An Email Exchange with a Friend
I've obviously moved blogging down on my list of priorities. I'm a husband, dad, pastor, and friend before I'm a blogger, so what I'm going to have to do is relegate blogging to those leftover corners of my life and write only as the occasion presents itself.
That said, I received an email this morning from one of the high school students at our church following up on a conversation he and I had after my sermon yesterday. He asked:
Stated bluntly, will there be any one person that will be rewarded as the "best" Christian or the like in heaven? I've heard people support or allude to this concept in many places, and it seems to be at least slightly supported by 1 Cor 9:24, which is still confusing me. I don't know if you've ever heard people talk about the whole idea of "everyone's cup running over in heaven, but some people having bigger cups" or something of that sort, but I'd appreciate any insight into it you can give me.
Thanks for discussing this with me!
Sure, I'm happy to discuss these things with you. And please understand that I'm a learner along with you. Where the Scriptures are perfectly clear, we can both have certainty. Where they are less clear, we have room to come to our own understanding. I think this issue of rewards or "the best" in heaven is probably one of those latter areas, although we do have some data here and there in the Bible to guide our thinking.
Our labors for Christ are definitely recognized in heaven. Rewards are promised. But ultimately, I understand all of the rewards to be centered on God's glory rather than ours. In other words, the rewards must come to us in such a way that they highlight His grace rather than our own strength or self-sacrifice or spiritual success or whatever.
Notice, for example, that Paul never says "thank you" to anyone directly. He always says "I thank God for you..." or something similar (cf. Rom 1:8, 1 Cor 1:14, 1 Cor 14:18, Phil 1:3, Col 1:3, 1 Thes 2:13, 1 Tim 1:12, 2 Tim 1:3, Philemon 1:4). That’s a subtle difference but a telling one, I think. It's a way of offering praise that doesn't terminate on the person but goes all the way up to God. Why does he do that? I assume it's because Paul recognizes that 1) all praise belongs to God and 2) all the qualities that he is thankful for in these people ultimately come from God. In other words, this is an example of a verbal reward that ultimately brings praise to God rather than to people. They do get thanked, but in a way that emphasizes God's greatness and not their own.
But the question lingers... is there anything about heaven's rewards that actually enhances our own life or reputation? Is there anything meaningful and personal in it for me? I would say "yes" but I would still frame the reward up in a way that ultimately centers on God Himself. Here's how I look at it...
The ultimate good of heaven is God Himself. He's what makes it paradise. If we lost all the streets of gold, the pearly gates, the tree of life, the reunions with loved ones, etc., heaven would still be heaven as long as HE was there. But if He left, all of those other great features would not matter. In other words, being with Him is what makes eternity so awesome for a Christian. In this sense, HE is the ultimate reward.
But how then does one Christian get a better reward than any other Christian? If we all get to be with God, what's the sense in striving to be "the best," as you put it? I would suggest that though we all will be with God forever, some of us will experience Him more deeply and more fully than others will. It's not that He Himself is any different from one person to the next; it's just that each person's CAPACITY to enjoy and experience Him is different.
Analogies exist in this life right now. For example, if you and I were to attend a computer show together, we could see the same presentations, try out the same new software and hardware, hear the same previews of new technology, etc. I like technology, and I have a decent grasp of what it can do. But because you are so much more versed in computers than I am, your appreciation of the whole show would be much greater than mine. You would have a much greater understanding of the programming skill it took to come up with some of this stuff. You would be able to grasp ramifications and uses for new technology much more quickly than I. Overall, the computer show itself hasn't changed at all, but your experience of it would be so much greater than mine because you are much more knowledgeable and skillful in that area than I am.
It applies to just about all areas of life. You might picture it like little storage boxes in our heart and mind with little labels on them: "Computers," "Music," "Sports," etc. The more experience and knowledge you have in each area, the bigger your storage box gets. Ultimately, when you have a new experience in some category, the bigger your box is, the more of that experience you can take in and enjoy. Objectively, it’s the same experience for everybody, but subjectively each person's appreciation of it differs based on the size of their internal box.
Same with heaven... those who have given their whole life to serving and knowing Christ will get to heaven and enjoy God SO much more deeply than others, not because God is different from person to person but because the way they lived their life has given them a much bigger "God box" than other people have and so they can take in much more of Him than others can. This understanding of rewards fits together three things: 1) each person gets rewarded based upon how he/she lived, 2) the reward is still very satisfying to us personally, and 3) the reward brings glory to God since He Himself is the ultimate object of our satisfaction.
That's how I see it anyway. What do you think?