Paul introduces the metaphor of a building under construction in order to make a new point—do good work. 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 Christ's ways—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.
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.
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. 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 in, 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.
Jesus, thank you that you see my work. Help me to do excellent work that will build your kingdom, now and for eternity. Amen.