During our recent filming trip Dr Randall Smith showed us in the city of Corinth a bema. A bema is a built up platform in a city center. There is a short video showing this bema. On the home page, under “In the steps of Paul,” you’ll find it under the heading THE JUDGEMENT SEAT OF CHRIST. Dr Smith explained that a platform or bema such as this, was the stage from where a judge would sometimes pronounce judgment. We find an example of this in Acts 18:12-16 where the Roman proconsul, Gallio, had to judge Paul at this particular bema in Corinth. However, the bema was more often used to hand laurels to winners of competitions (1 Cor. 9:25). Even today at sporting events, the winners receive their trophies while standing on a podium. Paul used the image of athletes, receiving laurels at the bema in Corinth, to describe the reward that a believer will receive:
“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (the bema), so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
Dr Randall Smith explains that Paul used the word bema here as an image of the day when the children of the Lord will appear before the judgment seat of Christ. The translation of “judgement seat” for the word bema, gives the impression of a court case where criminals are being judged. However, the image Paul used actually indicated something completely different, namely the occasion when the Lord Jesus is going to evaluate our lives and give us our reward. The “reward” is like the “crown of life” that the Lord promises to the person who “has stood the test” (James. 1:12). Paul also explains, referring to athletes that are taking part in a race, that they are doing it to receive “a perishable wreath.” As soon as the flowers died, it was worth nothing. In stark contrast to that, he urged Christians to compete in the Christian race in a way that will ensure victory in the end. We have to compete to be conquerors. Then we will receive an imperishable wreath (1 Cor. 9:24-25).
The Corinthians would have clearly understood the image of the bema that Paul used. They would have understood that to appear before the judgment seat would be to attend a prize giving ceremony to receive a reward. In the case of 2 Corinthians 5:10 a better translation would be to appear before the podium of Christ. In the following paragraph we will consider the activities associated with a bema gathering, but before that it is necessary to look at Randall’s explanation of the different judgments that we read about in the Bible.
He explains that according to the Bible every person, saved and unsaved will face two judgments. There is however, a difference between the judgments of the saved and those of the unsaved. The first judgment that everyone will have to face is the judgment of sin. If you are a believer, your sin was already judged on the cross. There is however, a second judgment waiting, and that is the judgment of your performance. That is the bema or podium judgment of the believer that we read about in Romans 14:10b, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 en 2 Corinthians 5:10.
The unbeliever also has to face two judgments. Both will happen at the same occasion, namely at the Great White Throne Judgment as described in Revelation 20:11-15. All the unsaved people will be together here and judged from two books. In terms of their sin they will be judged according to their names being written in the Book of Life, or not. Each unsaved person will be individually examined to see if he accepted the sacrifice of Jesus for his sin on the cross during his life. If he had not, that is, if his name is not found in the Book of Life, he will be thrown into the lake of fire. However, before that is to happen, he will be judged according to his performance. And for that judgment, another book will be opened, namely the book where the good and bad deeds of every person are recorded. Everyone will be judged according to what has been written about him or her, in that book. They will be judged righteously according to their performance or “according to their deeds” (Rev. 20:12).
The judgment of their deeds does not determine their end destination, but indeed the severity of punishment in the lake of fire. Their end destination was already determined when their names were not found written down in the Book of Life. But the way they lived their lives will determine the harshness of the eternal punishment they will have to endure.
The two judgments that each person will have to face are therefore for sin and performance. The judgment of the believers for their performance happens separately from that of the unbelievers, namely at the bema judgment in heaven.
It will be that special occasion when everyone (who through the ages has come to faith through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross) will be assembled together before the Throne of God for the first time. Then we will have the wonderful privilege of seeing Him for ourselves, face to face, just as John saw Him in Revelation 1:12-16. We will all be gathered together before all the elected angels around the bema, the podium or throne in heaven. Then every one of us will have the opportunity to look at the face of Jesus. At that very moment each second of our lives, each thought (see James 1:14 -15), each word (Matt. 12:36) and each deed (Rom. 2:6) will be put before Him on the bema in heaven. We will see Him as He really is and we will look into His eyes which are like a flaming fire. With those fiery eyes he will judge our lives. Paul explains it in the following way:
“… and the fire itself shall prove each man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work shall abide which he built thereon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:13-15).
Here Paul explains that everything a believer has done since his or her rebirth, is like working on a building of which Jesus Christ is the foundation. If we build “on the foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, stubble; each man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it (our construction) is revealed in fire; and the fire itself shall prove each man’s work of what sort it is” (1 Cor. 3:12-13).
What a day to look forward to, when we will enter into the glory of the Lord! But only that part of our lives that will not be burnt up, will be “gold, silver and precious stones” in the “incorruptible crown” that we will receive (1 Cor. 9:25). A “laurel wreath” that will actually be a golden crown with silver and precious stones. Yes, crowns that we, like the 24 elders, will be able to cast at the feet of the One Who sits on the throne (Rev. 4:4, 10).
Peter, however, warns that many believers will be “scarcely saved” at this “podium” (1 Pet. 4:17-18). They will enter heaven as through fire, maybe with just a little bit of ash next to them. Although they will be happy to enter, they will not receive what the Lord has prepared for them according to his original plan for their lives. Our appearance in front of the podium where the Lord will judge us, is therefore a day that we on the one hand can look forward to, but on the other hand we will also face it with trepidation. The reason for this is “that each one will be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
Fortunately it is the Lord Jesus Who will judge us. The Father handed over the judgment to Him (John. 5:22), because He is our great high Priest who knows what it is like to be human in this fallen sinful world (Heb. 4:14-15). What is more, He will not only judge us according to our sin, but also according to both the good (and bad) that we have done – our performance.
What then do we have to fear? That the Lord will deny us entrance into heaven and that we will be lost? Of course not: He is speaking about the reward that the children of the Lord will receive. The reward is not eternal life. Eternal life one receives with his rebirth when he becomes a child of God. It is then that our names are written in the Book of Life. When Paul mentions people receiving a reward in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, he is talking to people who “have eternal life abiding in them” (1 John. 3:15), people who already came to faith in the Lord Jesus when they accepted the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus on the cross on their behalf.
Those people live in obedience to the voice of Jesus Christ “because they know his voice” (John 10:2-4). But unfortunately children of the Lord sometimes are disobedient and sadden the Holy Spirit with the result that they may lose their reward (2 John 8).
Now what do we have to fear then? Do I fear that I won’t receive the full reward that Jesus prepared for me and that is kept for me by the Father in His power? How we long to hear the words of the Lord Jesus on that day:
“Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
It may well be that a child of God may have a reason to doubt or to fear that he won’t receive his full reward. But that is not the fear in question here. No, the fear is rather the uncertainty and the suspense of the moment when we will see the Lord Jesus. It is the reverence that we have for Him, because we know that “our God indeed is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29).
There are, however, people with no respect for God. Therefore they live without any fear of God. Just as the rich man in Hades had to hear that his brothers have the Word of God to teach them (Luke. 16:31), so the same applies to us today. During this time of grace we still have the opportunity for repentance of sin. On that day there will be no tolerance. Our lives will be measured by what we have “done” with Jesus, by our obedience and following the Word of God – even our Lord Who is the Word, the Way, Truth and Life – and whether we appropriated and assimilated and acted upon that Word in our lives. Did we practice our belief and live our lives in the light of eternity with God?
Let us therefore do our best to be obedient to the Lord.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us with these words:
“Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need … let us draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water” (Heb. 4:16; 10:22).
The only punishment for sin is eternal death as it is stated, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). All people are sinful, and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Therefore Jesus had to redeem us with His blood to bring us to God the Father (1 Pet. 1:19; 3:18). He, the innocent “died unto sin once” (Rom. 6:10). Everyone who has accepted that the Lord Jesus paid for his or her sin on the cross has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus (1 John. 1:9). They are reconciled with God and receive eternal life. Because they receive assurance of their salvation from the Lord, they do not fear judgment. John says that we “may have boldness in the day of judgment” (1 John. 4:17). They have assurance of salvation because they “know that they have eternal life” (1 John. 5:13).
The fact that their sins are forgiven and that they are children of the Lord, does not inevitably lead to being sinless or being automatically obedient. Therefore they have to keep their eyes fixed on the Lord Jesus while they “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” The fact that they have been set free from the weight of sin does not mean that sin will leave them alone. Therefore they have to “run with patience the race that is set before them, looking unto Jesus the Author and Perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2). How easily our focus is distracted from Jesus. Therefore, when we appear before Him, He will judge us according to the way in which we have followed Him and listened to his voice. This podium judgment is the opportunity for Him to give to us what He has prepared for us. It can happen that a child of God will suffer “loss” here, although he will be saved, but “as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).
Paul is referring to this when he uses the word bema, explaining that the children of the Lord will have to appear on the podium before Jesus to receive their imperishable wreath.
From this it is clear that there will be different degrees of reward for believers – as we have already seen – that there will also be different degrees of punishment for unbelievers. Paul, having been brought unto the Areopagus at Athens said:
“God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead” (Acts. 17:31).
Do you know this Man Jesus? Have you bowed your knees before Him, confessing your sinfulness and calling on Him to save you? There is power in His blood to cleanse you from all sin.
Ask Him to do it, and He will.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John. 1:9).
Paul assures us that: “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil.1:6).
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Thess. 5:23).