The Race Review - The Judgment (Bema) Seat of Christ

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Running the race in the last days Bible study 

The Race Review - The Judgment (Bema) Seat of Christ

by I Gordon

Last time we looked at 'The Sudden Ending' to our race and saw that the return of Jesus will be swift and well, sudden. It will be a day for the believer that will cause an immediate change to your body, nature, residence and marital status. Now in terms of our race you may be thinking, 'well, that's it then... or what comes next?' Good question! Thankfully the Bible has the answer. Among the very last recorded words of Jesus, in the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, we find the following statement which links this sudden coming with what comes next. It is this:

"Behold, I am coming quickly (or 'by surprise, suddenly''), and My reward is with Me,
to render to every man according to what he has done. (Rev 22:12)

The sudden, quick return is specifically linked with rewarding the saints... according to what he, or she, has done in this life since believing on the Lord Jesus. So the next (and last) step in this series on 'Running the Race in the Last Days' is to look at this event. It is an event that in scripture is called the Judgement (or bema) seat of Christ.

Now this is quite a big topic and not one that can be accurately covered in one study. Truly, only a fool would attempt it. So, being somewhat qualified then, here goes! To do so we will travel around in times past a little before zooming forward to a soon coming, but unknown, future date (though one which many still try to date in advance!) We will look at:

  • The bema seat in the days of Jesus & Paul
  • Ancient Greece and its use of the bema
  • The coming bema seat for believers
  • The application - the desire to run well

The bema in Biblical days

2Co 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

bema judgment seat in corinthLet's begin with this well know passage in 2nd Corinthians. Paul, writing to those in Corinth, says that all believers must appear before the judgement seat of Christ. The word translated 'judgement' here is the Greek word 'bema'. Now Paul didn't have to explain what he meant by the 'Bema seat of Christ' because his audience in Corinth was very well aware of what a 'bema seat' was. They had one in their city which they had seen used frequently. In fact, Paul himself was uniquely familiar with it because he was dragged before it!

To the right is an actual picture of the bema seat still in existence in Corinth today though it was partially restored a few years ago. You can see that the bema was a raised platform upon which a judge would preside just as Gallio did in the days of Paul. 

 Act 18:1,8,12-16 After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth... (8) Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized... (12) But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia,  the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat (bema), (13) saying, "This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law." (14) But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, "If it were a matter of wrong or of vicious crime, O Jews, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you; (15) but if there are questions about words and names and your own law, look after it yourselves; I am unwilling to be a judge of these matters." (16) And he drove them away from the judgment seat (bema). 

But it wasn't just Paul that came before the bema seat. Did you know that Jesus was as well?

 Joh 19:10-16 So Pilate *said to Him, "You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?" (11) Jesus answered, "You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin." (12) As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, "If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar." (13)  Therefore when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat (bema) at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha... Pilate *said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?"  The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." (16) So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified. 

This, if you think about it, is one crazy scene! Think of what this means...The One who is the Son of God and the King of kings, who will judge the whole world (John 5:22) has to stand before a worldly judicial 'bema' seat and allow Himself to be judged by mere man. And while He barely uttered a word, Jesus would have understood the irony of this scene knowing that just as Pilate now sat at the bema with the power of life and death in his hands, at the end of the age the roles would be reversed. In a far more serious judgement involving the second death, Pilate would have to stand in judgment before Jesus!

The Bema and Rewards... take a trip into ancient Greece

But the bema seat was used for more than just judicial matter however. And this again is something those in Corinth, in Greece, were all too familiar with. When we think of ancient Greece what do we think of? At the height of their strength the ancient Greeks were known for many things1 like:

  • Conquering, under Alexander the Great, the then known world.

  • Being the first democracy in the world

  •  Great mathematicians like Archimedes and Pythagoras whose discoveries are still taught in math classes today

  • Philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle amongst many others

 But they were known for something else... Starting in 776 BC and occurring every four years (just as we do now) they had some games they called the 'Olympics'. The early games involved running (both short sprints and long distance), boxing, wrestling, chariot racing, javelin, discus and long jump. Part way through the games they would stop to sacrifice 100 oxen to Zeus, whom the games were held in honor of, as their supreme god! But the Olympics weren't the only games. The year before and after every Olympics was the Isthmian Games (named after the Isthmus of Corinth).2 So those in Corinth, whom Paul wrote to, knew all about the games, they knew all about running and competing to win. And they knew about the bema seat (this raised platform similar to what the Olympics still use today) that the victorious athletes came before to receive their laurel (or in the early days, celery!) wreaths at the end of the sporting event.

 The coming bema seat for believers 

With all that as the background, let's look at what scripture reveals concerning the believers relationship to the bema seat of Christ.

2Co 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

Firstly it says that 'we' must 'all' appear before the judgement seat of Christ. Obviously Paul is speaking to believers here when he uses the terms 'we' and 'all'. The judgement seat of Christ is not to be confused with the Great White Throne of Judgement in Revelation 20 which is for unbelievers. Nor is it to be confused with the Sheep and the Goats judgement of Mathew 25 which is a judgement of the nations at the end of the Tribulation. The bema or judgement seat of Christ is for believers only. It is for His sheep... His bride. It is not to do with salvation at all but is a judgement and rewarding of the believers life and works since becoming a Christian. Nor is it to do with sin. Because the bema was used for both judicial and rewarding purposes, its use for believers is sometimes seen differently among Bible teachers. If there was a scale it would look something like this (with, for what it is worth, a little red marker where I am!)

Views on the bema seat of Christ

On one end of the scale you have a revealing of your sins and possible judgement in front of everyone. This to me show a lack of understanding of the finished work of the cross. Thankfully the wonderful promise associated with the New Covenant is that 'I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.' (Heb 8:12) This was made available because 'God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.' (2 Cor 5:21) On the other end of the scale the bema seat is simply an awards ceremony. I remember the ceremony when I graduated from University. It is all laughter and rejoicing as your degree is acknowledged and you shake hands and are capped by the University chancellor. While the Bema seat is for rewards, we shouldn't just reduce it to the same sort of thinking. It is a lot more sobering.

Each of us, it says, will stand before the Lord. When the scripture says that we must 'appear' before the bema seat of Christ it is literally 'manifest'. Now you might say 'so what's the difference?' Let me illustrate. My mother has been having pain in her back recently so she went and saw her doctor. The doctor said 'um...ok... yeah... I dunno' and referred her to the hospital for an MRI scan. The scan gave a clear picture of what was happening with her back. So you could say she 'appeared' before her doctor but that didn't actually reveal anything. It was the MRI scan that 'manifest' or brought into the light what was going on with her back. Our lives as believers will be brought into the light. In Romans Paul even says we shall give an account for our life.

 Rom 14:10-12 ...Why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat... So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. 

I suspect this account that we have to give will be more for our sakes than His for He already knows everything about us. Nether the less, it is a sobering thought. Daniel Webster was once considered one of the greatest of all living Americans. He was a statesman, lawyer, and orator and at a banquet held in his honour, among his fellow peers and leaders of America, he was asked this question - 'Sir, what is the greatest thought that has ever entered your mind?' To this, Webster replied, 'The greatest thought is that one day I will have to stand before a holy God and give an account of my life!'

J. Vernon McGee writes (in his usual humorous yet thought provoking manner) on Romans 14:10-12 saying:  'My friend, you and I need to recognize that we have to give account of ourselves to Him. I'll be honest with you, that disturbs me a little. I am wondering how I am going to tell Him about certain things. So I can't sit in judgment upon you; I'm worried about Vernon McGee.' 

Why we squirm...

Now, if you are starting to squirm a little thinking about this, I think it may be for two reasons:

  1. We see what we are like in ourselves. We know ourselves pretty well. We don't know each other very well but we know what's going on in our own hearts. We know the thoughts, actions, lack of action... some things we would rather keep, well, hidden. So the thought of it possibly being getting made 'manifest' doesn't sit very well.

  2.  We don't often see who God has made us in Christ. When the subject of standing before God comes up we can revert in our human, limited thinking, to the image of a criminal before a Judge... not a child with His Father.

That's why it is important to remember that the bema is not about exposing sin. That was dealt with and paid for 2000 years ago. So what then does it mean 'so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad'? Is He going to bring up the bad? The Greek word here can have a range of meanings including 'evil, wicked, foul, corrupt, good-for-nothing, worthless, mediocre, unimportant'. I would suggest that 'worthless' and 'good for nothing' fit the context better because this is essentially what Paul had told the Corinthians in his earlier letter:

 1Co 3:11-15 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (12) If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, (13)  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.  (14) If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. (15) If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. 

 All of our works as Christians will be tested by fire. Was is done with the right motive? Did it bring glory to Jesus Christ? Was it based on the truth of God's word? Was it motivated by self-gain or love for the Lord and others? Were we running the race God had for us or going off on our own path? Did we run according to the rules? We will get to see where our life and works were worthy of reward and also where it was worthless, as wood, hay and stubble burnt up in the fire. That should motivate us to run well and according to the way God wants us to run.

Run according to the rules

As an illustration, this man here, Frederick Lorz, was first over the line and received the applause as the winner of the 1904 Olympic race. A wonderful, wonderful feat. A feat that should be well rewarded wouldn't you say? Well... I guess if you were trying to be a little picky, some could say there was one relevantly small problem with his race that could be mentioned. It's very minor. Looking a bit closer at his 42 km race it was found that he totally ran himself out in the first 14km. So his manager took him the next 18km in his car. Having got his breath and strength back, he then ran the remaining 10km on foot not surprisingly finishing the Olympic marathon in first place! Well done Fred! Or not. What does the scripture say?

 2Ti 2:5 If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules. 

Same goes for the Christian race. On that day, as mentioned, the works of our lives will be tried by fire. Everything that is 'worthless', 'good for nothing', will be like wood, hay and stubble which will perish in the fire. We'll get to see this. Again, this is not about salvation but rewards. Paul clearly says that even if everything is burned, the believer themselves is still saved. But as one that just escapes the flames and gets out alive... with nothing else. We don't want to be like that. 3

The desire for rewards and to run well

Now should a desire for rewards motivate us? Some people think that a desire for rewards is wrong. An unnamed relative of mine said 'as long as I get a foot in the door of heaven that will be enough'. On the surface that sounds noble, humble, and good. And certainly getting a foot in the door of Heaven is incredibly far better than not getting in at all! But the Bible says:

 1Co 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize

The Bible is telling us that it is proper and right to desire to run so that you get rewards from the Lord. Even Moses, as recorded in Hebrews 11,  'regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.'  Here is the thing... rewards for your own glory would be wrong. If a person was doing something down here so that they think they can strut around like a peacock in heaven with their crowns saying 'look at me, look at me, look at me' then clearly they have the wrong idea and will find on that day that they are less of the first picture (a peacock) and more of the second (a puffin!) That is not why we should desire rewards and run to win. But there is a reason...

 It's because it gives HIM glory and not you.

Yes He will reward us if we are faithful. Yes we will be given positions of authority in His Kingdom if we have served well down here. But even greater than that is the fact that these rewards give, for eternity, glory to the Lamb. They say that He was worthy. He was worthy for our meditation and conversation. He was worthy for our time. He was worthy for our action. They say that the Lamb was more important than the temporal pleasures of this world..

 And to be honest I feel like a failure even as I write these words. I know all too well where I fall down. But I do take some comfort in another passage Paul wrote to the Corinthians about that day. It says:

 1Co 4:5 '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 .' 

It is comforting that God, as our Father, will be looking for something that He cane praise each of His children for on that day. But our goal is to make it so He doesn't have to look hard!

The rewards bring Him glory

Let's just finish by peering into the future. We read Revelation 4:1-3 last time and saw that like at the rapture, John heard a trumpet sound, was given a command of 'come up here' and was immediately before the throne. There sat One like Jasper and Sardius. We saw that the Sardius and Jasper were the first and last stones in the breastplate of the High Priest. We also saw that those stones stood for the first and last sons born to Jacob (Israel) which was Reuben and Benjamin. And what do their names mean in Hebrew? 'Behold a Son!' and 'Son of my right hand' - So, like John on that day, the One we will come before  is the Lord Jesus, the Son! But John saw something else. Something that no one in history had even seen before. We read:

 Rev 4:4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads. 

Around the central throne there were 24 thrones. And upon those thrones there were 24 elders. Sitting... clothed in white... with golden crowns upon their heads. These mysterious elders have long been the subject of much debate. If you want to know where I stand, I believe they represent the redeemed, crowned, rewarded believers. I believe this because:

  • They have never been seen or mentioned as being in heaven before but only show after the 'rapture' like event of Revelation 4:1-2.

  •  They are seated on thrones (which angels never are) which was a promise in Revelation to the church (Rev 3:21)

  •  They are dressed in white (speaks of redemption and purity) and was promised to the church (Rev 3:4)

  •  They have victors ('stephanos') crowns like those who have competed in the games and been rewarded. Again, this was a promise to the church (Rev 2:10)

But the main thing to point out for this study is what they did. Especially what they did with their crowns.

 Rev 4:9-11 And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne,  and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne  , saying, "Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created." 

The crowns, which represent our rewards, are used to give glory back to Him! How wonderful it will be to have something to offer back unto Him on that day!

Concluding verses...

So what are the practical take-aways from this? Well, we'll keep it simple so look at what Paul wrote in connection with this thought of the Bema:

1Co 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

1. Firstly, as mentioned, we should use the truth of the coming Bema to motivate us to run well in this life. We should run with the right motives and for His glory. This takes discipline and effort. No getting around it! 

2Co 5:9-10 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. (10) 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. Secondly, in view of standing before the Bema Judgement seat of Christ, Paul said that it should cause us to want to please the Lord, both here, now, and then when we are with Him. Do you know what pleases the Lord?4

Rom 14:10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat.

3. Thirdly, the thought of the judgement seat is tied in with not judging each other now. Why do you judge your brother Paul asks. We will all stand and have our life judged by the only One who truly knows us and is qualified to judge. So walk in love towards one another people, not petty judgement!

May you run well while here and be richly rewarded on that day at the race review!

  1. For some useless facts, did you know that in ancient Greece:
    Throwing an apple at someone was a sign of declaring your love towards them (if still valid today, that would mean my brother, in his youth, declared his love to a lot of people!)
    In ancient Greek the word 'idiot' meant anyone who was not a politician. It's funny how words can completely flip around and take on an opposite meaning over time! Ok... I'm being naughty!

  2. For more information see  

  3. An Old Testament example would be Abraham's nephew Lot. He lived in the morally corrupt city of Sodom. There wasn't a lot of 'good' that was going to come out of staying there. And when the fire of God's judgement came he and his daughters escaped with their life... but with nothing else. Everything they had accumulated and worked for over the course of their live in Sodom was gone. They made it out alive and were saved but as ' one escaping through the flames.'  

  4. Quite a long time ago I wrote three brief studies on the pleasing and displasing of God. Have a look here if interested:

     The pleasing and displeasing of God Part 1: The inward attitude
     The pleasing and displeasing of God Part 2: The outward life
     The pleasing and displeasing of God Part 3: Working out your salvation