The Lord revealed to the apostle John: "behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be." (Revelations 22:12).
Throughout all the scriptures the Lord has consistently said that each of us will be rewarded for the things we have done in the body, whether those things are good or bad. Some of those rewards are received in this life while others must wait until a future existence. This divine law, which no one can escape, states that each of us will reap what we have sown.
While traditional Christianity understands this principle on a very simplistic level of either heaven or hell, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that there are many degrees of rewards and punishments. In broader terms the Lord has revealed that there are three main degrees of glory known as the Celestial, terrestrial, and telestial (see D&C 76). What will determine who will inherit what glory is how they have lived their life here on earth. Thus, one of the rewards we will receive after the resurrection is to be assigned to one of these three kingdoms of glory.
The Lord has further revealed that within the telestial kingdom the glory of each person will differ from one another just as the glory of the stars in the heavens differ from one another (D&C 76:98; 1 Corinthians 15:41). This clearly indicates that there will be differing levels of reward even in the lowest kingdom of heaven. But God has also revealed that even though those who inherit the celestial kingdom will all have the same glory, there are nonetheless three degrees or levels within that kingdom (D&C 131:1). Thus we see that not only are there three main areas of reward but that within each of those there are even more gradations of reward.
For Latter-day Saints, the ultimate goal is not just to make it into the celestial kingdom but into the highest degree of that kingdom. This is what Christ refers to as eternal life where God and Christ dwell and those who are worthy to receive this reward will dwell forever with them (D&C 76:62).
But what will determine who is worthy to enter into this glory? The Lord has said that those who overcome the world "shall inherit all things" and "the same shall be clothed in a white garment" and will become "a pillar in the temple of my God" and "I will grant [them] to sit with me in my throne just as I also overcame and am sat down with my Father in his throne" (Revelations 21:7; 3:.5,12, 21). They will then become priests and kings unto God and reign with him on the earth (Rev. 5:10). Thus, to inherit eternal life we must overcome all things even as Christ has.
While on earth Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God (John 2:52) and eventually was exalted to the right hand of God (Acts 2:33), precisely because He did His Father's will rather than His own (John 5:30). If we are to inherit that same glory then we must obtain it the same why Christ did. Jesus taught, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).
While all of this may seem wonderful there is a glaring problem with achieving this exalted reward. While Christ was perfect in all that He did, each of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory God has. Whereas Christ was able to overcome all temptation, we are too often overcome by that same temptation. If we are to be rewarded for the way we live our life and, if to inherit the glory of God we have to overcome all things as Christ did, then none of us will ever be rewarded with the same glory He has.
It was Jesus Himself who said that "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." (Matthew 7:14). Both Lehi and his son Nephi saw in a vision a strait and narrow path that led to the tree of life, which symbolized eternal life. And in that vision they also saw there were many pitfalls and hazards along the path which caused people to lose their way so that they failed to reach the tree of life.
Most people think that the word "strait" is the same as the word "straight" but it's not. The word "straight" means something that has no bends or turns to it, while the word "strait" means "narrow, constricted, confining, or small." The word "strait" is often used in nautical terms to indicate a narrow channel of water between two land masses, such as the straits of Magellan or the straits of Gibralter. Most modern translations render this verse as "But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."
What Jesus is trying to tell us is that the gate through which we must pass that will allow us to get onto the path that leads to eternal life is very small and narrow, meaning there is no room for deviation. To pass through it requires exactness and precision, just as a ship must do when passing through a narrow channel of water. But to gain eternal life is even more difficult than that because Jesus said that this gate is so small that many people will not even find it.
However, getting through the gate is only the first step in a long journey. Once through it we must travel an equally narrow road which is also long and difficult. In Nephi's vision he saw that there were dangers on both sides of this narrow path and that it was very easy to lose one's footing and fall away from it. Worse yet, there were many forces at work seeking to deliberately keep us from reaching our goal. Therefore, to travel this path requires the same degree of exactness needed to enter in through the gate. If there are few who will even find the gate that allows us entrance to the road to eternal life, then there are fewer still who will remain on that road without any deviation from it all the way to the end.
But Christ came to give us the "gospel," which means the "good news" that He has made it possible for everyone to receive eternal life if they so desire it. It is because of Christ's atonement that everyone can have their sins washed away as though they had never committed them. And if this is so then it's as though we have overcome every temptation, in which case each of us has the opportunity to receive the reward of eternal life. That is why the "gospel" is "good news."
However, as good as that news may be, it doesn't mean that such a goal is easy to achieve. And that is as it should be. If inheriting all that God has was simple then that would make God a simple Person. The very reason why God is so powerful and so glorious is precisely because He has the power to overcome all things. If we were allowed to sin and then have those sins easily washed away with little or no effort on our part there would be no glory or power in that for us or for God. And if that were to happen then it could not be said that there would be a reward stored up for us in heaven, seeing how we didn't do anything to merit receiving a reward.
What the atonement of Christ has done is to give us a fighting chance to inherit all that Christ has. Even though we are so easily beset with sin Christ has made it possible for each person to inherit eternal life and dwell with Him forever, not as angels but as kings and priests unto God, reigning with Him throughout all eternity if we are willing to pursue the course that leads to it.
That is why the scriptures repeatedly tell us to keep the commandments of God because in order for God to reward us with a god-like life we first have to live our life like God does. And the commandments are meant to help teach us how to do that. They are the guideposts that mark the way we should go. And each week as we partake of the sacrament we renew the promise we made at our baptism to always remember Christ and to keep His commandments that He has given us.
But, being human we don't always do that, despite our best intentions. We sometimes stray or stumble through life, making mistakes. But, God allows us to repent of our sins, meaning that He allows us to do all we can to undo and makeup for the sins we've committed. Where that is not possible, or where our sincere efforts fall short, Christ's atonement makes up the difference. Thus, those who are willing to put forth the effort to live a godly life are promised that if they endure to the end they will be rewarded with eternal life for their effort.
This is why the scriptures teach, "Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved" (2 Nephi 10:24). We are saved by grace because no amount of effort on our part qualifies us to measure up to the full stature of Christ and thereby be entitled to the reward that He has inherited. But that doesn't mean we are not to put forth any effort. That is why Nephi taught, "For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23, emphasis added).
Yet, having said this, there must be something more to inheriting eternal life than just living with Christ forever, otherwise it cannot be said that we will be rewarded according to our works.
To put this in perspective, let's look at the reward of the wicked. Most Christians believe that all those who don't accept Christ as their Savior will go to hell and endure the same suffering regardless of their sins. That means the Buddhist or Jew who has lived a pious life but hasn't accepted Jesus Christ will suffer the same agony as those who have lived a life of crime. If that is true then it cannot be said that we will be rewarded according to our works since those non-Christians whose works were honorable will receive the same reward as those whose works were evil.
And the same can be said of those who accept Christ. There are some who diligently strive to keep all the commandments and there are others who put forth only a minimal effort to keep just a few commandments. For example, some home teachers diligently visit their families each month and are sincerely concerned about their welfare while other home teachers rarely, if ever, visit their families. Some people faithfully read their scriptures and pray ever day while others go for long periods of time without doing either.
Since everyone's faithfulness is different and if Christ is going to reward each person according to their works then there must be many different kinds of rewards in heaven, even among those who inherit eternal life, otherwise there is no reason to be diligent in serving the Lord if the slothful servant will receive the same wages for his labor as the faithful servant. And if that is so, then the questions becomes, What are the different rewards among those who have become worthy to sit on thrones and reign with Christ?
Perhaps we can get some idea by looking at the reward that Jesus Christ received for perfectly keeping all the commandments.
The scriptures indicate that Jesus was not only exalted to sit on the right hand of God but that all power was given unto him (Matthew 28:18), that all judgment was committed unto Him (John 5:22), and that His name is more excellent than all other names (Hebrews 1:4). The apostle Paul wrote that God the Father has placed Jesus "Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church" (Ephesians 1:21-22).
While we may have the privilege of sitting on thrones to rule and reign with Christ that doesn't mean we will be equal to Him. The apostle John wrote that because Christ loved us "and washed us from our sins in his own blood, [he] hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; [therefore] to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever" (Revelation 1:6, emphasis added). Notice that we will not be kings and priests unto ourselves but unto God as well as unto His Father. That means as exalted beings we will rule and reign under the direction of Jesus Christ and His Father and be in subjection to them throughout all eternity. And the reason why He is worthy of that glory and domination is because that is His reward for the works He has done.
The reason why we won't receive this same honor is because we have not kept the commandments as well as He has. Therefore, it is obvious that our eternal reward must be inferior to His. But, if He is a king and a priest and we too will become a king and a priest, sharing in His power and His glory, then what is the difference between His reward and ours? The answer is: Authority, or more precisely, presiding authority.
The apostle Peter explained that Jesus has "gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; [and all] angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him" (1 Peter 3:22). And this includes those who have become exalted beings. Jesus is the head of the Church, not only for now but in eternity as well. As such, He is the presiding authority. All other authority comes from Him, delegated down to us.
We see this most clearly in His earthly kingdom. The president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds all the keys necessary for the salvation of men on the earth, but he holds those keys under the direction of Jesus Christ. In the same way, General and Area Authorities, stake and mission presidents, and bishops also hold keys of authority but they do so under the direction of the President of the Church. Thus, what we see in the church is a system of government where there is a hierarchy of presiding authority, and we are told this is the pattern that is used in heaven. Therefore, it is clear that this same kind of presiding hierarchy will exist in heaven after the resurrection as well.
Then what kind of authority and power will we have in heaven?
Jesus said, "For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son" (John 5:22) yet Paul told the saints at Corinth, "Know ye not that we shall judge angels?" (1 Corinthians 6:3). If all judgment has been committed unto Christ then why will the saints be judging angels? The Book of Mormon also tells us that the twelve apostles Jesus chose in Jerusalem would judge the twelve tribes of Israel while the twelve disciples He chose from among the Nephites would judge them (Mormon 3:18-19). But why will they be doing this if Christ is the judge of all?
When Moses first led the Israelites out of Egypt the people stood before him from morning until evening to be judged of him but his father-in-law, Jethro, said unto him, "The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. (Exodus 18:17-18). And so, Moses instituted a system of judges whereby there were "rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens" (verse 21). In other words, there was a hierarchy of authority to judge the people.
Apparently the Lord intends to do the same thing when He judges the world. While He is certainly the Chief Judge, the scriptures seem to indicate that others will assist Him in that work. But who will judge who? The Lord answered that question by way of a parable when He likened the kingdom of heaven to "a man traveling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey." When the man returned from his journey he had each of his servants give an account of the talents they had been given. All had increased their talents except one. The man was angry with that servant and took "the talent from him, and [gave] it unto him which hath ten talents, [saying] For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath" (Matthew 25:14-29).
Those who have magnified their callings and have been more diligent in keeping the commandments of God in this life will be given greater authority in the eternities than those who have not been so faithful. Some will be made rulers over thousands and others will be made rulers over hundreds, but there will be those who are only worthy of being given authority to rule over fifty or perhaps just ten or less.
To inherit the highest degree of the celestial kingdom is the greatest gift that God can bestow upon us (D&C 6:13) but not everyone who inherits this glory will receive the same power or authority.
This is not so hard to understand because we see this same situation all around us every day. There are some colleges and universities that are more prestigious than others and are therefore more sought after than others but are harder to be accepted into. Those who are able to attend such schools must first have met a high standard of educational excellence. However, not all who attend these centers of higher learning go on to graduate. And those who do complete their degrees do not all gain the same level of competence. Some graduate with honors because of their diligence in learning while others just barely manage to pass their exams. While it is a great honor for someone to say that they have graduated from one of these prestigious universities, it is even a greater honor for them to say that they have graduated at the top of their class.
This same principle in found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We rejoice when we see someone make the commitment to become baptized into the Church because so few people are willing to take that important step. However, we rejoice even more when someone has qualified themselves to go to the temple. Therefore, for someone to hold a temple recommend is a greater statement about the righteous character of that person than merely having just a baptismal certificate.
But, not all temple recommend holders are equal in righteousness. While ordinary members of the Church have the same privilege of going to the temple as do apostles yet we would not consider ourselves to be equal to them in righteousness or in authority. Although we must meet certain high standards to enter into God's holy house yet they represent only the minimum requirement to obtain that particular privilege.
In the same way, those who inherit eternal life have proved themselves worthy of being exalted because of the things they have done in this life, but, as glorious a distinction as that may be, there are those who will just barely qualify for that degree of glory while others will far exceed those requirements by their faithfulness to the ways of God. If God is going to reward us for our works, then He must give a better reward to those who were more diligent in keeping the commandments than those who were not.
As we have seen earlier, to inherit eternal life is to become an eternal priest. Jesus Christ was ordained to the priesthood of Melchesedec by His Father (Hebrews 5:5,6) and millions of men in the Church also have been ordained to that very same priesthood, but that doesn't mean we are equal in power or authority to Christ. In the Church men are given "keys" to the priesthood that allow them the right to preside over others. A bishop, for example, has the keys to preside over the members of his ward. However, a stake president holds the keys to preside over numerous bishops. Although both of these men hold the same priesthood and they both hold keys, their power and authority is not the same. Even though the president of the Church holds all the keys and therefore has the right, power, and authority to preside over the entire Church, his authority is still not equal to that of Christ, who is the head of the Church.
We see this same principle in operation during our pre-mortal life. The patriarch Abraham explained, "Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born" (Abraham 3:22 22).
Each of us earned the right to come to earth because of the righteous decision we made to side with our Father in the war in heaven. Being allowed to come here to earth, gain a physical body and be tested is our reward for our earlier faithfulness. Yet, even though we are all sons and daughters of God and He loves each of us equally, we are not all equal in His sight. If there were many intelligences that were "noble and great" in our pre-mortal life then it stands to reason that there were also many who were not as noble or as great. God didn't choose everyone to become a ruler. Instead, He rewarded those who had shown greater faithfulness to His cause by making them rulers in this life.
Adam was not chosen to be the first man and therefore the presiding head of the entire human family by a toss of a coin or the choosing of lots. His supreme position of presiding authority was given as a reward for leading the fight against the forces of Lucifer. And the same will be true in the resurrection. God will reward every man according to his works done in this life.
Just as parents encourage their children to study hard and be diligent in their schooling, so also our Father in heaven encourages His children not to be slothful in learning the lessons of righteousness. He has said that if we "continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel" (Colossians 1:23) then He promises to prepared a crown for us in the mansions of His Father (D&C 106). That is why He exhorts us to "let your diligence, and your perseverance, and patience, and your works be redoubled, and you shall in nowise lose your reward, saith the Lord of Hosts" (D&C 127:4
Those who are diligent in patiently continuing to do well, seeking for glory and honor, will receive more than just immortality and eternal life (see Romans 2:6,7). They will receive additional power and authority as well because that is the reward of the righteous.