If you had to ask me at age five what my favorite Bible story was, I’d have easily chosen the account of the Little Drummer Boy.
What’s not to love? A young, impoverished vagabond (no parents are mentioned) follows the Magi to a cozy stable, only to discover that he is the only one who arrives without a gift to bring—at least not one fit for a king. But wait, he has something just as valuable as gold and frankincense: he has his talent. With Mary’s nod of permission and jazz-loving livestock keeping time, he plays his little heart out to an appreciative baby Jesus who smiled at him… he and his drum.
I resonated with the kid’s desire to please God, and empathized with the feeling of inadequacy to do so as well as others, which is why I warmed to the idea that God didn’t expect me to be great, wise, rich, or from the Orient, he just wanted me to do what I could to the best of my ability and for his glory. I can do that!
You can imagine my disillusionment when I discovered (at an age I’m not comfortable admitting here) that the whole narrative was purely apocryphal.
In hindsight it seems pretty obvious. No moms like little drummer boys in earshot of an infant. Also, newborns don’t smile, and oxen get skittish around rapping snare drums.
It was bad enough being lied to about Santa and being gypped out of a white Christmas in sunny South Africa, but learning that neither the prescient wise men nor my favorite prodigious percussionist were present at the stable on that silent night caused a minor existential crisis for me.
The absence of that little boy left a drum-shaped gap in my nascent theology: what did I have to offer the King of Kings, if not my talents?
Later in life, however, I recovered my appreciation for the theology in that story. So what if the account is as real as a red-nosed reindeer? The same doctrine is proclaimed in every book of the Bible. I found the void in my theology filled amply when in seminary I did a thesis on eternal rewards in the afterlife for Christians, which I later turned into a book, The Preacher’s Payday: How Faithfulness Echoes in Eternity (because the publisher wouldn’t have approved the title Lessons from a Little Drummer Boy).
In this study I found the doctrine of eternal rewards for faithfulness hinted at in skeletal form in the Old Testament (notably by Job and David) and fleshed out with much meat in the New Testament.
Here are a few of the plethora of proof texts that show God doesn’t desire us to compete with each other, but simply to be faithful with what he has entrusted to us:
Matthew 25:20-21 ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
Luke 19:15-17…26 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ … ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
1 Cor 3:10-14 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, …Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
1 Cor 4:2-5 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. … Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
2 Cor 5:9-10 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
There are way too many other juicy texts to list here. They are ubiquitous, as are references to the doctrine in the journals of many great saints. Eternal reward is the biblical teaching that inspired George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, many Puritan martyrs, and countless missionaries—time would fail to mention Brainerd and Hudson and Paton—who all acknowledged the role of this encouraging doctrine in their ministries.
We don’t need a poignant narrative with a theme song to exegete in order to acknowledge and appreciate this fascinating truth. The Bible is clear that God truly does reward, or “smile at me” when I am faithful with what I have to offer him. That the finest gifts others bring are not the standard I’m compared to. And that I get joy and he gets glory when I play my best for him, pa rumpa pumpum.