Scripture seems to indicate that there will be varying degrees of rewards in heaven. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Matthew 5:11-12, Luke 6:35) Always remember that rewards are not the same as the gift of eternal life. All who place their faith in Jesus will receive eternal life not based on anything they have done. (Ephesians 2:8)
However, there are numerous passages which speak about the work we do on earth as having significance in eternity. It’s spoken of as storing up treasure in heaven, reward, or a prize.
Sometimes people believe there may also be five different crowns believers can receive as a separate rewards (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. I am inclined to agree with the majority of commentators – the five crowns all refer to the reward/gift of eternal life.
The question then becomes what exactly are these rewards? Here’s where it gets really frustrating because, although the Bible seems to clearly indicate there are rewards, and varying degrees of rewards, it is not clear on what exactly those rewards are. Because of this we can only make educated guesses as to what the rewards may be. I tend to agree with Pastor John Starke who wrote:
“If there are degrees of reward, they would likely revolve around increased capacities and responsibilities.”
Jonathan Edwards explains what increased capacity means: “Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness (the ocean of happiness is eternal life in the presence of God without sin) 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 means some people may have greater capacity to experience the love, joy and peace of God’s presence – everyone will be full but some will be “larger vessels”
Increased responsibilities may be tied into the biblical idea of ruling with Jesus. John Starke asks, “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).”
Remember the greatest reward is seeing Jesus face to face, being in the presence of the Father’s glory with no sin, no shame, no death, no sickness. We also all receive the great reward of seeing all our loved ones who, through faith in Jesus, have entered eternity before us. No doubt everyone in eternity will experience a fullness of peace and joy. No one will grumble or complain about their lack of reward.
Ever since I read C.S. Lewis’s the Great Divorce I have been struck by a scene he describes in his idea of what heaven may be like. In Lewis’s fictional vision of heaven, he sees a woman coming riding a great horse, with lights and song and dancing accompanying her (think of the scene in the movie Aladdin when Aladdin enters Agrabah as Prince Ali). There is this great procession all around this one woman who is receiving praise and honour, she must be someone great in the Kingdom of heaven. At first the man seeing this believes it may be Mary, the mother of Jesus. But He is corrected, "It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green."
"She seems to be ... well, a person of particular importance?"
"Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things."
The guide then explains to the man that the love of Christ, that came into her was then poured out of her to all people she met, even animals. She was a woman where the love of God was displayed to the world. Because of her words and actions and love on earth she was worthy of great glory, honour and fame in heaven.
All in heaven knew of her work and how it pleased the Father and so no one thought it inappropriate for her to receive glory that the Father wished her to have. All in eternity knew it was appropriate for her to be honoured for the life she lived on earth.
I often think there is something of truth to this idea of each individual receiving glory and honour for the service they did for their King and creator. Those who receive great honour we will know they were deserving of it and we will honour them as well.
I’ll end by quoting at length from Jonathan Edwards sermon on the rewards of heaven:
Those who are not so high in glory as others, will not envy those that are higher, but they will have so great, and strong, and pure love to them that they will rejoice in their superior happiness. Their love to them will be such that they will rejoice that they are happier than themselves; so that instead of having a damp to their own happiness, it will add to it. They will see it to be fitting that they that have been most eminent in works of righteousness should be most highly exalted in glory; and they will rejoice in having that done, that is fittest to be done.
There will be a perfect harmony in that society; those that are most happy will also be most holy, and all will be perfectly holy and perfectly happy. But yet there will be different degrees of both holiness and happiness according to the measure of each one’s capacity, and therefore those that are lowest in glory will have the greatest love to those that are highest in happiness because they will see most of the image of God in them. And having the greatest love to them, they will rejoice to see them the most happy and the highest in glory.
Here in this world, those that are above others are the objects of envy because that others conceive of them as being lifted up with it. But in heaven it will not be so, but those saints in heaven who excel in happiness will also in holiness, and consequently in humility. The saints in heaven are more humble than the saints on earth and still the higher we go among them, the greater humility there is. The highest orders of saints, who know most of God, see most of the distinction between God and themselves, and consequently are comparatively least in their own eyes, and so are most humble.
The exaltation of some in heaven above the rest will be so far from diminishing the perfect happiness and joy of the rest who are inferior, that they will be the happier for it. Such will be the union in their society that they will be partakers of each other’s happiness. Then will be fulfilled in its perfection that which is declared in 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one of the members be honoured all the members rejoice with it.”