Jesus told his disciples that he would send the spirit and the spirit would guide them into all the truth. John 16:13 Well, when I was a Jehovah’s Witness, it wasn’t the spirit that guided me but the Watch Tower corporation. As a consequence, I got taught a lot of things that weren’t right, and getting them out of my head seems to be a never-ending task, but a joyful one, to be sure, because there is much joy in learning the truth and seeing the real depth of wisdom stored in the pages of God’s word.
Just today, I unlearned one more thing and found some comfort for myself and for all those PIMOs and POMOs out there, who are, or have gone through, what I did as I left a community that had defined my life since infancy.
Turning to 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, I would like to now share what I “unlearned” today:
For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, his workmanship will be evident, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will prove the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as if through the flames.(1 Corinthians 3:11-15 BSB)
I was taught by the Organization that this related to the preaching and Bible Study work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But it never made much sense in light of the final verse. The Watchtower explained it like this: (See if it makes sense to you.)
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. (w98 11/1 p. 11 par. 14)
I don’t know how attached you got to your Bible students, but in my case, not so much. When I was a true believer in the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I had Bible students who left the Organization after I helped them to the point of baptism. I was disappointed, but to say that ‘I lost everything in a fire and was myself barely rescued’, would be stretching the metaphor way beyond the breaking point. Surely this was not what the apostle was referring to.
So just today I had a friend, also an ex-JW, bring this verse to my attention and we discussed it back and forth, trying to make sense of it, trying to get the old, implanted ideas out of our collective brains. Now that we are thinking for ourselves, we can see that the way the Watch Tower made sense of 1 Cor 3:15 is just ludicrously self-serving.
But take heart! The holy spirit does guide us into all the truth, just as Jesus promised it would. He also said the truth would also set us free.
“If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31).
Free from what? Free from our slavery to sin, death, and yes, also false religion. John tells us the same thing. In fact, thinking of our freedom in Christ, he writes:
“I am writing to warn you about those people who are misleading you. But Christ has blessed you with the Holy Spirit. Now the Spirit stays in you, and you don’t need any teachers. The Spirit is truthful and teaches you everything. So stay one in your heart with Christ, just as the Spirit has taught you to do. 1 John 2:26,27.
Interesting. John says that we, you and I, don’t need any teachers. Yet, to the Ephesians, Paul wrote:
“And He [Christ] gave some indeed to be apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some shepherds and teachers, toward the perfecting of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:11, 12 Berean Literal Bible)
We believe this is God’s word, so we are not looking to find contradictions, but rather to resolve apparent contradictions. Perhaps at this moment, I am teaching you something you didn’t know. But then, some of you will leave comments and end up teaching me something I didn’t know. So we all teach one another; we all feed one another, which is what Jesus was referring to at Matthew 24:45 when he spoke of the faithful and discreet slave that provided food for the Master’s household of servants.
So the apostle John wasn’t issuing a blanket prohibition against us teaching one another, but rather he was telling us we don’t need men to tell us what is right and what is wrong, what is false and what is true.
Men and women can and will teach others about their understanding of Scripture, and they may believe that it was God’s spirit that led them to that understanding, and maybe it was, but in the end, we do not believe something because someone tells us it is so. The apostle John tells us that we “don’t need any teachers.” The spirit within us will guide us to truth and will evaluate all it hears so that we can also identify what is false.
I say all this because I don’t want to be like those preachers and teachers that say, “The holy spirit revealed this to me.” Because that would mean you had better believe what I say, because if you don’t you are going against the holy spirit. No. The spirit works through all of us. So if perchance I have found some truth that the spirit led me to, and I share that finding with someone else, it is the spirit that will also lead them to the same truth, or will show them that I’m wrong, and correct me, so that, as the Bible says, iron sharpens iron, and we both are sharpened and led to truth.
With all that in mind, here is what I believe the spirit has led me to understand regarding the meaning of 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.
As should always be our way, we start with the context. Paul is using two metaphors here: He starts off from verse 6 of 1 Corinthians 3 using the metaphor of a field under cultivation.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6 NASB)
But in verse 10, he switches to another metaphor, that of a building. The building is God’s temple.
Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16 NASB)
The foundation of the building is Jesus Christ.
For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11 BSB)
Okay, so the foundation is Jesus Christ and the building is God’s temple, and God’s temple is the Christian Congregation made up of the Children of God. Collectively we are God’s temple, but are we components in that temple, collectively making up the structure. Regarding this, we read in Revelation:
The one who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will never again leave it. Upon him I will write the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God (the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from My God), and My new name. (Revelation 3:12 BSB)
With all that in mind, when Paul writes, “if anyone builds on this foundation,” what if he isn’t speaking about adding to the building by making converts, but rather is referring to you or me specifically? What if what we are building on, the foundation that is Jesus Christ, is our own Christian persona? Our own spirituality.
When I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I believed in Jesus Christ. So I was building my spiritual persona on the foundation of Jesus Christ. I wasn’t trying to be like Mohammad, or Buddha, or Shiva. I was trying to imitate the Son of God, Jesus Christ. But the materials I was using were taken from the publications of the Watch Tower Organization. I was building with wood, hay, and straw, not gold, silver, and precious stones. Wood, hay, and straw are not precious like gold, silver and precious stones are they? But there is another difference between these two groups of things. Wood, hay, and straw are combustible. Put them in a fire and they burn up; they’re gone. But gold, silver and precious stones will survive a fire.
What fire are we talking about? It became clear to me once I realized that I, or rather my spirituality, was the building work in question. Let’s reread what Paul says with that view and see if his final words now make sense.
If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, his workmanship will be evident, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will prove the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as if through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15 BSB)
I built on the foundation of Christ, but I used combustible materials. Then, after forty years of building came the fiery test. I realized that my building was made of combustible materials. Everything I had built up over my lifetime as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was consumed; gone. I suffered loss. The loss of almost everything I had held dear to that point. Yet, I had been saved, “as if through the flames”. Now I am starting to rebuild, but this time using the proper building materials.
I think these verses can provide exJWs with a great deal of solace as they exit the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m not saying that my understanding is the correct one. Judge for yourselves. But one more thing that we can take from this passage is that Paul is exhorting Christians to not follow men. Both before the passage we have considered and afterward as well, in closing, Paul makes the point that we must not follow men.
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, as the Lord has assigned to each his role. I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 BSB)
Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” And again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” Therefore, stop boasting in men. All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future. All of them belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:18-23 BSB)
What Paul is concerned about is that these Corinthians were no longer building on the foundation of the Christ. They were building on the foundation of men, becoming followers of men.
And now we come to a subtlety of Paul’s words that is devastating and yet so easy to miss. When he speaks of the work, the construction or building, erected by each individual being consumed by fire, he is only referring to those buildings that stand on the foundation which is Christ. He assures us that if we build with good building materials upon this foundation, Jesus Christ, then we can withstand the fire. However, if we build with poor building materials on the foundation of Jesus Christ, our work will be burned up, but we will still be saved. Do you see the common denominator? Regardless of the building materials used, we will be saved if we built on the foundation of the Christ. But what if we haven’t built on that foundation? What if our foundation is different? What if we founded our faith on the teachings of men or an organization? What if instead of loving the truth of God’s word, we love THE TRUTH of the church or organization to which we belong? Witnesses commonly tell one another that they are in the truth, but they don’t mean, in Christ, but rather, being in the truth means being in the Organization.
What I’m about to say next applies to pretty much any organized Christian religion out there, but I’ll use the one I’m most familiar with as an example. Let’s say there is a teenager raised since infancy as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This young fellow believes in the teachings coming forth from the Watch Tower publications and begins to pioneer right out of high school, devoting 100 hours a month to the fulltime ministry (we are going back a couple of years). He advances and becomes a special pioneer, assigned to a remote territory. One day he feels extra special and believes he has been called by God to be one of the anointed. He begins to partake of the emblems, but never once ridicules anything the Organization does or teach. He gets noticed and is appointed as a circuit overseer, and he dutifully complies with all the instructions coming forth from the branch office. He ensures that dissenters are dealt with to keep the congregation clean. He works to protect the Organization’s name when child sexual abuse cases come his way. Eventually, he is invited in to Bethel. After putting him through the standard filtering process, he is assigned to the true test of organization fealty: The Service Desk. There he is exposed to everything coming into the branch. This would include letters from truth-loving Witnesses who have uncovered scriptural evidence that contradicts some of the Organization’s core teachings. Since the Watch Tower policy is to answer every letter, he replies with the standard boilerplate response of restating the organization’s position, with added paragraphs counselling the doubting one to trust in the channel Jehovah has chosen, not run ahead, and wait on Jehovah. He remains unaffected by the evidence crossing his desk on a regular basis and after some time, because he is one of the anointed, he gets invited into world headquarters where he continues in the testing ground of the service desk, under the watchful eye of the Governing Body. When the time is right, he is nominated to that august body and assumes his role as one of the Guardians of Doctrine. At this point, he sees everything the organization does, knows everything about the organization.
If this individual has built on the foundation of Christ, then somewhere along the way, whether when he was a pioneer, or when he was serving as a circuit overseer, or when he was first on the service desk, or even when newly appointed to the Governing Body, some where along the way, he would have been put through that fiery test Paul speaks of. But again, only if he has built on the foundation of Christ.
Jesus Christ tells us: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
If the man we are referring to in our illustration believes that the Organization is “the truth, the way, and the life”, then he has built on the wrong foundation, the foundation of men. He will not go through the fire that Paul spoke of. However, if he ultimately believes that only Jesus is the truth, the way, and the life, then he will go through that fire because that fire is reserved for those who have built on that foundation and he will lose everything he has worked so hard to build up, but he himself will be saved.
I believe this is what our brother Raymond Franz went through.
It is sad to say, but the average Jehovah’s Witness has not built on the foundation that is Christ. A good test of this is to ask one of them whether they would obey an instruction in the Bible from Christ or an instruction from the Governing Body if the two didn’t totally agree. It will be a very unusual Jehovah’s Witness who will opt for Jesus over the Governing Body. If you are still one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and feel like you are going through a fiery test as you awaken to the reality of the false teachings and hypocrisy of the Organization, take heart. If you have built your faith on the Christ, you will come through this test and be saved. That is the Bible’s promise to you.
In any case, that is how I see Paul’s words to the Corinthians are meant to be applied. You may view them differently. Let the spirit guide you. Remember, that God’s channel of communication is not any man or group of men, but Jesus Christ. We have his words recorded in Scripture, so we only need to go to him and listen. Just as a father told us to do. “This is my son, the beloved, whom I have approved. Listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5)
Thank you for listening and a special thank you to those helping me to continue this work.