The Truth About Heavenly Rewards
Hopefully by now you understand that our eternal reward for trusting Jesus is not sitting around in heavenly comfort, but doing something useful for His Kingdom. But there’s more. Do you realize there is a merit system in the Kingdom of Heaven? That might sound wrong to us Americans who think salvation by grace through faith is the whole story. You mean God saves us, but doesn’t guarantee where we stand in the Kingdom? That’s exactly what I mean. Jesus speaks more than once about those who are greatest and least in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:17, 11:11, 18:1-4, 20:20-28, 23:1-12; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 16:9-12, 22:24-30). The work you do in this life doesn’t just put food on the table or good education in your head. It determines where you stand in eternity. And why is that? Because God tests every one of us to see whether we are worthy of His trust (Luke 9:46-48). That’s the whole point of Jesus’ parable about the talents. I encourage you to read that over again. It’s in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. Let me summarize it.
Jesus told this story of a man who went to a far country, but before he left he put his servants in charge of everything he had. One servant received the equivalent of five talents, which is an enormous sum of money. One servant received two talents, and another servant received one talent. When the man returned, he found that the first servant had worked hard and increased his five talents to ten, and that the second had increased his two talents to five. The man praised both of them and rewarded them with rulership in proportion to what they had earned. The third servant didn’t work very hard at all. In fact, all he did was hide his master’s money so no one could take it. Do you know what the master called that servant? Wicked and lazy! The master expected the servant to do his best, and I am confident he would have commended him even if he had not doubled the money. Yet instead of doing something constructive, the servant put aside his master’s possessions and went about doing whatever he wanted to do. He may have done plenty of good things for his family and his community, but he let his master’s business suffer. No wonder the master called him wicked and lazy. Not only that, the master took that talent from the lazy servant and gave it to the one who had earned ten talents.
That’s a sobering account up to this point, but even more sobering is the way Jesus ends the story. He says:
For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:29-30 NKJV)
Jesus is not talking about a loss of salvation here. He does not tell that servant, “Depart from Me, I never knew you”, as He does with the lawless ones in Matthew 7:21-23. Rather, He sends that servant to the outer darkness. You’ll find other references to the outer darkness in Matthew 8:5-13 and Matthew 22:1-14. I encourage you to read those passages again and learn what Jesus is saying. In each passage He refers to friends and servants and sons of the Kingdom, not to the unsaved. He says those in the outer darkness will experience “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. That’s not the fire of hell reserved for the devil and his angels and others whose names are not written in the Book of Life (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:15). No, these people in the outer darkness are still part of the Kingdom of Heaven, but they are nowhere near the center of the Kingdom, where the Lord is.
Watching the Game from the Outer Darkness
Recently I heard an illustration which I believe is a good interpretation of this outer darkness question. I’ll paraphrase that illustration. Let’s say you were going to see the Tennessee Titans play football on a Monday night. You drive to Nashville and down to LP Field, pay the fee to park your car, and then find an open space in the parking lot. It’s night and dim outside, but there is a bright light pouring out from the stadium. As you walk toward the stadium that light gets brighter and brighter until finally you come out in the stands and can see the field. The light is so bright that you would think it is daytime. But when you walk back to your car after the game the light fades behind you and you go to a progressively darker place.
In Kingdom of Heaven terms, the outer darkness is the parking lot at LP Field. You’re still on the property because your faith transaction got you inside the gate, but you are not where the lights are. Even though there are monitors to show you what is happening down on the field, and even though you can see the glow of the lights and hear the cheers of the crowd, you are not there to see it with your own eyes. And that is why there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s not the torment of hell, but the realization that you could have had a seat on the 50 yard line if you had just listened to your Master and done as He had commanded.
“But wait!”, you may say. “What about that part of God wiping away every tear from our eyes?” Good question. That appears twice in scripture. The first time is Revelation 7:14-17, and it refers to those who are martyred in the Great Tribulation. The second time is Revelation 21:1-5, referring to the threshold of eternity when the heavens and the earth pass away and God establishes the New Heaven and Earth. We can debate this point, but it seems to me that between the Great Tribulation and the New Heaven and Earth there is a space of a thousand years when those in the Kingdom who have not lived up to their potential have plenty of opportunity to remember with regret their poor choices.
The Right Kind of Works
But honestly, are our works really going to be judged at the end of this age? And if so, what do we do? What are these good works the Lord expects us to accomplish? The answer, as always, is in the Word of God:
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. (I Corinthians 3:5-17, NKJV, emphasis added)
It seems straightforward what the Apostle Paul is saying here. Basically it’s this: your works determine your reward. But there’s more to it than that. Understand first that salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, and in no other way. Paul is not talking to the unsaved, but to believers. That is why he says there is no other foundation we can build on but Jesus Christ. The Son of God has laid the foundation for us, and it’s up to us to build on it. We work as hard as we can according to the abilities God has put into each of us, and He rewards us for our labors. It is not profitable for us to compare our works to one another and try to determine who has done the most or the best. God alone is our judge; our place is to follow His lead in faithfulness. We labor together, even if we are laboring in different parts of His vineyard doing different tasks. As long as we are following His instructions and helping one another, we will succeed.
But can we do whatever seems good in our own eyes? No, by no means! God has set standards, and it’s up to us as His people to learn those standards and follow them. That’s what Paul is talking about when he says we build with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw. You see, it’s possible to work very hard and do some good things, but if the things we produce are not what the Lord wants, then it’s just as if we had produced junk.
Let me put it another way. If my father wants me to build an extension onto his house, but I decided to build a tool shed in his backyard, would he be happy? Would it matter that I used the finest materials, brought in the best qualified craftsmen, and finished the job on time and under budget? No, none of that would matter. My Dad is expecting to have a new bedroom for his grandchildren when they come to visit, not more storage space for his tools. Since I’m his son, he’s not going to disown me, but he’s certainly not going to praise me for disregarding his instructions. And next time he has a job to do, he will think twice before trusting me with it. Not only that, he will probably remember that as he is making out his will.
Do you understand what the Lord is telling us through the Apostle Paul? Yes, do good works, but do the works God wants us to do. Be Abel, not Cain. Remember that story? According to Genesis 4, Cain and Abel both brought offerings to the Lord, but God did not accept Cain’s offering. It’s not that Cain had been lazy or offered bad stuff, but rather that Cain offered something other than what the Lord had specified. He offered the grains and vegetables he had grown from the ground, but Abel offered the firstborn of his flock. How did Abel know what to give God? He watched and listened. He realized that God had had to sacrifice lambs to cloth his parents after their sin (Genesis 3:21), and he understood that anyone who approached God after that needed to bring blood to cover his own sin. The lamb he sacrificed answered that requirement, but Cain, by bringing the best of his wheat and barley and corn, in effect said he could come before God in his own righteousness. And you know what happened next: God accepted Abel, but rejected Cain, and in anger Cain murdered his brother.