What Is the Nature of Our Heavenly Reward?
The fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) asks, “What is that we will obtain? What is the prize? What is the crown?” He answers:
It seems to me that for which we hope is nothing other than the Lord himself.
For He himself is the judge of those who contend, and the crown for those who win.
He is the one who distributes the inheritance, he himself is the good inheritance.
He is the good portion and the giver of the portion, he is the one who makes riches and is himself the riches.
He shows you the treasure and is himself your treasure.
—Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes Homily 8 (GNO 7,2:170; 78, Ins 3-9); my emphasis.
A couple of years ago I answered a question for “Ask TGC” where I tried to give a brief overview of my understanding of biblical reward. I’ve reprinted it below:
In its most general sense, “reward” (Greek, misthos) is the appropriate consequence or consummation of a course of action. Sometimes it is rendered as “wages” (Matt. 20:8; Luke 10:7; John 4:36). Negatively, Judas’s blood money is called “the reward of his wickedness” (Acts 1:18).
Positively, “reward” (which is always in the singular in the NT) refers to entering eternal life. And the greatest joy of heaven will be seeing God face to face (Rev. 22:4). Every believer longs for the day when “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), when we shall “enter into the joy of [our] master” (Matt. 25:21, 23). “They shall see God” (Matt. 5:8) and “your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12) are ultimately referring to the same thing. Jesus frequently appeals to reward as a motivator for righteousness—whether he is talking about persecution (Matt. 5:12) or love (Matt. 5:46) or giving (Matt. 6:4) or prayer (Matt. 6:6) or fasting (Matt. 6:18).
Five key passages reference believers receiving a “crown” (1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4). Though it is popular to see these as different types of reward (crown of righteousness, crown of gold, crown of life, etc.) a majority of commentators believe these are different ways of referring to the one reward of eternal life. Space does not permit a detailed examination of these and related passages, but I would commend the careful analysis of Craig Blomberg.
While Professor Blomberg is largely convincing with regard to the exegetical issues, I think he takes a misstep in his theological objections to varying degrees of reward. Even though I don’t think any passages explicitly teach this idea, it is not inconceivable, not is it incompatible with any teaching in the NT. If there are degrees of reward, they would likely revolve around increased capacities and responsibilities.
Jonathan Edwards explains the former: “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.” Could the parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11-27) imply that some believers will rule over more cites in the new heavens and earth? If so, this would mean that under our “great reward” (enjoying God himself) there are various roles and responsibilities. I am not certain this will be the case, but I see nothing inherently problematic in holding to this as a possibility.
In summary, all true believers will receive the great reward of seeing God face to face, and this should motivate all of our actions. The NT nowhere clearly and explicitly teaches varying degrees of reward, though this may indeed be true. If so, some may have greater capacities as well as greater responsibilities, but all of us will experience “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” at God’s right hand (Ps. 16:11). Maranatha—come quickly, Lord Jesus!