But... There's a significant theme in the Bible of men being so full of love for God, so saturated with appreciation of His character, that they were willing to serve Him with no expectation of reward in this life. For such men, the paradox we are discussing would have caused no lasting difficulty. Those unnamed, unknown believers who in Old Testament times castrated themselves for the sake of the Truth were in this category (Mt. 19:12). They served God, expecting nothing from Him now. And our Lord was the same. “For the joy set before Him He endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2) may seem on first reading to mean that He did serve for a reward. Until we understand that the Greek word anti translated “for” really means ‘in place of’. With evident reference to the wilderness temptation to take the Kingdom joys without the cross, the writer is making the point that instead of the joy that the tempter of His own flesh set before Him, He endured the cross. Consider just a few more examples of selflessness:
- The satan in the book of Job expresses his serious doubt that any man would serve God for no prospect of reward in this life (Job 1:9) (1). One of the themes of the book of Job is to show how a real believer will serve God for nothing. In fact, Job went beyond this. He says that he will still serve God even if he gets nothing from Him in this life and even if there is no future reward either, and even if God treats Him unfairly; 'Even if', Job speculates, 'God slays me (not just 'kills' me)' (consider Job 13:15; 14:7,14; 19:10). This was love of God, this was devotion to ones' creator, despite not understanding His ways. In Malachi's time, the Jews were expecting a reward from God for every little thing they did. They are rebuked in language which is full of allusion back to Job, and his willingness to serve God " for nought" (Mal. 1:10).
- Moses reached a similar height, being one of the foremost Old Testament examples of selflessness. He was willing to give both his physical and eternal life for the salvation of Israel (Ex. 32:29-32), that God's Name might be upheld. He so loved and respected God's character, His personality (all bound up in His Name) that he was willing to forego all personal blessings, even life itself, just because of the wonder of God. A less spiritually mature Moses had been motivated 40 years earlier by his respect of the recompense of the reward (Heb. 11:26). But now his motive is the glory of God's Name. Personal possession of the Kingdom is held up as a motivator in our lives; but surely, like Moses, we ought to progress towards a desire to see the achievement of God's glory, rather than being obsessed with personally finding our place in the political Kingdom
- Ittai was a mercenary, and David therefore told him his services were no longer needed now that he had been deposed from being king and was facing extinction. But despite David’s apparently hopeless cause at the time, Ittai replied: “Surely in what place my Lord the king shall be, whether in death or life, even there also will thy servant be”.
- The Levites were likewise taught that the fact they were so close to God, that they were honoured with the call to daily do His work, was more than enough to compensate for the fact that they were left out of the physical blessings of inheritance in the land of Canaan. And the Levites are types of us (1 Pet. 2:5). They were to be examples of selflessness to the whole nation.
- Job at times expressed a total lack of hope in a resurrection (Job 14:14)- and yet he still continued to serve God, because he loved Him.
- Gentile Ruth came to love, really love, the God of Israel. She willingly decided to forego re-marriage after her husband died for the wonder of the fact she had been allowed in to the commonwealth of Israel. As it happened, this is a story with a happy ending. But she was prepared for it not to be.
- Jesus told Martha that if she believed in Him, she would have eternal life. She responded simply: “I believe” (Jn. 11:26,27). She didn’t go on to talk about the promised ‘carrot’ of eternal life.
- There is a connection between Lk. 14:13 and 21. “When thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind…for they cannot recompense thee”. Yet this is exactly what the parable of v. 21 teaches that God does: “Bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind”. The basis of God’s calling of us must be the basis upon which we relate to others. We cannot recompense Him, yet He shows us His gracious invitation. So we too must share ourselves with those who cannot give us anything. In this sense, we like our Father, serve for nothing in the sense of no personal, concrete gain. We must be gracious by nature, and just be as He is.
- David felt that the wonder of having God's word meant that the presence or absence of physical blessings in his life was irrelevant (Ps. 119: 72,111).
- The mother of James and John wanted them to have great reward in the Kingdom. The Lord’s basic answer was: ‘Take up my cross, follow my example, focused as it is on getting others to the Kingdom’ (Mt. 20:21,27,28). They were to be to others examples of selflessness.
- Paul quotes the words of Prov. 25:21,22 in Rom. 12:20: " If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat...for thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head" . But he omits to apply the last part of Prov. 25:22 to us: " And the Lord shall reward thee" . Paul's point is that we should not resist evil, leave God to glorify His Name- and enable this to happen, without seeking for a personal reward for our righteousness.
- Elijah had to pray daily for the lack of bread and water in Israel (so 1 Kings 17:1 implies). He suffered himself because of this. He was prepared to forego quite legitimate blessings in order to lead an apostate ecclesia back to God.
- The widow woman prepared to die. The tragedy of that gaunt woman touches me deeply. I imagine her tidying the house, and then walking out into the blazing heat to gather sticks. But she gave her last bit to God's man Elijah; not, it seems, with any hope of getting out of her plight. She gave of her very last, her best, her all, not expecting anything back. Another widow, centuries later, threw her two mites into the collection bag of a fabulously rich, doctrinally corrupt, hypocritical ecclesia. The implication is that she died even more pathetically, perhaps tossed onto Gehenna with the starving cats. There seems to have been no happy ending- in this life. And she absolutely understood that.
- One of the thieves begged the Lord: “Save thyself and us”. The other didn’t agree; he focused instead on the righteousness of the Lord and his own unworthiness, and asked only to be remembered for good. ‘Save me’ wasn’t upmost in his mind.
- In the parable of the labourers, the hard, all day workers came expecting their pay; they were sent away, it could be, in rejection. But those whom the parable appears to commend worked having made no agreement nor mention of the reward they would receive.
- James and John clamoured for a reward in the Kingdom. They were told instead to go away and serve; this was what it was all about, being the minister of others, serving for nothing- not badgering the Lord for a reward in the Kingdom (Mt. 20:20-26).
- Paul seems to exalt in the fact that his "reward" or wage for preaching the Gospel is in fact not to have any wage or reward (1 Cor. 9:18). Having this attitude to the work of witness will mean that we will never suffer from deep disappointment with lack of response, gratitude or recognition for our work.
- Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were examples of selflessness. They told Nebuchadnezzar that they were confident that Yahweh would save them from the furnace. " But even if He does not, we want you to know, O King, that we will not serve your gods" (Dan. 3:18 NIV). Even if God didn't preserve them, they would still serve Him alone. Perhaps they had Job's words going round in their minds: " Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him" .
- Perhaps the twelve had the same sense. When the Lord spoke of going to Lazarus, they thought He was going to commit suicide. They hoped He would redeem Israel in glory, there and then. But such was their devotion to Him as their Saviour, even though they didn't understand how He was going to work it out, that Thomas solemnly ordered them, as they huddled together out of the Lord's earshot: " Let us also go, that we may die with him" (Jn. 11:16). I imagine dear Peter solemnly nodding in agreement, thinking of his wife and dear children back in that fisherman's cottage. But he was serving for nothing, for sheer love of his Lord. And he was prepared to die for Him, even if it meant receiving nothing of the present benefits he thought Jesus of Nazareth might bring for him. And yet the Lord demands such devotion from all of us. The tired servant can labour all day for Him, but immediately he returns, the Lord expects him to immediately prepare a meal, and doesn't expect to thank us. As it happens, He elsewhere intimated that He will praise us at the judgment, He Himself will serve us (Lk. 12:37). But the attitude of serving for nothing, for no thanks even, must be with us now, in this life.
- Abraham was told to leave Ur and all he had there, and journey to a land he would be shown. Trying to keep up a sense of eagerness and hope for the new life, he made tremendous sacrifices, and journeyed to Canaan. When he finally got there, he didn’t realize he’d arrived. Then the Lord appeared to him and said that to his seed He would give this land (Gen. 12:1,7). To the human mind, this would have been a huge blow. He had given up all in the hope of a new life and inheritance, and now he is told that someone called his “seed” would inherit it. His response was to build an altar and worship, realizing he had served for nothing personally in this life, but with his mind filled with the glory and Kingdom of Christ, his future seed. God was so delighted with this attitude that later promises included Abraham personally, showing that because of his part in Christ, the seed, he would in fact personally have an inheritance too.
- The righteous gave to the poor, the sick, the hungry- without even realizing they had done it. They will confidently deny it when Jesus points it all out to them. They served with no expectation of reward; so much so that they even forgot what they did. And every one who is accepted at the judgment will have been like that (Mt. 25:36). Giving without any thought of getting anything back is a must for all of us who seek to truly manifest God: for this is exactly what He does and has done, minute by minute, down through the millennia of indifferent, unresponsive human history (Lk. 6:35,36).
Above all, in my opinion, Habakkuk battled with the problem of God's policy of giving blessings. He sees that the righteous examples of selflessness in Israel were not being given the physical blessings promised to the righteous. Yet he concludes his prophecy with a personal burst of praise and devotion to his God. He speaks of the things which God had promised to bless righteous Israelites with, and which He had threatened to withhold from those who were wicked. He says that even though he, as a righteous man, is being given the curses of the wicked, and is not being given the promised blessings, yet he still loves God more and more. " Although:
1) the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines (cp. Dt. 8:8; Ps. 105:33; Joel 1:7; Mic. 4:4 and especially Jer. 8:13);
2) the (promised fruit) of the olive shall (turn out to be a lie; AVmg. with Heb.), and
3) the fields shall yield no meat (cp. Dt. 28:3; 32:32; Lev. 26:4);
4) the flock shall be cut off from the fold (cp. Dt. 28:4,18; Is. 65:10; Zeph. 2:6), and
5) there shall be no herd in the stalls:
yet (despite all this confusion) I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He will make my feet like hinds' feet, and He will make me to walk upon mine high places" (Hab. 3:17-19).
But above all these human examples, the life and cross of the Lord Jesus was the supreme example of serving for nothing in this life. He was the good shepherd who wasn't interested in wages or His own personal escape from violent death, but only the salvation of His beloved sheep (Jn. 10:12). He did not conceive the equality with God with which He would be rewarded as " booty" (Gk.). something to be grasped for: instead, He concentrated on being a humble servant, working to bring about the salvation of others (Phil. 2). This sense of working for God's glory must really permeate our thinking. Consider Prov. 25:21,22: " If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat...for thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee" . This passage is quoted in Rom. 12:20, but with the pointed omission of the last clause: " The Lord shall reward thee" . It's as if Paul is saying: 'The condemnation of the wicked, when God, not you, pours out His vengeance, will glorify Him. So do your part to bring this about, don't worry about the reward you're promised so much as the bringing about of His glory'.
(1) My own conviction is that the satan refers to a righteous Angel and the human believer which that Angel represented. Whoever 'satan' was, he was a believer, and he says nothing that is wrong- when you analyze his few words carefully. So perhaps even Angels find it hard to accept that a man will love God for nothing in this life.