If you remember, in 1 Cor 1:1-9 Paul took great pains to remind the Corinthians that everything they had, and everything they needed, was in Jesus Christ alone. He reminded them that they lacked nothing in him, and in fact, were perfect in him. But in these first four verses of chapter 3, he is showing them that there is a contrast between all they have in Jesus, and the way they are living their daily lives.
In Christ they are complete and lacking nothing. But they are not living out of that. They are living and acting as if they were not in Christ. Paul says
Brothers, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were not yet able to receive it. In fact, you are still not able, because you are still fleshly. (1 Cor 3:1-3)
Several different times during the past year or so, we have encountered Bible verses that teach us how Christ has given us new and perfected life in the spiritual realm. The Life of Jesus is in our spirits. It is supposed to flow through our spirits, into our souls and into our outward lives. The life of the Spirit is supposed to influence the life we live out in our bodies. But in the case of the Corinthians, that wasn’t happening very much. Instead, they were living their daily lives as if Jesus had not redeemed them in spirit. Their redemption was not affecting their regular lives the way it was supposed to. They were living “fleshly” – that is, it was their body-life, not their Spirit-life which dominated their thinking and acting.
There is a member of this church who drives a car with a vegetable-oil fuel system. Just to be on the safe side of government regulation and taxes, I won’t mention his name. His car has a dual system. He starts it up with diesel fuel. After the oil warms up, he flips a switch, and then burns vegetable oil for the rest of the trip, until the last few miles. When he is using vegetable oil, it costs him just pennies per gallon. When he is burning diesel, obviously, it costs him more. Now, the system is installed, and it works. But if this man doesn’t simply flip the switch to draw fuel from the vegetable-oil tank, that system does him no good. He’ll be paying a high price for diesel fuel.
Now, all that is required for this man to pay almost nothing for fuel, is faith. He simply needs to trust that the system is working, and trust that it is worthwhile to flip the switch
Our spiritual fuel-system is in place. We are meant to draw life from our relationship with Jesus. But if we choose not to do that, then our relationship with Jesus isn’t helping us very much in daily life. All we need to to, is to trust Jesus more – trust that he really has given us that new life, and he really will use it to effect our daily existence.
Let me offer one more analogy. Imagine you have poor vision but your vision could be corrected with glasses. You go to the optometrist and get the prescription that will give you 20/20 vision. You order your glasses, and then pick them. In your glasses, you have all you need to see perfectly. But if you choose not to wear them, you receive no benefit from them, and your vision remains unchanged. You need to believe that the glasses will actually give you a benefit, and take the step of faith to put them on.
In the same way, we need to trust that the life of Jesus really can make a difference in how we see the world, how we relate to others and deal with the various struggles and joys that life throws at us. We need to ask for His Life to flow through us, and then believe that he has heard us, and is answering that prayer.
Paul goes on to address some implications of the fleshly attitude the Corinthians have. Since they are inclined to follow human leaders, he points out two things about their human leaders: first, that they are merely vessels, workers for God. Second, he points out that he himself does not have the fleshly attitude that they have.
As a third point, Paul brings up the issue of rewards in heaven:
Now the one who plants and the one who waters are equal, and each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. (1 Cor 3:8-9)
Each one’s work will become obvious, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved; yet it will be like an escape through fire. (1 Cor 3:13-15)
I want to look at this study in depth. It is central to the point Paul is making, and it is one of the least understood and taught doctrines in the New Testament. Paul says the foundation is Jesus Christ. Rewards in Heave are based upon what we build upon that – and no other – foundation. Let’s begin by making sure of it. The Bible teaches in numerous places, over and over again, that we are saved only through God’s grace, which comes to us through a faith-based relationship with Jesus Christ.
Romans 3:20-25; Galatians 2:16-17 & 3:11-13; Titus 3:4-5; Ephesians 2:8-9 and John 14:6 are just a very small portion of the many verses which explicitly teach that we are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:16-17)
So we know that our eternal destiny – whether we go to heaven or hell – is determined not by us being good enough, but by trusting Jesus. That is the foundation. Paul says, you can’t build on any other basis (3:11). If we have that foundation, we will spend eternity with Jesus and our loved ones in the New Heavens and New Earth. The whole Bible is crystal clear on that.
However, we do find that many places in the New Testament, including 1 Corinthians 3, also talk about rewards for doing good works. Now, we know that heaven itself is not a reward for doing good. So when the New Testament talks about some kind of reward in the afterlife based upon what we do here, it cannot mean salvation. So what kind of reward does Paul mean here?
This is actually very important for how we interpret the Bible. When we read any other book, we assume that the author will not deliberately contradict herself. It should be the same with the Bible. So if the Bible says clearly (as it does) that salvation is not a reward for good behavior, but only the result of faith in Jesus; and then it says there is a reward for good works, we have to assume that the reward for good works is something other than salvation. As it turns out, there are many Bible verses that talk about these rewards. Just a few of them are Revelation 22:12; Matthew 5:11-2, 6:1-6, 17-18, 10:41-42; Luke 6:35; and this one:
7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. (Ephesians 6:7-8)
James writes that not many should presume to be Bible teachers, because they will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). Well, as a Bible teacher I know that my salvation will be judged based on whether or not I trust Jesus. So in what way will I be judged more strictly? In the matter of my work, and any reward I might get for it.
Now, for many people, the idea of reward in heaven presents some problems. First, some people feel that it implies that there might be inequality in heaven. Second, some people feel it implies unhappiness there also.
Scripture is clear that in heaven, God wipes every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more grief or suffering or pain. So rest assured, reward or not, your joy will be complete.
What Paul says in this passage is that those who have no reward will still be saved, but it will be like an escape through a fire. If we really imagine that, we get a sense for what it is like. Ultimately we will be safe, and will find joy in that. But as we initially enter heaven, if we have built poorly on the foundation of Jesus, we will find the judgment day to be harrowing.
Now, I want to speculate a bit on what the rewards mean. I do have some scripture that suggests what I am speculating about, but I can’t nail this down for sure. In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells the parable of the Talents. In it, three servants were given different resources. They were rewarded according to how they made used of those resources. They were given additional resources, according the ability they had demonstrated.
So, I think of rewards in heaven in terms of capacity. Picture two buckets. One bucket can hold a gallon of fresh, clear water. The other bucket can hold five gallons of beautiful clean water. Now imagine both buckets, filled to the brim. Which bucket has more water? Obviously, the one that can hold more. But they are both full. The one gallon bucket has as much water as it can possibly hold. It doesn’t have as much as the five gallon bucket, but then, it can’t. It is still completely full. I think maybe heaven will be like that. We will all be as full as we can be. But some people will be able to contain more of God’s fullness and joy than others. The ones with smaller capacity will still be completely full and satisfied – but the ones with greater capacity will experience their joy to level that the others can’t.
Think of it this way. In my left eye, my vision is about 20/100. It cannot be corrected, and so I am considered legally blind in that eye. Now, my right eye is basically fine, and it does most of the seeing work for me. I can drive, and watch movies, appreciate visual art and generally enjoy life. Where my half-blindness affects me most is in depth perception. I have a horrible time shooting a basketball. Things that are far away look equally distant from me. If I see man standing 100 yards away, and another man 200 yards away, they look to me like they are standing next to each other. A few years ago, 3-D pictures were popular. I never could actually see the pictures in them. I get some experience of 3-D movies, but not the same as other people. Binoculars only work for me if I close my left eye. But I was born this way. I have never seen correctly out of my left eye. So I don’t actually know what that would be like. I don’t feel sorry myself. I don’t feel handicapped. I’m perfectly happy with my vision, and I don’t really know what I’m missing, except the basketball hoop. But if there was something I could do to get true binocular vision, I would be a fool not to do it. Though I enjoy the visual aspects of life as much as I can, it would be great to get the full range of vision.
I think in heaven, some people will be like I am with my eyes. They will be happy. They will get as much joy as they can handle. But if they had made different choices while they were living on this earth, they might have been able to experience much more in heaven.
I used to say that heaven itself was enough reward for me, and so it should be – it is, in fact, more than I deserve. Even so, what a fool I would be to waste any opportunity to enjoy heaven to the fullest possible capacity! Paul is basically saying to the Corinthians: Do you really want to make a deliberate choice to enter heaven by the skin of your teeth, with the minimum possible capacity to enjoy it?
That is an attitude that comes not from the Spirit, but from the flesh. And it is ridiculous, when you think about it. It’s like a teenager saying, “I don’t care about my future after High School. As long as I’m alive and can work a minimum wage job, I’ll be fine. So right now I’m not going to study or learn or prepare for the future. What is important is not life after graduation, but only life right now.” Some people have that attitude, but it is a very short-sighted one, and most people who do take that approach end up regretting it within a few years.
Paul is encouraging them (and us) to take a more spiritual approach to the future, and to the here and now. Jesus himself said:
“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures here on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21)