When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. (Isaiah 1:15-17)
Many of us are watching the unrest, the protests and the riots in the United States right now. We wonder, what is going on? What can a Christian say to these things? Well, as I read scripture, I see that God is intensely interested in justice, for the cause of the oppressed, those that seek justice and are denied.
In the past few years, due the rise of cell phone videos and Youtube, I have seen a black man killed by a police officer while he sat in the car with his girlfriend and calmly said, “sir, I need to tell you I do have a licensed firearm in the car.” The officer then shot him dead and the man kept saying, “I am not reaching for a weapon.” His last words were, “I wasn’t reaching for it.”
I saw an unarmed black man out for a jog when two white men, with guns, roared up in a pickup truck and stopped him in the middle of the street. When they confronted him, and he tried to run, they shot him dead in the street.
I saw a 12-year-old black boy in a playground with a toy gun shot dead by officers in matter of seconds. I heard the report that they did not move to administer first aid or help in any way. I read the report, and there is video, of his 14-year-old sister who came out of the house, hysterical that her brother was shot dead, be handcuffed by the officers who murdered her brother, put in a patrol car and threatened with jail if she did not “calm down.”
I saw a 43-year-old black man choked to death on the street by an officer. Apparently, this man sometimes sold loose cigarettes. But he wasn’t selling that day. But even if he was – is the punishment for selling loose cigarettes death? Is that justice? Is that law & order?
Most recently I saw a black man handcuffed, on the ground, while three officers held his legs and back another officer pushed his knee to the man’s neck for a full 8 minutes and the man cried, “I can’t breathe” then, he called for his momma, then he died, murdered by a man who represents law & order and justice.
You can go watch all these videos too. I note that in some these murders sometimes no charges are laid, sometimes no arrests are made and even when charges are brought there’s often a not guilty verdict. Do you see some injustice here? As you watch the unrest and the riots you understand this is not only about George Floyd, this is not only about Philando Castille, this not only about Ahmad Aubrey, this is not only about Tamir Rice, this is not only about Eric Garner. It’s about all of them, but it’s about more than that, it’s about a system and a society which robs a people of their dignity, of their humanity, of their opportunities to thrive and succeed.
We are taking about a black population which has had to fight every step of the way for basic human rights and dignity. Slavery ended but black people were not allowed to eat with, swim with, watch movies with, ride the bus with, white people. They had to fight for the right to not sit on the back of the bus. They had to fight for the right to got to the same restaurants, swimming pools and schools as white people and to get the same voting rights as white people.
We all love Martin Luther king Jr. now, but you understand that 75 percent of white people did not like Martin Luther king when he was alive. You understand that numerous white churches in the south called Martin Luther a communist. They cheered when he was assassinated. Oh, we love Martin Luther king now, but, if we were there then, statistically, we’d tell him to just, “obey the laws of the land, don’t rock the boat.” We’d say, “don’t you believe in law and order? Doesn’t Romans 13 tell you to obey the laws of the government?” If the majority of white Christians had their way Martin Luther king Jr. would have shut up, sat down, and things would have just carried on the way they were.
When you watch protests happening this week, I hope you understand you are seeing a people who have been denied justice, who have been taught they must yell and scream for their voice to be heard. Because they did have to march and yell for freedom and for their voice to be heard.
Of course, we don’t condone riots, looting or more violence, that is injustice as well, but we can support peaceful protest. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. peacefully protested, the people of God can join in on lending our voice to the ones who are denied justice. And we can even have understanding for those who vent their rage through riots.
As Martin Luther King Jr. put it: It is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.
Our God is a God of justice. When justice does not come to the ones who need justice the most, it angers God. The prophet Amos is called by God to bring a message of judgement to Israel. This is what the Lord says to Israel, “The people of Israel have perverted justice by selling honest people for silver and poor people for a pair of sandals. They trample helpless people in the dust and deny justice to those who are oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7)
There is judgement on those who deny justice to the oppressed. There is judgment on those who trample people in the dust, kneel on their necks in the street. If you want to see the righteous anger of the Lord – deny justice to those who cry for justice.
We are missing the heart of God if we believe all He wants of us is to dress up, go to church, and smile at everyone. God is a God of justice and He expects those who bear his name to uphold justice, to speak for the oppressed and the poor, the widow and the orphan.
The lord says to His people Israel, “I hate all your show and pretense – the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your hymns of praise! They are only noise to my ears. I will not listen to your music, no matter how lovely it is. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, a river of righteous living that will never run dry. (Amos 5:21-24)
You can stand in front of a church and wave a Bible for the cameras all you want but that is not what God desires. It’s not what God calls His people to. When there is wrong, speak up. When there is injustice, speak out. When you have power to change a system of injustice, change it.
I speak on this today because most of us are captivated by what is happening in the United States. But the heart of God is for His people is to uphold justice everywhere. What are the places of injustice in our society? What do you see? what do you need to do or say?
We see from the prophet Amos that God won’t even notice our praise, our prayers, our offerings, if we turn a blind eye to injustice. God has a grand view of justice. This theme of injustice comes through quite clearly as we look at the words of the Lord through the prophet Amos. A church that does not think about the oppressed, the ones who are denied justice, the poor, the sick and the hungry is guilty of missing a crucial part of what God desires.
Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 23, “How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! You are careful to tithe even the tiniest part of your income but you ignore the important things of the law – justice, mercy and faith. You should tithe, yes, but you should not leave undone the more important things”
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the Israelites of Amos’s day and even some Christians in our day believe if they just do their religious ceremonies God will be pleased – but they are mistaken! It becomes clear from reading through Amos that God cares deeply about those who are the fringes of society, the poor and exploited and those denied justice. If we are not actively looking for ways to help the poor or to stand up against exploitation and injustice, we are missing a key element of following God. We are missing out on understanding God’s grand view of justice.
As one author said, “millions of Christians live in a sentimental haze of vague piety, with soft organ music trembling in the lovely light from stained-glass windows. Their religion is a pleasant thing of emotions, divorced from the intellect, divorced from the will, and demanding little except lip service to a few harmless platitudes.”
Christians like this, with what this author calls, “a mild case of Christianity,” closely resemble the Ancient Israelites of Amos’s day because they are self-satisfied and complacent. Not caring at all that God may require more than singing a few nice songs and regular church attendance. We need to acknowledge that the Lord our God is intensely interested in the plight of the poor and the oppressed. God wants justice where there is injustice.
I hope that theme has come through clear enough. God’s view of justice is not law & order. Remember it was law and order for whites to own slaves and for slaves who resisted captivity to be hung. It was law and order for black people to be separated from white people in schools, busses, restaurants, theatres, pools and just about anywhere. It was law and order for black people to be denied loans for homes and houses in white suburbs. We, who bear the name of God, are to be people of justice.
We cannot simply drift through life in a “haze of vague piety.” If we want to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world we need to stand up and do what we can to help the people who are so dear to God’s heart --- those who are denied justice, the poor, the oppressed the widowed and the orphaned.
I hope this explains some of what might be on God’s heart as the protests roll across the United States. But I would urge us to not look at our neighbours to the South and shake our heads. Instead of being glued to the TV watching the flames of the cities in the United states, look for the places in our society and our country and our town where there is a cry for justice. A plea for help, a need for assistance. Perhaps we should be thinking about First Nations people in our country. Perhaps we should be taking a look at our own view and treatment of minorities in Canada.
As Jesus so bluntly tells us, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
Scripture seems to indicate that there will be varying degrees of rewards in heaven. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Matthew 5:11-12, Luke 6:35) Always remember that rewards are not the same as the gift of eternal life. All who place their faith in Jesus will receive eternal life not based on anything they have done. (Ephesians 2:8)
However, there are numerous passages which speak about the work we do on earth as having significance in eternity. It’s spoken of as storing up treasure in heaven, reward, or a prize.
Sometimes people believe there may also be five different crowns believers can receive as a separate rewards (1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4). Though it is popular to see these as different types of reward (crown of righteousness, crown of gold, crown of life, etc.) a majority of commentators believe these are different ways of referring to the one reward of eternal life. I am inclined to agree with the majority of commentators – the five crowns all refer to the reward/gift of eternal life.
The question then becomes what exactly are these rewards? Here’s where it gets really frustrating because, although the Bible seems to clearly indicate there are rewards, and varying degrees of rewards, it is not clear on what exactly those rewards are. Because of this we can only make educated guesses as to what the rewards may be. I tend to agree with Pastor John Starke who wrote:
“If there are degrees of reward, they would likely revolve around increased capacities and responsibilities.”
Jonathan Edwards explains what increased capacity means: “Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness (the ocean of happiness is eternal life in the presence of God without sin) is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others; and there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign throughout the whole society.” Edwards means some people may have greater capacity to experience the love, joy and peace of God’s presence – everyone will be full but some will be “larger vessels”
Increased responsibilities may be tied into the biblical idea of ruling with Jesus. John Starke asks, “Could the parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11-27) imply that some believers will rule over more cites in the new heavens and earth? If so, this would mean that under our “great reward” (enjoying God himself) there are various roles and responsibilities. I am not certain this will be the case, but I see nothing inherently problematic in holding to this as a possibility.
In summary, all true believers will receive the great reward of seeing God face to face, and this should motivate all of our actions. The NT nowhere clearly and explicitly teaches varying degrees of reward, though this may indeed be true. If so, some may have greater capacities as well as greater responsibilities, but all of us will experience “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” at God’s right hand (Ps. 16:11).”
Remember the greatest reward is seeing Jesus face to face, being in the presence of the Father’s glory with no sin, no shame, no death, no sickness. We also all receive the great reward of seeing all our loved ones who, through faith in Jesus, have entered eternity before us. No doubt everyone in eternity will experience a fullness of peace and joy. No one will grumble or complain about their lack of reward.
Ever since I read C.S. Lewis’s the Great Divorce I have been struck by a scene he describes in his idea of what heaven may be like. In Lewis’s fictional vision of heaven, he sees a woman coming riding a great horse, with lights and song and dancing accompanying her (think of the scene in the movie Aladdin when Aladdin enters Agrabah as Prince Ali). There is this great procession all around this one woman who is receiving praise and honour, she must be someone great in the Kingdom of heaven. At first the man seeing this believes it may be Mary, the mother of Jesus. But He is corrected, "It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green."
"She seems to be ... well, a person of particular importance?"
"Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things."
The guide then explains to the man that the love of Christ, that came into her was then poured out of her to all people she met, even animals. She was a woman where the love of God was displayed to the world. Because of her words and actions and love on earth she was worthy of great glory, honour and fame in heaven.
All in heaven knew of her work and how it pleased the Father and so no one thought it inappropriate for her to receive glory that the Father wished her to have. All in eternity knew it was appropriate for her to be honoured for the life she lived on earth.
I often think there is something of truth to this idea of each individual receiving glory and honour for the service they did for their King and creator. Those who receive great honour we will know they were deserving of it and we will honour them as well.
I’ll end by quoting at length from Jonathan Edwards sermon on the rewards of heaven:
Those who are not so high in glory as others, will not envy those that are higher, but they will have so great, and strong, and pure love to them that they will rejoice in their superior happiness. Their love to them will be such that they will rejoice that they are happier than themselves; so that instead of having a damp to their own happiness, it will add to it. They will see it to be fitting that they that have been most eminent in works of righteousness should be most highly exalted in glory; and they will rejoice in having that done, that is fittest to be done.
There will be a perfect harmony in that society; those that are most happy will also be most holy, and all will be perfectly holy and perfectly happy. But yet there will be different degrees of both holiness and happiness according to the measure of each one’s capacity, and therefore those that are lowest in glory will have the greatest love to those that are highest in happiness because they will see most of the image of God in them. And having the greatest love to them, they will rejoice to see them the most happy and the highest in glory.
Here in this world, those that are above others are the objects of envy because that others conceive of them as being lifted up with it. But in heaven it will not be so, but those saints in heaven who excel in happiness will also in holiness, and consequently in humility. The saints in heaven are more humble than the saints on earth and still the higher we go among them, the greater humility there is. The highest orders of saints, who know most of God, see most of the distinction between God and themselves, and consequently are comparatively least in their own eyes, and so are most humble.
The exaltation of some in heaven above the rest will be so far from diminishing the perfect happiness and joy of the rest who are inferior, that they will be the happier for it. Such will be the union in their society that they will be partakers of each other’s happiness. Then will be fulfilled in its perfection that which is declared in 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one of the members be honoured all the members rejoice with it.”