Chapter 18: Bema Rewards

Then answered Peter and said unto Him, "Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee; what shall we have therefore?" Matthew 19:27
Opening Prayer: Lord, eternity sounds a long ways off. With Your help, I can hold on until then. But tell me again why I'm doing this?

Why are we doing this?

Most of us enjoy reading about Simon Peter. He asks the same questions and makes some of the same mistakes that we do. This man followed Jesus with all his heart, as a full-time disciple. But even Peter found it difficult to see past the cares of this life and grasp future reality.

Let's review the full story in Matthew 19. Jesus had just spoken with the rich young ruler, who had left in sorrow because he was unable to part with his millions of shekels:

23 Then said Jesus unto His disciples, "Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of Heaven. 24 And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." 25 When His disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, "Who then can be saved?" 26 But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, "With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible." 27 Then answered Peter and said unto Him, "Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee; what shall we have therefore?"

Remember the context. The nation of Israel was anticipating a political messiah who would lead the nation into a time of military and spiritual greatness. Jesus' disciples expected to participate as high executives in Jesus' kingdom.

The disciples expected rewards of wealth and power. Peter and John had walked away from a successful fishing business. Matthew had abandoned a profitable tax franchise. But if money was an obstacle to entering the promised Kingdom, then what rewards could His disciples expect when the Kingdom arrived? The Lord's answer was reassuring:

28 And Jesus said unto them, "Verily I say unto you, that ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 "And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. 30 "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first."

The point is clear. God will give us a hundredfold blessing if we trust Him, and He will allow us to enter into His eternal Kingdom.

Just being in Heaven will be wonderful, and the Lord will give us positions of authority based on our faithfulness. But none of our credit cards or cash will buy anything in Heaven. In fact, our dogged pursuit of money can keep us out of Heaven unless we surrender our hearts and checkbooks - now - to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

The gospel of Mark has a parallel passage in chapter 10, and it sheds additional light:

29 And Jesus answered and said, "Truly I say to you, there is no man that has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for my sake and the gospel's sake, 30 "but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands with persecutions, and in the world to come, eternal life. 31 "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first." (MKJV)

Notice that verse 30 of Mark's account adds two tiny details:

Jesus will bless you in this life, but He wants you to concentrate on eternal rewards. He wants to give you eternal gifts at His Bema seat.

What is a Bema?

In the Greco-Roman culture, there was a judgment seat - the Greek word was bema - where government officials decided matters of law. We see an example in Scripture in Matthew 27:

15 Now at that feast the governor was accustomed to release to the people a prisoner, whomever they desired. 16 And they then had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. 17 Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you desire that I release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" 18 For he knew they had delivered Him because of envy. 19 But as he was sitting down on the judgment seat (bema), his wife sent to him, saying, "Have nothing to do with that just man, for today because of Him I have suffered many things in a dream." (MKJV)

The word is sometimes translated "throne" as we see in Acts chapter 12:

20 And Herod was in bitter hostility with the men of Tyre and Sidon. But they came to him with one accord and, having made Blastus (who had charge of the king's bedroom) their friend, desired peace, because their country was fed by the king's country. 21 And on a certain day, Herod sat on his throne (bema), dressed in royal clothing, and made a speech to them. 22 And the people gave a shout, saying, "It is the voice of a god and not of a man!" 23 And immediately the angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give God the glory. And he was eaten by worms and gave up the spirit. (MKJV)

A third example can be found in Acts chapter 25:

4 Then indeed Festus answered that Paul should be kept at Caesarea; he himself would depart shortly. 5 Then he said, those having power among you may go down with me. If there is a thing amiss in this man, let them accuse him. 6 And staying among them more than ten days, going down to Caesarea, on the next day sitting on the judgment seat (bema), he commanded Paul to be brought. (MKJV)

In these three examples, bema describes a seat of judicial or legal authority. The word bema also described the seat of honor at sporting events. High government officials would preside over the contests from the bema and give rewards to the winners.

Paul used bema to describe the place where Jesus will sit to give rewards to believers, in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5:

6 Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: 7 (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) 8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. 9 Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat (bema) of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.

To understand this passage, you must understand the context. Paul is talking to believers, using the personal pronoun "we" eight times in these 5 verses. More importantly, Paul is talking about rewards given to believers. He is not talking about the issue of salvation.

We believers have already resolved the issue of salvation, and we have received that reward already. We gained assurance of salvation when we began trusting in the completed work of Jesus, the Messiah. We are either saved or not saved, as explained in the early chapters of this book. Instead, Paul is talking about rewards we receive in "the life to come" that Jesus mentioned.

Notice also the concept presented in verses 6 through 8. While we are present (alive) in this physical body, we are absent from the Lord's presence in Heaven. Soon we will be absent from this body and present with the Lord in Heaven.

The flavor of this passage is that we go to Heaven and receive rewards immediately after our physical death. This is consistent with the imagery of an Olympic sporting event, where the winner gets his medal in a ceremony soon after his or her victory.

Paul reinforces this concept of specific rewards in his second letter to Timothy, chapter 4:

6 For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day, and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.

Paul is ready for his "departure" - the Greek word is analusis, used of a ship leaving port to begin a journey. Paul is ready to be absent from the body and present with the Lord, because he is confident that he will receive rewards from the Lord.

Notice that Paul talks of receiving a crown - the word is stephanos in the Greek. It was a special wreath given as a prize in the public games or worn by royalty generally. It was a more conspicuous and elaborate wreath than the simple diadema given to lesser dignitaries.

When is the bema?

The Scriptures aren't crystal clear on this point, so there's room for honest disagreement concerning the timing. One group argues that the bema is an individual event, taking place immediately after each person's death. Others say it will happen at the time of the first Rapture event, or at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Others believe it will happen after Jesus physically returns to earth, because of the wording of verse 8. So who is right?

My vote is "all the above." The Scriptures do not require any of the above positions to be the "all-or-nothing" truth. Instead, it seems logical that we would get rewards and recognition from the Lord at each of the above events. The important issue isn't when we get rewarded but if we get rewards and what the rewards will be.

Paul also speaks of rewards in the third chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians:

8 Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. 9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building. 10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. 11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13 Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. 14 If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

Notice verse 12: we have a choice of building materials to work with. Then notice verse 15: our work will be tested by fire.

The meaning is clear. If we are following Jesus with all our heart, abiding in Him daily, we are building with precious materials that will survive fire - gold, silver and precious stones.

If we are saved but just getting by with the bare minimum, we are building with wood, hay and straw - materials that will vanish into smoke at the bema judgment. We ourselves will be saved and will enter into eternity with Jesus. But we will have an eternity to regret the missed opportunities to gain eternal treasure.

Jesus is not impressed by appearances or by worldly success. Jesus looks at our hearts, and sees what fruit we have brought forth, as we have submitted to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We see these words in Matthew 7:

17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

For a reality check, you should re-read the earlier chapter, "Fruit of the Holy Spirit." And remember that Jesus wants you to bear much fruit for His glory.

Many big-name TV ministers will be surprised to watch their works go "poof!" at the bema seat. Many have built fancy studios and collected millions of dollars by preaching messages that emphasize material prosperity. Some claim to exercise "healing power" and "words of prophecy" in the name of Jesus. Unfortunately, some of these hirelings will have a rude shock coming, as we see in the next verses of Matthew 7:

21 "Not every one that saith unto me, 'Lord, Lord' shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in Heaven. 22 "Many will say to me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?' 23 "And then will I profess unto them, 'I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.'"

The prophet Ezekiel had a similar problem with religious phonies in his day. There were Levites (the priestly class) who diligently performed the external rituals of the priesthood, but whose hearts were not right before God. These Levites were mercenaries, doing their good deeds to be seen by men, and to receive financial rewards.

In Ezekiel 44, we read God's explanation of how these Levites would be rewarded during the 1,000-year reign of Christ:

10 And the Levites that are gone away far from me, when Israel went astray, which went astray away from me after their idols; they shall even bear their iniquity. 11 Yet they shall be ministers in My sanctuary, having charge at the gates of the house, and ministering to the house: they shall slay the burnt offering and the sacrifice for the people, and they shall stand before them to minister unto them. 12 Because they ministered unto them before their idols, and caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity; therefore have I lifted up mine hand against them, saith the Lord GOD, and they shall bear their iniquity. 13 And they shall not come near unto Me, to do the office of a priest unto Me, nor to come near to any of My holy things, in the most holy place: but they shall bear their shame, and their abominations which they have committed. 14 But I will make them keepers of the charge of the house, for all the service thereof, and for all that shall be done therein.

Since salvation is by faith and not by works, God will honor the "saved" status of many of today's hireling TV ministers. However, they will do the "grunt" work of the temple - sacrificing animals, sweeping floors, picking up trash and ministering to the needs of the people. They are devoted to the external trappings of ministry today, and will be trapped in superficial tasks after Christ returns.

Notice the chilling words of verse 13: "They shall not come near unto Me, to do the office of a priest unto Me, nor to come near to any of My holy things, in the most holy place." These men and women are not seeking God in His secret place today. They are not abiding in Christ today. They will not be allowed in His presence in the life to come.

By contrast, note what the Lord says about those of us who work faithfully, in obscurity, seeking God early in the morning while the charlatans sleep:

15 But the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok, that kept the charge of My sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from Me, they shall come near to Me to minister unto Me, and they shall stand before Me to offer unto Me the fat and the blood, saith the Lord GOD: 16 They shall enter into My sanctuary, and they shall come near to My table, to minister unto Me, and they shall keep My charge.

Note how many times the Lord says "Me" and "My" in these verses. Jesus notices who is serving Him faithfully. He intends to keep His faithful servants near Him for all eternity.

This should encourage pastors (and their wives) who have faithfully served God in tiny churches, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus and daily seeking His presence and guidance. This should also encourage Sunday School workers, home group leaders and others who have never received recognition for their works.

If we are faithful to abide in Christ today, when nobody seems to notice or care, Jesus will honor us publicly in the near future. Better yet, He will allow us to abide in His presence in the life to come.

Soon we will experience the reality of Revelation chapter 21:

3 And I heard a great voice out of Heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God. 4 And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

Difficult as they seem, our present problems are what God calls "the former things." Distant as they seem, the blessings of Revelation 21 should be our reality.

Abide faithfully in Him today, and we shall soon have durable, everlasting joy in His presence - at the bema and forever.

Closing Prayer: Lord, I repent of the opportunities that I've missed, and the ways I have come short in the past. Help me, by Your Spirit, to abide in Your love and Your grace that I may minister to You in eternity. I pray this in Jesus' mighty name. Amen.
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Copyright 2010 John Sears
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