Written by: Don Carson
THE TWO EXTENDED METAPHORS that Paul deploys in 1 Corinthians 3:5-15 make roughly the same point, although each carries a special shading not found in the other.
In the agricultural metaphor (1 Cor. 3:5-9), the Lord is the farmer, Paul prepares the ground and plants the seed, Apollos waters the fledgling plants, and the Corinthians are "God's field" (1 Cor. 5:9). In the context, which is designed to combat the Corinthians' penchant for division based on attaching themselves to particular "heroes" (1 Cor. 3:3-4), Paul is concerned to show that he and Apollos are not competitors, but "fellow workers" (1 Cor. 5:9)--indeed, "God's fellow workers" (i.e., they are fellow workers who belong to God, not fellow workers along with God, as if God makes up a threesome). Not only so, but neither Paul nor Apollos can guarantee fruit: God alone makes the seed grow (1 Cor. 3:6-7). So why adopt a reverential stance toward either Paul or Apollos?
The architectural metaphor initially makes the same point: the various builders all contribute to one building, and therefore none should be idolized. Now the Corinthians are not the field, but the building itself (1 Cor. 3:9-10). Paul laid the foundation of this building; otherwise put, he planted the church in Corinth. The foundation that Paul laid is Jesus Christ himself (1 Cor. 3:11). Since his departure from this building project, others have come and built on this foundation. Thus, so far the architectural metaphor implicitly makes the same point that the agricultural metaphor made explicitly.
But now the architectural metaphor turns in a slightly different direction. Paul insists that later builders are responsible to choose with care the material they put into this building (1 Cor. 3:12-15). A "Day" is coming (1 Cor. 3:13), the day of judgment, when all that is not precious in God's sight will be consumed. It is possible that a builder could use such shoddy materials that in the end, all that he has built is devoured, even if he himself escapes the flames.
Two observations: (1) The person Paul describes as being "saved, but only as one escaping through the flames" (1 Cor. 3:15), is not some purely nominal Christian whose conduct is indifferentiable from that of any pagan. Such do not enter the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-10). This is a "builder," not the mass of Christians who constitute the "building" (1 Cor. 3:10). The question is whether these evangelists and pastors are using proper materials. (2) In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, the building, the church of God, becomes a temple. Later on, God's temple is the individual Christian's body (1 Cor. 6:19-20), but here it is the local church. God loves this building so much that he openly threatens to destroy those who destroy God's temple. Damage the church, and you desecrate God's temple--and God will destroy you.