When I was little, it was such a sacrifice for me to clean my room. I was so busy all of the time. I had school. I had to play video games. I had to practice machine pitch in the evenings. My mom made me go to church. I had to eat dinner. There was no time for me to clean my room. When I did, it was one of the greatest acts of sacrifice that I could think of. My mom should have been so proud. She should have rewarded me for cleaning my room! Right. What reward is given when people only do what’s expected?
We’ve been talking for weeks now about how the Christian life is one of sacrifice. Christ calls us, in opposition to the world’s luxury, to a life of giving up what we have so that we can concern ourselves with serving Him well on this earth. There eventually comes a point when we ask, “Is it worth it?” Is it worth giving up everything we have so that we can serve God? Is it worth seeking nothing for ourselves so that we can partake in the mission that Christ has given us?
After God’s judgement is poured out on the earth, we see Christ establish a physical kingdom on this earth before He makes all things new. We hear this referred to as the millennial kingdom or the thousand-year kingdom. It is here, in the book of revelation, that we get to read of God’s generosity. It is here that we see God is not only a God that calls His people to sacrifice on this earth, but that He also rewards His people generously even though we do not deserve any reward that God would give.
Revelation 20:1-6 HCSB
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for 1,000 years. He threw him into the abyss, closed it, and put a seal on it so that he would no longer deceive the nations until the 1,000 years were completed. After that, he must be released for a short time.
Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. I also saw the people who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of God’s word, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and who had not accepted the mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of the Messiah, and they will reign with Him for 1,000 years.
Rewards for faithfulness
Looking at this text of Scripture, it is easy to wonder what the 1,000 year reign of Christ on this earth will be like, and we receive some clues in other areas of Scripture (particularly according to the prophet Isaiah). This portion of the text actually gives us very little information about the 1,000 year reign. If we remember, the churches John is writing to are in the midst of persecution. They are seeing their friends and family members placed in prison and sometimes even murdered because of the faith they have in Christ. John gets to this place in the book of Revelation where he finally has the opportunity to offer relief to the people of God. He has called us to endurance, and he has called us to a lifestyle of personal sacrifice. Now, finally, he proclaims the goodness and generosity that God has for His people.
We saw the martyrs that are mentioned in this text before as we’ve been walking through Christ’s revelation to John. We saw them in chapter 6, as they cried out to God from under the altar, “God, when will You vindicate us? How long will you wait?” In chapters 7 and 11, we witnessed believers being murdered because of their faith and because of the testimony of Jesus Christ. After God’s judgment is declared over the earth, this will end. All of those before us, in our current age, and who come after us that give up their lives for the sake of Christ’s testimony will receive the great honor of reigning with Christ for 1,000 years before Christ restores everything else. In this text, it is referred to as the first resurrection. Anyone who has not given up his or her very life will wait for the second resurrection.
In this, I find a truth that every Christ-follower needs to understand: God rewards those who are faithful to Him. Faithfulness doesn’t just mean that we acknowledge Christ, it means we actually deny ourselves in order to serve Christ, to live in the context of a local body of believers, to practice evangelism, and to make disciples. Faithfulness to Christ necessarily means sacrifice of self. Of course, here I mean sacrifice metaphorically: it is the setting aside of my own desires, dreams, pursuits, and strivings so that I might use the gifts that God has given me to serve Him rather than myself. The martyrs we read about, here, were faithful to the point of death and are rewarded for that faithfulness.
Rewards for sacrificial living
The rewards that God gives, and we see it clearly in this text of Scripture, are not given for no reason. God rewards specifically according to the sacrifices that His people make in this world for the sake of Christ’s testimony. Somehow we have gotten to this place where we assume that good Christ-followers earn some sort of payment or reward on this earth. We serve God, so we expect to remain in good health. We built a church, so we expect that God will give us what we think to be a good life. We reserve as much time as we can for ourselves, so that we can pursue our own hobbies or so that we can “have a life.” I am a little bit of a workaholic. I actually have to guard against working to hard. Every once in a while I work so much that don’t really “have a life,” and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Sometimes, though, we get so concerned with having a life for ourselves that we miss Christ; and to think that our Lord rewards us according to how much we are willing to sacrifice or give up for His name’s sake.
Here, I might just list some things that we have: time, money, reputation, dreams, desires, hobbies, material possessions, jobs, friends, families, comfort, status, platform or position. Don’t get too scared at this point; remember that faithfulness comes before sacrifice. Any sacrifice that is made and is not done in faithfulness is made in vain. Not all people are called to give up all of these things for the sake of the Gospel. Faithfulness means willingness to give up anything that would serve to do the work of the Gospel in this world. If giving up a job or a paycheck would help us to do the work of the Gospel, would we be willing? If giving up material possessions would help us to deliver the testimony of Christ better, would we be willing? The message here is not, “You must give up everything!” The question, here, is a question of willingness. If by giving something up we would become better witnesses, would we give it up?
This is the basis by which God rewards His people. When we get an opportunity to give something up for the sake of the Gospel, God’s rewards are great! Jesus even spoke concerning those rewards in Mark 10:
“I assure you,” Jesus said, “there is no one who has left house, brothers or sisters, mother or father, children, or fields because of Me and the gospel, who will not receive 100 times more, now at this time — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and eternal life in the age to come. But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:29-31 HCSB).
There is an irony here. The purpose for which we make sacrifices cannot be to gain a heavenly reward. The mention of rewards is to encourage those who make sacrifices and wonder if those sacrifices are worth it. Our motivation can only be service to Christ and the work of the Gospel. There is not this heavenly environment where all of God’s people are on equal ground. All are equal in worth, but not necessarily in status or level of reward. God loves all of His people equally, but will give some more than others. We read it here and it came from Christ’s own lips: Those who make greater sacrifices for Christ and for the sake of the Gospel will be first in the age to come. If we seek to gain in this age for ourselves, then we will be last in the age to come. All of God’s people will receive rewards, and these rewards are given according to the level of sacrifice specifically for Christ and for the Gospel.
What if someone has more and is therefore capable of sacrificing more? If sacrifice begins with faithfulness, then God measures our sacrifice proportionally to what He has made us stewards of. If a poor man is more willing to give up what he has been given for the sake of the Gospel and a rich man is less willing but gives up more quantitatively, it seems to me that the poor man still receives a greater reward. When it comes to sacrifices that are made, it seems that God will measure the quality of the sacrifice rather than the quantity and will reward accordingly. We see this even with Cain and Abel, as Abel offered a pure sacrifice and Cain did not (Genesis 4). The woman at the temple gave all she had even though it was less quantitatively than others gave, and Christ said she gave more (Mark 12:43-44): “For they all gave out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she possessed — all she had to live on.” God is concerned with quality, not quantity.
Do we want to know what kind of sacrifice is pleasing to God? God is pleased more when we give out of our poverty rather than when we only give out of our surplus, and this applies to more than just financial giving. Those who do give out of their poverty receive a greater reward in the age to come.
Rewards from God alone
If there were no rewards, it would still be worth living under the lordship of Jesus Christ. After all, He does give eternal life. Eternal life is given to everyone who genuinely believes in Christ and the rewards we are talking about go above and beyond that. These rewards are given or withheld at God’s own discretion. What we have learned is that God is just in His punishment and He is generous in His rewards: giving us much more than we could ever hope to deserve. This we know because we don’t even deserve eternal life, yet God rewards those who serve Him even beyond giving only eternal life.
If God gives these rewards at His own discretion, I discover another irony: There is no way that we can earn the rewards that God has for us. What I mean here is that we cannot possibly perform work on this earth that is near the worth of the reward that God will gift to us. Not only can we never out-give God, but we can never match the gifts that God has for us. God is generous to His people. For this reason, all of the rewards we will get that actually matter come only from God and are not things that we have earned for ourselves on this earth.
This means that in Christ, I am called to steward well the position of Pastor according to the responsibilities given in God’s Word. It means as people who earn a paycheck, we are called to be good stewards knowing full well that it is God who has allowed us to earn a paycheck to be used for His purposes. If we have time, energy, property, possessions, relationships, and even knowledge; God has called us to steward those things for His kingdom and not our own. When we use the gifts of God to build kingdoms for ourselves, Christ actually states that we have received our rewards on this earth in place of those God might have reserved for us in the eternal age (Matthew 6:2). The apostle, Paul, even warned the local church as he wrote to the believers in Corinth:
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. Now the one planting and the one watering are one in purpose, and each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s coworkers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one must be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on that foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, each one’s work will become obvious, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved; yet it will be like an escape through fire (1 Corinthians 3:5-15 HCSB).
We should not use the Gospel as a platform to build our own kingdoms. In this, an interesting question arises. What if God has given us a platform or resources but we do not serve God in order to build our own kingdoms? What if, for instance, God has blessed someone with lots of money and he is faithful to give for the purpose of the Gospel? God’s gift on this earth is for the purpose of the Gospel through that person. He has not used the Gospel for personal gain, but personal gain for the Gospel. The same is true with a pastor who receives recognition or a platform. He is not to use the Gospel for personal gain, but personal gain (as a gift from God) for the Gospel. Thus, I find we can ask this question as we think about sacrificial living: Have I used the gifts that God has given to gain for myself or have I used them for the work of the Gospel? If it is the case that I have not used them for the work of the Gospel or have held on to something at the expense of the work of the Gospel, then I have built something that will one day burn away and I forfeit the reward that God may have had reserved for me in the coming age. Some are called to sell all of their possessions for the sake of the Gospel, all are called to use their possessions for the sake of the Gospel. Some are called to give up their income for the sake of the Gospel, all are called to use their income for the sake of the Gospel. Some are called to give up their home for the sake of the Gospel, all are called to use their homes for the sake of the Gospel. Some are called to give up their lives for the sake of the Gospel, all are called to use their lives for the sake of the Gospel.
When we ask, then, what does it mean to live in such a way that we are concerned with pleasing God rather than people (or ourselves), this is what the question begs of us. Will we live for the generous eternal reward of God, or will we live for a mediocre temporary reward on this earth? Yes, it is absolutely worth giving up everything in order to be a good witness for Christ on this earth!