Goblets & Thimbles

We might be unfamiliar with a few surprises in heaven.

A familiar adage about heaven is we’ll be surprised at who’s there—and who isn’t. Probably true, but the Apostle Paul noted a few more surprises. They come from the fact that everyone’s cup of joy in eternity will be full, but the cups will be different sizes.

Yep, I wrote about these cups last week. A friend of mine, a pastor, asked if they’re related to the marital gospel. Good question, one I had hardly considered. But a passage did spring to mind: I Corinthians 3:10-15. This handful of verses reflects a marital framework: betroth, prepare, present—or foundation, formation, fullness.

The church in Corinth was unfamiliar with this framework. Arrogant, divisive, litigious, sexually promiscuous, unworthily receiving communion—the Corinthians had a malformed faith. But the problem wasn’t the foundation. “As a wise builder I laid a foundation,” Paul writes. Jesus. This is salvation past tense. In Jesus we have been saved.

But here’s our first surprise. “Be careful how you build on the foundation!” Why the warning? Paul’s next letter to Corinth spells it out: I betrothed you to one husband that I might present you as a pure virgin. This is Jewish marital language. The marital gospel.

In Jewish marriage, the bridegroom named a price (ransom) to the father of the bride while the woman brought a dowry to her husband. God named a ransom for us and Jesus our Bridegroom paid it. He now prepares a place for us. Our dowry as his bride—what God gets out of our lives—is “the person we become.”[1] We prepare a home for him in our body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. This is salvation present tense, being saved, as Paul writes in I Cor.2:8 and II Cor.2:15.

We choose from six materials to build our home, or temple. Three are costly—gold, silver, precious gems. They depict generosity. Three are cheap—wood, hay, stubble. They depict a bride who is chintzy, not generous in her giving (like the Corinthians).

Which brings us to salvation future tense. Paul writes that when Jesus comes for his Bride, the quality of our work will be revealed with fire. Yikes. If what has been built survives—gold, silver, gems—we receive a generous reward. If it is burned up—wood, hay, stubble—we suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. Unprepared Christians, those who were not generous, end up saved but singed.

Surprised? I was when I first learned this as a young Christian. What I’ve learned since is admittedly mysterious. First, we know in eternity, the New Jerusalem will be “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev.21:2). In fact, this is the Bride of Christ, “the wife of the Lamb.” She is adorned with all sorts of precious gems (Rev.21:9-21).

So why then did Paul warn the Corinthians to be careful how they prepare, when all believers will be prepared to meet Jesus in eternity? The answer lies in what’s involved in preparing: purging. Purging is cathartic, cleansing. It’s house-cleaning our temple. This is where older church traditions get the idea of purgatory. It’s where all who have been saved but are still imperfectly purified go after death. They undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the fullness of joy of heaven.

But these traditions recommend purging now rather than later when God does it for you after you die. The reason is simple: a larger cup of joy. The picture in eternity is of a generous Jesus. He will fill everyone’s cup of joy. He’ll fill whatever size cup you bring—pressing together what you gave in this life, shaking it to get more in, filling your cup until it spills over (Lk.6:37-38). The measure we gave will be the measure we get (Mt.7:2).

This is why the widow who gave all she had—two mites, the smallest Roman coin—will drink from a goblet of joy at the wedding banquet. She gave what was for her a huge goblet-sized gift, what “the poverty-stricken churches in Macedonia” did, Paul reminded the Corinthians. Those poor churches “considered it a privilege to give according to their ability and even beyond it” (II Cor. 8).

The Corinthian church was different. It was wealthy, probably comprised of nouveau-riche traders, mainly ex-slaves who had made it big in business. They did what wealthy Americans do. As they earn more, the portion of the income they give to charity declines. In both cases, Corinth and America, giving a thimble-sized percentage of our wealth means we’ll drink from a thimble-sized cup of joy at the wedding banquet.

In the end, whether we purge here or visit purgatory there, all cups will be full. The bride will be prepared. The writer John witnessed this. “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev.21:22). In other words, two have become one, marital language Paul uses in telling the Corinthians: God will be all in all.

So we see the size of our cups of joy are determined by the size of our generosity here, which is formed by the marital gospel: preparing to be presented as a pure bride.

So here’s perhaps the final surprise. It’s your call. Will you drink from a goblet or a thimble?

 

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 250.

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