The Rewards of Following Christ
Peter once asked Jesus, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?" (Matthew 19:27). We might paraphrase it like this: "We’ve given up a lot to be here. Is it really worth it?"
Some of us may well ask the same thing. We have given up a lot — careers, families, jobs, status, pride — in our spiritual journey. Is it really worth it? Is there some sort of reward in store for us?
We used to talk often of rewards in the kingdom of God. Many members found these speculations very encouraging and motivating. It put eternal life into terms we could relate to. We could envision ourselves with physical rewards that made our sacrifices seem worthwhile.
The good news is that our labors and sacrifices are not in vain. Our efforts will be rewarded — even sacrifices we made because of doctrinal misunderstandings. Jesus says that whenever our motive is right — when our labor and sacrifice are for his name’s sake — we will be rewarded.
I think it will be helpful to discuss the kind of rewards God promises for us. Scripture has quite a bit to say about it. God knows that we do ask the question. We do need an answer. He inspired Scripture writers to talk about rewards, and I am confident that when God promises a reward, we will find it extremely rewarding — far above what we could even think to ask (Ephesians 3:20).
Rewards both now and forever
Let’s begin by noting the way that Jesus answered Peter’s question: "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life" (vv. 28-29).
The Gospel of Mark makes it clear that Jesus is talking about two different time periods: "No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields — and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life" (Mark 10:29-30).
Jesus is stating in emphatic terms that God will reward us generously — but he also warns us that this life is not a life of physical luxury. We will have persecutions, trials and sufferings in this life. But the blessings outweigh the difficulties by a hundred-to-one margin! Whatever sacrifices we make will be richly compensated. The Christian life is certainly "worth it."
Of course, Jesus is not promising to give 100 fields to everyone who gave up a farm to follow him. He is not promising to make everyone wealthy. He is not promising to give 100 mothers. He is not talking in strictly literal terms. What he means is that the things we receive in this life will be 100 times as valuable as the things we give up — as measured by real value, eternal value, not by temporary fads about physical things.
Even our trials have spiritual value to our benefit (Romans 5:3-4; Jas. 1:2-4), and this is of greater value than gold (1 Peter 1:7). God sometimes gives us gold and other temporary rewards (perhaps as an indication of better things to come), but the rewards that count most are those that last forever.
Frankly, I doubt that the disciples understood what Jesus was saying. They were still thinking in terms of a physical kingdom that would soon bring earthly freedom and power to the Israelites (Acts 1:6). The martyrdom of Stephen and James (Acts 7:57-60; 12:2) may have come as quite a surprise. Where were the hundredfold rewards for them?
Parables of reward
In several parables, Jesus indicated that faithful disciples would receive great rewards. Sometimes the reward is described as rulership, but Jesus also used other ways to describe our reward.
In the parable of the vineyard workers, the gift of salvation is symbolized by one day’s wage (Matthew 20:9-16). In the parable of the virgins, the reward is a marriage banquet (Matthew 25:10). In the parable of talents, the reward is described in general terms: being put "in charge of many things" and being able to "share your master’s happiness" (vv. 20-23).
In the parable of sheep and goats, the blessed disciples are allowed to inherit a kingdom (v. 34). In the parable of the servants, the faithful servant is rewarded by being put in charge of all the master’s possessions (Luke 12:42-44).
In the parables of the pounds, the trustworthy servants were given rulership over cities (Luke 19:16-19). Jesus promised the 12 disciples rulership over the tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30). Members of the church in Thyatira were promised authority over the nations (Revelation 2:26-27).
Jesus advised his disciples to "store up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Matthew 6:19-21). By this, he implied that what we do in this life will be rewarded in the future — but what sort of reward is it? What good is a treasure when there is nothing to buy? When streets are made of gold, what will be the value of gold?
When we have spiritual bodies, we will not need physical things. I think that this fact suggests that when we think of eternal rewards, we should think primarily about spiritual rewards, not physical things that will pass away. But the problem is that we do not have the vocabulary to describe details of an existence we have never experienced. So we need to use words based on the physical when we even attempt to describe what the spiritual is like.
Our eternal reward will be like a treasure. In some respects, it will be like inheriting a kingdom. In some way, it will be like being given all our master’s possessions. It will be similar to having a vineyard to take care of on behalf of the master. It will be like having responsibility over cities. It will be like a wedding banquet when we share in our master’s happiness. It is like all of these things, and much more.
Our spiritual blessings will be far better than the physical things we know in this life. Our eternity in God’s presence will be much more glorious and joyful than physical rewards. All physical things, no matter how beautiful, enjoyable or valuable, are only weak shadows of infinitely better heavenly rewards.
Eternal joy with God
David put it this way: "You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand" (Psalm 16:11). John described it as a time when "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 20:4). Everyone will be fully happy. There will be no dissatisfaction of any kind. No one will be able to think of even a tiny way in which things could be better. We will have reached the purpose for which God has made us.
Isaiah described some of this joy when he predicted a nation returning to its land: "The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Isaiah 35:10). We will be in the presence of God, and we will be happier than we have ever been. This is what Christianity has traditionally tried to convey by the concept of "going to heaven."
Is it wrong to want a reward?
Some critics of Christianity have ridiculed the concept of heaven as "pie in the sky in the bye and bye" — but ridicule is not a good form of argument. The real question is, Is there a reward, or not? If there really is a reward in heaven, then it is not ridiculous to hope to enjoy it. If we really will be rewarded, it is ridiculous not to want it.
The simple fact is that God has promised to reward us. "Anyone who comes to him [God] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). Belief in rewards is part of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, some people think that it is somehow demeaning or less than honorable for Christians to want to be rewarded for their labors. They think that Christians should serve with a motive of love, expecting no reward for their labors. But that is not the complete message of the Bible. In addition to the free gift of salvation by grace through faith, the Bible does promise rewards for God’s people, and it is not wrong to desire the promises of God.
Certainly, we are to serve God from the motivation of love and not as hirelings who work only to be paid. However, Scripture does speak of rewards, and assures us that we will be rewarded. It is honorable for us to believe in God’s promises and to find them motivating. Rewards are not the only motive of the redeemed children of God, but it is part of the package God has given us.
When life becomes difficult, it is helpful for us to remember that there is another life, in which we will be rewarded. "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men" (1 Corinthians 15:19). Paul knew that the future life would make his sacrifices worthwhile. He gave up temporary pleasures to seek better, longer-lasting pleasures in Christ (Philippians 3:8).
Paul was not afraid of using the language of "gain" (Philippians 1:21; 1 Timothy 3:13; 6:6; cf. Hebrews 11:35). He knew that his future life would be much better than the persecutions of this life. Jesus was also mindful of the benefits of his own sacrifice, and he was willing to endure the cross because he saw great joy on the other side (Hebrews 12:2).
When Jesus counseled us to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20), he was not against investing — he was against bad investments. Do not invest in temporary rewards, but invest in heavenly rewards that will last forever. "Great is your reward in heaven" (Matthew 5:12). "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field" (Matthew 13:44).
God has prepared something wonderfully good for us, and we will find it to be extremely enjoyable. It is right for us to eagerly look forward to these great blessings, and when we count the cost of following Jesus, it is also right for us to count the blessings and rewards promised for us.
"The Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does" (Ephesians 6:8). "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward" (Colossians 3:23-24). "Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully" (2 John 8).
Exceedingly great rewards
What God has in store for us is truly beyond our ability to imagine. Even in this life, the love of God is beyond our ability to understand (Ephesians 3:19). The peace of God is beyond our comprehension (Philippians 4:7), and his joy is beyond our ability to put into words (1 Peter 1:8). How much more, then, is it impossible to describe how good it will be to live with God forever?
The biblical writers didn’t give us many details. But one thing we know for certain — it is going to be the most wonderful experience we have ever had. It is better than the most beautiful paintings, better than the most delicious food, better than the most exciting sport, better than the best feelings and experiences we have ever had. It is better than anything on earth. It is going to be a tremendous reward!
God is truly generous! We have been given exceedingly great and precious promises — and the privilege of sharing this wonderful news with others. What joy should fill our hearts!
In the words of 1 Peter 1:3-9:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
We have much to be thankful for, much to rejoice about, much to celebrate!