“If any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood hay, stubble, every man’s work shall be made manifest, for the day will declare it, because it shall be proved by fire.” (1 Cor.3:11-13)
Note here that Paul is emphasising man’s work, what a man builds. The illustration is given to show what happens once a man becomes a true believer in Christ. He is given a job to do, and he needs to be very careful how he goes about it. Each one of us is given a task to fulfil, and we need to be much in prayer to know what it is, and having found out, much diligence in performing it as our bounden duty throughout life. The illustration is clear enough. There are two types of materials one can use. Gold, silver, and precious stones are not consumed by fire, indeed, they are purified. But wood, hay and stubble are totally consumed. Paul tells us that those in the first category receive a reward, but those in the second suffer loss even though they themselves are saved.
So much for the illustration, what about interpreting it in terms of real life events? What does gold represent? What does stubble represent? Without a clear knowledge, Paul’s words remain as an interesting illustration, no more. Before struggling with interpretation, let’s have a look at another passage that uses similar words.
Revelation 18 is a profound illustration of a City, the City of Babylon, depicted as a Harlot Woman. She is Mistress of Commerce. Her wares are very numerous, and catalogued in verses 12 – 13. “The merchandise of gold, silver, precious stones . . . .” Are we to assume that Babylon is the supplier of gold, silver, and precious stones for building on Paul’s foundation? Obviously not. God forbid! The context is clear enough. Babylon is to be destroyed. But this Woman “is clothed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls.” (Verse 16) There is something very subtle here, something cunning about this Woman’s work. Does not John tell us that the saintsare “clothed in fine linen . . . the righteous deeds of the saints”?(Rev.19:8) Furthermore, this Woman has gold and precious stones, the items that are not consumed by fire. She even has pearls, and we read that the 12 gates of the New Jerusalem are pearls. (Rev.21:21) Such is the subtlety. She copies her master, Satan, who frequently “transforms himself into an angel of light” to deceive, if possible, even the elect of God. (2 Cor.11:14)
How then are we to distinguish between Paul’s gold and Babylon’s gold? I suggest a simple solution. Paul’s gold is spiritual gold, whereas Babylon’s gold is earthly gold. Gold has always been the symbol of treasure. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there also will be your heart. . . . Lay not up treasures on earth . . . but lay uptreasures in heaven.” (Matt.6:19-21) To lay up treasure in heaven must be an exercise in invisible things, whereas laying up treasure on earth must relate to visible things. The visible things remain here on earth for others to squabble over once we die, but the invisible things are stored in the Bank of Heaven, in our deposit account, and the Bank Manager (our Lord Himself) keeps them secure for us. Paul used this analogy when he said, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.” (2 Tim.1:12 where the words “that which I have committed” are literally “my deposit” in Greek.)
Now that we have seen the difference between spiritual gold and earth gold, we are in a position to pursue this principle further. Let’s have another look at Babylon’s treasures. Turning once again to Revelation 18, the full list is as follows. “Gold, silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk, and scarlet, thyine wood, vessels of ivory, valuable wooden vessels, and bronze, iron and marble vessels, cinnamon, spice and incenses, ointment and frankincense, wine, oil, fine meal and corn, beasts of burden, sheep, horses, carriages, and slaves and souls of men.” (Rev.18:12-13) These items may be classified as follows – Jewellery, clothing, household goods, food, including specialist items, alcoholic drinks, means of transport, servants, and finally “souls of men”, suggesting a controlling factor over other people’s lives.
What a collection! What a description of the widespread yearning of most people, whether it be described as “the American dream” or the equivalent in other countries, particularly in the western world. It is symptomatic of earthly yearning for that which is over and above the necessities of life. It is right and proper to seek a home for the family, adequate clothing, and sufficient food for sustenance. But the human heart easily craves that which can only be described as self-indulgence. Gold represents money, and Paul tells us that“Those who are resolved to be rich fall into temptation, a snare, and many injurious and hurtful lusts. . . .The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Tim.6:9-10) It would be true to say that there are few of us as believers who know how to handle large sums of money in a fair and equable way before the Lord.
On one occasion Jesus had occasion to say, “Get behind me Satan, for you savour not the things of God but the things of men.” (Matt.16:23) Regardless of the then-present context, this saying is most revealing. Satan encourages “the things of men”. The things the natural man craves are the focus of Satan’s interest. And the love of money is one of the most potent urges in the human breast. Perhaps this is why the number of the Beast, 666, is called the “number of man”. Could there be some indication of this in 1 Kings 10:14, where we read that “The talents of gold brought to Solomon in a year were 666”? Satan wants to force men into destruction by feeding their natural human appetites. The Lord frequently warned His disciples against such indulgence.
The fall of Babylon in Revelation 18 was extremely rapid, described as being “in one hour”. It is remarkable that in the latter half of 2008 the world-wide economic collapse should have occurred so rapidly. According to some analysts, this was due to the grasping greed of high-flying financiers who used false methods to milk the unsuspecting public, and thereby brought down the whole financial world on their own heads. Be that as it may, all are now suffering as a result, and will continue to do so for some time yet. Unfortunately it is always “the man in the street” who suffers most as a result of other men’s misdeeds.
So much for the “works of the flesh” and the lusts of the human heart for material prosperity. What about the spiritual gold? The Lord addresses the situation when speaking to the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:17-18 “You say, ‘I am rich and have no need,’ but do not recognise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy of me gold tried in the fire, and white raiment that you may be clothed, and that the shame of your nakedness be not manifested, and anoint your eyes with eyesalve that you may see.” All these words were related to the condition of the Laodiceans, as being “lukewarm”.
How shall we buy God’s “gold, tried in the fire”? Gold is a symbol in the Scriptures, speaking of righteousness, God’s righteousness; silver is a symbol of redemption, speaking of Christ’s work on the cross on our behalf, and precious stones bespeak of spiritual gifts. If we are “rich towards God” our hearts will not be dragged into material snares. (Luke 12:21) Paul tells us to “seek those things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on the things on the earth.”
In a nut shell, the Lord is looking for qualities in our lives that reflect His own character, qualities of mercy, compassion, practical care for each other, prayerful entreaty for the needs of others, intercession for the unsaved, sterling love, praise, honour and thanksgiving to the Lord for all His goodness and lovingkindness. The Lord assesses all these as gold, which He lays up for us in heaven. We shall then be able to say, with Paul, that “He will keep that which we have committed unto Him against that day.” The day referred to here is “the judgment seat of Christ” where the heavenly fire seeks to assess the quality of our works. (1 Cor.3:13)
I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold,
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands,
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hands.
Than to be the king of a vast domain and be held in sin’s dread sway,
I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.
(Words by George Beverly Shea, 1925)