|STANDING IN LINE TO RECEIVE YOUR REWARD
Erwin W. Lutzer
I AM REVEALED
Dec 29 2011
Len was in the hospital, dying of cancer, when I had the privilege of explaining the gospel to him and he believed on
Christ. During his remaining three weeks, he prayed, read his Bible, and was a blessing to those who visited him. He
was not afraid to die but regretted that he had waited so long to become a born-again Christian.
What chance does he have to be rewarded by Christ since his works were so few and, for the most part, his life such a
waste? Someone has said that a deathbed conversion is "burning a candle in the service of the devil and blowing the
smoke in the eyes of God."
The thief on the cross had no opportunity to do good works. Perhaps he died giving praise to the One who had just
promised him eternal life. That was something, but compared to a life of service, not much. Does God have a pay
scale in heaven like we find in an employee handbook? Are we rewarded according to the number of days, hours, or
years we serve? What happens to Christian young people killed in a car accident, or to infants who have not had the
chance of doing even one good work?
Christ told a parable that has often been misinterpreted, but I believe it provides the clue to the questions we have just
posed. The story comes to grips with the fairness and generosity of God and also the matter of our attitude in service.
It ends with the surprise that "the last shall be first, and the first last" (Matthew 20:16).
Christ had just confronted a young rich man who was not willing to admit that he had a problem with being covetous; so
Christ asked him to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor so that he would have treasure in heaven.
But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieved, "for he was one who owned much property"
Christ later explained to the disciples that it was very hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom; indeed, "It is easier for a
camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (verse 24). Peter, bless him,
thinking about what it cost the disciples to follow Christ, asked, "Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what
then will there be for us?" (verse 27). Probably we would have had the same question on our minds but not the nerve
to ask, "What's in it for me?"
We are the ones who are tempted to think that any consideration of rewards is self-centered. But Christ did not chide
Peter for his question. After all, Christ Himself was motivated "for the joy set before Him" (Hebrews 12:2). Just as
pleasing the Father entailed a reward, even so when we in turn please Christ we are promised a reward. It is not wrong
for us to strive to be thought worthy of His approval.
Christ responds to Peter's question with a lofty promise.
throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left
houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name's sake, shall receive many
times as much, and shall inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first. (Matthew 19:28-
much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with
persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life" (10:30). Obviously, we cannot take this literally, since no one would
want a hundred brothers, sisters, and mothers! Christ's point is simply that the rewards both in this life and the life to
come will be out of proportion to the cost of discipleship. How would you like to put your money in a bank with a
guaranteed interest of 10,000 percent!
Samuel Zwemer, famous missionary to the Muslims, lost two daughters, ages four and seven, within eight days of each
other. The temperature soared regularly to 107 degrees in the coolest part of the verandah. His work was largely
fruitless and fraught with great setbacks for him and his wife. Yet fifty years later, looking back on this period, he wrote,
"The sheer joy of it all comes back. Gladly would I do it all over again."
Many missionaries who have left houses, lands, and families bear witness to the fact that the joy of serving Christ makes
up for the sacrifice. Piper writes: "If you give up a mother's nearby affection and concern, you get back one hundred
times the affection and concern from the ever-present Christ...If you give up the sense of at-homeness you had in your
house, you get back one hundred times the comfort and security of knowing that your Lord owns every house and land
and stream and tree on earth."
We are asked to deny ourselves of the lesser good for the greater good. Paul was willing to say that everything was
garbage in comparison to knowing Christ. And for such a commitment there is also an eternal reward. Someone has
said that the remuneration will be much greater than the renunciation.
In Israel the grape harvest ripens near the end of September and after that the rains begin to fall. There is only a short
window of time, perhaps two weeks, when the grapes can be harvested. Understandably, vineyard owners often find
extra help to harvest their produce quickly. An owner can go to the marketplace and find workers willing to be paid at
the end of each day. Each hopes he will be hired.
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And
when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard" (Matthew 20:1-2).
The owner went out at 6:00 A.M. and found a group of hired hands. After some negotiations, he hired them for the
standard rate: a denarius per worker per day. Off they went into the fields, doing enough work to satisfy the demands
of the contract.
But there was more work to be done. So the owner went out at nine o'clock, at noon, and even at five o'clock to hire
others so that the harvest would be in by sundown. He hired as many as he needed to finish the job by the end of the
day, at 6:00 P.M.
When the task was finished, he asked his foreman to line up the laborers to be paid. To the astonishment of everyone,
the owner requested that those who came late would be paid first. "And when those hired about the eleventh hour [five
in the afternoon] came, each one received a denarius" (verse 9).
Imagine! They worked one hour and received pay for the whole day! As they left they flashed the denarius they had
been paid and word spread down the line about the generosity of the vineyard owner. The last-hired workers thrilled at
the prospect of having a good supper with some money to spare. This was a man for whom they would gladly work
Of course, the early birds who were standing in line could hardly wait to get their wages. They did a mental calculation:
If the pay is one denarius per hour, then they should receive twelve denarii. And if not twelve, they would be satisfied
They were unprepared for the disappointment that awaited them. Word spread that those who came at three o'clock in
the afternoon also receive a denarius; similarly, those who had arrived at noon and even at nine o'clock received but a
single denarius! And now the early birds were next in line. "And when those hired first came, they thought that they
would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius" (verse 10).
“And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and
you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’” (verses 11-12). If
they had known this was going to happen, they also would have come at 5:00 P.M. Why not do as little as you must to
get what others are getting? If they were living in our day, they would have complained to the labor relations board.
But the owner had a ready reply. "Friends, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take
what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I
wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?' Thus the last shall be first, and the first
last'" (verses 13-16).
So much for that.
How shall we interpret this story?
Some have thought that the denarius represents salvation. Thus, whether one is saved early in life or later, one still
receives the same gift. The man who believes on Christ on his deathbed receives the same eternal life as the person
who has served God for many years.
But there are serious problems with this understanding of the story. Thankfully, we do not have to work to enter the
vineyard, because none of us would be qualified. This is a parable about payment for work, not about salvation by
Others have suggested that this parable teaches that it is not the length of time you work, but how hard you work.
Those who came early took long breaks, chatted while they picked the grapes, and took a three-hour lunch. So those
who came at 5:00 did just as much as those who entered the vineyard at sunrise.
But we have no evidence that those who came later were better workers, while the early ones loafed. Indeed, when the
early birds complained, "We have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day," the owner did not dispute their
A third interpretation says that everyone will receive the same reward. Whether you enter the vineyard as a faithful
worker or a self-centered opportunist, you will in the end be rewarded the same. So the judgment seat of Christ
involves nothing more than having us line up and receive our denarius.
But this cannot be Christ's meaning. Indeed, the very context of the story proves otherwise! Christ has just assured
Peter and the other disciples that they would be generously rewarded because they had left all to follow Him. They
would rule over the twelve tribes of Israel in the kingdom.
And, if we should envy these disciples, we are also promised that we can receive a reward if we are willing to leave
father and mother and carry our cross. Whatever the reward might be, Christ said it would be much greater than
whatever we give up. Clearly, everyone does not receive the same reward. Why would so many passages in the New
Testament speak of rewards if we all will be equally honored when we stand before Christ?
Perhaps there is a better interpretation.
Remember that the Jews received the first invitation to the kingdom. Back in Genesis God promised Abraham that he
would be great and through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. This began a series of covenants and
promises that would culminate in the coming of Christ and the eventual establishment of the kingdom. Now the Jews
resented the Gentiles, who were invited by Christ into the vineyard. These newcomers were happy for the privilege and
were being blessed by God.
When Jesus was criticized for befriending sinners, he told the familiar story of the prodigal son who went into the far
country and squandered his living. When he returned home, the elder brother resented the generosity of the father
toward his wayward sibling. After all, he was the hard worker who kept the farm going. And now the father was
rewarding this scoundrel for just coming home!
The elder brother had taken his father for granted. He worked on the farm, not because he loved the father, but
because of what he could get out of him. He thought that rewards should be doled out according to a payroll time
chart. So much money for so many hours. And now his wayward brother comes home and the father showers him with
irrational attention and joy. That was too much for the boy who had stayed home and did all the hard work on the farm.
That, I believe, is the attitude of those who came to the vineyard at 6:00 A.M. We read, "And when he had agreed with
the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard" (verse 2, italics added). They negotiated for all
they could get. The others who came later served without an agreement. The vineyard owner assured them, “You too
go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you,” and they trusted him (verse 4). It is not just a matter of how
long you serve but the attitude with which you serve that counts. What is more, for those who serve well, the owner
pays beyond their wildest dreams.
THE LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
There are several lessons that emerge from the parable, and in uncovering them we are led to the heart of what Christ
attempted to communicate.
We Should Serve in Faith, without a Contract
Haddon Robinson says that one day his son came in from the hot Texas sun and exclaimed, "Dad, I've mowed the
lawn!" which, of course, is another way of saying, "Pay me!"
His father asked, "How much do you think your work is worth?" The boy refused to answer.
When pressed, he continued to evade the question, and his father insisted, "Why don't you name your price?"
To which the boy replied, "I know that if you make the decision you will give me more than I would ever ask!"
Those who came early to the vineyard named their price; the others did not. We can imagine the tone of the
negotiations at sunrise. They wanted to know exactly what was in it for them. They would not set foot in the vineyard
without knowing in advance what they would get in return.
The others were satisfied with the words of the vineyard owner, "Whatever is right I will give you." They felt honored to
be asked to serve, and whatever the owner paid them they believed would be sufficient. They gave him the freedom to
make the choice.
I've heard Christians say, "I promised God that if He gave me a better job, I would begin to tithe..." Or, "If God doesn't
call me to Africa, I will get a good job and support ten missionaries..." such bargains tie God's hands, and He cannot be
generous with us. We must not try to make a deal with the Almighty; we should simply serve Him to the best of our
ability and let Him worry about the results. We must seek His will and trust Him to do right by us.
We must never think we can make God obligated to us. Let us remember that God owes us nothing but eternal
punishment. God has chosen to reward us, not because He owes us anything, but because He is generous. To insist
that we receive some compensation is to miss the whole point of our Father-son relationship.
When we make a bargain with God, stipulating that He do business on our terms, we lose. He will be more gracious
when we realize that He alone has the right to make the choice about our rewards. He invites us to rejoice in His
promise that we will be rewarded, but He must determine what that reward will be. With His decision we shall be satisfied.
We Should Serve in Submission, Not Envy
Those early birds eyed the latecomers, envying the generous pay they had received. They resented the fact that the
owner had given these loafers more money than they deserved. The vineyard owner responded, "Is it not lawful for me
to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?" (verse 15). Unfortunately, we
all too easily fall into the sin of comparison, resenting those who are above us and despising those who are beneath
us. Read the pages of church history and you will soon discover that many of the conflicts were not doctrinal, but
personal. Sometimes God's blessings were so unevenly distributed that one Christian envied another, scheming for his
brother's demise. How much better if we could rejoice in the exaltation of others!
A friend of mine asked me if I ever had noticed how often God puts His hand on the wrong person! His point, of course,
is that God often blesses some people more abundantly than we would if we were the Almighty! To be envious, or to
complain that our part in the vineyard is not as great as that of someone else, is to miss the heart of service to Christ.
Charles Ryrie, author of the study notes in the Ryrie Study Bible, says that one day he was on a plane when the flight
attendants asked some of the coach-class passengers to move into the first-class section. Unfortunately, he was not
chosen to be among the fortunate. He resented having to stay put while others were asked to move toward the
While he sat quietly, bristling about his plight, he recalled this parable and read it. He paraphrased the words: "Friend, I
am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with American Airlines for a coach seat? Do you not have a coach seat? Is
it not lawful for American Airlines to do as it wills with those who are its own? If it wishes to give first-class treatment to
second-class passengers, is your eye envious because American Airlines is generous?"
We must not become envious if God is more generous to some people than we think He should be! Indeed, if He were
not generous, none of us would be saved and not a one of us would be rewarded. Let us be satisfied with our place in
the vineyard, no matter how obscure or unappreciated. Since whatever we receive is undeserved, we should be
grateful for any pay the owner grants us.
God is sovereign in who He chooses to save; He is sovereign in the distribution of privileges and gifts. And He is also
sovereign in the rewards He chooses to give us. Obviously, He does not act arbitrarily. There is a connection between
our service on earth and the rewards we shall receive in heaven. But we will receive so much more than we could ever
Indeed, this leads us to the heart of the parable.
Our Reward Is Grace, Not Wages
In heaven there will be reversals: "Thus the last shall be first, and the first last" (verse 16). With these words Christ
encapsulated the central teaching of the parable. Some who have come to the kingdom late might just be ahead of
those who entered early in the day.
As we have already learned, the first reason for this reversal in rank is that God takes into account the attitude with
which we serve. The person who comes to faith in Christ late in life and thus enters the vineyard late in the day does
not have the same opportunity to do as many good deeds as the person who grew up in the faith. But if such a
latecomer serves well, he will receive much more than he could ever expect. Perhaps a lifetime of pay for a month of
service. Rewards are not based on the amount of time in the vineyard.
If the length of time one worked in the vineyard determined our reward, none of us would want to be a martyr! We
would want to go on serving Christ to accumulate more good deeds. But the fact is that God determines how long we
are in the vineyard. No one is penalized because his life is cut short.
The teenager killed in an accident, the man who receives Christ as Savior while on his deathbed - these shall receive
more than they could possibly hope for. Perhaps even the infant will be graciously rewarded, based on what he or she
might have done if given the opportunity. These shall be rewarded above those who served God out of a sense of
duty, out of a legalistic heart without a loving touch. Thus the first shall be last and the last first.
Second, it is clear that the bottom line is that the reward we receive will not be equal pay for equal service. Rather, our
reward will be a hundred times greater than any work we actually have done. God will pay the legalist who has worked
for a fixed price, but in the end He will compensate far beyond expectations those who have trusted Him. Our
relationship with Him is not just between master and slave, but between a Father who delights in sharing His inheritance
and His obedient child.
In the end we shall receive much more than we have merited; in fact, as we have already learned, we "deserve"
nothing. God will give us rewards that are totally out of proportion to the work we have done. Since no one "earns"
rewards anyway, we shall receive the benefits of a gracious wage. We will have hearts of gratitude for all of eternity.
Henry C. Morrison and his wife, after serving for forty years in Africa, came home by boat. Theodore Roosevelt and his
entourage were also aboard; there was much pomp and revelry. The president's arrival in New York was greeted with a
great delegation and fanfare. But the Morrisons felt dejected, for there was no one there to meet them. As they
thought about it, they realized that those who caroused on the ship, drinking and dancing, those who were famous -
they had a rousing welcome. The missionaries did not.
Understandably, the couple felt resentment. But one day the joy of the Lord returned to Mr. Morrison. He explained to
his wife that he had been praying, rehearsing one more time his indignation toward God. "We are servants of the most
High God and when we returned home there was no one to greet us; when those who are serving this world returned
home they had a rousing welcome...
"Then," he said, "it was as if the Lord said to me, 'Just wait, you aren't home yet!'"
Whatever deprivations we have had here on earth, whatever loneliness we endure, whatever suffering comes our way
for the sake of Christ - for this we shall be generously rewarded. We will stand amazed when we see that God gave us
so much for so little!
We've been called to the vineyard at different times, but thanks be, we can count on being "paid" at the end of the day.
And because of the generosity of the owner, some of the last shall be first and the first last. Of course, our reward will
not be monetary. Rather, we shall have the joy of reigning with Christ. And it is to this ultimate reward we now turn.
YOUR ETERNAL REWARD, by Erwin W. Lutzer, Copyright 1998, Moody Publishers.
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