When I was a teenager, I read Mark Cahill’s One Thing You Can’t Do in Heaven. The title of the book refers to evangelism: In heaven, there won’t be anyone who doesn’t know Jesus to share the good news with. The time to change lives for eternity is now!
Despite Cahill’s winsome sense of urgency, framing evangelism this way, as the great mission which must be completed in this life, may limit our vision of just how big of a mission God is welcoming us into. All of us are tempted to shrink God’s mission to a manageable size, emphasizing this life. Our life and work here and now is what we’re most familiar with, after all.
Even so, Scripture consistently teaches that our work with the Lord will not only continue in the life to come, but also move us into new domains of experience, responsibility, and joy. Keeping that vision of an “eternal mission” fresh in our hearts changes the way we serve on mission now, including the way we share the good news of Jesus.
Doing Life and Work with God . . . Forever
“Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23 NIV). Christians of all stripes love to quote these words to affirm someone who they believe has lived well with God. We often forget what comes next: “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:23 NIV). Jesus’ parable ends with an increase in responsibility and work. Entering into the joy of our master is a promotion, not retirement.
At first, the promise of more work may sound like bad news. Work here and now is often painful, fraught with disappointment and frustration. These aspects of work are the result of the fall, the “thorns and thistles” that have afflicted our attempts to bring produce from the soil since the advent of human sin (Genesis 3:18). But in our future with God, with sin and death vanquished and the creation restored, our work will no longer be constrained by the results of the fall. Our labors in eternity will be good, fruitful, and (finally) pain-free.
Mission in the New Creation
Our work can also be understood as one way that we participate in God’s mission. Chris Wright, a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, endorses a fivefold view of mission that includes evangelism, teaching, compassion, justice, and creation care. I would add the work of art and beauty to this list, following the thinking of N.T. Wright (not related to Chris).
As Mark Cahill points out, it’s obvious that not all of these aspects of mission carry over to the life to come. Once God has established his perfect justice in the earth, there will be no need to work against injustice (Is. 42:1-4). When everyone in God’s new creation knows him, there will be no need for evangelism (Jer. 31:34). But care for creation, edifying one another in the knowledge of God, and making works of art and beauty will surely still be possible. And, if we take Jesus’ words in the parable seriously, whatever the exact nature of our projects, they will be greater than our current endeavors. Quite a bit greater. In Luke’s version of the parable, the faithful servant was placed over “ten cities” as a reward (19:17). Dallas Willard imagines the real-world application of this principle:
I suspect there will be many surprises when the new creative responsibilities are assigned. Perhaps it would be a good exercise for each of us to ask ourselves: Really, how many cities could I now govern under God? If, for example, Baltimore or Liverpool were turned over to me, with power to do what I want with it, how would things turn out? An honest answer to this question might do much to prepare us for our eternal future in this universe.
God wants to make us into the kind of people who can be trusted to rule well with him.
So, What Now?
What difference does the knowledge of our eternal mission make in the way we do mission now? I can think of three key take-aways:
1. Our work now is practice, not the play-offs.
I don’t say this to minimize the sacrifices we make here and now. Players sweat just as much in practice as they do in the game. But the point of practice is to prepare athletes for the performance, to shape their bodies and minds so they’re ready for the coming event. The same is true of our work now. It does matter in terms of the difference it makes. But it’s primarily a work of preparation, shaping our souls into the kind of souls that can rule the universe.
2. Soul keeping comes first.
If our mission now is preparation for a greater mission, then the health and development of our soul can’t be neglected—not even for the sake of mission and evangelism. If you blow out your knee in practice, you’re benched for the game. We must arrange our lives so that we are abiding in Christ, practicing disciplines like Sabbath, prayer, and celebration, even if it means we get less done or (in theory) “save fewer souls.” The first soul whose continuing salvation we must attend to is our own. The way we practice evangelism and other forms of mission from that center will be the most fruitful.
3. Evangelism is an invitation to the kind of work we all long for.
People long to do what they love, but the reality of working life is often disappointing. In the face of disillusionment with what this life offers, the good news of Jesus points to the only ultimately satisfying work conditions available. In a conversation with a spiritually curious friend, we can introduce the biblical concept of eternity by asking, “Can you imagine having a job you love so much you would never want to retire?”
Along with all our friends who come to faith in Jesus, we’ll be enjoying that kind of work forever.