, it will not last. Not past this life, not past this world. It may remain for a while in this world, but it will not come with you into the next.
We don’t see nearly as much hay in our homes as we do wood. We see bales of hay in fields, and sometimes we see dozens or maybe hundred of wrapped bales in long lines that look like giant marshmallows. Unless you are a farmer, you probably don’t use hay at all. But we’re thinking of it from our modern mindset, whereas not much more than a century ago in this province hay was the most important cash crop, more valuable than even potatoes. When you use horses instead of cars, trucks, and tractors, you need hay, and plenty of it.
I interpret that the hay in this passage is our efforts in meeting our daily needs. Much as we work at our jobs to keep food on the table, gas in the tank, and a roof overhead, so hay pictures the daily grind, the effort that keeps us going, but will not last. You can’t build with hay. You can’t keep hay for the long term, it lasts a few months, maybe a year if you are careful and the conditions are right, but hay is consumed. That is its nature, that is its purpose. If what we do, what we spend our time on, what we put our efforts into, if that is all to be used up and consumed, then what gets build on our foundation? Heaping up money and goods in this world, while we do need at least a bit of that in order to live, but accumulating those cannot be our focus. If our attention is fixed on getting ahead in this world, then there is very little left over for eternity, is there?
Hay is not bad, it does not speak of things that are evil or corrupt. But hay is of the short term, it has no worth beyond the moment. There is an expression, make hay when the sun shines, and while that is certainly more productive than trying to bring in a hay crop in the dark, if that is all we make while the sun shines then we will have not much at all to show for it.
And on the topic of nothing to show for it, we come to stubble. What is stubble? That is the leftover bits from harvesting grain. Think of the straw that remains when you cut wheat, or the cornstalks left behind after harvest. No food value, no building value, no saleable value. Might be useful for animal bedding or for dealing with manure, or for plowing into the soil to be compost, but that’s about it. Little better than worthless.
If we spend our lives on pointless pursuits, on frivolity, fun and games, on television and internet and entertainment, then that is the equivalent of building with stubble. I’m not saying that there will be no stubble, no unproductive downtime, for even after a most bountiful harvest there is always some stubble left in the field, but we should not be pursuing that as our goal. We should not be seeking to make that a key component of our lives, not adding it to the good foundation that we already have.
Stubble represents the things have no value in this life, and would bring a deficit into eternity. Hay represents the mundane but needful things that easily occupy our attention and time. Wood represents the best of human achievement. We may think of each of these as better than the one before, but they all burn. There is no eternal reward for building the grand works of this world, the works of time. That will leave nothing on our foundation.
As it says at verse 15, this is not about our salvation. If you have accepted Christ as our Saviour and if you follow Him, your foundation is secure. Don’t let anyone tell you that your eternal security depends on good works and faithful service, and if anyone does, refer them to this very passage. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved. That seems completely clear to me.
But if we have served the Lord, if we have ministered unto others, if we have worked for God’s kingdom, then there is eternal reward for us as well. I don’t know about you, but that sounds far more worthwhile to me.
If you have not put your faith in Christ, then your foundation is most unstable indeed. Instead of building upon the solid rock, you are founded on sand. No matter what you build on such a foundation, it will not last. There is only one place to put your faith, one person to believe in, one Saviour who will save you from your sins and the consequences of them. He is our firm foundation.