What Is the Judgment Seat?


“So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha.” – John 19:13

The judgment seat.

In Greek, the bema.

Christians seem to have a strange fascination with the judgment seat, the bema. Many Christians seem to think the following. Everyone will be brought before the judgment seat of Christ. You better get right with God. Repent. Stop sinning. If you don’t, then God will not give you eternal life. Instead, he will send you to hell, eternal punishment.

But, is this what “the judgment seat of God”, “the judgment seat of Christ” about? Is their judgment seat about life and death?

Or, is it man’s judgment seat that is about life and death?

Do you know that the New Testament has more to say about the judgment seat, the bema, of man than it does of God or Christ?

The word bema is used 12 times in the New Testament. One of the uses (Acts 7:5) is basically a unit of measure, a foot’s length, so we will not look at verse. Of the other 11 verses, nine are used in reference to man’s judgment seat while just two are used in reference to the judgment seat of God and Christ.

The judgment seat, bema, is found twice in the gospels regarding Jesus’ trial.

Pilate was seeking to release Jesus. But the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” If Pilate released Jesus, then the Jews would claim that Pilate was committing treason against Caesar because he would be acknowledging another king other than Caesar. After this threat from the Jews,¬†John 19:13, quoted above, says that Pilate brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat, the bema.

Despite the threat, Pilate says to the Jews, “Behold your King!” But, the Jews responded, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your king?” And, the chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

The scene is harkens back to Israel’s demand for a king when Samuel was old. “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel Ramah and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.'” (1 Samuel 8:4-5) This upset Samuel. But God told Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”

So, in John 19, we see the prophetic fulfillment of Israel’s rejection of God as king played out in the life of Jesus. Now, the Jews are literally rejecting God as king by demanding Jesus’ crucifixion. The Jews are choosing Caesar, man, to be their king, instead of Jesus, God.

So, we see that man’s judgment seat, for Pilate’s judgment seat had the authority of Caesar behind it, was to judge an individual worthy of life and death. In John 19, man’s judgment seat is used to judge Jesus, and therefore God, worthy of death, crucifixion.

But, not just any man was judged worthy¬† of death from the judgment seat. For Pilate, “while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.'” (Matthew 27:19) Not only is man’s judgment seat used to determine whether a man should or die, man’s judgment seat will put a perfectly righteous, perfectly innocent man to death.

It’s not apparent because of the English translation, but the word bema, the judgment seat, is used seven times in the book of Acts.

Acts 12:21 says, “On an appointed day, Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne [bema, judgment seat], and delivered an oration to them.” A few verses earlier, Herod had just found the soldiers who let Peter escape from prison worthy of death. This was the type of authority Herod wielded. Now he’s sitting on the judgment seat. And, when the people saw Herod, a man, sitting on the judgment seat, they shouted, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!”

People love to have another man on the judgment seat because he will put other people to death for man loves darkness (John 3:19).

Then, there is Acts 18:12-17. ”

But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal [bema, judgment seat], saying, ‘This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.’ But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, ‘If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, i would have reason to accept your complaint. But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.’ And he drive them from the tribunal [bema, judgment seat]. And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal [bema, judgment seat].”

The Jews, the religious legalists, make a united attack against Paul, a man free in Christ. They bring him before the judgment seat because they want a judgment of death pronounced upon him. But, when the Jews are driven from the judgment seat, the get the ruler of the synagogue, bring him before the judgment seat, and beat him.

See how man’s judgment seat is used to punish and put death men, usually innocent men, because they don’t hold the same beliefs, doctrines, and teachings as the religious?

Then, there is Acts 25:6-11.

“After he [Festus] stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea. And the next day he took his seat on the tribunal [bema, judgment seat] and ordered Paul to be brought. When he had arrived, the Jews who had come from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him that they could not prove. Paul argued in his defense, ‘Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.’ But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, ‘Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?’ But Paul said, ‘I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal [bema, judgment seat], where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.'”

In Acts 25:17, Festus uses the word bema, judgment, translated again as “the tribunal,” as he retells the above incident to King Agrippa.

Do you see how man’s judgment once again is used to bring false charges that cannot be proved against a man, Paul, just as it was used to bring false charges that could not be proved against Jesus?

Do you see that Paul equates man’s judgment seat with being judged worthy of life or death?

All the evidence shows that man’s understanding of the judgment seat, the bema, and when man is in control of the judgment seat, the bema, is that the judgment seat, the bema, is for deciding whether other men should live or die.

But, God is not like man. God does not judge like men do.

In John 5:22-24, Jesus said, “For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

God, the Father, judges no one. He judges no man, no person, the way that men judge. God does not judge men to be worthy of death. God judges men worthy of life. Read all of my previous posts on the gospel of John and God’s commandment to Jesus to speak eternal life.

God judges men worthy of life. It is men who judge God worthy of death, worthy of crucifixion.

A man does come into judgment from God, God passes that man from death to life.

In John 8:15, Jesus said, “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.”

Judging according to the flesh is man using the judgment seat to pronounce life or death on someone. Just life the Father, Jesus says he judges no one. Jesus’ judgment does not pronounce death on anyone because the Father gave him a commandment to speak eternal life (John 12:49-50).

So, what is the judgment seat of God, the judgment seat of Christ?

Romans 14:10-11 says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?For we will all stand before the judgment seat [bema] of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue confess to God.'”

Paul has just been speaking about how some esteem one day and others every day, some eat certain foods while others abstain them. Are we to judge each other for this? Do you we judge each other worthy of death based on how we live?

We will all stand before the judgment seat of God. God will take care of these things. These are matters of the heart. Romans 2:16 says, “On that day, when according to the gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” God judges the purposes and intentions of the heart, the secrets, not the men themselves.

Why does God judge this way?

“For it is written…”

Because it is written.

What is written could just as easily, and maybe more appropriately be translated

“I live, says the Lord, that every knee shall bow to me and every tongue shall praise God.”

We come to the judgment seat because God lives and gives life to all so that every knee will bow before him and every tongue shall praise. That can’t happen if God sends men to hell, their eternal punishment and death, at the his judgment seat.

God’s judgment seat is about freeing men from the evil purposes and intentions of their hearts so that men can worship and praise God as lord and as their king.

2 Corinthians 5:10 says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat [bema] of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

Receiving what is due is not life or death, heaven or hell. This is about rewards for what he have done or not done in the body. So, again, we see the judgment seat of Christ is about judging the works of men not men themselves. This is in direct contrast to judgment seat of men, which, as we saw above, judges men themselves and not their works (Jesus and Paul were innocent of the charges brought against them.)

The judgment seat of Christ is akin to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15.

“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

The works are judged. Evil works are burned up and cause a man to suffer loss. But, the man himself is saved, judged worthy of life.

This is the same thing that Hebrews 4:12-13 says.

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom me must give account.”

Jesus, the word of God, judges not us but the intentions and purposes of our hearts. He separates the evil thoughts from the good thoughts. He separates the earthly from the heavenly in us.

If we do not see and know that God and man judge differently, then why do we even need God?

But, man and God do judge differently.

Man’s judgement seat pronounces death on whoever man deems evil and wicked, even if they are innocent. Man’s judgment seat brings finality.

God’s judgment seat already sees all men as worthy of life. Therefore, God judges man’s secrets, the purposes and intentions of his heart, so that man can come to the full realization of God’s judgment of eternal life upon him and thereby praise God as Lord and King.

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