Heaven is Better than Earth

Topical Scripture: Psalm 16

Wynter Pitts died recently in her sleep at the age of thirty-eight. She left a husband and four daughters.

Her uncle is Dr. Tony Evans, the brilliant pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship and an international speaker and author. At a service last weekend, he and his family discussed Wynter’s sudden death. One of his sons asked him why he keeps going in the face of such tragedy.

Dr. Evans responded: “Because I believe what I preach. I do believe she’s in a better place. I do believe in the sovereignty of God. I do believe in the goodness of God. I do believe. And because I believe, I do keep going.”

Where do you need to “keep going”? Let’s find hope for hard times in a surprising place.

“My flesh also dwells secure”

As Psalm 16 begins, David has “taken refuge” in his Lord (v. 1). The Hebrew could be translated, “fled for shelter.” The verse depicts a person facing an approaching storm or army and running into a refuge he knows will protect him.

He trusted in the Lord as his shelter because he knew, “I have no good apart from you” (v. 2). This despite the fact that he was king of the nation and one of the most powerful people on earth.

As a result, he treasures the “saints in the land,” the people of God, more than any of his other possessions (v. 3). He knows that they, not his wealth or fame, are eternal. And he knows that the “sorrows” of those who trust in other gods “shall multiply,” so he refuses to worship or trust in them (v. 4).

Instead, he has made the Lord his “chosen portion” and his “cup,” the one who holds his “lot” (v. 5). These terms refer to his personal possessions in life. He knows that he has a “beautiful inheritance” from the Lord (v. 6).

And he knows that all of this comes from the One who gives him counsel and instructs his heart in the night (v. 7). He has set the Lord at his “right hand”—a warrior typically carried a shield in his left hand and his spear or sword in his right. David trusts in God as his sword for victory and life.

Now we come to the climax of his praise: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure” (v. 9). Why? “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (v. 10). “Sheol” is an Old Testament term referring to “death” or the “grave.”

As a result, David can say: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (v. 10). He knows the “path of life” and the “fullness of joy” today. And best of all, he knows that he will experience “pleasures forevermore” when he is at the “right hand” of God in heaven.

When I was in high school, my youth minister gave me the best single piece of advice I’ve ever received: Always remember the source of your personal worth.

Because Jesus rose, we will rise

Psalm 16 is one of the most frequently quoted psalms in the New Testament.

Preaching to the massive crowds at Pentecost, the apostle Peter quoted David’s testimony, then explained:

Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses (Acts 2:29–32).

Paul also cited Psalm 16:10 to declare the resurrection of Jesus. Speaking at Pisidian Antioch during his first missionary journey, he quoted David’s statement from a thousand years earlier. Then he made this statement:

For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption (Acts 13:36–37).

So, we see that David’s statement was fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. The New Testament adds that Jesus’ resurrection is God’s promise of our resurrection as well:

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die'” (John 11:25–26).

“Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).

“God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Corinthians 6:14).

Because Jesus would not “see corruption” (Psalm 16:10), neither will we.

Streets of “pure gold”

So far, we’ve explored the interesting fact that David made a statement about his future resurrection that was fulfilled by Jesus a thousand years later and guarantees us that we will be raised from the dead as well. But you already knew that Christians live forever with God in heaven. You already knew that because of Easter, you will be raised from the grave into his perfect paradise.

Here’s why this fact is so relevant and urgent for us today: It turns the cultural values of our day upside-down.

You and I live in the most prosperous era in human history. Consider some examples:

  • Life expectancy at birth in 1800 was 39 years; it is 79 years today.
  • In 1949, Popular Mechanics made the bold prediction that someday a computer could weigh less than a ton. An iPad weighs 0.73 pounds.
  • Median income has nearly doubled since the 1950s. The size of median houses has risen 34 percent.
  • In 1960, 10 percent of American homes had air conditioning. Today it’s 89 percent; the 11 percent that don’t are mostly in cold climates.
  • Almost no one had a refrigerator in 1900. Today they sell cars with refrigerators in them.
  • The average new home now has more bathrooms than occupants.

Our world has become so prosperous that it’s hard to want to leave. By contrast, we’ve grown up picturing heaven as a boring place where we play harps on clouds or sit in church for eternity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There’s an entire sermon series here, but let’s be brief:

  • David stated, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
  • In heaven, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
  • Jesus said, “Blessed is everyone who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15 NIV).
  • We have perfect understanding in heaven: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
  • You and I have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).
  • In short, “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9 NLT).

The Bible says that the streets of heaven are made of “pure gold” (Revelation 21:21). The precious commodity that is the basis for our entire monetary system is like concrete in paradise.

“These are the things that make it hard to die”

What does the fact that we will not “see corruption” mean for us today? In short, death is not an enemy but an invitation.

When earth seems more attractive than heaven, it can be hard to live for heaven on earth. It can be hard to make earthly sacrifices for the sake of heavenly results and rewards. It can be hard to see death as victory and the grave as the path to glory.

A pastor was asked by a wealthy church member to say a prayer of blessing over his new mansion. He said to the man, “These are the things that make it hard to die.”

Soledad Alamino passed away last Monday. You did not have the privilege of meeting Soledad unless you’ve been to Cespedes, Cuba, or happened to meet her on one of her trips to the US. Because our ministry partners with her husband and family and I’ve been to Cuba so many times, it was my privilege to know her well.

And to know that she was one of the most powerful intercessors, courageous believers, and empowering leaders I’ve ever met, anywhere in the world.

She died Monday after a three-year battle with cancer, a malignancy that would probably have been cured if she had not been in Cuba. When I got the news Monday night and told Janet, her immediate response was profound: “We are grieving only because we don’t see what she sees.”

When Soledad took her last breath here, she took her first breath there. She stepped from pain and suffering into reward and glory. She exchanged this broken planet for God’s perfect paradise. She has been completely healed. And for her, it will only be a moment before she sees us again.

Soledad Alamino could live so courageously on earth because she wasn’t living for earth.


I have been privileged to travel several times to Oxford University to teach a doctoral seminar for Dallas Baptist University. Each time, our group stands at a painted gold cross in the middle of a road. In my opinion, it is one of the holiest sites in all of England.

It was the mid-sixteenth century. Queen Mary was attempting to take England back to the Catholic Church. Protestants by the hundreds were martyred, among them two men named Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer.

On October 16, 1555, Ridley and Latimer were lashed to the stake in the center of Oxford University and set afire. The gold cross in the road marks the spot where they were executed.

As the flames rose, Latimer shouted to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”

On my last trip, we also visited the church Nicholas Ridley pastored before he was martyred. There we were shown a candle that stays lit every hour of every day of every year. It never goes out. They call it “Ridley’s candle.”

What candle will you light today?

I Am the Light of the World

Topical Scripture: John 9:1-7

I was once part of a group touring Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The park contains over 119 caves. One of its caves has been mapped to a depth of 1,600 feet. Seventeen species of bats live in the park; one count estimated 793,000 of them in the caverns.

At one point in our tour, the guide turned off the lights wired into the ceiling of the cave, then his flashlight. We were plunged into the most total darkness I have ever experienced. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. No amount of adjustment to the dark made my eyes able to see. There was absolutely no light anywhere in the room.

Then the guide turned on his flashlight again. It was immediately and obviously visible to everyone in the cave. And it illuminated all that we could not see just a moment before.

I found my experience to be a metaphor for Jesus’ statement, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). Without his light, we are all in complete and total spiritual darkness. By his grace, all who turn to his light can see.

So, what does it mean for Jesus to be the “light of the world”? What about people who have never seen this light? What happens to them? If God would condemn them to hell for rejecting a light they’ve never seen, what does that say about God? Conversely, if they don’t have to see the light to be saved, why does God tell us to share it? Why does he send people to risk their lives as missionaries to shine a light that the world doesn’t need?

Finally, how do we share this light in a way that defeats the darkness? These are the questions we’ll discuss today as we learn how to share the only “light of the world” with those in our dark “cave,” wherever and however we can.

Opening blind eyes and souls

Last week, we began a survey of Jesus’ “I Am” statements, using them to address the perennial faith questions we all face. Today, we come to his second “I Am” claim: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).

As our text opens, Jesus “saw a man blind from birth” (v. 1). This man’s infirmity meant that he could not be healed by first-century medicine. He needed not a physician, but a miracle.

Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2). In the misguided theology of their day, every physical illness had a spiritual cause. If this man was born blind, clearly someone sinned. The options were binary—either him or his parents.

(It’s interesting that the disciples thought Jesus would know the answer to their question, an indication of their growing understanding of his divinity.)

Jesus exploded their wrong theology: “It is not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3). Some suffering is the result of sin, but that was not the case here. Much of the world’s grief and pain is not the result of anyone’s sin or failure. Think of Job’s plight or Jesus’ crucifixion. To attribute all suffering to sin often increases the suffering of the innocent.

God did not cause this man’s blindness, but he used it: “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Our Lord redeems all he allows, something Jesus demonstrated powerfully in this man’s life.

Then Jesus brought us into the narrative: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (v. 4). “We must” points to the imperative of what Jesus calls us to do. “Night is coming” shows its urgency.

Our “work” is to share the true light our dark world so desperately needs: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (v. 5). Here Jesus repeats God’s holy personal name, “I Am.” “The” points to the fact that he is the only light of the world. All else is darkness.

The Bible says of Jesus:

  • “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
  • “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:4–5).
  • “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'” (John 8:12).

Now Jesus calls us to reflect his light to our dark world: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16).

So, our text teaches that Jesus is the light our dark world needs. He is the light of salvation, wisdom, direction, and purpose. Our job is to reflect his light to others, so they may see our works and praise our Father in heaven.

What about those who have not seen the light?

Here’s the problem: two billion people, nearly a third of the planet’s population, have never heard the gospel. They’ve never been shown the light. They’ve never been given the opportunity to make Jesus their light. Billions more have some access to the gospel, but they live in places where it is hard or dangerous to become Christians.

What happens to them? Let’s survey the options.

One: God judges them according to the light they have.

Romans 1 states:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (vv. 18–20).

The text clearly teaches that all people are “without excuse” for rejecting God, since his “invisible attributes” can be perceived through his creation. However, this does not mean that they can be saved apart from the gospel, or there would be no need to share the gospel. We could trust that people will respond or not to the light they can see in the world, with no responsibility for giving them more light.

Two: God knows what they would do if they heard the gospel.

The Bible says that Jesus “knew what was in man” (John 2:25). God knows “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10). It is plausible, therefore, that he knows what a person would do if he or she had an opportunity to respond to the gospel and judges this person accordingly.

But if this is true, why do we need to give them the light? Why risk our lives to share the gospel with those who have not heard it?

Three: Everyone goes to heaven.

This is called “universalism,” and it comes in two forms. One claims that since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), everyone goes to heaven because he loves them.

The other claims that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for everyone’s sins, whether they know it or not. I don’t have to know about Jonas Salk to receive the polio vaccination he developed.

However, the Bible says of Jesus: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). Our Lord said of himself, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Clearly, a person has to trust in Jesus to be in heaven.

Four: All who have not heard are condemned.

This is the logical corollary to the third position. If people must trust in Jesus to be saved, and they do not hear the gospel, they must be lost. If I need to receive a vaccination to avoid contracting polio and no one tells me about this vaccination, I will get polio. The fault is not mine, but I will contract the disease nonetheless.

However, Scripture teaches that God is just: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you” (Psalm 89:14). He is also love (1 John 4:8). It seems a contradiction of his justice and his love to condemn people to hell for rejecting a light they have never been shown.

Five: The “elect” will see the light.

Some Christians believe that God chooses who will be in heaven (the “elect”) and who will be in hell. While this seems harsh, they note that no one deserves to be in heaven. Salvation is only by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). All who are in hell deserve to be there.

However, the Bible says that God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Scripture states that our Father “desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). While some believe that these texts refer only to the “elect,” others (myself included) see them as applying to all of mankind.

John 3:16 is both famous and clear: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Six: God will get the gospel to everyone in the world.

Here we meet the concept of “supernatural evangelism,” the belief that the Holy Spirit is showing the light of Christ to the world, whether we participate in his ministry or not. Jesus revealed himself supernaturally to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Cornelius had a vision that led him to Peter and to the gospel (Acts 10).

Millions of Muslims around the world are seeing visions and having dreams of Jesus and the gospel. (For more, see my friend Tom Doyle’s magnificent book, Dreams and Visions or do an internet search on “Muslim visions of Jesus.”) Since God wants all people to be saved, his Spirit is bringing his light to those we cannot or will not reach.

Affirming this principle could cause us to be less committed to global missions, since God is reaching those we do not. But we can see our Lord as our missions partner. The fact that missionaries are reaching people overseas I cannot reach makes me no less responsible for the people I can reach at home. We can take the same approach with God’s global missions activity.


Whatever your approach to this question, here’s a fact we can all affirm: lost people need Jesus. Those in the dark need and deserve to see the light. And it’s our privilege and responsibility to share it with all we can, however we can.

If we could ask Paul what happens to those who don’t hear the gospel, here would be his answer: tell them. Don’t speculate about the question, but answer it practically. If we shared the light with those in the dark, the question would not exist.

You might respond, “But I cannot reach the entire world.” You’re right. But together, God’s people can fulfill God’s Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Consider this: If you were the only Christian on earth and you won me to Jesus today, there would be two of us. If tomorrow, each of us won someone to Jesus, there would be four of us. If the next day, each of us won someone to Jesus, there would be eight of us. Then sixteen, then thirty-two, then sixty-four, and so on.

How long would it take us to reach the entire planet? Thirty-three days.

By multiplication, in thirty-three days the number would be 8,589,934,592, exceeding the planet’s population by a billion people.

This is the method of multiplication Jesus intended when he spent three years with twelve men. He wanted them to reach others who would reach others, until they reached the entire world. And by Acts 17:6 they had “turned the world upside down.”

Now it’s our turn. Will you pray by name for a lost person you know? Will you ask Jesus to shine his light through your life?

Who will be in heaven because of you?

It’s Not What You Know, But Who You Know

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:19-20

It’s been another challenging week in the news.

Lightning struck a tree at the Tour Championship in Atlanta yesterday. It exploded, injuring six spectators with debris.

A New York Times article warned us that if the Yellowstone supervolcano were to erupt, it would be “like nothing humanity has ever experienced.” It would cover large parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah in up to three feet of volcanic ash.

The ash cloud would destroy crops, ruin power lines and transformers, plunge global temperatures, and devastate farming. One group of researchers called such an eruption “the greatest catastrophe since the dawn of civilization.”

In other news, an asteroid that could have leveled an entire city flew by our planet recently. What makes the story so frightening is that astronomers did not detect it until it passed us. If it had struck our planet, “it would have gone off like a very large nuclear weapon,” according to one scientist.

We could talk about the fact that shark attacks have doubled in highly populated areas in the last twenty years. Or the New Zealand teenager who may have exposed hundreds of people to measles when she visited Disneyland and other popular tourist destinations.

We are all mortal. This fact means that we must all prepare for what happens when this life ends. I cannot promise you that you will die this week, but I cannot promise you that you won’t.

But the good news is that if we will live for heaven on earth, we will live our very best life on earth. It’s as C. S. Lewis says: “Aim at heaven and you get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you get neither.”

How do we best “aim at heaven” today?

How to be great in heaven

Jesus’ Sermon continues: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19). Here Jesus shows us who will be great in heaven, and who will be least.

The “great” will be those who “practice and teach” the word of God. Both are crucial, and in this order. The “least” will be those who break the “least” of the commandments of God and influence others to do the same. Those who do not live by the word and will of God and lead others away from his word as well.

Practice and then preach. This is how we conform to the image of Christ, achieving God’s definition of success for our lives. This is how we are like Jesus, and how we help other people follow Jesus.

This is why Billy Graham is great in heaven—not because he has preached to two billion people, but because he first practiced what he preached.

Dr. Graham would not step onto an elevator alone if a woman was in that elevator alone. An associate always went into a hotel room before he did. He would not eat a meal alone with a woman except his wife. He did not take one dollar from the collections given at his Missions, drawing only a salary that was publicly disclosed. His team always undercounted the crowds at his meetings, lest he be accused of exaggeration.

Billy Graham was on Larry King Live twenty-four times. During one of their interviews, King asked Dr. Graham what his greatest fear in life might be. His answer: “My greatest fear is that I might do something before I die which would bring dishonor to my Lord.”

His life was his most powerful sermon. So is yours. So is mine.

How to miss heaven

So Jesus shows us how to be great in heaven. Now let’s ask an even more urgent question: how do we get there? “For I tell you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20 NIV).

“I tell you” shows that these words come from Jesus himself. Your righteousness must “surpass,” an emphatic word which means to go far beyond, to outdistance greatly. Your “righteousness” must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. What was theirs? What must ours be?

The Pharisees were a small group, never more than six thousand men. Their name meant “separated ones,” and it describes their passionate commitment to separation from regular life in obedience to the minutia of the Torah, the Law of God.

The Pharisees calculated that the Law contained 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, and they aspired to keep them all. As an example, they had thirty-nine categories of Sabbath laws. Not thirty-nine laws—thirty-nine categories. No group in human history has been more religious than were the Pharisees. If it were possible to go to heaven through human effort, their reservations in paradise would have been guaranteed.

But they were not: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Certainly not” is a double negative: “by no means,” “there is no way that” you can enter heaven unless you are more righteous before God than were the Pharisees, the most religiously righteous people on earth.

In other words, you cannot do enough or be religious enough to go to heaven. The ladder doesn’t climb high enough. Religion won’t work, no matter how much of it you do. If it didn’t work for the Pharisees, it won’t work for us.

But we try, and we think we’re successful.

Most Americans are nowhere as religious as were the Pharisees. By some estimates, less than 20 percent of Americans attend worship services regularly, and about one in three read the Bible even once a week.

But only 2 percent of us are afraid we might to go hell. When Mother Teresa died, 78 percent of Americans said they thought she was in heaven, but 87 percent were sure they would go there.

Why? Because we’re “good people.” We believe in God and live good lives. Most have a church membership where they attend at Christmas and Easter and occasionally through the year. And our good deeds and religious beliefs are good enough, we’ve decided. But they’re not.

How to go to heaven

So, how do we get there? How can our “righteousness” surpass that of the most religiously righteous people who have ever lived?

I remember well my last visit to the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels. They are beautiful, but they are also off limits to me. There is literally nothing I can do to earn the right to wear them.

I could renounce my American citizenship, move to England, and become a British citizen. I could serve in the British armed services and rise to their highest rank of office. I could immerse myself in British politics and become elected prime minister. But there is literally nothing I can do to achieve the status of royalty, for I was not born into the royal family. I need a different kind of achievement than is possible for me to realize.

So it is with the righteousness of God required to enter heaven. I cannot achieve it, nor can you, or the Queen of England for that matter. Only God can give this to us. This is the righteousness he gives to those who accept his Son as their Savior. Then we become the children of God—born into the family of God, born again into royalty.

This is the “righteousness” which surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. This is the only righteousness that brings us to heaven.

Jesus explained it this way to the religious leader Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3 NIV). Paul added: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). No one. No Pharisee. No Baptist. Not Billy Graham. Not you or me.

You cannot get to heaven by what you do, but only by what Jesus has done. It’s not what you know, but Who you know. We must “put our faith in Christ Jesus.” Is Jesus your Lord and Master? Do you know him personally, intimately? Does he know you?


Today Jesus has shown us how to get to heaven and how to be great when we are there. Make him your Savior, your Lord. Then do his word and will and teach others as well. Follow Jesus, and help people follow Jesus. This is the gospel. It is so simple a child can understand it, and so profound we will spend our lives living it.

This is the gospel Billy Graham preached all over the world. It is the only way to heaven there is, and the only way we need.

Are you sure you are going to heaven? If you are, are you sure you will be great when you arrive? Will you receive eternal rewards that far outweigh their cost on earth? Are you living by the word of God and helping others live by the word of God?

When Cecil Sewell retired as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Union City, Tennessee, a town of ten thousand residents, his decision made no headlines in Dallas or across the nation. But he will truly be great in heaven.

In 1973, Rev. Sewell was leading a thriving church in Birmingham, Alabama, when the pastor search committee from a start-up church in Houston came to visit. Their church was so small and unimpressive that they did not show him pictures of its buildings. When they finally persuaded him to visit their church, they drove him around the area, hoping to impress him with the new homes and nearby college before they showed him their tiny campus.

Against all odds, he agreed to resign his large church and become their pastor. Later that year, he started a bus ministry to reach kids in the nearby apartment complexes. In August of 1973, that bus ministry invited me to his church. His wife, Sharon, led me to Christ. He baptized me and my brother, licensed and ordained me to ministry, and performed my father’s funeral and our wedding.

I have never known a man more committed to prayer and evangelism than Cecil Sewell. Every person I reach with God’s word is an extension of his ministry. I will be in heaven because he will be great in heaven.

Who will be in heaven because of you?

The Day after Labor Day

Topical Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:10–15

Labor Day is the day when we do the opposite of what the name says. It’s a bit oxymoronic, like “jumbo shrimp” or “plastic silverware.” Nonetheless, it’s good to have a day not to labor. But the day will soon be over, and the world will be waiting when we get back.

What could we decide today that would make the day after Labor Day as hopeful and fulfilling as possible?

There are more than 155 million Americans in full-time and part-time employment today. Researchers say we work for six reasons, on a scale from less to most meaningful:

  • Inertia: working to do what we’ve always done
  • Economic pressure: working to make a financial living
  • Emotional pressure: working to please family, friends, and society
  • Potential: working to fulfill personal goals for a better future
  • Purpose: working for a sense of accomplishment
  • Play: working because we find joy and fulfillment in what we do.

All six are legitimate, but obviously, the more we can move further to the side of meaning, the better. When we can’t believe someone pays us to do what we do, we’re in a good place.

In our walk through the Sermon on the Mount, last week we noted Jesus’ statement that whoever does and teaches the word of God “will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).

The Bible describes specific rewards in heaven, crowns given to those who are faithful on earth. On Labor Day weekend, let’s explore the reasons to labor that have eternal significance.

Work for reward that lasts

Our text begins: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it” (v. 10). Paul is describing his apostolic ministry as apostle to the Gentiles, a ministry that brought him to Corinth and led him to establish the first Christian church there. This is the “foundation” he laid; now that he has left the city, those who followed him in faith are “building on it.”

However, the apostle is clear: “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (v. 11). He is the one true foundation of the church, the rock upon which we stand as Christians.

Now Paul comes to our choice: “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw” (v. 12). We can build on Christ using materials that are precious and last, or material that are cheap and temporal.

Here’s why we should give God our best: “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (v. 13). The “Day” to which he refers is the day of judgment when “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” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Here’s the good news: “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward” (v. 14). As fire reveals gold, silver, and precious stones for what they are, so God’s judgment will reveal the good works we have done in his name and for his glory. For them, we will “receive a reward.”

Here’s the bad news: “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (v. 15). At question is not our salvation. If we have asked Jesus Christ to forgive our sins and become our Lord and Savior, he answered our prayer and made us the children. We will therefore “be saved,” no matter what. But we will forfeit eternal reward that God can give only to those who are faithful to him.

It stands to reason that we would want to work most for that which is most valuable. Eternal rewards in heaven are the most valuable purpose for which to work on earth.

Seek crowns in heaven

The Bible describes these rewards as “crowns.” It’s a powerful metaphor. In the ancient world (and today), crowns are made of the best materials and awarded only to the most significant people. To wear a crown is to be royalty, to be recognized above all others.

Scripture lists four such crowns that God wants to give all of us.

First, there is the “imperishable crown.” “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:24–25 NIV).

Here we learn about the importance of “strict training,” of running “in such a way as to get the prize.” This means to live with discipline, to know and live by God’s word, to walk with him daily as his Spirit empowers us.

Are you in “strict training”? Are you walking daily with your Lord?

Second, there is the “crown of life.” “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12 NIV). Jesus said, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).

This crown comes to those who choose to suffer in order to be faithful to their Lord. When we take unpopular but biblical stands, when we share our faith with those who ridicule us, when we serve Christ in hard places and times, he knows what we do for him. And he rewards us forever.

When was the last time it cost you something significant to follow Jesus?

Third, there is the “soul-winner’s crown.” “What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 NIV).

Paul is speaking of Thessalonians he led to Christ when he came to their city. There, he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (Acts 17:2–4).

Now he rejoices that these and others he helped find Christ will be “the crown in which we will glory.” Every person you lead closer to Christ is such a crown waiting for you. How many will you have in heaven?

Fourth, there is the “crown of righteousness.” “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7–8 NIV).

This crown comes to those who are faithful to the end, who glorify Christ with their lives and service until he calls them home. We cannot know that we will be faithful until the day we die. But we can decide every day to be ready to meet him every day, until that day comes.

Have you made that commitment yet today?


If we live with spiritual discipline, paying any price to serve Jesus, leading others to him and being ready to meet him daily, we will live and work in ways God can bless. We will give him our best and receive his best.

C. S. Lewis once said that there are two kinds of people. Some say to God, “Your will be done.” For them, meeting God in judgment will be reward and victory. To the others, God must finally say, “Your will be done.” They have rejected heaven, or rewards in heaven.

Is it his will or yours? You have only today to decide.

I’ll close with a personal word. More than four decades years ago, like millions of other people, I was preparing on Labor Day weekend to go to college. Choosing God’s will or my will was the major issue before me.

My dream was to become a professional tennis player or trumpet player. My parents, being a bit more realistic, would have preferred that I become a doctor. I knew that God had called me into the ministry of the word.

So, I kept all my options open. I chose to major in music, medicine, and religion, while keeping up my tennis game on the side. I tried to do my will and God’s will at the same time.

But I was miserable. I wasn’t happy in school or in life. I actually made plans to transfer to another university, hoping that would help.

Then, three of my professors befriended me. They gave me opportunities to teach Bible studies and preach sermons, to become involved in the ministry to which I knew I had been called.

And the more I served Jesus, the more I came to love Jesus. And the more I came to love the life he intended for me. Through that process, I chose to submit my life to God’s purpose for my life.

Looking back on that decision forty-three years later, I will always be grateful I chose his will over my own. Always.

I’ll make you a personal promise: if you’ll choose his will over yours, you’ll be glad you did. You will receive eternal rewards that far outweigh their cost, and you’ll live a life on earth of significance, purpose, and joy.

My college pastor told me something I’ve never forgotten: “The will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain.” If you’ll live for God in heaven, you’ll live your best life on earth.”

This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.