It is wonderful reading through the gospels. They are works of pure genius. There were a great many miracles that our Savior performed and they might have been related to us one after another after another so that even an account of the miraculous healings of Jesus Christ could become boring. But instead they are interspersed through the narrative. Only some are related to us and in between we have these other fascinating pieces, specimens of the Lord’s teaching or events that occurred. Most recently we considered the striking conversion of Zacchaeus, the tax collector in Jericho. Right before that was the Lord’s encounter with the blind man, Bartimaeus and before that we had his encounter with the rich ruler which ended so sadly. In every case we are learning fabulously important things about the world, about ourselves and about Christ himself. The narrative draws us on. It’s absolutely marvelous. Now we go on to one of the Lord’s parables; one of the most interesting of his parables.
As we have noted frequently before this, many of the Lord’s disciples assumed that, since the Lord was the Messiah, triumph awaited him in Jerusalem. He was, after all, Israel’s long promised king! No one was anticipating the cross and no one was anticipating long ages to elapse before he would appear again. The Lord was beginning to prepare his disciples for what was to come, none of which they understood.
This illustration would have resonated with the Lord’s hearers. They would have known immediately why the Lord told that story. It would have reminded them of Herod the Great, who had received his kingdom by making such a trip to Rome, and, still more of Archelaus, Herod’s son, who had traveled to Rome to press his claims to be king instead of his brother Antipas. Archelaus was a thoroughly bad man and hated by the Jews, but the emperor confirmed him in his rule anyway. There was a special reason to think of Archelaus because he had built for himself a magnificent palace in Jericho.
The point of the reference to the far country is to indicate that the man would not soon return.
A mina was a Greek coin worth a hundred drachmas. A drachma was the equivalent of the Roman denarius, the wage paid to a laborer for a day’s work. So this was not a great deal of money. Each servant was given one mina. Notice the “faithful in little” when we get to v. 17. Most of the Lord’s servants, most Christians, have relatively small gifts with which to serve the Lord. There are few high-flyers among us. There is another parable in Matthew 25 with some similarities to this one, in which talents were given instead of minas. There were 6,000 minas in a talent! [NBD, 840] By the way, this parable is often referred to in Biblical scholarship as the parable of the pounds, because the pound was the main unit of British currency and, until recently, most English language commentaries on the Bible were written by British scholars. Nowadays, with so many commentaries written by Americans, we could, I suppose, call it the parable of the dollars!
Precisely what the Jews did, in fact, in regard to Archelaus. They sent a delegation of some fifty prominent men to Rome to oppose Archelaus’ request and, if you can believe it of Jews, to request a Roman governor instead. [Josephus, Antiquities, XVII] But the emperor gave the kingdom to Archelaus anyway, though he wouldn’t allow him to use the title “king” until he proved himself, which he never did. No one hearing the Lord tell the parable would have missed the reference to Archelaus. It added realism to the parable.
The servant speaks humbly: “your mina has made ten minas more.” A thousand per cent return!
Bengel, the 18th century German Pietist commentator on the New Testament, observes that in the Lord’s kingdom a faithful servant receives a city for a mina! Not a hut or a cottage, but an entire city!
A five hundred percent return.
The last sentence of v. 21 is apparently a proverbial way of saying that this king was a kind of man who expected to reap profits through the efforts of others.
Of course, there were no “banks” in those days. But there were money lenders to whom the servant could safely have entrusted his mina for a time and received it back with interest. “put my money in the bank” is literally “put my money on the table,” i.e. the money lender’s table. By the way, the word “bank” comes from “bench,” i.e. the money lender’s bench. [Morris, 292]
In other words, give it to the servant who has shown that he knows what to do with a mina.
The point is: there are consequences to what we do or fail to do with our opportunities to serve the Lord. It is a statement much like the one in 8:18, where it is a warning to take heed to what the Lord is saying to us.
The terrible severity with which the parable concludes startles us. The fact that Archelaus had murdered 3,000 of his subjects on the first Passover after his accession would have made the Lord’s point particularly telling to his original hearers. But the point, however grim, is absolutely necessary to make if indeed it is true that the coming of the Son of God into the world puts every man to the test and if indeed that test is a matter of life and death. [Manson in Morris, 293] Is this not what we believe about the Second Coming of Jesus, that however happy for the disciples of the Lord, it will be eternal catastrophe for those still in their sins.
Luke explains that the parable was told to counteract the disciples’ assumption that the kingdom was to appear immediately. But apart from the mention of the nobleman going to a far country, there is little in the parable about the prolonged absence of the king. It is rather about the behavior of his servants while he was away. But that was precisely the point. The disciples of the Lord were going to have opportunity to serve him for generations to come. How they would serve him would be the issue, precisely because the consummation of the kingdom would be delayed and they would have to serve him in his absence, by faith and not by sight. None of the disciples was yet ready for this.
But that fact and that lesson are uncontroversial. After all, we are well used to the fact that we live between the two comings of the Lord in what scholars call the inter-adventual period, the period between the two advents or two comings of the Lord. What is controversial is another feature of this parable, in particular the promise of greater or lesser reward for Christians in the world to come. There are many texts in the Bible that teach such discrimination in judgment within the classes of the saved and the lost. We have already read in chapter 12 the Lord’s statement that in hell some will be beaten with few stripes and some with many. But when discussing the question of different degrees of reward for those in heaven, it is this parable that is usually turned to first. One faithful servant rules over ten cities; another over five, and the difference between them was determined by the quality and the effectiveness of their service. Since the parable is intended to teach the necessity of our active service until the Lord’s return, the motive of reward is integral to the lesson the Lord taught in the parable. It isn’t a detail or local color.
But this is a very unpopular doctrine. Christians don’t mind there being degrees of punishment in hell. We can’t help but think that right. Joseph Stalin or Adolph Hitler deserves a greater punishment than does the ordinarily selfish, petty person who loved neither God nor his neighbor, but who never murdered anyone, much less millions of people.
But that Christians should receive different measures of reward in heaven is more problematic. Didn’t the Lord teach another parable (Matt. 20:1-16) in which those who worked for the master all day and those who worked for him just one hour received the same pay? Isn’t our righteousness the righteousness of Christ, not of ourselves, and don’t all who believe in Jesus have that same righteousness? Wouldn’t the fact of greater or lesser rewards in heaven for greater or lesser service on earth introduce a principle of works and merit into our understanding of salvation? These are fair questions and they are the arguments used to deny that there are such distinctions between believers in heaven. There are a good many teachers of the Christian faith, some in our Presbyterian Church in America, who do not believe in such distinctions between saved men and women in heaven. The very idea offends their sense of free grace, of Christ being all in all, and of filial love and gratitude as the only authentic motivations of Christian obedience.
We understand their objections, but we cannot agree with them. The fact is the Bible teaches such distinctions in glory too many times and in too many ways to deny it. Neither the more serious commentators nor the faithful theologians doubt the doctrine of discrimination in divine judgment between Christians in heaven because it is so clearly taught, not only here but in many places in the Bible. There is, in fact, nothing in this parable that should catch us by surprise if we are familiar with the biblical teaching of divine judgment and reward.
It is certainly true that everyone who believes in Jesus is saved and goes to heaven. As a class they receive the same things: the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, endless joy, perfection of body and spirit, and, supremely, life in the immediate presence of the Lord forever. But, all of that being said, is there any reason to doubt distinctions in glory when the Scripture seems so clearly to teach that some will receive greater rewards and some lesser, some will rule over ten cities — whatever that means — and some over five?
After all, isn’t it a law in the kingdom of God, as Paul says, that “whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly; and whoever sows generously, will reap generously”? [2 Cor. 9:6] The true and final reaping of a Christian’s life, of course, occurs finally in heaven. If we only think about it, we fully expect our God to reward obedience, and so to give a greater reward to a greater obedience. Certainly he cares how his children live. And our Master, Jesus Christ, certainly cares how we serve him.
It may be, indeed, as it certainly is, that without him we can do nothing; that every good thing we do is by his grace and by the Holy Spirit within us. If the Lord rewards us for a greater obedience, he will be, in Augustine’s beautiful phrase, “crowning his own gifts.” We have not left the world of God’s grace when we begin to speak about heavenly rewards. But, be that as it may, there are heavenly rewards and of different measure.
Doesn’t the Lord himself often promise reward to the faithful. We have such a promise already enshrined in the Ten Commandments. Children are to obey their parents and if they do they will live long in the land the Lord is going to give them, a promise repeated in the New Testament. “Great is their reward in heaven,” Jesus says to those who faithfully suffer persecution for his sake. So the appeal to reward cannot in and of itself be incompatible with salvation by grace alone if Jesus himself holds out before us the prospect of rewards for faithfulness both in this life and the life to come. Remember his remark about his disciples giving up many things for him receiving 100 times as much in this world and in the world to come eternal life? He obviously didn’t think that to work in the prospect of reward undermined salvation by grace and obedience for the sake of love. And what he thinks is what we are supposed to think, is it not? The fact is Moses is commended to us as an example in Hebrews 11 for risking his life because “he was looking to the reward.” It is only to be human to consider the consequences of one’s actions. Our Savior went to the cross for the “joy set before him,” and it is only to be a Christian to take seriously the eternal consequences as well as the temporal ones.
And Paul not only says to a congregation of Christians that “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” but goes on to say “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” [2 Cor. 5:10] He also spoke of a man whose service in the kingdom was poorly done, a man who would be saved but who would suffer loss. [1 Cor. 3:15] It is possible to suffer loss in heaven! Don’t think you don’t need this message; your Savior thinks you do! Actually, there are a great many texts of this sort that teach us in one way or another that, as we should expect in any case, the Lord’s judgment is perfect and that even within the respective classes of those saved and those lost his judgment makes a proper discrimination between people and that each man in his own way, subject to the principles of his own class — as the Bible so often says — will get what he deserves. Why, virtually the last word spoken by the Lord to his church in the Bible makes a point of this:
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done.” [Rev. 22:12]
Which is simply to reiterate what he said to the seven churches, the Christian Church in microcosm, at the beginning of that same book of Revelation:
“And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.” [2:23]
It is because of this comprehensive biblical witness to this doctrine that our theologians have rarely doubted it. But popular preachers often have, for the reasons I mentioned, and even in churches like ours that ostensibly believe it, the unpopularity of the doctrine is demonstrated by how little it is preached. There are congregations in the Presbyterian Church in America that have never heard this doctrine preached or had this truth urged upon their consciences. This is a teaching of Holy Scripture that, whether or not believed, is almost universally ignored.
There are reasons, of course, for this dislike. Wouldn’t we all rather hear that we don’t have to take our failures so seriously because, after all, they have nothing to do with our future life? Wouldn’t we all prefer to believe that we’re all going to be the same in the world to come? Naturally we would be relieved to know that since our sins are forgiven they can have no future consequences.
American egalitarianism, in which we are all steeped, only strengthens this natural tendency. It is instinctively offended by the notion that there are truly important distinctions between people, that some are worthier than others; but there is a lot about American thinking that does not reflect the mind of God. The Almighty is not troubled by the existence of such distinctions. He does not regard uniformity as equality. There are different ranks among the angels, for example. There are angels and there are archangels. That is apparently fine with the holy angels! What heaven will mean is that we will see the wisdom and justice of this, take pleasure in the Lord’s wisdom, and neither complain nor feel ourselves in any way ill-used. Indeed, there is something in every human soul, made in God’s image, that, at its best — and we’ll be at our best in heaven — takes great pleasure in looking up to people who are worthy to be admired. You do it all the time. Life would be less, not more, if we couldn’t and didn’t look up and admire! It is a good thing, a worthy thing, a holy thing, a human thing, to respect those worthy of respect.
But we have not yet grasped the nettle of this fact that there will be distinctions between Christians in heaven as there will be distinctions — perhaps great distinctions — between the lost in hell. The Lord in this parable, and usually when the subject is raised in Holy Scripture, is seeking to motivate his disciples to greater things in the service of his kingdom, to greater faithfulness of life. He knows that this prospect will make us take seriously how we live our lives in this world, will make us the more ready to make sacrifices for the kingdom’s sake, will drive us onward in personal holiness, in works of love and charity, in evangelism and everything else. The fact that our deeds are in this respect permanent mustmotivate a thinking Christian. That is why it is so important to be reminded of this fact from time to time as we are in the Word of God.
Now, to be sure, the prospect of heavenly reward or the loss of some measure of such reward is not the only motivation, it is not even the principal motivation of the Christian life. There are more fundamental motivations; we know that. We love him who first loved us.
“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Love is a supreme motivation of the Christian life. The Heidelberg Catechism famously entitled its third and final section — that covering the Christian life — with the single word “Gratitude.” We have much to be thankful for, we Christians, and
“Since words can never measure,
Let my life show forth thy praise.”
There are other motivations. To live a holy life and to serve the King of Kings is right. And we should always do what is right. What is more, to live for Christ and to serve him is spiritually satisfying; it produces joy and inner health. That is why you never find a Christian who lived a deeply devout and sacrificially useful life who regrets having done so!
As I said, the prospect of a greater or lesser reward is certainly not the only or the principle motivation of Christian service. You know how the Puritans went on and on. They didn’t think that they had done justice to a subject until they had said about it everything that could be said. Thomas Brooks, in his work The Crown and Glory of Christianity: or Holiness, The only Way to Happiness, itself a very large book, has a section on motivations for seeking higher degrees of holiness. Among the motivations are these:
“…the more holiness you attain to in this world, the more weighty and heavy, the more bright and glorious will be your…crown.” And
“…the more holiness you have here, the more happiness you shall have hereafter.”
Brooks was too faithful a student of the Bible to leave the prospect of greater or lesser rewards in heaven out of his consideration of the motivations that ought to weigh with Christians in seeking to grow in the grace and in the knowledge of the Lord. But those two considerations were numbers 16 and 17; not numbers 1 and 2! True enough, the prospect of reward is not our primary motivation. As Thomas Bolton, another Puritan, who in his classic work The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, devoted a long section to a consideration of whether a Christian could faithfully perform his duties if he were performing them with an eye to his reward, spoke of the motivation of reward not as the supreme reason for a Christian’s obedience but more as “refreshments [along] the way, not the “mainspring of [a Christian’s] motion, but “oil to the wheels…” [192-193]
If you stop and think about this, I think you will agree that this variety of motivations is intrinsic to human life. Think of your life as a child, especially if you grew up in a happy, well-ordered home. Why did you obey your parents? Well certainly first because they were your parents and you were their child. You understood your place. But, more than that, you loved and trusted them. You obeyed because you thought they were right and you obeyed them because you wanted to please them, loving them as you did. But you also obeyed because you knew you had to or there would be consequences. I loved my father; I wanted to please him. But I had at the same time a certain fear, a proper kind of fear I think, of what he would do if I defied him. What is more, obedience led to a happy result, and disobedience made everyone miserable, including me!
And think of it from the other side, you who are parents. You love your children and want them to obey because that is right and because it is healthy for them. A spirit of obedience to authority is key to a happy and fruitful life. A spirit of disobedience, a spirit of rebellion leads to a sour, unhappy, and usually unprofitable life. As a Christian parent you want your children to learn to obey you so that they will come as they grow older to obey God. Christian children learn the principles of authority and obedience in the home. And don’t you often reward your children to encourage them to obey, to make them think obedience is a good thing, something they want for themselves? You reward them with a kiss, or a word, or a piece of candy, or the promise of some outing…or a car. Of course you do. You have learned your craft from God himself.
Some will argue, some have argued, that if we have the motivations of love and gratitude, we hardly need the motivation of reward, which seems petty in comparison, self-interested rather than selfless. But besides the fact that the Bible is always appealing to our self-interest, the dismal fact is, a fact that must be admitted by every Christian who has ever lived, the motivations of love and gratitude are too often not enough. If they were, we wouldn’t fail the Lord as often as we do and we would live far holier and more useful lives, more useful to God and more useful to others.
And if we love the Lord, and if we are genuinely grateful to him for our salvation — a gift paid for in blood and given freely to the deeply unworthy — then we will want, want very much to obey and serve him faithfully, sacrificially, and fruitfully. We will want our lives to count as much as they possibly can for his name and his cause and his kingdom. Love wants the most, not the least possible. But for that reason we ought to be grateful for this added motivation. Sometimes it will be this consideration that will induce us to obedience and service when others will not: my actions in this world are permanent. They count not just for time, but for eternity. That word, that act, that deed, whether of disobedience or obedience, it will come up again and it will have its say again in my life. In a certain way, they last forever in their eternal consequences: in greater or lesser reward. What I do at this moment matters forever!
Brothers and sister, the last thing we should resent is another motive to live a faithful Christian life. The truly godly life is so difficult to live well we need all the motives we can rightly and safely use. How good of God to give us so many reasons to do the right thing; and so how good of our Heavenly Father to remind us that his judgment will consider the greater or lesser faithfulness of his own children and reward them accordingly.
The objection that has always been taken to salvation by grace alone is that it destroys the necessity and the importance of a holy, obedient life of good works. If men are not saved because of what they do, good works lose their importance and, if they are not necessary, even Christians will stop performing them. And every honest one among us knows how that way of thinking appears in our minds: how often we have thought, “Well, I can be forgiven later.” This objection was made against Paul’s teaching about salvation by grace at the very beginning and it has been repeated a million times since, no matter that the great apostle, one would have thought, had decisively answered that objection.
The truth is that good works, a holy life, a life lived for the sake of the kingdom of God, are as necessary in the gospel as they would be in some system of salvation by works, were such a system possible, which it is not. And they are necessary not for one, but for many reasons:
- Because of the nature of God himself and his unchangeable law;
- Because of the nature of salvation which is deliverance from sin to a life of good works;
- Because God has loved us and saved us in spite of our undeserving and for that we love him and are undyingly grateful to him and love and gratitude must have their practical expression;
- Because God is our Father and we are his children and in any well-ordered home, obedience to parents will be a principle of life;
- Because obedience is the right way to live, the way that brings the greatest happiness and satisfaction and peace;
- Because Christ has set an example for us that we should walk in his steps and he lived his life in obedience to his heavenly Father and for the service of his kingdom;
- Because our assurance of salvation is partially based upon the moral character of our lives and our good works;
- And I could go on.
But among all of those considerations that make good works and faithful living and useful service to the kingdom of God important and necessary is this: the way we live our lives today, the measure with which we obey and serve the Lord today, counts forever because God will reward a Christian’s obedience and service according to its measure. You have only to think about that for a moment to realize how important and how helpful that fact ought to be to you! Our life is serious business – our everyday life, and every moment of it – more serious than we think!