Will Your Work Withstand the Fire?
“Let each one keep watching how he is building on [the foundation].”—1 CORINTHIANS 3:10.
1. What hope do faithful Christians entertain regarding prospective disciples?
A CHRISTIAN married couple gazes at their newborn child. A Kingdom publisher sees an eager, interested expression on the face of a Bible student. A Christian elder teaching from the platform notices in the audience a newly interested individual avidly looking up scriptures in his Bible. These faithful servants of Jehovah have hearts full of hope. They cannot help but wonder, ‘Will this person come to love and serve Jehovah—and remain faithful?’ Of course, such an outcome is not automatic. It takes work.
2. How did the apostle Paul remind the Hebrew Christians of the importance of the teaching work, and what self-examination might this prompt us to make?
2 A masterful teacher himself, the apostle Paul underscored the importance of the work of teaching and making disciples when he wrote: “You ought to be teachers in view of the time.” (Hebrews 5:12) The Christians whom he addressed had made little progress, considering how long they had been believers. Far from being ready to teach others, they needed to be reminded of basic aspects of the truth. Today, all of us do well from time to time to take stock of our abilities as teachers and see how we can make improvements. Lives are at stake. What can we do?
3. (a) To what did the apostle Paul compare the process of making a Christian disciple? (b) As Christian builders, what great privilege do we have?
3 In an extended illustration, Paul likened the making of disciples to the process of constructing a building. He began by saying: “We are God’s fellow workers. You people are God’s field under cultivation, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:9) So we share in a building work involving people; we help to build them into disciples of Christ. We do so as fellow workers of the One who “constructed all things.” (Hebrews 3:4) What a privilege! Let us see how Paul’s inspired counsel to the Corinthians can help us to become more skilled at our work. We will focus particularly on our “art of teaching.”—2 Timothy 4:2.
Laying the Right Foundation
4. (a) What was Paul’s role in the Christian building work? (b) Why might it be said that both Jesus and his audience knew the importance of good foundations?
4 If a building is to be stable and durable, it needs a good foundation. Thus, Paul wrote: “According to the undeserved kindness of God that was given to me, as a wise director of works I laid a foundation.” (1 Corinthians 3:10) Using a similar illustration, Jesus Christ told of a house that survived a storm because its builder had chosen a solid foundation. (Luke 6:47-49) Jesus knew all about the importance of foundations. He was present when Jehovah founded the very earth.* (Proverbs 8:29-31) Jesus’ audience too valued good foundations. Only well-founded houses could outlast the flash floods and earthquakes that sometimes occurred in Palestine. What, though, was the foundation Paul had in mind?
5. Who is the foundation of the Christian congregation, and how was this foretold?
5 Paul wrote: “No man can lay any other foundation than what is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:11) This was not the first time Jesus had been likened to a foundation. In fact, Isaiah 28:16 foretold: “This is what the Sovereign Lord Jehovah has said: ‘Here I am laying as a foundation in Zion a stone, a tried stone, the precious corner of a sure foundation.’” Jehovah had long purposed that his Son become the foundation of the Christian congregation.—Psalm 118:22; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-6.
6. How did Paul lay the proper foundation in Corinthian Christians?
6 What is the foundation for individual Christians? As Paul said, there is no foundation for a true Christian but the one laid down in God’s Word—Jesus Christ. Paul certainly laid such a foundation. In Corinth, where philosophy was so highly regarded, he did not seek to impress people with worldly wisdom. Rather, Paul preached “Christ impaled,” which the nations dismissed as so much “foolishness.” (1 Corinthians 1:23) Paul taught that Jesus is the central figure in Jehovah’s purposes.—2 Corinthians 1:20; Colossians 2:2, 3.
7. What can we learn from Paul’s reference to himself as “a wise director of works”?
7 Paul noted that he did such teaching “as a wise director of works.” This statement was not egotistic. It was simply an acknowledgment of a wonderful gift Jehovah had given him—that of organizing or directing work. (1 Corinthians 12:28) Granted, we today do not have the miraculous gifts that were bestowed upon first-century Christians. And we might not think of ourselves as gifted teachers. But in an important sense, we are. Consider: Jehovah gives us his holy spirit to help us. (Compare Luke 12:11, 12.) And we have a love of Jehovah and a knowledge of the basic teachings of his Word. These are truly wonderful gifts to use in teaching others. Let us resolve to use them to lay the proper foundation.
8. How do we lay Christ as a foundation in prospective disciples?
8 When we lay Christ as a foundation, we do not present him as a helpless babe in a manger, nor as Jehovah’s equal in a Trinity. No, such unscriptural notions form a foundation for counterfeit Christians. Rather, we teach that he was the greatest man who ever lived, that he laid down his perfect life in our behalf, and that he is today Jehovah’s appointed King reigning in heaven. (Romans 5:8; Revelation 11:15) We also seek to motivate our students to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and imitate his qualities. (1 Peter 2:21) We want them to be deeply moved by Jesus’ zeal for the ministry, his compassion for the lowly and downtrodden, his mercy toward sinners crushed by their own guilt, his unswerving courage in the face of trials. Truly, Jesus is a magnificent foundation. But what comes next?
Building With the Right Materials
9. Although Paul was primarily a foundation-layer, what concern did he have for those who accepted the truth of what he taught?
9 Paul wrote: “Now if anyone builds on the foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood materials, hay, stubble, each one’s work will become manifest, for the day will show it up, because it will be revealed by means of fire; and the fire itself will prove what sort of work each one’s is.” (1 Corinthians 3:12, 13) What did Paul mean? Consider the background. Paul was primarily a foundation-layer. On his missionary tours, he traveled from city to city, preaching to many who had never heard of Christ. (Romans 15:20) As people accepted the truth that he taught, congregations were formed. Paul cared deeply about these faithful ones. (2 Corinthians 11:28, 29) However, his work required him to move on. So after spending 18 months laying a foundation in Corinth, he left to preach in other cities. Still, he was keenly interested in how others followed up on the work that he had done there.—Acts 18:8-11; 1 Corinthians 3:6.
10, 11. (a) How did Paul contrast differing types of building materials? (b) What types of literal buildings probably existed in ancient Corinth? (c) What types of buildings are more likely to endure a fire, and what object lesson does that provide for Christian disciple makers?
10 It seems that some who were building on the foundation that Paul had laid in Corinth were doing a poor job. To expose the problem, Paul contrasts two types of building materials: gold, silver, and precious stones on the one hand; wood, hay, and stubble on the other. A building can be erected from fine, durable, fire-resistant materials; or one can be hastily put up using disposable, temporary, and flammable materials. Such a great city as Corinth no doubt abounded in buildings of both types. There were imposing temples made from massive, expensive blocks of stone, perhaps faced or decorated in part with gold and silver.* These durable edifices probably loomed majestically over nearby huts, hovels, and market stalls made of rough wooden frames and thatched with straw.
11 What would happen to these buildings in a fire? The answer was as obvious in Paul’s day as it is in ours. In fact, the city of Corinth had been conquered and set ablaze by the Roman General Mummius back in 146 B.C.E. Many structures of wood, hay, or stubble had surely been utterly destroyed. What of the sturdy buildings of stone, decorated with silver and gold? These, no doubt, survived. Paul’s students in Corinth may well have passed by such buildings daily—proud stone survivors of disasters that had long since leveled their less durable neighbors. How vividly, then, Paul made his point! When teaching, we need to regard ourselves as builders. We want to work with the best, most durable materials possible. That way our work is more likely to last. What are those durable materials, and why is it vital to use them?
Will Your Work Withstand the Fire?
12. In what ways were some of the Corinthian Christians doing slipshod building work?
12 Clearly, Paul felt that some of the Christians in Corinth were building poorly. What was wrong? As the context shows, the congregation was plagued with divisiveness, the admiring of human personalities despite the risk to the unity of the congregation. Some were saying, “I belong to Paul,” whereas others were insisting, “I [belong] to Apollos.” Some evidently thought too highly of their own wisdom. The result, not surprisingly, was an atmosphere of fleshly thinking, spiritual immaturity, and rampant “jealousy and strife.” (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:1-4, 18) These attitudes were surely reflected in the teaching that was done in the congregation and in the ministry. The result was that their disciple-making work was slipshod, like building work done with inferior materials. It would not survive the “fire.” What fire was Paul talking about?
13. What does the fire in Paul’s illustration represent, and of what should all Christians be aware?
13 There is a fire that we all face in life—tests of our faith. (John 15:20; James 1:2, 3) The Christians in Corinth needed to know, just as we today need to know, that everyone to whom we teach the truth will be tested. If we teach poorly, there may be sad consequences. Paul warned: “If anyone’s work that he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward; if anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved; yet, if so, it will be as through fire.”*—1 Corinthians 3:14, 15.
14. (a) How might Christian disciple makers “suffer loss,” yet how might they attain to salvation as through fire? (b) How can we minimize the risk of suffering loss?
14 Sobering words indeed! It can be very painful to work hard to help someone become a disciple, only to see the individual succumb to temptation or persecution and eventually leave the way of the truth. Paul acknowledges as much when he says that we suffer loss in such cases. The experience may be so painful that our salvation is described as being “as through fire”—like a man who lost everything in a fire and was himself just barely rescued. For our part, how can we minimize the risk of loss? Build with durable materials! If we teach our students so as to reach their hearts, moving them to value such precious Christian qualities as wisdom, discernment, fear of Jehovah, and genuine faith, then we are building with durable, fire-resistant materials. (Psalm 19:9, 10; Proverbs 3:13-15; 1 Peter 1:6, 7) Those who acquire these qualities will continue to do God’s will; theirs is the sure hope of remaining alive forever. (1 John 2:17) How, though, can we put Paul’s illustration to practical use? Consider some examples.
15. In what ways can we make sure that we avoid doing slipshod building work with regard to our Bible students?
15 When teaching Bible students, we should never promote humans over Jehovah God. Our goal is not to teach them to view us as a primary source of wisdom. We want them to look to Jehovah, his Word, and his organization for guidance. To that end, we do not simply offer our own views in response to their questions. Rather, we teach them to find answers, using the Bible and the publications that “the faithful and discreet slave” has provided. (Matthew 24:45-47) For similar reasons, we are careful not to be possessive of our Bible students. Instead of resenting it when others express an interest in them, we should encourage our students to “widen out” in their affections, getting to know and appreciate as many in the congregation as possible.—2 Corinthians 6:12, 13.
16. How may elders build with fire-resistant materials?
16 Christian elders too play a vital role in building disciples. When they teach before the congregation, they seek to build with fire-resistant materials. Their teaching ability, experience, and personality may vary widely, but they do not capitalize on these differences to draw followers after themselves. (Compare Acts 20:29, 30.) We do not know exactly why some in Corinth were saying, “I belong to Paul” or, “I to Apollos.” But we can be quite sure that neither of these faithful elders promoted such divisive thinking. Paul was not flattered by such sentiments; he refuted them vigorously. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7) Likewise today, elders keep in mind that they shepherd “the flock of God.” (1 Peter 5:2) It does not belong to any man. So elders stand firm against any tendency for one man to dominate either the flock or the body of elders. As long as elders are motivated by a humble desire to serve the congregation, reach hearts, and help the sheep to serve Jehovah whole-souled, they build with fire-resistant materials.
17. How do Christian parents endeavor to build with fire-resistant materials?
17 Christian parents too are deeply concerned with this matter. How dearly they yearn to see their children live forever! That is why they work so hard to “inculcate” the principles of God’s Word into their children’s hearts. (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7) They want their children to know the truth, not just as a set of rules or a litany of facts, but as a full, rewarding, and happy way of life. (1 Timothy 1:11) In order to build their children into faithful disciples of Christ, loving parents endeavor to use fire-resistant materials. They patiently work with their children, helping them weed out qualities that Jehovah hates and cultivate the qualities that he loves.—Galatians 5:22, 23.
Who Is Responsible?
18. When a disciple rejects healthful teaching, why may it not necessarily be the fault of the ones endeavoring to teach and train him?
18 This discussion raises an important question. If someone whom we endeavor to help falls away from the truth, does that mean that we failed as teachers—that we must have built with inferior materials? Not necessarily. Paul’s words certainly remind us that it is a great responsibility to share in building disciples. We want to do everything in our power to build well. But God’s Word is not telling us to shoulder the whole responsibility and become burdened with guilt when those whom we seek to help turn away from the truth. There are other factors that come into play besides our own role as builders. For example, notice what Paul says regarding even the teacher who has done a poor job in this building work: “He will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved.” (1 Corinthians 3:15) If this individual may eventually gain salvation—whereas the Christian personality he endeavored to build in his student is pictured as being “burned up” in a fiery test—what must we conclude? Surely, that Jehovah holds the student primarily responsible for his own decisions as to whether he will follow a faithful course or not.
19. What will we consider in the following article?
19 Personal, or individual, responsibility is a matter of great importance. It touches each one of us. Specifically, what does the Bible teach on the matter? Our next article will consider this.
The ‘foundation of the earth’ may refer to the physical forces that hold it—and all heavenly bodies—firmly in place. Additionally, the earth itself is constructed in such a way that it will never “totter,” or suffer destruction.—Psalm 104:5.
The “precious stones” Paul referred to were not necessarily gems, such as diamonds and rubies. They could have been such costly building stones as marble, alabaster, or granite.
Paul was putting into doubt the salvation of, not the builder, but the builder’s “work.” The New English Bible renders this verse: “If a man’s building stands, he will be rewarded; if it burns, he will have to bear the loss; and yet he will escape with his life, as one might from a fire.”
How Would You Answer?
◻ What is the “foundation” in a true Christian, and how is it laid?
◻ What may we learn from the different types of building materials?
◻ What does the “fire” represent, and how might it cause some to “suffer loss”?
◻ How might Bible teachers, elders, and parents build with fire-resistant materials?
[Picture on page 9]
In many ancient cities, fire-resistant stone buildings coexisted with flimsier structures