Last night, I was reading over some "key verses" I've highlighted in my Bible over the years. I came to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and I saw this passage highlighted:
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.
I've always been taught that this paragraph describes the system of reward in heaven. If we do the "right things," we get rewards. Sometimes this passages is combined with Paul's references to "crowns" to make up a typology of rewards that we'll recieve based on forms of service. (Crowns for watching, crowns for martyrs, crowns for purity, crowns for preaching, etc.)
Last night, however, I looked back to a few preceding verses and thought about the passage in a different way:
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.What kind of reward is Paul talking about in this chapter? Is the gold-encrusted monument something that I build for myself? Something I build of myself?
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold...
Or am I just another servant? I can plant seeds, or lay bricks, or whatever God has ordained for me to do, but the Gold, silver, and costly stones that are shining in the light of "The Lord's day" aren't mine. Those are the things I do, like Paul, for the people God has put in my way.
In the Kingdom of God, my reward is never my own. My reward is not something to cling to, not something to seek for myself. I recieve a reward that corresponds to my service, but what does that have to do with a "crown of preaching"?
Paul goes on to contrast "the wisdom of the age" with real wisdom, which appears foolish. It's not the wisdom of the age that will last, not posturing and sounding smart and making a name for yourself, but gold and silver and precious stones aren't some kind of private piety, either. Paul's entire message in this chapter is about division in the church--division caused by people trying to do "good works," who are tearing the church apart instead.
Good works don't get you a "reward" in heaven. You may recall that God isn't handing out candy for the kids who volunteer the fastest. Good works are a reward when, in "the light of day," they don't collapse. If your work--not your piety, your work for the kingdom, in the lives of your brothers and sisters, building on the foundation of their salvation--survives the fire, then you have your reward. And you will know that God takes care of his workers, giving them a just wage.
By the grace of God, those of us who haven't done very much for each other will still escape with our lives--perhaps a bit singed, and no doubt with some kind of regret for lost opportunities, but alive nonetheless. I've given up on trying to deserve my life a long time ago, but I still have hope that someday I might be able to say "well, I'm glad I did the right thing for that person."