The Judgment Seat of Christ
by Mark Sweetnam, Truth & Tidings May 2013
Scripture is packed with promises. Both the first and the last of these promises speak of the coming of Christ. In Genesis 3, it is His first coming to break Satan’s dominion that is in view. His return for His own is promised three times over in the closing chapter of the Bible. Both the imminence and the implications of this glorious event are stressed. Three times the Savior promises “I come quickly” (vv 7, 12, 20), and on each occasion the verb is in the present tense. “Behold I am coming quickly,” says the Lord Jesus. “Surely I am coming quickly.”
At the close of a book that speaks of cataclysmic judgment, this threefold promise is a powerful consolation. But with its consolation comes a challenge, for the return of Christ has important implications for every believer: “My reward is with Me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (v12). The Savior is coming back, not just to rapture and rescue His own, but to review and reward their service. The Rapture will mark the commencement of two parallel series of events. On earth, the day of the Lord will begin, and the horrors of the tribulation will fall upon the nations. At the same time, in the heavenly sphere, the day of Christ will begin. In contrast to the day of the Lord, it will be a time of glorification and rejoicing, but it begins with the evaluation of the service of each believer.
This event is described in Romans 14:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 as ’”the judgment seat of Christ,” and in both these passages the term “judgment seat” translates the Greek word bema. At the time Paul wrote, the term had come to be used for the raised official seat on which a magistrate or judge sat, but its original use referred to the raised platform where officials at the Greek games presided and where prizes were awarded.
Revelation 22:12 indicates that the review of our service is personal. It is personal, first of all, for it is Christ Who will judge. “I come quickly … My reward is with Me.” The same truth is emphasized by the fact that both references to the bema describe it as the judgment seat of Christ. Romans 14:4 explains the importance of this: “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth.” Every believer is Christ’s servant, and this should make us very cautious about attempting to assess the service of others. But it is also important that we remember that our service is for Christ. We cannot be carelessly dismissive of the input and advice of other believers, but ultimately we do not answer to them, but to Christ. To serve for the plaudits of men is wrong, so is a failure to serve lest we suffer criticism. Christ has redeemed us that we might serve Him and our only concern should be that He is satisfied with that service. This should be the priority of our lives, as it was of the apostle’s. “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but He that judgeth me is the Lord” (1Cor 4:3-4).
The review at the judgment seat is also personal in the sense that it will affect each believer. No one will be exempt: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2Cor 5:10). Service for God is not an option, limited to a select cadre of believers. It is the privilege, as well as the responsibility, of every Christian. And God notes all service, however humble it may seem to us, and will ensure that all that is done for Him, in accordance with His will, shall have its reward.
The probing investigation of the bema will focus on service: “to give every man according as his work shall be.” Our sins will not be in question. Christ has borne the punishment they deserved, and on the basis of His work, God has promised that their “sins and their iniquities will [He] remember no more” (Heb 8:12). But our work for Christ will be thoroughly tested.
The quality of our service will be tested. “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (1 Cor 3:13). Gold, silver, and precious stones will retain their value in this test. That which was costly, that which required careful effort and laborious mining will prove its enduring worth. That which was simple bulk, which cost little, and lay convenient to hand will vanish, meriting no reward.
Our faithfulness to God’s Word will be tested. 1 Corinthians 3 demonstrates that service of lasting value must be built on the foundation, and must contribute to the growth and development of the local assembly. Energy and effort expended in other spheres find no mention here. Similarly, 2 Timothy 2:5 reminds us that “If a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully.” The solemn reality is that God will only reward service that is in accordance with His will. If I wish to ensure that the sacrifice of my time, skills, and abilities will result in eternal reward, I would do well to pour my endeavor into the work of the assembly, and not dissipate it in efforts that do not enjoy Scriptural sanction.
The motives behind our service will also be laid bare as Christ “will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts” (1Cor 4:5). This is searching. How often do we do the right thing for the wrong reason? At times we can scarcely account for our own motives, and it is folly to try to judge the motives of others. In that day, all this will be laid bare, and Christ’s evaluation will be incontestable in its accuracy.
This evaluation will have one of two results. The first possibility is that the believer could “suffer loss” (1Cor 3:15). How solemn to see a whole life go up in flames, to realize that we have wasted our time, our gifts, and our talents, and to find ourselves standing before Christ, with empty hands because we never took care to fill them. But for all that endures there will be reward. Scripture speaks of the crowns that will be given for self-discipline (1Cor 9:25), stewardship (2Tim 4:8), shepherding (1Peter 5:4), soul-winning (Phil 4:1, 1 Thes 2:19), and enduring temptation and tribulation (James 1:12, Rev 2:10). What joy it will be to receive an incorruptible crown from the nail-pierced hands of our Savior, and to hear “well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21). And what an inexpressible privilege it will be to take whatever crowns we have been able to obtain by God’s grace and to cast them at our Savior’s feet, confessing “Thou art worthy, O Lord” (Rev 4:11). What sacrifice will then seem too great, what service too demanding? May God give us grace to live in the light of that day, and to serve Him “acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb 12:28).