Go for the Gold
The Olympics have been in the news recently, partly due to North Korea's efforts to schmooze their way into the Winter Games in Seoul, South Korea in February. While some are welcoming the move, others are warning the hermit state could simply be playing nice for sanctions relief and to buy time to advance their nuclear weapons program. (Ya think?)
Political intrigue aside, however, I've always enjoyed the Olympics; it's always exciting to see the world's best athletes compete at the highest level, and it's especially thrilling when an athlete you're rooting for ends up standing on that podium to receive a gold medal.
But just like those superbly conditioned athletes, we as born-again believers will also stand on a podium one day soon to be rewarded—only the rewards we receive will never tarnish or corrode:
24Don't you know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run like that, that you may win. 25Every man who strives in the games exercises self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. 26I therefore run like that, as not uncertainly. I fight like that, as not beating the air, 27but I beat my body and bring it into submission, lest by any means, after I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.
(1 Corinthians 9:24–27 / emphasis added)
And please note that when Paul says "rejected," the word he uses (adokimos) indicates that he might forfeit his reward—not that he might lose his salvation. In other words, Paul is communicating his attitude toward his future rewards in heaven:
I'm going for the gold.
And he's telling us we should do the same. But what about this idea of receiving rewards in heaven?
Many people in the Church almost seem to pooh-pooh the notion, as if it were unseemly or made us appear greedy or selfish to seek after "rewards" from God. Yet the concept of God graciously rewarding faithful service and obedience appears in numerous places throughout Scripture, from promises in the Old Testament to parables in the New. If God didn't intend that to be a legitimate source of motivation for us to serve Him in conjunction with the fact that we love and seek to honor Him, then why does it appear so many times in His Word?
Now, if you're anything like me, you realize that there are a number of important biblical doctrines and topics that are seldom preached on in the Church today. At one end of the spectrum, you have churches that are content to give their congregants PowerPoint pep talks that go down easy and give folks a week's worth of feel-good, and at the other end you have churches that hammer away on aberrant teachings that are utterly divorced from a diligent assessment of what God's Word actually says.
Rounding out the pack are churches that are basically good churches that basically preach the Word, but tend to avoid certain doctrines because they are perceived to be divisive or controversial—and as everyone knows these days, controversy exists because someone has been offended, and if someone has been offended it means the church has failed to be sufficiently inclusive, tolerant, diverse, affirming, or otherwise politically correct. Thus, such doctrines are contrary to the mantra of the mainstream, twenty-first century church:
Avoid controversy at all costs.
Given the fact that for all practical purposes we are staring down the barrels of the Rapture, I think it is somewhat ironic that this particular topic seems to have slipped through the doctrinal cracks in many modern churches. It strikes me that a substantial percentage of Christians are either only marginally aware of it, or at best have vague and often unscriptural ideas about it.
Yet given the palpable nearness of the Rapture, I can think of few things that should be occupying the time and attention of born-again believers any more than this topic:
The judgment seat of Christ, aka the Bema.
In reality, we will quite likely be attending this event within just a few short years (and yes, it could be next week). In spite of that fact, precious few people seem to be focused on it in any significant way. Even though large numbers of people are all lathered up about the Rapture and are obsessed with their tireless efforts to ferret out its precise timing from a vast ocean of tantalizing clues (unsuccessfully, last time I checked), virtually no one is talking about one of the first and most important things we will be doing shortly after the Rapture occurs.
The dearth of clear, biblical teaching on the judgment seat of Christ is a tragic error on the part of the corporate Church, and in this article I want to discuss the Bema and several important ideas pertaining to it, if for no other reason than to get a few people to wake up and start giving it the serious thought it warrants.
Because make no mistake:
Our preparation for the Bema (or the lack thereof) in this life will have consequences in the next.
This article is not intended to be a full-bore, in-depth study on the judgment seat of Christ—think of it as a memo. I honestly just want to get people to start giving it more serious consideration. It's something to jog people's memories and get them thinking, Oh yeah, that Bema thing. Hmm, maybe I should start considering my reward situation...
In this article, all I want to do is briefly review some of the scriptural particulars concerning the Bema, and in the process hit a few basics like where it is, when it is, what it is, and just as importantly, what it isn't. Along the way, I hope I can share with you a few insights concerning this event that I feel are worthy of greater attention, especially in light of the lateness of the hour.
What's a bema?
The Greek word that lies at the heart of phrases like "the judgment seat of Christ" is bema (lit. "step"). In ancient Greece, a bema was a platform that was raised several steps above ground level, and it was originally where prizes were awarded to the winners at public sporting events.
Later, it was used as a place where officials would deliver public addresses and hear legal cases. The apostle Paul stood at the bema in Corinth before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, to face charges of influencing people to worship God in ways that were "contrary to the law" (Acts 18:12–17).
In fact, Christ stood before the bema of Pontius Pilate as He was condemned to be crucified:
19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him." 20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes to ask for Barabbas, and destroy Jesus. 21But the governor answered them, "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" They said, "Barabbas!"
22Pilate said to them, "What then shall I do to Jesus, who is called Christ?" They all said to him, "Let him be crucified!"
(Matthew 27:19–22/ emphasis added)
(See also John 19:13.)
The Bema we're talking about here, however, is much more than that. It is a future event where all members of the body of Christ will, quite simply, stand before the Lord and be rewarded for the good works they performed during their earthly lives.
As to where the Bema occurs, that's pretty easy. Every member of the Church will stand before Christ to give account for their lives, which means our earthly lives are, you know, over. So it goes without saying that the Bema occurs in heaven. At least it's unclear to me how a case could be made for it happening anywhere else.
The when is also fairly straightforward, if due diligence is given to the plain text of Scripture. Here's your first clue: When the Church returns to earth with Christ at the Second Coming, we have apparently already been rewarded:
7"Let us rejoice and be exceedingly glad, and let us give the glory to him. For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his wife has made herself ready." 8It was given to her that she would array herself in bright, pure, fine linen: for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.
I am convinced this is a reference to the rewards the Church will receive at the Bema, and it indicates that at the very least we have been rewarded at the Bema before the Second Coming (which single-handedly rules out a post-trib Rapture). And if we accept that the 24 elders in Revelation 4:4 are in fact the raptured Church wearing their stephanous, or crowns of reward for faithful service, we have the Bema occurring before the Tribulation even begins in Revelation 6.
Oops, let's not go there: Chalk it up to my inner conspiracy theorist, but it strikes me that one possible reason that teaching on the judgment seat of Christ has seemingly dropped off the radar is because a careful study of it inevitably and inexorably leads to the Rapture occurring prior to the onset of the Tribulation. That's right, gang: a clear scriptural understanding of the Bema Seat tends to corroborate the most reviled and viciously attacked doctrine in the Church today—the pre-trib Rapture. So, many churches today don't want to teach about the Bema? Color me surprised.
Although the Greek word bema is used 13 times in the New Testament, it is only used in specific reference to the judgment seat of Christ twice:
9Therefore also we make it our aim, whether at home or absent, to be well pleasing to him. 10For we must all be revealed before the judgment seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
(2 Corinthians 5:9–10 / emphasis added)
10But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11For it is written, "'As I live,' says the Lord, 'to me every knee will bow. Every tongue will confess to God.'" 12So then each one of us will give account of himself to God.
(Romans 14:10–12 / emphasis added)
Pot...kettle...black: Most Christians are familiar with the idea that we shouldn't judge others, but this last verse clearly spells out the reason why. We have no business judging others and their works because as believers, every single one of us will stand at the Bema and have our own works judged at the appointed time by the Righteous Judge.
Paul expounds on the Bema in more depth in both his first and second letters to the Church at Corinth. In his first letter, he speaks in terms of believers building on the foundation which is Christ:
12But if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or stubble; 13each man's work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man's work is. 14If any man's work remains which he built on it, he will receive a reward. 15If any man's work is burned, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, but as through fire.
(1 Corinthians 3:12–15)
As believers, the things we do in our lives with what God has given us—be they good, bad, or of no consequence—are likened to materials that we use to build on the foundation of Christ. Some of those things are characterized as gold, silver, and precious stones. These are things we do in obedience to the Word and through the power and prompting of the Holy Spirit.
I for one believe these include a correct understanding of the doctrines laid out in God's Word, understanding gained by obedience to commands such as the following:
15Study to show yourself approved to God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
(2 Timothy 2:15)
All told, these are things that will survive the fire of God's judgment, and we will be richly rewarded for them. As far as the actual nature of those rewards is concerned, the Bible does speak of five specific crowns believers can win (a topic I have covered in more detail here). I see no scriptural reason to believe, however, that our rewards are limited to just those five crowns; I am of the opinion that our rewards will be richly varied and unique to us as individuals.
I am also inclined to believe that there are rewards we can lose (Rev. 3:11) and rewards we cannot lose (Matt. 10:40–42). For example, some of the crowns mentioned in Scripture are awarded to those who maintain a certain state, such as living in expectation of the Rapture or striving to crucify the flesh and living a life characterized by holiness. These are rewards that can be forfeited if one falls away from or fails to maintain that condition.
On the other hand, some rewards are for doing specific things, like leading someone to faith in Christ. That type of reward is a done deal, and cannot be lost or undone.
I tend to think our rewards will in some way translate to enhanced capabilities and expanded opportunities to serve in the kingdom, but I am loath to speculate beyond that. I am confident of one thing, however:
Our rewards will surpass anything we can currently imagine.
Closing Pandora's box
In my opinion, there seem to be gradations suggested here. In other words, gold is worth somewhat more than silver, and both are typically worth more than many types of precious stones—even though all three are considered extremely valuable and are universally treasured.
I don't think these gradations are there by accident—I don't think the Holy Spirit is just trying to turn a phrase. It suggests to me that some of the things we do through the power and prompting of the Holy Spirit are more valuable and praiseworthy to the Lord than others, although all may be deemed worthy of reward.
For example, an evangelist who leads hundreds of people to faith in Christ in a series of revival meetings in some city would no doubt receive a greater reward for that at the Bema than someone would receive for surreptitiously but strategically leaving a gospel tract at the office coffee machine for a certain co-worker to find, even though both people may have done what they did through the power and prompting of the Holy Spirit and in sincere obedience to God's Word.
Other of our works are characterized as wood, hay, and stubble. These are things that have no spiritual or eternal value, and are things that will be burned away in the fire of judgment at the Bema, just as wood, hay and stubble are literally consumed by literal fire.
Notice that Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, didn't refer to the things that will not survive God's judgment as garbage. He didn't call such works stinking piles of diseased camel dung. He called them wood, hay, and stubble—but what about wood, hay, and stubble?
Consider: All three are things that are actually useful—they are not totally without value in our temporal lives here on earth. And again, there seem to be gradations suggested here.
Wood is easily the most valuable item—it is used to build homes that stand for generations. Wood is used to build strong and functional items of every description, and can be carved into exquisitely beautiful shapes and designs.
Wood might have been used to build the stable where Christ was born.
Hay is also valuable, albeit less so than wood. Although it was used for millennia to stuff mattresses and other items, its primary use is to feed farm animals the world over.
Hay may well have cushioned the baby Jesus in the manger where He lay.
Even stubble, which consists primarily of the stalks remaining after the grain has been harvested, can also be used as animal feed as well as a means of returning important nutrients to the soil.
The sheep under the care of the shepherd boys who were visited by an angel the night of Christ's birth might have been grazing on stubble.
The point is that wood, hay, and stubble represent things we do in our lives that are not necessarily sinful per se, but are simply things we will fail to receive a reward for. In Paul's words, we will "suffer loss," and the Greek word used is zemioo, which means something along the lines of "forfeiting" a potential reward, incurring loss or damage, or in a sense being "fined."
Fire will most definitely consume wood, hay, and stubble, and so they paint a picture of things that simply have no spiritual or eternal value. But the works that get burned up are not necessarily sin—many are simply things we did with what God gave us that have no spiritual or eternal worth.
This leads us to a key point and a common misunderstanding of the nature of the judgment seat of Christ:
When we stand before Christ at the Bema,
we are not going to be judged for sin!
Perhaps some people are influenced by the use of the word "judgment" in the phrase "the judgment seat of Christ," but the point is that every sin we ever committed or ever will commit in our earthly lives was atoned for by the precious blood of Jesus two thousand years ago:
24Most certainly I tell you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and doesn't come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.
(John 5:24 / emphasis added)
8There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
(Romans 8:1 / emphasis added)
13You were dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh. He made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14wiping out the handwriting in ordinances which was against us; and he has taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross.
(Colossians 2:13–14 / emphasis added)
I could list a half dozen more without blinking, but certainly few things are taught with any greater clarity in Scripture—Jesus took the judgment for our sins on the cross. Period. If our sins were being judged at the Bema, it would open the mother of all theological Pandora's boxes:
"Scripture teaches that for the believer God's justice has already been fully and forever satisfied at the Cross in relation to the believer's sins. If God were to punish the believer judicially for his sins for which Christ has already rendered payment, He would be requiring two payments for sin and would therefore be unjust. Such a concept (punishment for sin) erroneously disparages the all-sufficiency of Christ's death on the cross." (emphasis in original)
— Samuel Hoyt
"The Judgment Seat of Christ in Theological
Perspective" (Part 2) Bibliotheca Sacra
It is our works that are being judged, not our sins, and this judgment is by no means punitive in nature. In other words, no punishments are being meted out here. After all, think about it:
At the original bema, the winners were rewarded—
the losers weren't taken out and horsewhipped.
After the judging was over, they just walked away empty-handed. And the criterion for rewards at the Bema is pretty straightforward:
We will be rewarded for our works that are not burned away, and we will forfeit rewards for the ones that are.
Wide right, wide left
There are two common views of the Bema that in reality are skewed—one toward the negative end of the spectrum and one toward the positive.
The first one views the Bema as the celestial equivalent of waterboarding, where every sin you ever committed in your entire life will be flashed on a gigantic 3-D video screen for the entire Church to gasp at in horror (or at least for you to gasp at in horror). After that, presumably, you slink away in shame with whatever puny reward you managed to eke out, never to show your face outside your mansion for all eternity.
Although this might be what it takes to motivate certain types of people to get their spiritual act together, this view effectively turns heaven into hell, and in so doing flatly contradicts every description of heaven found anywhere in the pages of Scripture.
Taken to its most grotesque and absurdly unscriptural extreme, this view morphs into the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory.
I have a confession to make: Before writing this article, I had always been mystified how on earth the Roman Catholic Church ever managed to put a doctrinal abortion like purgatory over on people. I mean, good grief, where did that come from?! I figured it must have been invented by some lunatic pope in the Dark Ages or something, and no good Catholic dared question it ever since. To my utter amazement, I found out it's at least partially based on what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:15, particularly the part about someone being saved "but as through fire."
OK, let's slay this dragon right now. In verse 15, the Greek phrase that is translated "but as through fire" is houtos de hos dia pyros, which could be rendered as "as it were, by fire." The Greek phrase houtos de hos clearly and unmistakably indicates that what follows is meant metaphorically, not literally. In other words, to interpret verse 15 as people actually burning in literal fire...
"...is to miss Paul by a wide margin. This is metaphor, pure and simple. The Greek construction, houtos de hos, makes this certain: 'thus, as it were, only through fire'."
— Gordon D. Fee
The First Epistle to the Corinthians
So a clumsy, woodenly literal reading of an obvious metaphor by people who did everything in their power to keep the Bible out of the hands of the common man for over a millennium so they could continue to profit from perverting it has kept untold millions of Catholic faithful in bondage since the Middle Ages. Why am I not surprised.
"The Roman Catholic interpretation completely misses the point. Paul is using an analogy. He is not talking about a real fire. He is not talking about men and women burning. Paul is speaking of an imaginary building that represents a person's ministry, not the individual himself. Figuratively speaking, it is a person's work that will burn, not the person himself. The focus of the illustration is the potential loss of reward for poor service, not the atonement of sin or the cleansing of souls."
— James G. McCarthy
The Gospel According to Rome
So, Paul is crystal clear in verse 15 that it is the works that are being burned up in the fire of judgment, not the person himself actually burning in literal fire. No one—not one single person—is going to literally burn in the flames of "purgatory" for a thousand years in order to be purged of their venial sins and ultimately qualify for heaven. They can perform all the acts of contrition they like; they can rattle off Gloria Patris and Ave Marias until they are blue in the face; they can even attend World Youth Day, according to Pope Francis: it matters not a whit. They are not going to get a couple of centuries knocked off their purgatorial sentence because the entire concept is the product of the powers of darkness—a demonic Danse Macabre that couldn't possibly be any more alien to the pages of God's Word.
On the other hand, the second view toward the positive end of the spectrum basically ignores Paul's words about "suffering loss" or forfeiting rewards at the Bema, and gives little thought to the idea that we will be acutely aware of how much more we could have done with what God gave us.
Don't worry—be happy: Among those in the Church who even believe the biblical doctrine of the Rapture to begin with (a disturbingly small percentage), one common perception of the Bema is something like the following: (a) We get raptured, and (b) we live in unimaginable, mind-blowing bliss for eternity. That's it—end of story. As soon as we're raptured, we'll never feel the slightest trace of regret or remorse from that moment on for all eternity. Oh, all our failures and wasted opportunities to serve God and live an overcoming life? Chill out, dude...all that will be soo forgotten.
They probably give little thought to the Bema, if any, and casually assume that it's full-throttle bliss from the moment of the Rapture on. Thus, they feel no real compulsion to prepare for anything that happens afterwards. Their focus is exclusively on the singular event of the Rapture, as if that one event were the end all, be all of the Christian life.
I have a timely word for such people...and if it doesn't apply to you, duck and let it hit the person behind you.
Many Christians are familiar with the customs of the Jewish wedding, primarily because the event is packed to the gills with symbolism aimed squarely at the Church. They know that Christ paid the bride price for us with His blood, has gone to His Father's house to prepare a place for us, and when the midnight cry sounds, He will come to snatch us away without warning to take us to the wedding. From start to finish, Jewish marriage customs paint a beautiful picture of the interactions between the Bride and our Bridegroom—from the establishment of the marriage contract, throughout the betrothal period, and all the way through to the marriage ceremony itself and the festivities that follow.
There is one aspect, however, that many people today seem intent on overlooking. During the betrothal period, which was typically around a year or so (i.e., over nine months—long enough to publicly demonstrate the fact that she was "pure," if you catch my drift), the bride was expected to keep herself busy in preparation, specifically in the sewing of her wedding garments. Remember what I said about the Church returning with Christ to earth at the Second Coming having already been rewarded? Let's take another look at that verse:
7Let us rejoice and be exceedingly glad, and let us give the glory to him. For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his wife has made herself ready." 8It was given to her that she would array herself in bright, pure, fine linen: for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.
(Revelation 19:7–8 / emphasis added)
Again, the "acts" being spoken of here have nothing to do with our salvation—they have to do with our rewards. My point? In a Jewish wedding, the betrothed bride had work to do. She was expected to tailor her wedding garments, in addition to mastering various other domestic skills (and note that the failure to do an especially skillful job tailoring her wedding garments didn't make her any less a bride).
But she didn't lay around the house all day daydreaming about the wedding ceremony. She didn't idle away the hours obsessed with futile attempts to interpret all kinds of "clues" in order to predict when her groom would come for her—a day she knew for a fact that she would never know in advance. A Jewish bride didn't waste her time in such a manner because she had far more important things to do—and so does the bride of Christ.
Right down the middle
The point is that
there will be those
who will experience
varying degrees of
shame at the Bema.
If we're going to home in on the proper attitude toward the Bema, one thing we must not do is casually ignore the negative aspect of it—and that's precisely the point: there is one. When someone sees a healthy percentage of their earthly works go up in flames, so to speak, they will "suffer loss." They will be "fined." They will foolishly forfeit rewards they could have otherwise received if only they had been more mindful of abiding in Christ, had made a greater effort to stay in fellowship with Him, and had been more obedient to the Word and more faithful in their service.
I dare say that in many cases, people will be confronted with the stark reality of how little they did and how often they failed to abide in Him, and how much more and better they could have and should have done with the opportunities God gave them.
Now, I'm not trying to bum you out or throw a cold, wet blanket on your vision of what heaven will be like, because after all—we will be in heaven! But in spite of the fact that we are in heaven, Scripture indicates that there will be some degree of shame for many people at His coming for us in the Rapture, shortly after which we will stand before Him at the Bema:
28Now, little children, remain in him, [i.e., abide in Him] that when he appears, we may have boldness, and not be ashamed before him at his coming.
(1 John 2:28 / emphasis & comments added)
The point is that there will be those who experience varying degrees of shame at the Bema. And the key point seems to be how much we abide in Him—how much we remain in fellowship with Him, by confessing our sins and seeking to obey His Word and keeping Him at the center of our lives.
At the Bema, whatever sense of shame we might feel will be provoked by the revelatory nature of His presence, although given the splendor of heaven and the overwhelming bliss we will experience, those feelings are likely to be fleeting, especially in light of the promises of Scripture:
9But as it is written, "Things which an eye didn't see, and an ear didn't hear, which didn't enter into the heart of man, these God has prepared for those who love him."
(1 Corinthians 2:9)
In other words, heaven will be wonderful beyond our imagination. But the fact remains that many will experience the undeniable regret that they didn't abide in Him more faithfully than they did:
"Joy will indeed be the predominant emotion of life with the Lord; but I suspect that, when our works are made manifest at the tribunal, some grief will be mixed with the joy, and we shall know shame as we suffer loss. But we shall rejoice also as we realize that the rewards given will be another example of the grace of our Lord; for at best we are unprofitable servants."
— E. Schuyler English
"The Church At the Tribunal" Prophetic Truth Unfolding Today
On the one hand, we will enter into the unspeakable bliss of God's presence, where we will be filled with overwhelming joy and gratitude for simply being there, regardless of what we did or didn't receive in terms of rewards. And we will know that whatever rewards we did receive far exceed what we know we deserve. Why? Because we serve one seriously gracious God:
4But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
In other words, one of the fundamental purposes of the Church's existence is to put on display the unimaginable depth and magnitude of God's grace for all eternity.
On the other hand, however, we cannot lightly dismiss the reality that we will know that the Savior who died to save us deserved much more and much better than what we did during our earthly lives. Although these feelings will be quickly subsumed in our supreme joy at being in His presence, the result of our sporadic failures to abide in Him and walk in obedience will be made manifest to us. If that were not the case, it would seem to diminish the importance of faithful service during our earthly lives:
"The judgment seat of Christ might be compared to a commencement ceremony. At graduation there is some measure of disappointment and remorse that one did not do better and work harder. However, at such an event the overwhelming emotion is joy, not remorse. The graduates do not leave the auditorium weeping because they did not earn better grades. Rather, they are thankful that they have been graduated, and they are grateful for what they did achieve. To overdo the sorrow aspect of the judgment seat of Christ is to make heaven hell. To underdo the sorrow aspect is to make faithfulness inconsequential." (emphasis added)
— Samuel Hoyt
"The Judgment Seat of Christ in Theological
Perspective" (Part 2) Bibliotheca Sacra
Personally, I am confident that we will all have our own personal fleeting regrets when we stand before Christ at the Bema; we all have our fair share of failures and lapses. We all have times when we go off the reservation. I know I sure do. There are far more times than I'd care to recall when I've consciously acted in ways that were, shall we say, contrary to God's Word, and wasted opportunities to serve Him you could drive the 1st Armored Division through.
I am equally confident, however, that those feelings will not permanently douse or dampen our sublime joy at being where we are.
Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to call it "heaven."
Don't leave empty-handed
I used to think there would in fact be some believers at the Bema who would walk away with nothing—that the entire sum of their earthly activities would be burned up and they would receive no reward at all, although they themselves would be saved "but as through fire," as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:15. After more study, however, I have changed my view on this point. I am not going to be dogmatic about it, of course, because it is just my personal opinion based on my understanding of Scripture.
I have reached the point where I am inclined to believe that every single member of the Church who appears at the Bema will be rewarded for at least something, even though it may be far less than others. I don't think any believer will leave the Bema completely empty-handed, and here's my reasoning behind that statement.
First of all, God created us for good works:
10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them.
We are His workmanship, and we were created in Christ for good works, and God prepared those good works from the beginning for us to do. God knew all our failures and weaknesses before the foundation of the world, and yet the Word clearly states that He prepared some good works for us to do knowing we would walk in them.
Now, do we have free will? Oh, you betcha. But God knew us from the beginning, and prepared good works in advance for us accordingly. But how can God be so sure we will do those good works He's prepared for us? Is it just the fact that He is omniscient, and knows in advance what we will or won't do (as if that weren't enough)? Even though I believe that's true, I think there's something more here:
12So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.
(Philippians 2:12–13 / emphasis added)
In other words, it is God Himself who motivates us to do the good works He has prepared for us, and then He works in us to do them. Why? Because it pleases Him!
So, where does this leave the hapless hypothetical schmuck at the Bema who has 100 percent of his works burned away and leaves with nothing but a fistful of "suffer loss"? If that is so, then I believe we have no choice but to come to one of the following two conclusions:
1. God, perhaps due to a clerical error, neglected to create any good works for this schmuck to do.
2. God did create some good works for this schmuck to do; but perhaps through an oversight, God apparently failed to motivate him and work in him to actually do any of them.
Any takers on either of one of these? If not, then that leaves us with the idea that every believer will in fact have at least something that will be deemed worthy of reward.
Not only that, but we've got James to corroborate this:
17Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. 18Yes, a man will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
Scripturally competent believers understand that when certain people try with all their might to use James to "prove" salvation by works, they are misinterpreting what James is saying. James is trying to tell us that works are a result of faith. He's trying to teach us that our works don't save us—they show that we are saved.
Q. How does the idea that good works show that we are truly saved square with the idea of a truly saved individual showing up at the Bema with absolutely zero good works?
A. It doesn't.
What it does do is create a scriptural catch-22 that is only remedied by concluding that every believer at the Bema will have at least something to be rewarded for, even though they may forfeit far more rewards than they receive for their failures, disobedience, lack of faithfulness, and wasted opportunities to serve and bring glory to the Lord.
Oh yeah? Well, what about that schmuck Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 3:15, whose works get all burned up and he's saved "but as through fire"? Boo hoo, I guess that blows your little theory, Bible Dude.
Nice try, but here's the thing. I think Paul is creating a hyperbolic example to make a point. I think he is describing a hypothetical situation in order to drive home the point that the Bema has nothing to do with our salvation—it is only a judgment of our works, and the dross will be burned away and we will be richly rewarded for the gold, silver, and precious stones that remain (however meager in quantity they may be).
Then, to get this point across in a powerful manner, Paul creates the hypothetical example of a hapless schmuck who has ZERO good works for which to be rewarded and stresses that such an individual is still saved to reassure us that our salvation is absolutely secure in Christ, no matter how many times we fall or fail. Bottom line: He's got us.
Paul does use hyperbole at times to emphasize a point, like when he jumped all over the Corinthians about the carnality, division, and unbiblical excesses that were being manifested in their congregation:
1If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don't have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don't have love, I am nothing. 3If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don't have love, it profits me nothing.
(1 Corinthians 13:1–3 / emphasis added)
I'm sorry, the languages of angels? Excuse me? For the record, nowhere in Scripture do angels ever speak anything other than understandable human language. And did Paul know all mysteries and all knowledge? Uh, no. Could he remove mountains? Nope. Did he give his body to be burned? No! He's obviously being hyperbolic through this entire passage. He's exaggerating to get his point about love across in a strong, clear way, and I think that's what he's doing in 1 Corinthians 3:15 in regard to the hapless schmuck at the Bema who hypothetically doesn't have so much as a molecule of work to be rewarded for.
Say what? This is one reason I look askance at people who try to use 1 Corinthians 13:1 to justify having a "private prayer language." Now, I'm not judging anyone—if you want to do that, knock yourself out. But trying to use this verse to support it is an egregious abuse of what Paul is saying.
Just do it
Although I do enjoy them, one thing about the Olympics I actually find a bit depressing is the thought that, you know, here are these magnificently conditioned athletes who have trained so hard for so long, and then their event is literally over in a few moments. All those years of hard work, relentless training, and personal sacrifice, and BAM. Just like that...it's over. For example, for sprinters in the 100 meters, it's over in as little as 9.58 seconds.
In a matter of moments, all their efforts will either be rewarded with a medal, or will come to naught (at least for another four years, which is a really long time for athletes at that level of conditioning).
For believers, however, it doesn't work that way at all. In keeping with the sports analogy, we're a bit like athletes who will win a medal for every time we get out of bed at 4:00 a.m. to get in our roadwork, rather than hitting the snooze button. For every time we deny ourselves and faithfully follow our training regimen instead of watching TV while munching on Doritos. For every time we listen to our coach's advice and make a slight change to our technique, instead of ignoring him and insisting on doing it our way.
Most athletes only get one chance to win a medal—it's do or die.
As believers, we get a hundred chances a day, every day of our lives to win medals—it's "just do it."
I sincerely hope you have no intention whatsoever of forfeiting tons of rewards at the Bema. I know I don't. I hope you are intent on living in a manner pleasing to God, being obedient to the Word, and abiding in Him on a daily basis...and I pray I can say the same.
I thought about creating a laundry list of specific things believers should do that they will be rewarded for at the Bema—sort of a spiritual to-do list. I've done that sort of thing before, but this time I thought better of it. You really don't need anyone to make such a list for you—you already have the master version. It's called the Bible.
God's Word is all we need...that plus obedience to the Holy Spirit, whose job is to prompt and empower us to live it.
Besides, that list varies somewhat from person to person. Sure, there are many things we are all commanded to do. But God called others to do certain things that he didn't call me to do—and He called me to do certain things He didn't call others to do. I believe we all have specific works that we alone are called to walk in, so such lists can become rather generic, even if biblically accurate. As a result, it's far simpler and more effective to just tell you to be obedient to the Holy Spirit.
To the extent we do that, to that extent we cannot and will not go wrong. And I believe that what the Holy Spirit is speaking to the hearts of many believers in the Church today, in these waning moments of the Age of Grace, is simply this:
Go for the gold!
Greg Lauer / January 2018
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1. Deriv. of "Sunset Over Grass Field" © AOosthuizen at Can Stock Photo
2. "Holding Gold Medal" © hin255 at Fotolia.com
3. "Bema in Athens, Greece" © Tomisti [CC BY-SA]
4. "Perfect Diamond" © the_lightwriter at Fotolia.com
5. "Field of Corn Stubble" © Nigel Chadwick [CC BY-SA]
6. "Ánimas del Purgatorio" by Alonso Cano [PD]
7. "Woman Stitching Pattern to Fabric" © Syda Productions at Fotolia.com
8. "Young Graduate Student" © ra2 studio at Fotolia.com
9. "April Fool's Day Prank" © infadel at Fotolia.com
(All PD and CC-licensed works are via Wikimedia Commons.)
All Scripture is taken from the World English Bible, unless annotated as KJV (King James Version) or AKJV (American King James Version).