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On October 27, 1993, a devastating wildfire ripped through Laguna Beach, California, destroying 366 homes and burning 17,000 acres. In one hillside neighborhood, all the houses burned to the ground, except for the home of To Bui and Doris Bender. I remember reading the Los Angeles Times in the days after the fire and seeing a picture of their home, which the Times dubbed a “miracle house.”
There was nothing miraculous about the house’s survival. Bui was a contractor. When he built the house, he built it with safety in mind. “I built my house to last,” he said. “Whatever the minimum codes called for, I went a little further.” And that little further spared his house.
Whenever I read 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, I think of Bui and his house. Paul writes:
If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
Throughout Christian history, this verse has meant different things to different people. Catholics see a hint of purgatory in these verses. Protestants argue about the relationship between grace and works in the life of the believer. American evangelicals see a concern for personal purity here.
Paul is not talking about any of these things, however. He’s talking about the leadership of Christian community. Remember the overall context of 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21. The Corinthians were divided among themselves because they evaluated Christian leaders differently. And they evaluated Christian leaders differently because they were enamored of worldly wisdom and rhetorical skill. According to Paul, all that really mattered was “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” for he was the “wisdom” and “power” of God. In that context, Paul is telling Christian leaders at Corinth and in all places at all times that they should stay focused on Jesus Christ.
Why? Because just as the 1993 Laguna Beach fire proved the soundness of To Bui’s house construction, so the Day of Judgment will prove or disprove the soundness of Christian leaders’ ministries. Sound ministries will be rewarded; unsound ministries will be destroyed, even though the leader will be saved.
I am a pastor, so these words apply directly to me. In my teaching and writing ministry, do I keep your focus on Jesus Christ? Do I bring you to Jesus Christ for salvation? Do I help you grow in Christlikeness? Do I show you how all the Bible is centered on Jesus Christ? Or do I preach my personal politics or economic eccentricities or psychological preferences? Do you?
There’s a place for politics, economics, and psychology, of course. But only if we see Jesus first, last, and in between.