In 2015 I was able to purchase the best tickets I’ve ever had at a major sporting event. The seats were just under the basket of a Dallas Mavericks basketball game, a few rows up from the floor. Some of my favorite players were mere yards from me. I could see sweat beading on their foreheads.
While these were amazing seats, I couldn’t help but notice some people had courtside seats, which afforded a better view of the game than my seats. Then I noticed some people were right behind the team’s benches, which were in closer proximity to the players than my seats. And then I realized some people were in suites, which offered more comfort and luxury than my seats!
While my seats were good, they weren’t the best, and jealousy and envy and strife commenced (followed by humble penitence and repentance of course).
I think we can all understand what it feels like to covet our neighbor’s basketball tickets. In most cases it breeds emotions that are not indicative of a perfect heaven. Yet, several scriptures seem to suggest that believers will have varying rewards and reputations in heaven.
Consider, for example, where Jesus teaches that a person who breaks the least of his commandments will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:18), or how someone who humbles himself like a child will be the greatest in heaven (Mt 18:4). These seem to support varying degrees of reputation or responsibility. And consider James, who writes about a “crown of life” for those who endure and pass trials (Jas 1:12). What about a person who fails a trial? Will he not receive this crown? How will he not be jealous of the person who does receive it? And how is this possible in a place where “nothing profane will ever enter [nor] one who does what is vile or false” (Rev 21:27).
Scripture is replete with verses about heaven and rewards, and an analysis of this scriptural data is of upmost importance. Some verses detail what seems like rewards in heaven, and others detail what seems like heaven as the reward. The most notable have to do with “crowns” (1 Cor 9:25; 1 Thess 2:19; 2 Tim 4:8; Jas 1:12; 1 Pt 5:4).
In Corinthians Paul describes a “crown that will never fade away,” which seems to be a euphemism for heaven proper (1 Cor 9:25). The “crown” is the “prize” described in verse twenty-four, and this crown, therefore, might best be understood as a metaphor for the prize of unfading eternal life in heaven. It seems every believer will have this particular crown. Although it’s also possible that this is a crown based on the level of sanctification for those who practice their faith at a high level; who run the race of their salvation in an efficient way.
In Thessalonians Paul describes a “crown of boasting,” which seems to be a metaphor for the Thessalonian believers (1 Thess 2:19). The Thessalonian believers were spiritually nurtured by Paul and others, and became a treasure in and of themselves by coming to faith in Jesus. They are a reward in which Paul could exult. If converts are a reward, then this alone might testify of the possibility of varying rewards, because some believers evangelize and disciple more people than other believers,
In Timothy Paul describes a “crown of righteousness,” reserved for those who loved the Lord Jesus’ appearing (2 Tim 4:8). The key here is what it means to “love the Lord’s appearing.” Blomberg argues that surely one who has never wished for Christ’s return cannot have truly been his disciple. In this interpretation, this crown might be a euphemism for heaven proper. However, it’s possible that “love” has to do with sanctification, that is, the level at which Jesus’ return governed how the believer practiced his Christian walk regarding sin. In this case, this crown is reserved to those who lived highly sanctified lives, choosing righteousness over sin as they anticipated Jesus’ return.
James describes a “crown of life,” reserved for those who endure and pass trials (Jas 1:12). Some scholars believe this is a particular crown reserved for those who endure earthly trials, while others believe the context of James suggests this is a reference for all Christians, since we all undoubtedly experience trials. In the latter interpretation, this crown is a euphemism for heaven proper. The “crown of life” is also listed in Revelation 2:10 in Jesus’ letter to Smyrna. This context also speaks of trials, but in this context it might indicate the crown is reserved for those who die by martyrdom, the severest of all trials (“the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have affliction … be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life”).
Peter describes a “crown a glory,” but the immediate context of this particular crown suggests it is reserved for the elders of a church, which would single-handedly indicate varying degrees of rewards, since only elders can attain this particular crown (1 Pt 5:4).
In Revelation 4:10 twenty-four elders are observed falling down before Jesus on the throne, casting their crowns before him. There is no description of the crown listed here, but these particular crowns are used to worship Jesus. No description is given of the crown, so it is impossible to know if this is one of the aforementioned crowns, or a different crown altogether. This verse is helpful in that it might provide insight into what we will ultimately do with our crowns, if they are physical rewards.
These summarize six key passages on the subject of heaven and rewards. They show a strong possibility that heaven is the believer’s reward, but that there might also be rewards in heaven. This is furthered by Jesus, who describes the “reward” of heaven as being great for those who are insulted and persecuted and falsely accused for his name’s sake (Mt 5:12; Lk 6:23). This verse could be taken either way—that heaven is a great reward for those who are insulted, persecuted, and falsely accused, or that such people will have great rewards in heaven. In the same sermon Jesus seems to directly advocate varying degrees of rewards for those who practice their faith for God’s glory, and not man’s (Mt 6:1-6; 16-18; Lk 6:35). This is encouraged in his well-known statement,
“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal” (Mt 6:19-20).
Jesus also spoke of varying reputations and responsibilities in heaven. In some cases he talks about those are who the “least in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:19, 11:11), and in others he talks about those who are the “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:4; Mk 9:34-35; Lk 9:48). It’s possible the amount of rewards one receives impacts one’s heavenly rank, reputation, and responsibilities.
A reasonable conclusion to the scriptural data is that while heaven is certainly the reward for the believer, it’s also possible that believers will receive varying rewards and have varying reputations and responsibilities in heaven.
This begs the question on jealousy. How can there be varying rewards and reputations in heaven without jealousy and envy also being present? The answer is found in how the rewards are fundamentally understood.
John Piper argues that the New Testament describes our happiness in heaven in three ways. First, our works—and therefore our rewards for those works—are not the basis by which we are accepted by God. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved … and not of yourselves” (Eph 2:8). This means our ultimate joy is not found in our works, but in God’s grace. “By the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight … We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:20, 28).
Second, although our works do not save us, they testify of our salvation. Peter writes, “Be diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Pt 1:10). Hebrews says, “Strive for the holiness without which you won’t see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). This means while our works aren’t the foundation of our joy in heaven, they are a confirmation of it.
Finally, the New Testament teaches, as in the six passages on the crowns, that our obedience results in rewards in heaven that differ from each other according to the measure of our obedience of our salvation. Jonathan Edwards offers a helpful quote that describes how this works in the context of jealousy: “Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others; and there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign throughout the whole society.”
Edwards’ quote supports Paul’s statement that “love is not selfish … rejoices in the truth … never ends … [and is] the greatest” of the Christian triad of faith, hope, and love (1 Cor 13:1-13).
Love is the antithesis of jealousy. And thus, in heaven love trumps jealousy.
“We will be rewarded differently in [heaven], but everyone will be fully happy. There will be no gap between anyone’s capacity for happiness, on the one hand, and anyone’s fullness of happiness on the other hand. There will be no frustration over any of these differences. The rewards in their essence are different capacities for happiness in God. If you get down to the essence of what would be a good reward in heaven, it is knowing and tasting and having a capacity for greater delights in God and awareness of God and enjoyment of God.”
It’s possible for everyone’s heavenly rewards to be different, but to all be full, and this removes the ability for jealousy to abound, since jealousy is an emotion that is spurned from one who is without. All of heaven’s citizens will abound fully in God’s grace, even if it is in varying ways.
Moses offers a vivid testimony of this kind of heavenly attitude when he admonished Joshua’s jealousy over men who had received the gift of God’s Spirit. Moses tells Joshua, “Are you jealous on my account? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets and the Lord would place his Spirit on all of them!” (Num 11:29). If this attitude is possible on earth, where sin abounds, then it’s certainly possible in heaven, where “nothing profane will ever enter [nor] one who does what is vile or false” (Rev 21:27).
The scriptures teach that every reward is achieved by God’s grace (1 Cor 15:10). God’s rewards are the fruit of his own grace, not man’s abilities, and so there is no reason to be jealous of God’s abundant grace in man’s lives. Another way of saying this is that in heaven it will be impossible to be jealous because mankind can only be grateful for the expression of God’s abounding grace represented in each individual life.
Hank Hanegraaff summarizes this well in writing, “The basis of our salvation is the finished work of Christ, but Christians can erect a building of rewards upon that foundation.” Paul offers a helpful word on the subject in his first letter to the Corinthians:
"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 Cor 3:11-15).
One final and tremendously important consideration to the question on rewards concerns their practicality. This is to ask for what purpose will they be handed out, beyond the idea that they illustrate God’s abounding grace, or serve as tools of worship for Christ on his throne. This is where Answers on Heaven’s theory of epochs becomes especially helpful, because the answer to the question isn’t merely that there are varying rewards in heaven, but that these rewards might be specifically reserved for a particular epoch of heaven. The timing of the giving of these rewards might be the key that unlocks the answer.
Romans 14:10-12 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 both detail how believers will stand before the “judgment seat” of Christ. The Greek word for “judgment seat” in these verses is bema. The word is taken from ancient Roman games, where contestants would compete before judges who would choose a victor to stand on the bema, which was a raised platform. This judgment is therefore strictly for victors, or in this context, believers. The seat is not to determine salvation, but to disperse rewards for how salvation was practiced.
The major question concerns when this particular event takes place. Some scholars believe it occurs at the moment of the rapture of the church and resurrection of deceased believers, which could mean, in a pretribulational sense, it occurs prior to the seven year Great Tribulation. The context of Romans 14:10-12, particularly Paul's quote from Isaiah 45:23, seems to suggest it occurs at Jesus’ second coming, just before he sets up his kingdom, because this is the moment in which all of creation will bow their knees to Jesus. Jesus’ statement in Revelation 22:12 supports this thought in which he declares he is coming, and his reward is with him, if the verse is to be taken as a reference to his second coming, and not the rapture, which is the most reasonable interpretation.
If this is true it offers a profound insight into the nature of rewards, which is that they are designed for the sixth epoch of heaven—the Millennium, the one thousand year kingdom of heaven on earth. By design, this era is the restoration of the Garden of Eden on earth. It's the reinstatement of God's theocracy on earth. The kingdom’s inhabitants will be charged with working and keeping the earth, just like Adam and Eve were in Eden (Ez 36:35).
Some of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom might encourage this. Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30), for example, tells of slaves who were to be faithful with the talents they were given on earth. For the two slaves that were faithful with their talents, Jesus says, “You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!” (Mt 25:21, 23). The other slave’s unfaithfulness with his talent was evidence he never truly followed his master (Mt 25:28-30). A similar parable is told in Luke 19:11-27, where the hearers “thought the kingdom of God was going to appear right away,” hinting it also has to do with the kingdom.
These are important parables because the context concerns Jesus’ second coming and subsequent kingdom, an event explicitly discussed in the passages immediately following both parables (Mt 25:31-46; Lk 19:28-44). It’s therefore possible the bema for believers occurs on earth after Jesus’ return, which would mean the rewards are handed out specifically for the epoch of heaven known as the kingdom of heaven, which is when heaven comes down to earth for one thousand years. This correlates strongly with Jesus’ statement in Revelation, in which he seems to associate rewards with his second coming:
“Look! I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me to repay each person according to what he has done” (Rev 22:12).
This indicates the rewards (the crowns) and reputations and responsibilities (“least” and “greatest”) have to do specifically with serving Jesus during his kingdom, which is buttressed when one considers Jesus’ statements on reputation specifically cite “the kingdom of heaven,” not heaven in general (Mt 5:19, 11:11, 18:4; Mk 9:34-35; Lk 9:48).
Therefore, a believer’s life on earth directly impacts his life in God’s kingdom. The more faithful we are with what God gives us during our time on earth today determines the rewards, reputation, and responsibilities we will have during our time on earth during the kingdom.
Like David, the anointed king who was commissioned by his father with the trifling task of taking bread and cheese to his brothers, we are commissioned to be faithful to our Father in heaven with the little we are given on earth (1 Sam 17:17). And, also like David, who eventually became the king, our faithfulness with the little affords us the opportunity to fulfill our big calling to become “a kingdom … [who] will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10).
Our works and subsequent rewards are designed specifically for the kingdom of God on earth, and will be completed with the passing away of the current heavens and earth, in which “the works on it will be burned up” (2 Pt 3:10). After this we enter “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth pass away,” in which all things are made new (Rev 21:1, 5)
Finally, it is important to discuss the benefits of understanding rewards in heaven. If rewards are essentially designed to enable us to serve the Lord during his kingdom, they ought to inspire us in every area of our lives. It can drive us to talk to our unsaved sibling about Jesus. It can motivate us to persevere through our health crisis. It can inspire us to use a week of vacation to go across the world to tell an unreached people group the good news of Jesus Christ. Rewards can help us realize there is much more to life than what meets the eye. It will give us a faith that works for the coming kingdom, one that will, as Jesus teaches, lead us to “seek first the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 6:33).
In summary, all believers will inherit the reward of heaven, but it’s possible we will also receive rewards in heaven, and these rewards can afford us the ability to illustrate God’s abounding grace in Jesus’ coming kingdom, and offer Jesus the praise he is due.
“Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
John Piper, “Will Some Saints Be Happier in Heaven?”
Craig Blomberg, “Degrees of Reward in the Kingdom of Heaven”
Hank Hanegraaff, “Are There Degrees of Reward in Heaven?”