Right in the middle of this short letter, where John’s so keen for us to beware of false teachers or ‘deceivers’(2 John 7), we have this concept of ‘reward’. Many of us would see that word as a red flag for false teaching, but this is in God’s Word, and the very next verse is about remaining ‘in the teaching of Christ’(2 John 9). So reward must be part of that teaching. This is an often neglected subject amongst reformed Christians we’d do well to consider more carefully, lest as John warns here we ‘lose’(2 John 8) out.
The false teaching addressed in John’s letter was not about reward, rather ‘those who don’t confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh’(2 John 7) and other associated issues. Such ideas are not particularly a problem today, but misunderstandings about reward are, which is why its mention might surprise us. That’s because over the centuries the spiritually deadly dangerous idea has arisen that entry into eternity is a reward for being good (obeying God’s laws). That’s certainly not consistent with remaining ‘in the teaching of Christ’. We are ‘“not justified [regarded as righteous or good] by the works of the law”’(Galatians 2:16). Besides, ‘all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God’(Romans 3:23), so our hope can’t rest on our own merits, since nothing sinful will ‘enter into’(Revelation 21:27) the presence of God in eternity. No, as the above verses continue, we’re justified ‘“through faith in Jesus Christ”’(Galatians 2:16), ‘freely by his grace [unmerited favour] through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’(Romans 3:24). The apostle John quotes Jesus teaching the same thing: ‘“he who hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life”’(John 5:24).
So how does this teaching about reward fit in? Partly ‘reward’ can refer simply to eternity with God in heavenly glory, which as above is entirely free and by grace, through faith. That’s possibly what John’s referring to here, but the idea that we might not ‘receive a full reward’(2 John 8) hints at something variable, which other scriptures appear to teach as well. Most obviously it’s found literally ‘in the teaching of Christ’, exactly where John is so keen for us to remain. Jesus said that he would ‘“render to everyone according to his deeds”’(Matthew 16:27), and likewise after His resurrection said to John ‘“My reward is with me, to repay to each man according to his work”’(Revelation 22:12). Yes, Jesus did say ‘“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”’(John 6:29), but there He was talking about ‘“eternal life”’(John 6:40), i.e. salvation, not specific rewards. Even in His sermon on the mount Jesus taught ‘“lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”’(Matthew 6:20), which the apostle Paul repeats, reminding Timothy that those who employ their worldly resources wisely would, ‘store for themselves’(1 Timothy 6:19) in eternity, a bit like in Jesus’ parable of the ‘“mina coins”’(Luke 19:13) too. Likewise Paul teaches that we can suffer relative loss of potential reward separate from salvation: ‘If any man’s work remains which he built on it [the foundation of Christ], he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned [in the judgement], he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved’(1 Corinthians 3:14-15).
So what form will this reward take? Perhaps in large part it will be the joy of receiving ‘praise from God’(1 Corinthians 4:5) no less, rather like at the end of the parable of the minas, ‘“‘Well done’”’(Luke 19:17), but note that’s followed by reward in proportion to gifts diligently employed. It’s important to realise though, as Luke records earlier, ‘“to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked”’(Luke 12:48). Also, as would be expected, this judgement is penetrating beyond mere results too, assessing our ‘hearts’(1 Corinthians 4:5), such that labour done ‘heartily, as for the Lord… will receive the reward’(Colossians 3:23-24). So what’s rewarded is quite wide in its scope, but generally comprises things in line with John’s, ‘love… walk according to his commandments’(2 John 6) recorded in this letter, something apparently lacking in the ‘deceivers’(2 John 7), as in 1 John. Some specific examples of things that God rewards are evangelism and teaching, since ‘he who plants and he who waters are the same, but each will receive his own reward according to his own labour’(1 Corinthians 3:8), selfless sharing ‘“repaid in the resurrection of the righteous”’(Luke 14:14), loving ‘“enemies… and your reward will be great”’(Luke 6:35), and reward for ‘“merciful deeds”’(Matthew 6:4) plus other ‘“secret”’(Matthew 6:4,6&18) practices, which perhaps is how we should approach this delicate subject, in humility.