What does the Apostle Paul mean when some of our works will pass through the fire and some will not? What exactly passes through the fire?
The Burn Pile
Every fall we gather the leaves up into a big pile and compost most of them, but there are broken twigs and branches, and even larger limbs that have to be burned, so I set aside a burn pile each fall, and when it’s wet enough, I burn it. The older branches may have termites, or the larger limbs have dry rot, so I don’t want to keep them around for very long, so I burn them, and sometimes if there are too many leaves, I burn them too, so with that in mind, the Apostle Paul writes about what we’re making as the foundation of our lives. Some will be foundations of hay, wood, and stubble, and they will burn up with fire, but why? Paul writes, “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1st Cor 3:12-13), but “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1st Cor 3:14). In the Day of Jesus’ visitation, He will reward those according to their faithfulness, whether in little or in much (Luke 16:10). To those who have been faithful in little or much, their reward will be little or much, based upon what they did in the body. Paul said, “I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it” (1st Cor 3:10). If we are building a foundation for our own glory or own recognition, then those things will burn up. It’s as if we’ll make it into heaven, but losing a lot more rewards than we think. They’ll be burned away by Jesus’ righteous judgment, even though they will be saved, but it’ll be as if their coming into the kingdom, as the late Dr. J. McGee said, “smelling like they were bought off a fire sale rack.” They’ll be there, but their rewards will not be. Some will pass through, and some will not…just like all of us.
I believe those things done for the glory of God, and even more specifically, for the glory of Jesus Christ, will be those things which will pass through the fire, just like gold and silver passes through the fire and is more purified, and even precious stones pass through house fires (like diamonds), so if you desire to have rewards pass from this life to the next, it must be done for the glory of God. The psalmist knew full well that, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), and so we too must say, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1)! Paul would ask us, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it” (1st Cor 4:7)? Here is what God says about His own glory: “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:8). There are almost 200 mentions of the word glory in the Bible, and almost every one of them has to do with the glory of God, or the glory of Jesus Christ, Who is also God. If even for a moment of your day today, you “Sing the glory of His name; Make His praise glorious,” (Psalm 66:2), then you will have glorified God, and He is well pleased with that.
Doing it to Him
If we are doing what Jesus commands us to do, then interestingly, we will be doing it for Him. This is explained in Matthew 25:34-36 where Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me,” but here’s the interesting part. The righteous who were doing these things, didn’t take note of them. Maybe these things came so naturally to them that they’re caught off guard, which is why they say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you” (Matt 25:37-39). That’s when Jesus reminds them, that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). Maybe that’s what Jesus meant about doing good for others, like in our giving. He said, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” (Matt 6:3). If you remind everyone and yourself about your good works, your left hand knows what you did, your right hand knows what you did, and all God’s children know, but if you tell no one, God will tell everyone someday, and but if you tell everyone today, you already have your reward. As far as our works are concerned, what you forget, God will remember, but what you remember, God will forget. Remember, they’re to be for His glory and His glory alone.
If you are doing things for yourself, even though you say it’s for God; if you fail to glorify God in word, deed, and song; and if what you’re doing for Him, you’re doing to be seen, then you have your reward. That’s it. And, if we ascribe our good works to ourselves, we rob God of glory. If we fail to give God credit for the good things, then we’ll rob God of glory. If we say one thing but live another way, we are not glorifying God. Whatever does not glorify Him and is not done for Him and His glory, is all for nothing. Those works done to be seen will all be burned up on that Day, just like the branch and leaf pile in my back yard. Sooner or later, it’s all going up in smoke.