Great White Throne Judgment
Christ’s present ministry in glory on behalf of his people occurs in his heavenly intercession on their behalf. He has ascended to the right hand of the Father, where he mediates as the believers’ advocate and High Priest (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 9:24; 1 John 2:1). There the Savior “is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34), serving as the exalted High Priest for all believers: “Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Heb. 8:1–2). Thus, the hope of godly Job has been realized: “Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he who testifies for me is on high” (Job 16:19). An exquisite example of his priestly intercession for his own is given in his prayer to the Father recorded in John 17.
All the remaining aspects of the postresurrection ministry of Christ relate to his future work. His church awaits his call to the true church, which is his body, to come up to be with him. This has been called the “rapture” of the church, signifying a gathering of believers dead and alive into heaven. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians describes the rapture:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up [Gk. harpazō; Lat. rapiemur, from raptus] together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13–18)
As Jesus died and rose again, so too will those who have died in Christ (1 Cor. 15:51–58; 1 Thess. 4:14). There is no judgment connected to this event; it is for believers. This imminent, divine collection of believers into heaven is a signless event and is the next one on the redemptive schedule.
Those who are alive and those who have died will experience the Lord’s gathering into heaven in glorified bodies. Apparently, the Thessalonians were informed fully about the judgment on the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:1–2) but not about the preceding event—the rapture of the church. Until Paul received it as God’s revelation to him, the only prior allusion appeared in Jesus’s teaching in John 14:1–3. Because Paul didn’t know God’s timing for this event, he lived and spoke as if it could happen in his lifetime. As with all early Christians, he believed that it was imminent (Rom. 13:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; 10:11; 16:22; Phil. 3:20–21; 1 Tim. 6:14; Titus 2:13).
The phrase “the Lord himself will descend” (1 Thess. 4:16) fulfills the pledge by Jesus in John 14:1–3. Until then, he remains in heaven (1 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 1:1–3). Believers who have died will rise first (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:52). Those alive at the rapture will accompany those dead, who rise first, and all will “meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the One through whom God will judge all people (John 5:22–23). He will judge believers at what is called the judgment seat of Christ: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). A comparison of this text with 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 indicates that the wood, hay, and straw are worthless rather than specifically sinful and so will not stand the test of eternal value. This describes the believer’s deepest motivation and highest aim in pleasing God—the realization that every Christian is inevitably and ultimately accountable to him.
The term “judgment seat” metaphorically refers to the place where the Lord will sit to evaluate believers’ lives for the purpose of giving them eternal rewards. The seat (bēma) was an elevated platform where victorious Greek athletes (for example, during the Olympics) went to receive their crowns. The term is also used in the New Testament to refer to the place of judging, as when Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate (Matt. 27:19; John 19:13), but Paul uses it with the athletic analogy. Corinth had such a platform where both athletic rewards and legal verdicts were dispensed (Acts 18:12–16), so the Corinthians understood Paul’s reference. Christ will judge the actions that occur during the believer’s time of earthly ministry. This does not include sins, since their penalty was paid in full at the cross (Eph. 1:7). Paul was referring to all those activities believers do during their lifetimes that relate to their eternal reward and praise from God. What Christians do for his glory in their temporal bodies will, in God’s estimation, have an eternal impact.
The Greek term parousia (Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 2 Thess. 2:8; James 5:7–8) literally means “presence.” In the New Testament, this term describes the visitation of important people. Thus the word points to a unique and distinct “coming.” The New Testament writers use this term at times to designate the second coming of Christ (it is also used to refer to the rapture in 1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23). Another Greek noun, apokalypsis (1 Cor. 1:7; 2 Thess. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:7, 13; 4:13), meaning “to uncover or unveil,” also describes the revelation of Christ’s second coming. This glorious return will reveal Christ as King over all.
Jesus will return to earth with divine power and glory to judge the living inhabitants of the earth (Matt. 24:30; 25:31–46; Luke 9:26; see Dan. 7:13; Titus 2:13; 2 Pet. 3:12; Jude 14; Rev. 1:7). The prophets of the Old Testament speak often of God’s future judgment. One of the prophets, Zephaniah, explicitly portrays the judgment of God by presenting the Messiah as “a mighty one” who will bring salvation to the earth (Zeph. 3:17). Christ himself made allusions to Zephaniah (Zeph. 1:3 in Matt. 13:41; Zeph. 1:15 in Matt. 24:29), further connecting the prophecies of Zephaniah and the second coming of Christ.
The Father has already given all authority to the Son for the execution of judgment: “And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:27; see Matt. 25:31–32). With that assignment in mind, God provided his written revelation with a grand finale focusing on final judgment. What the final book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, reveals or unveils are the features of Jesus Christ’s return in glory.
Returning with his raptured and glorified church, Christ will establish his millennial kingdom on earth (Acts 1:9–11; 1 Thess. 4:13–18; Rev. 20:1–6). Six times Revelation 20 mentions Christ’s kingdom that will last a thousand years. There is no reason not to take these references as a literal thousand-year period during which Jesus Christ will reign on the earth in fulfillment of both numerous Old Testament prophecies (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Psalm 2; Isa. 11:6–12; 24:23; Amos 9:8–15; Mic. 4:1–8; Zech. 14:1–11) and Jesus’s own teaching (Matt. 24:29–31, 36–44).
In the realm of society, Christ will abolish warfare and establish peace (Isa. 9:7; Mic. 4:3–4). Justice will prevail in every class and race of mankind (Ps. 72:4; Isa. 65:21–22), and God will reclaim social wastes (Ps. 72:16; Isa. 61:4). Christ will teach mankind to emphasize worthwhile relationships, as, for example, through his gentle treatment of the oppressed and hurting (Isa. 42:3) or his healing of relationships between parents and children (Mal. 4:6).
In the political venue, Christ will establish himself as the international absolute ruler (Ps. 2:8–10; Isa. 2:2–4) and will establish his world capital at Jerusalem (Jer. 3:17). In his kingdom, Christ will put an end to the nations’ animosity toward Jews (Zech. 8:13, 23). As a reversal of the curse at Babel, language will cease to be a barrier to all human interaction and relationships (Isa. 19:18; Zeph. 3:9).
Ecclesiastically, Christ will rule as Priest-King over Israel and the world community (Ps. 110:4; Zech. 6:12–13). In the messianic kingdom, Israel will become the religious leader of the world (Ex. 19:6; Isa. 61:6, 9), and the world’s religious capital will be Jerusalem (Zech. 14:16–17). As a result, the temple in Israel will be the focal point of worship (Ezekiel 40–48; Hag. 2:6–9).
The fall interrupted God’s creation blessing and mandate for mankind. Because of his disobedience, Adam could no longer exercise his vice-regency in the way God had intended. Any exercise of that original dominion became and continues to be incomplete and imperfect. The psalmist refers to that high and lofty role in Psalm 8:3–9:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
With these words the psalmist presents the ideal for mankind, not the current reality—the designed future of the Lord’s kingdom rule, not the dismal past and present. Of course, Jesus Christ, as the ultimate “son of man” (Ps. 8:4), will fulfill mankind’s role as the human race’s only perfect representative. Hebrews 2:5–14 reveals that “we do not yet see everything in subjection” to Christ (2:8), because his mediatorial kingdom has not commenced. In the end, even the currently reigning prince of this world, Satan (John 12:31; Eph. 2:2), will come under Christ’s reign and kingdom power. As long as Satan reigns as prince of this world, the kingdom of Christ has yet to be established. For that reason Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).
Great White Throne Judgment
After the millennial kingdom, Christ will judge the unbelieving dead at the great white throne (Rev. 20:11–15). As the Mediator between God and people (1 Tim. 2:5); the Head of his body, the church (Eph. 1:22; 5:23; Col. 1:18); and the coming universal King who will reign on the throne of David (Isa. 9:6–7; Ezek. 37:24–28; Luke 1:31–33), Christ is the final Judge of all who fail to place their trust in him as Lord and Savior (Matt. 25:14–46; Acts 17:30–31).
At the end of this world’s history, God will gather believers together in the millennial kingdom, what Ephesians 1:10 calls “a plan for the fullness of time,” meaning the completion of history (see Rev. 20:1–6). After that, God will gather everything to himself in the new heaven and new earth that he will create (Rev. 21:1–5). The new eternal state will be totally unified under Christ:
For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Cor. 15:27–28)
The paradise of eternity is thus revealed as a magnificent kingdom where both heaven and earth unite in a glory that surpasses the limits of the human imagination and the boundaries of earthly dimensions. But the real glory of eternity future rests in the fact that all believers will reside in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. They shall fellowship with the Lord himself in heaven, a glorious communion with God in Christ, which is the perfection of happiness. As believers derive their grace from the Lamb, so they shall derive their glory from him as well. The man Christ Jesus will be the center of the divine glory in heaven, from whence it is diffused unto all the saints. The Scriptures express heaven’s happiness as being with Christ: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This joy seems to be that which even Christ himself desires and will experience: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). The apostle Paul, in speaking of the church’s imminent rapture, summarizes the significance of the event by saying, “So we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:17–18).
Indeed, such communion with Christ seems to be the import of Scripture speaking jointly of God and the Lamb (the slain Savior) when revealing the happiness of the saints in heaven: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17). Also, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3–4). The word translated “dwelling place” here is the same word sometimes translated “tabernacle” in signifying the flesh of Christ (John 1:14). Finally, the apostle John declares, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22–23).
Our gracious God, we thank You for our heavenly Advocate,
Jesus Christ the righteous, whose death on the cross
made propitiation for our sins—
perfectly satisfying every demand of Your holy justice.
It is He who brought us
out of guilt and into forgiveness,
out of darkness into light,
out of our rebellion and into Your love,
out of death and into life.
He delivered us from this evil world, into Your glorious kingdom.
How we praise You for the wonder of Your love in Jesus Christ!
We thank You for sending Your Son, the Incarnate One,
who was despised, rejected, beaten, mocked, and crucified—
all in order to atone for our sin.
In Him Your love has outloved all other loves.
Your mercy extends beyond comprehension to sinners
with complete and permanent forgiveness of our sins
through faith in Jesus Christ.
We therefore long to love You with a love like Yours.
We know that it is not possible, so with the apostle Peter
we plead that You would know our hearts, knowing we truly love You
in spite of what it often looks like.
Our hearts are too much like stone; we ask that
You melt them with Your grace.
Our private lives are too often gated and locked as if we could shut You out
and thereby do what we want.
Help us throw open the door and lose the key! May Your will rule our lives.
We worship You, Father, for Your great love and the gift of Jesus Christ,
Your only-begotten Son, which is to say God the Son.
We praise You, Lord Jesus, for the wondrous gift of salvation
You provided for us.
We adore You, blessed Spirit, for revealing to us the truth of the gospel
and for making our hearts Your dwelling place.
Heavenly Father, in us may Your Son see the fruit
of His soul’s anguish and be glad.
Bring us away from all that we falsely trust,
and teach us to rest only in Him.
Never let us be calloused to the astonishing greatness of the gift of salvation.
May we pursue sanctification—ever-increasing
holiness—with all our might!
Lord Jesus, Master, Redeemer, Savior, take
possession of every part of our lives—
Yours by right through purchase.
Sanctify every faculty.
Fill our hearts with hope.
May we flee the many temptations that relentlessly hound us
and mortify the sins that continually plague us.
May there be no hypocrisy in us.
Help us trust You in the hour of distress.
Protect us when evildoers pursue us.
And deliver us from the evil of this present world.
Dear Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow,
we confess that You alone are the giver of every good and perfect gift,
and You have given us so many things,
richly supplying us with things to enjoy.
And we are reminded by the passage [1 John 2:1–19] that
the greatest gift of all is Your Son, Jesus Christ,
who sacrificed His very life in order that
we might be freed from sin’s bondage.
Fill our hearts with gratitude, and may our lives
reflect overflowing thankfulness
so that all who see may honor You.
In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
“O for a Thousand Tongues”
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace.
Jesus! The Name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease,
’Tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’Tis life and health and peace.
He breaks the pow’r of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood availed for me.
Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy.
My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread thro’ all the earth abroad,
The honors of Thy name.
~Charles Wesley (1707–1788)
 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 322–329). Crossway.