Timothy 4:7 (NKJV)
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
When Elan entered college, Friedrich Nietzsche was one of his heroes. In fact, at one time, Elan thought Nietzsche was a genius—until he read what he said about free will. Elan reached a crisis point as a philosophy student when he couldn’t accept the beliefs of those he once admired. The 20-year-old believed that humans were free to make choices. He did not think that everything he accomplished in life was the result of some ethereal force that might be capricious or fickle.
“Free will must exist,” Elan argued with his atheist friends, but where was that boundary between free will and pre-determinism?
When Elan heard Christians talking about free will, he thought they might know something that he didn’t. The college student spent the next two years studying the Scriptures and became a Christian, to the shock of many. Not only did he confess Jesus as his Savior, but he was determined to go to graduate school and become a pastor or theologian.
One afternoon during his senior year, his pastor called him. “Elan,” he said, “I received a letter in the mail addressed to you that says ‘confidential’ on the envelope.”
“Who is it from?”
“There’s no return address, but I don’t think it’s junk mail.”
A pause ensued as Elan mentally checked off several names of friends who might have sent him something in jest, but he dismissed them. All of his friends texted when they wanted to communicate.
“I’ll come to the church now,” Elan said.
He made the ten-minute drive in only five. When he arrived, the secretary hurried him into the pastor’s office.
Pastor Lehman was an older man close to retiring and had played an integral role in Elan’s life following his conversion. After the perfunctory greetings, the pastor handed him the envelope. Elan opened it with a bit of sweat on his brow, but to his surprise, there was no writing on the stationery. As disappointment set in, he heard a voice inside his head.
“Elan, you have a dinner appointment this Friday at 6:00 p.m. at the Fountainhead Restaurant. Two messengers will greet you when you arrive. They will recognize you even if you don’t know who they are. Will you be there?”
“Yes—what?” Pastor Lehman asked.
For an instant, the college student forgot where he was. He stared at the blank invitation in his hand. Still somewhat shaken, he handed him the letter.
Pastor Lehman looked at it. “It’s just a blank sheet of paper.”
“I know,” said Elan. “I heard a voice asking me if I could come to dinner at the Fountainhead Restaurant Friday at 6:00 p.m. The voice said two messengers would greet me even though I may not know them. I said I would be there.”
* * *
Friday arrived, and at the appointed time, Elan, dressed in his Sunday best, walked up the sidewalk to the Fountainhead Restaurant. Two men in white robes appeared at the entrance, and Elan, with his heart pounding and more than a drop of perspiration on his forehead, shook their hands.
The messengers, whether angelic or human, Elan wasn’t sure, ushered him inside. The sweet aroma of fresh bread filled his nostrils, and the beaded sweat on his forehead evaporated in the coolness of the air. Hues of various intensities filtered through the restaurant, radiating beauty like exquisite gems, and the view through the windows reflected nothing he had ever seen. The restaurant seemed to be floating in the clouds.
One messenger escorted Elan to a table where three other young men sat. Each one introduced himself by his first name, Bill, David, and John. Elan took a seat beside them and engaged them in conversation. “Are you guys from around here?”
“Where is here?” Bill asked.
Elan chuckled. “That’s a good question.”
Hungry folks filled the restaurant, some older, some younger, and some—well, they seemed ageless. As the young men talked, Elan learned they were also college students and new Christian converts. None lived near him in Florida. Bill was from California, David was from Texas, and John lived in Rhode Island.
Soon a waiter brought them water and bread, and they engaged in conversation about their goals. Like Elan, they were driven to achieve great things for Christ. After a while, when Elan looked at his watch, he couldn’t believe an hour had passed.
At that moment, one of the messengers reappeared, and his mysterious words prompted more unanswered questions.
“You have just eaten manna from heaven and tasted living water. When you leave, do many good works. If you remain faithful—perhaps many years from now—you’ll meet again for the second course.”
“Good works?” Elan asked. “You mean—like in a Christian sense?”
The messenger nodded. “Good works are what you do—feeding the poor, sharing the Good News, serving in church, teaching the Bible—all those things you long to do in your heart now. The devil wants to steal your hunger for the Lord. Only three of you will return for the second course.”
The college students exchanged glances. Elan felt a lump in his throat. Would he return? Or would he succumb to the world’s temptations or be led astray?
* * *
Elan finished college and went to seminary. While in seminary, he fell in love with the school librarian, and the couple married when Elan graduated. A small church hired him, and he was an associate pastor for the next two years.
Late one night, when Elan was praying, he remembered the restaurant encounter with the two messengers. What were the other three men up to—had they been faithful in good works? So much time had passed, Elan lamented his unworthiness in God’s sight, that he had not been invited back for the second course.
As he prayed and sought forgiveness, he heard a messenger’s voice.
“Elan, do you hear me?”
“Here I am.” He looked around but saw no one in his study. Even the dog was asleep.
“Go to the Fountainhead Restaurant Friday at 6:00 p.m., and I will meet you there.”
Elan thought about how far away the restaurant was from his home now. How could he even get there since he and his wife shared one car? But before he could reply, the voice spoke,
“Elan, there is a Fountainhead Restaurant in this small town.”
“I’ll be there,” Elan said, and his spirit soared. The week went by slowly. He had never shared with anyone about the previous encounter, but now he would.
His wife just smiled when Elan told her. After kissing him, she said, “You never told me you had entertained angels. Just don’t wait this time to tell me what happens.”
Elation filled Elan’s heart. Thankfully his wife didn’t think he was hallucinating. He spent the next few days in prayer, reading his Bible, and fasting. Friday night couldn’t come soon enough.
* * *
Much to Elan’s surprise, he found the Fountainhead Restaurant through an internet search, and Friday night, he arrived at the restaurant clean-shaven and wearing his Sunday best. He had even been to the barber, which greatly pleased his wife. He arrived an hour early, perhaps over-exuberant to meet the messengers. When they weren’t there, doubt crept in. Suppose he was hallucinating that night? After all, at that very moment when he heard the voice, he was lamenting not being invited back, blaming it on his many failures and doubting his worthiness.
Before he could get too gloomy, Bill and David arrived—thirty minutes early. Did that mean John was the one who would not return?
Bill and David were all smiles, and the three young disciples of Christ exchanged handshakes and slapped each other on the back.
“Great to see you, Elan,” Bill and David said, with the unspoken acknowledgment that John would not join them.
As they were talking, two messengers in shining robes appeared. “Good evening, Gentlemen.” They escorted the young men into the restaurant and took them to a window table.
“This special table is reserved for you,” the server said.
Once again, the view was breathtaking. The vibrant colors of the clouds were heavenly, creating a kaleidoscope of images beyond human experience.
The restaurant was half full, unlike last time when it was so crowded. Elan imagined what the second course might be.
Sweet aromas filled the restaurant with delicacies he couldn’t wait to taste. The three men shared their lives over the past decade. They had all become pastors, and two were shepherding churches. Bill was a missionary to an unreached people group in Africa.
Soon the second course arrived, and four plates of steaming hot food filled the serving tray. Who was the fourth plate for since there were only three of them?
The messenger answered Elan’s thought. “Take what you want. John’s talents will now go to the three of you.”
The men dove into the food. Elan couldn’t remember when he had tasted such heavenly salmon. God knew his favorite entrée and fed him precisely what he would have ordered under ordinary circumstances.
When they finished, one of the messengers returned, thoughtfully gazing at the men. “The next course will be the dessert, but only two of you will be invited back.”
Who would not return? Elan wondered.
The messenger added, “Remember, your good works are not for salvation but rewards.”
“What happened to John?” Elan asked. “Did he lose his salvation?”
The messenger replied. “No, you can’t lose your salvation. However, if you fall away because of sin, you lose rewards. The rewards you would have earned are forfeited, and God gives the talents for those rewards to others.”
Elan returned home, thinking about John. He had seemed so full of the Holy Spirit; he could quote Scripture better than all of them. What happened?
Many years went by. Elan served in several pastoral roles, but life was not easy in the pulpit or at home. One trial after another came his way, almost to the point he wanted to quit the pastorate.
But his wife encouraged him. “Don’t give up,” she would say. “If you are faithful, God will reward you.”
He tried to be a good father but felt he often failed. As he grew in the knowledge of the Lord, he often doubted that God would call him worthy of anything. Sin always seemed crouching at the door, tempting him to do wrong things. How easy it would have been to have an affair, steal money from the church, or teach only from his favorite Scriptures without digging deep and teaching from the entire Bible.
Then one night, a voice awakened him in a dream. “Elan.”
Elan recognized the voice and sat up in bed.
“Meet me at the Fountainhead Restaurant this Friday at 6:00 p.m.”
The family had moved two times since the previous engagement, but Elan knew there must be a Fountainhead Restaurant in the small town somewhere.
“I’ll be there,” Elan said. He was so excited he could hardly go back to sleep. He thought about waking up his wife to tell her, but she lay so peacefully beside him that he decided to wait until the morning.
* * *
6:00 p.m. Friday arrived, and Elan showed up an hour early. His wife had taken him shopping for a new suit—which he had put off buying for years, and he had made a trip to the barber. Why? Elan wasn’t sure because he was almost bald.
He saw that Bill was waiting, and his old friend greeted him warmly. “It’s so good to see you, Elan.”
Elan chuckled. “I guess it’s just you and me for the dessert.”
Bill glanced around, looking for the messengers.
Elan noted how much older Bill looked. Thirty years had passed since their first encounter when they were still college students. Maybe David had died. He had seemed so full of the spirit, so driven to serve God. Surely, he was still doing so. Of the four of them, Elan figured he would be the one to finish strong. But David wasn’t here for dessert. That meant only the two of them had a chance to end well.
The two messengers appeared, and they again escorted them inside the restaurant. The room was almost empty, with just a few patrons eating. As before, the view was spectacular. They floated in the clouds with the stars like messengers singing songs of praise.
The two men talked about their lives, families, and careers. Soon one of the messengers arrived with four dessert plates—including Elan’s favorite, chocolate cheesecake. The angel said, “The other two men who started with you have lost their rewards, so their talents have been passed on to you. Use them for the glory of God; at the last course, you will understand.”
“If this is dessert,” Elan asked, “what is the last course?”
The messenger replied. “Remember, the Bible says, ‘Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.’ Now you taste; next time, you will see.”
Elan felt sad only one of them would make it. Emboldened, he asked the obvious. “Can we not both finish strong?”
The angel studied Elan, peering into his eyes with so much love Elan’s heart melted. “You each have free will,” the messenger replied. “You can receive all the rewards God wants to give you, but the reality is, one of you will finish well, and one of you won’t. Jesus has given you salvation, but you must earn rewards.”
Elan thought back to his first two years in college when he embraced an atheistic theology and admired men like Nietzsche. How good God had been to rescue him. Later that evening, Elan prayed, “Please, Jesus, help me to finish well.”
* * *
Years passed. Elan’s two sons grew up, married, and he became a grandfather. Then his wife died, and the joy of living left him. He was old now, and the tasks of daily living were challenging. He limped, his eyes were dim, and he could no longer hear the birds singing.
“Perhaps the angel spoke to me, and I didn’t hear,” Elan lamented. Nevertheless, he continued to live for God’s glory, more determined than ever to finish well. He no longer cared about rewards, whether he earned one or none. He only longed to see Jesus.
Despite being weak and frail, Elan read his Bible daily and prayed. When the day came that he breathed his last, his sons were by his side. He knew this was his departure to glory, and he had never shared with them his religious experience. And so he shared the story with his sons.
“I guess I wasn’t found worthy,” Elan said. “I never heard from the messenger again. Even though I won’t receive any rewards, I’m okay with that. All I want is Jesus.”
His older son, whose heart was tender, replied, “The last course is the real thing, Dad. Now you will ‘see’ the goodness of the Lord.”
Elan thought about that. Maybe his son was right, and he tried to remember the messenger’s final words.
* * *
The day of glory came, and two angels escorted Elan to his heavenly Father’s house. An unfathomable number of people filled the celestial city. As the angels led the new arrival through the eternal gates, he saw his college friend, John, way back in the sea of people.
Elan reflected on the angel’s words. John was in heaven because Jesus paid the price for his sins. Salvation was God’s gift, but one must earn rewards. John would never be close to Jesus because he had forfeited his talents.
The messenger escorted Elan through the heavenly city, and he passed David and Bill along the way. The blessed abode would have blinded him without spiritual eyes to see even as God’s unconditional love filled his reborn spirit. The freshness of heaven’s rarified air and the angelic voices praising the Father were just glimpses of perfection. So much more awaited discovery. Oh, the magnitude of what he would have missed if it weren’t for Jesus’ death on the cross and his triumphant resurrection. When Elan neared the last course, he saw his risen Savior. Overcome with emotion, he worshiped.
The King of Kings walked over to Elan and welcomed him. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”