A Surprise at the Final Judgment
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:1-4:
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
In The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians, DA Carson points out that there is a nice surprise in this text which is contrary to everything we might expect:
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this paragraph of 1 Corinthians is how it ends. With the final day of judgment in view, Paul might have been expected to say, “At that time each will receive his rebuke from God.” But instead, he says, “At that time each will receive his praise from God” (4:5c).
How wonderful! The King of the universe, the Sovereign who has endured our endless rebellion and sought us out at the cost of his Son’s death, climaxes our redemption by praising us! He is a wise Father who knows how to encourage even the feeblest efforts of his children. What this way of concluding the paragraph shows is that in this case, God judges less sternly than the self-appointed judges in the church.
In this world, we can get so accustomed to hearing criticism. It’s built in to the fabric of things. In school, parent-teacher conferences are often centered around what the student is doing well, and then “areas for improvement.” Employee reviews often focus on what someone is doing well, and then “opportunities for growth” [= weaknesses]. And the truth is, of course, that we all have multiple shortcomings that can be rightly pointed out.
And so we would most of all expect the Last Judgment to end in the same way. But it won’t. Instead, for those who follow Christ, the Last Judgment will end with commendation — with praise — from God himself to us. He will not say “Here are the few things you did right, but look, you really screwed up here, here, and here.” Instead, “each will receive his praise from God.” I’m sure that the things we should have done differently will indeed be clear, in a non-condemnatory sort of way. But God’s focus will be on what is right, and that’s the note on which the Judgment will end (for believers). And we see this not only here in 1 Corinthians 4:4, but also in the Parable of the Talents: “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).
For believers, the dominant note of the Final Judgment is not rebuke, but praise.