Rewards in the Epistles
The same principles that we saw laid down by the Lord Jesus in the Gospels are also seen in the Epistles: "whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free" (Eph 6.8). Bondmen (slaves) usually got no reward for their efforts so, for them, looking forward to a future reward was a great incentive. Of course, for others, serving the Lord sometimes was to the detriment of their present circumstances. For them the example of Moses was pertinent: "Esteeming the reproach of [for] Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward" (Heb 11.26). Future rewards from Him far outweigh present riches lost because of Him: "Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward" (Heb 10.35). God pays back what we lose for Christ - He fully recompenses us.
Doing things merely for reward is not a proper motivation - the love of Christ should constrain us (2 Cor 5.14). However, the Lord constantly reminds us about rewards as an encouragement to us in difficult days. They are also a stimulus to improve the quantity and quality of our work for Him.
The Corinthians were reminded that "every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour" (1 Cor 3.8), so the principle is personal assessment for personal effort. All work supposedly done for the Lord Jesus will be judged by Him in that coming day to ascertain of what sort it is. His fiery glance will establish whether it is fit to remain and "if any man's work abide … [after the Judgment Seat] he shall receive a reward" (3.14).
In the chapter where Paul is dealing with the difficult question of weak believers, and whether there were things that one person would do to which another would object, he asks the question "why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ" (Rom 14.10). He adds, "every one of us shall give account of himself to God" (14.12). Clearly there were areas where personal responsibility governed people's decisions. This personal responsibility is highlighted by the fact that every one must stand individually before the Judgment Seat, and each must give an account of themselves. Hence, in areas where these principles operate, we are to respect a person's decision, and realise that in these matters we must all give an account of our own decisions. This personal responsibility is in view where we read that "of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ" (Col 3.24-25).
Pictures in the Epistles
The Athlete's Prize
One kind of crown spoken of in the New Testament is the stephanos; the wreath or garland (made of laurel, parsley, or ivy leaves) which was given as a reward to victors in sporting events such as the Olympic Games. The apostle Paul spoke about this kind of prize in a number of places, first with special reference to such athletes. "If a man … strive for masteries … he [is] not crowned, except he strive lawfully" (2 Tim 2.5), where the phrase "strive for masteries" means to take part in these public games. In all competitions in the games there were umpires who saw to it that the contestants kept to the rules. As today, disqualification could take place so, for instance, even if the person came first in a race, they got no prize if they had broken the rules. Paul tells us that we must abide by God's rules - His Word – in order to gain the prize.
Paul's striking illustration of the Christian life as a race tells us how important it was to him to do well in order to gain the Lord's approbation:
Know ye not that they which run in a race [all] run … but [only] one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate [self-controlled] in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway [become disapproved] (1 Cor 9.24-27).
In our day, prizes are generally awarded to those who come first, and also to the runners-up. However, in New Testament days, only the winner was rewarded. Paul carried out his service with this picture in mind. He did not want to lose his reward, and was prepared to subdue his body, as athletes do today, suppressing pain and discomfort in order to win. Having spent so much time and effort in preaching to others, he did not want to become disapproved and lose his reward. Paul uses the same picture later when writing to the Philippians, "I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3.14). The prize here was gained in a race that demanded extreme concentration and, like the sprinter, he leans or presses forward that he might win the race and hence the prize.
Some other victors' crowns are:
- the evangelist's crown at His coming (1 Thess 2.19; Phil 4.1).
- the crown of righteousness for all who love His appearing (2 Tim 4.8).
- the crown of life for those who have endured trial (Jas 1.12).
- the elder's crown of glory (1 Pet 5.4).
- the martyr's crown of life (Rev 2.10).
- the overcomer's unlost crown (Rev 3.11).
Of course these crowns are not regal crowns (diadema) (as in Rev 13.1, 19.12) but, rather, different kinds of the stephanos, as noted before; the perishable wreaths or garlands which were given as prizes to the victors in the public games. Eventually, all such crowns will be cast before His throne (Rev 4.10), for He alone is worthy to receive all the glory, honour and power. The great Roman historian Tacitus cites the public submission and homage paid by the Parthian king Tiridates to the statue of the Roman emperor Nero, when he lifted the diadem from his head and laid it at the feet of the statue.
The Lord Jesus gives us a foretaste of how He will judge our works in the letters to the seven churches, recorded in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. He mentions their works seven times (2.2, 9, 13, 19; 3.1, 8, 15). He encouraged the Ephesians collectively to do the first works (2.5); to those at Sardis collectively He says "I have not found thy works perfect [fulfilled] before God" (3.2), that is they could have done more. However, it is to individuals at Thyatira that He promised "I will give to every one of you according to your works" (2.23). (To be continued …)