One of the perplexing passages in the letters of Paul is 1 Corinthians 3:10-15:
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire (NET Bible).
G. K. Beale’s insight into this passage in The Temple and the Church’s Mission puts it in the context of Malachi 3-4. Those chapters repeatedly speak of the judgment as a fire the destroys and refines. Particularly the Levites will be purified so that they can bring acceptable sacrifices (Malachi 3:3).
Now in 1 Corinthians 3 Paul keeps speaking of building upon a foundation. Beale takes this as temple language. Paul’s work is to build the church into a temple for God’s spirit. Moreover, the way Paul speaks implies that the temple grows gradually over time. The temples of Eden, the patriarch’s sanctuaries, Solomon’s temple, and the second temple all were meant to expand over time. There is language in the Hebrew Bible that expresses the intention that they all expand from their original sizes to eventually include the whole cosmos.
This claim is not quite as outlandish as it sounds. For instance, the sanctuary of Jacob at Beth-el does seem to include a kind of universal claim that anyplace one lays one’s head can manifest as the house of God and the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:27).
Anyway, Paul does understand that the temple he is building by including Gentiles expands in size over time. Paul juxtaposes the image of a garden planted and growing with a structure getting built up from a foundation. These images go together for Beale because of his understanding of a garden/temple combining themes from Eden and the sanctuaries of Israel.
But someday the time for growing and building will end. God will test the building with fire. God will harvest the garden.
Beale does not really answer the most perplexing question about the 1 Corinthians 3 passage, which is the meaning of receiving a reward or surviving even though charred by fire. This could be both troubling and reassuring. Those of us who have probably used a lot of straw and hay will suffer loss. But we will be saved, though with the smell of smoke still upon us.
Beale affirms that the temple and priesthood consist of all those in the church. That certainly fits with the Protestant notion of the priesthood of all believers. But Paul is talking about builders/gardeners like himself and Apollos. It is hard for me not to think that Paul means particular workers are like Levites and that they will be rewarded or held accountable at the judgment in a special way.
Beale talks about Paul building the church. We should remember that word for church actually meant assembly, so, especially when speaking of this as a building, it is easy for us to slip into institutional thinking. For us the word church may mean a structure or polity, or the denominations, or the local church with its building and settled pastor. But Paul was talking about an assembly of adherents to Christ. In some of his communities this seemed to include smaller assemblies that met in people’s homes. In some communities it overlapped with the local synagogue. For Paul I am pretty sure the idea of church did not exclude Israel. He was aware, though, of a complicated relationship. The firm line between Christianity and Judaism had not yet been drawn.
Also, during Paul’s lifetime the Temple in Jerusalem still stood. Paul himself sometimes traveled there to worship. So it is hard for me to see Paul speaking of the church as a replacement for the Temple except in the eschatological future. We probably should not take his words in too exacting a way. Much of Paul’s language is figurative and meant to work on our imaginations rather than to be used to construct doctrines.