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Author:Pastor Dirk Boersma
  Free Reformed Churches of South Africa
Preached At:Emmanuel American Reformed Church
 Denver, Colorado
Title:Build the church carefully.
Text:1 Corinthians 3:10-17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Church Building

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Call to worship Eph2, 18-22
Song of praise Ps 97, 1.3
Reading of the law / Confession of sin
Declaration of mercy Ps 86, 5-6; 11-13
Song of response Ps 97, 4.6
Reading(s) from Scripture 1 Corinthians 3
Song before the sermon Ps 46, 1.2
Sermon text 1Cor3, 10-17
Song after the sermon Hymn 40, 1-3
Song after the offering Hymn 58

Suggestions for prayer:
* guidance of the Spirit in building the church
* members who fall behind
* proclaiming gospel to the world
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Congregation of the Lord,

What is the thing we need most in the church?

We may look at our situation and see some pressing needs:

- would you like more families in the church?
- more men to fill the offices of elder and deacon?
- a few more young adults?
- how about establishing a reputation in this city, so that everybody knows us?
- and we need to find a new place of worship.

There are several things I can think of that I have been wishing the past two years, and I am sure you have your own wishes.

Let’s widen our view and look for things that would transcend our temporary circumstances.
What would be a lasting need for the church, something you could ask for any church in the world and in any age?

Now we are talking about what is really important for the church. Let us listen to what Paul teaches us in this chapter of the letter to the Corinthians.

Build the church carefully.
It must be
1. fireproof
2. holy.

1. fireproof
I guess that ‘fireproof’ is not the first word you think about when you think about the church. You may think of the need for the church to grow in numbers or to be faithful to the Bible. But fireproof? What is that?

Paul is not joking. He is dead serious. He warns the people in Corinth that their perception of the church is completely wrong. He writes this letter to correct them. From this letter, we can learn what is essential for the church.

You may remember from chapter 1 that Paul was rebuking the Corinthians for their twisted view of the church. They had turned it into popularity contest between the leaders and were each promoting their own candidate. They did this because they followed the ideas of their time, and they wanted to look good to the world with a savvy and up-to-date preacher who could compete with the latest philosophers. In short: they had exchanged the gospel of the cross of Christ for the wisdom of the world.

That was chapter 1 and 2, and in this chapter Paul continues. The Corinthians need to understand how they twisted their understanding of the church is.

Paul uses two images to explain what the church is all about. First he compares the church to a field: you are God’s field he says. The leaders in the church are not the ones who own the field, they are just the workers. They work for someone else: the owner, which is God.

In one sweep Paul does away with all the boasting of Corinthians in their charismatic leaders. It is not about the people who plow or sow or water the plants. God is the owner, and these people are just workers. That puts them all on the same level, nobody should be raised above others.

Then, Paul uses a second image that I want to look at with you this morning. He says: you are God’s building.

This image gives him the opportunity to highlight another aspect of the building process of the church: that the workers must be very careful in how they build. It matters what they do.

In fields you can scatter the seed wherever you want, but with a building you must follow carefully designed blueprints. You cannot just throw some bricks around and start buildling here and there. First, a foundation is necessary, and then a superstructure is built on that foundation.

It is amazing how Paul always chooses such powerful and easy-to-understand images. Of course a building needs a foundation and the walls and all the other parts of the house must rest on that foundation.

It seems that this makes the building process a whole lot easier. Paul has laid the foundation, so all we have to do is to make sure we build on it.

However, those who are involved in building the church must have a firm grasp of what the foundation is, or the whole building will be a failure.

This is what Paul’s warning is all about. The Corinthians had ignored the foundation that Paul had laid, and had developed their church life as they had seen fit. They had followed their guts and behaved like they were used to and as people in their city and culture expected.

What they had been doing amounted to an ignoring of the foundation: the gospel of Jesus Christ. They had been so charmed by the whole idea of wisdom that they had ignored the cross of Christ. The cross was moved to the background because that was not impressive, actually kind of embarrassing.

‘We better look for things that can impress our fellow-citizens. We need to show that this new church is totally acceptable and reasonable.’

Paul had already told them that they had rejected the cross of Christ in favor of worldly wisdom. They were showing off with their perceived wisdom and tried to impress others with their savvy leaders, but this meant that this contradicted the message of the cross.

Now Paul puts it in different words, with the image of the building.

He warns the Corinthians and all of us, saying: watch out how you build on this foundation. Not only must you build on this foundation and forget about choosing a different foundation than the cross of Jesus Christ. This message of the cross must also determine the way you build on the foundation.

Maybe when you read the different building materials, you thought: sure, I can see the difference. If you build something with grass, it’s not going to last very long. One rainstorm and it’s lying flat. Wood will last a little longer, as you can see in our own city. 75 or maybe 100 years, but then the thing may have had its best time.

When you look at buildings that have stood the test of time, like the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens , or the Colosseum in Rome , you will find that they were built of stone. That made them strong, and they can probably last another couple of centuries, unless some major disaster hits.
To give an example: the Pharos, the famous lighthouse of Alexandria had been built in the year 204 BC and was impressive for its time: it was built from solid marble. It stood for a 1,000 years, but was destroyed by an earthquake.

The point Paul is making, however, has nothing to do with time. We should not build with materials that stand the test of time. Instead, the main issue is whether they will stand the test of fire. Our materials must be fireproof.

This fire is the fire of judgment that is coming. Very often in the Bible you find God scrutinizing his church and judging it because it had turned away from him. This does not only happen at the end of time, in the final judgment, but all through history. Read the prophets and you see the fire of God’s judgment sweeping through Israel ’s temple and practice of religion.

This is the big question: is our building material fireproof?

This is quite a different question than the ones being asked all around us in our time. What you hear today are these questions:
How can the church survive the modern age?
How can the church be more relevant to today’s culture?
How can the church be successful in drawing more people?

The previous decades have witnessed several developments, ranging from a stress on better management techniques to a total revamping of the church into a seeker-driven worship style. Recently, people began to discover that they need to move away from that because the church has turned into a buffet catering for the needs of those seekers.

Some of these questions may make sense to us. When the church grows smaller, the question of survival and better strategies may inevitably come up.

Paul, however, tells us to ask a different question. We need to realize that Jesus, the owner of the church, is going to test and cleanse his church. If we build with materials that are not fireproof, our efforts will lead to great loss for the church: it will burn up and we will be left with nothing.

So we need to be careful how we build on the foundation.

We should not aim at short-term success and survival. And we should resist the temptation to look around in the world, find out what ‘works’ and apply those techniques and success methods to the church.

This is the essence: will the church withstand the fire of God’s scrutiny?

This is serious business. Paul tells us that the fire will consume everything that is not fireproof, not up to code as far as the Lord is concerned.

That work will be lost: it will burn up, like grass and wooden structures quickly disappear in the fire. Such a church will collapse over the years, it will mean nothing to God’s kingdom. That means that the lives of believers are at stake. And the builders, the church leaders will not remain unaffected. Such people may be saved, but it will be a narrow escape: they will barely make it. Such is the seriousness of our buildling efforts in the church. It is that serious!

This is a solemn warning to everyone who is involved in building the church. In fact, to all of us, since as members we are all involved in the process. Your involvement in the church is part of this building process.

But it is especially significant for those in leadership positions, the ones responsible for the building process.

When a church abandons the gospel, quite exercising church discipline, follows worldly principles, all the confessing members are responsible, but God will call the minister and the elders to account most of all.

You can all see immediately how important it is for all of us to pray for our leaders, that your minister and elders will exercise their responsibility faithfully and build with fireproof material. They are responsible for your souls and for the governing of the church – an awesome responsibility.

Let’s make this practical. What kind of material are we talking about when we say ‘fireproof’?

The Corinthians were doing the opposite at the time. They had quarrels among each other, competing against each other and boasting in their wisdom and their great leaders. This was because they followed human reasoning and adapted to the world to make the church acceptable and attractive.

Of course, this does not mean that the church must be as unattractive as possible, and that the presentation and the worship style can be as boring as they can get.
It is a matter of focus and principle. Paul pointed out earlier that the church is built on the gospel of the cross.
The cross is the opposite of boasting, making yourself attractive, and presenting yourself as modern and contemporary as possible.

The cross should determine the style of the church. The cross painfully reminds us of our inability and selfishness. The church should be centered around Christ and totally devoted to him. We don’t come here to draw attention to ourselves but to worship him who gained the victory on the cross. We don’t build a church into a success story, but we follow our crucified Lord.

Just this week I read a report on the mission work in South Africa which encouraged me. The churches had been growing, but not by the thousands, like other churches. The visiting pastor who wrote the article, however, mentioned that the members had noticed a major difference with the surrouding churches, most of which adapted to the African traditional religion. These members said: ‘This church teaches us the Bible. We get to know Jesus Christ.’ Not ideas of people, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is the foundation.
How encouraging to hear such a thing about our sister churches (especially if you have worked there yourself)!

I hope you will all agree that this is the characteristic of our congregation as well: a firm dedication to the Lord Jesus Christ, and the gospel of his cross and resurrection.

We build with fireproof material when we place Jesus in the center, when he is prominent and when we obey his word rather than the demands of our culture.
Our style should not be aimed at fast and impressive results. Neither should we say that numbers don’t count. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the message of the cross, a message that demands humility and obedience.

At the same time, we should not think that this method always excludes growth. Sometimes we like to say ‘numbers don’t count. There is also growth in depth.’ As if one does not really matter.

The gospel is preached with this goal: that sinners turn to Christ in repentance. When Paul preached the gospel he did not look down on results as if they are wrong in themselves. He rejoiced when people believed the truth that was the goal of his preaching!

Note also the image he is using: of a building that rising up into the sky. There is growth here.

We should not confuse method and results. Developing a strategy that is only aimed at numbers, at the cost of the message is wrong. The point is that man is in the center. The person of the pastor becomes crucial, he needs to be impressive, creating just the right atmosphere, flashing a smile here and there. The leaders become the big guys and when the method is successful they get the credit that they have turned the church around.

The point is that the numbers, the needs of people, and the popularity of the leaders have become goals in themselves and taken the place of Christ. He is the owner of the church, and bought it with his blood on the cross. Any method and any message that ignores him and his cross is not fireproof and is ultimately worthless.

Instead, let us heed Paul’s warning and begin with the message of the cross when we think about how we should function as a church, and how we build the church. We need to think about equipping the members, and you can expect guidance from your minister and elders. And we have an obligation to think about the best way to spread the gospel and proclaim it to those who haven’t heard it. We need to do that, building on the foundation of the gospel, not leaving out difficult topics like sin, repentance, and election, but instead calling people to leave their empty ways and come to the cross to be saved.

2. holy
Paul is not done yet. He is dealing with Corinthian Christians who feel very good about themselves. They are impressed with their own wisdom and rally around preachers who tickle their feelings of self-worth.

At the same time, they live like beasts. They look down on the body, as if it is not important any more. This leads to a tremendous outburst of sexual immorality. They tell themselves: ‘Everything is allowed; the body doesn’t count, we are spiritual, the spirit is what counts!’

Paul sees a need to remind them of another essential characteristic of the church. Not only does the church need to stand squarely on the foundation of the gospel of Jesus and him crucified. Also, it should remember its identity as God’s temple and live out the consequences: in one word: holiness.

The image of the building effortlessly leads Paul to the image of a temple. Nobody could miss the purpose of a temple. This was not a multifunctional building where you could buy your groceries, mail packages, drink coffee and so on. On the contrary, even the heathens knew that a temple was built for a single purpose: to worship their gods.

The Old Testament shows us that the temple was a holy place: dedicated to the worship of his name. Everybody should behave with respect and keep the temple holy, instead of defiling it by unholy acts. Offerings by people who were not sanctified, or flagrant sins and offensive acts would defile the temple.

With the temple came God’s promise to dwell among his people. God had this temple built as a place to meet with his people, and it served as a symbol of his presence in their midst.

These two characteristics were not lost when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. They were transferred to the church of Christ . This was part of the preaching of the apostles, and the Corinthians should have known this. It was part of the basic package of the teaching of the early church. This is why Paul begins v. 16 with such a strong emphasis: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?!

They should know this by now: the temple is a sacred building, dedicated solely to God, and God’s presence was there through his Holy Spirit.

Some people think that Paul meant this in an individual way: you are God’s temple. This may be his argument in 1Cor6 when he refers to the bodies of believers as temples of the Holy Spirit. Here it is different, however. The Greek has a plural, and the NIV has made this clear with the words ‘you yourselves’. Paul is addressing the church in Corinth as a whole, not individual believers. He is not looking at multiple temples; he is saying that together they are God’s temple – singular.

This is the second essential need for the church: to realize that we are God’s temple in a sinful world. His presence is promised and real in his Holy Spirit. His presence and the sacred character of the church both urge us to live in holiness. Everything we do must be for God. We must follow his will, and not our sinful desires. We need to be devoted to our God, and not to the world and try to please them.

This must make the church different from the world. It is inevitable that a church that lives holy and has received God’s presence will not behave like the world that surrounds it. We are driven by different motives and priorities. We should walk according to the Spirit; the desires of the world are the desires of the sinful flesh – totally the opposite.

We should realize that this comes with the territory. Dare to stand out, don’t be afraid to be different. God has set us apart for himself, so we must necessarily become more and more unlike the world.

Sometimes people make it sound as if we have to make compromises if we want to reach the world with our message. Otherwise they will not understand us or be interested.
Again we must be careful not to make false contradictions. If we have habits and quirks or precious traditions that are not commanded in the Bible, and they turn out to be hindrances for people who want to know God, we should remove those hindrances as much as we can.
But this is not to say that we should tweak our image so that we look less strict or principled if we find people don’t like that.

The greatest need for the church is not to find the way of least resistance and try to sound acceptable. Our greatest need is rather to recapture the vision of what we are by grace. The cross of Jesus determines who we are and is the basis of our changed nature. We need to rediscover and treasure what God intends us to be: a community that is so powerfully indwelled by the Holy Spirit that we function as an alternative to the pagan world. The church needs to stand out in the world as the only place where God is present and it will become visible as the place where God’s presence makes a difference. It will become clear the cross is a place of hope. Lost sinners in the world should find the church to be a place where they are called away from their sins and called to receive the renewal of their lives.

This will explode in their faces and turn them away if they find the church is a place with double standards, where sin is tolerated, excused, or openly practiced.

The holiness of the church is a necessity because of God’s presence and because he wants it to be a sacred place that is completely dedicated to him. Only then can it be his instrument in the world to call others to the light and life in Christ.

Paul’s words call us back to the identity of the church of Christ. He urges us to rediscover and remember what the church is all about: it is God’s property, it must be built with fireproof material on the foundation of the gospel of the cross, and must live out its identity in holiness.

How can such a revolutionary act of God ever become ordinary in the world?


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2005, Pastor Dirk Boersma

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