My Reward or His?
As I was waking up this morning a verse came to my mind that stirred me with interest. It was one from Revelation that talks about the reward in heaven. I suppose part of the reason this happened was because I heard someone recently talking about receiving rewards and crowns when we all get to heaven. I have be rethinking that whole concept over the past few years in light of my new picture of God. I now wonder about what might be really important that we might value and consider as a “reward” for us when we have the true mind of Christ.
The way that this idea of heavenly rewards has been taught most of my life is now rather discomfiting for me. It smacks way too much of selfishness, of looking forward to getting paid some sort of material compensation for some supposed achievements we have earned in our life “living for God”. Or worse yet, some even believe that the reward may involve some sort of “political” office or position of control they will receive in heaven gaining the authority to lord it over other people and exercise the force and compulsion that they have assumed is part of God's ways of dealing with us.
This last scenario fits quite well with the popular teachings many embrace that Jesus is going to set up an earthly kingdom after a period of seven years of “tribulation”. Then supposedly those who have been loyal to Jesus will be installed as leaders (read dictators) over everyone else on earth whether they like it or not and will be able to force everyone to obey God's laws even against their will. I am not all that familiar with all of these teachings and may have some of the details mixed up, but I have overheard enough talk among evangelicals that I have picked up the gist in the spirit of what they are eagerly looking forward to as a time of favored prominence and power for Christians.
But when I compare this eagerness for political and moral power to force people to obey the rules of Jesus with the example of how Jesus treated people while He was here on earth, I see very little similarity which leads me to believe that this whole idea is full of false notions designed to appeal to the selfish heart of humans. God does not change, and the way He treats people in the end of time is not going to suddenly display a completely different character than when He appeared the first time. It is true that His real glory and position will be much more obvious at His second coming than at His first, but the way He feels about and relates to His created children does not suddenly take on a whole different attitude. The reason the results are going to be so different the second time is that those who see Him in His true beauty and reality then are going to react in two very distinctly different ways because His true character of love will not be veiled and hidden by Him appearing to be a “nobody peasant”.
It was necessary for Him to come the first time as He did in order to accomplish the work of redemption as a human man and to reveal the real truth about God's character in the form of one of us humans. It was also necessary to do that in order to allow Satan full access to Him to tempt and torment Him so that it could be clearly seen in the end that the ways of love are superior to the ways of force and fear.
But it is a huge mistake to assume that now that the first demonstration of love was successfully finished that now God is going to resort to adopting Satan's methods of operation and treat people with force, intimidation and harsh punishments on the one hand and dish out material rewards and symbols of status to the overcomers on the other hand that would encourage some of the very same faulty attitudes in people that have been the root of many of our problems here on earth. Satan's kingdom operates using status, hierarchy, domination, fear, deception, materialism and sheer force at times in order to bring about compliance to earthly conformity. It is a slap in the face of God to believe that God is going to resort in the end to using some of those same methods to run His own government. Satan's methods are wrong and always will be wrong. God's ways of love are right and will always be sufficient to meet every situation no matter how impossible it may appear to us.
I have been compelled to go back and rethink and reexamine this whole question of rewards and punishments that has been taught to me and assumed by the religious world for so long. And some of the things that I am discovering are very exciting and compelling and make far more sense to me than the typical ways of viewing all of this. The things that God views as rewards may at first seem to us to be a disappointment, but that is because we are still so filled with selfish ideas about reality and the things that we value are so opposite of what heaven values. We may be tempted to think now that we would be short-changed if we received the kind of rewards that I am now seeing may in fact be the highly valued kinds of rewards from heaven's perspective.
Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. (Rev. 22:12)
As I thought about this phrase a number of things began to surface to my surprise. I realized that the filters of our assumptions have often blinded us to the plain language of this text. And of course our preconceived ideas about what we expect to get as rewards also prevents us from considering alternative views of this phrase.
Notice first that Jesus is saying that the reward is with Him. Now we have almost always assumed immediately that this means He is bringing with Him the things that will honor us for all the good things we have done for God in our life. Maybe those are the crowns heavy with diamonds and jewels to make us highly esteemed and make us look more beautiful like so much jewelry. Maybe they are insignias of new positions of power and authority over others so we can be raised above our humble status as the underdogs of the earth like so many are hoping for. But having said that I can immediately sense all the tension of the many assumptions built right into those last sentences when considering the discussions revolving around self-righteousness and Christ's righteousness and works and faith and....
But what about the possibility that this may actually be talking about something totally different here, at least in large part. What if these rewards have more to do with the idea of being with Jesus instead of getting things from Jesus? What if this whole reward business revolves far more around the experience of bonded relationships instead of being centered on the hierarchal structures that we are so familiar with on this earth?
Next I noticed that this text says that the reward is His reward, not our reward. Jesus says, My reward is with me – not your reward is with me. Now that's a radical thought that is not discussed very much. What about the thought that Jesus has a reward that according to this text He is going to share with all those He is coming to receive to Himself? That sort of punches a very big hole in many of our ideas about the rewards we are secretly waiting to demand when we arrive in heaven or at least are expecting to receive compliments of God according to our reading of the Bible.
“But, but,” I can hear some saying, “it says right there in the last part of the verse that this reward is based on the proportion of our works, according to what we have done.” That is true, and there are other texts that can quickly be trotted out to justify a similar view of Scripture and the idea of getting material or position rewards for our achievements. But this whole idea still clashes quite severely with the message of the gospel and salvation and we have generally failed to carefully question that dichotomy found in our teachings.
How can we insist that God is forming in His people an attitude of total humility and service and selflessness and at the same time insist that His reward system is designed to encourage just the opposite characteristics within us? Are we supposed to be earning a future time of self-indulgence by depriving ourselves in the present and living a life of humility? Or is something else going on here completely different that we are missing altogether?
When I looked up this verse this morning with my Bible search software it showed me another text that really opened up this subject much further for me. Here is the initial text that had the same concept of a reward with God.
But I said, "I have toiled in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely the justice due to Me is with the Lord, and My reward with My God." (Isa. 49:4)
I notice that this is once again stated in such a way as to be ambiguous. Many things in the Bible are thus presented which is precisely why there are so many variations of interpretation. What I am seeing is that the interpretation that we gravitate toward is usually the one that supports our current view of what we assume about what God is like. And since the enemy of God has confused our minds and hearts with so many lies about God, if we are not willing to constantly challenge those assumptions in the light of truth and allow the Spirit to convict us of our faulty notions about how God feels about us and treats us, we are going to use Scriptures to prop up faulty ideas instead of exposing them.
Over the past few years I have learned one thing that has become foundational for my approach to understanding the Bible. I must always start with the premise first and foremost that God is good. If any idea or text or doctrine or anything conflicts with that notion then one or the other must have a problem. If I find myself having to redefine what the word good means to fit more and more dark ideas commonly associated with how God relates to sinners, then I become very suspicious that maybe the beliefs themselves may be more of the problem than the truth that God is consistently good all the time.
As I look at the context of this verse I became excited about how much it amplifies both the truth about God and the real truth about this issue of rewards. This is a Messianic prophecy, as much of the book of Isaiah contains. That means that the words here are expressive of the ministry of Jesus when He came to this earth to reveal God to us. So given that context it is important to see how Jesus Himself related to this issue of reward. For Jesus too is interested in receiving a reward which is not something we think about very often. But His desire to be rewarded was the main motivation that kept Him going during those years of hardship and intense conflict throughout His life while here on earth.
So, was Jesus looking forward to receiving applause or power to dictate to others what they should do to be saved like many Christians desire today? Did Jesus look forward to being given a position of high authority in heaven as a reward for earning it by keeping all the commandments of God as a human being? Was Jesus longing to have ownership of the riches of heaven in material ways as a reward for all His self-deprivation while living here on earth?
That is patently absurd to the max. Jesus already had all the power in the universe and already owned everything that exists. If that was the nature of the rewards that He sought He would never have needed to come to this earth and endure all the things He did at the hands of sinners and demons. (Philippians 2:5-11) No, the things that Jesus valued and looked forward to as a reward for all His efforts to redeem and save us had almost nothing to do with all of those material or political aspects. Jesus was after something far more significant and important to Him. And because we are created in His image we too need to understand the true nature of the kind of rewards that will really bring satisfaction and joy to our souls at the deepest level. We need to avoid being distracted by the distorted nature of the common view of heavenly rewards that permeates so much of religious teaching today.
Take a look at the larger context of this last verse and get a sense of the kind of things Jesus might have been looking for along the line of rewards.
Give ear, O sea-lands, to me; and take note, you peoples from far: I have been marked out by the Lord from the first; when I was still in my mother's body, he had my name in mind: and he has made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shade of his hand he has kept me; and he has made me like a polished arrow, keeping me in his secret place; and he said to me, You are my servant, Israel, in whom my glory will be seen; and I said, I have undergone weariness for nothing, I have given my strength for no purpose or profit: but still the Lord will take up my cause, and my God will give me my reward.
And now, says the Lord, who made me his servant when I was still in my mother's body, so that I might make Jacob come back to him, and so that Israel might come together to him: and I was honoured in the eyes of the Lord, and my God became my strength. It is not enough for one who is my servant to put the tribes of Jacob again in their place, and to get back those of Israel who have been sent away: my purpose is to give you as a light to the nations, so that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth. (Isaiah 49:1-6 BBE)
Here is another excellent reference to reveal what Jesus was really looking for along the line of reward.
...fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)
What was it that Jesus was looking forward to receiving as a reward for all His suffering? It was JOY!
Now you have to really understand the true meaning of this word before the significance of this verse becomes more apparent. Joy is not another word for happiness. As one teacher has pointed out, happiness is dependent on happenings. If things just happen to work out for us we feel happy. Happiness is not always present when joy actually might be very intense. Joy can be experienced while we are feeling all sorts of other emotions unlike happiness. That is because joy is very different than simply feeling happy.
What I have been learning over the past few years is that joy really involves fellowship, companionship, caring, deep bonds of affection in relationship with other hearts. Joy is the emotion we feel inside when someone is genuinely glad to be with us no matter what we are feeling at the moment or even how we may be acting. If I sense that someone deeply cares about me, that I am very special to them and they really want to be with me more than anywhere else, then I am in a position to experience the true meaning of joy.
Joy always centers around relationships and cannot be understood or defined correctly outside of that context. Joy is the most important need of the human brain according to top brain scientists who have been studying it recently. Joy is the vital ingredient needed to grow the most important part of the brain and that part of the brain is the same part that is used for dealing with trauma. When I learned this I suddenly understood much better why Jesus spent so much time and focus on joy and was so passionate about connecting with His disciples just before His trial and crucifixion. He needed all the joy strength possible in preparation to go through the intense time of torture just ahead of Him. He overcame fear by focusing on joy. That is exactly what this verse in Hebrews is describing.
But what does this have to do with rewards? It suddenly struck me one day that this has everything to do with rewards – far more than most people ever usually consider. I am beginning to suspect that joy itself may be the very core essence of the rewards we are going to receive in heaven. Any other aspect of these rewards will only be incidental and peripheral in comparison to that central element.
Jesus passionately looked forward to the fruit of all His suffering as being able to be united intimately with all those who would accept His righteousness, His life and the effects of His death which will allow Him to bring them home to live with Him for eternity in fullness of joy. Joy was itself the greatest reward that Jesus wanted to receive, so wouldn't it make sense that those who allow their minds and hearts to be transformed into His image will likewise begin to crave joy itself as their greatest reward instead of looking for more mundane perks and privileges that humans offer as rewards?
As I have thought about this over the past few months it seems to make more sense that the rewards we are going to receive in heaven are going to be directly associated with the people whose lives we have touched to help them see God in a better light. As we faithfully witness to the real truth about God and His true goodness, those who believe our witness and embrace a closer experience with God for themselves as a result will also form bonds with us emotionally. Those bonds that draw us close to each other at the heart level are going to be enormously amplified when we all get to heaven and I now believe that those bonds may themselves well be the primary reality of the rewards we will receive.
Instead of rewards that focus on dominance over others or that might satisfy our earthly desires for material possessions, neither of which will be of any value to those who inhabit paradise, the one thing that will be most valued and desired by all who are ultimately saved will be the bonds of loving and intimate relationships that they will enjoy and deepen throughout eternity that were first initiated while here on earth. This is what I am starting to see as I evaluate what the Bible teaches and it makes so much more sense than most of the ideas tossed around by preachers or children’s teachers trying to entice people to want to go to heaven.
If this is really true, and I believe that it is, then it is also true that we can begin to enjoy at least a small part of these rewards long before we arrive in heaven. To the extent that we are willing to give ourselves away in selfless service to others here and now, we are going to begin to form those attachments and relationships that even now will begin to react in blessings and joy in our lives that will be cherished throughout the rest of our time here on earth. And then when we get to heaven that joy will just become exponentially greater as God reveals to us the much bigger picture and the far greater effects of our choices to allow His love to flow through us here. As we are reunited with those ripped away from us by death or other means, we will realize that never again will we be hurt by such broken attachments. We will then be able to spend eternity strengthening and deepening those attachments of joy.
Sadly, most of Christianity seems more focused on aspiring to gaining control and power over others than they do in emulating the servant spirit of Jesus who came to reveal the true heart of the Father. As a result the whole subject of rewards has become very confused at best and we have been led to expect the wrong things based on our works and performance of good deeds instead of investing in the hearts and lives of all those God leads into our path. Jesus is our example in all things, and as I look at that perfect life I see how He spent so much time investing Himself in people's lives that others considered hopeless or worthless. That alerts me to reevaluate my own priorities and who I choose to associate with.
Am I willing to allow Jesus to use me without reservation to be a blessing to others? Are all my possessions and talents fully at His disposal, or am I wanting to look out for my own needs and desires first? And when I do try to offer my time or energy or material things to help others, am I doing it with a secret desire to earn some sort of reward for myself in heaven or am I willing to pour myself out into the lives of others to form bonds that will attract them to know God better?