There’s so much that could be said and should be said, can be said on an occasion like this. I want to direct our thoughts to perhaps a passage of Scripture you might not associate with this kind of charge. If you have a Bible and you want to look at the passage, you can open your Bible to Matthew chapter 20. Matthew chapter 20. I think we all understand well that a feature that God has built into all of human life is effort-and-reward - effort-and-reward. For work, there is a payoff; for hard work, there’s a bigger payoff; for excellent work, there’s an even bigger payoff.
This is an important matter to consider in ministry because it’s very basic to being human, and it can easily become very carnal. You can go into the ministry with the expectation of an immediate payoff, present payoff. When it doesn’t come, discouragement sets in, competitive attitudes rise, and you begin to prostitute your ministry to create your own success.
We have to remind ourselves that we’re not running to obtain a corruptible crown, and we want to make sure we understand that the payoff is eternal. We’re looking for an incorruptible crown, the reward laid up in heaven for us. That’s what motivates us to endure the relentless challenges and hardships of ministry, preaching, teaching, shepherding, and all the rest that goes with it.
So how are we to understand our eternal reward so that we can maintain a pure view that makes our efforts here maximum without necessarily an immediate payoff? I want you to look at the end of chapter 19 of Matthew for just a moment, and this may be able to establish the context of chapter 20, and you’ll see how it fits. “Peter said to Him” - to Jesus, verse 27 - “‘Behold, we’ve left everything and followed you. What then will there be for us?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, you who have followed me in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’”
Now, friends, that is a deferred payoff. They’ve been dead two thousand years and in heaven and it hasn’t happened. Our Lord is talking about the marvelous elevation that they will experience in the millennial reign of Christ.
Verse 29. Everyone broadening it, not only to those who have followed Christ in terms of ministry but everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for my namesake will receive many times as much and will inherit what? Eternal life. Another deferred promise.
They had just seen the rich young ruler reject the Lord, reject the offer of salvation, walk away from it, unwilling to sacrifice his self-righteous reputation, which had elevated him to a synagogue ruler’s position, unwilling to give up his riches for the Lord Jesus, and coming off of that, they looked at themselves and said, “But what he wouldn’t do, we did. We’re here. We have forsaken everything. We have dropped our lives, our nets, left our boats, our careers, our tax franchises, everything. We’ve admitted our spiritual need. We’ve admitted our spiritual bankruptcy.
“We have believed in the gospel that Jesus preaches. We have sought forgiveness. We have recognized our spiritual poverty. We’re the Beatitude group and we have followed Jesus, and now we are totally dependent on charity. We have forsaken the normal means of making a living, and we have borne the reproach of Christ, and we have considered it as something that is greater in wealth than even the riches that Moses had. We have followed the One of whom it is said that He had nowhere to lay His head.”
They did it, but let’s be honest, they did it looking for a payoff. There’s no question about that. They expected something in return. They expected kingdom glory. They expected to be elevated with the Messiah. Some of them even expected to get the spots on His right and left hand. And it wasn’t happening. The sacrifices were increasingly greater, and the payoff just wasn’t visible.
And so the question is a fair question: What’s in this for us? It is a human question, it is an ignorant question, and it is fraught with carnality. How are we to view what we do? We’ve made the sacrifice, you’ve made the sacrifices, how are you to view this matter of payoff?
Well, to help us with that, Jesus speaks in verse 30 - and follow as I read. “Many who are first will be last and the last first, for the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into is vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard and whatever is right I will give you,’ and so they went.
“Again he went out about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour, he went out and found others standing around and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ And they said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ But he said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard, too.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers, pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’
“When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These men have worked only one hour and you’ve made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’
“But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go. But I wish to give to this last man the same as to you, is it not lawful for me to do what I wished with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ So, the last shall be first and the first, last.”
Now, breaking this down a little bit homiletically for you, you have here a proverb, a parable, the point, and some principles. There’s a proverb, and it’s in verse 30 of chapter 19 and it’s in verse 16 of chapter 20, and it brackets the story. The proverb is, “But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” It is a maxim. It is a self-evident statement, a short popular saying of ancient or unknown origin expressing some matter of wisdom.
Well, what does it mean to say the last shall be first and the first shall be last? It means everybody ends up the same. If you’re first and you’re last, and the other man is last and made first, it’s a dead heat. The point that our Lord is making is that all believers are equally given the blessedness of present grace, future glory. We all receive that. We will all live in the Father’s house. Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you.”
We will all be part of the bride of the bridegroom, espoused to Christ and one day wed to Him in eternal glory. We will all become joint heirs with Christ. There is no distinction. We are all set for the same glorious eternal reward.
Galatians 3:26, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There’s neither Jew nor Greek, there’s neither slave nor free man, there’s neither male nor female. You are all one in Christ Jesus.” You’re all one, there are no distinctions. In fact, it’s an elevated one, at that. Matthew 11:11 says, “The least in the kingdom is greater than the greatest of the prophets; namely, John the Baptist.” How is it that we are all so great? Because according to 1 John 3, we will all be like Christ when we see Him as He is, right?
Now, this passage is given directly to the disciples who are asking the question: What’s the payoff for this sacrifice? What do I get out of this? And the answer is: You get what everybody else gets, you get eternal life. That’s what you get.
And the principles that unfold in this really amazing story clearly are principles that we see connected to the great realities of salvation. Think about the story. Here are some of the principles to think about that make up the elements of this parable. The point is clear, everybody gets the same. That’s what the parable proves. But the principles that are tucked into this are so rich.
Number one, God initiates salvation sovereignly. In the story, the landowner went into the marketplace of man to seek those that he desired to have to come and serve in his kingdom. It reminds me of John 15:16, “You’ve not chosen me, but I’ve chosen you.” And the landowner also established the terms, he set the price. He told what he would offer and asked who would accept that. It was a denarius. He set the price, they agreed to the price. Unlike the rich young ruler, when our Lord established what was required of him, he was unwilling.
But these people weren’t rich. These people were poor. These people were in need. These people were desperate. And when the conditions are set for true believers and the conditions are serious conditions (such as deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me), it’s the desperate and the truly penitent that eagerly embrace those conditions. So God initiates salvation sovereignly. God establishes the terms and those in need embrace those terms.
Another principle that you see here is God continues to call men into His kingdom. It stretches out over the day, which is a picture of God continuing the work of redemption, saving people and calling them into His kingdom. Kind of reminds me of John 9:4, “Work the works of God while it is day, for the night comes when no man works.” This is the day, and the Lord is still calling people into His kingdom. He’s still redeeming those who are willing. He’s still redeeming those who respond.
Another principle that comes out of this parable is that all who came into the vineyard worked. There were no freeloaders, there were no deadbeats. Faith without works isn’t the real thing, right? By their fruits you will know them.
Another principle that you see here is that God has the sovereign authority and ability to keep His promise. When He says He’s going to give you the payoff promised, He will do that. This is a story about God keeping His Word. He will give the sinner exactly what He promised the sinner, and the sinner in his desperate situation wasn’t in a position to negotiate.
Furthermore, built into the story is the reality that God gives us more than we deserve because a denarius was more pay than a day worker normally received. But even beyond that, those who worked one hour got the full denarius, along with those who had worked the entire day. The later groups demonstrate that God is generous and gracious and gives the same fulfilled promise to all who come to Him.
Another principle that rises out of the parable is the humility or a sense of unworthiness is the only right attitude. The landowner says to the people who are complaining about the fact that they didn’t get what they thought they should have gotten that there’s no place for jealousy, there’s no place for competition, there’s no place for thinking you deserve any more than you received. The truth of the matter is, nobody deserves anything at all. It’s all of grace. It’s all of grace.
And there’s another component - and this, I think, is the principle that strikes me most, and I draw to your attention all eternal reward is by grace, so length and difficulty of service is no factor in this story. Works are irrelevant in the matter of eternal life, are they not? You don’t earn it - you don’t earn it.
So the first answer to the payoff question (What is going to be the payoff for my life of ministry and service to Jesus Christ?), it is this: It’s the same payoff that every person who’s ever come to Christ receives, eternal life. And when you think you deserve more, you better come back to seminary and take theology all over again because you missed it.
Divine sovereign grace is what puts us in the ministry. It’s what takes us to heavenly glory, and it is far more than we deserve. God is gracious and gives eternal life to the person who serves Him for 70 years. God is gracious and gives eternal life to the person who meets Him on a death bed. God is gracious and gives eternal life to a stumbling, bumbling Christian, sitting in a church where he never hears anything that helps his spiritual life, struggling to overcome sin. And God gives the same eternal life to a mature, godly, sanctified, faithful creature and teacher of the Word of God.
God gives the same eternal life to somebody who’s never led anybody to Christ. God gives the same eternal life to someone who has led multitudes to faith in Christ. That’s where you start when you ask the question, What’s the payoff? The payoff, men, is you have eternal life.
You say, “Is that all there is?” No - no. I want to show you one other passage. First Corinthians chapter 4. I’m not saying there are no rewards, I’m simply saying don’t lose sight of what the real reward is, the big one. But in 1 Corinthians chapter 4, verse 1 and following, the Bible directs our attention to the fact that there will be specific rewards for our ministries. And so we read, “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
“In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy, but to me, it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even examine myself.”
Bottom line, the question of honor in heaven can’t be decided here - cannot be decided here. Can’t be decided by men, good-intentioned men. Can’t be decided by a seminary faculty. It can’t be decided by a denomination. It can’t be decided by an institution. It can’t be decided by a congregation. It is a very small thing to be examined by people. It is very insignificant to be rendered valuable, honorable by a human court. And beyond that, Paul says, “I don’t even examine myself. I’m not even objective, for I am conscious of nothing against myself” - verse 4 - “yet I’m not by this acquitted.”
The question of honor will not be decided by anyone here. Won’t be decided by any church you pastor or any body of people. It won’t be decided by your peers. It won’t be decided by the seminary watching you over the next few years. It won’t be decided by your friends, your family. It won’t be decided in this world. It won’t even be decided by you.
The question of honor will be decided by the Lord. Verse 5, “Therefore, do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait - wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motive of men’s hearts.”
You know what your reward is going to be based on? Motivation - motivation. Not the number of people who come to Christ; you’re not in charge of that, right? Who’s in charge of that? God’s in charge of that. Not the number of people in your building, not your fame. Rewards are connected to motivation. What drove you? Pride? Desire for success? Fame? To please men? Only God knows what is hidden in the darkness. Only God knows the motives of men’s hearts. And He will be the one who will disclose all of that, and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.
Yes, there is a common reward, there’s a common payoff and that’s eternal life. But there’s an “each man” payoff as well. And the “each man” payoff will be discerned by the only one who can discern motivation, why you do what you do. We all understand what the right motives are, don’t we? The honor of Christ, the glory of God, the love of the truth, the love of the saints.
So you men are embarking now on a life of sacrificial service. You’re standing there with Peter and the rest of the disciples for whom Peter speaks and you’re asking the question. What’s going to be the payoff for me? And the answer to that question is, for every one of you (because I assume that you’re in Christ), the payoff is eternal life, and it’s deferred for a long time. Beyond that, which is true of all of us, there’s an “each man” reward which the Lord will give you, and it comes in the form of praise from Him. But only He knows what it is, and it’s not tied to anything that can be seen, it is tied to what cannot be seen, and that’s your heart and why you do what you do.
And that’s what God will honor and that’s what God will reward in the glories of heaven. So live your life focused on the inside, and let that glorious day when you receive praise from Christ take the place of any carnal longings for anything in this world
Our Father, we thank you for the way in which the Word of God calls us to humility.
We, like all the rest of the believers before us, live with deferred gratification.
We serve with a promised reward that we won’t even see until our service is finished, a reward that we won’t even know until secrets of our hearts are revealed, secrets which others don’t know and which we ourselves can’t even discern.
Lord, I pray that you’ll give these men that future vision to give their lives faithfully, wherever they are, with pure, holy motives that will be rewarded with praise from the One we serve, even our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
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