Several types of rewards are mentioned in scripture. For instance, when David says “surely you reward each person according to what he has done,” and Jeremiah says “I the Lord search the heart, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve,” they are talking about eternal life (Psa. 62:12, Jer. 17:10). We put our faith in God and the reward is eternal life.
This is the same reward Jesus is referring to when he says, “The Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:27). Paul says something similar: “God will repay each person according to what they have done” (Rom. 2:6). In these examples, the reward for trusting in Jesus is eternal life. But eternal life is not the reward Paul is talking about here:
The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. (1 Corinthians 3:8)
There is one reward for faith (eternal life) and another for labor. What is this second reward, and how do we reconcile it with grace? Some say the rewards are honor and recognition from God. What are these honors? Crowns that we would only throw at the feet of Jesus? Others say, “Jesus is our very great reward.” But Jesus is not the reward we earn with our labor. Still others say, “There are no rewards. Everything comes by grace alone.” Then what are we to do with these words of Paul? Confusion over rewards also makes us susceptible to bad teaching. “Earn eternal rewards by giving me your money.”
Rewarded for our labor
The eternal rewards we labor for are people.
Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. (Psalm 127:3, NIV)
The father heart of God craves expression. Our heavenly Father longs for children, and the more the better. Psalm 127 is not just speaking about biological children, but spiritual offspring. As we labor together with the Holy Spirit to reveal the Father’s love to others, people are added to God’s great family.
What labor is more rewarding than the labor of childbirth? As in the natural, so in the spiritual. What could be more fulfilling than co-laboring with the Lord to create new life? You tell someone the good news, the lights go on, a smile dawns on their face, and you realize that you and the Holy Spirit just did something special. A moment ago this person had no great regard for Jesus; now they’re shining with his very life. They just became a new person, one who will learn to call God, “Abba, Father.” It truly is a miracle. Source: The Gospel in Twenty Questions
The labor that is rewarded is introducing people to their loving Father, and the reward that we get is a new son or daughter in the Lord.
The Father-heart of God beat so strongly within Paul that he felt compelled to preach the gospel. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). Paul was so full of the overflowing life of God that he had to share it with others or he would burst.
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. (1 Corinthians 3:5)
Apollos and Paul labored and the result was people were added to God’s family. This happy outcome would not have happened without the labor of these two men and the aid of the Holy Spirit:
I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6)
Jesus said something similar:
Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. (John 4:35–36)
The word for wages used by Jesus is the same word for reward used by Paul (misthos). When you sow and water the gospel seed, you are laboring to reap an eternal reward of people. Just as a farmer who sows corn expects to reap corn, we who sow the good seed can expect to reap new life.
What was Paul’s reward?
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. (1 Corinthians 9:19)
Paul’s motivation was to win people for Jesus.
To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. (1 Corinthians 9:20–22)
Paul had no interest in worldly wealth that rusts and fades away. He desired spiritual offspring. And he got it. As a result of his labor he became a father to the Corinthians, and he called men like Timothy and Onesimus his sons in the Lord (1 Cor. 4:15, 1 Tim. 1:2, Phm. 1:10).
What was John’s reward?
The apostle John had a similar view of eternal rewards.
Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. (2 John 1:8, NIV)
Paul said we are rewarded for our labor, and John said the same thing. They were both talking about the rewards of leading people to Jesus.
There is a nice counterpoint between Paul and John. Paul encourages us to work for reward, while John warns us not to let others steal the reward we have earned. What was happening was this: John and his team had preached the gospel and people were responding to the Holy Spirit, but false teachers were undermining their work.
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (2 John 1:10–11)
A good teacher points people to Jesus, while a bad one leads them astray. “Watch out for those deceivers and don’t let them take your reward,” warned John. He’s saying, “Keep an eye on your harvest. Watch over those people who are still responding to the Lord.”
In the parable of the sower, Jesus said there were birds that ate up the good seed before it could germinate and grow. The birds represent agents of the evil one who snatch away the seed sown in the heart (Matt. 13:19). They are false teachers who preach a different gospel and nullify the word of God. Just as we have to sow and water the gospel seed (as Paul said), we need to protect that seed from false teachers (as John said). Do both and you will reap a good harvest.
What did Jesus say about eternal rewards?
Jesus spoke about storing up heavenly treasure. He also talked about eternal rewards:
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. (Luke 6:35)
When we love and do good to our enemies, there is a great reward. What is the great reward? It is not sonship or salvation, for those things come by the grace of God alone. Nor is the reward honor from God. So what is the great reward? We find the answer by looking to Jesus who loved his enemies. Jesus did good and gave his life for ungrateful sinners. He did not do this to receive praise from his Father; he did it to save us. We were the reason and the reward for the cross.
When Jesus tells us to love our enemies in the hope of a great reward, the reward is that our enemies will become eternal friends. It’s the same message as before. We store up treasure in heaven and earn a great reward and make eternal friends by doing good to others. “Lend, expecting nothing in return.” To give to the ungrateful with no thought of repayment is to show grace. It’s revealing the unmerited favor of a good God whose best is better than our worst and who holds nothing against us.
The words of Jesus bring a much-needed clarity and focus to a church that is busy doing a hundred different things. In the accounts of heaven, people are the bottom line. You and I are the reason Jesus did what he did. We are his great reward.
How to earn eternal rewards
“They will each be rewarded according to their own labor,” said Paul, and it was meant to be good news. But when we hear these words our religious flesh panics. “I need to get busy serving Jesus or I’m going to be a pauper in heaven.” It doesn’t work like that.
For starters, no one who has Christ is poor. In him, you are the heir of all things (see entry for Inheritance). And any pressure to produce and perform, is not from the Spirit of Grace. In this world, we are rewarded for our results, but in the kingdom, we are rewarded for our labor. There is a difference.
So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:7)
We put enormous pressure on ourselves to produce and deliver, but there is no pressure from God. He alone imparts life and raises the dead. He alone makes things grow. Our work adds nothing to his work. Our part is to sow and water and reap the reward of what Christ has done. An example may help:
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony… And because of his words many more became believers. (John 4:39, 41)
His words, her testimony. Jesus provides the good news; we tell the story. “This is what Jesus has done for me.” There is a partnership here. Without Jesus, we would have nothing to say. But if we don’t speak, they will have nothing to hear (Rom. 10:14).
The people in the Samaritan town saw no miracles. No water was turned into wine and no lepers were healed. They simply heard the woman’s testimony and put their faith in Jesus. You don’t need to be a miracle worker to lead people to Jesus, but you do need to share what God has given you. As we freely give what we have freely received, good seed is sown. God’s word takes root and begins to grow, and the result is a harvest.
A hundred times as much
Read any book on investing and chances are the first chapter will be about the so-called miracle of compound investing. Invest $1000 at 5 percent and your money will grow little by little into a huge amount—as long as you don’t mind waiting 30 years. You’ll get rich, but only slowly. You may be too old to enjoy it.
Compound interest is hardly miraculous. In contrast, heavenly investments offer far superior returns, even as high as 10,000 percent! I know that sounds too good to be true, but that’s the figure Jesus promised:
Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for my sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:29–30; see also Matthew 19:29 and Luke 18:29–30)
Like any investment, there is a cost in following Jesus. You will have to leave your old way of life and that could mean losing friendships. You might even be rejected by your family. But there is a handsome return to this investment. You will be welcomed by your spiritual family. Doors will open for you in this age and in the age to come.
Most Christians have heard about the costs of discipleship, but not the rewards. They’ve been told what they have to give up, but not what they get in return. “Truly I say.” Jesus promises we will receive a hundred times as much as we lose. It’s an astonishing guarantee, yet many Christians don’t know it.
If you knew of an investment offering a 10,000 percent return, you would sell everything you had to get in on the ground floor. If you knew a single seed would return a hundredfold increase, you’d plant as much seed as you could. It seems incredible, yet these are the returns promised by Jesus. He’s saying God’s love is potent. The more you give away, the more you get back.
For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. (Matthew 25:29)
The more children you have, the more grandchildren you can expect, and this applies in the spiritual realm even more than in the natural. Seed reproduces after its own kind. But those who do nothing with the seed of God’s word, never sowing it, never taking a risk, will have none.
The world of the generous gets larger and larger; the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller. (Proverbs 11:24, MSG)
Jesus also says those who have left farms or fields can expect a hundredfold increase. Peter walked away from a fishing business. Barnabas sold a field. What did they get in return? We could get spiritual and say they got a harvest field of souls, but I believe this is a promise regarding the Lord’s provision. We need to tread carefully when discussing money, lest we succumb to temptation and greed. But it is safe to say that those who take care of God’s family will find that God takes care of their family.
How to store up eternal rewards
Earthly wealth is easy to measure. It’s in your bank account, your assets, and your reputation. If you are sleeping in a dumpster or your assets have been repossessed, you don’t need someone to tell you that you are not rich in the eyes of the world. But how do you measure eternal wealth? I
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he that wins souls is wise.” (Proverbs 11:30)
This verse has two takeaways. First, Jesus is the tree of life and it is his fruit we bear. You may not feel like a fruitful person, but Jesus is the fruitful Vine. You do not need to produce fruit and you should not even try. However, you do need to be convinced that Jesus will bear his fruit in your life as you abide in him. Rest in him and he will make it happen.
Second, Jesus is the wise winner of souls, and he wins souls through you. This should not daunt you for once again it is Jesus who does the heavy lifting. Consider his words to the disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). These men were unschooled yet Jesus said “I will make you” into something else. Jesus brought about the change. All they had to do was follow or trust him. It’s the same with us.
As you allow Christ to live his life through you, you will bear his fruit and catch his fish. You will connect with others and help them connect with the Vine. It’s inevitable. And as you do these things, you will store up treasure in heavenly. You will make eternal friends and earn an eternal reward.
In the beginning, God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. His message for them is his message for us. God wants us to bear his fruit and multiply. The only way we can get this wrong is if we listen to the liar and start eating from the wrong tree. Buy into the lie that you have to perform and produce and you’ll be barren. You’ll walk in the flesh and having nothing to show for your labor. But rest in Jesus and his good promises, and you’ll be as fruitful as can be.
For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy. (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20, NIV)
The apostles expected to be rewarded in the coming age and they knew what their reward would be all those people who had been added to God’s family through their message. They connected people to Jesus and they knew who those people were.
A fisher who fishes expects to catch fish, and a farmer who sows expects to reap a harvest. We need to have a farmer’s expectation when it comes to eternal rewards. We need to expect that when we tell people the good news of Jesus, the result will be fruit for him and eternal friends for us.
I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. (John 4:35)
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