Paul introduces the metaphor of a building under construction in order to make a new point—do good work. This point is so important to understanding the value of work that it is worth including the passage in its entirety here.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:10–15)
This may be the most direct statement of the eternal value of earthly work in all of Scripture. The work we do on earth—to the extent we do it according to the ways of Christ—survives into eternity. Paul is speaking specifically of the work done by the community of the church, which he likens to a temple. Paul compares himself to a “skilled master builder” who has laid the foundation, which is, of course, Christ himself. Others build on top of this foundation, and each one is responsible for his own work. Paul likens good work to gold, silver, and precious stones, and shabby work to wood, hay, and straw. Though some have tried to assign specific meanings to each of these materials, it is more likely that the difference is simply that some materials have the ability to withstand testing by fire while others do not.
Paul is not making any judgment about any individual’s salvation, for even if anyone’s work fails the test, “the builder will be saved.” This passage is not about the relationship between a believer’s “good works” and his heavenly reward, though it has often been read in that way. Instead, Paul is concerned with the church as a whole and how its leaders work within the church. If they contribute to the unity of the church, they will be commended. If, however, their ministry results in strife and factionalism, they are actually provoking God’s wrath, because he passionately protects his living temple from those who would destroy it (vv. 16-17).
Although Paul is writing about the work of building a Christian community, his words apply to all kinds of work. As we have seen, Paul regards Christian work to include the work believers do under secular authority as well as in the church. Whatever our work, it will be evaluated impartially by God. The final assize will be better than any performance review, since God judges with perfect justice—unlike human bosses, however just or unjust they may be—and he is able to factor in our intent, our limitations, our motives, our compassion, and his mercy. God has called all believers to work in whatever circumstances they find themselves, and he has given us specific gifts to fulfill that calling. He expects us to use them responsibly for his purposes, and he will inspect our work. And to the degree that our work is done in excellence, by his gifts and grace, it will become part of God’s eternal kingdom. That should motivate us—even more than our employer’s approval or our paycheck— to do as good a job as we possibly can.