The concept of rewards in addition to simply being in heaven is one of the least-taught, least understood aspects of the New Testament. Too often we look at the subject as though in heaven we will still struggle with resentment, pride and envy.
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Matthew #57 . Matthew 16:27-28
My wife recently told me that I’m still trying to pack too much into one sermon. So this time, I’ll attempt to cover only the next verse in Matthew:
For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done. (Matt 16:27 HCSB)
If we just stop and think about this for a moment, it could be problematic. I mean, I have always taught that we are judged based on our response to Jesus, not on the good works we have done (or failed to do). But here, it sounds like we will be rewarded based not on our faith in Jesus, but on our behavior. If we investigate, we find something puzzling: The New Testament appears to teach both things.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul brings up the issue of rewards in heaven:
Now the one who plants and the one who waters are equal, and each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. (1 Cor 3:8-9)
According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one must be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on that foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, each one’s work will become obvious, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved; yet it will be like an escape through fire. (1Cor 3:10-15, HCSB)
This is one of the least understood and taught doctrines in the New Testament. Paul says the foundation is Jesus Christ. But then he talks about the quality of what we build on that foundation, and receiving rewards for what our work. But Paul makes sure we understand that it starts with the foundation of Jesus Christ; in fact, the foundation that was revealed by Peter’s confession. Let’s begin by making sure of it.
The Bible teaches in numerous places, over and over again, that we are saved only through God’s grace, which comes to us through a faith-based relationship with Jesus Christ.
Here are just a few of many, many, many verses that affirm we are not justified before God by what we do, but by God’s grace given to us when we trust Him. I’ll italicize a few parts for emphasis:
We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:3-9, HCSB)
Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom 3:27-28, HCSB)
He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2Tim 1:9-10, HCSB)
He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7, HCSB)
Yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:16-17)
Clear enough for you? Over and over again, the New Testament teaches that we are saved when we trust Jesus Christ, and our own “good works” have nothing to do with it. So we know that our eternal destiny – whether we go to heaven or hell – is determined not by us being good enough, but by trusting Jesus. That is the foundation. Paul says, you can’t build on any other basis (1 Corinthians 3:11). If we have that foundation, we will spend eternity with Jesus and our loved ones in the New Heavens and New Earth. The whole Bible is crystal clear on that.
However, we do find many places in the New Testament, including several places in Matthew, which talk about rewards for doing good works. Now, we have just reiterated that heaven itself is not a reward for doing good. So when the New Testament talks about some kind of reward in the afterlife based upon what we do here, it cannot mean salvation. Well then, what kind of reward does Jesus mean here?
This is actually very important for how we interpret the Bible. When we read any other book, we assume that the author will not deliberately contradict herself. It should be the same with the Bible. So if the Bible says clearly (as it does) that salvation is not a reward for good behavior, but only the result of faith in Jesus; and then it says there is a reward for good works, we have to assume that the reward for good works is something other than salvation. As it turns out, there are many Bible verses that talk about these rewards. Just a few of them are Revelation 22:12; Matthew 5:11-2, 6:1-6, 17-18, 10:41-42; Luke 6:35; and this one:
7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. (Ephesians 6:7-8)
James writes that not many should presume to be Bible teachers, because they will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). Well, as a Bible teacher I know that my salvation will be judged based on whether or not I trust Jesus. So in what way will I be judged more strictly? The logical answer is: in the matter of my work, and any reward I might get for it.
Now, for many people, the idea of reward in heaven presents some problems. First, some people feel that it implies that there might be inequality in heaven. Second, some people feel it implies unhappiness there also.
Scripture is clear that in heaven, God wipes every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more grief or suffering or pain (Revelation 21:3-5). So rest assured, reward or not, your joy will be complete.
In addition, when we think this way, we forget that jealousy and resentment are the product of sin, the flesh and the devil. In eternity, all these things will be defeated and destroyed. We will be able to fully rejoice at the triumph of another, and bear in humble joy our own situation, unmarred by sin, bitterness, resentment or envy. Seeing someone else rewarded more than you will lead only to praise to God for his goodness, mercy and justice.
What Paul says in the Corinthians passage I quoted above is that those who have no reward will still be saved, but it will be like an escape through a fire. If we really imagine that, we get a sense for what it is like. Ultimately we will be safe, and will find joy in that. But as we initially enter heaven, if we have built poorly on the foundation of Jesus, we might find the judgment day to be harrowing.
Consider it this way: do you think it would be fair if Mother Theresa, with all her self-sacrifice, receives nothing more than me, with all my self-centeredness? We are both saved entirely by God’s grace. But shouldn’t she be rewarded somehow for the fact that in Jesus Christ, she used her life more faithfully than I used mine? Shouldn’t heaven celebrate and appreciate those who have done good things for the Lord on earth? Again, I think what we know of the kingdom of God is such that there will be no resentment involved.
Now, I want to speculate a bit on what the rewards mean. I do have some scripture that suggests what I think about this, but I can’t nail this down for sure. In other words, what I am going to share next falls more into the realm of conjecture than solid biblical teaching. In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells the parable of the Talents. In it, three servants were given different resources to use on behalf of the Master. They were rewarded according to how they made use of those resources. The reward is that they were given additional resources to use, according the ability they had demonstrated.
This makes me think of rewards in heaven in terms of capacity. Picture two buckets. One bucket can hold one gallon of fresh, clear water. The other bucket can hold five gallons of beautiful clean water. Now imagine both buckets, filled to the brim. Which bucket has more water? Obviously, the one that can hold more. But they are both full. The one gallon bucket has as much water as it can possibly hold. It doesn’t have as much as the five gallon bucket, but then, it can’t. It is still completely full. I think maybe heaven will be like that. We will all be as full as we can be. But some people will be able to contain more of God’s fullness and joy than others. The ones with smaller capacity will still be completely full and satisfied – but the ones with greater capacity will experience their joy to level that the others can’t.
Here’s another way to look at it. In my left eye, my vision is about 20/100. It cannot be corrected, and so I am considered legally blind in that eye. Now, my right eye is basically fine, and it does most of the seeing work for me. I can drive, and watch movies, appreciate visual art and generally enjoy life. Where my half-blindness affects me most is in depth perception. I have a horrible time shooting a basketball. Things that are far away look equally distant from me. If I see man standing 100 yards away, and another man 200 yards away, the only way I can tell they are not next to each other is because one looks smaller than the other. I can get some experience of 3-D movies, but not the same as other people. Binoculars only work for me if I close my left eye. But I was born this way, I have never seen correctly out of my left eye, and so I’m perfectly happy with my vision: I don’t really know what I’m missing, except the basketball hoop. I don’t feel sorry for myself and I enjoy my vision fully, and I feel no lack. But if there was something I could do to get true binocular vision, I would be a fool not to do it. Though I enjoy the visual aspects of life as much as I can, wouldn’t it be great if I could somehow exercise my eyes to get full range of vision?
One more analogy. When I was younger, I could eat all day long, and it did not affect my weight, my health or even how I felt. Now that I am older, I can’t eat so much, and certainly, what I eat has greater consequences for my body. I even get full faster. Sometimes I find myself at an event a party where there are all kinds of delicious food. At such times, I wish I could eat like I did when I was younger. I could enjoy more of that delicious food, if my metabolism was still young. I have a close friend who has aged differently than me. He can’t eat like he’s twenty, but he can still eat more than I can, with fewer consequences. Sometimes I envy him. I wonder if I had made different choices, if I might still have been able to enjoy as much food as he does. Now, what if I had the chance to get that metabolism back, so I could enjoy delicious food all the time without feeling too full, gaining weight or negatively affecting my health? There’s a billion dollar industry trying to sell people exactly that: everyone wants that.
You can get that, in heaven. You’ll have all the delicious food you can handle. But maybe some people will be able to handle more. I think this is probably how rewards in heaven will work. Everyone will be happy. They will get as much joy as they can handle. But if they had made different choices while they were living on this earth, they might have been able to experience much more in heaven. C.S. Lewis explores some of these ideas a little bit in his excellent and entertaining book, The Great Divorce, which is all about Heaven (it has nothing to do with divorce; the title was not well chosen). He speculates that perhaps even after we get there, we can still increase our capacity to experience more joy and fullness.
I used to say that heaven itself was enough reward for me, and so it should be – it is, in fact, far more than I deserve. Even so, what a fool I would be to waste any opportunity to enjoy heaven to the fullest possible capacity! Think of it like this: Do you really want to make a deliberate choice to enter heaven by the skin of your teeth, with the minimum possible capacity to enjoy it? That is an attitude that comes not from the Spirit, but from the flesh. And it is ridiculous, when you think about it. It’s like a teenager saying, “I don’t care about my future after High School. As long as I’m alive and can work a minimum wage job, I’ll be fine. So right now I’m not going to study or learn or prepare for the future. What is important is not life after graduation, but only life right now.” Some people have that attitude, but it is a very short-sighted one, and most people who do take that approach end up regretting it within a few years.
Jesus’ words should encourage us to take a more spiritual approach to the future, and to the here and now. It should be helpful to know that we do or endure here and now does not go unnoticed. It should motivating to think of the joy that awaits all of us who trust Jesus.
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