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The Ashes of Beauty

Updated: Mar 11

 1 Corinthians 3.9-15 Illustrated



May 2020 - The boardwalk was a great idea. We could walk through areas of bushes and trees without worrying about vines that would trip us, or briars that would snag our clothes and puncture our skin. Or more importantly, as we moved through the woods, we wouldn’t have to wonder if we were about to come across a snake hidden in the grass and dead leaves. The boardwalk looked good, and it felt good. It added a sense of order and direction where otherwise there was neither. 







February 2024 - Time passed. Time took its toll. What was beautiful

became dangerous. Parts of the boardwalk began to come loose; many of the boards were rotten; the underlying supports turned to sawdust. We were never sure whether the next board we stepped on would collapse beneath us. The original beauty was gone, just like the beauty of flowers and of youth that pass away before our eyes. 




 There was only one thing I could do: I began dismantling it completely and carrying off the material to the burn pit. 

As I took the boardwalk apart, removing the screws so they don’t end up becoming a threat to tires on tractors and mowers crossing the area of the burn pit, I thought of what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, which was rife with divisions between supporters of Apollos, of Peter, or of Paul, not to mention the “spiritual” wing of the church that flew the flag of Christ. Paul pointed out that each minister had been used by God to do their part in the work in building the church there. Using agriculture as a figure of speech, he said one man planted and another watered, but it was God that caused the work to grow and flourish. Then he applied the language of construction in referring to the building of the church at Corinth. 


9For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. 10According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. 11For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. 14If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. 15If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. 

1 Cor. 3.9-15 NKJV 

A word about Apostles

Paul said his role was to lay the foundation; others coming along behind him were responsible for building on it. I digress momentarily here to say something about the office of “apostles“. There is a lot of discussion about whether there are, or should be, apostles in the church today. One view says the office of apostles was limited to the original apostles and ended with Paul. At the other end of the theological spectrum, we find church groups whose leadership constitutes a hierarchy with “apostles” at the top. 

My view probably falls somewhere in between those two extremes. I believe the original apostles who walked with Jesus had a special commission to lay the foundation of the church, and they were specially gifted to do that, including being divinely inspired to commit the fundamentals of Christ’s teaching into what we read in the NT today. Paul, in fact, found it necessary to defend his apostolic authority in the face of critics who pointed out that he came on the scene after Jesus had already ascended into heaven. He had never walked with Jesus. He was a “Johnny-come-lately”.  As he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15.4-9a,

“…[Jesus] was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and [that] he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles…”  Christian Standard Bible 

In that sense, if there are apostles today, they are not in the same category as those men were. They laid the foundation of the faith “delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 3) in the divinely inspired scriptures, and they opened the doors in all the known world. The word “Apostle” is not a translation into English. It is the English form of the Greek word “Apóstolos”, which means “one who is sent out”. In one sense, every Christian is an apostle, sent out by the Lord into the world, but in the NT, there is a separate group of servants called, “apostles”: "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers." Eph. 4.11 NKJV  

Accordingly, one possible view is that the term “apostles” would be most closely applied to those we call “missionaries” today, as they are “sent out with a specific mission”. From what Paul said, however, I would suggest that not all who are sent out today as “missionaries” would fit the NT classification of “apostles”. Paul distinguished between “foundation laying” and the subsequent building up of the church through prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. There is a lot of mission work being done today by evangelists, pastors and teachers, by specially gifted servants of God, but are they “apostles”? Speaking personally, now, God gave us a very specific calling to do pioneer mission work, and I asked Him to send us where no one else had gone or was going. I believe that, like Paul, I was sent “ …to evangelize where Christ has not been named, so that I will not build on someone else’s foundation.” Romans 15.20  

He sent us to establish His church on Madeira Island and lay the foundation on which others are now building. Much is being done today in medical missions, education, leadership training, Bible translation and literature work, or social aid, but church planting is a totally separate calling from any of that. Does that mean I was an apostle? By that definition, I suppose so, but I certainly never sought that title. I refused the titles of Dr. or Rev., and I would object most strongly to being addressed as “Apostle”. But if being an apostle means being called to lay the foundation of a church, I embraced that calling whole-heartedly. 

A Story from the Mission Field

I close with a story from the early years of our mission work in Madeira, where we were the first Baptists in the 500-year history of the island. It was 4 years before we had the first professions of faith and baptisms. In the following 4 years we assembled a group of around 20 members or regular attendees, among them Bro. Manuel. He and his family joined us from another denomination, where he had close contact with a brother who was not working with any particular denomination and whose main ministry seemed to be handing out tracts to tourists coming off the cruise ships in port, or visiting homes around the island, focusing on praying for healing or exorcising demons. 

One day, Bro. Manuel came to me, disturbed by what this brother had said to him. “Pastor Edgar”, as I was known on the island, “is not Spirit-filled because there is so little fruit after 8 years of work,” he said. This is the same brother who rebuked me to my face for my lack of faith, because I was teaching English to help support my family, and we were operating a Christian book shop. If I really trusted God, I would be out visiting people all over the Island and living off their donations. [For the record, he was like the apostle Paul, as he had no wife or children.] 

“If Pastor Edgar is truly Spirit-filled, where is the fruit?”, he said, an apparent reference to Jesus’ words in John 15.5 that those who abide in Him and He in them will bear much fruit. Bro. Manuel, of course, wanted to see the work grow and he was genuinely troubled by the words of this brother.


Knowing that Bro. Manuel had just recently prepared a place for his 20-something year old son to stay with him, I seized the opportunity to frame my response to the criticism levelled against me.   

“I see you just built a room for your son to sleep in, didn’t you?” I asked, referring to a 10’ x 10’ structure Manuel set up in the yard behind his house. “How long did it take you to build that room?” 

“A couple of weekends,” Manuel replied. I had seen the room he had made of sheets of plywood and galvanized tin, and I’m not even sure that it had windows. 

“How long do you think it will last? Did you build it to be a permanent solution?” 

“Oh, no,” he said. Building a house that will last takes time; it requires planning, municipal licenses, foundations, and solid materials for walls and a roof.  

“Exactly,” I said. “It’s taken a while to get this far in the work, but I’m not putting up a plywood shack for the Lord.” 

I’ve seen a lot of missionary report letters in which a major point is to list the numbers of contacts made, converts baptized, and give statistics of membership and attendance. Of course, it’s proper to rejoice at seeing growth and progress in those areas, but there is a temptation to exaggerate the numbers and inflate the statistics, or worse, use less-than-spiritual tactics to “pad the numbers”. In the first years of the work, even before we had converts and local members, and regular attendance was never over 20 persons, it was suggested to me that we could fill the meeting room if I “slipped a 20 escudo note (about $1) in the hymnals”. 



 In the final analysis...

At this point in my life, it’s only natural to look back and reflect. Will I appear before the judgment seat of Christ with an impressive pile of wood, hay, and stubble, like this accumulation of remnants of the board walk, limbs from a tree that blew over and knocked out our electrical power last week, and leaves from last fall that we’ve raked up? 





 1 Corinthians 3.13 warns us that “13each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.”  






Of all I have done, am doing, and hope to yet do in my life, how big will the pile of ashes be on the last day? The trials of our faith now are designed to burn off the dross, lest we appear at the last day before the throne towing a wagonload of wood and hay behind us and ending up with nothing but a pile of ashes to show for it. 














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