10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each person must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each one’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each one’s work. 14 If anyone’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet only so as through fire. [1Cor3:10-15]
Rather like Paul’s opening remarks here regarding himself, the apostle had earlier exhorted his readers in Rome concerning spiritual gifts that it should be “according to the grace that is given to us, such as prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith (Rom12:6). I now apply this to myself, for as a result of a spiritual experience I had some years ago whilst studying for the ministry at Bible College I came to a radically new understanding of the Scriptures. That in due course led to the writing of “The Little Book of Providence” and these posts that complement it. The contents of that book I believe to be at least partly prophetic and intended to be shared with the churches. That is in view of the extraordinary nature of the spiritual encounter that preceded the writing, substantiated (at the personal level) by the fact that the new interpretations resolved virtually every “tension” I was previously aware of, thus enabling Scripture as a whole to cohere at last.
Yet possessing a prophetic gift does not mean one has an unerring understanding of every passage of Scripture – and Paul’s teaching here concerning being saved through fire is a case in point, so I will merely make a few observations. Firstly, it is not obvious whether Paul is referring exclusively to people like himself involved in the establishment and oversight of churches or all Christians when he speaks of “the quality of each one’s work” being tested (v13). It would be surprising if the same principles of judgement and rectification did not apply to all. As for the fire itself, even if it is intended literally its primary purpose is not to hurt and punish but to test and to purify. For each one’s works shall be tested by fire (v13). It will burn away the dross (wood, hay straw) such that only that which is of genuine value (gold silver, precious stones) shall remain. In terms of the individual, Paul affirms that, at the very least, not all Christians shall be rewarded equally – some shall “suffer loss” (v15). But in some cases the individuals themselves shall be saved “as through fire”. I believe this to be akin to what Jesus teaches in the Gospels concerning the need for his followers to control their bodily members to avoid the need for more radical action. I commented on these passages in my book, from which I will now quote:
“The self-mutilation passages recorded in Matthew5:28-30 and Mark9:43-48 are referring to those who would be Christ’s disciples’ requirement to control their “bodily members” so that the soul or “heart” is not polluted. It is clearly allegorical for it is obvious that cutting off an arm does not make someone a better person: they will still find a way to steal if that is their inclination. Jesus is highlighting the need for a disciple to keep his bodily members under tight control otherwise the whole person will be damaged.
Note the reflexives: “If your eye OFFENDS YOU pluck it out; if your arm ENSNARES YOU hack it off” etc. As with Paul’s teaching in Romans chapter 7, this pertains to the disparate moral dispositions of spirit/heart and body. The “you” that is offended, ensnared or led into sin is the spirit/soul/heart, being that which is from God and survives physical death; the offenders or ensnarers are the bodily members driven by the physical senses processed through the brain pertaining to what Paul describes as our temporary earthly tent. If the latter is not controlled, it pollutes the former and the soul may need to be purged or salted in fire (Mt9:49-50). In other words, Jesus’ references to being cast into fire pertain to purification as much as punishment. For note how the Lord adds in Mark’s account:
“For everyone shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. SALT IS GOOD: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another” (Mk9:49-50 King James Version)
It should also be evident from another passage in which Jesus refers to hell that he could hardly be referring to eternal punishment:
“But I say unto you that whosoever is angry with their brother without a cause will be liable to judgement; and whosoever shall say to his brother Raca! [vain fellow] shall be in danger of the Sanhedrin; but whoever shall say Moros! [idiot or moron] shall be in danger of hell fire” [Mt5:22]
The idea that calling one’s brother vain, a Jew may still go on to enjoy eternal bliss after a hearing with the Sanhedrin, whereas calling one’s brother stupid or foolish may result in eternal torment is clearly absurd. Given the gradation of insults outlined in the passage and the fact that Jesus is adamant about the reality of punitive fire, it is indicating the need for final purification for those who grossly insult and belittle a fellow Jew. Even where hell or punishment is specified to be eternal in the Latin Vulgate or English translations, the Greek text reads “aionian”, referring to an age – and there are to be numerous ages. Such linguistic issues may be studied in more detail on the internet.
The one reference to an individual’s experience of the afterlife in the New Testament concerns the rich man and Lazarus, the text of which requires careful attention. The one stated criterion distinguishing these two men was that one had had a life of ease and comfort whilst the other had been poor and wretched. It can be deduced that the rich man was suffering partly because of the way he had utilized his wealth; failing to show care and compassion to the likes of Lazarus. Yet no reason is provided as to why Lazarus should be comforted after his death other than that he had experienced a life of poverty and sickness; so had he been salted. The redistributive and compensatory aspects of judgement at death are also emphasized in the letter of James who exhorts the oppressive rich to weep for the miseries that are to come upon them (Jam5:1), and by Jesus, particularly as recorded by Luke:
“How blessed are you who are poor; the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry now: you shall have your fill. Blessed are you who are weeping now; you shall laugh” (Lk6:20-21)
“Alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now. Alas for you who have plenty to eat now: you shall go hungry. Alas for you who are laughing now: you shall mourn and weep” (Lk6:25)
As well as redistributive justice this also relates to the role and necessity of human suffering outlined in the final chapter of my book. Luke’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching needs to be taken alongside Matthew’s emphasis on more spiritual and moral qualities: poverty of spirit, hunger for righteousness, kindness, compassion and purity.Excerpts from “The Little Book of Providence – chapter three [Free PDF HERE
Finally, note how Malachi describes the coming again of the Messiah. The “soap” referred to is clearly for cleansing, but so is the fire – so that those elected to the priesthood of God may present to the Lord an offering in righteousness:
“But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire, and like launderer’s soap. And He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old, and as in former years” (Mal3:2-4)
This is undoubtedly a perplexing area of biblical study and not surprisingly has been a catalyst for distortions in both the presentation and practice of the Christian faith. It ultimately pertains to the mystery I have been unfolding concerning that eternal law by which a measure of suffering must be endured by beings who are to be elevated and glorified. That applies to humanity as a whole (Rom8:19-20), God’s elect in particular (Rom8:17) and even to the Lord of Glory Himself:
For it was fitting for Him for whom are all things and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory TO PERFECT THE ORIGINATOR OF THEIR SALVATION THROUGH SUFFERING (Heb2:10).