At The Judgment Seat
Each of us will stand before Christ one day. What will He say to you?
by Mark R. Littleton
Suddenly it’s your turn. The Judge beckons. Every eye fixes on you as you climb the steps to the platform.
When you reach the top, you gaze around at the throng. They’re all there—family, friends, acquaintances, people you told the Story to, converts, students, the little girl you gave the cup of water to that day (you’d forgotten about her). And there are others— Luther, Calvin, Paul, Peter, Daniel, David. Oh, and there’s that fellow you helped fix the flat once, and the lady whose lawn you mowed as a teenager. Billions watching, and not a single bad seat!
Then you turn and look into His eyes. They are at once stern and kind, compassionate and utterly true. Your heart pounds. Yet you have no fear. He loves me. But what will He say?
For everyone the judgment has been unique. He’s spoken kindly, yet grandly. How could He say so much and never repeat Himself? How could He show so many seemingly inconsequential deeds to be so wonderful?
Why is He doing this for me? I didn’t do anything. Not like the martyrs, not like Luther, not like…. But He thinks otherwise. What historians recorded is meaningless now. What counts is what He remembers. He sets each deed in its true light.
But what’s He going to say about me?
Hush. He holds up His hand. He stands. He looks into your eyes one more time. He speaks….
THE JUDGMENT SEAT
One day each of us will appear before Christ’s judgment seat. What will it be like? Will God play back our lives in panavision for all to see? Will our sins and mistakes come onto the screen? Will some people laugh? I don’t know. My scenario above may not be accurate—Scripture doesn’t offer us a detailed portrait. But one fact is sure: We’ll all be there.
The words “judgment seat” translate the Greek word bema. That word referred to a raised platform on which a ruler, governor, judge, or military officer sat to address a crowd, to grant awards, or to render a verdict.
It was used of Pilate’s judgment seat before which Jesus was brought (Mt. 27:19). Herod Agrippa sat on a bema to decide an issue with several groups of citizens (Acts 12:21). Gallio also sat on a bema when the Jews dragged Paul before him (Acts 18:12). In each case, the judgment seat was a place where a case was heard and an authority made a judgment.
In the Roman court system the bema was a common sight. In the early days of Rome, Urbanus sat in a corner of the Roman Forum dispensing justice to hagglers, criminals, disputers, and whoever else would come. During Paul’s day the porches of the Forum were crowded with bemas on which magistrates sat dealing with the different cases. As in our own court system, the judge was seated high above the others, a symbol of authority and of the ideal that he couldn’t be tainted by bribes, reputation, or a fair face.
The word also referred to the raised platform on which a governor sat at athletic contests. When an athlete won an event, he came before the authority and received his prize.
Two things, then, occur at a bema. First, someone hears, examines, and judges a case on its merits. Second, someone rewards winners of contests.
What then is the purpose of the judgment seat of Christ? Is it to hear cases and render verdicts? Or is it to reward the victors in the race of life? Scripture confirms both ideas.
A PLACE OF ACCOUNTING
Once a year in our business our executive officers meet with a certified public accountant to determine how well our company has done. After checking all the debits and credits, they calculate the bottom line. It shows whether we made a profit, or suffered a loss—and how much of either.
The bema, too, is a place for an accounting. Four thoughts from Scripture touch on this.
The bema is a place where we’ll all give an account of our lives to Jesus. Paul says in Ro. 14:12 that “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Earlier in the passage he says, “We will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Ro. 14:10). Our accounting will take place there.
Two parables illustrate this accounting. In Lk. 16:1–2, Jesus refers to a shrewd manager who is called by his master to account for his management. The manager must prove that the books are in order.
In Lk. 19:11–27, Jesus speaks more graphically. In the parable of the mines, each of several servants receives the same sum of money. All but one invests it at a profit. When the nobleman returns, Jesus says, he calls in his servants “in order to find out what they had gained” with the money (Lk. 19:15). Each then recounts how he’s invested the master’s wealth.
When we stand before the bema of God, we’ll give an account of how we used the gifts, abilities, opportunities, and wealth God gave us. The Lord makes a tremendous investment in our lives. He expects a return. Our appearance before the bema is the time of that accounting.
At the bema, we’ll all be examined. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 4:4–5 of being “examined” by God. He says, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”
The word for “bring to light,” or “examine,” means literally to “ask questions.” Pilate “examined” Jesus in Lk. 23:14. Felix examined Paul in Acts 24:8. In each case questions were asked and truthful answers were expected.
In this sense, the Lord will question us about our work. We are stewards with responsibilities for specific tasks. At the judgment, God will reveal how we managed His affairs. Each of us will have a chance to offer his own explanation.
The beauty of this examination, though, is that God is omniscient. He will be well aware of whatever circumstances surrounded our work. He will know every variable. He’ll remind us of our motives. There will be a full disclosure of everything we did for Him and for ourselves.
The bema will test the quality of each man’s work. Merely showing what we’ve done and why won’t be all. The quality of what we did will also be tested and proved. In 1 Cor. 3:13–15, Paul tells us that each man’s work “will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
What is accounted for is the quality of each man’s work, “whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). The word here for “bad” is phaulos, which relates to the worth of something. Some works are worthless in terms of God’s Kingdom and eternity. Others have great value. The fire of God’s judgment will show which.
How will this take place? The key here is what fire does. It burns up anything flammable. Wood, hay, and straw go up in smoke. But gold and silver become finer.
When I visited Japan several years ago, I was astounded to see many “golden” idols in the Buddhist temples. But I was told that most were wood with a gilded paint veneer. On the other hand, I once viewed the treasures of King Tut’s tomb. These were solid gold, beautiful, and valuable.
Imagine taking one of those Japanese idols and one of King Tut’s treasures and subjecting both to fire. The idol would be reduced to char. But Tut’s treasure, though melted down, would retain value as gold.
In the same way, I think that at the bema our works will go through a divine fire that determines their eternal value. Somehow this fire will consume anything not in line with the divine program, but it will refine anything that was right on target. Let me give an example.
Suppose a man, all full of smiles, gives a child a cup of water. From our perspective, that looks fine. But at the judgment seat of Christ, the fire heats up and we see what really happened. The man hadn’t liked the child’s begging, so he had given him the water to shut him up. He had put up a good front, but inside he had grumbled and cursed. The fire of truth reveals his heart. His worthless deed is consumed by the flames.
Another fellow gives a child a cup of water. He has no smile on his face. In fact, he’s grimacing, as if he resents the effort. But at the judgment seat, we learn that he had suffered from back pain. That was why he had grimaced. Despite the pain, he had served selflessly. The fire of truth reveals his heart, and his worthy deed shines brilliantly.
In this sense, then, our whole lives will be subjected to Christ’s fire. Whatever is selfish, mean, or petty will be consumed, but whatever is selfless, loving, and generous will grow purer and brighter.
At the bema our works will become evident to all. In 2 Cor. 5:10 Paul says we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. The word “appear” means to be made manifest, to become evident. Paul uses the same word in 1 Cor. 3:13, where he says each man’s work “will be revealed with fire.”
This judgment will take place in public, just like trials at the Roman bema. Our deeds will, in light of the accounting, examination, and testing, become plain to all. Everyone will see the justice of Christ’s decision. No one will ever dispute it.
That’s a scary idea, but I’m convinced that will be the nature of our appearance at the judgment seat of Christ. When everything is considered, all will conclude that Jesus’ verdict is just.
REWARDS TO THE VICTORS
Once everything has been weighed and tested, there’s a reward. To the victor in the games went a wreath. To the Christian goes a crown—and much more.
Look again at 2 Cor. 5:10. Each of us will “receive what is due him for the things done while in the body.” It’s as if Jesus would say, “You did such and such work. You get a wage, a reward.” And that reward will be a hundred times more valuable than the work we do (Mt. 19:29–30).
What does Paul mean by “the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10)? He refers not to individual acts, but to the overall moral character of the sum, the total. We won’t receive a ribbon for each little deed, but the character and conduct of our lives will be judged as a whole, and we’ll receive a reward on the basis of the whole thing.
This offers great hope to us, wherever we are in our Christian lives. No matter how little we’ve done up to now, or how minuscule our deeds look, we can always look forward to the fact that our whole lives will be considered before any reward is given.
Many people could read these words and weep, feeling that their lives have counted for little. But I don’t think that’s the way it will be for anyone who sincerely plods ahead as a Christian. Nonetheless, knowing we will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give account for our deeds and receive appropriate rewards should motivate us to sober thinking and diligent living.
Our lives count for something now, either loss or gain, for all eternity. Now is the only time we can serve Christ in this body. Now is the only time we can lead another to Christ, the only time we can heal the sick, free the captive, comfort the sorrowing.
Each of us will stand alone before Jesus. We won’t be able to blame anything on anyone else. We’ll have to answer for what we did with what He gave us. We must be careful not to waste time, squander money, ruin possessions, ignore opportunities. Everything will count in that last reckoning.
We need to take a hard look at our lives. How are we using what we’ve been given? One day the fact that we knew the television schedule may break our hearts. We may reel in horror as we see how we frittered our lives away in foolishness. It will all come out. We can’t escape it. We are accountable for all that we do.
These truths should help us live in fear of God. Fearing God is not something I think about a lot, but as I’ve grown as a Christian I’ve developed some genuine fear along the way. Fear of sinning, fear of displeasing Him, fear of His coming back and finding me burning myself out in frivolous pursuits. Daniel Webster, when asked the greatest theme that ever crossed his mind, replied, “My accountability before God.”
That’s not to say that I walk about with a long face, shrinking in terror from every shadow that crosses my path. But a healthy dose of the fear of God is something we all need.
Finally, looking forward to our appearance before the judgment seat of Christ ought to give us great hope. No good deed, however small, will be forgotten. Everything we do counts for eternity.
That’s a marvel, isn’t it? It drives me. So no one notices now what I do to serve Christ. What does that matter? He notices!
|Rev. Mark R. Littleton is a businessman and freelance writer in Columbia, Maryland. He is the author of A Place to Stand (Multnomah).