Yesterday, Erik taught out of Luke 6:20-26, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. One of the ideas that Erik touched on was “living for a reward.” I wanted to expand on that idea a little more here.
Several places in the New Testament, we encounter this theme of heavenly, or eternal, rewards and we’ll get to those passages in just a minute. First, I’d like to discuss the idea of a “reward.” What does it mean and is it right to persue them?
Merriam-Wester defines reward as “giving money or some other form of payment to someone for something good that has been done.” This is pretty much how the New Testament uses the word, but it also uses it in a negative sense (i.e. punishment). Reward simply means “wages” or “the fruit of one’s actions”, good or bad.
What rewards mean for you
The whole idea of eternal rewards implies that God sees and takes into account the things you do in this life and repays you for them in eternity.
Now, the ultimate eternal reward is salvation – life with God in his Kingdom forever. The action that secures this reward is submitting your life to Jesus, acknowledging him as your Lord and Savior. Of course, the truth of that decision is played out over time as you “bear fruit in keeping with reptentance” to use John the Baptizer’s phrase. Choosing solidarity with Jesus in his life mission, love for God, love for people and identifying with him in suffering and persecution results in his confession on Judgement Day “This one belongs to me.” What Jesus says about you in that Day is the most crucial thing you can imagine – eternal salvation or damnation is in his hands.
In light of such immense consequences, one might be tempted to think of any other rewards as petty, even inconsequential. In many ways, that is correct. And yet, over and over again, God holds out this promise of reward.
For many of us, the decision to follow Jesus comes well before our death. What do we do with that time? Do we sit idly by, secure in the knowledge of our salvation? Do we continue on as before – doing some good things and some bad things and not really concerning ourselves too much one way or the other? Or, do we embrace the idea of loving and sacrificial service, realizing that we were made to do good works and that those good works have both temporal AND eternal rewards. One this side of the Judgement Seat, eternal rewards seem petty. However, on the other side they will mean a whole lot more.
Let’s look at one passage and then move on.
1 Corinthians 3
In this passage, Paul is talking about the life we live after choosing to love and follow Jesus. He uses the analogy of a building a house with Christ as the foundation. Then judgement comes, a house fire. Here is the passage:
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
The time we have between our confession of Jesus as Lord and our death is all the time we have to “build our house.” Obviously, the younger you are when you begin to follow Jesus, the more time you have… theoretically. Many times, people who grow up in Christian homes don’t live with the passion and zeal one would expect – it is almost as though they have been innoculated against the Gospel. Conversely, people who come to faith later in life realize their time is short and their singleminded determination to live differently oftentimes allows them to make a far greater impact in the world than someone who has been following Jesus for much longer. The point is, it doesn’t matter when you choose to follow God, there is ample time to make your life meaningful now and in eternity.
Paul likens Judgement Day to a house fire – will what you’ve built remain? The things you did in life, did you do them for yourself, for others, for God? With all the time God gave you, how much of it was used doing things that really matter and how much of it was spent frivolously? I am NOT saying that following Jesus is joyless drudgery – quite the opposite! Interacting with the Living Gd on a daily basis is invigorating and fun. Knowing that he is taking all this into account and is going to reward me for it later is simply over the top.
Verse 15 is a verse that haunts me (in the best way possible), “If anyone’s work is burned up [meaning it can be, not everything I do garners reward], he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
I don’t want to enter eternity smelling like smoke. I don’t want to look back on my life at Judgement Day and see it all burn away to ash. I don’t want to live my entire life on the earth and have nothing to show for it in eternity. That is tragedy, THAT is loss. Yet it will be the case for some people – they themselves will be saved for they were in fact followers of Jesus, but they will feel the pain of loss keenly as they look back on their life and wish they could have lived it differently.
The idea of receiving a reward for your efforts is not unspiritual, rather, it is what makes long term effectiveness and faithfulness possible. Living with an eye on our eternal reward is what keeps us from becoming apathetic, lethargic and sleepy. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Your heart is designed to follow after treasure, to follow after reward. If you are not purposefully trying to store up treasure in heaven, if you are only trying to fully fund your retirement and investment acconts, what hope do you have of actually loving God? “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God…” “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your [only] consolation.” It isn’t bad to want to retire or have wealth. It IS bad to pursue that as your main goal to the neglect of your eternal destiny.
Living for a reward is crucial to a life of faith
Unless you have a clear understanding and desire for eternal rewards, you will not live life without regret. What is even more sobering is that we can’t please God unless we live for eternal rewards. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Faith stands on two legs – (1) that God exists and (2) that God is Good. We can’t draw near to God if we don’t think he is there – that much is easy. But how do we draw near? Tentatively? Fearfully? No! Confidently we come before the throne because of Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf. We trust that God is Good, that he lavishes rewards on those who seek to know him, love him and obey him. We believe that God is kind and generous. We believe that every command is for our benefit.
Let’s face it, very few of us actually do the things God asks us to do because we’re just such good people. Case in point – evangelism. The Great Commission is pretty much the only task Jesus gave to his Church. To paraphrase, “Make disciples – it is the most important thing for this time. It is the main thing I want you to do once you start following me.” … and how many of us do it? It is really our only job, yet we’ve developed tremendous theologies to excuse ourselves from the need of it. I put very little stock in my willingness to do what Jesus commands unless I see a significant benefit to myself for doing so. I don’t have any youthful illusions of my own magnanimous nature, passion or zeal.
Simply put, I won’t do what Jesus tells me to do unless I get a reward for it.
I know that sounds harsh. I know it sounds childish, foolish and ungrateful. I know that in saying it, I wish it were different… but it isn’t. That is the truth of my heart. AND GOD KNOWS IT. He doesn’t know it and react with disgust. He knows it and appeals to it – how wild is that? ‘You don’t want to pray, I get that, but if you do I’ll reward you.’ ‘You don’t want to fast, but if you do and don’t make a big deal out of it, I will heap blessings into your lap.’ ‘I know money is tight, but if you will trust me and tithe and give some away to those who have even greater needs than you do, I will increase your buying power far beyond anything you can imagine. You will be better off finacially with 90% blessed by me than if you kept the whole lot.’ Those are the kinds of offers God gives us. In case you think I made them up, read through Matthew 6 very carefully.
Those that think they can live a fruitful, effective and pleasing life to God without living for an eternal reward are kidding themselves. It may be a well intentioned delusion, but it is fantasy none the less. Living for a reward is not unspiritual, it is the key to mature spirituality. Even Jesus didn’t embrace the cross selflessly. Even he was looking for a result, a reward. He was looking to ransom people from death. He was looking forward to the joy of being the firstborn of many brothers. Isaiah, prophesying about Jesus says, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied… I will give him a portion among the great.” Because Jesus was willing to set aside his Godhood and embrace the role of a servant, he has received a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. If eternal rewards helped to steady Jesus in his life and mission, how much more do we need them?