Part 1: The Judgment Seat of Christ
Pastor Paul M. Sadler
In the glory days of American sports, when athletes competed for the love of the game or event, Jim Thorpe stands out as perhaps the greatest all-around athlete our country has ever produced. Born near Prague, Oklahoma in 1888, Thorpe began his athletic career at a small school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where he established himself as an outstanding football player, both at the college and professional level. But he was probably best known for his remarkable achievements at the 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden.
At the Stockholm games, Jim Thorpe, a Native American Indian, became the first athlete to win both the Pentathlon and the Decathlon. The Pentathlon is a one-day event which includes the long jump, javelin throw, 200-meter race, discus throw, and 1,500-meter race. The two-day Decathlon is a rigorous 10-event competition. On the first day, the participants compete in the 100-meter race, long jump, shot-put, high jump, and 400-meter race. On the second day, they compete in the high hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1,500-meter race. Having participated in some of these track and field events years ago, I can say that this was an amazing accomplishment.
Sadly, Jim Thorpe, was disqualified when it was learned that he had played baseball for a small salary some years earlier. The Amateur Athletic Union ruled that he was, therefore, “a professional athlete and ineligible to compete in the Olympic Games.” He was subsequently stripped of his Gold Medals for failing to observe the rules. 1
The Apostle Paul says that those who participate in these games “do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.” What we do for Christ now, which is likened to a race, will echo throughout eternity. The apostle’s great fear was that when he preached to others he would fail to bring himself into subjection to the things of the Lord, and consequently be disqualified at that day. In a nutshell, he didn’t want to be a hypocrite.
A SOLEMN OCCASION
“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” (II Cor. 5:10).
The themes of redemption and judgment are woven throughout the Scriptures. So it is important to rightly divide the Word of truth to ascertain which judgment pertains to us. Since Paul uses the personal pronoun “we” in the above passage and foregoing context, we can safely conclude that he is addressing the members of the Body of Christ. The Judgment Seat of Christ is a dispensational phrase solely found in Paul’s epistles. It is referred to in his revelation as “the day,” “that day,” and “the day of Christ.” This particular judgment will be a review of the believer’s conduct and service which takes place at the Rapture of the Church. According to I Thessalonians this is a planned meeting that was kept secret since the world began (Rom. 16:25 cf. I Thes. 4:17).
“For we must all appear.” Every believer in Christ has an appointment with the Lord—pastors and members of their congregation, Bible teachers and students, evangelists and converts, faithful and unfaithful, etc. Little wonder the Scriptures warn both leaders and those who sit under their ministries accordingly:
“According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth there-on. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon” (I Cor. 3:10).
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).
While Paul makes frequent references to the Judgment Seat of Christ in both his early and latter epistles, he deals extensively with the subject in the Corinthian letters. This isn’t without rhyme or reason; the apostle wanted the Corinthians to understand the gravity of their ungodly conduct. They seemed to be oblivious to the fact that someday they were going to stand before the Lord and give an account of their actions. Some may have even denied this based on the assumption that we are seated with Christ in the heavenlies. Although this is true positionally, the practical outworking of the matter is determined by our present conduct. The Corinthians would one day have to answer for the turmoil they caused in the local assembly, due to their envy, strife, divisions, carnality and immoral lifestyles.
This raises the question as to why God doesn’t simply judge believers when they die. Why wait until the Rapture of the Church? Here we must keep in mind that our lives touch the lives of others even in death. For example, Pastor J. C. O’Hair died in 1958, yet his writings and tape messages continue to bring others into a knowledge of the Mystery. Even though he is dead, he yet speaketh! Conversely, the Christian father who carelessly lives a worldly life influences his children to follow in his footsteps. The long-term effects of such a lifestyle will not be overlooked at that day.
But God has another reason to withhold judgment until the Judgment Seat—a solemn one indeed! Paul says, “Every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12). The terms “every one” and “himself” clearly indicate that each of us will stand individually before the Lord to give an answer for our behavior. But this doesn’t imply that others will not be present at times during the course of this examination. In fact, this will be a necessity to set the record straight. More will be said about this later.
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” As the phrase implies, Christ will be our Judge. According to John 5:27 the Father has placed all judgment into the hands of His dear Son. He is the perfect Judge. Even though the Mystery was still a secret when the events of John chapter five occurred, the principle of Christ’s judgeship certainly applies during the administration of Grace.
The apostle says in Colossians 2, “In Him [i.e. Christ] dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” As God, He knows our innermost thoughts and motives and the intent of the heart. On the other hand, He took upon Himself the form of a human servant and dwelt among us. No one will be able to stand before Him at that day and say, “Lord you just don’t understand!” Oh, but He does, my dear friend. Christ suffered in all points as we, yet without sin. As the prophet said, “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).
The Greek word for Judgment Seat here is Bema. In biblical times it was a raised platform, with ascending steps, where rulers handed down decisions (Acts 18:12-16). It was also the place where the judges presided over the Greek games. From this vantage point they could see the entire field of events. To be summoned to the Bema meant one of two things; either the participant was disqualified for disobeying the rules or rewarded with a garland for winning a particular event.
When we appear with Him in glory, Christ will hold a position of exaltation. As the righteous Judge, He will be clothed in glory, honor and majesty as we stand before Him. Unlike the Great White Throne, condemnation is not the issue at this judgment. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Since the sin question was answered for the believer at Calvary, this examination has to do with whether or not we have devoted our life to Christ and faithfully served Him. But will our sins be taken into consideration at the Bema? We will have more to say on this later.
“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.”
There has been an ongoing debate if the phrase “the things done in his body” is speaking of the believer’s body or the Body of Christ. It seems clear that Paul has the individual believer in mind. The original dia tou somatos has the idea of the things done “through our body.” In other words, there is a moral accountability insofar as our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are, therefore, accountable for its deeds, whether they are good or of no value. For example, we believe Paul’s instructions to the Colossians capture the moral responsibilities of slaves and masters or employees and employers.
“Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eye service, as men pleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: 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 Christ. But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons” (Col. 3:22-25).
In the final assessment, the Lord is going to compensate both labor and management for the good they have done and whatever wrongs they may have committed. Every believer in Christ can expect to receive a reward for good conduct and loss for misconduct. Little wonder Paul adds:
“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences” (II Cor. 5:11).
While the Corinthians lived as if there was no tomorrow, Paul cautions them regarding the “terror of the Lord.” Some have concluded that the apostle is now turning his attention to the unsaved, but this interpretation does a great injustice to the context in which the passage is set. The terror or fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. But in what sense should the believer fear the Lord? Consider for a moment standing before the Lord with perfect recall of every idle word, thought and deed. We should fear the possible devastating consequences of a misspent life, not to mention the inspection itself.
With this in mind, Paul sought to persuade men as to the gravity of the occasion. Of what did the apostle seek to convince believers? Since the behavior of the Corinthians left much to be desired, Paul is passionately trying to persuade them to walk worthy of their calling. This beckons the question, are we living up to God’s expectations? Paul could confidently say, “But we are made manifest unto God.” You see Paul had a clear conscience concerning his actions among them. Thus, he desired that his manner of life before the Lord would be manifested in his hearers’ consciences that they, too, would be to the praise of His glory at that day. (See II Tim. 3:10,14).
THE PREMISE OF THE JUDGMENT SEAT
“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” (I Cor. 3:10,11).
As we turn to I Corinthians Paul addresses our service in relation to the Judgment Seat of Christ. Interestingly, as he develops this theme he uses the metaphor of the “temple” in verse 16. While we lay great emphasis upon rightly dividing the Word of truth, we must also recognize that there are connections between the two programs of God. As members of the Body of Christ we are numbered with the household of God and therefore joined to the living temple, which God foreordained before the foundation of the world. This explains why Paul uses the metaphor of a temple when he speaks of us collectively. Hence, Ephesians Chapter 2:
“In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21,22).
God has raised up a new masterbuilder to add an addition to the household of God that was not included in the original plans of the Prophetic Program. It was hidden in the mind of God until the raising up of the Apostle Paul. He is the divinely ordained architect who laid a new section of foundation, which is Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the Mystery (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:1-10). The apostle was very, very careful not to build upon another man’s foundation, nor should we (Rom. 15:20). Of course, he was referring to building upon Peter’s foundation who preached Jesus Christ according to the Kingdom promised by the prophets of old.
Like a father, Paul warns us, “I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon” (I Cor. 3:10). The foundation upon which the Judgment Seat of Christ is based will be Jesus Christ according to His heavenly ministry, as revealed by Paul. So then, as we serve the Lord we must take care to use Pauline materials when building upon our foundation, otherwise we will suffer the consequences at that day.