Rich Rewards and Great Grace

(A Study of Matthew 19:27-20:16)

Is serving the Lord Jesus Christ really worthwhile?  Is it worth saying “no” to ourselves and giving up possessions, comfort and opportunities in order to follow Jesus?  Most believers would immediately answer “yes” to such questions because to respond otherwise would be seen as an incredibly ungodly reaction.

The Apostle Peter essentially asked these questions of Jesus Himself after observing Jesus’ encounter with the “rich young ruler.”  Jesus had told the rich young man to sell everything he had and to come and follow Him.  Apparently the young ruler opted not to do this because we never hear from him again.  However, Peter rightly noted that he and the other apostles had done that very thing.  They had given up everything to come and follow the Lord Jesus.  So, Peter wondered, since we have done this, what do we get out of it?  A really good question.  And Jesus seemed to think so.  After all, if you are going to give your life to someone or something, then you really should know if it is worthwhile or not.  (Now Peter’s attitude needed a little work which is the subject of the following parable in Matthew 20 is about).

The Matter of Rewards – Matthew 19:27-30

The fact is that Peter and the others had given up normal life and sacrificed a great deal to follow the Lord Jesus (19:27).  Jesus reinforces (“truly”) His own previously given teaching on rewards and the world to come.  The issue here is that of “following Him” (discipleship) and not that of salvation.

There is a coming “payday”, when Jesus returns, for believers where reward will be given.  For the Twelve, their rewards included sitting on 12 thrones in the Messianic kingdom, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. For a thousand years they will reign alongside of King Jesus.  On that day, their faithfulness and personal sacrifice will pay off in huge dividends. (I wonder what the rich young ruler will be thinking on that day!)

Jesus then (in 19:29) expanded the discussion beyond the Apostles to all believers who have sacrificed and served for “His names sake”.  Nothing done by such individuals will be forgotten or overlooked. In fact, Jesus declared that the value of the rewards will be many times greater than whatever sacrifices may have taken place.  And then He added a most intriguing statement: “and shall inherit eternal life.”  At first, this statement might seem to speak against our doctrine of salvation by grace and not by works of any kind.  But actually it does not do so.  We need to understand that “eternal life” is not a static term, but a dynamic concept. Most of the time “eternal life” is seen as our present possession once we trust in Christ for salvation. But about 25% of the time in the New Testament, “eternal life” is seen as something future and which requires effort on our part (e.g. Gal. 6:8; Rom. 2:7).  Just like today there are differences in the level or “quality” of physical life that we experience.  In a family, for example, one member of the family may have a terminal disease while another member is very healthy (and disease free) and yet another has a nasty “common” cold that they are dealing with.  All have physical life, but there are differences in that physical life.  And likewise, all believers have eternal life, but there are going to be differences within that category (rewards), depending on what we do.

The Matter of Grace – Matthew 20:1-16

While Peter’s question is a good one, the Lord apparently is concerned about the attitude behind the question (19:30).  What attitude?  The attitude that the Master is somehow under obligation to me since I have left everything to follow Him.  The truth of the matter is that the Master owns us and there is nothing we can do to obligate Him (see Luke 17:7-10). Peter (and sometimes you and I) forgot that the “bondslave” attitude is the only correct attitude for us to have.  Any rewards are really a matter of His grace and generosity towards us.  But He is not required to do so because of our “sacrifices”.

The Agreement with the Workers, 20:1-2.  Jesus constantly reminded His followers that the operating principles of this world are different from those of His kingdom.  In those days, the labor pool was often found in the marketplace.  A landowner hired workers for the day and an agreement was made for a day’s wage (which was the “denarius”).

The Hiring of Other Workers, 20:3-7.  It soon became apparent to the landowner that the work of the vineyard was greater than those hired could handle and so he returned to the marketplace at four other times (9am, noon, 3pm and 5pm).  Since the magic moment of hiring had already past, the new workers had little leverage in the matter of wages and so they agreed to be paid “whatever is right”.

The Paying of the Workers, 20:8-16.   In that culture, every day was payday (What a great idea!).  In this case the later shift got paid first.  And to everyone’s amazement, they each got wages for a full day (a denarius).  That sure fit “whatever is right” to these workers!  However, when those who were hired first received their denarius (on which they had agreed at the time of hiring), they were outraged.  It was so unfair, they thought.  The Master is, after all, obligated to do better than this for us who worked all day for Him. He owes us!  Such an attitude perhaps creeps on occasion into our thinking as well.

Some Important Truths for Us to Remember

There are some important reminders that come out of Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer as well as from the parable of the workers that followed.

  1. Christ has committed Himself to reward greatly those who have given up much for “His names sake: even a hundred fold.
  2. We are purchased bondslaves and, therefore, the Lord Jesus our Master is never placed under obligation to us for whatever we may have sacrificed for serving Him. To think so, to any degree, reveals an attitude that needs some adjusting.
  3. Our Sovereign Lord is rich in grace. Our salvation is by grace and so are rewards that He will give.  He is wonderfully generous towards us, and it is likely we will receive far more than we might imagine.
  4. The Lord is not only generous but is all knowing. Those who appear to be “last” (19:30; 20:16) may well receive the greatest rewards because of the Master’s insights and understanding.  He will not miss a thing, even a cup of cold water given.  Those who are “first” in this world may have a problem with attitude or motives and will not fare so well.
  5. We can happily leave the “bookkeeping” with Jesus. If left to us, trying to figure out appropriate rewarding at the judgment seat for each person is well above our pay grade. But it will be done perfectly by the wise, generous, sovereign Lord Jesus.