BUILDING THE HOUSE OF GOD
In 1 Corinthians chapter three the inspired Apostle Paul likens himself to a builder who has laid the foundation of an edifice:
“… as a wise master builder, 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” (1 Cor. 3:10-11).
Notice how the Apostle does not present himself as working alone. Others are also involved in the building: he laid the foundation, and upon the basis of his labours, others “built thereupon”. But notice the verse before this: Yahweh Himself is with the labourers:
“For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9).
It is this aspect of being “labourers together with God” that we need to particularly focus upon. The work that we do, we do not of ourselves to glorify ourselves, but is of God, that He might be glorified. Knowing that our labour is not in vain in the Lord, (1 Cor. 15:58), we are willing to bear the reproach of men, and the scorn of those who would deride our feeble efforts, looking to the day when the House will be complete in all it’s splendour and glory. In that day our efforts will be seen to have been all worthwhile, as our Master who has gone before us shall welcome us into paradise – even Eden restored.
This aspect of labouring “together with God” demonstrates that there is something which is required of us. There are those who seem to believe that God has done it all: He has given His only begotten Son, and that therefore there is nothing for us to do, but wait to be invited into his Kingdom. But whilst it is true that God has made a Gracious and Merciful provision in the giving of Messiah to save us from our sins, it is also true that we have to add our own labours into the affair. Christ gave us an example: “… Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps …” (1 Pet. 2:21). Rather than to lie back in indolence, we ought to set our hand to the plough – and so become a labourer “together with God”.
The same principle is demonstrated in another context in the Old Testament. 1 Samuel 14 recounts how the Israelites warred against their enemies, the Philistines, and the foolishness of Saul in making a rash vow: “cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening that I may be avenged on mine enemies. So none of the people tasted any food” (1 Sam. 14:24). Saul’s folly is seen plainly in this chapter: without the sustenance of food, the army were not as strong as they otherwise could be, and therefore were unable to make a much greater slaughter among their enemies (1 Sam. 14:30).
His son Jonathan however, was not aware of his decree, and ate honey which was forbidden. In doing so, “his eyes were enlightened”, verse 27 tells us, and Jonathan was able to pursue the enemy with vigour and strength. However, Saul overlooked the benefit of Jonathan’s contribution to the war, and once it was established that he had unwittingly eaten that which was forbidden, he was condemned to death by his own father. The people, however, rose up in Jonathan’s defence:
“and the people said unto Saul, Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid: as Yahweh liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day. So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not” (1 Sam. 14:45).
Here is the fundamental difference between Saul and his son Jonathan: Saul fought under his own strength (as seen, for instance, in his treatment of the Amalekites), whereas Jonathan – and later, David – “wrought with God”. Here is the tremendous example for us: our remit is to build, and to contend, and in both of these things, the focus ought to be on servitude to our Master, rather than to trust in an arm of flesh for deliverance. The battle is not ours, but is Yahweh’s warfare against sin. And the building is not ours, for it is the erection of the house of the Living God.
Like Israel of old, we cannot simply stand back and wait for the enemy to be defeated: we have to war the warfare with our Masters. We therefore, ought to labour in love and fellowship together, even as it is written: “…truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1Jno. 1:3).
Returning back to 1 Corinthians 3, we find that particular aspects of work are referred to, again in the context of brethren working together:
“… I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. … now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are labourers together with God …” (1 Cor. 3:6-9)
We find then, that the growth and maintenance of the ecclesia required different types of work to be done. There was planting the seed (as per the Parable of the Sower), and there was the follow-up work of watering and tending to the growing plants. The work was different, but the brethren were nevertheless “one” in their labours.
Our Master also spoke of the Apostolic work, but the figure is changed from sowing and watering, to sowing and reaping – but with a similar teaching involved:
“he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together. And herein is that saying true, One soweth and another reapeth” (Jno. 4:36-37).
One of the points being made here, is that different brethren have different roles – yet they shall both rejoice together with the same reward: life eternal.
1 Corinthians 3 speaks of how “every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour,” which informs us that although we must work together, we cannot rely upon another man’s labours to gain us entry into the kingdom. The Judgement Seat is to be a highly personal experience, where a man shall stand or fall according to his own deeds, not the deeds of another. In fact, this quotation from 1 Corinthians 3 is derived from the book of Ecclesiastes:
“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour” (Eccl. 4:9)
Yet again, Ecclesiastes brings us back to this central theme: brethren and sisters need to work together, and not separately. Two have a “good reward” for their labour, because two are labouring. Similarly, Messiah sent his labourers out in pairs to preach the Word – a good model for our work in the present dispensation.
LAYING A GOOD FOUNDATION
One of the themes of 1 Corinthians 3 is the building of the house. For the purposes of our exhortation, I’d like to examine just one of the many aspects of building, which serves to strengthen our remarks made above: that is, laying the foundation.
Ezra Chapter 4 contains the copy of the letter sent by the Jew’s adversaries to Artaxerxes, in an effort to persuade him to end the building of the city. Their words included the following:
“… be it known to the king that the Jews which came up from thee to us are come unto Jerusalem, building the rebellious and bad city, and have set up the walls thereof, and joined the foundations” (Ezra 4:12).
A marginal note indicates that the word “joined” here literally means “sewed together”. How this worked in the practical terms of how the foundation was formed I am not sure, but it is a distinctive expression that is picked up in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Colossians:
“For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh, that their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding …” (Col.2:1-2).
Notice the parallel expression, the foundation of the temple was “sewed together,” the ecclesia at Colosse was to be “knit together”. One of the points that come out from this is that our life in building up the spiritual House of God is to be like the construction of the previous, literal House. The very foundation of Christ’s ecclesial house is the principle of love, with bands of love drawing believers together upon the basis of the atoning work of the Father and his Son – and a work in which we engage ourselves also.
Whilst we are considering Ezra chapter 4, there is another relevant point. The chapter commences with a description of how the men of other nations came to the Jews, and said to them: “… let us build with you: for we seek your God as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assur which brought us up hither” (Ezra 4:1-2).
Naturally thinking, in practical terms, it would seem desirable to have as many labourers as possible, especially skilled ones. And if these men all worshipped the same God, where is the problem? The problem was not a practical one, but a spiritual one. These men were not of Israel. They were engaged in a corrupt form of worship, which may well have incorporated parts of the Law followed by Israel: but they were not worshipping Yahweh in spirit and in truth.
We recognise the same principles at work in the world around us. The principles of Ecumenicalism where churches join together irrespective of differences in teaching and doctrine are making their effects known upon the ecclesia of Christ. Here is the people’s response to the Ecumenicalists of their day: “Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house to our God; but we ourselves together will build unto Yahweh God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us” (Ezra 4:3).
This is what our response should be: “ye have nothing to do with us”. The Apostle in alluding to these things says likewise:
“what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the Living God … wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you ..” (2 Cor. 6:15-17).
The Jews had come out from among the nations amongst whom they were scattered, to be a separate people to the glory of their God. There was no question as to whether those who believed in a god, or gods other than Yahweh, should be permitted to be part of the ecclesia at the time. Even so in our day, those who worship the mythical triune deity prove themselves to be idolaters (i.e. worshipping a god that doesn’t exist), and cannot partake of fellowship with us.
In the above, we have assumed that the “House of God” in our day is the ecclesia of Christ, as distinct from the temples of idolatrous worship. This is plainly stated in 1 Timothy chapter 3:
“ … the house of God, which is the ecclesia of the living God, the pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The House of God then, is a “pillar” and ground of the Truth.
The allusion here is to Jacob fleeing from the face of his brother Esau, the man who God “hated”. Genesis 28 recounts a dream that Jacob had; a prophecy of greater things to come. The end of the chapter speaks of how:
“Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-El … and Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to may father’s house in peace, then shall Yahweh be my God.” (Gen. 28:18-21).
Notice, we have here the House of God (the meaning of the Hebrew name Beth-El), which is a pillar – like the description we saw in 1 Timothy 3. Whilst the connection is plain, the point or points being made by that connection are not immediately obvious, but there are principles which have a bearing on the development of Christ’s ecclesia, the pillar of the Truth in the present dispensation.
Where the AV renders verse 20: “If God will be with me” (which seems to be putting conditions on whether he would serve Yahweh or not), another translation has it: “Seeing Elohim is with me”, which is a preferable rendering, as Jacob is here using the fact of Yahweh being revealed to be with him (the earlier part of Genesis 28), as the basis for his worship. There are three points to these words of Jacob:
“Seeing Elohim is With Me …”
In Genesis chapter 48 at the end of his life, Jacob recognised the guiding Angelic hand in his life. In his prayer for Joseph’s children, he said: “the Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads …”. His confidence and trust in the angelic presence right until the end of his life is an example for us. Israel is ostensibly an extension of Jacob’s household, and the development of Jacob’s faith is something that all members of that household ought to emulate.
“Will keep me in this way …”
The words here are cited later in Exodus chapter 23, by way of describing how the Angel would be with Israel, keeping them “in the way”:
“Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared” (Exod. 23:20)
Another interesting reference in relation to this is Hebrews chapter 12. We recall that when Jacob returned back to the land of his fathers, he wrestled with the angel (as described in Genesis 32), and had his thigh put out of joint, making him lame. Bearing these things in mind, look at the admonition of Hebrews 12: “… lift up your hands which hand down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way, but let it rather be healed” (Heb. 12:12-13). The word rendered “be turned out of the way”, we are told, is a medical term used of dislocated limbs: the exhortation therefore, is that just as Jacob could not trust in his own strength to save him, but in the power of El, even so we trust in the Angelic company that encamps around those who are the heirs of salvation.
Bread to Eat and Raiment to Put On
Jacob prayed that Elohim would give him: “bread to eat, and raiment to put on”. He did not seek wealth and riches, but just those things which are necessary to sustain a mortal existence.
These words are alluded to in 1Timothy chapter 6, where the believers are similarly exhorted:
“We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us therewith content” (1Tim. 6:7-8).
The natural way of the flesh is not simply to want food – we want nice, sumptuous delicacies! And by way of clothes, we don’t want cheap cloth, but the latest in designer fashion! But that was not the spirit of Jacob, and neither should it be ours. As Jesus himself taught:
“Take heed, and beware of coveteousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” (Luke 12:15)
Let us beware of covetousness, for these are the things that the heathen look for.
In order for the House to withstand the stormy blasts that life brings, it is essential for it to be built on a strong foundation. As it is written: “if the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psa. 11:3). The Master spoke of the importance of being founded upon the bedrock of his teaching:
“Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like: he is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great” (Luke 6:47-49).
There can be no substitute for the Rock of Divine teaching. Rather than to be covetous of this world’s goods we need to lay up for ourselves “a good foundation against the time to come” (1 Tim. 6:19), that we might lay hold of eternal life. For those who give scant attention to the commandments, who build on a foundation of sand:
“thus saith Adonai Yahweh; I will even rend it with a stormy wind in my fury; and there shall be an overflowing shower in mine anger, and great hailstones in my fury to consume it. So will I break down the wall … and bring it to the ground, so that the foundation thereof shall be discovered, and it shall fall, and ye shall be consumed in the midst thereof: and ye shall know that I am Yahweh” (Eze. 13:132-14).
There is much work to do by way of ensuring that brethren and sisters are being built up by the Word of Truth. In this study, we have considered just a few of the principles which must be followed, but the central theme is that it is Yahweh’s house, and not ours. He has provided the conditions and the means for its building and survival in the day of evil. Let us therefore give heed to these things, and set our hands to the work, upon the sure foundations laid by Messiah and his Apostles.