The coming of Christ will be an occasion of jubilation for all saints. When the graves are opened and the dead in Christ shall rise first and the living saints shall be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air, it will be a time such as attends the meeting of a bride with her bridegroom.
Believers never need fear a condemnatory judgment for sin. For every Christian this judgment is already past. When Jesus comes again He will have in His body the marks of crucifixion, and this will prove that the penalty for sin has been paid in full. Our Lord reassures us by His own word: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24). To this the Apostle Paul adds: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Our souls rest forever upon these eternal words of our God.
Yet the Bible teaches clearly that all men, both living and dead, saved and unsaved, must give an account to Christ. The Apostle Peter, in his great sermon in the house of Cornelius, said “that it is He which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead” (Acts 10:42). Later, in his First Epistle, Peter wrote that the saints “shall give account to Him that is ready to judge the quick (the living) and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). Those who were dead, those who have died since or will have died, and the living must give account to Jesus Christ who is ready to judge all men.
Not all men will be judged at the same time and place. There are five future judgments.
1. The Judgment Seat of Christ. The first of these will be the judgment of the believer’s works, called “The Judgment Seat of Christ.” It is this judgment to which we shall give consideration in this chapter. But first, we shall outline the four future judgments that will follow the judgment of the believer’s works.
2. The Judgment of Regathered Israel. In Daniel 12:1 this judgment is called “The Time of Jacob’s Trouble.” It will be the punishment of the Jews for their disobedience to God and their rejection of Jesus Christ. During the Tribulation Period and after the close of the present Age of Grace, Israel will pay for her sins, being afflicted with unprecedented misery and woe.
3. The Judgment of the Living Nations. At the end of the Tribulation Period, after Israel has been judged, the nations of earth will be judged by Christ and His Church. This judgment will not be against individuals but against nations for their treatment of the Jewish people. “For, behold, in those days, and in that time, when I shall bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem, I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for my people and for my heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land” (Joel 3:1-2).
4. The Judgment of Fallen Angels. This is the final judgment against Satan and other fallen angels who will be judged with him. Immediately after the one thousand years of the Kingdom Age, Satan and his hosts will meet their doom. “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, He hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). At that time we shall see the final fulfillment of that great prophecy in Genesis 3:15.
5. The Judgment of the Unbelieving Dead. This is called the Great White Throne Judgment. After the casting of Satan into Hell, the wicked dead will be raised to receive the final sentence of condemnation (Revelation 20:12-15). No believer will be judged at that day as the final judgment is reserved for all who rejected the Lord Jesus Christ on earth.
The first future judgment derives its name from two passages where the term “Judgment Seat of Christ” appears:
For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10).
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10).
This judgment cannot be confused with either of the other judgments because the Holy Spirit used a Greek word to describe the Judgment Seat of Christ that is peculiar and different from the Greek words used in connection with other judgments. Here the word used is bema. It appears in classical Greek to identify the judge’s seat in the arena of the Olympic games. The bema was the seat whereon the judge sat, not to punish contestants, but to present awards to the victors. When Christians stand before the bema of Christ, it will be for the express purpose of being rewarded according to their works. There is no idea of inflicting punishment.
The Judge. Our Lord Himself said: “The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son” (John 5:22). The Apostle Paul said to the Athenians that “God hath appointed a day, in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that 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). In this sense every judgment throne can be considered as the judgment seat of Christ, for, as the resurrected Son of God, He has been appointed by the Father to be the Judge of all. However, there is only one bema, a throne erected for Christ for the purpose of awarding the prizes or crowns to the victorious saints.
Since Christ is the Judge, and a time and place have been set for the judgment of believers, we are warned against any attempt at judging each other in this life. “Why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Romans 14:10). We are not judges. Therefore we have no right to judge or to despise our brother. It is not possible for any of us to judge righteously and justly because we do not know the hearts of each other. Jesus warned His disciples: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). We must exercise a careful discrimination in all matters, but our attitude is to be without censoriousness. We are expected to use our reason and the powers of discernment, but never to avenge, condemn, nor damn another. Abraham Kuyper has said: “All human judgment remains imperfect. It can never fully satisfy our thirst after justice.” A human tribunal cannot bring a just retribution upon those who have committed crimes in secret. Too frequently the guilty are set free and the innocent condemned. “Forget not your martyrs.” Because of our limitations we come to wrong conclusions. Therefore we are to leave all judgment with the omniscient Judge who will judge righteously and accurately, but never falsely. When Jesus comes, every Christian dead or alive, will be included in the great throng that will stand before the bema of Christ. We will be there, not merely as spectators or witnesses. The Holy Judge will not need anyone to witness. In that day His word shall stand. “He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for He knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25).
The Judged. Only believers will appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ. In both verses where this judgment is mentioned (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10), the words are addressed to Christians only. All the wicked dead (unbelievers) will be judged at the Great White Throne after the one thousand year reign of Christ on earth. But the subjects to whom the Apostle Paul addressed his messages when he said, “We must all appear,” were exclusively the saints of whom Paul considered himself one. Someone will question the possibility of standing room for the countless millions of saints, or another may question the time element of such “an endlessly drawn out pronouncement of judgment upon so large a host of individuals.” The Bible is silent on details as to the exact location of the place of judgment. Whether in Heaven or in the air we cannot tell. However, one thing is certain, as Henry W. Frost has said: “A divine judgment need not take long.” It is absurd even to conceive of a problem of space when we think of the vast expanse in the heavens. “It is possible that this judgment of the saints will be instantaneous, and that each Christian will rise into the air to enter at once into his proper place and appointed rewarding.” If there are problems regarding the exact location and the manner of this judgment, there are none regarding its certainty, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”
Let us pause to read carefully the Holy Spirit’s message concerning Christian work and its rewards:
For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, 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 by fire (1 Corinthians 3:9-15).
The great Apostle refers to himself and all of his fellow-workers as “labourers together with God.” This is a wonderful truth when we realize that God does not actually need any one of us to do His work. It is not necessary that He should consider us at all to carry His Gospel, for He can carry out the whole plan of salvation without us. He could send His holy angels to spread redemption’s message, or He could flash it across the skies to the visibility of every person in the universe, but He has chosen the believer to tell the story of His sovereign grace and matchless love.
The foundation for this work is already laid, “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (verse 11). Now we are to build upon this foundation, and the work in which we engage ourselves must stand the test of the judgment seat of Christ if we are to receive a reward. “Every man’s work shall be made manifest . . . and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.” Many Christians who have labored humbly and prayerfully in the Spirit will be rewarded, but that which was done in the energy of the flesh and which is merely called “Christian work” will be consumed by the fire of purging. “If a man’s work abide, he shall receive a reward. If a man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss.” “We shall be judged” according to the secret motives and the character of our work. If you cannot do all that you would like to do, be sure that whatever you do is of the right “sort.” This means that if our work is of the right kind or character, we will receive a reward. Contrariwise, if what a believer does is not of the right character, “he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15).
In an interesting and instructive parable of our Lord recorded by Luke (Luke 18:11-27), we have a picture of this present age and the Christian’s responsibility. “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, ‘Occupy till I come.’” The ten pounds were divided equally among the ten servants, thus showing that each servant had an equal opportunity during the Lord’s absence. To each of us has been committed the witness of Jesus Christ. We are to share in the opportunities and responsibilities of making Him known. Not one single Christian can say that he is not responsible for the spreading of the truth of the Gospel. During our Lord’s absence we are to occupy till He comes, for He is coming again, as He said, to render to every man according to his deeds.
“When he was returned, having received the kingdom, then he commanded these servants to be called unto him, to whom he had given the money, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading.” Here our Lord describes what will happen when He returns. All of us who are His shall be called unto Him to give an account of ourselves as to how we discharged our responsibilities during His absence. This is the Judgment Seat of Christ, and it will determines our position and service in the Millennial Kingdom. Recently in Philadelphia two men took the same examination with the understanding that the one receiving the highest grade would be appointed to the office of Chief of the Fire Bureau. It is by the same method of competitive examination in faithfulness that the saints will be appointed to rule with Christ. In the parable the servant who gained ten pounds was called “faithful,” and was given authority over ten cities. Likewise the servant which gained five pounds was given authority over five cities. But the servant who resumed his one pound, having done nothing with it, was sternly rebuked. The Lord said: “Take from him the pound, and give it to him that hath ten pounds.”
When Jesus comes each believer will receive his or her just reward for service according to the measure and motive of our works. No rewards will be given by political preferment, but only in exact proportion to the genuine effort put forth. Other parables of our Lord which should be studied in connection with Christian service are the Unprofitable Servant (Luke 17:7-10), The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 10:1-16), and The Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
The Apostle Paul says: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:41-42). Every Christian will be given a celestial body in the Resurrection, but these bodies will differ in the glory that each shall possess and enjoy in Heaven. Paul asks us to notice how the stars differ in glory, some shining with a greater brilliance than others. Then he concludes: “So also is the resurrection of the dead.” All believers will have glorified bodies, but there will be difference in glory according to the measure of our diligence and devotedness to Christ and His work. I hold in my hand three coins. One is gold, one is silver and the third is copper. All three bear the same inscription of the United States of America. However, the glory of the gold is one glory, the glory of the silver is a lesser glory, and the glory of the copper is yet a lesser glory than either the gold or the silver. So also is the resurrection of the dead. Each of the bodies of the saved will bear the glorified and heavenly mark of distinction, but the glory of some will differ from the glory of others. Our capacity to serve in Heaven we will take to Heaven with us when Jesus comes.
Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown (Revelation 3:11).
And, behold, I come quickly; and My reward is with Me, to give every man according as his work shall be (Revelation 22:12).
The Judgment Seat of Christ will be a crowning day for those Christians who will receive rewards for their works. The New Testament teaches that these are called “crowns.” There are five such “crowns” to be given.
1. The Incorruptible Crown. “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Here Paul has in mind the athlete in the Roman arena. Before the contest each participant practiced self-discipline, being temperate in all things. There were doubtless many pleasures and pastimes that the athletes might have entered into and enjoyed, but they denied themselves these things in order to do their best. A crown awaited the victor. The incorruptible crown for the Christian is the victor’s crown for those who keep under the body and bring it into subjection. There are certain pleasures, worldly amusements, manners of dress, and uses of cosmetics that interfere with one’s progress in spreading the Gospel and winning the lost to Christ. If I live victoriously over all things, “making no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof,” I shall gain the reward for a victorious life which is the Incorruptible Crown. If an athlete must subject himself to many months of rigid discipline and training to obtain a corruptible crown, how much more should we bring our bodies into subjection for a crown that is incorruptible!
2. The Crown of Rejoicing. “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For ye are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19, 20). This is the soul-winner’s crown. The first thing that a Christian should pray for and seek to cultivate is the desire, ability, and wisdom to win lost souls to Jesus Christ. Paul was confident that when he would stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ the Thessalonian converts would guarantee a crown for all those who shared in bringing them to Christ. Every time an individual is converted, there is joy in Heaven; but at the day of the giving of rewards the soul-winner will be exceeding joyful when those are presented to God whom he had won to Christ. What is our hope of reward as Christ’s witnesses? The answer is in those who will be in Heaven because of our prayers, gifts, preaching, and personal work.
3. The Crown of Righteousness. “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto them also that love His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). Here the character of the reward corresponds to the character of the Giver. Both are said to be righteous. The doctrine of our Lord’s return is regarded very highly by God. In spite of the fact that Jesus said He would come again, there are many people who scoff at the thought of Christ’s appearing. This and kindred truths have brought suffering and hardship, and in some cases death, to those who insisted on preaching and teaching them. But how wonderful to know that God has prepared a special reward for all who look for that blessed hope, who wait for His son from Heaven, and who love His appearing.
4. The Crown of Life. “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him” (James 1:12). “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
The Crown of Life is reserved for those who have given all their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Not all of our Lord’s witnesses have been called to suffering and martyrdom. Not all would be willing to pay with their lives to take the message of salvation to the lost. How thoughtful and just our heavenly Father was when He prepared a martyr’s crown for those who suffer persecution for Christ’s sake! Though some of us will not receive the Crown of Life, we will rejoice with those who refused to count the cost and have died proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.
5. The Crown of Glory. “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:2-5). There are many who have been called and ordained by God to preach and teach His Word. These are the undershepherds who care for the flock of God during the absence of the Chief Shepherd. My brother-minister, let us give ourselves without ostentation to the care of the sheep of His pasture, for the crown of unfading glory awaits us in the day when the Chief Shepherd shall appear.
If there is to be joy and rejoicing for those who receive the crowns, surely there will be disappointment and sorrow for those who will not receive them. God keeps an exact record of the sins and works of His children. The record includes all of our motives and acts, our response to or our rejection of God’s call to faithful stewardship and service. When an unfaithful Christian hears and sees the true record of his unfaithfulness; when he is reminded of the large sum of money he left behind, a portion of which could have been given to the spreading of the Gospel; when he sees how the cause of Christ has suffered because of his neglect and indifference when a Christian who has wronged his brother and never repented of his sin sees that ugly deed dragged out of its hiding place, will that Christian be unmoved by the revealing of his empty and wasted life while on earth? Will there be no regret, no shame, no consternation? Listen once again to God’s immortal declaration: “If a man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer . . .”
The story was told of a great fire in a city apartment house. The tenants had all been led to safety with the exception of one family on one of the upper floors. The mother, driven to frenzy by the terror that accompanied the flaming and smoke-filled room, leaped to safety into a fireman’s net. But it was discovered that, in her befogged and delirious mind, she completely forgot her children who perished in the flames. She was saved as by fire, but she suffered great loss. May God grant that we should strive to labor in the light of that hour when all of our work shall be judged by Jesus Christ Himself and we shall be rewarded accordingly.
The Judgment Seat of Christ seems a necessity to the writer. Think of the believers, all members of the body of Christ, who are divided because of differences. In organizations, in churches, and in families I have seen Christians who are not on speaking terms. People who were at one time very close and intimate friends are now separated and a bitter feeling exists between them. Each blames the separation on the other, and they continue on, trying to serve the Lord, but their difference has not been adjusted. Now if our Lord returns before there is a reconciliation of such Christians here on earth, it is necessary that they get right with each other somewhere, for certainly they cannot continue on forever in holding hatred and animosity in their hearts. Heaven knows no such actions. Hatred and unforgiveness is sin. Yet there is no sin in Heaven. Hence the necessity of the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The Judgment Seat of Christ is necessary because not one believer has received his reward for any service he has rendered in this life. Often, and frequently at funerals, we hear it said that the departed one has gone to his eternal reward. This is not Scripturally correct. The departed saints are with the Lord, but not one has received his reward as yet. We are not rewarded one by one at death. None of the disciples nor the apostles has received his rewards yet, nor will he until Jesus comes back and all saints are gathered together. Jesus said to the Pharisee in whose house He had dined: “Thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14).
Dear Christian, “Be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love” (Hebrews 6:10). “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Jesus Christ” (Colossians 3:23, 24).
One final word! “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 John 2:28). Ashamed at His coming! What a sorry closing chapter for any believer’s life! How ashamed we will be if we are engaged in dishonest business, unclean conversation, or unholy living. Let us, with singleness of purpose, abandon ourselves to His perfect will for our lives so that we may hear Him say to us: “Well done.”