Will some saints in heaven experience more joy than others? Today’s question comes from Jordy, a new pastor in the Albertan prairies of Canada: “Dear Pastor John, I recently listened through the 2004 Desiring God Pastors Conference (Money, Ministry, and the Magnificence of Christ), and one of the topics that arose in the speaker panel was the concept of varying rewards in heaven. You and Randy Alcorn, quoting Edwards, both hold that the reward is increased capacity for joy in Christ. Could you expand some more on where you are getting this understanding biblically?”
Let me clarify that I don’t mean to imply in talking that way that there are not other ways in the age to come that our rewards are experienced as different. Jesus says: You are going to reign over ten cities. I am going to reign over five cities (see Luke 19:17–19). And I think that means very concretely and specifically it may happen just that way: You may be the mayor of ten big cities, and I may be the mayor of five little cities. And I don’t mean to imply those specificities lose all their concreteness.
So, don’t take it that way. But what we find in the New Testament is that the greatness of our rewards in the age to come is said to correspond to the life of obedience that we have lived here. We don’t earn the rewards. They are graciously given by God. We don’t deserve them. And they will be evidences that God looks with favor upon his own work of grace in our lives, working through us. So, the rewards are intended not as evidences of being earned, but rather as occasions for happiness in heaven, not disappointment.
But if they are occasions for happiness and some people have greater rewards than others, will not some people be happier than others? Yet isn’t the picture of heaven where every tear is dried up and every sorrow will be removed (Revelation 21:4) and in God’s presence is fullness of joy for all believers (Psalm 16:11)? So, on the one hand, you have every saint promised fullness of joy. I think that is right. And on the other hand, we are promised differing rewards, which are occasions for greater or lesser joy. So, how does that work? That is the question.
Let me simply read a few passages so you get a real clear textual foundation for the issue here. These are texts that get at the differentiation in rewards in the age to come:
- 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
- Revelation 2:23, “I will give to each of you according to your works.”
- Ephesians 6:5–8, “Bondservants . . . [do] the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that” — this is really important — “whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.” That is amazing. Every single good deed gets a special response from God in the age to come.
- Luke 19:17, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.” And then another is over five (Luke 19:19).
- Matthew 10:41, “The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”
So, there will be all of these differences among us in the age to come. But all of us will have fullness of joy. So, what is the solution?
Well, here is the textual pointer: You could just philosophically work it out the way Edwards does, but here is a textual pointer to suggest he is biblically right. Luke 6:37–38 go like this: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give” — like being generous — “and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” What does that mean? Everybody’s lap is full, but “with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Well, here is what Lenski says, and he is right:
“In other words, by our giving” — our being generous to people — “we build the measure” — that is, the size of our cup that God is going to use — “that will be used for giving back to us. Our own measure is used to measure back to us. By using it ourselves we declare that we want God to use it for us at the end.”
So, will those who give God a small ladle be defective or lacking in fullness of joy? No. They won’t, because Jesus says, “Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.” You will be full, more than full. It is all grace. But your capacity for fullness has been determined, it seems — this is my interpretation — by your generosity to others. Otherwise, the text seems to lose its point. So, everyone is full in heaven, but some cups are larger, some containers are larger than others.
Or, what about Luke 12:33? “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” In other words, the way you provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old and treasure in heaven is by giving to the needy. The ageless moneybags and the treasure in heaven are metaphors for heavenly joy. I don’t think Jesus means literal moneybags in heaven. Who cares? We own everything, right? Paul says we own everything (1 Corinthians 3:21). You don’t need any money in heaven. It is a picture of the measure of our joy in Christ as our treasure.
And how do we prepare to experience that joy? Jesus says, “Give to the needy.” We lay up treasure in heaven, and clearly he meant: Get about it, because if you don’t, you won’t have as much. If we lay up treasure in heaven, that is, we increase our joy in heaven, we do this not by hording treasure on the earth, but by using our possessions sacrificially and generously. And if we do that a lot, our treasures are large in heaven. Our capacities for joy are greater.
So, yes. I think Edwards and lots of other people are right to say that all believers enjoy fullness of joy or pleasure in the age to come, but some people will have larger cups, larger capacities for that joy than others. But no one will be envious and no one will brag, because part of the fullness is perfect love.