Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Blessing and Judgment

“Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.”

“Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”

One day, fellow Christian, you and I will be gathered together to hear what will happen to us in days to come. What will your reward be for the things done in the body and your service rendered to Christ? What will be my role in the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ and in the New Jerusalem for eternity?

These are not irrelevant questions. Eternity is not some giant golf course.

Not Everybody at the Golf Club is Playing Golf

Okay, I’ll play. For the sake of argument, let’s just suppose it were. Even if our thinking about what lies before us is so shallow and uninformed by scripture that we refer to the eternal state as “heaven” and expect to bring a set of our favorite clubs with us when we die, it still remains true that even a golf club has its staff of administrators, greenskeepers, caddies, receptionists, sales clerks, waiters, bartenders, busboys and dishwashers, just for starters. The same is true if we conceive of eternity as a giant party, as some do. Someone has to rent the hall. Someone has to buy the beer. Someone has to serve it. Someone has to discerningly select the wine and arrange to store it. Who exactly is in the back cooking the food, and who purchased it? Never-ending parties don’t run themselves.

I dislike both analogies and most of the others that are bandied about, but we must recognize that unless heaven is a giant hotel in which all the services and amenities are provided to millions of lounging guests by diligent angels in uniform, not even the feeblest and most profane heavenly analog can be conceptualized as anything but a variety of spheres of service, some with greater dignity and responsibility than others.

The Judgment Seat of Christ

Stuff will happen to you in days to come, and you will make stuff happen. It will not all be choirs and singing. It will not be an endless worship service. The twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship. Then, surely, they stand, retrieve those crowns or receive others, and await their next cue, no? There is activity and there is the appropriate cessation from activity. Worship, of course, may characterize both, either actively or passively.

Even in the very beginning God worked and rested; never all one or the other. This is God’s way.

But in order to participate in the kingdom, it is necessary that our ongoing roles first be assigned us, and this is what brings us to the necessity of a judgment. Here we are not thinking of the sort of judgment that ends in bliss or damnation, but the sort that assesses character and works and assigns (or withholds) honors and responsibilities based on the available evidence about what the job candidates are qualified to do effectively and what they are not. We are thinking of the judgment seat of Christ.

What will it be like? Well, it seems to me that if there is an apt Old Testament illustration of such a judgment, then we find it in Genesis 49, where Israel “blesses” his sons.

Curses and Benedictions

It’s called a blessing, but it’s really more like a judgment. The New Testament association between “blessed” and “happy” is not consistently to be found here. What Jacob is performing is an assessment of character and works. We are then told what that means for the future of his boys.

If we are inclined to doubt the illustrative aptness of Genesis 49 to the subject of Christian judgment, consider that this chapter is God’s assessment of the children of Israel, not just their father’s. Jacob is speaking prophetically, not merely wishfully. We know this because the curses and benedictions Jacob pronounces upon the tribes with respect to their futures could only have been enforced by God. They depended entirely on God’s ratification. For example, Jacob could no more ensure that Reuben would not have preeminence in days to come than he could have leaped out of bed and jogged thirty brisk laps around the construction site of Pharaoh’s latest pyramid. That wasn’t going to happen. Likewise, without God’s help, how could the patriarch accurately predict that the territory to be assigned to the tribe of Zebulun one day in the future would border on the city of Sidon? He’d be hundreds of years in his grave when those lots were assigned.

Thus, if we want to know what it’s like when God does performance assessments with a view to promotion or demotion (but never firing), here’s a pretty decent template to meditate on.

What Judgment Looks Like

So what can we learn about God’s judgment here? A few things:
  1. There are no trophies for mere participation. It may irritate egalitarians to discover that the big prizewinners in God’s economy are few and far between, but there are no ribbons pinned on Christians just for having shown up. The top of the heap here are Judah and Joseph, who rate five verses apiece, all positive. Both have blessings heaped upon them and the right to rule and conquer granted to them. It is clear they have exceeded their brethren. Sure, all their brothers remain Israelites and fathers of tribes, but the available evidence should convince us that winning the prize means something significant both to us and to God. The apostle Paul tells his readers, “So run that you may obtain it.”
  2. It is possible, but not desirable, to eke out a role in the kingdom by the skin of one’s teeth. The big losers in the blessing sweepstakes are Reuben, Simeon and Levi. Not one good thing is said about Reuben. He aptly illustrates the New Testament concept of being saved as if by fire. It’s almost as if all the good things Reuben did in his life got burned up because he did them for the wrong reasons. They certainly receive no mention here. It is possible to eke out a role in God’s future plans by the skin of one’s teeth. I do not recommend it. All around the fringes of the kingdom are those who are most ill-equipped to assess their own place in — or out — of it. There are no do-overs at the judgment seat.
  3. The assessments and blessings are individual and appropriate. “This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him.” Jacob was astute enough to recognize that Dan would make a good judge and Benjamin a great soldier. We may be sure that the glorified Christ, whose eyes are as a flame of fire, is orders of magnitude more discerning than Jacob. Each blessing was appropriate to the individual blessed. Each assignment was tailored to his particular qualities. So too with the judgment of Christ: you and I will not be able to hide behind the skirts of our elders or pastors, escaping responsibility for the bad things done in our local churches or being overlooked for our contributions to those that were worthwhile. The Lord sees where we stood on each decision made. Neither is he fooled into thinking we accomplished more than we actually did because someone else failed to step up and take the credit.
  4. Some lives are less memorable than others. The New Testament tells us “each one will receive his commendation from God.” Here, some of those assessments are pretty brief, though their recipients are not entirely unworthy, and are certainly not in the class of Reuben, Simeon or Levi, who lost opportunities for honor, glory and service. Is it possible my role in the kingdom will not be all that it might have been if I had chosen to live my life differently? If what we do here on earth really means anything at all, then I suppose it might be.
  5. When a perfect Judge judges, there are always surprises. When God judges, there are always things he knows that we couldn’t possibly. For example, when we read about Benjamin in Genesis, he’s the baby of the family, the spoiled son of Rachel and the victim of Joseph’s prank on his brothers in which his cup is placed in Benjamin’s bag. We might think him a bit of a softy compared to Simeon and Levi. But in his father’s assessment “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey and at evening dividing the spoil.” As with the other analyses, this is surely a father’s apt distillation of a son’s real character, not just a look down through history at a tribe that would produce Israel’s first king (and many a thorn in the side of its second). Something in Benjamin the man answered to his father’s description, but the reader of Genesis would never see evidence of it. So too at the judgment seat of Christ, I guarantee we will be in for a shocker or two. Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

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