Inequality in Heaven?
Q. Our pastor gave a sermon that really upset some members of our church. It was about the "metachoi" of Christ in Hebrews 3:14. The believers who got angry said he was preaching a "faith/works" message and promoting the idea of an elitist club around Christ in heaven. Can you help explain this?
I've seen Christians become upset more than once with the idea of inequality in heaven. Most of them prefer the idea of a kind of bland socialism - where everyone is equal, where everyone possesses the same joy, and where everyone is rewarded with equal gifts on earth and in heaven.
Saved by Grace through Faith
Before we take a look at this topic, however, we want to state that we do not see "justification through works" in the Bible. Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly states:
For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves. It is God's gift - not from works, so that no one can boast (HCSB).
So we close the door on anyone who preaches works-salvation.
For this article let's separate the idea of salvation from the topic of rewards. They are separate things. When we talk about the Metachoi and rewards we are not talking about the salvation of the eternal soul.
What do Theologians Say?
In case you think inequality of rewards in heaven is too "radical," here are a few quotes from some familiar teachers:
John MacArthur - "There will be varying degrees of reward in heaven. That shouldn't surprise us. There are varying degrees of giftedness even here on earth."
Charles Swindoll - "He is waiting to welcome us. To those who serve, to those who stand where Jesus Christ once stood many, many years ago, He promises a reward. And we can be sure He will keep His promise."
R.C. Sproul - "There are degrees of reward that are given in heaven. I'm surprised that this answer surprises so many people. I think there's a reason Christians are shocked when I say there are various levels of heaven as well as gradations of severity of punishment in hell."
Charles Stanley - "The kingdom of God will not be the same for all believers. Let me put it another way. Some believers will have rewards for their earthly faithfulness. Others will not. Some will reign with Christ. Others will not (see 2 Tim. 2:12). Some will be rich in the kingdom of God. Others will be poor (see Luke 12:21, 33). Some will be given true riches. Others will not (see Luke 16:11). Some will be given heavenly treasures of their own. Others will not (see Luke 16:12)."
(Wilkinson 2002, 118-120)
Rewards in Heaven based upon Earthly Service
Now, there are many Bible passages which state that our rewards are based upon our faithful or not-so-faithful service. Again I stress we are not talking about salvation.. Here are a few verses to ponder:
"Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward" (2 John 1:8). From this we can see that we might not receive a "full" reward.
"Little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink from Him in shame at His coming" (1 John 2:28). Here we learn that we can feel shame in front of Him.
Poor Behavior can produce Weak, Sick or Dead Christians!
"For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep" (1 Cor. 11:31).
MacArthur notes that "When believers do not properly judge the holiness of the celebration of Communion, they treat with indifference the Lord Himself - His life, suffering, and death…God put the worst offenders to death, an extreme but effective form of church purification (MacArthur Study Bible notes)
Delivered to Satan
"I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:5).
What does this mean? What an upsetting passage!
MacArthur warns, "This is equal to excommunicating the professed believer. It amounts to putting that person out of the blessing of Christian worship and fellowship by thrusting him into Satan's realm, the world system. …This refers to divine chastening for sin that can result in illness and even death" (MacArthur Study Bible, p.1735).
According to Benware, the Apostle Paul wrote Galatians 5:19-21 to Christians who had already "entered" the kingdom. He was warning born-again Christians of what they must not do if they expect to receive their "full" inheritance in the kingdom of God.
"Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar, about which I tell you in advance - as I told you before - that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (HCSB).
As if this were not upsetting enough, Paul repeats his warning of diminished inheritance in his letter to the Ephesians, Corinthians, and Colossians:
"For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God."
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
"Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived, neither fornicators, nor idolaters…nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God."
Colossians 3:24, 25
…"knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality."
According to Benware and Dillow these passages apply to Christians! The above passages do not apply to outsiders or unbelievers. They are written to Christians.
Heavenly Residents with Diminished or Enhanced Rewards
When we clearly understand that we can lose our inheritance while still being allowed into heaven, it should change our lives and motivate us to "work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward" (Col. 3:23-24, ESV).
The "Metachoi" of Christ
Benware states that while all Christians are joint-heirs with Christ, not all are fit to reign with Christ. Those who "reign" with Christ have become partakers, or the "metachoi" of Christ. Hebrews 3:14 says,
"For we have become 'companions' of the Messiah if we hold firmly until the end the reality that we had at the start" (HCSB).
The NASB translation says, "For we have become 'partakers' of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end."
"In Christ" or "Partakers of Christ"?
"It must be observed that the phrase 'partakers of Christ' is correct and it should not be translated 'partakers in Christ' as some have done. To say 'in Christ' makes it seem that Hebrews 3:14 is emphasizing the truth revealed by the apostle Paul that believers are 'in Christ.' This phrase in Hebrews 3:14 is not an equivalent for the Pauline 'en christo' but rather means to have a personal interest in Him."
Positional Truth not Challenged
"This positional truth of our faith is not what is under discussion in Hebrews 3 even though a large number of commentators treat it that way."
"Commentators who interpret this phrase as a reference to our secure position in Christ have a difficult time explaining what is meant by the statement that we are Christ's companions (metochoi) 'if we hold fast.'"
Companionship Partnership with the King
"If it is understood that Hebrews 3:14 is not speaking about the positional truth of being 'in Christ' but of a companionship partnership with the King, then the passage easily unfolds before us."
"If the positional idea is set aside, it becomes clear that the issue has to do with the believer's personal relationship with Christ the King. …The answer to the previous question 'are all believers the companions of the King?' becomes evident. No, not all believers will be the King's companions because being a companion of King Jesus is conditioned upon the faithful endurance of the believer."
"The incredible truth is that the believer can have a place close to the ruling King of kings in the coming kingdom if he faithfully labors for the Lord Jesus and endures in this life (Matt. 25:14-22, Luke 19:15-19, 2 Tim. 2:5, 11, Heb. 3:14)."
(Benware 2002, 136-140).
All are Joint-Heirs but not all are fit to Reign
Benware notes that while all Christians are joint-heirs with Christ, not all are fit to reign with Christ.
"At the judgment seat of Christ, an inheritance may or may not be given to the child of God who appears there before the Lord. The receiving of that inheritance, which will be of incredible value and greatly desired, will be granted to those believers who have faithfully lived for the Lord Jesus during this life. While some of God's children today may give no serious thought to this inheritance, they will on that day, as it will become a focus of attention and for some a source of real regret."
(Benware 2002, 30)
Bruce Wilkinson warns that on that Day of Judgment before the Lord, we will desperately wish we had lived our lives for Christ! We will desperately desire to serve Him…desperately!
It is hard to read the Bible and not see its promises of individual rewards and individual positions of rulership in Heaven. The Biblical references afirming rewards and rulership are compelling. Are we in a position to know all of the details of the eternal state for believers? We do not think so…
But we must stress that in any discussion of this nature, we are commanded not to get into disputes about doubtful things or cause disruption in the Church.
All of us will want to hear: "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master" (Matt 25:21).
Benware, Paul. 2002. The believer's payday. Chattanooga, TN: AMG.
Dillow, Joseph. 2006 ed. The reign of the servant kings. Hayesville, NC: Schoettle Publishing Co.
Lutzer, Erwin W. 1998. Your eternal rewards. Chicago: Moody.
Recommended booklets for laymen:
Alcorn, Randy. 2003. The law of rewards. Wheaton, ILL: Tyndale. (132 pages).
—- 2001. The treasure principle. Sisters, OR: Multnomah. (120 pages).
Wilkinson, Bruce. 2002. A life God rewards. Sisters, OR: Multnomah. (117 pages).