There are some commonly asked questions that come to the surface when the Judgment Seat is discussed. One is the ominous statements by Jesus about the unfaithful servants who are cast into outer darkness. What does that mean? Can salvation be lost? Another question has to do with the duration of rewards. Do rewards last for eternity or do they have a much shorter shelf life and evaporate over time?
#1 – What about those servants who are cast into outer darkness?
There are several places where the Lord Jesus spoke ominously about the fate of unfaithful servants. He said that these servants would be “cut in pieces” and go to a place where there would “weeping” and the “gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:48-51). He further declared that the worthless slave would be cast “into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:24-30). Serious statements, to be sure!
There have been some scholars, who believe in the eternal security of the believer in Christ, who also hold that these evil servants are Christians who will suffer the fate of being excluded from the Messianic kingdom. They argue that these unfaithful Christians will pay dearly for their sinful living for that thousand year period. They will experience some pretty terrible times. But is this the only possible explanation for those of us who hold to the eternal security of the believer? I think not.
In interpreting these words of the Lord Jesus there are several key interpretive points that we must be aware of. First, these two references are both found in Jesus’ “Olivet Discourse”, His great prophetic teaching. A key observation is that this discourse was addressing Israel and not the church. The disciples had asked Jesus questions related to Israel’s future and that is what Jesus is answering. Aside from the one statement in Matthew 16 (“I will build My church”), there has been no teaching on the church. The disciples really would have known nothing about the church and so their questions were not about the church. It is essential that we understand the word “you” in the Olivet Discourse. The word “you”, beginning in Matthew 23:33, is referring to Israel. Sometimes the “you” is Israel represented by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day; sometimes it is Israel as represented by apostles; and other times it is “you” (Israel) represented by a past generation or by a future generation. But in each case “you” is looking at the nation of Israel.
A second key interpretive point has to do with the uniqueness of the nation of Israel. Israel is the only nation in the history of nations that is in a covenant relationship with God. No one else can make that claim. All Israelites are part of the Abrahamic Covenant and the covenants that flow from that key biblical covenant (Romans 9:1-5). Believing Israelites and unbelieving Israelites are included as parties to the Abrahamic Covenant. So even if an Israelite was an unbeliever, he would still be a “covenant man”, as strange as that might sound to us. Remember, Israel is unique.
Third, it must be remembered that Israel is said to be a “servant of the Lord.” Isaiah developed this idea of the “servant of the Lord” which, of course, reached its climax in the Messiah as the great “servant.” But the nation of Israel was also viewed as the “servant of the Lord” (e.g. Isaiah 41:8-10; 42:18-22). And it is clear from the Isaiah 42 passage that even in unbelief and unrighteousness they were seen as the “servant of the Lord.” So believing Israelites and unbelieving Israelites were “servants.”
Fourth, in coming to the words of the Lord Jesus we must understand that He is talking to Israel and that within Israel (“servants”) there are both believers and unbelievers.
The servants who are cast into outer darkness, as well as experiencing some other terrible things, were unbelievers. They were never saved people. They were Israelites who were unsaved, but uniquely they were related by Covenant to the Lord. So we conclude that these are not Christians in the church who either lose their salvation or lose participation in the Messianic kingdom of Jesus. The context is about Israel.
#2 – Are rewards eternal or do they “evaporate” after some time?
There is some evidence that what takes place at Christ’s judgment seat will have eternal consequences. First, we should recall that when Jesus returns at His “Second Coming”, He will establish the eternal kingdom of God. (It has two distinct phases of the millennium and then that of eternity). The kingdom of God is eternal and this would suggest that the rewards will be eternal (since they are related to God’s kingdom). Second, the Apostle Paul specifically declared that his suffering for Christ in this life will produce “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). In part, the present sufferings do not compare because the resulting rewards are eternal. Third, the writer of Hebrews seems to support the eternalness of rewards when he states: although the present heavens and earth will be “shaken”, the kingdom we receive will not be shaken (Heb. 12:25-29). The “shaking” refers to the destruction of the old heavens and earth, and he contrasts that with the truth that our kingdom will not be destroyed. Leading up to this statement, the writer has put forth great effort to encourage believers to be faithful and to endure because of the rewards in this coming kingdom. Fourth, there will be differences among people in the eternal phase of the kingdom of God. There will be kings of nations in the eternal phase of the future, forever kingdom of God (Rev. 21:24). The fact is that not everyone will be a king. So, while it is not possible to answer this question with absolutely certainty, it does seem that the scriptures point in the direction of the eternality of rewards.
#3 – Will my failures as a Christian make it impossible to receive rewards from the Lord?
This question was dealt with to some extent in a previous article. The answer is “no”. The scriptures (as in Heb. 4:1) hold out hope to us. So even if we have at times been unfaithful or even committed a really “big” sin, we can still be rewarded. King David is a clear example. David not only committed adultery with Bathsheba, but he was really a murderer as well. Also, David failed to some extent as a parent, and he had a temper, and he showed some amazing unbelief at times. Yet, in spite of all this, he confessed his sins. He came clean with the Lord and humbled himself before Him. As a result, Ezekiel 37:24-27 informs us that David will have an exalted place in the future kingdom.
Peter failed the Lord and denied he even knew Him. And yet, he repented and will sit on one of the twelve thrones in the Messianic kingdom (Matt. 19:28). Failure does not remove us from the possibility of receiving rich rewards.
So while we must never become casual about sin and unfaithfulness, we must not become depressed and hopelessly face the future because of sin. Repentance, coupled with forsaking of sin, makes great reward possible.