“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.
—Revelation 22:12 ESV
This past Sunday, late in Bible class, someone raised the subject of “The Judgement Seat of Christ“, “crowns“, the “Bema” and so on. There was no time for me to put in my own two cents, but it is a subject that touches me personally. I was raised in a very legalistic fundamentalist church, and the whole question troubled me at the time more deeply than any other doctrinal issue. If “Jesus paid it all“, “not of works, lest any should boast“, and heaven is the carefree paradise we’ve been led to believe, then how is it that the first thing that happens after the Rapture is that we face judgement, possible humiliation in front of our peers, and maybe worse still, potential forfeiture of a fancy, jeweled crown to wear in our new mansion over the hilltop? And what’s the point of working hard for a crown if we have to give it right back, by “casting it at Jesus’ feet“?
This is a diversion from what I’ve been working on, a discourse on God’s omnipresence in space and time, and what that implies about creation, so I’m not going to do an exhaustive study of this subject. I’d be reinventing the wheel anyhow, because the late J. Hampton Keathley III, Th.M., did an excellent job of nailing it down in an article, The Doctrine of Rewards: The Judgment Seat (Bema) of Christ. Below is a short summary of aspects that I have pondered over the last few days:
The Judgement Seat of Christ
The term “judgements” is used many times in Scripture, mostly regarding punishment. I am limiting this discussion to the major formal judicial reviews of the End Times recognized by many conservative theologians. There are variations in terminology, and some count three or five but for this purpose, I’m going with the diagram below, which lists four. In general, I think that the source book shown in the caption is pretty good, though I question LaHaye’s own previous judgement, in view of the terrible theology in his Left Behind series.
The “Judgement Seat of Christ” is the most common name used by Christian theologians for the evaluation of Christians that occurs after the Rapture. The diagram shows the Rapture occurring simultaneously with the beginning of the seven-year Tribulation period. I strongly believe in a “Pre-Trib” Rapture, but I don’t think that Scripture requires the Tribulation to happen immediately after the Rapture. I personally think that there will be a time of major geopolitical developments on earth between the removal of the Holy Spirit and all Christian influence, on the one hand, and the beginning of Tribulation on the other. The war of Ezekiel 38 and 39 may be one of them (see The Coming World War: Gog and Magog).
Purpose of the Judgement Seat
This is emphatically not a judgement for sin, because Jesus’ crucifixion paid that cost, but rather an evaluation of the quality of our service. I think for a twofold purpose: (1) for recognition and kudos; and (2) for handing out of assignments. As discussed in Keathley’s article, the Scriptures imply that the Raptured Church will function administratively during the Millennial Kingdom. I don’t know that I can definitively back this up from Scripture, but my personal impression is that our individual responsibilities in the Kingdom will be based on our aptitudes and attitudes shown during our mortal lives. Although without sin, our glorified selves will still be recognizable, both physically and by non-physical personal traits.
Timing of the Judgement Seat
Many scholars (e.g., Keathley) show it at the beginning of Tribulation, others (e.g., LaHaye and Ice) show it as taking place during the entire seven-year span. I would say the beginning, and not the entire span. Why? First, because of its connection with Rosh Ha-Shanna, coming up in late October this year (see below), and also because I think that the Marriage Supper of the Lamb will be the focus in heaven during the period. Christian scholars tend to ignore Jewish cultural analogs when interpreting Jewish Scripture. Even though all Scripture is Jewish! Jesus (Yeshua ben Yosef) and most of the Gospel protagonists were thoroughly Jewish, and all but one of the canonical writers was Jewish. The exception being Luke, who I think was a Jewish convert. Jewish wedding customs in the 1st Century clearly pictured Jesus’ relationship with the Church, His bride (see Jesus and Hebrew Wedding Imagery). The Jewish wedding supper was a seven-day feast, so I think there is ample reason to think that the heavenly marriage supper might span seven prophetic days.
How could all of that “evaluation”, of all the Church saints from two Millenia of Church history, be accomplished virtually instantaneously? That is something I’m already working on for my next post: In God’s “native” realm, there is no such thing as “time”, or even “space”. He is independent of both and unbound by both. He exists simultaneously everywhere and everywhen. In 2 Peter 3:8, the apostle is paraphrasing Psalm 90:4 when he says that, to God, a day is as a thousand years. That is poetic language, not literal. The truth is, he could have said a million, or a billion, or trillions and trillions. Or conversely, a femtosecond (10-15 seconds), for example, is no more obscure to Him as a day.
The Bimah—Jewish, too, not just a Greek concept!
Here is where I depart from Keathley and other Christian scholars.
The Greek term béma (βεμα, pronounced BAY-muh) is defined by Strong’s as “a platform to which someone [ascended] to receive judgment; (figuratively) the administration of justice – literally, given from “a tribunal-chair” (throne) where rewards and punishments are meted out.”
The Hebrew term bimah (מִמַּה, pronounced BEE-muh) is no doubt related, and has a similar meaning in general, but, for our purposes here, there is a much more specific meaning, attested as early as Neamiah’s time, in the Persian era. According to Encyclopaedia Judaica, the word means an “elevated place“, more specifically a “platform in the synagogue on which stands the desk from which the Torah is read. Occasionally the rabbi delivers his sermon from the bimah, and on Rosh Ha-Shanah the shofar [ram’s horn] is blown there.” The reading desk is also often referred to as a bimah. Significantly, I believe that the Rapture will occur on a Rosh Ha-Shanah (also known as Yom Teruah, The Day of Trumpets; see The Jewish Feasts: Part 11, Trumpets)!
Parenthetic notes on the photos... Above: The photo above shows three men standing at the bimah table in a small synagogue in Lower East-Side Manhattan. The synagogue is never called a "temple" by orthodox Jews, but it nevertheless serves many of the Temple's functions in the post-Temple world. The bimah stands near the center of the room, just as the altar stood in the center of the Court of Priests. The man seen in this photo in his woolen tallit (prayer shawl) is standing at the table with his face to the aron HaKodesh (the Holy Ark, a cabinet in which one or more Torah scrolls is stored. In this synagogue, the Ark is behind the red tapestry. Most likely the reader is not the rabbi, but rather a congregant who has been invited to "make aliya", or "go up" onto the bimah to read assigned passages from the Torah. Typically, when the Torah is taken out to be read before the community, one person reads the Torah, and that person is surrounded on either side with two gabbaim (as here) who ensure that the Torah is being read and treated respectfully and accurately. Below: The photo below shows another feature of early synagogues, associated with the bimah, that I think is germane to this discussion—the "Seat of Moses".
The Bimah Seat
Also associated with the bimah platform was “the seat of Moses”. This seat was used by a scribe or other authoritative interpreter of scripture. Today it would be the rabbi. In Matthew 23, Jesus validated the authority of the interpretations made from the seat of Moses, even though, in the same breath, He said, effectively, “Do as they say, not as they do.”
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,
so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.
—Matthew 23:1–3 ESV
I think that, to understand the concept of the Judgement Seat of Messiah, you have to consider the Jewish concept and not just the Greek. We will be evaluated in the heavenly realm, not for sin, but for our performance in light of God’s expectations for His people as expressed in Scripture. Jesus will be the one, sitting on a heavenly bimah seat of Moses, who will be evaluating us and handing out crowns.
Sad to say, even as a young adult, my vision of kingdoms and crowns was informed mostly by Walt Disney. So, I pictured literal golden streets and pearly gates in heaven, my home a palace, and on my head a jewel-encrusted crown. I think now that the glitz and bling is meant to convey a sense of beauty and purity, not to arouse materialistic jealousy and greed. The crowns may not be literal headwear but are certainly meant to convey the Greek and oriental picture of the victor’s laurel wreath.
In every case, the Greek word for these “crowns” is stephanos, for which the proper translation is “wreath”, i.e., a chaplet worn as a badge of royalty, honor or victory. The royal crown is always a diadem. Jesus’ crown of thorns was a stephanos, so it was most likely an ironic insult from the Roman soldiers, not something ordered up by Pilate as a complement to his sign of indictment nailed on the cross.
A common Christian tradition says that at some point after receiving crowns at the bimah, we will cast them back at Jesus’ feet in adoration. This appears to be a corruption of Revelation 4:10–11, where 24 elders sitting in a circle of thrones stand and cast their own stephanos in front of the central throne, occupied, apparently, by Yahveh, the Father, not the Son:
10 the 24 elders fall down before the One sitting on the throne, who lives forever and ever, and worship him. They throw their crowns in front of the throne and say,
11 “You are worthy, ADONAI Eloheinu, to have glory, honor and power, because you created all things — yes, because of your will they were created and came into being!”
—Revelation 4:10–11 CJB