- Is it fear? The Old Testament uses the expression many times. “So and so feared God.” Even Paul in the New Testament spoke of “the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:11). But what kind of fear is it? Is it a fear of negative consequences? In some passages he speaks of this, but in Romans 8:15, he tells his readers, “You have not received a spirit of bondage leading again to fear.”
- Is it duty? It’s simply what we should do? A necessity or obligation laid on us? Well, Paul again, spoke of a “debt” that he owed. But it was a debt owed, not back to God, but to others (Romans 1:14; 13:7, 8) – the gospel.
- How about guilt or shame? Much popular preaching seems to use guilt as a motivator. I was actually once told, “People shouldn’t leave church feeling good, but feeling bad. Then they’ll serve God!” Even some of our hymns could be understood that way. But Christ has removed our guilt on the cross!
- Perhaps it’s simply habit? Certainly much of what we do, whether “serving God” or something else, is strictly done out of habit, without a moment’s thought. But, while I think we should form good habits, I don’t find anywhere in the New Testament where we are exhorted to do so.
- Many would say we serve God totally out of love. Certainly this should be our primary motive. The command to love God with all our being is called by Jesus the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37, 38). Love is that which seeks the greatest good in its object. (See: WHAT IS LOVE?)
All who come to Christ by faith come, in the first place, because we have a need. The need may be expressed in different ways in and by different persons: a fear of the wrath of God; a fear of hell; a totally empty life; nothing else works; we’re lost; we need someone or something to make sense out of our lives. There is no exception. No one comes to Christ because He needs us. If our motives were completely pure, Christ would not have had to die for us.
So if this is true, do we then immediately switch to a totally “selfless” altruistic motivation? My needs have been met, so now I can be open to completely selfless service? I don’t think so! I believe a proper motivation for the Christian life is the promise of future as well as present rewards – something in it for us.
I have friends, sincere Christians, who would deny what I just wrote. One friend called this a “mercenary spirit” and implied that we should somehow be above that. But the biblical evidence seems too strong to be denied.
The words translated reward are used over 30 times in the New Testament, over half of them by Jesus Himself. The most common Greek noun is MISTHOS, which is also translated wage (Matthew 20:8). It is related to a whole family of Greek words, all having to do with hiring for a wage or salary (MISTHIOS – hired servant – Luke 15:17, 19, 21; MISTHOOMAI – hire – Matthew 20;1, 7)
Two Greek verbs translated reward are APODIDOMI which has the idea of giving back or repaying (Luke 10:35) and ANTAPODIDOMI with the same meaning (Luke 14:14). Their corresponding nouns are ANTAPODOSIS (Colossians 3:24) and ANTAPODOMA (Luke 14:12), both meaning repayment or reward.
Though the concept of reward is found throughout the New Testament, probably the best known passage is in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:1-4.
“Watch out that you don’t do your righteousness before people to be seen by them, otherwise you don’t have a reward (MISTHON - wage) before your Father in the Heavens.
Whenever you do a charitable work don’t blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do … in order that they may be glorified by people. Amen I tell you, they have their reward (MISTHON). But you when you do your charitable work, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. That your charity may be in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (APODIDOMI – pay you back).”
The same pattern with the same words is repeated in verses 5-7 and in verses 16-18. He’s telling His hearers that good works done for show, to be seen by others, may be applauded by others, but that’s all the reward there is. Good works that are done for only God to see will be rewarded by Him in the future.
But we don’t even need the usages of these particular words to see the concept of reward. If we go back to the preceding chapter (Matthew 5), we find it in the Beatitudes (verses 3-12). Every "blessed" (or happy or lucky) that Jesus pronounced is followed by a “for.” Jesus doesn’t simply say that those are blessed who are poor or mourning or hungry or persecuted or insulted. He’s not calling to some sort of spiritual masochism! It’s that which follows, that which is anticipated, that makes up the blessing. It’s the joys of the Kingdom, of comfort, of seeing God.
The teaching on rewards is carried through the rest of the New Testament. Paul speaks of the Judgment seat of Christ: “Everyone’s work will become evident, for the Day will show it, because it will be revealed by fire and the fire will test everyone’s work Then of course, there are all those references to “crowns.”
I could go on and on, but I believe the idea is clear enough.
I believe that while we serve the Lord for many reasons, there are two main ones. One is our love for Him. The second is what’s in it for us – our personal reward, whatever it may be, or however it may be described. These are not mutually exclusive!
If my prudish readers will forgive me, it’s like making love to my wife. I want her to receive the maximum pleasure from the experience while I also receive maximum pleasure. If I seek only my pleasure or only hers, I believe that would be a sick relationship.
Though the Bible tells a little about what these rewards will be it is not totally clear. It leaves out the details. But when I see Jesus, my greatest desire should be hearing from Him, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). If I bring Him pleasure, that will bring me pleasure. And there is so much more.