In the first months of my new life, I crashed into 2 Corinthians 5:10:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
I asked Scott Manley, the Young Life leader whom God had sent to disciple me — to love me and to teach me to love what Jesus loved — what this mysterious verse meant. He said that the most important appointment of my life would come after my earthly life was over. I will stand all by myself before Jesus, who sits on a special throne from which He will hand down the verdict on the way I used the grace and gifts He had given me. All believers go to Heaven, and all believers will be happy in Heaven. But not all believers will experience Heaven in the same way. Some believers will be called “least in the Kingdom of Heaven,” and some will be called “great” (Matthew 5:19). Scott said that theologians refer to this as the doctrine of rewards, for
Jesus wants to reward those who have lived faithfully for His honor.
All Christians are unconditionally accepted by Jesus the moment they trust in Him to forgive them and give them new life. At that moment He gives us eternal life — a gift we can never lose or give back (John 5:24; John 10:28). We can never be loved more, because at the moment He comes into our hearts, we are infinitely loved forever and ever. Rewards are not about being accepted by Jesus, but about being approved by Him.
Most Christians don’t know about divine rewards, and preachers seldom preach about them, which is amazing given how much Jesus taught about them.1 So what exactly is the judgment seat of Christ?
The Greek word for “judgment seat” is bema. The Roman governor sat on the bema in a public court and announced his decisions for all to hear. In AD 52, Jews from the synagogue in Corinth brought Paul before the bema of Gallio, the governor of Achaia, who dismissed the charge against Paul that he had broken Roman law (Acts 18:12–17).2
The word translated “appear” in 2 Corinthians 5:10 means “to appear in a way that reveals our true character.” Whatever has been hidden in darkness will be brought out into the light, even the motives of our hearts (1 Corinthians 4:5). When we appear before the judgment seat of Christ, we will have an audience. God the Father and all the angels will watch as Jesus hands down the verdict on our lives ( Luke 12:8; Revelation 3:5). The nature of heavenly rewards is revealed in the way the Father rewarded His Son. Jesus has the highest reward of anyone in Heaven:
But about the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of Your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, Your God, has set You above Your companions
by anointing You with the oil of joy…
Sit at my right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”
- Hebrews 1:8–9, Hebrews 1:13
Jesus’ reward was to share His father’s throne (Revelation 3:21), and He is the only person who has been granted the honor of sitting in His Father’s presence. The Father poured out joy on Jesus so that He is the happiest person in Heaven. The essence of the heavenly reward for living faithfully is the approval of God, which is expressed in the gifts of God to share His rule, joy, and honor and to be close to Him in Heaven.
Jesus is surrounded by His companions in Heaven. Their position next to Him is the reward for being His best and most faithful friends. They too receive His approval and share His rule, joy, and honor.
Jesus uses rewards to show His faithful followers how He feels about the way they have loved Him. It is His way of praising the ones who endured the long race, suffered for His name, and grew in their love for Him. The greatest words anyone will ever hear spoken over them, the greatest honor in the universe, come from a person who can’t be bribed or fooled, a perfect judge who sees our whole life — all the good and all the bad, from beginning to end — and then in the presence of His Father and all the angels says,
Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! — Matthew 25:21
The glory of earthly royalty, of movers and shakers, of movie stars, of sports heroes, and of geniuses is all straw burned up at the end of the earth, forever forgotten. But the word of the Lord — “Well done, good and faithful servant” — will be worn as an eternal crown. For the word of the Lord stands forever (Isaiah 40:8). And that crown will grow forever larger because Heaven is an unending revelation of the greatness of the Lord and therefore also an unending revelation of the greatness of His reward.
The reward is all out of proportion with the effort expended to receive it. A person who was faithful in a few things will be put in charge of many things. A person who was faithful for a few years on earth will wear the crown forever in Heaven. Some great believers have given their bodies to be burned for the Lord Jesus. But most of us won’t be called to that sacrifice. We are called to pray so that we can find the grace to do small acts of love habitually. The ones who continually find pleasure in giving cups of cold water see the face of Christ in every poor person and in every prisoner they serve (Matthew 25:37–40; Ephesians 6:7–8).
What does it mean to be put “in charge of many things”? No one knows.3 It is one of the surprises that “God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). That promise of future rule teaches us that this life is only a time of training for a greater life to come.
Sometimes the reward of ruling is expressed by God giving His faithful children crowns. There is a “crown of life” (James 1:12) given to those who preserve under trials. There is the “crown of righteousness” given to those who long for the return of the Lord (2 Timothy 4:8). These are the believers who pray every day for the Lord’s name to be hallowed and for His kingdom to come. And then there is the “crown of glory” that the Lord gives to those who have loved and shepherded His flock (1 Peter 5:4). The crowns not only reflect reward of ruling, but they are also symbolic of the honor and beauty that God confers on His faithful ones.
The teaching of rewards scares some people. One person said to me, “I thought when I was born again, I didn’t have to worry about God judging me anymore.” But the judgment seat of Jesus is not about Jesus excluding believers from Heaven. That can never happen. All believers, regardless of the quality of their lives, go to Heaven.
Some teach that if a person is truly born again, there will be fruit in that person’s life. But that is not true. Paul teaches that some born-again people will waste their lives on earthly pleasures and have nothing to offer Jesus when their life is over:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 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 3:10-15
The judgment seat of Christ is a place of the revelation of the love of Christ, not the anger of Christ.
I believe that no one, not even the apostle Paul or the apostle John will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and not feel some measure of sorrow.4 When we see for the first time with our spiritual eyes the perfect beauty of the Lord Jesus — the beauty we could never come close to seeing in our natural bodies — we will all be undone. We will all feel or say something like, “My Lord and my God, I never knew. I never imagined… If only I’d known, I wouldn’t have wasted so much of my time.”
Those of us who receive rewards will be overcome with wonder — “How could You give me so much when I gave You so little?” For those of us who have wasted our lives on the world, we will also be overcome with wonder. The fire we go through won’t be due to His anger, for the great fathers aren’t ruled by anger for their disobedient children; they are ruled by love. Those of us who have wasted our lives will also see the perfect beauty of the Son of God, but instead of seeing joy in His face, we will see pain. For we will have denied Him the pleasure He longed for, the pleasure of commending us for a life well lived. All great fathers and mothers long to praise their children. Even if we’ve wasted our lives and have nothing to offer Jesus, we will also be overwhelmed by His love and mercy, for He will welcome us into Heaven, where we will live forever forgiven and forever happy.
Jesus taught us about rewards, not to intimidate us, but to help us yearn to please Him. As long as there is breath in us, there is still time to please Him, still enough time left to live in a way that allows Him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
- There are about forty separate references to rewards in the teaching of Jesus: Matthew 5:5, 12, 19; 6:4, 6, 18, 20; 10:41–42; 16:27; 18:4; 19:21, 28, 30; 23:12; 25:21, 23; Mark 9:41; Luke 6:35; 12:8, 33; 19:17, 19; 22:30; Revelation 2:7, 10–11, 26–27; 3:4–5, 11–12, 18, 21; 19:7–8; 20:4, 6; 22:5, 12.
- Archaeologists have found the bema in Corinth before which Paul stood. It is on the south side of the marketplace; see Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2005), 406.
- The book of Revelation teaches that faithful believers will reign as royal priests on the earth during the kingdom that Jesus will establish when he returns to the earth. This kingdom will last for one thousand years. Resurrected, faithful saints will reign over those who have survived the great tribulation. This is when Jesus will answer the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9; see Revelation 5:9–10; 20:1–15). Those who interpret Revelation in this way are called “premillennialists.” Those who believe John was speaking metaphorically or symbolically and that there will be no intervening kingdom on earth before the eternal state are called “amillennialists.” Regardless of which position anyone takes, the faithful believers will rule in the eternal state, and no one knows what that will look like.
- When Jesus appeared to John in his heavenly glory, John fell at the feet of Jesus like a dead man (Revelation 1:12–17).
Excerpted with permission from Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit by Jack Deere, copyright Jack S. Deere.
Christians don’t have to be afraid of eternal life anymore! Our spot in Heaven is guaranteed! And, even better, there is scriptural proof of rewards that Jesus will bestow upon those whose life on earth He approves. How amazing is that?! Come share your thoughts on rewards. We want to hear from you!