Eternal Rewards, pt. 2

Eternal Rewards, Part 2

Bruce A. Hess

Last Sunday we launched a three-week study on the subject matter of Eternal Rewards. We could subtitle that study, Why What We Choose to do Now Matters Forever.

We saw for a believer of Christ Jesus, for a follower of Jesus, that when we trust in Jesus’ work on the cross on our behalf, we receive forgiveness. We receive salvation from sin and judgment and death. When we trust in Him our eternal destiny is guaranteed. But, our spiritual success at disciple is not.

We have to make choices every day whether we will obey or stray. We have to make choices every day whether we will seek first the kingdom of God. We make choices regularly whether we are going to invest in eternal treasure or not. We make choices regularly whether we will grow spiritually, whether we will serve Jesus and others.

Now, as we said we began this last week and it is important to understand that each message in this series builds on the previous one so if you did not hear last week’s message, I would encourage you to go online and listen to it or watch it at YouTube. You can do that.

But, for those of us who maybe weren’t here, I want to just give a very short summary to what we covered last time. We said that the subject matter of eternal rewards is often a forgotten truth, it is often a neglected truth. It is often an unexplored truth. We emphasize that good works, good deeds, have no part in our salvation, earning our salvation, at all. But, once we trust in Christ as our rescuer, our eternal destiny is determined. At that point, good works do become part of the life that we are called to live.

Then, we also surveyed the reward motif that we see all the way through the New Testament. After you look at all those verses, you have to conclude, you know, what we need to do, as a follower of Jesus, is to choose wisely.

We ended our time, really, with a glimpse at two key passages about the future evaluation that is ahead for us.

We had Romans 14:10, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat (the bema) of God.”

2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat (the bema) of Christ.”

That is where we left off last time. Today, what I want to do is to zoom in on this concept of the bema. So, our plan for today really involves three things.

  • We are going to look a little more deeply at the subjects of the bema.
  • We are going to secondly look at the nature of the bema.
  • Then, thirdly, we are going to look at the ‘when’ of the bema.

So, the first thing we are going to do is look at the subjects of the bema. Now, remember, these letters were written to followers of Jesus. They were written to believers; they were written to people just like you and just like me. When we look at the passages, we see it very clearly stated, it says

“For we will (what does it say?) all stand before the bema.” Romans 14:10.

2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the bema.”

Romans 14:12, “Each one of us will give an account of himself to God.”

We’ve seen some other passages that emphasize this:

  • Revelation 2:23, “I am He who searches the minds and hearts (this is Jesus speaking) and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.”
  • Then, Revelation 22:12, “I am coming quickly (He says) and My reward is with Me, to render to every person according to what he has done.”
  • You can also see this in the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 3, it tells us that each will receive his own reward.
  • Later on, in chapter 3, verse 13, it is talking about a test of each man’s work. It says, each man’s work will become evident. It is going to test the quality of each man’s work.

So, what does that mean for all of us? It means that I will be there and it means that you will be there, too, if you know Christ as your Savior. You know, in the New Testament when we look at these passages, it describes this thing as the “judgment seat.” When we see that term, the judgment seat of Christ, or the judgment seat of God, we might go, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, Bruce, I don’t understand this exactly. How is this supposed to work? I mean, I thought there was no judgment for a believer in Jesus Christ.’ It is true. Romans 8:1 tells that, “There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” The reason why that is true is, because Jesus took our judgment.

Part of the confusion is, we don’t really understand that there are three prominent judgments in the New Testament. I want to just look at them for a moment. The first one is the forensic judgment of sin at the cross. This is what Jesus accomplished at the cross: the forensic judgment of sin that the holiness of God demanded be paid, was paid for by Christ. So, that is why it says in John 3:18, “He who believes in Him (who is putting their trust in the work that Christ did on the cross) is not judged.” It is talking about this forensic judgment of sin. Then, in John 5:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and (notice, here it comes again) does not come into judgment.” The forensic judgment of sin is what fell on Christ.

We also need to know that there is a second prominent judgment in the New Testament and that is the final judgment of unbelievers. We see this described in particular in Revelation, chapter 20, verses 11-15. It is described there as the great white throne judgment. What happens is, all the unbelievers of the world of all the generations are gathered there, and when their name is not found in the book of life, it says they are thrown into the lake of fire.

So, we have the forensic judgment of sin at the cross. We have the final judgment of unbelievers. And, the third prominent judgment in the New Testament is the evaluative judgment of believers, or the bema. This where Jesus, our rescuer, is going to be our evaluator.

Which leads us, then, to the next thing we want to look at, and that is the nature of the bema. Remember, we talked about that phrase, judgment seat, that we see in our English Bibles, represents just one word in the original, a four-letter word, which is the word bema, b-e-m-a. You might think, I don’t know what a bema is, we don’t have bemas hanging around here in Norman, Oklahoma. So, what is a bema, anyway? Well, a bema was, basically, a raised platform or a rostrum.

I want to share with you ways it was used in the secular world. First of all, in the Roman world, the most frequent use of bema was describing a legal tribunal. It was a raised platform or rostrum that was a legal tribunal where a judge would hear a legal case and then that judge would render a judgment. It is used that way in the New Testament, in this legal tribunal sense, ten different times. I’ll just give you some illustrations of it. For example:

  • In John, chapter 19, verse 13, Jesus is arrested and He is taken before the bema of Pilate, the legal tribunal of Pilate.
  • In Acts, chapter 18, in verse 12, Paul is taken before the bema of Gallio, the legal tribunal. There was an issue, a legal issue that needed to be decided.
  • In Acts, chapter 25, in verse 6, Paul is taken before the bema of Festus, the legal tribunal of Festus.

So, when you talk about how the word is used outside of Scripture, it was very common, most common in the Roman world, to be describing a legal tribunal.

However, in the Greek world it was a little bit different. Most frequently when a bema was used in the Greek world, it referred to the athletic games that would occur in various parts of the Greek Empire. Like the Olympics, for example. We’re not talking about a baseball game, football game, basketball game, we are talking about that kind of athletic game, like the Olympics would be. What would happen in that setting is, you would have a raised rostrum or platform and the judges of the athletic games would observe the participants contesting themselves and then they would award the victorious contestants with, usually, a wreath or a crown.

Now, what is really interesting is that we’ve all heard of the Olympics, and they existed at the time, but also, there was another set of games called the Isthmian Games. They were held in the area of Corinth, biennial games that would occur every other year. These games were held in the Corinth area, in what was called the Isthmus of Corinth. You will notice that ancient Corinth was here [Pastor Hess points to a map indicating that ancient Corinth was a few miles directly west of the Saronic Gulf]  but this area [slightly north and east] is called the Isthmus of Corinth. What we have is an area between two bodies of water. To the north and the west is the Gulf of Corinth and to the south and east is the Saronic Gulf. They would, every other year, hold these world-famous Isthmian Games on this Isthmus of Corinth.  You say, ‘What were they doing there?’ Well, they would have foot races, they would have horse races, they would have chariot races, they would have people throwing the javelin, they would have people boxing, and so forth.

So, when we see the use of the word, bema, the bema of Christ, the bema of God, in what way should we understand it? It seems to me, since legal judgment does not await the believer in Christ, it seems to be that this second use makes the most sense…that of the Isthmian Games and the bema being a reward stand, if we could use that particular term.

It makes more sense when you think of to whom is he writing? 2 Corinthians was going to whom? The people who lived in the area of Corinth, who every other year would have the Isthmian Games there. Not only that, but we have Romans, chapter 14, Paul is writing to the Romans from what city? Does anybody know? The city of Corinth! In fact, he spent a year and a half—more than any other place—in the city of Corinth. It is highly, highly likely that Paul himself observed the Isthmian Games being held and no doubt was thinking, ‘What a great illustration of what lies ahead for believers in Jesus Christ.’

Now, whether you were competing in the Olympics or you were competing in the Isthmian Games, every one was designed, those set of games, to honor a particular god. The Isthmian Games were designed to honor the god, Poseidon, who was the god of the sea. You can kind of picture why they would want to do it on the Isthmus of Corinth, because you had the sea up here [Corinthian Gulf] and the sea down here [the Saronic Gulf]. What would happen is, you would come from many, many different places, really around the world, regionally, and you would be competing at those games to particularly honor Poseidon. Then, the victors would be awarded a wreath crown.

Here is what is interesting, not everyone came from the area of Corinth But every area had particular gods that they promoted, not everybody came from the area that promoted Poseidon. So, what was really interesting is, when you would win a wreath crown at the Isthmian Games, when you later returned to your hometown you would place that victors wreath on the altar of your own deity. Remember that for next time because we are going to see an interesting parallel from the word of God.

So, looking again at Romans 14:10, it says, “We will all stand before the bema of God.” We could say “the reward stand.” So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. We’re going to give an account for how we’ve chosen to run our life race as a believer.

Again, 2 Corinthians 5:10, “We must all appear before the bema of Christ.” We could call it the reward stand. “So that each one may be recompensed (we could say rewarded) for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” Now, some people get a little concerned here, because one translation says you are going to be recompensed for the deeds in the body according to what he has done, whether good or evil. And we go, ‘Yikes! What? You mean, I’m going to get to heaven and there is going to be a review of every bad word I ever uttered? There is going to be a review of every sinful, evil thought that I ever had? There is going to be a review of every bad, sinful choice that I ever made–and I’ve made a bunch of them? Some of them have been disastrous. Is that what is going to happen? Is that what it is saying is going to happen?’

Remember, this is so very vitally critical, this is why we take all of Scripture together. Our sins, if we’ve trusted in Christ, have been paid…in…full. It is finished. That is a legal accounting term. It has been fully paid off.

As it says in Psalm 103:12, “He has removed our transgressions from us, as far as the east is from the west.” Can I get an amen on that one? Absolutely! Right? So, what is this referring to when it talks about good or ‘bad’? I want us to see that the word “bad” here is not one of the usual terms for evil. For example, one of the usual terms for evil would be kakos, k-a-k-o-s, or another usual term for evil would be poneros, p-o-n-e-r-o-s. But, neither one is the term that he has used when he talks about good or “bad”. He uses the term phaulos, p-h-a-u-l-o-s. What does phaulos mean? The standard is, Is it good or phaulos? Well, phaulos has the idea of being sub-standard, it has the idea of “good for nothingness”. It has the idea of worthless. What it seems to be implying is—which is true for all of us if we’ll admit it—some of our choices that we’ve made in life have just been virtually worthless in terms of eternity. They are sub-standard when it comes to being worthy of reward.

Let me just illustrate this one way. Let’s just all imagine—for  some of us who it’s been a long time ago—let’s imagine we’re enrolled at the university. We are enrolled in a particular class and we decide because we are enrolled in that particular class that we’re going to make certain choices and one of those choices is—we like being in college—we’re going to “partay” [slang term for partying]. We’re going to have a great old time and we’re not even going to go to class. Some of you are nodding, yep, yep, yep, lived that life. When you don’t go to class you end up failing all the tests, right? And, at the end of the class, what do you get? You get a zero. You get no reward at all for the money that you put into it.

Now, it may have a significant impact on your GPA [school Grade Point Average]. It might mean, because of what happened in that class, that you don’t graduate with honors. It may mean, because of what you did in that class, blowing it off, that you might limit some of your grad opportunities. But, by itself, it won’t keep you from graduating from college. That is part of the idea. There are some things we’ve all chosen to do—gone off into the spiritual weeds over here or over there–and that is pretty much worthless in terms of having an eternal impact, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to spend eternity with Christ.

I want you to notice what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 about the ramifications of the reward seat. Thinking of this reward seat, he says, “Therefore, in light of that truth, we set as our ambition, to be pleasing to Jesus.” In 2 Corinthians 5:11, he says, “Therefore, (in light of this truth of the bema) knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” In other words, ‘I try to convince other people of the reality of this, that the bema is coming.

We set our ambition to be pleasing to Jesus. Why wouldn’t we do that? I mean, please the one who bled and died for us, right? I want us to understand when he says, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord,” it is not like he is afraid Jesus is going to reject me. You know, God is just going to hit the eject button, boom, there you go, right out of heaven. No, that is not what he is talking about. His concern for the fear of the Lord is: he had a concern that he was maybe going to grieve the Lord. He had some dread about this, because he doesn’t want to displease the Lord. Who does among those who know Him personally?

I like the way John Walvoord puts it, who for many years was the president of Dallas Seminary. I actually went on a trip to Israel with him many years ago. He is now with the Lord. This is what he said, speaking of this fear that Paul mentions, Walvoord says, ‘This fear is the possibility that his life will be revealed as one wasted and spent in foolishness, rather than in devotion and complete obedience to Christ.’

At this point in time, you might be thinking, ‘Okay now, Bruce, I’m trying to put all this together. I’m trying to understand this. You are talking about…like there is some reward we can get, that it might be adding to our inheritance. I thought we already had an inheritance. Doesn’t the Bible say that every believer has an inheritance?’ The truth is, yes, it teaches that. In fact, we need to think of inheritance in two ways.

First of all, we have a salvation inheritance. When we trust Christ we are immediately given a salvation inheritance. Ephesians 1:11 says, “We have obtained (you will notice that is a past tense) an inheritance.” Then, it goes on to say in Ephesians 1:14, the Holy Spirit is a pledge or a down payment of our inheritance. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s presence in our life is a down payment that God has given to us. What do you do with a down payment? The down payment guarantees you are going to complete the transaction and that is what the Holy Spirit is in our life. It is a guarantee from God, ‘I’m completing this transaction. You are going to get an inheritance.’

Hebrews 9:15 talks about the promise of eternal inheritance. Then in 1 Peter 1:4, it tells us that our inheritance is imperishable and that it is reserved [already] in heaven for you. So, every believer receives an inheritance, an eternal inheritance.

But, that’s not all there is. There is secondly, a reward inheritance that will be dispensed at the bema. This reward inheritance is individually determined. Now, if you are like me, I am a questioner, a little of my journalism school coming back. What is going to be evaluated? What will we be evaluated on?

Well, the first thing we are going to be evaluated on is our deeds. The life choices that we make. We see that very clearly, we’ve already seen it some, 2 Corinthians 5:10, what is going to be evaluated? Our deeds, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds according to what he has done, for the choices that have been made.

1 Corinthians 3:14, again, testing each man’s work, our deeds, our choices. And, if it remains as it is tested, he will receive a reward. We are going to be evaluated on our deeds, on the life choices we make. Things like, are we relying on Jesus on a regular basis? Are we relying on the Holy Spirit to develop His fruit in our life? Things like, do I trust in His promises when the circumstances are crushing me? Things like, am I faithfully serving Jesus and others? Not just when I was young, maybe, but all the way through my life. Sometimes, people get a little older and they say, ‘I’m retiring from ministering and serving other people, and serving Jesus.’ No, no, no, there no retirement from serving Jesus and others. Aall of those things are the kinds of things we are going to be evaluated on. Our deeds.

The second thing we are going to be evaluated on would be our motives. Our motives. We see this described in 1 Corinthians, chapter 4, and verse 5. It talks about when the Lord comes, who “Will bring to light the things hidden in darkness and (here we go) disclose the motives of men’s hearts, then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”

So, we are going to be evaluated as to motive. Why is that necessary? Because, let’s be honest and open with ourselves, right? We have a tendency to operate out of selfish ambition. At least I do. We have an opportunity to really be more promoting ourselves, having an ulterior motive to some of the things that we do. You know, where we are out to impress others rather than pleasing the Lord. Hey, preachers have this same potential issue. Because it is possible to put together a message and, oh, it has great illustrations, great points, it is very smooth and we are doing it because I want people to be impressed, to tell me how good it is. See, that is a possible motive, rather than wanting to please the Lord and to be accurate in the communication of the truth, see. So, everybody has to check our motive on things like this. Our motives have to be evaluated because sometimes—and by the way this is really true in the political realm—that  people relate to other people primarily for their own benefit. They are thinking about themselves. That is possible for every one of us. So, we are going to be evaluated, first of all by our deeds, secondly, by our motives.

We’ve looked at the subjects of the bema, we’ve looked a little bit at the nature of the bema. I want to talk a little bit about the ‘when’ of the bema. When is this event going to occur? As you look at Scripture, we see a number of passages that give us some hints.

1 Corinthians 4:5 talks about “when the Lord comes”.

2 Timothy 4:8 says, “On that day.”

Philippians 2:16 says, “In the day of Christ.”

1 Corinthians 1:8 speaks of “The day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

1 Peter 5:4 says, “When the Chief Shepherd appears.”

Now there are many fine Biblical scholars who have worked very hard to identify the exact time that this event happens. Some of them have concluded: it happens right after the rapture of the church, where we are called up in to heaven to be with the Lord. It happens then. Others have said, ‘You know, I really don’t think it happens then, I think it happens during the marriage supper of the Lamb,’ which occurs in Revelation, chapter 19, just before Christ returns the second time to the earth. Other people say, ‘You know what? I really think it happens during the seven year tribulation period, between the rapture and the second coming to the earth, that’s when it occurs.’ I had someone after the previous service who said, ‘I think it is going to happen during the thousand year millennial kingdom because it is going to take a lot of time to get all that done.’ I will say this, certainly it is going to happen after we die. it doesn’t happen now. It happens when our life is over and we are going to face the Lord.

So, here is my view on all of this, rather than getting lost in the woods about figuring out the exact timing, I don’t want to be distracted from the truth that this will happen. God can handle the timing of it, but it will happen.

As we close this message today, I want to answer the question, why does this truth about eternal rewards even exist? Why is it there? Well, I really like the way Joe Wall put it, he says this, very straight forward, he said, “The Bible describes the judgment seat of Christ for one main purpose: to affect the way we think and live—to motivate us to anticipate with joy His return, and to live our lives to please Him.”

That is why it is worth taking a look at. Because it is there to affect the way we think and live. It is there to motivate us to anticipate His return. It is there to help us to live our lives to please Him. This is not just a “heavy” kind of truth at all. This is going to be a very encouraging experience and truth. There is a lot of encouragement in the truth behind the bema and eternal rewards.

Max Lucado does a great job of describing this. [Do you remember how Jesus said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Sometimes, we just sit around in life and go, well I’m not like Bruce Hess, you know, he speaks over here and he does this and whatever. So, I guess there’s no…wait a minute now, wait a minute! The first are going to be last, the last are going to be first, I mean, this could be really encouraging!]

Lucado says, “The small will be great. The forgotten will be remembered.” [Do you ever think you are forgotten? You know, you are ministering to your family in the name of Christ, you are ministering to a sick person, maybe an elderly parent or you have a special needs kid, or you are working over here, you’re working there, you are working with Mission Norman, no one seems to really know. Well, the forgotten are going to be remembered!]

He goes on to say, “The unnoticed will be crowned and the faithful will be honored…what the world has overlooked, your Father has remembered, and [this is so cool] sooner than you can imagine, you will be blessed by Him.” This is an encouraging concept, the bema of Christ!

Now, I want you to come back next week. Next week we are going to look at three analogies of the Christian life. We are going to look next time at the fact that every believer is a builder. The question we ask is, how good a job are we at building? We are going to see that every believer is a manager, there is a certain pool of resources that we are to manage. How are we doing? Then, we are going to see that every believer is a marathoner, we are all involved in a spiritual race. Then, we are also going to look at some specific rewards, not every reward is described, but we have some specific rewards that are laid out for us. Next time we are together.

So, let’s pray together. Father, we really thank You so much for Scripture. We need it, we would never see any of these things. We wouldn’t be aware of these things. Father, for some of us, maybe we’ve been set on “spiritual coast” way, way too long and it is time to kick it up a few notches. Father, I would pray that we would be more than merely informed by this series. I would pray that we would be transformed by this series, we would be transformed in the choices that we make on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis. And, we would do all of that because we want to please the one who bled and died for us. We pray these things in His name. Amen. 

Questions for Reflection

Eternal Rewards – Week two

1. George Whitfield was an English preacher and a significant voice during the first Great

    Awakening (a spiritual revival during the mid 1700s).  He has been called “the father of modern

    evangelicalism.” A plaque by his grave cites a quote by him:

            After I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, “Here lies G.W.

            What sort of a man he was the Great Day will discover.”

    What is the Great Day?  As best you can, what do you think he was really saying?  Discuss.

2. The Bible teaches that Christ could return for you (or call you home via death) at any time.

    How much does that truth affect you on a daily basis? How should it affect you? 

    What needs to change?

3. Bruce cited Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:9, “Therefore, we have as our ambition…to be

    pleasing to Him.”  A penetrating question for all of us is, am I pleasing God?

            — in how I handle my money?

            — in my family/marriage relationships?

            — in my friendships?

            — in my vocational life?

            — in how I’m investing my time?

            — in serving Jesus and others rather than just myself?

4. On a personal level—is the Holy Spirit convicting you about any of your attitudes or actions

    (sins of commission)?  Is He convicting you of something that He’s been urging you to do that

    you have failed to do (sins of omission)?  If so, read 1 John 1:7-9 and take some time to

    practice 1 John 1:9 before Him.