Rewards for Righteousness
What is the role of rewards in the Christian life? How does what we do here on earth play out in eternity? Join Dr. Marty Baker for his 4th and final sermon in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as he teaches us on Rewards for Righteousness.
The Scriptures teach that after the Rapture of the Church before the seven-year Tribulation (Dan. 9:24-27), Jesus will judge and reward every believer for how well they lived the Christian life. Jesus cautioned us regarding this day of reckoning ( ), but Paul wrote about it more than any other NT saint. Listen carefully to what he told the church in Rome:
10 But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God." 12 So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom. 14).
Mark well Paul speaks here to believers, not unbelievers.
All saints shall appear before Christ’s seat of judgment for analysis and reward. Those who lived all facets of their lives as if they served the Lord himself will receive rewards for their actions. If you cared for a mother with dementia, while siblings left you high and dry, and you did it as unto Christ, He will repay you with heavenly reward be what it may. If you raised a special needs child and did so with the grace and mercy of Jesus, He won’t forget what you did as you struggled with daily challenges. If you stayed in a tough marriage where the husband or wife did not follow Christ, Christ promises to repay you one day provided you were loyal to your mate as unto Christ.
Those saints, on the other hand, who lived too much for this world, who did things for the wrong motives, who had a penchant for moral compromise, who struggled with besetting sins (Heb. 12:1ff), will suffer loss of what could have been their eternal reward(s) had they only put Christ first in their lives.
Paul couldn’t be clearer: Every saint will take a knee in adoration of Christ as they give account for the quality and nature of their service to Him in this life. Some will receive great rewards for they did great things for Him, others will receive less, but all will give account and how this day will play out will echo in eternity. Put differently, how you live for Jesus in the here and now will practically impact you when He judges and rewards you in the hereafter.
Our current overly sensitive culture misleads some believers in thinking God is equitable in His rewards, meaning everyone will receive the same rewards from His good hand. Such is not the thinking of God nor the teaching of the Scriptures. God is all about meritocracy, which denotes rewarding individuals based on how much effort they put into being His disciples. In the Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Minas, the Master in both stories is the Lord who leaves and promises to return. In his absence, he entrusts different amounts of his wealth to his subjects with the intent that they invest it to expand his net worth. All subjects/saints are eventually rewarded differently based on how well they used what He gave them (Matt. 25:15-28; Luke 18:13-26). Everyone will not get a trophy, as it were. Everyone will be judged and rewarded handsomely based on their level of faith and obedience to the Master, Jesus Christ. As I’ve said before, I must say again: Are you living in light of your time before Christ’s seat of judgment and reward?
Typically, some Christians get all uptight and uncomfortable regarding talking about rewards. They might feel it is the wrong motivation for Christian service. The Bible doesn’t think so. I live for Christ because I love Him, but the promise of heavenly reward is clearly His idea, therefore, the quest for it cannot be inherently bad but good (Matt. 5:12, 46; 6:1, 2, 65, 16; 10:42). Without shame, Paul taught frequently he pursued heavenly rewards (1 Cor. 9:24-25; 2 Cor. 4:16-18; 5:9-10). He even looked forward to receiving the “crown of righteousness” because He faithfully served Jesus to his martyrdom under Nero.
7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim. 4).
Paul looked forward to specific rewards. Do you? Which ones are you striving for as you serve Christ and seek to give Him glory, both in the here and now and in the hereafter?
This subject, which isn’t talked about much in church life, is so important, we must dig into it deeper so our lives are being lived as they should be before our Savior. To begin, let’s reconsider the central motif before us.
All Believers Will Be Judged And Rewarded For How Well They Served Christ (Various Biblical Texts)
Thus far, we have considered three things:
- The Promise Of Divine Judgment & Reward (Matt. 16:27). All saints will experience both of these concepts to prepare them for heaven.
- The Path Of Divine Judgment And Reward (1 Cor. 9:24ff). All saints will be judged about how ardently they served Jesus while on earth.
- The Process of Divine Judgment And Reward (1 Cor. 3:9ff). All saints will be judged based on the quality and motivation for their Christian service, and each will be rewarded accordingly.
When all this occurs, of course, it is directly after the Rapture of the Church (1 Thess. 4:13-18). While the Lord unleashes His wrath on the wicked and deals with His people (Rev. 6-19), Israel, He will also dispense judgment and eternal rewards to every believer from the Church Age. After this, Jesus will be married to His bride, the Church, and at the close of the Tribulation, He will present His glorious bride to the world as He comes to establish His Davidic empire (Psalm 2; 89; Isa. 2:1ff; 9:6ff).
In addition, therefore, to the three concepts we’ve already studied, we need to add one more:
The Provisions of Judgment & Reward
Stated differently, what exactly are the rewards Jesus will give to us, His people? Thinking minds want to know. Before we look at rewards more exactly, I first want to talk about the difference between inheritance and reward.
Once you become a believer by trusting in Jesus as your Savior and Lord, you immediately become His son or daughter and legal inheritors of your heavenly Father’s wealth. Consider Paul’s words in Titus 3:
5 He saved us, not based on deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
7 that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Tit. 3).
At the top of the list of your heavenly inheritance is your incredible, jaw-dropping, and humbling salvation from sin. Every saint inherits this, as Paul reminds the Romans:
16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, (Rom. 8).
In his letter to the Galatian believers, he remarks:
6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God (Gal. 4).
As God’s children, we all, therefore, are recipients of the priceless inheritance the Scriptures call salvation.
Eternal inheritance is more than this.
We will inherit the glorious coming kingdom of the Messiah, the eternal kingdom of God, the heavenly city (Rev. 21-22), beautiful homes built by Jesus (John 14:1ff), unbelievable bodies fitted for God’s dimension and the celestial sphere (2 Cor. 5:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:35ff) to mention a few. And this is only logically expected of sons and daughters of the Lord, for it is our birthright or endowment He has promised to each of us. We don’t work for it. He gives it to us freely because He loves us. This is why our salvation is at the top of our inheritance list. It was given to us, not based on our efforts and works but on our faith in Christ’s redemptive work on the cross as He defeated sin.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, that no one should boast (Eph. 2).
18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1).
Thank the Lord for an inheritance He purchased for us and has shared with us freely. It cannot be lost or taken away but is ours for eternity (1 Pet. 1:3-5). You might not be wealthy by worldly standards, but as a child of God, you are rich, for you are an inheritor of the priceless gift called salvation.
Conversely, rewards are highly conditional and entirely based on your faithfulness. Listen to John,
26 'And he who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; 27 and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father (Rev. 2).
Some saints will not be given the right to rule in the Davidic kingdom of the Messiah because they did not remain close to Christ until the end of their lives. In contrast, others will reign because they did not throw in the proverbial towel using moral or spiritual compromise. God’s rewards will be just, and for this to occur, they must, by definition, be directly related to individual performance. Spiritual works, therefore, do not and cannot negatively impact your redeemed status, but they can and will affect, either positively or negatively, your spiritual and eternal reward(s). And just as there are eternal consequences for either believing in or rejecting Jesus, there are and will be, the same concerning the rewards Jesus dispenses to those who are faithful to Him at varying degrees. Finally, your salvation is a sure thing because it is your inheritance. Your reward is not like this. As I have said, it depends upon your proper motive wedded to your level of service to Jesus with all aspects of your earthly life.
With all of this in mind, I invite you to look at the heavenly rewards we know about. Some are mysterious and are left for God to show us on the day we stand before Him. For instance, Jesus says in Revelation 2 that He will personally give overcomers, or those who lived the Christian life well, secret names that only He and they know (Rev. 2:17). How intimate. How exciting. How mysterious.
Other rewards we know about are related to crowns Jesus will dispense for various reasons. By way of review, Paul states in 1 Corinthians 9:25 how believers will be rewarded with an imperishable crown. The Greek word for crown is stephanos. It is not to be equated with the other word for crown, diadem, for this is for a king to wear, and rightly so does it belong to Jesus. In the Panhellenic games in ancient Greece, a person who won their race received a stephanos crown fashioned out of wild olive leaves, pine needles, and laurel branches. It was perishable but held great weight and honor, for it denoted an athlete who had worked hard and performed well on the track. Those who received this wreath were also given unique benefits when they headed home. Hence, in the NT, the stephnos represented an emblem of victory based on extreme sacrifice and effort. No wonder Paul picked up this familiar concept and applied it to what believers can receive based on how well they run the spiritual race the Lord has set before them (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
What crown rewards are available? I believe there are five in number.
The Crown of Life
We about this particular crown in two places in the NT:
12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him (Jas. 1).
10 'Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life (Rev. 2).
Paul seeks to wake you up as a Christian with these words, “. . . all who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). Decide not to go with the woke mob at work by standing up for logic and moral and spiritual truth, and you will be opposed, demeaned, and ostracized. Decide not to go along to get along when the school system seeks to brainwash your child with inappropriate concepts about sex and gender and see how well you are received. Stand up for absolute moral truth in a culture that believes truth is relative, resulting in each person’s actions being acceptable, no matter what those actions are, and you will be disliked and de-platformed. Preach and teach that the Bible is the Word of God and there is no other divine word, and anticipate cultural backlash for being intolerant and narrow-minded. You get the drill. However, suppose you choose to stand for truth courageously and hold tenaciously to your faith in Jesus and His timeless teachings amid persecution. In that case, you will be richly rewarded by Him when He places this exemplary crown of life on your head.
The crown is also more than this. James speaks of enduring trials to God’s glory. Indeed, this can and does denote difficulties brought on by persecution; however, this is not the final word on trials. Paul endured the problem of the thorn in the flesh, as he talks about in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10. Most likely, this denoted an eye malady he suffered, making seeing difficult. No wonder he prayed three times for it to be removed, but the Lord left it in his life to teach him about God’s grace and to keep his pride in check. Paul embraced the trial until he died because He loved the Lord who sent and permitted the trial. He will be rewarded for his obedience.
What about you? Do you love the Lord in your trial? Your trial might be a difficult child, a broken relationship with a sibling, a mate with a mental disease, a physical deformity, a parent with Alzheimer’s, or the like. God uses trials to develop and deepen us spiritually (James 1:2-3). God uses trials, as in Paul’s case, to show us the sufficiency of God’s grace when we think things are hopeless. There are other purposes in trials, but each of us must remember that when we bear up under the trial by keeping our eyes focused on Christ and heaven (2 Cor. 4:16-18) and by asking God constantly give us wisdom (James 1:5), we not only bring Him glory, but He takes note. He will honor you one day with a unique crown of life. So, stay the course. Make Christ proud, and anticipate He will showcase your faithfulness to Him in eternity with this spectacular crown.
The Incorruptible Crown
This crown is directly related to the discipline you evidenced and the victories you achieved in your earthly life. We bumped into it earlier when we discussed 1 Corinthians 9:24-25:
24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (1 Cor. 9).
Ah, there is the crucial word: self-control. The saint who works at controlling their thoughts, actions, and reactions, who doesn’t fulfill and give in to the magnetic draw of the flesh, who doesn’t readily engage wicked things which might feel good but which are not good, but evil, this saint shall receive an incorruptible crown for their daily efforts.
- The college student who gets off of and stays off online porn and demonstrates self-control will receive the incorruptible crown.
- The man who gains mastery over his temper by seeking strength from the Spirit of God will receive the incorruptible crown.
- The woman who stops being jealous of everyone else and starts appreciating the blessings which flow into the lives of others will receive the incorruptible crown.
And so on and so forth, as they say. Any area of your life right now where it is not disciplined? Any area which is out of control, or is not being controlled by the Spirit of God? Start to gain mastery today, and if you stay on this track, then one day Jesus will smile when He slips this incorruptible crown on your head.
The Crown of Glory
Peter speaks about this in his first letter:
1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Pet. 5).
Being a spiritual elder and leader in the local church is a high honor because you serve as Christ’s under-shepherd. You don’t do it because someone forced you to do it, but you do it because it is a high and holy calling. You certainly don’t do it because of the pay. If you are a lay elder, the payment isn’t until you see Christ face to face, and even if you are a pastoral elder, your pay could certainly be higher if you worked in another sector. But you don’t do what you do for money. You do it because you love Christ, know the sheep need a shepherd, love people, and want to protect the flock.
It is a rewarding position as you see lives changed, marriages saved, hope instilled in hopeless lives, broken friendships mended, and addicts freed from addictions. But it is not an easy job or position.
- You are frequently talked about, and not in a positive fashion.
- Your decisions are often misunderstood by those who don’t have all the facts, facts which you can’t give them.
- Your motives are quickly questioned.
- You are attacked by those who don’t like what you stand for.
- You are deserted in trying times by those saints and friends who should know better, but they don’t.
- You are blindsided by seemingly well-meaning people with really caustic, controlling agendas.
- Your time is often interrupted by those who have to talk to you immediately.
- You are not thanked by those you pour vast amounts of time into.
Yes, being an elder/ spiritual leader in a local church is not easy, but it is a humble and honorable position if God calls you to it. And He promises to reward elders/shepherds who are not only great godly examples to the flock of what it means to be a Christian, but Jesus will personally place the crown of glory on your head for a job well done.
The Crown of Righteousness
This refers to the spectacular crown Jesus will give to those saints who lived with a high expectation of His glorious return, and that knowledge, in turn, caused them to live a holy life, a life of utter transformation. Here is what Paul says about this particular crown:
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim. 4).
This crown is similar to the Incorruptible Crown insofar as it is focused on obedience to Jesus and His teachings to the end of your earthly life. Like this earlier crown, this one speaks of doggedly and courageously holding onto the faith and living it out no matter what the world, the flesh, and the Devil hurl at you in this life.
There is, however, a unique nuance in this particular crown. It is directly related to how you feel and think about the Lord’s prophesied and promised appearance. Is it something you think about quite often? Do you see God rays after an ominous storm and pause and contemplate what it will be like when Jesus appears? Do you pray for His soon arrival? Do you see how the world is aligning with what the prophets said would occur before the Tribulation and get excited because you know the Lord could come at any moment? You will qualify to wear this crown if you anxiously seek His magnificent return.
The Crown of Rejoicing
This crown will be given to those who led sinners to become saints through the cross of Jesus Christ. It will be given to those who saved souls, discipled, and helped them grow up in the faith. Two times in the NT, Paul addressed this crown:
1 Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord (Phil. 4).
19 For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? 20 For you are our glory and joy(1 Thess. 2).
Paul led many in the Philippian and Thessalonian churches to the faith in Christ. He was joyful when he thought about them; however, he also knew that one day the Lord would reward evangelists like him for guiding so many lost sheep into God’s fold.
You will undoubtedly be joyous when you see folks in heaven you shared the gospel with, but more than this, your Lord will reward your efforts for being a soul winner. Not every saint will receive this particular crown because they didn’t share the gospel as they should, yet some saints will be rewarded with this crown because they lived each day to show spiritual beggars where the Bread of Life was located. Will the Lord place this crown on your head on that day?
As God’s children, you are inheritors of many amazing things. They will be freely given to you by God’s good hand. But this is not all. Rewards will be bequeathed to each of us based on well we ran the spiritual race. If you just got on the track, it’s time to get to running. If you are jogging, it’s time for sprinting. If you’ve been running hard for a long time, remember this is a marathon, and you must up your game to God’s glory.
If you have never been on the Lord’s winning team, then make this day the day you join His team by coming to Him in faith (Rom. 10:9).