The Bema Seat of Christ
by Rick Shrader
The Bema Seat of Christ is the Judgment Seat of Christ. “Bema” is the transliteration of the Greek word and “Judgment” is the usual English translation of that word. Paul appeared at Gallio’s bema seat in Corinth (Acts 18:12), at Herod’s bema seat in Caesarea (Acts 23:35), and at Nero’s bema seat in Rome (Acts 25:10). He now awaits the only bema seat that really counts, the Bema Seat of Christ.
The Bema Seat of Christ is where all believers will appear after Christ returns to take His church home at the rapture. It is mentioned specifically as “the judgment seat” in Rom. 14:10 and 2 Cor. 5:10, and is also described specifically in 1 Cor. 3:11-15. It is alluded to in many other New Testament Scriptures as this article will show.
This doctrine is taken most seriously by pretribulational premillennialists who are also dispensationalists (which is this author’s view). Unless one is a premillennialist, this doctrine will be minimized into a general judgment for all believers at the end of the world. Premillennialists who are also pretribulationalists see this happening in heaven immediately after the rapture (the casting of crowns earned takes place in Rev. 4:10, very early in the seven-year tribulation period). Dispensationalists see this as the judgment for the church only and as a preparation for Christ’s bride before His millennial reign as Rev. 19:7-8 shows, “Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come (aorist tense, “has come”), and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness (literally plural, “righteousnesses”) of saints.”
A few things should be noted about the Bema Seat of Christ as we begin. First, this judgment is for believers only. Every context of these major texts involves motivation for the churches. Paul says that no foundation can be laid except upon Jesus Christ and that even if a person’s work is burned up, he will still be saved (1 Cor. 3:11, 15). Also, this judgment is not a judgment for the guilt of our sin. That judgment was completed on the cross of Calvary (Col. 2:14). John Walvoord writes,
Here, as many other times in the Pauline letters, the church is challenged to labor for Christ in view of the necessity of ultimately giving account to the Lord after He comes for His own. It is a judgment which relates to Christians only and has to do with the matter of rewards for faithful service. . . . It should be clear from the general doctrine of justification by faith and the fact that the believer is the object of the grace of God that this is not an occasion in which the believers are punished for their sins.1
Also, as has been noted, this judgment takes place in heaven during the tribulation period and is therefore for the raptured church. Lastly, this judgment is where the believers of this age will give account of the stewardship of their lives. Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). These works will translate into “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble” (1 Cor. 3:12) depending on their good or bad quality. Paul summarizes to the Romans, “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).
A Current Attitude
Teaching on the Bema Seat seems to have waned in recent years. This may be due to a number of factors. If preaching on the second coming of Christ has waned, so has preaching on the Bema. Other popular views of eschatology place little or no emphasis on this doctrine or on the premillennial return of Christ at all. Also, today’s “no judging, no losing” mentality may have made a doctrine like this unsavory to many Christians. Coupled with this is the belief that after death nothing in the believer’s life will matter any longer; all will be erased and we will all be perfect in Christ. This, of course, mixes the fact that the guilt for our sins is completely taken away with the fact of the accountability of our Christian stewardship. If there can’t be a difference between these two things, how can we account for present chastisement by God (or church discipline) of his forgiven children? Others may write off this doctrine as someone’s “guilt trip” placed upon believers, perhaps for control or power. Still others may actually care little about rewards (“crowns,” “robes,” etc.) as long as they will be saved, miss hell, and go to heaven. Those rewards may seem trivial compared to eternity. Though it seems hard to imagine such Christian attitudes, they no doubt do exist.
Gold, Silver, Precious Stones
These things represent reward rather than loss of reward. Perhaps the analogy is used to show things that God makes compared to the things man makes; or most probably to show things that will burn in fire and things that won’t. If a man’s work remains after the fire, “he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss” (1 Cor. 3:14-15). Leon Wood notes, “The criterion for judging will be the good pleasure of God. Those labors which please Him, the works which make a proper contribution to ‘God’s building,’ will be declared ‘gold, silver, precious stones’; but those which displease Him, which do not so contribute, will be judged ‘wood, hay, stubble.’”2 A few things more can be said about these rewards.
They reflect Christ’s glory at His coming. After we spend seven years in heaven and receive our rewards, we will return with Christ (Rev. 19:14) and will bring glory to the returning King; “When he shall come to be glorified in his saints” (2 Thes. 1:10); “That the trial of your faith . . . might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7); “That when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Pet. 4:13). Dwight Pentecost writes, “It may be that the reward given to the believer is a capacity to manifest the glory of Christ throughout eternity.”3
It is possible to lose our reward. Since our rewards depend on our faithfulness to Christ, we may lose them by unfaithfulness. Jude says, “Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward” (Jude 8). Paul says, “Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshiping of angels” (Col. 2:18). Jesus says, “Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (Rev. 3:11).
We will cast our crowns at Jesus’ feet. As I’ve already mentioned, this heavenly service (mentioned only once in Scripture) happens early in the tribulation, showing that the Bema happens immediately after the rapture. The future tenses (“Shall fall down,” “Shall cast their crowns”) point toward a specific time, but the conjuction “whenever” (hotan) in vs 9 and the active voice (“shall be casting”) in vs 10 indicate an ongoing action. The crowns are real but they are also tangible symbols of our millennial reward. That will be mentioned last in this present list.
Our good works become our white robes. Just prior to the glorious revelation of Christ when the church returns with Christ in the air to the earth, John writes, “And to her was granted that she would be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints” (Rev. 19:8). The word “righteousness” is in the plural and means “righteous deeds” or just “righteousnesses.” As with the crowns, the robes are symbols of our good works and their reward.
Our rewards reflect a future blessing in the kingdom of God. If, as I believe, the marriage of the Lamb and His bride takes place in heaven (Rev. 19:7) and the marriage supper is actually the kingdom of God on the earth (Rev. 19:9), and that we will live and reign with Christ with certain authority (Rev. 20:4, Matt. 19:28), then our rewards translate into positions of authority in the millennial kingdom. This could be the reason, in the parable of the pounds (Lk. 19: 12-28), faithfulness over money turns into rulership over cities. This could also be the meaning of the “keys of the kingdom” which Jesus promised to His church (Matt. 16:19) when we will bind things over which we have rule.
Wood, Hay, Stubble
A few things can also be pointed out about the loss of reward.
This is not a loss of salvation. Paul specifically says, “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). The man who sinned and was disciplined by the church lost reward but not salvation, “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Peter says, “And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1 Pet. 4:18).
Much of our loss will be things that only God can judge. Though we cannot judge motives nor see into another person’s heart, God can. Paul says, “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God” (1 Cor. 4:5). This is also Paul’s argument for giving a brother the benefit of the doubt in such things. “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).
The possibility of loss causes us to fear God. The Bema Seat ought to be a great motivator to good works for the Christian. Right after introducing the subject, Paul writes, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11). The word “terror” is the normal word for “fear” (phobos) but terror is a good word here since the Bema is obviously given as a deterrent to sin. John said, “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3).
Loss of reward will bring shame before Christ. John finishes writing to believers by saying, “And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming” (1 Jn. 2:28). Wood writes, “The person will not receive a crown, and this will result in a sense of shame and loss that he did not better use his time on earth.”4 It may sound unsettling to some that the believer could experience shame after he/she is taken to heaven at the rapture. But what is the purpose for the Bema Seat of Christ at all if not to avoid loss and shame? Our thinking will be so much in line with our Savior’s that we will desire what He desires and disdain what He disdains. Finally we will hate our sin as much as He does. However, the shame will be turned to joy that, at last, all things have been set right in His presence.
And So . . . .
Personally I will be glad when my life has been exposed and corrected. For the first time I will be 100% right about everything! I would do well to be striving toward such a condition now—“That I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ” (Phil. 3:12). That is, that my sanctification might better match my justification. I don’t know when that great reckoning will take place but I know that it will. It could be momentarily by rapture, or it may be by and by in death. This means that I only have the rest of my life, whatever that may be, to serve Christ. Eternity itself won’t afford me an opportunity to redo or add to this life. I am confident that the reality of seeing my Savior will unveil to me an urgency to life about which I will have come greatly short. I am also confident that His smile will quickly drive the tears away.
Younger years and older both have their earthly challenges in Christian service. Bringing the body into subjection at both ends of life is a struggle that requires supernatural help. May God help us all to stand before Him with rejoicing.
Notes: 1. John Walvoord, The Church In Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980) 145. 2. Leon Wood, The Bible & Future Events (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 50. 3. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969) 226. 4. Wood, 51.