Anyone who has been to Rome will be well aware of the beauty of its architecture: buildings which would be the pride of most other cities in the world can be found in almost every side street. It is little wonder, then, that Paul, a Roman citizen, should use the metaphor of architecture in his writings. There are three main passages in which he does this, and in each of these the emphasis is slightly different: in 1 Corinthians 3 the local assembly is being built up by individual believers; in Ephesians 2 it is the church (i.e. the body of Christ) that is being built by God; and in 2 Corinthians 5 the thought is of the believer's eternal home that is built in heaven. Let us look at each of these in turn.
1 Corinthians 3: The local assembly as a building
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul describes the local assembly as a building of God. The most important aspect of any building is its foundation, and Paul is clear about the foundation of any local church - it is the Lord Jesus Himself (v.11). The assembly is not founded on any of the doctrines of Scripture, important though they are, nor do we gather to the name of any of the great men and women of God of a past generation. Scripture is unmistakeably clear: there is only one possible foundation for a New Testament assembly of believers, and that is the Lord Jesus alone. Notice that we do not gather to the assembly per se - we gather to Him and Him alone.
However, although there is only one foundation of the assembly, each of us has the privilege of building something on that foundation. It is therefore our responsibility to see to it that we take heed to what and how we build (v.10). Let us all ask ourselves this - "Am I contributing to the local assembly? Am I building something that will last for eternity?" There are many ways that a believer can build into the local assembly - by participating in the gatherings, by supporting those in need, by seeing others saved and added to the company, by praying for fellow-believers. There is something for everyone to do, and there is no excuse for idleness. Let us see to it, therefore, that we are each engaged in building something of value into the local assembly with which we are associated.
However, there is another reason (beside the fact of our duty) that means we must be careful how we build into the assembly, and it is this: one day each of us will give account of how we have built. "Every man's work shall be made manifest" (v.13), and the reward that each one will receive is dependent on the nature of the work that has been done. Notice two things in this regard: first, it is not I, myself, that will be tested, it is my work. There is no question here of the security of my salvation - it is the value of what I have done in the local assembly that will count on that day. Second, note also that (at least in this passage) it is not the volume or amount of my work, but rather its character, that will be assessed: "the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is" (v.13). In light of this, we must bear in mind that the purpose of the building (according to Ephesians 2.22) is that it be a fitting habitation for God Himself. Therefore, every aspect of the building ought to be in keeping with His character. Could this be said of my activity in the local assembly?
Ephesians 2: The church as a building
For the whole of this dispensation God has been building His church. Note that when we come to think of this church (i.e. the church which is His body), it is the apostles, rather than the Lord Himself, who form the foundation (v.20) - in other words they were the first members of the church. Since then, innumerable saints have been added, each one forming a tiny part of the building. One of the wonders of this is that God1 has taken such disparate and dissimilar members of humanity and moulded them together into one building. Those who, before their conversion, had been labelled as Hindus or Muslims, Protestants or Catholics, atheists or agnostics now form a marvellous unity as part of the great building of God. Even the God-given division of humanity has been set aside in this wonderful piece of divine architecture - there is no longer a distinction between Jew and Gentile, because the middle wall of partition has been broken down, and all are one in Christ. The fragments of fallen humanity are converted into living stones, and fitly framed together into a spiritual structure that will be the eternal wonder of angels. Note that in this mighty edifice the Lord is "the chief corner stone". This expression can carry three meanings. First, it can refer to the foundation stone - the reference point from which the rest of the building is aligned; second it can refer to the capstone of an arch - the one stone that holds the whole structure together; finally, it can have in view the top stone of a pyramid - the crowning glory of the whole structure. How wonderful that all of these are true of our blessed Lord Jesus!
But let us note also the purpose of this building - it is to form "a holy temple", a dwelling place of God. Note that here it is not the local assembly that is in view, but the whole church. The eternal destiny of every believer, irrespective of their earthly circumstances, is to form a part of a great temple of God. When the Lord Jesus was here, He spoke on one occasion of "the temple of his body" (Jn 2.21) - in other words His body was the place where the absolute reality of the divine presence dwelt. What a glory is given to the believer, that we will form part of the spiritual counterpart of that most sacred of shrines! But let us not miss the practical challenge of this. Does the character of my daily life reflect the position into which I have been brought? The second half of this epistle is devoted to the exposition of one phrase: "walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called" (Eph 4.1). How far is this command fulfilled in my day by day Christian living?
2 Corinthians 5: The believer's eternal home
Finally, there is the wonderful truth that in heaven there is "a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (v.1), that will be the eternal dwelling of the believer. Remembering this will be a protection against two great dangers in Christian life. First, there is the danger that we become too taken up with the pleasures of this life. We need to remember that we are not here forever - indeed, we do not even belong here! Our citizenship is in heaven, and our interests ought to be there. Second, there is the possibility that the difficulties of life can loom large in our minds, causing us to lose the joy of salvation. If this is the case, let us lift our eyes beyond this world and remember that whatever we lose in this life, there is something that cannot be taken from us - an eternal dwelling place, not affected by the decay of Earth. No matter what we lose (materially, socially or physically) down here, there is something awaiting us that cannot be diminished in any way - God Himself has built it, and it will be ours forever. To be continued.
1 - Note that in 1 Corinthians 3 it is the believer who builds; in Ephesians 2 it is the Holy Spirit who is doing the work of construction, saving souls and adding them to the overall structure of the building.