Great and Least in the Kingdom of Heaven – A Life of Discipleship

Sermon on the MountWhile discussing eternal rewards in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-2, 12, 46; 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus taught there would be varying degrees of placement in the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 5:19, Jesus said, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” In this verse, Jesus talked about two kinds of saved people, both of which will be “in the kingdom of heaven.” This is plainly understood from what Jesus said. The first group will be believers who, after salvation, live a life of disobedience to God, rebelling against His Word, and teaching others to do the same. These disobedient-to-the-Word believers will forfeit eternal rewards and have a low status in heaven. Jesus calls them least, which translates the Greek word ἐλάχιστος elachistos, which refers to being “the lowest in status, least…being considered of very little importance, insignificant.”[1] The second group of believers will be those who live a life of obedience to God, learning and doing His Word, and teaching others to do the same. These obedient-to-the-Word believers will be rewarded by God and be blessed with a high status in heaven. Jesus calls these great, which translates the Greek word μέγας megas, which in this passage refers to being “great in dignity, distinguished, eminent, illustrious.”[2] This gradation of status in heaven is taught elsewhere by Jesus (Matt 11:11; 18:1-4; 20:20-28). To be clear, Jesus is not addressing salvation in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7); rather, He’s addressing the demands of discipleship and rewards.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_073To explain further, let me draw a distinction between the gospel that saves and the life of good works that should follow. From the divine side, our salvation was very costly: it cost God His Son. Jesus willingly bore our sins on the cross and paid our sin debt in full (Mark 10:45; John 10:18; 1 Pet 2:24). He died in our place, “the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). At the cross, God judged our sin as His righteousness requires, and saves us, the sinner, as His love desires. From the human side, salvation is very simple: believe in Christ as Savior. We obtain our entrance in heaven when we simply believe that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). God’s free gift of salvation comes to us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:5).[3] Our salvation comes only through Jesus, who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). The apostle Peter confirmed this, saying, “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).[4]

When we trust in Christ as Savior, we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). No human works are required for us to be saved. Scripture reveals we are “not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal 2:16; cf. Rom 3:28). Our good works will never make us righteous before God, “for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal 2:21). Once saved, God calls us to learn and live His Word (2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2) and to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph 4:1). As His children, God wants us to grow up spiritually and produce good works (Eph 2:10; Tit 2:11-14). But pursuing spiritual maturity does not mean we’ll reach sinless perfection, as that will never happen in this life (Eccl 7:20; 1 John 1:8, 10). Rather, it means we handle our sin a biblical manner. For further information, see my article, Restoring Fellowship with God).

Salvation cost us nothing. Jesus paid it all. But discipleship will cost us everything. It’s radical. It means nothing less than turning our lives over to God and letting Him direct us in everything. Discipleship is worked out over our lifetime. It starts with an epistemological paradigm shift in which we learn to see life from the biblical perspective. The constant and careful study of God’s Word will unseat a lifetime of destructive human viewpoint and replace it with divine viewpoint. The benefit is a life of meaning, purpose, and blessing as we lay hold of the spiritual assets God has for us, for He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph 1:3). This blessed life starts at a moment in time in which we submit ourselves to the Lord (Rom 12:1-2), and continue our advance to spiritual maturity by learning and living Scripture (1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18). However, just as God does not force us to be saved, neither does He force us to live in obedience to Him. Sadly, there are many believers who refuse to be the Lord’s disciples, and these choose to live in conformity with the world around them. The believer who chooses to be a “friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jam 4:4). Furthermore, he places himself under divine discipline (Heb 12:5-11), which can eventuate in physical death if his rebellion continues (1 Cor 11:30; 1 John 5:16). For further explanation of this truth, see my article, The Sin unto Death.

layingcrownathisfeetLet’s get back to the subject of rewards. As Christians, we know there will be a future time in which we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Paul said, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). This judgment seat evaluation is not to determine whether or not we get into heaven. That has already been made secure by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. This judgment seat evaluation pertains solely to eternal rewards. And these rewards are determined by how we live in accordance with God’s revealed will in Scripture. The obedient-believer will produce a life of “gold, silver, and precious stones” which all survive the test by fire and will go with us into eternity (1 Cor 3:12). The rebel-believer will produce a life of “wood, hay, and straw” which will not survive the test by fire and will be burned up (1 Cor 3:12). The quality of work produced by the obedient-believer will remain and “he will receive a reward” (1 Cor 3:14). The quality of work produced by the rebel-believer will be burned up and “he will suffer loss” (1 Cor 3:15). Though the rebel-believer has no rewards, “he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). For more on this subject, see my article, Future Christian Rewards.

In summary, salvation is free and simple. It’s free to us because Christ paid our sin-debt in full. And it’s as simple as believing in Christ as our Savior, trusting that His death, burial, and resurrection forever satisfied God’s righteous demands toward our sin. However, after salvation, God calls us to a radical life of obedience. How we respond is up to us. If we disobey God’s Word and teach others to do the same, then we’ll experience discipline in this life, forfeit heavenly rewards, and will forever be classified as “least in the kingdom of heaven.” However, if we obey God’s Word and teach others to do the same, we shall obtain God’s approval in this life, earn heavenly rewards, and will forever be called “great in the kingdom of heaven.” I implore you as a Christian writing to Christians—choose the life of discipleship. There’s no better life to be lived, and the rewards in heaven will be worth it! Let’s be great together!

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 314.

[2] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1207.

[3] Grace means God gives us what we don’t deserve. He is gracious and offers to forgive and save us forever, not because we deserve it, but because He is gracious and kind. Faith means we believe God at His word concerning our salvation. Faith does not save. Christ saves. Faith is merely the means by which we receive God’s free gift. In Christ alone means we trust in Jesus and no one else to save.

[4] Heaven is made possible by the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only Person to have ever lived a perfect life in the Father’s sight as He fulfilled the Law perfectly (Matt 5:17-18). There was no sin in Jesus (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 John 3:5). Everyone else, without exception, is guilty before God (Rom 3:10, 23). And we are helpless to save ourselves (Rom 5:6). All who trust in Him as Savior are forgiven all their sins (Eph 1:7), receive eternal life (John 10:28), and God’s gift of righteousness—His righteousness—which is imputed to them (Rom 4:4-5; Phil 3:9). At the moment we trust Christ as our Savior, we are rescued “from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14). As Christians, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). We are saved from spending eternity in the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:15).

Future Christian Rewards

Salvation is the work the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ atoning death on the cross propitiated the Father’s demands toward our sin (Rom 3:25; 1 John 2:2), and we come with the empty hands of faith, trusting in Christ alone to save us (John 3:16; 20:31 Acts 4:12). The gospel is the good news “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). Good works should follow salvation, but they are never the condition of it (Rom 4:1-5; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:5). Once saved, the Lord calls us to “be holy and blameless before Him” (Eph 1:4), and to engage in “good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10). As Christians, we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:10), for He instructs us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Tit 2:12), and to be a people “zealous for good deeds” (Tit 2:14).

Our loyal obedience to God is in appreciation for all He has done for us. It’s a “Thank You” response to His grace and goodness. As an added benefit, God promises future rewards to the Christian who walks in His will. But, to be clear, not all rewards are the same, as they are given in proportion to the life of obedience. When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount to His disciples (Matt 5:1-2), He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:11-12). A reward (Grk μισθός misthos) denotes “a recompense based upon what a person has earned and thus deserves.”[1] Though salvation is free and simple, eternal rewards are earned. A little later, Jesus explained that there will be distinctions in heaven based on the believer’s obedience or disobedience to His will, saying, “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). Being IN the kingdom of heaven connotes an end of life location, as this will be the final resting place for all believers. But the distinctions of being “least” or “great” in heaven are the result of the believer’s disobedience or obedience to God, and their instructing others to do the same.

We survived the Judgment Seat of Christ Paul taught the Christians at Corinth that we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be evaluated for our works. Paul was a “wise master builder” who shared the gospel with others and laid the foundation, which is Christ (1 Cor 3:10-11). Paul spoke of the believer who “builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw” (1 Cor 3:12). The composition of material is distinguished between what is precious and what is worthless. And a day is coming, when “each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Cor 3:13). And if the “man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward [Grk μισθός misthos]” (1 Cor 3:14), being justly compensated for his work. However, “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss [of reward]; but he himself will be saved [eternally], yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). The phrase suffer loss translates the Greek word ζημιόω zemioo, which means “to experience the loss of something, with implication of undergoing hardship or suffering, suffer damage/loss, forfeit, sustain injury.”[2] The apostle John also taught that rewards can be lost if the believer succumbs to false teachers (2 John 1:7-8).

Jesus taught that we should look to the future and think in terms of storing up rewards in heaven, saying, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:19-21). We all spend our time, efforts, and resources investing in something we consider will bring a good return on investment. Biblically, there is no greater investment to be made than learning and living God’s Word, and instructing others to do the same. The growing Christian thinks more and more about investing in God’s work, realizing he/she will receive an eternal reward from the Father.

After the Rapture of the church to heaven (John 14:1-3; 1 Cor 15:51-53; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 2 Thess 2:1-3a; Tit 2:13), believers will be judged for their works (Matt 5:12; Rom 14:10; 1 Cor 3:10-15; 2 Cor 5:10). As Christians, we are to inspect our own fruit and not the fruit of others. For this reason, Paul comments, “why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom 14:10). All Christians “must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). This judgment is not to determine who gets into heaven, for that problem has already been settled by Christ, who died in our place and bore the punishment that rightfully belongs to us. Rather, the judgment is to determine rewards for eternity. “The question is often raised how one’s sins can be forgiven and yet one’s deeds reviewed at the judgment seat of Christ. Forgiveness concerns justification; the review concerns rewards, and after the review is made there will be no sorrow or tears because there are none in heaven.”[3]

Rewards are offered by God to a believer on the basis of faithful service rendered after salvation. It is clear from Scripture that God offers to the lost salvation and for the faithful service of the saved, rewards. Often in theological thinking salvation and rewards are confused. However, these two terms must be carefully distinguished. Salvation is a free gift (John 4:10; Rom 6:23; Eph 2:8-9), whereas rewards are earned by works (Matt 10:42; cf. Luke 19:17; 1 Cor 9:24-25; 2 Tim 4:7-8). Then, too, salvation is a present possession (Luke 7:50; John 5:24). On the other hand, rewards are future attainment to be dispensed at the second coming of Christ for His own (Matt 16:27; 2 Tim 4:8). Rewards will be dispensed at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10).[4]

layingcrownathisfeet     We don’t know what many of the rewards will be. That is for Christ to determine and dispense at that time. However, we are aware of crowns that will be given to some who are faithful, such as: the imperishable crown given to those who exercise self-control in godliness (1 Cor 9:24-27), the crown of exaltation for those who bring others to Christ (1 Thes 2:19), the crown of righteousness to those who love His appearing (2 Tim 4:7-8), the crown of glory given to elders who faithfully execute their service in the church (1 Pet 5:4), and the crown of life given to those who endure testing because they love the Lord (Jam 1:12; cf. Rev 2:10). In the future, there is a heavenly description of “twenty-four elders who will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne” (Rev 4:10). These will cast their crowns as an expression of worship to the Lord, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created” (Rev 4:11). If crowns are only given to those who live righteously, then this means some will have greater capacity for worship than others, as what we give is in proportion to what we have.

This rewarding is a display of God’s righteous character, for “God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints” (Heb 6:10). As Christians, we know our “toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58), and that we will reap what has been sown during our lifetime (Gal 6:7-8). For this reason, Paul says, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal 6:9). God graciously permits us to share in His work on earth, and then rewards us for our participation. God’s rewards are a reflection of his goodness and He is pleased to give them, like He does all good things. Eternal rewards manifest His glory in our lives, and will be manifest in the Church, the Bride of Christ, at His second coming (Rev 19:8).

OT saints will be rewarded as well (Dan 12:1-3), perhaps at the Second Coming of Jesus, alongside the saints who survive the Tribulation, whose “deeds follow with them” (Rev 14:13). These are evaluated just prior to Jesus’ millennial kingdom, in which He separates the sheep from goats (Matt 25:31-46), to determine who will enter the kingdom and reign with Him (Rev 20:4-6). Whether OT or NT saints, all believers will be judged as Jesus declares, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev 22:12). Unbelievers will be judged after the millennial kingdom, but theirs is a judgment for eternal suffering (Rev 20:11-15). And it appears from certain passages in Scripture that some unbelievers will suffer more than others (Matt 10:15; 11:20-24; Luke 12:47-48; John 19:11). Since God is just, it would make sense that punishment for unbelievers would be in proportion to the degree of how sinfully they lived after rejecting the gospel.

Summary:

God has secured our salvation through the substitutionary atoning death of Christ who shed His blood at the cross and propitiated every righteous demand the Father has toward us (Rom 3:25). Having trusted Christ as Savior (John 3:16), we now have peace with God (Rom 5:1). However, after salvation, God expects us to learn His Word, live righteously (Tit 2:11-14), and encourage others to do the same (Heb 11:24-25). After the Rapture of the church (1 Thess 4:13-18), all Christians will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to be evaluated for how we lived our lives (2 Cor 5:9-10). This evaluation is not a judgment concerning the Christian’s right to enter heaven as the place of eternal residence, for Christ has secured our salvation and there is no fear of condemnation before God (John 3:18). Rather, it is a judgment concerning eternal rewards for the life we’ve lived in service to Christ (1 Cor 3:10-15). Apparently, we must stay the course in faithfulness, otherwise we run the risk of losing part of our reward (2 John 1:8). Those who learned God’s Word, lived His will, and taught others to do the same, will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. But those believers who disobeyed God’s Word and taught others to disobey as well will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:19).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Audio Lesson:

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 490.

[2] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 428.

[3] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972).

[4] Merrill F. Unger, “Rewards,” ed. R.K. Harrison, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 1080.