We’re continuing our new feature, “You Asked,” where readers send us theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions that we pass along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share in this space. If you’d like to ask a question, send it to [email protected] along with your full name, city, and state.
We posed today's question to Justin Taylor, vice president of editorial at Crossway Books and blogger at Between Two Worlds. He's contributed to and edited several books, such as The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World and The Power of Words and the Wonder of God. He was also the managing editor for the ESV Study Bible.
Andrew G., from Suffolk, UK, writes:
What are these rewards in heaven which Jesus talks about? Should thought of receiving them motivate us?
In its most general sense, “reward” (Greek, misthos) is the appropriate consequence or consummation of a course of action. Sometimes it is rendered as “wages” (Matt. 20:8; Luke 10:7; John 4:36). Negatively, Judas’s blood money is called “the reward of his wickedness” (Acts 1:18).
Positively, “reward” (which is always in the singular in the NT) refers to entering eternal life. And the greatest joy of heaven will be seeing God face to face (Rev. 22:4). Every believer longs for the day when “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), when we shall “enter into the joy of [our] master” (Matt. 25:21, 23). “They shall see God” (Matt. 5:8) and “your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12) are ultimately referring to the same thing. Jesus frequently appeals to reward as a motivator for righteousness—whether he is talking about persecution (Matt. 5:12) or love (Matt. 5:46) or giving (Matt. 6:4) or prayer (Matt. 6:6) or fasting (Matt. 6:18).
Five key passages reference believers receiving a “crown” (1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4). Though it is popular to see these as different types of reward (crown of righteousness, crown of gold, crown of life, etc.) a majority of commentators believe these are different ways of referring to the one reward of eternal life. Space does not permit a detailed examination of these and related passages, but I would commend the careful analysis of Craig Blomberg.
While professor Blomberg is largely convincing with regard to the exegetical issues, I think he takes a misstep in his theological objections to varying degrees of reward. Even though I don’t think any passages explicitly teach this idea, it is not inconceivable, not is it incompatible with any teaching in the NT. If there are degrees of reward, they would likely revolve around increased capacities and responsibilities.
Jonathan Edwards explains the former: “Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others; and there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign throughout the whole society.” Could the parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11-27) imply that some believers will rule over more cites in the new heavens and earth? If so, this would mean that under our “great reward” (enjoying God himself) there are various roles and responsibilities. I am not certain this will be the case, but I see nothing inherently problematic in holding to this as a possibility.
In summary, all true believers will receive the great reward of seeing God face to face, and this should motivate all of our actions. The NT nowhere clearly and explicitly teaches varying degrees of reward, though this may indeed be true. If so, some may have greater capacities as well as greater responsibilities, but all of us will experience “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” at God’s right hand (Ps. 16:11). Maranatha—come quickly, Lord Jesus!