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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A Fresh Look at the Bema

We have looked at the future judgment of Christians for our service several times before. But this is a topic which has interested me quite a bit in the last few years and it's worth revisiting from time to time. Our future judgment (assessment) is spoken of in multiple places in the Greek canon (commonly called the New testament) and there is a case for finding it in the Hebrew canon as well (Old Testament). I will quote from the two most direct verses concerning the Bema, but know there are references from the Gospel accounts all the way through Paul's Post Acts ministry.


But 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


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.

-1 Cor 5:10


I chose to use the KJV for these verses because I wanted to highlight a common misrepresentation. Or, to be more precise, the possibility of a misunderstanding from the use of the phrase "judgment seat." The words don't do great violence to the sense of the passage, but in our world we think of "judgment seat" differently than it would have been understood half a millennium ago. 

We throw around the word "judge" today as meaning "condemnation." We all know one of the favorite verses of the Libertine and the unbeliever alike is "judge not lest ye be judged." The implication of "judging" is standing above another in condemnation. Whereas that could the determination of a judgment, it certainly is not a foregone conclusion. We have courts where men are judged and acquitted. Not only do we find acquittal as a possibility, we can have a judgment to one's advantage.


Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness

-Psalm 7:8
 
Open your mouth, judge righteously, And plead the cause of the poor and needy.

-Proverbs 31:9


We will leave that there. 

The "judgment seat" in Romans and 1 Corinthians is more correctly the "Bema Seat." That is, it is the place where a race is examined or a case is heard and an umpire (of sorts) makes an assessment. In Nehemiah it is even likened to a pulpit (8:4). It carried the idea of a "step up," a place from which to determine if a competitor competed by the rules of the game. The Bema is the place from which such a pronouncement is made.

We have the idea of running a race according to the rules in Paul's epistles


Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

-1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

-2 Timothy 2:5

We are not competing for the free gift of Life. That is absurd and a denial of the finished work of Christ. We are competing (as it were) for prizes, crowns, rewards, commendations, position, etc. This is not a study of those different rewards, but rather of the event of the assessment itself.

We have to interject here and warn, once again, the dangers of the "heaven/hell" and "saved/lost" approach to scripture. We've noted many times that the warnings of scripture are almost all aimed at believers. Three errors result from this which we will simply note here.

  • The fear that one might lose the free gift of life and be enslaved to a system which puts faith in the works of our own hands and not in his finished work. Grace is no longer grace (Rom 11)
  • The use of the free gift of Life by grace as an excuse to live a life indulging the flesh (Gal 5)
  • Failing to study and rightly divide the Word of Truth as a workman (2 Tim 2)

Hanging over many Christian heads is the mythological idea of God torturing people with fire. We have covered that as well elsewhere, but suffice it to say, once we get past that and back to scripture, we can focus on our service and not on our fear. The one who finds no rest and no security in the finished work of Christ will often remain a babe, focusing all his efforts on not "losing" a free gift. This proves a hindrance to building on the sure foundation of Christ.

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

-1 Corinthians 3:11-15

It is what we build on the foundation that will be tested.

Since our sin was judged in Christ, our sin will not be present on that day. However, that is not a license to sin. Sin has a two-fold effect in a believer's life. First, if left unconfessed, God will chasten his own. In some cases, it may even bring premature death. Now, in man's tradition, that would be a ticket to glory and unimaginable bliss, but that is not death as scripture presents it. When you're dead, you're dead. 


So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep [died]. But if we [judge] ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. 
-1 Corinthians 11:27-32


The context here is the Lord's Supper. First we note that these conditions no longer apply. God is not punishing with sickness and even death those who take the bread or cup unworthily. But the Lord's dealings here are similar in our age. It is possible in the present age for a believer to sin in such a way the Lord ends his life. However, in the Post Acts Age, the Lord's work is done in silence. Disobedient  Christians dropped dead in the Acts. The return of the King to Israel was imminent. In our age, the Lord may still bring sickness or death, but his hand his slower to move and his intervention subtle. 

But direct, harsh judgment that is not all that is seen here. Note the discipline (chastisement) of the Lord in the passage. If we are in a pattern of sin or we commit serious sins, the Lord may chastise us. 

I want to be careful to note what this passage teaches about judging ourselves. If we come under conviction of our sin and judge ourselves, we may escape death or sickness, but we may still be chastened of the Lord. In this age, with God working more subtly, it is very important that we examine our daily walk often. But if we do find ourselves mired in the world or in sin that we judge ourselves and accept the chastisement of the Lord.

The end is not the restoration of a lost free gift (as we have seen, that is not in view here), but a turning back to the race before us. God chastises his own. A child remains in the family even in punishment.


“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor lose courage when you are punished by him.
For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.


It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

-Hebrews 12:5-11 


So, we are not judged at the Bema for our sin, we are judged for the house we build on the sure foundation. What goes into building this house in this present age? Might I suggest a few building blocks (not an exhaustive list).

  • Right Division of the Word
  • Preaching the Word
  • Relationship with our fellow believers
  • Relationship to the world
 
Remember, the Bema is not about sin, but about service. We looked at how evil Christians can be if we walk according to the flesh (the old nature), and we are warned repeatedly to walk in the new nature (spirit). For we cannot build a worthy house except by the spirit.

In our service for the Lord, we are not to do anything for the praise of men. I covered this dangerous current trend in Christendom to "virtue signal." Such a practice is solely so men will approve of us. We must resist the temptation to be seen as acceptable by the world. This drive leads us to try and find an interpretation of scripture and of the faith that will not offend. 

Whereas something done in the flesh such as adultery is an "evil" which will both lead to the Lord's discipline (if we are blessed with his hand of discipline and open to his leading) and the stunting of our service for him. But any parallel "bad" service resulting will be revealed at the Bema.

Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. 
-Colossians 3:23-25


The word translated "wrong" here is the Greek word adikéō. It appears 27 times in Greek canon. It carries with it the idea of acting "unjustly." The idea behind the passage is that "whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap" (Gal 6). Contrast this with Paul's use of kakós in his warning to believers in Colossians 3:5. Bullinger defines this word as "depraved." 


Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.


Surely, all these things are connected. The Christian who chooses to walk in the old nature and fall into a depraved lifestyle (obviously possible from this any many other passages) will not be able to offer good service. His house will be a weak and unstable one.

But imagine with me the carnal, adulterous Christian who manages to hide his sin from the world. He may even have an outwardly "successful" ministry. But we know from Paul that even if he is the one sowing and watering, it is God who gives the increase (1 Cor 3:7). It is the Word which convicts and converts men. We are but instruments. And the Lord, on occasion, has even used wicked instruments. 

So, to man this worker may seem "blessed" of the Lord and the creator of a glorious house of gold, but of the true value of his work, "the Day will bring it to light." He may be left with a burning structure and nothing to offer to God for his life's service. We are not the judge of another man's servant. Outward appearances may be deceiving. God judges the intent of the heart. 


The Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

-1 Sam 16:7b


There are probably countless "good and faithful" servants of the Lord that toiled in relative obscurity, forgotten by history, even mocked by contemporaries. We will not know until that Day reveals all.

Looking back at our select bulleted list of building guidelines, we now expand on these ideas:

 

  • Right Division of the Word - We must teach and live by the rules of the age in which we live. Men may strive to please God by the commands of another age, but to God, he is deceived and unworthy of reward. In the worst case scenario, he falls into pious conceit and drags others into his error. These outward religious acts of another age, "have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh."
  • Preaching the Word - "be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching" even though most of professing Christendom has abandoned the place of the scriptures alone as the only infallible source of truth.
  • Relationships with our fellow believers - We are to "Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if any one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself." And while we examine all by the Word of God, it is not our place to judge the intents of the heart of God's servants. And if we find a brother or sister in sin, we are to restore such.
  • Relationship to the world - We must not love nor cavort with the world. Paul noted that we must deal with the world for we live in the world, but we must not be part of its systems; especially its religious systems. The ways of the wicked are obvious, less so the religious world, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch '(referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines?" 

How many in Christendom cleave to things like Advent and Lent with their outward piety and (in the case of Lent) the self-abasement of the body? How many in our day participate in outwards displays of virtue for the praise of men? These traditions of men only sidetrack the believer from the difficult task of building his house.

We will stand before the Bema and our houses will be inspected. Make sure you are building with the correct materials and you build only for the one to whom we will all answer. Men (saved and unsaved) may mock. Denominations may seek to put you into bondage. The world may seek to entice. Satan may present you a religious path which has an appearance of wisdom and piety. But in the end, we all stand alone at the Bema. Do not forfeit your home to the whims of another.






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