Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Judgment Seat of Christ

            Many times in American churches, pastors and teachers will do a series on end times, including a discussion on the judgment seat of Christ. Believers who have heard such messages recognize that the Greek word bēma is translated as “judgment seat.” Most sermons use this term to encourage serious reflection on an individual level. Since everyone will give an account before the Lord (Rom. 14:12) concerning his or her life, each individual should ensure their meeting with the Lord is not shameful. Many project this divine appointment as a giant screen that will show occasions in the individual’s life where either he disobeyed the Father or neglected an opportunity to serve. As the cowering believer watches his life replayed before his eyes, he will recognize how unfaithful he was. Once his “account” has been given to the Lord, he will be welcomed into heaven, and a joyous eternal age will begin. 
            Is that scenario a proper perspective through which to view the judgment seat of Christ? As this article examines the cultural and biblical context within which Paul was writing, the reader will notice quite a different atmosphere surrounding Christ’s bēma seat. In ancient Greek culture, a bema was a raised platform for a public official to make speeches, to render judgments, or hear legal cases. Paul himself was tried before a judgment seat. The Corinthians brought Paul before Gallio, attacking Paul's teaching on God and the law  (Acts 18:12-17).  

The bēma seat in Corinth.

            The Roman soldiers brought Jesus before Pilate’s judgment seat (Matt. 27:19). The governor rendered a judgment which released Barabbas into the crowd and crucified Jesus. Also, Herod Agrippa was struck down by the Lord while seated on his throne, which is referenced as a bēma in Acts 12:21-23. These illustrations show the influence that culture played on the biblical accounts. Many times, criminals or cases were brought before an official, and he declared the verdict.
            On the other hand, the bēma seat served as a public platform where leaders gave speeches. The elevated platform allowed for his audience to see and hear him clearly. Also, judges of the Olympic games would stand on the bēma to discern the winners of a contest. Moreover, “It was an elevated platform where victorious athletes (e.g. during the Olympics) went to receive their crowns” (MacArthur’s Study Bible, p. 1770). In this instance, no one pronounced judgment; rather, the judge awarded those who won the athletic contest. Within this cultural context, a believer can truly understand the “judgment seat of Christ.”
            Some theologians view the Judgment Seat of Christ as the same event as the Great White Throne Judgment. On the contrary, biblical timelines and the audiences of these two events do not allow for this to be the case. By looking at what will not happen at the bēma seat of Christ, one can view the distinction clearly.
            At the bēma, Christ will not divide the saved from the unsaved. Revelation 20:11-15 describe the other judgment: the Great White Throne.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

The purpose of this judgment is to condemn unsaved souls to eternal torment. The entire biblical context demonstrates that no true believer will attend this judgment.
            Therefore, the bēma seat of Christ will not distinguish between the saved and unsaved. All who are not believers will attend the Great White Throne, and therefore, only true believers will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The remaining issue concerns the purpose of this judgment. Is it only going to be a meeting of shame and accountability, displaying the missed opportunities and secret sins of an individual’s heart? Will it be a private or public meeting between Christ and believer? The following paragraphs will answer such questions.
            Those who believe the judgment seat will be a time of shame view this event as the confrontation of unconfessed sin. Christ will present certain occasions in a believer’s life in which they did not honor their Savior. Therefore, the guilt and knowledge of how they neglected His grace will leave them in despair for a time. After a while, that anguish will dissipate, and the joy of a heavenly home will be overwhelming.
            However, Colossians 2:14 states that Jesus canceled the record of debt that stood against believers. In fact, He set it aside, nailing it to the cross. A believer’s sin debt has been paid in full on the cross, leaving no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Rom. 5:1). The word tetelestai (“It has been finished”) affirmed that Christ’s sacrifice canceled the debt of all past, present, and future sins. God’s wrath towards a Christian’s sin was directed toward Christ. If the Father judged the believer at the bēma seat, His judgment would nullify the death of Christ. He would unfairly render two punishments for the same sin, which contradicts both logic and the divine character. Hebrews 10:14 supports this doctrine that Christ’s sacrifice perfected the saints for all time. No one can bring condemnation against God’s child, because he has been washed in the blood of Christ.
            Unconfessed sin does not affect eternity. Rather, 1 John simply states that if one confesses sin, he will be cleansed by the blood of Christ, and fellowship with the Father is restored. On the other hand, if one neglects confession of sin, he will lose divine fellowship, and that relationship will be hindered. Though his salvation is secure, a believer can lose fellowship with the Father on earth, which results from unconfessed sin. Concerning the judgment seat, though, unconfessed sin is not the issue.
             With all this information in mind, the reader can gain a proper perspective of the judgment seat of Christ. The two main New Testament passages which discuss this event are 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 and 1 Corinthians 3:8-15. Since verse ten of 2 Corinthians 5 is the summary verse, it is explained below. “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.” As one studies the verse by phrases, he will deduce the proper interpretation.
            We All. Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthian believers, stating that all Christians will be present at the judgment seat.
            Must Appear. This event is not optional, but Christ mandates that all believers manifest their presence before Him. This will be a time of exposure.
            Each One. Christ will not evaluate a believer based on someone else. Rather, an individual can only give an account of his personal life and the decisions he made. No one will be compared to another.
            May Receive. Mounce defines the word as “to receive, to pay back.” It can refer to one’s receiving back something that he owns, or it can be something given to someone else as payment. In this sense, an individual receives what he has earned.
            What He Has Done. The main verb of this clause is in the aorist tense, indicating no dogmatic timeframe. Rather, it speaks of a completed action, with no reference to tense. Therefore, the Christian’s life is viewed as a whole, as an event that happened, without specific references to time.
            In the Body. Literally, this phrase means “through the body,” indicating the agent used in an individual’s life to perform “what he has done.” The preceding verses (6-9) discuss the agent of the body.
            Good or Evil. The Greeks used two main words for “good,” which overlap in meaning. However, the context determines the specific meaning of this word (agathos) to be “useful.” In contrast, evil (phaulos) is only used five other times in the New Testament (Jn. 3:20; 5:29; Rom. 9:11; Tit. 2:8; Jas. 3:16). Its basic meaning is vile, or wicked, but it bears a connotation of worthless. It indicates the impossibility of producing gain in any sense. This definition fits with a proper view of 1 Cor. 3:8-15, explained in following paragraphs.
            Putting it all together, the judgment seat of Christ is where the lives of all believers will be examined for the purpose of receiving payment for their deeds, both useful and worthless works. The Lord evaluates believers for purpose of giving eternal rewards. It is not a judgment of sin; rather, the Lord compares eternal and worthwhile efforts with those of temporal value or significance. To the cynical mind, no reward can be given for a worthless or insignificant deed. That sounds like Little League sports where everyone receives a trophy regardless of their record. Now we turn to 1 Corinthians 3.
            Without examining each verse, a summary can adequately explain the passage for our purposes. Paul rebuked the church for their divisions based on distinct leaders. He concludes that God is ultimately responsible for any good that comes from human efforts. On the other hand, believers still have a responsibility to do their part in making disciples and growing the church. Paul may have laid the foundation, being the pioneer of church development, but others who come behind him are working together with him, not propagating their own movement. As each one builds on the foundation, which is Christ, he must be sure to use precious materials (i.e. worthwhile motives and deeds) as opposed to wood, hay, and straw (i.e. works of temporary significance).
            Paul’s motivation for such a passage is the Day when each one’s work is presented before the Lord. At that time, their work will be subject to purifying fire. Verse 13 says that the fire will test what sort of work each one has done, that is, the quality of their works. Once their time of testing is over, the individuals will present what is left before the Lord. Verse 15 states, “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” Because the same verse explicitly states that salvation is not the issue, a reader cannot say one will lose his or her salvation. The loss can only refer to rewards from the Lord. Therefore, one could possibly suffer loss of reward, but not salvation. (Significantly, the paragraphs after vv. 10-15 resort back to the theme of the first part of the chapter: God is in control. We are the temple of God, and each will present his work to God on an individual basis. There is no reason to boast, because all of us belong to God, and He will judge our work.)
            What does all this information mean for us today? What is the difference of perspective that these passages offer? Truly, Christians will stand before their Lord and offer an account of their lives to Him (see Rom. 14:12. However, it is interesting that the emphasis of this passage is not on “giving an account”; rather, Paul focuses on to Whom we will give the account. We should not judge one another one earth, because ultimately we must give an account to the Lord. Judging is His responsibility, not ours.) The aspect of standing before the Lord to answer for our lives can be observed from Scripture. However, motivating godly behavior on earth for fear of future shame is not biblical.
            If the reader can visualize the award ceremony of the Olympics, he can catch a glimpse of what the bēma will be. God will serve as the Judge, whose purpose is to reward those who have served Him faithfully. Once their works have been passed through the fire, and their precious materials presented to the Lord, He will reward their faithfulness. It will be a ceremony of rejoicing, where God calls His child to the platform to adorn them with crowns of victory. Scripture does not describe either the public or private nature of this event. A Christian will only be evaluated on a personal and individual basis. On the other hand, my mind picture’s a graduation ceremony, where God crowns His child, explaining to the crowd the reason for such adornment. The believer will be praised for his efforts and welcomed into his eternal home.
            Other passages of Scripture support this conclusion. Though one will not be judged for past sin, he will truly answer for his efforts on earth. However, the focus of that divine meeting will be the reception of rewards for a faithful life. 1 Corinthians 4:5 explains how Paul will be “judged” by the Lord as a steward. God will evaluate the hearts of His children, and “then each one will receive his commendation/praise from God.” Ephesians 6:8 states that whatever good anyone does will be paid back from the Lord. Psalm 62:12 says that God will repay each man according to his work based on His steadfast love (also see Job 34:11; Jer. 17:10). Isaiah 40:10 promises the coming of the Lord GOD. He will bring His reward with him, and his recompense is before Him. Jesus echoes this phrase in Rev. 22:12, in which He prophesies His coming soon. Christ will repay each man according to His works. The mindset of these passages affirms the joy behind the judgment seat for believers.
            Those who like to impose shame and guilt on this event point to 1 John 2:28. “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” Literally, this verse reads “that we may have confidence and not be embarrassed or shamed away from him at his coming.” I believe that when Christ appears, all will be taken back at His majesty, glory, and holiness. To some extent, we all will be ashamed of our foolish, human ways. On the other hand, it follows that once our work has been evaluated by fire, shame will come when we have nothing of value to present to our Lord. Embarrassment will come from offering little back to the Lord, but He will not impose shame on us because of our sin.
            Having graduated from college recently, I remember the joyous occasion well. The realization settled that I had worked to achieve a goal, and then it was accomplished. I walked across the platform with a big smile, knowing I had done well. Other classmates who did not finish the course were not pulled on stage and flogged for their failure. Any shame they received was self-inflicted because of their lack of effort. On the other hand, applause roared for those who stayed committed and received their degree.
            This article concludes with quite a different motivation than most hear from the judgment seat. I do encourage the reader to confess any “secret” sins now so fellowship can be restored with the Father. If one is not open before the Lord, he or she hurts himself. God already knows what you may have done or neglected. Strive to honor Him in word and deed every day of your life. Stay true to the course. Remain faithful to His ways. The end of the race is near, and the Judge is waiting to reward those who end well. If you float through life, treating His grace flippantly, all your works will be burned up, and you will receive no reward. Commit your heart to Him so He can use you for His purposes. Be faithful to Him. Obey Him out of a loving heart. May He look at our works and find something of value to praise.
            Now, I reference the believers who attempt to please the Lord daily. They too will stand before the Lord. As the faithful and totally surrendered are called to the platform, I believe tears of humility will form in their eyes, knowing that somehow the great God was honored by their life. They will know that their sacrifice on earth was worth the appraisal of the Almighty, and their heart will flood with joy. Divine rewards will not provoke pride or boasting in a believer’s heart. Rather, he will realize how unworthy he is to be standing next to the true God. Moreover, any reward that he receives will be cast at the feet of the Lord Jesus in striking humility. As joy fills the atmosphere, and love overwhelms our heart, may we rejoice with our Father, knowing that we did well, as a good and faithful servant.

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