The Bema for Believers

Romans 14:10-13 - Why do you judge your brother? And why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written, "As surely as I live," says the Lord, "every knee will bow before Me; every tongue will confess to God." So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.

1 Corinthians 3:10-15 - Each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his 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.

1 Corinthians 4:2,5 - Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 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.

2 Corinthians 5:9-10 - So we make it our goal to please Him...For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

2 Timothy 2:11-13 - Here is a trustworthy saying: "If we died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we disown Him, He will also disown us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself.

In the ruins of ancient Corinth archaeologists have uncovered the ancient "agora," which was the market place or town square. At one side of this open stone-paved area is a large, rectangular stone-block platform or rostrum rising about eight feet above the agora pavement. This was the "bema." Here judges sat to decide civil litigation or observe athletic contests. In fact, starting blocks for foot races have been found in the pavement of the agora, and it is believed that the runners would sprint past the bema as they completed their race. Wrestlers and other athletes may also have competed, or at least paraded, before the bema. The judges on the bema would assess how well the athletes had competed and who should receive the prizes.

Many New Testament passages use athletic training and competition to illustrate the Christian life. Read, for example, Romans 9:24-27, where the apostle Paul illustrates the fact that "competing well" in the Christian life requires strict training, discipline and self-denial. Hebrews 12:1-2 pictures a crowd witnessing a race, and encourages us as Christian "runners" to get rid of anything that would entangle us or hinder us from running well. In 2 Timothy 2:5 Paul tells us that athletes must compete according to the rules if they want to win, and at the end of his life, Paul says, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race" (2 Timothy 4:7). Many other similar references in the New Testament give us helpful illustrations of how to live our lives well as Christians.

What's the goal for the believer as we "run the race" of the Christian life"? Is our goal to gain eternal life and enter heaven? No! We donot "work our way into heaven" by living a good life. The Bible clearly teaches that eternal life and a "ticket to heaven" are obtained at the moment we believe in Jesus Christ as our own personal Savior. Eternal life and heaven forever have already been secured for the believer by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In John 5:24 the Lord Jesus said that anyone who "hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life."

Notice that the Lord did not say "will have eternal life," but "strong>has eternal life." And He did not say "will cross over from death to life," but "has crossedover from death to life." And notice that our Lord emphasized these eternal truths by beginning His statement with, "Truly, truly I say to you." In other words, the Lord was emphatic about the truth of His statement and wanted His listeners to have no doubts about it.

So the goal for the believer is not salvation, because the believer already has salvation--praise the Lord! Believers are part of a "new team," we are "competing" as representatives for our "new country" (Philippians 3:20), and the goal of our life's "race" is to "be pleasing to Him" (2 Corinthians 5:9). In whatever arena He places us, our lives should be lived in ways that will bring glory and joy to our Lord Jesus!

Standing before God

Just as clearly as the Bible teaches that believers are eternally saved, the Bible also teaches that every believer will stand before the heavenly "bema" for review. The Greek word "bema" is translated in our English Bibles as "judgment seat," and the Lord's review of the earthly lives of Christians is known as "the judgment seat of Christ." This is not the same as the "great white throne " judgment of unbelievers found in Revelation 20. At His "bema," the Lord Himself will assess how well believers have "run the race" by the quality of their commitment, obedience and service to Him.

Is the judgment seat of Christ the same as purgatory? No, purgatory is an invented doctrine which is not found in the Bible, but the judgment seat of Christ is a doctrine that is clearly stated in Scripture. Romans 4:10 says, "We will all stand before God's judgment seat." The "bema" of Jesus Christ is not for the purpose of purging away our accumulated sins (that was taken care of at the cross), and the "bema" is not planned to embarrass us or humiliate us with our shortcomings as Christians, and the "bema" is not a venue for exposing our hidden faults and failures before an audience of fellow-believers (Whew!). The purpose of the judgment seat of Christ is to review our lives as Christians, so that "each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Running the Race

So there will be rewards in heaven! The Lord will reward us for living a life that's pleasing to Him. But these rewards for faithfulness are not material rewards. We are so programmed in this life to think in materialistic terms that we tend to think of rewards in heaven as being "bigger mansions" and "costlier crowns." Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, the Greek word for "crowns" that is used in reference to awards for faithful service is not the "golden diadem" crown worn by a king, but rather the laurel wreath that was given to the victorious Greek athlete! The difference is veryimportant, because the "crown" of the athlete is not inherited by birth, but is won by running well! Laurel wreaths had no intrinsic value in themselves--they withered and died in a few days. What counted was the honor of winning the laurel crown by running well.

The Bible lists a number of "laurel wreath crowns" which will be awarded for faithful Christian living. A "crown of rejoicing" (1 Thessalonians 2:19) is mentioned as a reward for winning and discipling souls. "Shepherds and overseers" who have faithfully pastored the flock of God will receive a "crown of glory" (1 Peter 5:4). The "crown of life" (James 1:12, Revelation 2:10) is a reward for believers who have endured trials and testings, even to the point of martyrdom. To those believers who have faithfully "fought the good fight and finished the course," while looking forward to the Lord's return, a "crown of righteousness" will be given. (See 2 Timothy 4:8.)

Will believers who live unfaithful, negligent, selfish lives receive some kind of booby prize or "dunce cap" to wear for eternity? No--but they will suffer loss of reward. The Lord can't reward us for service that has not been rendered. Read 2 Timothy 2:3-13. Notice that it is written to believers, and the context is a discussion of living for Christ and serving Christ. If we deny our Lord by failing to live a life that is pleasing to Him, He will not deny us salvation--but He cannotreward us for what we haven't done! He cannot deny His own character and the moral principle of reward for faithful living. He must be faithful to His divine principles. He cannot reward lives whose primary goals have been earthly gain and pleasure, with little consideration for pleasing Jesus Christ and furthering His kingdom.

The comparison of the awards at the judgment seat of Christ with the athletics awards of the Greek games is something we can easily appreciate today. At an athletics awards ceremony, those who have done well receive the greater recognition. But the coach always looks for--and finds--something complimentary to say about every member of the team. At an awards ceremony, even a small athletic achievement or a minor contribution to the team is noticed and mentioned, and even the bench-warmers are not reprimanded or denounced.

1 Corinthians 4:5 indicates that at the judgment seat of Christ every person will receive some praise from our "Coach." However, think of the eternal loss we will suffer when we realize that we could have brought much more glory to our Lord and our "Team" if we had been more dedicated and disciplined athletes. What regret we will experience if we spend our earthly lives lounging selfishly and negligently on the sidelines, rather thanrunning well in life's race!

Besides the joy of sharing and enhancing the glory of God forever in heaven, the Scripture seems to indicate that rewards at the judgment seat of Christ will also be related to our place in the kingdom of Christ on earth. In Revelation 20:6 we read that during Christ's future kingdom on earth we will be "priests of God and of Christ and reign with Him for a thousand years." The parable of the pounds (minas) in Luke 19 suggests that we will be rewarded with responsibility and authority in that kingdom, as determined by how well and faithfully we serve Him.

Surviving the Fire

Another illustration of rewards is given in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Here the apostle Paul likens the reward system to constructing a building on a foundation. The foundation is Jesus Christ, and it has already been laid for us. All believers continually "build" on that solid foundation throughout their lives.

The point of the passage is that it matters how we build! The quality of our construction work and the building materials we use will be reviewed or tested (v13), for the purpose of reward (v14).

In the illustration, just as the quality of a building is seen if it is subjected to a fire, so the building quality of our lives will be tested. As gold, silver and precious stones would not be reduced to ashes by a fire, so lives "constructed" with quality materials such as growth in the knowledge of God, fruitful service and Christ-like living will remain for reward. However, construction activity that's done for selfish and earthly goals is likened to wood, hay and straw.

It's obvious that lives constructed of worthless or inferior material such as selfish ambition and worldly goals will go up in smoke in the Lord's testing fire. Nothing will remain for reward! The size or importance of our earthly construction or accomplishments will be worth absolutely nothing if God's blueprint for our lives was ignored or set aside. How much will be left when your life's work undergoes the Lord's testing fire? How much will go up in smoke?

Remember, this fire is a testing fire--it's not the fires of Hell! 1 Corinthian 3:15 assures us that those believers whose life's construction is burned up "will be saved, but only as one escaping through flames." What does that mean? Remember Lot? He was saved from Sodom as one escaping through flames (Genesis 19:15-17). He escaped with his life, but his life's work was completely consumed! Will you enter into heaven empty-handed--as though you had escaped from a burning building with nothing but the flame-singed clothing on your back? You will be eternally grateful that you're there, but there will be little reward. The Savior who died for you will not be able to say, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21).

Making a Report

Perhaps the most awesome aspect of the judgment seat of Christ is the fact that each one of us will be required to give a "life's report" to the Lord Himself. The implication of Romans 14:12 is that we won't just stand there--we will be asked to give an account of ourselves! What does the Lord want to see and hear as His people stand before His bema? As well as our reports of service to Him, He will want to hear that the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) were developed in our lives. God wants to conform us to "the likeness of His Son" (Romans 8:29), so He's very interested in who we arebecoming as well as what we are accomplishing for Him.

2 Peter 1:5-7 encourages us to "make every effort" to add to our faith goodness, knowledge, selfcontrol, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love. "For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v8). If we are "effective and productive in our knowledge of Christ," we will "receive an abundant welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (v11). Christian service will automatically flow from a life that is becoming more and more like Christ! Are the qualities of His life increasingly seen in our lives? Are our attitudes and actions becoming more like those of Jesus? Do we have our reports ready?

In Romans 14 the apostle Paul discusses the problem of judging or condemning our fellow-believers for the way they live their lives as Christians. Verse 12 says that "each of us will give an account of himself to God." In other words, we each will answer to the Lord for the way we lived our own lives. We will not answer for other believers' lives, and we are not to use our own prejudices and opinions to judge the lives of our fellow-believers now. They will give their own account to God. Criticism and condemnation of others is a common but very serious failure among believers.

Judgment is God'sprerogative! Monitoring and censuring other believers is a serious matter (v13), and we will answer for it at God's bema--it will be a required portion of our report. 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 indicates that all hidden matters will be revealed as the Lord examines our lives and points out how we may have wrongfully condemned others. So let's be careful not to censure our fellow-believers, because it's big in the eyes of our Lord! Romans 14:17 says that we should strive for "righteousness, peace and joy" in our dealings with other believers, because "anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God."

Make no mistake about it, we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. There are no "byes" in this "athletic review"! However, unlike the unbiblical concept of purgatory, the judgment seat of Christ is not meant to frighten us into doing "good works." It's not meant to produce an attitude of begrudging attempts to "chalk up points with God." It's not intended to pressure us into a "Christian service performance" mentality. No! The judgment seat of Christ is meant to motivate us towards our goal of becoming more like Christ, and a lifestyle of faithful obedience and service for the Lord who died for us. As we look forward to the day when we will see Him, let's joyfully prepare a good report for Him!

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