The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: J

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Judgment seat, unresolved problem

When President Reagan came to see Margaret Thatcher, she went to Heathrow Airport to meet him.

The Greeks and Romans had a similar custom. When a VIP came to visit some other dignitary, the local man was expected to travel outwards with his retainers until the two parties met. Then they would reform into one mass procession, with the local bigwig escorting his honored guest to his own provincial seat of government, in triumphal procession with great pomp.

There is a special Greek expression which was always (and only) used to describe this ceremony of meeting the incoming VIP. It occurs three times in the New Testament, thus:

1. "...We went towards Rome. And from thence, when the brethren heard of us, they came TO MEET [eis apantesin] us, as far as Appii Forum" (Acts 28:14,15).

Here, the Greek expression is used with its ordinary, earthly meaning. This shows that Luke and, presumably, the first-century church in general were familiar with the specialized use of this Greek phrase.

2. "The Lord himself shall descend from heaven... and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, TO MEET the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1Th 4:16,17).

This presents us with a big problem that, as far as I am aware, has never been squarely faced. The Greek clearly indicates that the saints will be miraculously lifted up to meet the returning Lord at some point in the upper atmosphere, and then caused to escort him back, in joyful, triumphant procession, to the earth's surface -- there to be "ever with the Lord". But wherever can we fit a literal judgment seat into this sequence of events? It can't be before we are "caught up", as this would then mean the "meeting in the air" would not be a "meeting" at all, in the sense of the Greek expression used. And it can't be after we "meet the Lord in the air", because there could be no joyful, triumphant meeting and procession if the wicked are still present and all concerned are still wondering whether they are destined for life or death!

3. "And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold the bridegroom cometh; go ye out TO MEET him... And while they [the five foolish virgins] went to buy, the bridegroom came, and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage..." (Mat 25:6,10).

This clinches the deduction made above from 1Th, that the unrighteous will not be present when the righteous meet their Lord. The invitation to "meet" him (in the special Greek sense of traveling outwards to meet an incoming potentate) went to both classes -- but only the wise virgins were in a position to accept the invitation. The foolish virgins were left behind, and later found themselves locked out of the scene of rejoicing. It seems impossible to fit a literal judgment seat into this sequence, either.

So what are we to make of all this? Does Scripture intend us to regard the judgment seat as real in essence, but symbolic rather than literal in its nature? (Just as the Biblical devil is real enough in essence, but is a symbolic devil and not a literal one.) Or is there some other explanation that fits the facts better? (AH)

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