Forgotten Truths - CHAPTER 11 - "BEMA" OF CHRIST or the Judgement Seat


IN the Apostle Paul’s farewell words to Timothy there is nothing more pathetic than his reference to the hope. In the school of grace he had learned to live looking for the Lord's appearing. (Titus 2:11-13) But now he writes, "the time of my departure is at hand." Perhaps it had been revealed to him, as it was revealed to Peter, that he was about to be "offered up" - to die a martyr's death. But this gives rise to no suspicions of his having been misled respecting the hope, or of his having misled the converts. The only change in his language is the use of a new verb and a different tense. He had been looking for the appearing; now, he speaks of having loved it. And taking his place with all who, like himself, would have to enter the promised land through the waters of the Jordan, he says "Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day and not only to me, but also to all them that have loved His appearing." (2 Timothy 4:8) In connection with his epigram already quoted, Bengel notices that, in the New Testament, exhortations to faithfulness are based upon the hope of the Coming. And the failure of Christian life is largely due to the fact that the truth of grace is commonly separated from that hope. A certain great Jewish Rabbi astonished his disciples by teaching that every man should repent the day before his death. How, they asked him, could they know the day of their death? They could not know it, was his reply, and therefore every one should act as if each day was his last. If men could count on a few years' warning of death, "deathbed repentances" would become the rule. And certain it is that if great events foretold in Hebrew prophecy must precede the Lord's return, His coming will have less power to mould the character and influence the life than it had in Apostolic times. In these strange days of "stress and strain," cases of" loss of memory" are becoming frequent. People are "found wandering." Who they are, and where they came from, they cannot tell. Their past is all a blank; they remember nothing. And many Christians expect to reach heaven in that condition. The cloud on which they will be poised, as they sing the New Song of the redeemed, will shut out every memory of life on earth, with its unnumbered mercies and its unnumbered sins! Some there are, again, whose case is like that of another famous Rabbi, who, when he came to die, burst into tears through fear of Divine judgment; and when his disciples who stood around his deathbed expressed surprise that he, "the light of Israel," should be a prey to such misgivings, he told them that he knew not by which of the two roads his journey lay, to Paradise or to Gehenna.
Most Christians seem to oscillate between these two extremes of error. Many are strangers to settled peace, because they fear to trust "the word of the truth of the Gospel." And those who know what it means to have "a heart established by grace" need to be reminded of the solemnities of the judgment-seat of Christ. For this subject of the judgment of the redeemed falls within the category of neglected truths.
Chrysostom's exposition of the 5th chapter of 2 Corinthians has been described as "one of the grandest efforts of human eloquence." But, intensely Christian though he was in heart and life, that great saint and teacher misread the Apostle's words. And the mistranslation of the passage in our English version is a testimony to the far-reaching influence of his brilliant homily. To be "accepted of Him" is not the aim of the Christian life, nor is "the terror of the Lord" its constraining motive. For "the judgment-seat of Christ" is not the dread tribunal of "the great white throne" of the Patmos vision. The "we" of the tenth verse is the "we" of all the verses that precede and follow it. The whole passage breathes confidence and courage. God has "wrought" us for immortality, and He has given us the Holy Spirit as the earnest of that which is our assured destiny. And it is to us that the entire chapter refers. Here are the Apostle's words:
"Being therefore always of good courage, and knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord (for we walk by faith, not by sight); we are of good courage, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord. Wherefore also we make it our aim, whether at home or absent, to be well-pleasing unto Him. For we must all be made manifest before the judgment-seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad. Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest unto God; and 1 hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences." 2 Corinthians 5:6-11
The salvation of the soul is not a prize to be won by saintship, but a blessing bestowed by Divine grace upon the sinner who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not the goal, but the starting-point, of the Christian's life. Upon two main points the teaching of Scripture is explicit; the consequences of accepting or rejecting Christ are eternal; and the destiny of all will be declared by the resurrection. For the resurrection will be either "unto life" or unto judgment; and the saved will be raised in bodies "fashioned like unto His glorious body." And it is as thus; "raised in glory" that we shall be judged.
This disposes of the Patristic interpretation of the passage, by which our translators were misled. Even the word "appear" lends itself to the error, for it suggests arraignment before it criminal tribunal on the issue of guilty or not guilty, whereas the "resurrection unto life" will be a public proof that every question of guilt has been for ever settled. The judgment of 2 Corinthians 5:10 will possibly be a public manifestation of the Father's judgment of 1 Peter 1:17, which is at present a secret matter between the child of God and his heavenly Father. Perhaps, indeed, the forensic tone given to the passage by the word "judgment-seat" may be foreign to its intention.1
This suggestion is greatly strengthened by the Revised Text, where "bad" is displaced by phaulos - one of those words, as Archbishop Trench notices, "which contemplate evil under another aspect, that, namely, of its good-for-nothingness." And, he adds, "This notion of worthlessness is the central notion of phaulos," though the word runs through other meanings until it reaches "bad"; "but still bad predominantly in the sense of worthless."2
All this immensely deepens both the scope and the solemnity of the Apostle's words. Many who could say with him, "I know nothing against myself," miss the significance of what he adds - "yet am I not hereby justified, but He that judgeth me is the Lord." And the Apostle Peter's words about a "vain (or resultless) manner of life" come to mind in this connection. (1 Peter 1:18) Writing to Hebrew Christians, his words refer to the strictly moral and religious life that characterized devout Judaism after the Ezra revival. And are there not very many pious people nowadays who, though leading exemplary lives, will have no garnered sheaves "against that day"?
I deprecate the thought that I wish to fritter away the solemn truth of the bema of Christ. My purpose is merely to explain the words in which it has been revealed. For the passage has been so perverted that even the word "receive" is commonly read with a police-court flavour attaching to it. (The following are the passages where it occurs: Matthew 25:27; Luke 7:37 (brought); 2 Corinthians 5:10; Ephesians 6:8; Colossians 3:25; Hebrews 10:36; 11:19, 39; 1 Peter 1:9; 5:4; 2 Peter 2:13.) And this leads to efforts to get rid of the truth altogether. Such efforts are as discreditable as they are vain. Even in this life no one of generous feeling can fail to be distressed by the consciousness that he is unworthy of the estimate his fellows form of him; and he is always glad to be "made manifest," unless indeed where the result might do harm to others. And how could it be otherwise when we shall be freed from all the meanness, as well as from the grosser evil, of our Adam nature? And what meanness could be baser than to desire that everything which would bring us praise might be brought to light, but. that all our faults and failings and sins might be concealed. Moreover, as Bengel beautifully puts it, "The everlasting remembrance of a great: debt which has been forgiven, will be the fuel of the strongest love."
And there is another element here involved, which our theology ignores. A Christian with the Bible in his hands does not need the well-accredited facts of Spiritualism to teach him that the denizens of the spirit world take notice of the acts of men. The declaration of God's righteousness in remitting sins committed prior to the death of Christ (Romans 3:25) was certainly not to satisfy the sinners whom He pardoned. It had reference, doubtless, to the high intelligences of heaven. For the salvation of fallen men is no "backstairs business." It will be in open view of all the angelic host that God will raise the sinners of the earth to heavenly glory. And may not the judgment of the bema of Christ have some reference to them?3 And there is yet another consideration which is of such transcendent importance that it ought to silence every cavil. God has a purpose in our redemption, and that purpose is "the praise of the glory of His grace." Is it possible that anyone who knows anything of a true spiritual experience can believe, or even wish to believe, that ought will be concealed that tends to further that purpose? And there are two sides to this. Peter's denial of his Lord, and Demas "turning back in the day of battle," will be remembered there. But so will the widow's two mites, and Mary's alabaster box of ointment. It was in circumstances of trial such as we have never known that Demas and Peter failed. But who is there who has not failed at times when faithfulness would have cost nothing more than reproach or ridicule? And let us not forget that the widow's sacrifice would have been unrecorded had not the Lord been present to notice it; and that, but for Him, the reproach of "Why this waste" would have rested upon Mary. And in that day surely we shall have the grace to rejoice when service which brings honour from men will be appraised at its true worth, and many a humble Christian will be rewarded for sacrifices that no eye but His has noticed, or that men have noticed only to condemn.
A forgotten truth it is indeed, this of the bema of Christ. And the wish to get rid of it is a grave reflection upon the Christianity of our own times. If we are to "have confidence, and not to be ashamed before Him at His coming," (1 John 2:28) it behooves us, instead of ignoring truth - which makes us ashamed here and now, to judge both heart and conduct in the light of it. The Christian who has an expurgated version of 2 Corinthians, from which the judgment-seat of Christ has been eliminated, would do well to turn his attention next to the following solemn words in Colossians - "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."