(Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21)
I think all of mine are on my phone – if and when I can access them. Maybe it’s the same for you or, if you look through your wallet I’m sure you can find several. I’m talking, of course, about Scripture verses because why else would I be up here? Actually, I’m talking about reward program cards.
Would it surprise you to learn that 90 percent of companies have some sort of rewards program? Of course, all major airlines and hotel chains tout their own loyalty plans: Fly X-number of miles on an airline and get a free round-trip flight to Disneyland.
But smaller fish in the consumer pond are busy, too. Shoppers needn’t look too far to find “rewards” just for buying things, even necessities. Buy groceries at Hy-Vee and get cash off your next gas purchase. Buy three grandé, iced, sugar-free, vanilla lattes with soy milk, or versions thereof, at the coffeehouse and get one free.
But not all loyalty programs are created equal. Most of them fall into four types: Points-based rewards, tiered rewards, paid rewards and value rewards. Some of Jesus’ last words to the church explicitly mention a ceremony in which rewards will be distributed to loyal “consumers” – those who have been flying with Jesus – so let’s look at these loyalty programs and see which ones apply to us.
A points-based loyalty program is the most common and perhaps popular of the rewards programs. Expedia uses it, as well as United Airlines and a host of other major business enterprises. The more one uses the product, the more points accumulate points that can be used for free hotel stays or flights, for example.
Even a smaller company like Kohl’s uses reward points. Customers are given Kohl’s Cash, which they can then redeem for products.
In this morning’s text, we read these words from Jesus, “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (v. 12, emphasis added). Rewards, by definition, are favors or perks bestowed based on performance. Jesus says as much when he says that His rewards program is based on “what everyone has done.”
So, it would appear that some tallying system is in place in the marketing department of heaven whereby points accumulate for each of us, and these points are directly tied to our “work” on earth. We don’t know the nature of these rewards, but we do know, based on the words of our Lord Himself and the abundance of biblical citations, that the rewards are coming.
- “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done” (Matthew 16:27).
- “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
These are just a couple of examples. The question for those who work on incentive programs for the public is: Will this points-based program attract and keep customers? If you apply this query to the flight toward your future heavenly home, how would you respond? Does the promise of an as-yet-unidentified reward encourage you to be faithful in your work and service while here on earth?
If not, perhaps you might be interested in a different program.
A tiered loyalty program is a type of membership that offers customers different benefits depending on their rank or the value of the reward. These rewards give customers a goal. The higher their tier, the more exclusive and valuable the rewards.
Jesus seems to indicate that some rewards will be greater than others. Speaking to the farmers and townspeople in the area of Tiberius, Jesus said in his “Sermon on the Mount,” “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). Jesus could have said that those who are persecuted and reviled will receive an unspecified reward on judgment day. But instead, He explicitly says that the reward will be a tier above, a reward unlike the typical reward received by those who have merely been faithful.
Throughout Scripture, this reward seems to be linked to suffering. Those who undergo suffering for Jesus’ sake are, by that fact, members of a unique club. To these sufferers, Jesus will offer “crowns.” There are several tiers or types of crowns:
Imperishable crown: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one” (1 Corinthians 9:25). This crown, or garland, is given to the spiritual athlete who has trained, suffered and sacrificed to win the race. Paul reminds his readers in the previous verse that not everyone wins this prize. The winners of an imperishable crown have suffered much.
Crown of righteousness: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). Here, the link between suffering for the sake of the gospel and the reward of a crown is explicit.
Crown of glory: “And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away” (1 Peter 5:4).
Crown of life: “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
Other tiers might include something the apostle Paul called an inheritance. For example: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward” (Colossians 3:23-24).
And finally, there is a reward level that involves great administrative responsibilities: “His master said to him, ‘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!’” (Matthew 25:21).
In the early 1500s, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk, used to wander from village to hamlet in rural Germany selling indulgences. He would set up a theatrical stage and urge the town folk to buy the indulgences to get their relatives out of purgatory, or in some cases, pre-pay for their own sins. He had a little jingle that was so popular, it caught the attention of Martin Luther: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
It doesn’t work this way in God’s kingdom. Paid rewards is the one loyalty program that Jesus doesn’t offer. Jesus is not going to pay for your loyalty. Or, conversely, we cannot pay for better customer service, a bigger mansion in glory, and the best rewards once we meet our Maker.
Paid loyalty, or fee-based loyalty programs, give customers immediate and ongoing benefits for a participation fee. Amazon Prime is the most well-known of paid loyalty programs. But it’s not offered in the kingdom of God.
Entrance into heaven is solely a faith-based, grace-driven gesture originating in the heart of God. Any rewards offered to those already working for the Lord are also offered according to the grace of God, who doesn’t need to offer any rewards at all. The bottom line is that we cannot buy a reward. We cannot offer our influence, financial portfolio, even good works in order to get in line for a reward, Jesus’ comment about being rewarded “according to everyone’s works” notwithstanding. Rewards are initiated by God. God offers what God offers. God is not compelled to do anything. We receive our reward according to our works by the grace of God.
Finally, there is the value-based reward. According to one source, “The idea behind a value-based loyalty program is to connect with customers on a deeper level. It involves donating a percentage of purchases to charity or welfare programs. You can offer multiple options for different charities to choose from or have one that genuinely aligns with your customers’ values. This program doesn’t actually reward customers. But it holds a special place for them, as the rewards are used to benefit society. For example, Sephora lets members donate their reward points to the National Black Justice Coalition.”
This type of customer reminds us of those who labor in the vineyards of the Lord and do so with no monetary interest whatsoever. They toil and work in their corner of the world for no other reason than to improve the lot of their fellow humans and to serve Jesus motivated by love and gratitude. These are the nameless and faceless who serve God in anonymity in soup kitchens, missions, food banks, hospitals, neighborhood watch groups and more. They model altruism at its finest and seek no reward. In so doing, they may be in line for the greatest rewards of all.
Here’s the fine print: The topic of rewards in heaven is a gray area. There is not much we know for certain, except that there will be a reward for God’s faithful. So, at the very least, the idea of rewards should give every committed Christian pause. How loyal have I been? What is the value of the work I’ve done? What will be my final evaluation?
The apostle Paul addresses this in his first letter to the Corinthian church: “If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15).
What Paul is saying here is a sobering thought: He knows that there are many Christians who will stand in line at judgment day with very little to show for the time they spend on earth. “The builder will be saved, but only as through fire.” In other words, like a person fleeing from a burning building, he or she will have nothing more than the smoking clothes upon their backs.
We can do better than this. We can do better than wasting our time, resources and lives on things that do not matter.
We can build now on a solid foundation, with our eyes on eternity. And someday, we may hear our Lord say, “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!” (Matthew 25:23). Amen.