Saturday, March 4, 2017

Degrees of Glory

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

    “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
        who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:7-11)

Last time we talked about how John did indeed know that Jesus was the Christ, but he was evangelizing his disciples from prison by sending them to Jesus, in order to be converted to Christ by the source.  Afterward, Jesus says a few things about John that are both fascinating and help us in our walk.

1. "A reed shaken by the wind means" doubt and double-mindedness. Jesus is essentially confirming last week's sermon.  No, John never doubted, and Jesus says as much.

2. He was a penitent disciple who taught other disciples to be penitent.  Jesus contrasts him with an arrogant and prosperous king.  John was the opposite.

3. Jesus calls him the greatest of the prophets, for two reasons. First, he directly heralded Jesus' coming.  Second, he is written about by other prophets, like Isaiah and Malachi.  Usually only Jesus is prophesied in the Old Testament, but John was prophesied, too.

Now, here comes the next baffling thing Jesus says.  No one is greater than John the Baptist, "yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."  This seems like a paradox.  This seems to imply that the lowliest sinner who was saved by the skin of his teeth is going to be considered greater in God's eyes.  So, the thief on the cross who repented at the last moment is going to be at some higher place in the hierarchy than John?  Well, what if "the one who is least" is Jesus himself? Isn't this the only thing that makes sense? Jesus referred to himself as many things.  What if this is one of them? If you doubt this, think of how he was treated during his short life on earth.  He was indeed treated by the wise of this world as if he were dirt. He is the indeed "the one who is least."  Therefore, there is actually only one person greater than John the Baptist in heaven, and that would be Jesus himself.

But where did we get the idea of a hierarchical structure in heaven?  It does seem to be hierarchical, especially when we read texts about John being just under Jesus in status, but I think the wrong word here is "status?"  We get the idea of a hierarchy of status from our own sinful desires, and also from parables from Luke and Matthew about kings giving talents or minas to servants who then wisely invest them and are then placed in charge of many things or ten cities, etc. One servant just buries his and does not invest it.  He is thrown out entirely.  On the surface, this parable sounds like we will be given great responsibilities in heaven, depending on our good works on earth.  Indeed, some may even end up being janitors in heaven because they didn't do enough here.

Many are convinced this means a hierarchy of status, but I'm going to make the case that it is actually degrees of glory.

1. We are saved by grace alone. 

2. We are given good works to do by God's grace, too.

3. The Holy Spirit performs these good works through us.

4. Jesus did the true good work on the cross.  Any good works that we do are mere manifestations of faith in the good work Jesus did.

5. Since Jesus did the one good work, and the Holy Spirit does good works through us.  The only one who deserves any status reward in heaven is Christ himself.

6. In the parable, ignoring number of cities and investment of number of minas, the ones who do the good works that God has given them (in actuality the Holy Spirit doing the good works through the believer) are given eternal life.

7. The one who buries his mina/talent is cast out entirely.  He is not given a janitorial job in heaven.  He is not allowed in at all.

8. Since Christ is doing good works through believers, the resulting hierarchy is not that of status but of glory.  Status forces a comparison between individuals, which is a problem on earth.  Why would it be present in heaven?  Knowing someone got "more" or "less" than I would prompt sinful thoughts.  Also, any preaching that goes in a "hierarchical status" direction is hitting me with all law and no grace.  Despair enters into my Christian walk, because I feel that I'm not doing enough, and the result is backsliding and turning away from God.

So, why are there degrees of glory?  For the answer to this question we turn to Herman Bavinck and the final passage of his four volume Reformed Dogmatics:

"God crowns his own work, not only in conferring eternal life on everyone who believes but also in distributing different degrees of glory to those who, motivated by that faith, have produced good works.

"His purpose in doing this, however, is that, on earth as in heaven, there would be profuse diversity in the believing community, and that in such diversity the glory of his attributes would be manifest. Indeed, as a result of this diversity, the life of fellowship with God and with the angels, and of the blessed among themselves, gains in depth and intimacy. In that fellowship everyone has a place and task of one's own, based on personality and character, just as this is the case in the believing community on earth."

1. Just as the material world is diverse (think of the vastness and complexity of the universe and the complexity of the microscopic world), so is the heavenly realm.

2. Just as our lives are different and varied, so will our lives in heaven be.

3. All of this variation and complexity and diversity is to manifest God's own glory.