Future Rewards, part 2

I will now consider how the theme of future reward plays an integral role in Matthew’s overarching message.

Matthew 5:11-12. At the closing of the Beatitudes, Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are you when others 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.”[1] This is the last of nine statements showing Christ’s “ethic of reversal,” that those who are most lowly according to this world’s standards will be most esteemed in the next. It is the mournful, meek, hungry, and persecuted who will be the most victorious and most blessed in God’s kingdom when it comes in its fullness.

The qualifier “great” that is added to the word “reward” in verse 12 implies that there is more in store for the persecuted than simply a general reward for all believers. The passage could have read, “Rejoice, because you have a reward in heaven,” but instead it reads, “Rejoice, because great is your reward.” It may be that the blessings of preceding verses are binary—rewards that all believers can anticipate and all unbelievers cannot: receiving the kingdom (v.3,10), inheriting the earth (v.5), being filled and comforted (v.4,6), receiving mercy (v.7), seeing God (v.8), and being called sons of God (v.9). Yet, while it is clear that all who thirst for righteousness to any degree will be filled, it may also be true that those who thirst to a greater extent will be filled to a greater extent (v.6). The lesson in these verses may speak to people in all walks of life, believers and unbelievers alike.[2] I believe this is how most Christians read the Beatitudes. They do not simply say, “Thank you, Lord, for making me pure in heart” or “Thank you for making me hungry after righteousness,” but they see these as qualities in which to grow, asking, “Lord, make me more pure in heart, so that I can ‘see You’ more and more.”

This “ethic of reversal” can found in several places throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus says in 18:4, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” and again in 19:30, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” He reiterates in 20:26-27, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.” These passages do not say that order (first, last, greatest, least) is eliminated in the kingdom of God. In teaching “reversal,” Jesus implies that some sort of distinctions and gradations remain.[3] As Philip Yancey has said, “The kind of ethics presented in the Sermon on the Mount makes little sense apart from a hope in future rewards.”[4]

Matthew 6:1-21 describes how disciples can give, pray and fast in such a way that they earn reward in heaven rather than merely on earth. Each section ends with the refrain, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (verses 4, 6, 18). Verses 19-21 end the section without mentioning “reward” again, but they do speak of laying up “treasures” in heaven, which is pertinent to the theme of rewards. This is an interesting passage, because Jesus commands—not merely suggests or permits—that we store up treasures in heaven. He even makes it clear that we should do this “for ourselves” (v.20). He does not tell us to terminate self-interest, but to direct self-interest toward the proper goal. The mention of rewards in the first 18 verses is also remarkable, for these verses are focused on the proper heart-motivation behind good works. Jesus tells us not to do good works for the honor and praise of men, or for the sake of public recognition (v.1-2), but he uses loss of reward as a reason for avoiding these sinful motivations (v.1). That is, he puts the desire for heavenly reward in the category of “good motivation” for obedience.

Daniel Doriani, however, disagrees with this assessment. He says,

If we say giving earns a reward from God, this turns the act of giving into a business investment: I give to God and he gives back, with interest. At worst, this is wholly selfish, a manipulation of God for selfish advantage. At best, it pollutes an act of kindness by giving it a selfish turn at the end. It makes the right hand think hard about what the left is doing. It makes giving a self-imposed spiritual discipline, presented to God for proper recompense. …The reward for service must be intrinsic—the satisfaction of serving others and relieving needs.

Doriani is not the first to view hope of reward as an improper motive for obedience. I will address Doriani’s comments in greater depth in the second portion of my paper.

Matthew 10:41-42. In this passage, Jesus says, “Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” Jesus suggests that there is a special reward for a prophet, which also applies to those who extend hospitality to prophets. Robert Mounce explains that, “In the context of persecution (v. 23), hospitality could involve harboring at considerable risk those who are wanted by the authorities.”[5] Jonathan Edwards sees this passage as clearly indicating an additional reward for particular saints, saying, “Christ tells us that he who gives a cup of cold water unto a disciple in the name of a disciple shall in no wise lose his reward. But this could not be true, if a person should have no greater reward for doing many good works than if he did but few.” [6]

Matthew 19:27-30 is the only passage I have chosen that does not use the term “reward.” Jesus’ words, however, could not be more pertinent to the theme at hand. Jesus has just invited the rich young man to leave everything and follow him, and the young man has declined this offer of discipleship. Peter, recognizing the difference between his response and the young man’s, asks Jesus whether the sacrifices he has made will someday pay off. “We have left everything to follow you. What then will there be for us?” (v. 27). Jesus responded, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things…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” (v.28-29).

While the word “reward” is never used, the concept is certainly here, since what Jesus promises—positions of authority and honor, multiplication of possessions and relationships—provide a strong incentive for obedience. The ethic of reversal is seen here again, and there is a kind of fundamental justice in the notion that those who have sacrificed the most for Christ will be the most richly rewarded.

Matthew 25:14-30. The parable of the talents is set between two other parables focused on readiness for Christ’s return: the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the sheep and goats. Because all three stories focus on the binary outcome of human lives—either eternal life or eternal punishment—this parable is not the strongest piece of evidence for gradations in future reward. Of the three servants presented, two demonstrate proper stewardship of the master’s possessions and receive praise, while the third does not merely fail to receive praise, but is actually thrown “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v.30). The most we can ascertain is that all those who belong to Christ will have exercised some level of stewardship to show for it. The servant entrusted with five talents and the servant entrusted with two receive equal words of commendation, and we do not see anyone entering the master’s house will less than, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Based on this passage alone, it would be difficult to know whether servants will enter the master’s house with less than overflowing praise.

However, this parable does contain the general notion that we are entrusted with temporal responsibilities for our testing and preparation for eternal responsibilities.[7] It certainly appears that the more we are faithful with the small things, the more we will be put in change of large things (v.23). Hearing the servant say that he has done well with what he has been entrusted (v.20) should cause us to ask, “Am I doing well with what I have been entrusted?” It is only when we look at other Scriptures that we can be sure that some will enter the master’s house with loss of reward, due to lack of diligence. Paul helps us see the broader implications of this parable when he says, “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15).


[1] All Scripture is from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

[2] Hodges, 32.

[3] I am indebted to Richard Pratt for this point.

[4] Yancey, 112.

[5] Mounce, 99.

[6] Edwards, 300.

[7] Ton, xiii.

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Posted on February 20, 2010, in Theological Studies. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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