Warning: you may lose your rewards

People tend to panic when they are about to lose something valuable. Some will go to any extreme not to be a loser.   It is one thing to lose in a sport because someone else was better than you, but it is humiliating to lose because you violated one of the rules of the game.

Athletes who think they can get away with using performance-enhancing drugs to gain an advantage over an opponent eventually get found out.  They lose all their previous medals, awards, trophies, and financial benefits, often forced to return their prize monies won under false pretenses. Their performance was excellent, but their motives and secret methods brought them down.

Clear indicators

Most Christians have no idea that God has set certain rules in place that, if violated, can equally eliminate the possible rewards one could have received. God never bends His rules (commands).  Only a fool plays a game (especially one that has serious consequences) and has no idea about the rules, yet many Christians live this way.

Let me be clear: this is NOT a discussion about the salvation of a believer.  Salvation is NOT a reward for good service or living.  It is granted to undeserving sinners by grace through personal faith in God’s promises of forgiveness and His gift of righteousness.

Rewards are promised to those who “giving all diligence, add to [their] faith …” (2 Pet 1:5-6) a series of seven qualities, that will “keep you from becoming ineffective and unproductive” (2 Pet 1:8) and “there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:11).  The rewards granted by our King and Savior should be the most important motive in our lives.

“Great reward” is promised to those who make His “judgments” or commands the directives of their lives (Psa 19:9-11). His rewards are so great that they will make any sacrifice seem insignificant and incomparable.

Be warned: whatever God promises He will do.  This is the “fear of the Lord.” We should be afraid that He will do exactly what He says.  Without this fear, we can fall into the trap that snared Eve when she began to doubt God.  Subsequently the temptation to ignore His command became irresistible.  She thought she could do what she wanted with impunity. When they disobeyed they immediately died spiritually and later died physically, just as God said they would.  We must learn to take His Word seriously.

John’s warning

John gave this warning, “Watch out, so that you do not lose the things we have worked for, but receive a full reward.” (2 John 8 NET)  He had just stated, “This is love that we walk according to His commandments” (2 John 6). To ignore his commands has a high risk: you could lose all or part of your potential rewards.

Promises of rewards

Jesus spoke more of our rewards than anyone. For example, “”Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:12 NKJ).  This means if you are reviled, undeservingly reproached, given hostile pursuit, harassed, or mistreated “falsely on account of Me” (Matt 5:11 NAS), then “great is your reward in heaven” (5:12).  Never be ashamed of Jesus.

The real question for us to evaluate personally is, “Are the rewards of heaven worth whatever sacrifice I might have to pay to be faithful to Christ?”

Misunderstandings clarified

While it is true that we are to love each other, there is no reward for just loving those who love you!  Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they?” (Matt 5:46 NET). The reward is for living to benefit those you do not like; those you don’t think deserve to be loved.  As you demonstrate God’s love by caring for and benefiting those who do not like you, those actions have great reward.

How to lose your reward

Each of us tends to think we are better than others and deserving of fame and fortune.  Whatever we do, if we are motivated to be seen by others doing spiritual things, so they will think we are special, or spiritual, then there is no reward in heaven no matter what we may accomplish.

The test of one’s heart, in this regard, is being willing to do for others things that no one will ever know. “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. (Luke 6:35 NAS)  Quality love is most evident by learning to love or benefit the unlovely without seeking personal benefit.

Even generous givers often want to be appreciated and thanked (as well they should be).  But how does a donor respond when there is little or no appreciation? Is there a sense of bitterness and a decision to never help that person again? Do you see the donor’s real motivation?

Jesus warned us that giving or any good deed, ministry or sacrifice done “to be noticed by” others, will receive no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt 6:1)

In Matthew 6 spiritual ministries like prayer and fasting are illustrative of all kinds of ministry tasks, if done “to be seen by men” (Matt 6:5a) or to be in the limelight, appear to be important, powerful, respected or popular, there is no reward in heaven.  Jesus said, “They have their reward” (Matt 6:5b) on earth.

Once again in the text, the solution to prideful motivation is to do what you can in secret, believing that “your heavenly Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” (Matt 6:4, 6, 18). Since this principle is repeated three times in a passage, we should pay close attention.

Basis of rewards

When Paul discussed the basis of our rewards he used a metaphor for ministries when he said,  “Now he who plants [evangelists?] and he who waters [servers, teachers, exhorters, pastors] are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor 3:8).  The reward is not according to the bigness or success of a ministry, in fact, we will not be judged at all by our ministry or organization. We will be judged by our “labor”  (kopos, “cause one trouble, intense labor united with trouble, toil, laborious effort”). It is not success achieved, but effort extended for His purpose that is rewarded.

The tireless pastor I met in Nepal who planted five or six small churches simultaneously scattered over the terraced mountain slopes of the Himalayas, trekking over twenty miles a week while facing fanatical Hindu persecution in every small town he passes will undoubtedly be rewarded beyond measure.

Day of rewards is coming

Paul warns us to “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it.” (1Cor 3:10 NAS). He laid the foundation of the gospel and biblical instruction to be used for building up the church. It is not as much “what” one builds on this foundation, but “how” he builds. If one’s methods and motivations are secular and selfish, the rewards vanish.

Paul uses metaphors for likening all our deeds as “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and straw” (1 Cor 3:12), which are then tested by fire to see what is genuine.  Then “each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear,” (1Cor 3:13a NET).

Metaphorically “it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind ofwork each has done. (1Cor 3:13b NET). The measure is not how big one’s work is or how important one becomes, but the quality, sincerity, transparency and God-focused motivation.

Good or bad

Paul was ambitious, but not for himself. He wrote, “So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him. (2Cor 5:9 NET). He was careful to keep motivated to please and honor Christ, not himself, in everything he did.  He then said why: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2Cor 5:10 NAS).

Some believe that if they are simply “good” moral people staying out of trouble, they will be rewarded, but that is not what these words mean.

In Greek there are several words translated “good” and “bad.” In English we use good differently, but in the context it makes sense. To say, “This is a good car,” means that it is efficient, useful, and functions well. There is no moral quality implied.  But if we say, “This is a good person,” we typically mean a moral, upright person.  In Greek these are two different words. The word for “bad” is likewise used in two different meanings, one morally bad and the other meaning useless.

The word for good is agathos, which means something “beneficial, useful, or serviceable,” especially when used in contrast with the word “bad” or phaulos, which means “worthless, unhelpful, careless, thoughtless, indifferent or of no account.”  The emphasis is not on our moral qualities or sinfulness, but on the usefulness or benefit of our lives to the purpose or cause of Christ in our world.

At the Judgment Seat of Christ we will not be judged for our sins or lack thereof, because all our sins were judged on the Cross of Calvary.

This Judgment determines our efforts to be useful for Christ’s kingdom. Did our life benefit the building up (evangelism and edification) of the Church of Jesus Christ? Were we useful in reaching the unreached peoples of the world? (Matt 24:14).

All of our rewards depend on the answers to these questions.  However, we are not even capable of judging ourselves in this regard (and certainly not anyone else). Paul was criticized by others, but he said, “I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor 4:3).  It is hard to be honest with ourselves. Paul added, “My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right.  It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide” (1 Cor 4:4 NLT).  All we can do is to keep our motives pure and live to contribute to His purposes on earth every day. He will determine the value of our lives.

Praise from Jesus

One of the most dramatic pictures of this Judgment day is revealed in 1 Cor 4:5a, “So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time– before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives.” It must be reiterated: God is not looking for bad things to reveal, but He is searching for every pure desire and motivation that was for His glory, not our own.

Paul concludes, “Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due.” (1Cor 4:5b NLT). This has to be the most dramatic moment in all history: God praising His creatures individually for choosing to follow Him and however much they invested their lives in His kingdom purposes.

This is everyone’s moment of truth: what was my life worth to God?

All that God says in His Word about His kingdom plans and desires should be taken with utmost seriousness, rather than merely an optional recommendation. Herein is the heart of God revealed: He wants to honor and praise everyone who lives for His purpose, His glory and His honor.  This is all He will recognize in that day, and He will not miss a single thing, even a cup of water given in His name (Mark 9:41).

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