Starbucks. Marriott. Southwest Airlines. Even Domino’s Pizza. It seems that just about every company has some kind of rewards program. The more you eat, drink, fly, or spend the night, the more you earn. Rewards programs make sense because they reflect the way that the world works. When we work, we earn a wage. Our accomplishments often bring us praise and perks.
So it would seem that when the New Testament writers speak about heavenly rewards in the kingdom of God, we understand exactly what they are talking about. If we work hard in the Christian life, then we will earn blessing from God, right? Wrong. The Bible’s teaching on rewards is just one example of the way that God turns our expectations and assumptions upside down.
If only for this reason, we need to give careful thought to what the Scripture says (and doesn’t say) about heavenly rewards. We may think about this biblical teaching along five lines.
First, there are heavenly rewards, tied to the obedience and service of the believer in this life. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is filled with references to heavenly rewards (Matt. 5:12, 46; 6:1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 16, 18). Rewards are only for those who trust in and follow Christ, not for unbelievers. These rewards will be given not in the present but in the future, after the believer leaves this life (see 16:27). Rewards relate to the good works that we do in this life, including such minor and insignificant actions as “giving one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple” (10:42).
The Apostles no less emphasize the fact and importance of rewards in the Christian life. Addressing ministers and elders, Paul says that the last day will be a time of sifting and assessing of ministerial labors. “The fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward” (1 Cor. 3:13–14). Addressing all believers, Paul speaks of “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Paul encourages “bondservants” to live in faithful obedience to Christ because they know “that from the Lord they will receive the inheritance as their reward” (Col. 3:22, 24).