"It's not about winning, it's about taking part." These words featured prominently on the walls of the sports hall in my school, intended, presumably, to nerve the faint endeavours of those whose limited sporting skill meant that winning wasn't really an option.
But while the slogan might have been helpful in persuading unathletic teenagers to give their best, it carries little conviction for most sportsmen and women. Their commitment, their sacrifice, and their constant and exhausting efforts are not motivated by mere participation, but by the struggle to improve, to excel, and, above all, to win.
Sadly, though, when it comes to our Christian experience, the platitude often applies far too well – we are happy to settle for just taking part. We are glad to be saved, but we are unmoved by any imperative to attempt or achieve great things for God. We lose sight of the truth that the Christian life is a contest, not in the sense that we are in competition with our fellow-believers, but because we strive to win an imperishable and an eternal crown (1 Cor 9.25). And if the pursuit of a fading crown commands such dedication from those who pursue them, then the prospect of an eternal and heavenly reward should surely compel us to "press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3.4).
There are several passages in the New Testament that deal with the review and reward of the believer's service, but 1 Corinthians chapters 3 and 4 provide one of the most sustained discussions.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul uses two metaphors to describe the local assembly: "ye are God's husbandry [tilled field], ye are God's building" (v.9). Both of these pictures stress that the assembly is a place for hard work – neither a farm nor a building site is a place for idlers. But they also indicate that this work must be orderly - haphazard and uncoordinated activity in either setting would be at best unproductive, and at worst, dangerous. And Paul develops the figure of building to teach us that what we build on matters: "According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (vv.10-11). Paul, by his teaching, laid the foundation of the assembly in Corinth – and of every other New Testament assembly. That foundation must be the basis for our service for God. Paul goes even further than this: "If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward" (v.14). God rewards service that contributes to the upbuilding of the local assembly.
Paul does not conceive of any Christian service that is not based in, or for the benefit of, a local assembly. That is a startling fact, and should cause us each to think carefully about the sphere in which we seek to serve God. It is not for us to evaluate another believer's service, or to say whether it will or will not be rewarded. In the light of this passage, however, it is a grave risk for us to expend our limited resources and our fleeting moments of opportunity by investing them in any service or in any sphere that does not have the mandate of God's Word. After all, as Paul elsewhere points out, using a different picture, "if anyone competes as an athlete, he will not be crowned as the winner unless he competes according to the rules" (2 Tim 2.5, NET). How tragic it would be to arrive at the Judgment Seat of Christ, only to find that our most strenuous and sincere efforts have earned us no reward because we did not take care that we were building on the correct foundation, because we did not "strive lawfully" (2 Tim 2.5).
What we build on is crucial, but so is what we build in. Paul lists six types of material: "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble" (1 Cor 3.12). This list divides into two clear categories. The first comprises gold, silver, and precious stones – materials that are valuable and durable. The materials in the second group – wood, hay, and stubble – are bulky but they have little value, and, when subjected to the proving flames of divine testing, will leave nothing behind. In the light of the Judgment Seat of Christ, the quality of my service matters far more than the mere quantity.
The apostle's teaching raises some sobering questions for each of us. Does my activity in the assembly build in wood, hay, and stubble – materials that lie near at hand, and that can be gathered without too much effort, inconvenience, or difficulty? Or am I prepared to work hard and dig deep, to expend time and exert effort in order to produce something – however small – that will make a valuable and enduring contribution to the church of God? These questions need to exercise our minds now. It will be too late when we stand at that Judgment Seat, and see the efforts that we thought so substantial and praiseworthy reduced to worthless ash, and ourselves standing with empty hands, "saved; yet so as by fire" (1 Cor 3.15). And, by contrast, how blessed it will be, when the smoke clears, if there remains something of real value, appreciated and acknowledged by the One whose "well done" will mean so incalculably much.
And the passage makes it clear that it is Christ's assessment of our service that matters. Paul states this principle in relation to his own experience: "But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord" (1 Cor 4.3–4). The phrase "man's judgment" is more literally translated "man's day", and, by using it, Paul draws a contrast between a judgment that matters, and one that does not. In man's day, it is man who assesses and evaluates, who measures and acknowledges worth. Such judgment and such reward are of little account in the apostle's eyes. He served with his eye firmly fixed on the day of Christ, when "the Lord come[s], who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts" (v.5). These verses do not give licence for a maverick spirit of independence that rides roughshod over the concerns and advice of spiritual believers. But it does mean that my service in the assembly should not be motivated by a desire to please or impress men.
And it is evident from these verses that, in the divine assessment of our service, motive matters. It is not enough to do the right thing in the right way in the right place. We must serve with the correct motive. And, in chapter 13 of the epistle, Paul identifies the crucial motive, the absence of which robs the most redoubtable undertakings of their eternal worth and their capacity to please God. Whatever else I have, or am, or do, if I have not love I am profited nothing, "I am nothing" (13.2-3). The motive of my service matters more than how impressive or successful it seems. The ultimate accolade of the Master will be "Well done, thou good and faithful servant" (Mt 25.21). Not "popular", not "esteemed", not "successful", but "good" and "faithful" are the epithets that express heaven's highest approbation.
It is a wonderful privilege to be a participant in the Christian race. It is marvellous, matchless, and amazing grace that lets us in. But we should not be content to ramble along in the pack, for the grace that lets us in is the grace that lets us win. Any resource or ability that we have was given by God, and yet He will reward us for faithfully using those resources and those abilities in His service. May God help us to live as the apostle did – in the constant anticipation of "that day" – and let us build our best and highest efforts into the assembly, knowing that our "labour is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor 15.58).
To be continued.