Degrees of reward in heaven are not often the subject of contemporary sermons. They were, however, a constant theme in the sermons of Christ. He explicitly points to degrees of reward that will be given for faithful service, self–sacrifice, and suffering. Indeed, the canon of Scripture is replete with references to rewards. While we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, what we do now counts for all eternity.
First, it is significant to note that in his most famous sermon, Christ repeatedly referred to rewards. In concluding the Beatitudes he said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11–12, emphasis added). Christ continued his message by warning the crowd that if they did their acts of righteousness to be seen by men, they would not receive a reward in heaven (Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18). Jesus Christ’s message is crystal clear. Rather than fixate on earthly vanities, such as the admiration of men, we ought to focus on such eternal verities as the approval of the Master. He exhorted his followers to store up “treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).
Moreover, Jesus made essentially the same point in his parables. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30), Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusts his property to his servants before going on a long journey. Each servant received an amount commensurate with his abilities. To one he gave five talents, to another two talents, and to a third he gave one. The servant who received five talents doubled his money, as did the servant who had received two. The last servant, however, showed gross negligence and buried his master’s money in the ground. When the master returned, he rewarded the faithful servants with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” The unfaithful servant not only forfeited his reward but was thrown into outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Furthermore, the canon of Scripture communicates degrees of reward in the resurrection. The basis of our salvation is the finished work of Christ, but Christians can erect a building of rewards upon that foundation. As Paul puts it, “no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:11–15).
Paul here illustrates the sober reality that some Christians will be resurrected with precious little to show for the time they spent on earth—they “will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” This conjures up images of people escaping burning buildings with little more than the charred clothes upon their backs. This will be the lot of even the most visible Christian leaders whose motives were selfish rather than selfless. Conversely, those who build selflessly upon the foundation of Christ using “gold, silver and costly stones” will receive enduring rewards. Indeed, a selfless Christian layman who labors in virtual obscurity will hear the words he has longed for throughout his life: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21). While deeds are our duty, not even the smallest act of kindness will go without its reward.
Finally, degrees of reward in eternity involve both enlarged responsibilities as well as enhanced spiritual capacities. An experience I had several years ago aptly underscores this biblical reality. I received an invitation to play Cypress Point, arguably the most spectacular golf course on planet Earth. While the invitation to play Cypress Point was free, I have seldom worked harder to prepare for anything in my life. For months I beat my body into submission. I lifted weights, worked on stretching exercises, and pounded thousands of golf balls, all the while
dreaming of the day I would physically experience walking the fairways of Cypress Point. Without my strenuous preparation I would have still experienced the same cliff–side vistas and breathtaking views. I would still have been able to smell the fragrance of the Monterey Cypresses and feel the refreshing sting of the salt air upon my face. All the hard work, however, added immeasurably to the experience.
That is how heaven will be. As a master musician can appreciate Mozart more than can an average music lover, so too my strenuous training allowed me to more fully appreciate the architectural nuances of Cypress Point. As phenomenal as Cypress Point is, it pales by comparison to what Paradise will be. I spent one day at a golf haven; I will spend an eternity in God’s heaven. It stands to reason, therefore, that I would put a whole lot more effort into preparing for an eternity in heaven with God than I did for playing eighteen holes of golf. That is precisely the point Paul is driving at in one of his letters to the Corinthians. Pressing the analogy of athletics he writes, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:24–25). Thus, says Paul, “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (vv. 26–27).
For further study, see Hank Hanegraaff, Resurrection (Nashville:Word Publishing, 2000).
2 CORINTHIANS 5:10
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat
of Christ, that each one may receive what is
due him for the things done while in the body,
whether good or bad.”