Recently a friend asked me a question about the reward mentioned in 1 Corinthians 3:14:
If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
He had heard that the promised reward was contingent upon a Christian’s Bible reading and/or spiritual knowledge. My friend is wise to mull over this reward as Colossians 3:2 clearly tells us to “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” Comparing scripture with scripture will shed some light on the subject of rewards and works.
Before getting into the main passage, let’s sidetrack to a similar subject presented in the Gospels. The Bible tells us in Matthew 6:20 that we should not lay up treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven. What are these treasures? Is it possible they are related to the reward in 1 Corinthians 3:14? We are not given any direct connection between the two verses, but Matthew 6:20 gives scriptural support to the idea that treasures (rewards) in Heaven are a biblical idea and not a lone, misunderstood verse.
Again in the Gospels, consider Mathew 25:20-30. Here we read the parable of servants and talents which clearly indicates a possibility of authority and/or rule over things to come based on what we do here with our resources in this life. God seems to be telling us that our faithfulness will be rewarded when we see him again. Again, no direct connection is given to the verses above, but we do have further support that all may not be equal in Heaven. This would correspond much more to a capitalistic class system rather than a socialistic or communistic approach where all are theoretically given equal privileges.
In ,light of this, what does the reward in 1 Cor 3:14 refer to? Are we rewarded according to the level of our Bible reading, spiritual knowledge, or something else? Reading this verse within the broader context of verses 1-15 will lead us to the answer.
Paul begins Chapter 3 by informing us that he is dealing with carnal Christians who are mere babes in Christ. He continues in verse 2 by elaborating that Christians must begin their studies drinking spiritual milk before they are ready for spiritual meat. Paul then proceeds to denounce divisions (i.e. modern denominations) that in his day were centered on Paul and Apollos (similar to Calvin, Luther, et. al.). Paul explains in verse 6-7 that man can plant spiritual seeds and water but God brings the increase.
1 Cor 3:6-7 is a scriptural continuation of the harvest verses of Matthew 9:37-38, Luke 10:2,John 4:35 and the sower parable of Matthew 13:3 and Luke 8:5. Verse 8 elaborates that the planter and waterer are one (as in the body of Christ), but even so, each individual Christian will receive a reward according to their own labor. Verse 9 tells us that we labor with God as both his husbandry (workers) and that we are his building built on the foundation of Jesus Christ (verses 10-11).
Now the clear message begins to come to light. Paul proceeds to tell us in 1 Cor 3:12 that Christians can build precious things or worthless stubble on their spiritual foundation of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, in verses 13-15; God will make this work manifest by trying it with fire. Any man’s work that survives this fiery purge will be given to him as a reward, while any man’s work that burns shall be a loss. This is very important to read for two reasons. First, it is clear that our actions on this earth have an impact on our heavenly reward. Second, it gives rock-solid support for the doctrine of eternal security!
Now, having read 1 Corinthians 3:14 within the context of 1 Corinthians 1-15, we should have a better understanding of the reward we will receive. As can be seen by the verses in context, the reward Paul discusses is first mentioned in 1 Corinthians 8. 1 Corinthians 8 clearly attributes the reward to the same Christians mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6-7. These Christians are not earning this reward through regular bible study or spiritual knowledge but through earnest attempts at evangelism and witnessing to the lost. What does this mean for us? It means we need to stop using bible studies and prayer meetings as excuses to avoid what we are called to do: witness to the lost.
In order to properly finish this biblical analysis, I must end it on a caveat. God knows your heart (Acts 1:24, Acts 15:8, Romans 8:27). If you read this article and go running off to witness based solely on a desire for God’s rewards: you are falling into a similar error as that of Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:21). Conversely, if you are spiritually lazy, do not use the pretence of not seeking rewards as an excuse to not witness (Matthew 25:26, Hebrews 6:12, Ephesians 6:6). I pray that you will seek the spiritual middle ground and witness for the same reason that we obey God in any other facet of our lives – solely because it pleases him (1 Corinthians 1:21, 2 Timothy 2:4).