What’s the Appeal of Heavenly Rewards Other Than Getting Christ?
Many questions come into our inbox on eternity and heaven, including this really perceptive one from a podcast listener named Lisa: “Pastor John, what is the reward that we receive above and beyond finally getting to see Christ face-to-face, to be with the lover of our soul, forever in eternity? Isn’t he enough reward himself? Or will there be other rewards? If God is the gospel, and God is the prize of eternity, how and why would all other crowns and gifts motivate us toward heaven?”
Lisa’s instincts here are very good. It’s right to say, “Isn’t Christ enough?” The reason I say that’s a good instinct is because it’s the instinct of the psalmist. It’s the instinct of Paul. The psalmist says, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25), which is the heart that I hear coming out of Lisa’s mouth. Paul says in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Here’s the catch: God knows best how we can know Christ most completely and enjoy Christ most fully.
“God knows best how we can know Christ most completely and enjoy Christ most fully.”
All the biblical pointers lead us to believe that Christ is revealed more fully when he is revealed not only immediately to the eyes of the heart by the Holy Spirit because of his moral and spiritual excellencies (for example, see Ephesians 1:18), but also when he is revealed mediately through things that he has made and things that he has done in creation, physical creation — things which we experience in our own created physical bodies, not only in our created spiritual souls. That’s why God created a material universe and he created the earth and he created us with physical bodies and capacities to experience good through the created material existence.
The Bible says we are to eat and drink and do everything in our physical bodies to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), which must mean that the pleasures of God or the pleasures that God has built into the taste of food are not designed primarily as competitors with God’s beauty, but designed as means of its communication. He’s communicating something of himself in the good creation that he has made. The creation becomes one of the ways that we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Then the Bible makes it plain that this is not only true now, but will also be true in the resurrection. In fact, that’s why there is a resurrection of the body and not just the immortality of the soul.
Jesus was at pains to persuade his doubting disciples that they were not seeing a ghost. They were not just looking at a spirit. He said, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). He has today a physical body in heaven. The physical body has been united to the second person of the Trinity with a human and divine nature in one person — stunning, amazing, unbelievable almost.
Then, Paul builds on that reality by stressing that we ourselves will be raised physically from the dead, and he does it by saying our resurrection is all of one piece with Jesus’s bodily resurrection. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20) That means, we’re all one physical, material harvest: Christ and us.
God designs pleasures and rewards not primarily as competitors but communicators of his beauty.
And isn’t it amazing that in Philippians 1:23, Paul says that to die and be with Christ is “far better” than anything on the earth. So, Christ himself and fellowship with him is enough. It’s enough, yes. Yet in Philippians 3, he stresses how he longs not just to die and be with Christ, but to be raised bodily from the dead. He desires “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11).
Now, wouldn’t that imply — if you put that together with Philippians 1:23, where he says to die and leave the body and go be with Christ is far better — wouldn’t that imply that the way we experience Christ most fully after death is through relating to him in our new resurrection body and his resurrection body? Why would Paul care so much about being raised from the dead if it didn’t help him experience Christ more fully? I think it also implies that the new world of the resurrection, the world we live in, must be suited for resurrection bodies, not just eternal spirits. And isn’t that exactly what Paul points out in Romans 8:19–23 and John points out in Revelation 21:1–4: that our new bodies should have a new earth and a new heaven in which to live out our bodily existence?
Here’s the way Paul puts it. I love this. This is so amazing! “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility” — yes, it was; it’s all around us — “not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope” — what hope? — “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption” — why? — “and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19–21). Now, I take that to mean that the whole creation will be adapted to be a perfect dwelling for the children of God so that it functions perfectly to reveal Christ and to be the means by which we will most fully enjoy Christ.
“God reveals Christ not only immediately to the eyes of the heart, but also mediately through physical creation.”
Here’s my answer to Lisa’s question. Christ indeed is our reward. Yes, yes, yes, Lisa. You got that right. See if you think this is wrong: Christ is indeed our reward, and everything else morally and spiritually and physically inside us and outside us in the universe — crowns, stars, cities, friends, family, great saints, etc. — everything else with him that will maximize the communication of his glory and our happiness in him, through it. Now, if God thought that Christ could be known most completely and enjoyed most fully by being the solitary object of our awareness, with no created reality as means, I don’t think God would have created a material universe in the first place, but only immaterial souls. He didn’t do it that way, and he’s not going to do it that way in the future. Christ is our reward, and everything else is our reward that more fully reveals him and more fully enables us to enjoy him.