The Judgment Seat of Christ
Many successful businesses engage their employees in an annual ritual known as the “year-end formal performance review.” On those occasions, a manager sits down with an employee, report in hand, and surveys the employee’s job performance over the past year. Did he meet his goals? Did he do well with the resources made available to him? What were his accomplishments? In what areas was he strong or weak? The year-end review is not only a time for the employee’s job performance to be measured against his work objectives, it is also a time for the manager to bestow praise and recognition.
In a similar but far greater way, all Christians will one day give an account of their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ. This lifetime “review” will take place at the judgment seat of Christ.
Backdrop to the Judgment Seat of Christ
In speaking of a judgment seat, the Scriptures use the Greek word bema. In its simplest usage, bema referred to a step, as in a footstep (Acts 7:5). Bema was also used to describe a raised platform from which an orator would speak to the public. Acts 12:21 records that Herod Agrippa I sat on his “throne” (bema) to deliver a speech. The Romans called the speaker’s platform a rostrum. Many major cities throughout the Roman empire patterned their centers of public gatherings and commerce after the imperial forum in Rome. Often in the middle was a bema or rostrum from which to address the crowds.
The bema was also a place to hear court cases and make legal decisions. A Roman magistrate, acting as judge, sat in a designated chair on the bema or tribunal, with the defendant and plaintiff standing before him. Paul stood before the judgment seats of Festus in Cæsarea (Acts 25) and Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12–17). Archaeologists have unearthed the bema in Corinth, and it can be seen today. In numerous places the bema was located, not in the region of the forum, but at the place where the Roman official decided to execute justice. In those cases, temporary platforms were erected with ceremonious chairs placed upon them (see Josephus, Wars 2.14.8). The most well-known biblical example of the bema is when the Lord Jesus stood before the bema of Pilate, placed in front of the Prætorium (Mt. 27:19; Jn. 19:13).
The Roman tribunal was not just a place to mete out judgment. It was also a place to distribute rewards. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Roman general Titus set up his tribunal, commended all of his troops, and rewarded those soldiers who had served with valor (Josephus, Wars 7.1.2–3).
Characteristics of the Judgment Seat of Christ
References to the judgment seat of Christ can be found in Romans 14:10–12 and 2 Corinthians 5:10. It is implied in such passages as 1 Corinthians 3:12–15; 4:1–5; and 2 Timothy 4:8. In these and other passages, certain characteristics of the judgment seat of Christ stand out.
First, the judgment seat of Christ is not a judgment of unbelievers but of believers. Paul described the person at the judgment seat of Christ as one who is saved and a brother. Second, all believers will be there. Paul said we “must” appear, a word denoting obligation and necessity. It is the same word Paul used in Acts 25:10: “I stand at Cæsar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged” (italics added). Third, although all believers will be present, this will not be a group evaluation. It will be strictly a judgment of individual believers. Fourth, the purpose of the occasion is to give an account of ourselves, but not for our sins. Because the Lord will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin (Heb. 9:28), and because our sins and iniquities He remembers no more (Heb. 10:17), God will not bring up our past sins at the judgment seat of Christ. All of our sin was judged at the cross. The judgment seat of Christ, therefore, is not a judgment to determine salvation. Rather, it is a time when, as God’s servants and stewards, we will stand before our Lord and Master and give an account of what we did with what He entrusted to us.
As is required of all stewards, the question to each of us will be, “Have you been faithful?” To answer that question, we will undergo a thorough examination focusing on “the hidden things of darkness…the counsels of the hearts” (1 Cor. 4:5). Only God can see these parts of our lives. As the one who searches the minds and hearts (Rev. 2:23), Jesus will carefully examine the motives of our earthly service when we stand before His judgment seat.
Another focus of the examination will be our deeds. Jesus promises to “give unto every one of you according to your works” (Rev. 2:23, italics added). In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul used the analogy of building materials to describe the Christian’s deeds of service. On the day of judgment, each person’s works will be subjected to a trial by fire to reveal what kind of materials they are. Christian deeds that are like gold, silver, and precious stones will survive the test and remain. The deeds that are like wood, hay, and stubble will be burned up.
Another purpose of the judgment seat of Christ will be to receive praise and rewards. This will happen only after the accounting. Continuing with Paul’s analogy of building materials, those works that survive the test will merit praise and reward. The works that do not survive will receive no rewards. Believers who suffer loss of rewards will themselves be saved, but as though through fire. The picture is of a builder who escapes his burning house made of thatch and highly combustible material. The builder survives, but his work does not.
What sort of rewards will the Lord give to us? In Paul’s day, crowns and decorations were given to athletes and soldiers. It is possible that in the spring of 51 A.D., Paul attended the Isthmian Games held every two years at a site about ten miles from Corinth. There he would have seen the winners of athletic contests receive crowns or wreaths made of withered, wild celery. Thus he could write in 1 Corinthians 9:25, “they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we, an incorruptible.” Crowns were also awarded to heroic Roman soldiers. There was the “corona obsidionalis, a grass crown given to the deliverer of a besieged army…[and] the corona civica…an oak leaf crown awarded to a soldier who saved the life of a fellow. There were also two gold crowns: the corona muralis, awarded to the first man over the wall in a siege, and the corona vallaris for the first man over the rampart during a siege” (Peter Connolly, The Roman Army, p. 68). The writers of Scripture often used the imagery of crowns to depict the believer’s rewards. There is the “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8), the “crown of life” (Jas. 1:12; Rev. 2:10), and the “crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:4). Paul described the people to whom he had ministered as his “crown” (Phil. 4:1; 1 Th. 2:19).
Some people wonder if the Lord will review our lives and distribute our rewards publicly for all to see, or if He will do it privately. If the historical function of the bema is any indication, the event will take place publicly, as was customary in ancient days. Also, Matthew 6:4, 6, and 18 speak of God rewarding “openly” that which is done in private.
The twofold purpose of the judgment seat of Christ, therefore, is to give an account of our faithfulness and to receive our rewards.
The fifth characteristic of the judgment seat of Christ concerns the judge—the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. As the judge of both the living and the dead (Acts 10:42), He alone has the final say at the final review. There will be no jury or deliberation. The ultimate verdict concerning our faithfulness will be His and His alone. Because Jesus is “the righteous judge” (2 Tim. 4:8) who, with the authority of the Father, will judge “without respect of persons” (1 Pet. 1:17; Jn. 5:26–27), we will not have to worry about receiving a fair trial.
The sixth and final characteristic of the judgment seat of Christ is the timing. Jesus said, “And, behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Rev. 22:12). Paul indicated in 1 Corinthians 4:5 that before the future time of judgment can commence, the Lord must first return. Hence, a Christian’s appearance before the judgment seat of Christ will not happen immediately after he or she dies, but upon the return of Jesus Christ for the church.
Incentives from the Judgment Seat of Christ
The truths concerning the judgment seat of Christ provide numerous incentives for Christians. One is to have honorable motives for service. Paul stated that our appearance before the judgment seat of Christ is an incentive to strive to please the Lord with our labor (2 Cor. 5:9–10). Knowing that we must all stand before the judge of the universe and give an account of ourselves is an excellent reason to live out our days in the fear or reverential awe of the Lord (1 Pet. 1:17).
The judgment seat of Christ also points up the fact that we are accountable to God for ourselves only. In the surrounding context of Romans 14:10, Paul’s objective in mentioning the judgment seat of Christ is that we will no longer judge one another. He reiterated this point in 2 Corinthians 4. As servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God, Christians are required to be found faithful. But found faithful to whom? Paul considered it a trivial matter whether he was judged by other believers or by any human court. He did not even judge himself. His own conscience did not acquit him before the judicial bench. There is only one judge—the Lord. Paul therefore commanded his readers to judge nothing before the return of Christ, at which time He alone will do the judging.
Like the Corinthians, and the Apostle Peter in John 21, it is easy to fall into the trap of comparing our ministry and its successes to someone else’s. We look at our brother and ask, “Lord, and what shall this man do?” (v. 21). Jesus’ response to Peter also applies to us: “what is that to thee? Follow thou me” (v. 22). Because all believers, being imperfect servants, will have at least some of our works burned up at the judgment seat of Christ, why be judgmental now over someone else’s faithfulness? On judgment day we will stand alone before the bema of Christ, answerable for no one but ourselves.
The judgment seat of Christ also provides incentives for our deeds. What we have actually done and accomplished in the body will be judged, not our plans or good intentions. Deeds that have value and survive the fiery examination are those performed in accordance with the Word of God, by faith, in the power of the Holy Spirit, willingly, sincerely, as to the Lord and not as to men (Eph. 6:5–8). People who strive to be men-pleasers in their service already have their reward (Mt. 6:2–6, 16–18), but their deeds will account for nothing at the judgment seat of Christ. Knowing that the true nature of our deeds will be revealed on that day, we must be careful how we build on the foundation, which is Christ (1 Cor. 3:10–11).
When the day of our final “review” comes, we will have something to which we can look forward. On that occasion “shall every man have praise of God” (1 Cor. 4:5). And that is what really matters—to hear from the lips of the Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:23).