Rev. 22:12 – “Look! I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me to repay each person according to what he has done. (HCSB)
My reward is with me
Jesus speaks in verse 12: “Look! I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me to repay each person according to what he has done.” The New Testament often repeats the theme of judgment based on works. For example:
- In Matt. 16:27 Jesus declares, “For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done.”
- In Matt. 25:31-46 Jesus speaks of the coming judgment of the “sheep” and “goats.” He separates those on His right from those on His left and explains that their works revealed their character. The sheep are welcomed into His kingdom, prepared for them from the foundation of the world, while the goats are banished to the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
- In Rom. 2:5-8 Paul writes, “But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality; but wrath and indignation to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth but are obeying unrighteousness …” While commentators have offered nearly a dozen interpretations of this difficult passage, the most likely one is that works are the outcome of a person’s faith, or lack thereof. Paul quotes from Ps. 62:12 and Prov. 24:12 when he writes, “He will repay each one according to his works.” The believer, indwelled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, lives a life of conformity to the image of God. The unbeliever, driven by the flesh, produces works worthy of eternal separation from God.
- In 1 Peter 1:17, Peter notes, “And if you address as Father the One who judges impartially based on each one’s work, you are to conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your temporary residence.”
- And in Rev. 20:13, as unbelievers stand before the great white throne, they are judged “according to their works.”
This does not even begin to suggest that forgiveness of sins and eternal life are earned through good behavior. As Jesus and the New Testament writers make clear, salvation is by the grace of God alone through faith alone in the person and work of Christ alone (see, for example, John 3:16; 5:24; Rom. 4:4-5; 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7).
Jesus left the portals of heaven and came to earth for the express purpose of paying our sin debt. To advocate a works-based path to eternal life is to trample on the blood of the crucified, buried, and risen Lord. So then, why does Jesus say His reward is with Him to “repay each person according to what he has done?”
The word translated “reward” is misthos in the Greek and appears 29 times in the New Testament, most often as “reward,” but also as “wages,” “pay,” “payment,” or “profit.” The Greek noun means “pay for service” and can be used to describe compensation for good or bad service.
No doubt Jesus is the one to whom all judgment has been given (John 5:22) and the one before whom all people one day will stand. It appears that final judgment comes after resurrection, with believers appearing at the judgment seat of Christ and unbelievers standing before the great white throne.
The focus in each of these judgments is not where they will spend eternity, but how. A person’s eternal destiny is based on how they answer the question Jesus asked in Matt. 16:15 – “who do you say that I am?”
The persons who respond, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and who entrust their lives to Christ, are granted eternal life; they have applied the finished work of Christ to their lives and have thus been declared in right standing with God.
The ones who reject Christ have chosen to spend this life, as well as the life to come, apart from Christ and thus share eternity in hell, to which Satan and his demons are consigned (Matt. 25:41; John 16:7-11). So, the “reward” for what each person has done is God’s way of setting things right.
The judgment seat of Christ
Consider the judgment seat of Christ. Most scholars believe this is the place where Christians, and perhaps believers of all ages, stand before Jesus to receive His evaluation of their lives, resulting in everlasting reward or loss of reward based on the degree of their faithfulness to walk in the path of good works God set for them in eternity past (Eph. 2:10). Paul writes about this judgment in several places:
- 14:10-12: “But you, why do you criticize your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we must all stand before the tribunal [judgment seat] of God. For it is written: As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to Me, and every tongue will give praise to God. So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
- 1 Cor. 3:11-15: “For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on that foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, each one’s work will become obvious, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved, yet it will be like an escape through fire.”
- 2 Cor. 5:10: “For we must all appear before the tribunal [judgment seat] of Christ, so that each may be repaid for what he has done in the body, whether good or worthless.”
In warning us about this judgment, Paul seeks to use final accountability before Christ as motivation for renouncing ungodliness and pursuing faithful living. “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” Paul reminds us in 1 Tim. 6:6. The Greek word translated “tribunal” or “judgment seat” is bema – a bench or platform from which public or judicial pronouncements are made. Pilate sits on the bema (Matt. 27:19; John 19:13), as do Herod (Acts 12:21) and Gallio (Acts 18:12-17).
Paul does not specify the exact time of this judgment. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that it is tied to our resurrection rather than to our death so that the full impact of our earthly lives – which continues after our departure from earth – may be fully evaluated and rewarded.
In 1 Cor. 4:1-5, Paul describes God’s purpose for the judgment, as well as our proper perspective on it. “A person should consider us in this way: as servants of Christ and managers of God’s mysteries,” he writes. “In this regard, it is expected of managers that each one of them be found faithful…. The One who evaluates me is the Lord. Therefore don’t judge anything prematurely, before the Lord comes, who will both bring to light what is hidden in darkness and reveal the intentions of the hearts. And then praise will come to each one from God.”
This judgment is a full disclosure of our words and deeds, as Christ uncovers even our secret conversations, as well as our thoughts, intentions, and motivations. Like a purging fire, Christ’s impartial evaluation of our lives burns away our worthless works and purifies our righteous ones.
For the ones who have built well upon the foundation of their faith, they receive a “well done” from Christ and are given greater positions of authority and greater degrees or responsibility in His eternal kingdom. For those who have squandered their Christian lives, they witness their worthless works consumed in the fires of judgment. Paul reminds such unfaithful believers, “If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved; yet it will be like an escape through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).
“The judgment seat of Christ focuses on the assessment of a Christian’s deeds or lifestyle rather than the determination of their eternal destiny,” write J. Daniel Hays, J. Scott Duvall, and C. Marvin Pate. “Having been saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), Christians are nevertheless committed to working out their faith through deeds (e.g., Gal. 5:6; Eph. 2:10; Phil. 2:12-13; 1 Thess. 1:3). Believers are accountable for individual actions and are not exempt from doing good. Eschatology and ethics are bound tightly together. The judgment seat of Christ fulfills God’s impartial justice, since not all believers live with the same degree of devotion to Christ. Christians are individually accountable for what they do in this mortal body” (Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times, p. 236).
The great white throne
But what about unbelievers? How are they to be judged for their works? Scripture tells us unbelievers are summoned before the great white throne. This judgment is covered in detail in the chapter on Rev. 20:11-15 – A Great White Throne. However, a few words of summary are in order.
John writes that the “dead” – a reference to all unbelievers – are resurrected, brought before the great white throne, and judged according to their works by what is written in “the books.” The books that record the unbelievers’ deeds are opened in order to show them at least two truths: the full extent of their lifelong wickedness, and the failure of their good deeds to earn the favor of God. In addition, there is a search for their names in the book of life, where their eternal bliss in the presence of Christ may have been secured by faith; but no, their names are not to be found. As a result, they are banished to outer darkness, or hell.
There are no doubt degrees of punishment in hell just as there are varying rewards in heaven. Eternity in hell is not the same for the mass murderer as for the law-abiding citizen, but it is outer darkness nonetheless.
Jesus saves some of his most graphic depictions of the darkness and loneliness of hell for the most religious of His day. He tells the Jewish leaders they will receive greater condemnation because they know the scriptures, which point to Jesus, yet persist in their hypocritical and destructive work against the kingdom of God. He tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man in front of the Pharisees to illustrate that wealth and privilege are not the entitlements God owes a righteous person; rather, heaven awaits those who humbly trust in Him for salvation.
It is a common expression at funerals that the deceased have “gone on to their eternal reward.” Meant to comfort mourners that their loved ones are “in a better place,” the statement glosses over the deeper truth that indeed all people ultimately are repaid for their lives on earth.
The “reward” may be our Savior’s greeting, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34), followed by the bliss of authority and responsibility in the presence of the Lord in the new heavens and new earth. Or, the “reward” may be the words of the One seated on the great white throne: “Depart from Me, You who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
Ultimately, everyone gets the eternal destiny they choose, based on their acceptance or rejection of Christ. In addition, everyone spends eternity as close to, or as far away from, their Creator based on how they have lived out their acceptance or rejection of the Savior of the world. Jesus reminds us in the Book of Revelation that when He returns, He will set things right: “Look! I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me to repay each person according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12). His words should prompt all people to search their hearts and take stock of their words and actions.
Next: I am the Alpha and the Omega – Revelation 22:13