2 Timothy 4:7-8
As Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy from the Roman prison at Mamertine, he knew that his time was short. During a previous imprisonment he had written, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil. 1:22-23) Now he writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing.” (2 Tim. 4:7-8)
Earlier, death was possible; now, death was imminent. His attitude remained unchanged. Death would usher him into the presence of God and that was his ultimate goal and desire – to live in the presence of Jesus forever. But Paul understood that there was more in store – that God would reward him for his sacrifice and service in this lifetime – “There is in store for me the crown of righteousness.”
You may have seen the headline. A young collegian was driving along a road in eastern Colorado when he saw a pit bull dog come rushing across a yard and attack a young boy. He immediately stopped the car and ran to the boy’s rescue, pulling the dog off the child and killing the dog. A reporter happened along about the same time and saw the whole incident. He ran up to the young man and said, “That was amazing, I want to write a story about it for my newspaper. I can just see the headline now: Young CSU Ram saves boy from vicious dog.” The young man said, “I don’t go to CSU.” The reporter said, “I can see the headline: Young CU Buffalo rescues boy from certain death.” The young man said, “I don’t go to CU, I’m a Cornhusker.” The reporter said, “I can see the headline now: Nebraska hoodlum kills family pet.”
Many of the good things people do in this life are misunderstood, or unappreciated, or forgotten. We live in a fallen world that often rewards the wrong things or the things that don’t really matter. The things that really matter rarely get attention. But they will in the next world.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says this: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Heb. 11:6) Did you hear what he said? In order to please God, you must “believe that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
You will often hear it said of someone who has died, “he has gone to his reward.” That is not true – heaven is not a reward – a reward is earned, but heaven is a gift – you cannot earn it.
I want you to hear unmistakably that heaven is not a reward – in passage after passage of scripture the Bible says that heaven is the free gift of God’s grace. You cannot be good enough, you cannot work hard enough to deserve it. But the Bible also says in many places that heaven will be a place of rewards.
If you are a believer and a follower of Jesus Christ, the question of your eternal destiny is settled. But that does not mean that Christians do not face future judgment – not for sins – those sins were judged at the cross and you were acquitted by the blood of Christ. But we do face judgment (or evaluation) for how we have lived our lives – so that God can determine our rewards.
Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:10 - For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
In 1 Cor. 3:11-15, he writes: For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. //
It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. (1 Cor. 4:5)
In Eph. 6:7-8, Paul says, Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Whatever we do in this life that has eternal significance – everything we do for the kingdom of God will be acknowledged and rewarded. We are, however, held accountable for how we have used our lives – that’s why Paul says, “Be very careful how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of very opportunity…” (Eph. 5:15-16). Don’t squander your life on things that don’t ultimately matter – things that will be burned up in the fire. You are a steward that has been entrusted with a lifetime of opportunities and you will be called to account for what you have done with them.
Jesus spoke often about rewards:
“I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.” (Mk 9:41)
“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Lk 14:13-14)
He also told numerous parables about masters and servants and accountability for stewardships. One of those is in Matthew 25:
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ’Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matt. 25:14-23)
I know you are familiar with this parable, and I know that you know the master’s displeasure with the servant who buried his talent in the ground. And I think every sermon I’ve ever heard on that parable breezed by the first two servants to focus on that third servant and ended with a threatening warning not to bury your talents. And certainly, that is a part of the message of the parable.
But I think Jesus’ focus is on the first two servants and the master’s delight in their faithfulness and his reward for their resourcefulness, and his words: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness!”
That’s what heaven is about – God rejoicing with his faithful servants and rewarding their faithfulness.
What are these rewards that God will bestow?
It begins with personal commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
So many things we do in this life aren’t acknowledged; they seem to go unnoticed and unappreciated. But God will acknowledge them and reward them in heaven. Can you imagine what that will be like to have God praise you and say, “Well done!” and thank you for your faithful service in this life?
The second reward is increased responsibility. You see it again and again, “You have been faithful in a little, I am putting you in charge of much.”
In the Garden, God didn’t create Adam and tell him to take it easy and lounge around – he gave him a job to do and responsibility for his creation. That was God’s original intent – that we would find joy and fulfillment and meaning in the work we do. I believe that will be God’s intent in the restored heaven on earth – that we will once again find joy and fulfillment in work to do. And it will be uniquely suited to us – we have different gifts now, we will have different gifts then. And he will bestow responsibility in accordance with your faithfulness in this life.
George C. Boldt was a desk attendant at a hotel in New York City. Late one evening an elderly couple from Pittsburgh showed up and wanted a room for the night. Boldt told them there were three conventions in town and they weren’t going to find a room anywhere at this late hour. The elderly couple turned to go, when Boldt said, “You take my room and I’ll sleep on the floor.” The next day, the elderly man told him, “Young man, you’re the kind of man who ought to be running the best hotel in the world.” Five years later, the young man received a telegraph. It was from that elderly man (did I forget to tell you his name was William Waldorf Astor), and he told Boldt to meet him at 5th Avenue and 34th Street. He showed him the newly built Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and told him, “I built this hotel, so you can run it.”
There will be a great reversal in heaven. So many people receive little recognition and no applause in this life. People faithfully do their work and make a difference in the lives of the people around them, but die in relative obscurity and are soon forgotten. But Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt 23:11-12)
I don’t know what my job will be, but I know that whatever job he gives me, big or small, I will be thrilled to do it for Jesus. In Psalm 84, David said, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” I think that’s how we’ll all feel. Even the lowliest job in heaven will bring joy and happiness.
The one thing we will all experience is eternal celebration. We will be in the presence of God and enjoy God forever. Most of us spend our lives in pursuit of happiness. In heaven, happiness is the starting point. There will be no sadness or discouragement, no off days, no Monday morning blues. Joy is an eternal possession that we will receive and experience for all eternity.
There is the story of Henry Morrison, a missionary in Africa for forty years, until he got too old to continue the work. He got on a boat to come home to the United States, and it happened to be the same boat on which President Theodore Roosevelt was returning from a big game hunting trip. As they arrived in the port in New York, crowds were applauding, big bands were playing, city officials were there to welcome the president. No one was there to welcome the missionary – not even anyone from the mission board who sent him. He was feeling pretty sorry for himself, when the Lord spoke to his heart and said, “But Henry, you’re not home yet.”
The author of the letter to the Hebrews was writing to people who were getting beat up for their faith and discouraged, and wondering if it’s worth it. And so he wrote: So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:35-36)
Paul had a similar thought in 1 Cor. 15:58 - Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
What we do in this life is important. As Jesus worded it in the Sermon on the Mount, we are laying up treasure in heaven. Yes, we look forward to heaven – by the grace of God we will be with him forever. But we also look forward to that day when we will hear God say, “Well done good and faithful servant! Come share your master’s happiness.”
Cyprian was an important church leader during the third century A.D. Cyprian made an interesting comment on the impact of the church on the contemporary world of his time. He said that the reason Christianity was able to make such inroads into the population of North Africa and the Roman empire was the plagues. If it hadn’t been for the plagues, Christianity wouldn’t have spread as it did. And the reason was that the plagues showed that Christians died differently than the pagans. The pagans asked, “Why do the Christians die with such hope?” They were able to die with confidence. The pagans said, “Those Christians carry their dead as if in triumph. If you can carry your dead with such hope, we want to know, what is that hope?”
That’s the power of heaven – to know that this is not all there is – that life is not futile and death is not final.
(I want to acknowledge my dependence on three resources for some of the content in this sermon: Rick Atchley’s Amazing Place, N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope , and Erwin Lutzer’s One Minute After You Die - all excellent studies on heaven.)