It has been said that Satan gives his rewards up front, while God gives His on the back end. This raises the question, “How does God give His rewards?” The answer is: The judgment seat of Christ. The judgment seat of Christ is the place in heaven where each Christian will stand to receive the rewards of how he or she lived the Christian life on earth.
Please understand that the judgment seat of Christ is not about salvation gained or lost. It is about heavenly rewards gained or lost. Salvation comes by way of God’s grace through faith (belief) in Christ and has nothing to do with works (Ephesians 2:8-9). At the moment of salvation, the believer is forgiven of all trespasses (Colossians 2:13), guaranteed no condemnation (Romans 8:1), and saved from God’s wrath (Romans 5:9). After that moment, though, there is a Christian life to be lived, and one day the Christian will give account for how that life is lived.
There are two Bible passages that mention the judgment seat of Christ by name. The first one is Romans 14:10-12, where the apostle Paul writes to the Christians of Rome:
But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. (N.K.J.V.)
The second passage is 2 Corinthians 5:10, where Paul writes to the Christians of Corinth:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (N.K.J.V.)
The term “the judgment seat of Christ” in these passages translates the Greek word bema. In the Greek way of life, a bema was a raised, throne-like platform upon which the judges stood at athletic games and gave out rewards at the end of the games. Over time, bemas also became places where orators addressed not only the citizens but the courts of law. In the Greek court system, each of the two parties in a dispute would be granted a bema upon which to stand as they presented their arguments. The original bema was in Athens, Greece, at Pnyx Hill.
Because the Romans held the Greek way of life in high esteem, they incorporated many of its elements into Roman society. This included the concept of the bema. Pontius Pilate was sitting on a Roman bema in Jerusalem when He judged Jesus (Matthew 27:15-26, John 19:13). Herod Agrippa I was surely sitting on a bema in Caesarea as the people of Tyre and Sidon appeared before him and he gave a public oratory, after which God struck him down to his death (Acts 12:19-24). Paul appeared before Gallio, a Roman proconsul, at a bema in Corinth (Acts 18:12-16).
Under the inspiration of God (2 Timothy 3:16), Paul played off the concept of the bema to describe how each Christian will ultimately stand before Jesus in heaven to either be granted certain heavenly rewards or denied them. In 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, Paul uses the illustration of fire burning up wood, hay, and straw, but not being able to burn up gold, silver, and precious stones, to explain the difference between works that are worthy to receive eternal reward and those that aren’t. Again, though, the clear teaching of the passage is that no one loses salvation at the judgment seat of Christ. As Paul puts it, even those whose works all get burned up will be saved “as through fire.”
But what kind of rewards are we talking about? Well, just as “crowns” (olive wreaths) were placed upon the heads of victorious athletes at the Greek/Roman type of bema, crowns will be handed out at the judgment seat of Christ. The New Testament names five of these crowns. They are:
- the crown of life (James 1:12, Revelation 2:10): This crown is given to the Christian who endures temptation and remains faithful to Christ, even unto death.
- the imperishable crown (1 Corinthians 9:24-25): This crown is given to the Christian who exhibits discipline, temperance, and self-control in all areas of life.
- the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8): This crown is given to the Christian who lives life in personal holiness, being constantly hopeful and anticipatory of Christ’s appearing.
- the crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4): This crown is given to the Christian pastor who does a good job of shepherding the flock that God has entrusted to him.
- the crown of rejoicing (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20): This crown is given to the Christian who wins others to Christ.
While it is possible that these “crowns” should not be understood as literal, it is much more likely that they should be. In Revelation 3:11, Jesus says to the Christians in the city of Philadelphia, “Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one take away your crown.” Likewise, in Revelation 4:4, John sees the 24 elders (who symbolically represent the entirety of the church) around the throne of God, and the elders have crowns of gold upon their heads.
But when does the Christian stand before the judgment seat of Christ? The New Testament indicates that it will be immediately following the Rapture of the church. Consider the following passages:
- In 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul says, “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, Who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.”
- In Luke 14:13-14, Jesus promises His followers that they will be “repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (The resurrection of all Christians happens at the Rapture.)
- In 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul says that he will receive his crown of righteousness on “that Day” (the day of Christ’s appearing in the Rapture).
- In Revelation 22:12, Jesus says, “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.”
- In 1 Corinthians 15:58, a verse which ends a section on the subject of the Rapture, Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
Evidently the judgment seat of Christ is exclusively for the Christians of the church age. This would explain why the judgment doesn’t occur until after the Rapture, which ends the church age. It would also explain why John said to Christians, “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.” If this understanding of when the judgment seat of Christ takes place is correct, it means that the Old Testament believers, the tribulation period believers, and the kingdom age believers receive their eternal rewards in some way other than standing before Christ’s bema.
Furthermore, I would point out that the judgment seat of Christ will involve every nook and cranny of the Christian’s life, right down to the Christian’s motives for doing things. In Colossians 3:23-24, Paul says, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.” As for the Christian’s motivations being judged, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:5 that the Lord will “expose the motives of men’s hearts” (N.I.V.).
It should also be noted, however, that Christians won’t wear their crown or crowns for very long. Earlier I mentioned that the 24 elders of The Revelation symbolically represent the entirety of the church in heaven. It is significant, then, that John (in Revelation 4:9-11) watches as shortly after the Rapture (Revelation 4:1-2) those elders cast their crowns before the throne of God in praise to Him. Here, Christian, is your motivation for living the Christian life in such a way as to receive a “full reward” (2 John 8) at the judgment seat of Christ. By doing so, you’ll be able to cast the most crowns you can possibly cast in that moment of ecstatic praise and worship to God.