The word we translate "judgment seat" (bema [bh'ma]) basically means "step" from which it comes to be used as a unit of measure ( Acts 7:5 ). It is used of a raised platform on which the judge sat during judicial proceedings (and from which he pronounced his verdict) or of the seat itself. Most of the examples of the use of the term in the New Testament refer to human tribunals, but we have one explicit reference to the judgment seat of Christ ( 2 Col 5:10 ; there are also references to Christ's activity in final judgment as 1 Col 4:5 ; 1 Thess 2:19 ). We also read of God's judgment seat in a passage where several manuscripts have"Christ's judgment seat" ( Rom 14:10 ). These passages clearly refer to the judgment at the end of the world.
"We must all" appear before Christ's judgment seat, where "must"points to a compelling divine necessity: There is no escaping it. And "all" from another point of view makes it clear that everyone must face this prospect. Paul is writing to Christians, so that "we all" signifies all believers; they have all built on the one foundation though what they have built differs ( 1 Cor 3:12-15 ).Other passages make it clear that there is a judgment for nonbelievers also, but that is not the apostle's concern at this point.
"Appear" renders a verb that the lexicon defines as meaning "reveal, make known, show." Calvin held that the word means more than "appear";people will then come into the light whereas now many are hidden as in darkness. People will not be able to hide anything or disguise themselves at Christ's judgment seat; they will be made known for what they really are and have done.
The judgment seat is, of course, more than a place where people are known for what they have done. There is a purpose involved; they will be there "in order that"judgment be passed on them for what they have done or failed to do. "Each" (the word is important as showing the universality of the judgment) "will receive what is due, " which makes it clear that justice will be done; there will be nothing capricious or half-hearted at that tribunal. That "each" will receive what is due makes it clear that Christ's judgment is to be an individual matter. It is not a question of what will happen to classes.
The judgment given will concern the things done while in the body or perhaps by means of the body (the Greek could mean either). There is probably no great difference and in the end we must say that Paul is making it clear that we all, believers and nonbelievers alike, will one day be held responsible for what we have done in this bodily life."Whether good or bad" makes it clear that deeds of all kinds will be taken into consideration. For some reason Paul uses the singular here, so that the good or the bad is taken as a whole. This may also be the point of his use of the aorist tense, "what he did, " rather than the imperfect, which would draw attention to the succession of Acts. Paul is looking at the life of the believer as a whole.
We should be clear that the apostle is not speaking here of the way we are saved. Throughout his letters it is clear that salvation is brought about by the atoning work of Christ. He is here referring to the heavenly reward (or otherwise) of the redeemed. Elsewhere he has made it clear that the works believers do can be likened to gold or silver or precious stones, or on the other hand to wood or hay or stubble. The day of judgment is like a fire that will purify the first group and consume the second ( 1 Cor 3:10-15 ).Poor works will be destroyed, but that does not mean that the builder is also destroyed.
The passage where some manuscripts refer to "the judgment seat of Christ" but most to that of God ( Rom14:10 ) forbids us to judge one another and tells us that God or Christ will judge us all. Probably we should understand this to mean that the Father will judge us all through the Son (cf. John5:22 ).
That we are all to stand before Christ's judgment seat is a reminder that we are accountable and that in the end we must render account of our stewardship to none less than Christ.
Bibliography. J. Baillie, And the Life Everlasting; R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament; J. P. Martin, The Last Judgment; B. Van Elderen III, ISBE,2:1163-64.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Judgment Seat of Christ'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".