Where were you on August 12, Saturday 9:12am? I was at HDB Toa Payoh Central with Graeme and Toby, in front of its huge TV screen together with many other Singaporeans cheering for Joseph Schooling as he went on to win the gold medal in the 100m butterfly finals at the Summer Olympics in Rio, Singapore’s first ever gold medal at an Olympic Games! The Singapore National Olympic Council awarded him S$1,000,000 for his win. This cash prize is one of the world’s biggest Olympic rewards. ² (Compare that to the sum of only S$33,800/US$25,000 which is what an American gold medallist receives.)
Like rewards for sports, there are also rewards in the Christian life. That’s right — real rewards, for the Bible is clear that these are not the same as the gift of salvation that we have in Jesus. For example 1 Corinthians says the one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour. Other passages speak of rewards, too: some will have the honour of sitting at the right hand or left hand of Jesus (Matt 20:20-23); others will sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes (Matt 19:27-30); each will be rewarded according to their labour (1 Cor 3:8); servants will be put in charge of five or ten cities (Lk 19:11-27); and we will receive varying praise from God as our motives are revealed (1 Cor 4:5).
But while rewards may be an incentive for us to live faithfully, no reward will be able to spur you to an Olympic performance if you’re not up to it in the first place. For instance, if your best 5-km time is 30 mins at your peak performance age, your fastest and fittest, no amount of reward or incentive will be able to propel you to finish 5 km in 13:03 mins (Great Briton Mo Farrah’s gold-medal time at the Rio Olympics). In that situation, rewards and incentives are of no help. Not even a new set of legs, or a trim tummy will work. What is needed is perhaps a total body transformation into the lean physique, internal organs and mental stamina of an athlete!
It’s a bit like that with our Christian walk. Before knowing and trusting in Christ, there is no way for us to be good enough for God, even if we want to. Romans 8:5-8 tells us that in the past we were hostile towards God, not submitting to God’s law, nor were we able to. And so, if Jesus’ work were simply about forgiving every sin and leaving us forgiven, we would never be able to live God’s way — we would just be piling up new sins every day. But the good news of the gospel is this: God not only saves us by sending Jesus to die the death we deserve, taking God’s wrath upon himself so we are no longer condemned, he also changes us so we can now begin to live His way more and more. This is not to say that sin is totally eradicated because there will still be times when we sin (we will only be fully free from the presence of sin when Jesus returns) but God’s Spirit now works in our lives. He changes our character, freeing us from sinful habits and forming in us Christlike inclinations.
Philippians 2:12-13 puts it as follows.:
Phil. 2:12 ¶ Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,
Phil. 2:13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.
The Christian life is like a workout, a continuous, sustained and strenuous effort by each one of us in carrying through our salvation to the end. The Bible is not saying that we’re to earn our salvation. No, we’ve already been saved by God’s grace, but we’re to live as saved people right until the end, pure and blameless when Jesus returns.
This involves effort on our part. Yet the reason that this is possible is because as we work out our salvation, it is God who works in us, to will and to act. His Spirit who dwells in us works in our mind to will us to act accordingly and he does his work in our bodies so that we can act and put it into practice.
So now that we’ve been transformed to live God’s way, what are the rewards that the Bible speaks of? In 1 Corinthians 3:5-15, Paul compares our Christian service to building work. We can build either using good or inferior materials. When Jesus returns, he will test the quality of our work. If what we build survives, we’ll receive a reward. Our reward is based on whether what we build for God survives, that is, whether it lasts into the age to come. The day of judgement will be a day of exposure where all our actions and deeds are laid out for all to see.
But what are these rewards? In 1 Thessalonians 2:19, Paul calls the Thessalonian believers “our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes.” So the rewards are the people Paul served and taught, the fruits of his labours, what God has done in the lives of those Paul served.
The reward is not piles of money or mansions with pools or Ferraris or even gold medals. This sort of reward would be alien because it would be unconnected to the activity that won them, and it would be meaningless in eternity, when material objects no longer matter. It’s like saying that when Joseph Schooling won the Olympic 100m butterfly, even though he was awarded S$1,000,000, the more appropriate reward he received was the respect of every swimmer and Singapore for his brilliant performance.
For Christians, the reward that really counts is the one achieved by our actions — the joy of seeing men and women for whom we prayed, to whom we ministered and whom we loved, gloriously saved and bringing honour to the Lord who saved them. This is the reward that God will give us for our labour in the gospel. Those who find joy and satisfaction in this reward are those who have a heart for others, and have laboured because they longed to see others saved.
So brothers and sisters in Christ, this week as we come to the end of our one-to-one Bible reading on Psalms, you don’t have to stop. Continue to long to see others saved. Carry on meeting up and encouraging another Christian. In your workplaces or school continue to pray that God will give you opportunities to share Jesus so that others can be saved. And as we start a new sermon and Bible study series on Christian distinctives, do invite your friends and loved ones to come to Living Praise and hear the gospel preached as well as see it lived out in our lives as we seek to spur on one another in godliness not only for this age but to last into the age to come.
¹ I’m indebted for ideas and content in this Praiselines article to “Rewards in the Age to Come” by Tim Thorburn published in the Briefing June 2003.
² The biggest prize award of S$1,200,000 is given by Chinese Taipei.