I thought this topic could be one short piece but the matter of judging is not dismissed so quickly! Here is the first of three on the topic.
The Christian message says, among many other things, that God is the world’s Judge. The truth of this brought comfort to Jesus Christ who entrusted himself to God who judges justly, but alarmed the unbelieving Roman governor Felix who dismissed the idea (1 Pet. 2:23; Acts 24:25). The Christian message also says that God has entrusted this task to his Son Jesus Christ (John 5:27; Heb. 12:23) and it is this that changes the whole matter for believers.
Judgement is hardly a favourite subject, particularly if we are the focus of its attention! Even a parking ticket can get us angry, let alone a judgement that painfully exposes us. On the other hand, we all expect justice when it comes to our own rights and privileges. In some communities, the longing is painful and urgent. And, looking at the matter more broadly, no country can build a harmonious community or develop a prosperous economy if the many forms that evil takes are not curtailed. So, judgement must always be in our thinking. The question is, who will we trust to exercise this authority?
For a long time now, the thought of being answerable to God has been scorned. We prefer to think that enlightenment and critical thinking have freed us from the superstitious idea that God supervises what we do. It also appears that the message of the Bible has not established a reign of justice and, on some occasions, its followers have been responsible for injustice. Can there be any good news, or even believable news, in God being our judge?
Finding an alternative is not simple. I think it fair to say that the world is not doing very well being its own judge. The following is an old quote but I use it again because I think it is still true. Harold Berman, a former Harvard Law School professor and described as one of the great polymaths of American legal education, said,
‘It is supposed by some, especially intellectuals that fundamental legal principles … can survive without any religious or quasi-religious foundations on the basis of the proper political and economic controls and philosophy of humanism. History, however, including current history, testifies otherwise. People will not give their allegiance to a political and economic system, and even less to a philosophy, unless it represents for them a higher sacred truth’ (quoted in Mark W Janis, Natural Law, Religion and the Development of International Lawˆ (1999), p. 169).
There is massive distrust of leadership and authority in our present world, and it may be that some of the reason for this is not just that many leaders have acted dishonourably but that we have been relying on them for too much. No human authority can fulfil our expectation for justice.
How, then, should we think of God being Judge? If we are going to rediscover and enjoy this truth, some myths about what it may mean may need to be dispelled.
Israel regularly celebrated God as the world’s King and Judge. It is a common theme in their Psalms. Here is one example.
‘Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness’ (Psa. 96:10-13).
This faith was launched when God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt as told in the book of Exodus. They had been abused and enslaved but were released by God sending plagues that destroyed Egypt’s economy, military and particularly, their idolatry. It was not done in a corner but established as fact among neighbouring nations (Josh. 2:9-10). Here is the important point: it is people whom God has saved who believe and are glad that he is Judge. They may be sobered by being subject to so great a God, and may tremble when chastised by him, but are grateful for being the objects of his protection.
There is an assumption here: God does not judge in favour of Israel because of their moral superiority but because of their faith in him. The truth is that there is no human being morally superior to another. We are all unworthy. God acts to save those who cry out to him. Israel did the right thing in turning to God and God defended them. This is what the Bible means by vindication: not one person getting their rights but God acting to defend those who trust him.
The fact of God’s intervention to save and establish Israel as a nation became a firm principle in their national life. They were responsible to do what was right (particularly to trust in the Lord) and God would vindicate them before the nations and demonstrate that they were right to trust him. On the other hand, if they did not keep their covenant with God, he would warn them, and judge them, even give them back into the hands of their enemies. His judgements, rightly understood, were acts of love because God knew they could not prosper without him. But then, he would have mercy on them, time and time again, because his covenant was not based on their performance but on the fact that he was their God. They would be restored, showing that their God still intervened in the world to vindicate them.
If judgment is exercised outside of a settled relationship, it may well be cold, unfeeling and harsh. We may well fear such a judge and, because none of us is without faults, learn to despise such a figure. But for faithful Israel, it was different. They did not present themselves as paragons of virtue when they asked God to be Judge on their behalf, and to vindicate them. They knew their sins but still asked God to act because they trusted him. Psalm 40 is an example of this. Notice the confession of sin being followed by a request for deliverance.
‘As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me! For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me. Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me! Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonour who delight in my hurt!’ (Ps. 40:11-14).
Here is justice that derives from love, is carried out with compassion and requires a like kindness from those favoured by it. It is clear that a system can never be relied on to deliver mercy; only a person can do that, and this is what God has demonstrated to and through Israel.
God’s judgements are in stark contrast with the unjust judgements of earthly rulers. The Lord calls them ‘gods’ in the sense that they perform a godlike function—judging. When they give unjust judgements, Israelites could appeal to God to intervene on their behalf because he was the Judge over all judges.
‘ God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the righ of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!’ (Ps. 82).
Without justice and judgement, civil society and even love begin to break down—the foundations begin to shake. We all need to be accountable to someone! Israel’s faith in God as Judge, and Judge over their leaders as well, gave them a basis for true society and a place to go when injustice was perpetrated. It gave them a reason to perform well themselves because they would also have to answer for their actions. It gave them hope because God would reward their faithfulness. Because they had a God who was trustworthy, they learned (some of the time anyway) to be this way with one another and this built a strong community and a strong economy.
When people in the West today talk about ‘the Judeo-Christian ethic’ they mostly have in mind certain modes of behaviour, but this separates the ethic from the Giver of the law and the Judge who supervises the nations. It is this that we need to recover, not least because a law cannot be merciful, but the maker of that law can be. We need, not only to believe in the Judge, but to love him because only he can faithfully act to establish our life and secure our future.
Jesus shares and develops the faith of Israel. He tells a story about a widow who hounds an unjust judge until she gets what she wants. Jesus encourages his people to pray and not lose heart. He asks however, if such a faith will be found on the earth when the Son of Man returns, faith that God will avenge his chosen people (Luke 18:8). Those who come to God must believe that he is and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6). In rather crass terms, we may say that people who believe in God must believe he will make it worth their while trusting him. People who don’t believe God will act to help them when they trust him may soon abandon their faith altogether. Then again, people who have not discovered the trustworthiness of God to judge on their behalf may soon give up on being trustworthy themselves. We urgently need this faith that Jesus commends here. We need to believe God is Judge and that he will act on our behalf. We need Jesus to assure us of this.
Jesus Christ came to Israel as King and Judge—fulfilling these functions in the name of his Father God. It will be him who establishes justice in the earth and he will not let up until he has the nations, not only submissive, but waiting on his law (see the prophecy in Isaiah 42:4). Those who believe in him rely on him to do this. Everyone who trusts in him is declared to be in the right, and so, to be defended by God’s justice. Jesus died to establish this faith and lives to accomplish it. It will be the point of his return in glory at the end of history. This needs opening up and I plan to do that in the next blog, especially the matter of Christ’s death being a judgement, and so, the basis for a judgement in our favour.
Have we learned to love God as Judge? Have we recognised Jesus as the one entrusted to exercise this function? Jesus says it is basic to what he came to do. Through him we learn that the Judge is not against us but for us. On one occasion he said that all judgement was entrusted to him, but that (at that point), he was not judging anyone (John 5:22; 12:47-48). He was living out what it meant that God was in covenant relationship with his people. The Judge comes with mercy to restore us to himself, even while he remains our Judge.
The certainty of God’s promised vindication makes it worthwhile being patient in doing what is good. The assurance of his intervention encourages us to pray and to wait with patience, and the thought that we will answer to him keeps us humble and vigilant. I trust this good news has also taught us to run, not from our Judge but into his care.
The apostles lived under Christ as Judge and spoke of this often (Acts 10:42; Rom. 2:16; 2 Tim. 4:1, 8). It determined the way they lived and preached. They said it was public truth because God had raised Jesus from the dead, openly and undisputedly, and in doing so, assured everyone that he was the one who would judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:31). We can’t do anything about dying, except defer it a little. In the end, God is our Judge. But Christ has not just cheated death, he has defeated it by dying for us, and rising from the dead. With a message like that for the world, judgement has passed into his hands. No one should want to dispute that he has authority to judge the world.
These things have given us a message for the world. Christ as Judge assures us that our lives are worthwhile, and, of course, keeps us focussed. We are not our own but are bound to live for the one to whom we must give an answer. We tremble at the thought of not pleasing our Saviour, but it is love that teaches us to fear (2 Cor. 5:10-11, 14).
All this would be morally untenable if it were not for the coming and the death of Christ. In the next blog, I want to look at how Christ’s death on a cross is God’s judgement on our sins and how this changes everything and brings much joy to those who believe. In a third blog, I want us to see how God’s judgements may be working out at present and how this jealous love of God should give us hope.