It is quite obvious that most of what is written in these verses is directed to, or talking about, those who minister the gospel.
(Vs. 10.) Paul attributes his gifts, his usefulness and his success as a labourer and builder in the church to "the grace of God" (1 Cor. 15:10). Ministers are instruments God makes use of, and they labour in vain unless the Lord builds the house (Ps. 127:1). Paul calls himself "a wise masterbuilder" in respect to the foolish false teachers and because he was the chief apostle to the Gentiles. "The foundation" he laid is Christ (his person and work), and he warns those ministers who follow him to be careful how they carry on the work of building on this foundation.
(Vs. 11.) This statement consists of two parts. First, Christ is the only foundation of the church. Second, this Corinthian church had been rightly founded upon Christ through Paul's preaching (1 Cor. 1:23, 24; 2:1-5). Christ alone is our righteousness, redemption, sanctification, wisdom and satisfaction for life and glory (Eph. 2:19-21). Any other foundation is sand and will perish (Isa. 28:16).
(Vs. 12.) Paul and the apostles have laid the foundation, which is Christ. Those ministers who follow (preaching the gospel of his grace, the valuable truths of the gospel which agree with the foundation) are said to build lasting and permanent fruits, such as gold, silver and precious stones. The fruit of their ministry will stand the test of time and the fires of judgement. Other ministers' works are compared to wood, hay and stubble, which can survive neither time nor fire. It is doubtful that Paul refers to heretical doctrine, denial of Christ, or another gospel which would overturn the foundation, but these ministers, while professing Christ, preach empty, useless and trifling things, such as philosophy, intellectualism, form, ceremony and traditions. Without any bad design, through education, ambition or ignorance, these elements may find their way into a man's ministry and produce bad results.
(Vs. 13.) The doctrine a man preaches and the fruits of his ministry will sooner or later be made manifest to himself and to his hearers, who shall dearly see the deformity of the building and the false hope created by these fleshly efforts. Certainly the Day of Judgement will reveal the false and the true, but some believe that Paul is saying that in this world, before the great day of the Lord, true hope and true union with Christ, as opposed to false profession, will be revealed. By "fire" is meant, not the destruction of the world and all evil, but the fire of trial, affliction and testing, which is for a revelation of true faith (James 1:2, 3). If a man is a true minister of the gospel, before the end of his life, he and his hearers will know whether what they have built on Christ, the foundation, is lasting, precious material or wood, hay and stubble.
(Vs. 14.) If a minister's work and doctrine will bear the test of the Word, the test of time and the test of trial and affliction. It will shine all the brighter for being tried and he will receive the reward of personal joy, the gratitude of those to whom he ministered and the praise of Christ, who will say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
(Vs. 15.) If a minister's labour and work crumble about him and prove to be false professions and useless human religion, he suffer the loss of all labour, efforts and praise which he received from man. He will see the folly of whatever drew him into the way of preaching. But he, himself, shall be saved (notwithstanding all the imperfections of his ministry) upon the foundation of Christ. He will be like a man burned out of house and home; he escapes with his own life but loses all about him.
(Vs. 16,17.) The church is "the temple of God". God dwells in them and with them. "If any man by the wisdom of the world (through philosophy, vain deceit, bringing in false doctrines and heresies) corrupt their minds from the simplicity of Christ, and make divisions among them, him shall God destroy, body and soul, in hell." God's church is holy, or sacred to him. He will not hold him guiltless who defiles it with error.
(Vs. 18-20.) Here Paul puts his finger on the true sore! The whole mischief originated in this preachers and people were wise in their own conceit. Carnal and worldly wisdom must be discarded as dull and foolish. For a man to be wise in a spiritual sense, he must be convinced of his own sinfulness, folly and inability, and must embrace the gospel of Christ, which is foolishness to this world and despised by men. He must deny his worldly wisdom and his righteous self and wholly rest and rely on Christ (Jer. 9:23, 24).
(Vs. 21-23.) The apostle goes back to the beginning of this theme (1 Cor. 3:3, 4). 'Let no man glory in ministers, who (even the best of them), are but men. All ministers and all they are endowed with are for your benefit and advantage and for God's glory. All things are for your good and your eternal salvation (Rom. 8:28-31), All that God does in and with this world is for your sake. Life, death, things present and things to come are designed to make you like Christ, because you are Christ's and he is God's Beloved, Anointed and Heir, in whom God has vested all things.'