When Jewels Garnish Gates

Why would God promise us rewards?

© by Dan Graves; this article first appeared in The Baptist Bulletin, December 1993.

In flat contradiction to Scripture, some Christians are teaching us not to seek rewards. This theme crops up in Sunday school lessons, is issued from the pulpit, and has even found its way into the hymnal. One venerable hymn urges: “Not for reward, not for the praise of man, but for the Lord.” These teachers view serving for rewards as mercenary, self-seeking and embarrassingly unspiritual. Things corrupt. The good Christian seeks God, nothing else.

While it is wrong to seek man’s praise rather than God’s praise, it can hardly be wrong to seek the rewards that God has held out as an incentive to us. Nor is it idolatrous. I mean to show why.

God’s incentives

If rewards are in poor taste, why does God advertise them so often? Jesus made rewards the great incentive for loving our enemies and enduring persecution (Matt 5: 12; Luke 6:22, 6:35) Paul urged us to run for a prize (I Cor. 9:24) and taught that each of us would be rewarded according to our labor (I Cor. 3:8; 2 Cor 5:10).

The Bible often names specific rewards: crowns, hidden manna, everlasting life, rulership, glory, honor, peace— even brothers, sisters, mothers and children. Almost the last words of the bible are an appeal from John that we be holy— an appeal accompanied by Christ’s promise: “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” (Rev. 22:12). Truly God extends to us richly laden hands. Shall we reject his proferred gifts? The saints did not.

Mercenaries

We cannot help but be struck by the almost mercenary character of Scripture’s most blessed men. Abraham left Haran under the inducement of lands, posterity and greatness (Gen 12:1-4). Jacob, having already lied to obtain a birthright, wrestled all night with a man and would not let go until blessed (Gen 32:22-32). Moses renounced the pleasures of Egypt to gain a greater reward (Heb. 11:26). David rejoiced that God would establish his throne and prosper him (2 Sam. 7:18-29). Hannah wept and prayed until the Lord promised her a son (1 Sam. 1). Jesus, “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…” (Heb. 12:2)

Each of these spiritual heroes grasped at something offered by God; in doing so they became immeasurable blessings to succeeding generations. Far from corrupting, God’s rewards magnified those who took hold of them. The rewards became vehicles of grace to others (cf Luke 8:15). We should expect this result. God offers no evil gifts (Matt. 7:21). That he offers gifts at all goes back to the nature He has built into us.

Human Nature

God, who created us, planted in us needs and desires. If we had no spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical needs, we would be as inert as cucumbers. Without hunger, who would seek food? (Prov. 19:15); who would work if we did not yearn for accomplishment? (Eccl. 2:10, 3:22); who would seek God if we had no spiritual lack? (Psalm 42:1,2). None of our cravings is easily satisfied. (Eccl 5:10).

Mankind’s intellectual and aesthetic hungers were present even before the Fall. Adam knew he needed a mate. Eve appreciated a good-looking object. It was, in fact, to this very aesthetic that Satan appealed when he tempted her (Gen 3:6). Does God, our maker, know less of our inmost nature than a fallen angel? Surely Christ and the apostles did not appeal by mistake to our deepest desires, our longings for wealth, success, accomplishment, recognition and every other powerful lure.

Powerful Motivators

Not uncommonly we hear people brag, “I shook hands with the president,” or, “I sat next to the Tigers’ ace pitcher on the plane.” Nearly everyone desires recognition— a sense of importance and worth. How does the King of the Universe respond? He promises us “pet” names. “I will also give…a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Rev. 2:17; cf Exod 33:12).

Much as we want recognition, we want more to belong. So great is this impulse that young men will risk their lives to pledge a fraternity or become members of an elite force such as the Green Berets. Sororities flourish. Clubs and churches are formed. Gangs appear. But it is Christ who offers the ultimate membership. “I will write on him the name of my God…and I will also write on him my new name,” and “his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 3:12, 22:24)

Sunrises and sunsets exalt the heart or sunny days bring joy after dreary rain. Without light, men waste away in dark mines. For many people night, with its absence of light, holds terrors. Not surprisingly, then, God promises us this first of his creations: “They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them lihgt (Rev 22:5) and “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light and the Lamb is its lamp (Rev. 21:23).

Conquistadors braved the dangers of sea and barbarians as they battled for gold. In their rush for gold in California, the forty-niners scorned privations and dangers. Lust for wealth gave us the legend of El Dorado. In the new Jerusalem, gold will be contemptible, the paving stuff of streets. jewels garnish the gates (Rev. 21:18-21).

Life is precious to most of us. With reluctance we part from it. Even suicides seldom kill themselves at their first attempt. Confronted with death we fight or flee. Our hearts pound. The whole world seems supernaturally charged for hours after a close brush with death. So great is mankind’s distate for perishing that ancient peoples filled pyramids and burial mounds with tools for the next life. Fittingly then, life is the great promise of the gospel (Matt. 25:46; John 11:25,25; James 1:12; Rev. 2:7).

Daily we see people excuse the wrong they have done. They justify sins and rationalize failures. It is hard to live with condemnation. Rather than face shame, many people have taken their own lives. We long to be righteous. God holds righteousness in store for us, too ( II Tim. 4:7,8). Christ promises to dress us in pure white garments— robes symbolizing the righteousness that covers us (Rev. 3:5; cf Matt. 22:12).

Terrible crimes are recorded of men and women determined to attain power. Livia poisoned the potential rivals of Tiberius. Stalin exterminated his opposition. Communists wiped out local leaders in many countries. Philip of Macedon disunited his neighbors. For every George Washington who assumed power reluctantly and exercised it with restraint, history records hundreds who stopped at nothing to grab power. Everyone sometimes dreams of power. How often we hear, “If I were in charge, the first thing I’d do is…” God meets this desire, too, for he promises us we shall one day rule with Christ (Rev. 22:5; 3:21).

God has a manna to satisfy each longing of the human heart. What God has promised to us, we need not be ashamed to pursue. It cannot corrupt us. The secret lies in the essential nature of God’s gifts.

The Secret of Rewards

Rewards cannot corrupt because they are God’s gift of himself to us. Would we have light? Christ is light (John 8:12). Would we find peace? Christ is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Do we desire righteousness? He is our righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ is life (John 11:25), truth (John 14:6), bread, water (John 6:35) , and love (Eph. 3:18). With him are worthy tasks (Col 3:23). Christ is God’s power (Col. 1:15-19) and we are in him.

Do you love music? We shall hear music praising God, such as we have never before heard (Rev. 5:8-10). Are we eager for adventure, research, new prospects? We have all eternity to contemplate and worship our infinite God, enjoying new vistas of spiritual enlightenment. Do you love a good story? What millions of tales we will hear from saints of all eras, each telling what God did for him or her. Do you appreciate good company? We will walk with beings so glorious that to see them while in these bodies might cause us to swoon.

Even those elements in this idyll which seem most material— the jewelled foundations of the city, the crystal sea, the golden streets–derive their beauty from the illumination of God. Our mansion is but a room in God’s house.

Unless we can go wrong seeking God, we cannot go wrong seeking His gifts. They are simply the giving of Himself to us. This truth has certain implications.

Implications

If we suggest that God’s rewards can corrupt us and that we should do good only because it is right, we have probably never viewed rewards for what they are. Perhaps we think of them as earthly benefits: gold, silver, power to lord it over our fellows, comfortable homes.

The fault lies with expression of our concern. We really mean that earthly treasures are dust and that we should see God himself. I like to imagine that this is what the hymn-writer and Sunday school author were driving at when they renounced rewards.

God will reward those who have been faithful (Matt. 25:23). It seems as though our eternal rewards rest in great measure with ourselves. Commands, exhortations and injunctions follow close upon one another throughout Scripture: Love, follow, seek, choose, work, build, study, occupy. The list goes on and on.

But let us not delude ourselves into thinking our efforts are themselves meritorious. We can succeed only by grace through the Holy Spirit. Therefore Jesus taught “When you have done everything you were told to do,…say, ‘we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’ (Luke 17:10). Against such counsel, rewards become but one more example of unmerited grace. We don’t deserve them. Nonetheless, we are reminded, as an incentive to do Christ’s work, that some have attained a better resurrection (Heb 11:35). Let us not be content merely to squeak into heaven “as though by fire” (II Cor. 3:10). That kind of entrance would be shameful indeed, for Christ comes, bringing his reward with him.

All references are from the New International Version.

Books Authored or Co-authored by Dan

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The Archbishop Who Killed a Man.
Anecdotes from Christian history.
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Doctors Who Followed Christ.
36 notable Christian doctors.
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Scientists of Faith.
48 notable scientists who were Christians.
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The Earth Will Reel.
A study of the Bible’s Geological prophecies. Revised 2017.
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Great Women in Christian History.
37 women who changed their world.
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This Day in Christian History.
366 days in Christian history.