“Aren’t You Aware That We Will Judge Angels?”

(For a MUCH better version of what I will try to say here, see Jonathan Storment’s blog series on Judging.)

Judgment tends to be difficult, and often, hot topic in our churches.  There are 2 levels, and (at least) 4 categories of Judgment at which the issue is typically addressed:

LEVEL ONE: The Judgment of God

Category 1> God’s Final Judgment

Category 2> God’s Present Judgment

LEVEL TWO: The Judgment of God’s People

Category 3> How God’s People Judge the World

Category 4> How God’s People Judge One Another

Often times we use Judgment language in a sweeping sense, as if it includes both of these levels and all four categories at once.  Other times, we ignore the meanings of one of the levels and three of the categories – usually, when we do this, we think judgment always means God’s final judgment.  I think it is hugely important that we bring all of our language about God’s judgment into biblical focus, so that we can recover some faithful church practices and disciplines, and so that we can recover a healthy vision of God’s own judgment.  But to do this, first we need to learn to recognize which of these four categories the particular texts we are reading deal with.

I want to begin with Level One, Category 1.  God’s Final Judgment.  I want to make a claim about this level that I think is very biblical, and very critical to help us heal some unhealthy notions/assumptions we tend to bring with us to biblical language about God’s final judgment.  Here is my claim, and I hope to support it with scripture.

Claim #1 Concerning Judgment:  God’s final judgment of ‘the world’ was not something that God’s people were ‘scared of,’ nor was it something they wanted God to postpone, hoping to convince him in the meantime to spare their souls in the end.  Nor did God’s people think of it in terms of individual salvation and punishment.  Rather, God’s people anticipated, desired, longed for, and prayed for God to hurry up and ‘judge the world’ according to His justice, so that they might enjoy the fruits of that judgment.

If you want to get to the core of what God’s people, Israel, thought about God, His nature, and His past, present and future acts in human history, read the Psalms.  Here we find real human desires and prayers laid bare before a listening God.  So, let us take a listening ear then, to the Psalms, to understand the mind and heart of Israel, God’s covenant people, concerning God’s Future Judgment.

Psalm 96

O sing to the Lord a new song;
   sing to the Lord, all the earth. 
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
   tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations,
   his marvellous works among all the peoples. 
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
   he is to be revered above all gods. 
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
   but the Lord made the heavens. 
Honour and majesty are before him;
   strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
   ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
   bring an offering, and come into his courts. 
Worship the Lord in holy splendour;
   tremble before him, all the earth. 
Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!
   The world is firmly 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 is coming,
   for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
   and the peoples with his truth.

Psalm 96 is among a very long list of Old Testament texts that celebrates God’s future judgment.  For the Jewish people, rather than looking ahead to a coming day of judgment with fear and worry about their own personal salvation, they instead prayed for God to exact his righteous judgment soon.  For God’s people in the narrative of Israel, they anticipated a day when God, through his Messiah (to be specific), would “set the world to rights again.”  Something was broken in the cosmos in the garden when Adam and Even first sinned.  They were given instruction to rule and reign as “Eikons” reflecting God’s wise order over a good creation.  But they usurped God’s authority and misused creation for their own benefit.  What the Hebrew people now longed for, was not to escape the world one person at a time, but for YHWH to step in on their behalf and restore his wise and good order to the world.  That is why they can say with confidence that when God does exact his judgment that the world (specifically ‘earth’) will celebrate that as Good News of God’s restoration:

Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!
   The world is firmly 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 is coming,
   for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
   and the peoples with his truth.

More specifically, such Psalms usually include claims like “The Lord is King!”  God’s good, wise, restoring, and just judgment are in close connection with His kingship.  This is what it means that Jesus is now “King” or “Messiah” – that in and through Him, God has made good on his promise that he will bring the entire world into His glory under His Messiah, and that, in and through Jesus, in the power of His Spirit, he now is beginning to rule and reign according to His justice.  And the earth and all that is in it are glad of that fact.  Indeed, more importantly, His people long for such renewal, restoration and salvation.  And it comes through “God’s final judgment.”

But this heightens the tension about language of God’s present judgment (usually couched in terms of “God’s punishment”).  That brings us to Level One, Category 2.  If God’s future judgment is “good news” to be celebrated and anticipated by His people, then what do we make of his present judgment?  Does God act within human history to “judge” the world – to judge people?

Claim #2 Concerning Judgment:  God’s present judgment does not reflect his final analysis, nor does it serve the purpose of annihilating sin or sinful humans.  Rather, God’s present judgment serves the hopeful purpose of turning sinful humanity (in general) and His covenant people (in particular) back to Him, so that they may carry out his good purposes for them.  

You could, at this point, divide this category into two further sub-categories (of how God presently judges ‘the nations’ in general, and ‘his people’ in particular, in the present).   But for the sake of time, we will suffice to stick to the general claim that God’s present judgment serves the purpose of awakening in the human heart the need to be reconciled to God and to serve His purposes in the world.

Often times, when the Scriptures speak of God’s present judgment, they use language of God “handing [humans] over” to their sinful nature/desires.  Romans 1 especially employs this language, although the Old Testament makes good use of it as well.  To me, this choice of language has always been intriguing.  It seems to denote a sort of choice-and-natural-consequences logic.  That is, if we [sinful humans] insist upon living our lives apart from God’s good intentions for us, if we continue to rebel to His wise and sovereign reign, then God will “hand us over” to the fruits of such a life apart from Him.

God has demonstrated his love and mercy for us.  He has redeemed us.  Yet, if we insist on life apart from us, He will (to be blunt about it) issue a judgment concerning us.  That judgment essentially says, “Reap the bad fruit of what you insist upon sowing.”

There is an interesting line of logic that can be followed in Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In the opening statement about the plight of the world apart from its rightful Ruler, Paul uses this ‘present judgment’ language, saying:

“God’s wrath has been unveiled against all ungodliness and wickedness… God gave them up [handed them over] to the lusts of their hearts…”

The tensions of the problem of sin and evil, God’s law, and how God deals with all of that, is not resolved in Romans until chapter 8.  Paul upholds the law as the standard by which mankind will be judged.  God still intends for a future that will be shaped and marked by a people who are faithful to His good purposes.  But, because of the sin problem (the brokenness of the created order) we still break that law.  Enter the Spirit of God, that is victorious over the “sinful nature” of humankind.  This is where Paul says something interesting about judgment, that, if we are not careful, we can easily miss:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation itself was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved.”  

As is typical of a Pauline passage, this little paragraph is dense with imagery and language that needs to be unpacked.  First, it is worth mentioning, that until now in Paul’s letter to the Romans, one might be tempted to think of salvation in terms of personal or individual justification.  However, Paul now turns to language to include the entire cosmos.  All of creation will be redeemed at God’s final judgment.  Secondly, both God’s future judgment (when he will judge the world and set it to rights again) and present judgment are at work here.  Though hard to see, I think present judgment is in this text, however implicit it might be (remember in Romans 1, Paul introduces the notion that God is revealing his wrath against ungodliness, rebellion and wickedness):

“…for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be set from its bondage to decay…” 

Here, N.T. Wright, in his famous commentary on Romans, is helpful:

“After the fall, the earth produced thorns and thistles.  Humans continued to abuse their environment, so that one of the reasons why God sent Israel into exile, according to the Scriptures, was so that the land could at last enjoy its sabbaths (Lev. 26:34-43 [cf. 25:2-5]; 2 Chr. 36:21).  But the answer to the problem was not that humans should keep their hands off creation, [or] should perhaps be removed from the planet altogether so as not to spoil it any further.  The answer, if the creator is to be true to the original purpose, is for humans  to be redeemed, to take their place at last as God’s image-bearers, the wise steward they were meant to be (Gen. 1).  Paul sees that this purpose has already been accomplished in principle in the resurrection of Jesus, and that it will be accomplished fully when all those in Christ are raised and together set in saving authority over the world. (see I Cor. 15:20-28).   That is why, Paul says, creation is now waiting with eager longing.”

Listen closely here:  the language in Romans 8 is that “creation has been subjected to futility.”  Think of all the ways in which creation has been subjected to death, decay, bondage, and slavery (to use the language that Paul himself uses).  We just saw a massive super-storm, Sandy, take the Northeast U.S. under her power.  We have witnessed terrible earthquakes in China, Haiti, Japan and other places.  We witnessed a terrible and unspeakable tragedy in the Boxing Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004.  Creation itself, Paul says, cries out, longing, eager, desiring…  Creation itself, has been subjected to this sort of futility.

But why?  Paul answers: “…in hopes that CREATION ITSELF will be set free from bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

Thus, God exacts present day “judgment” (which we have already said, usually takes the form of him giving us over to what we insist upon in the first place), NOT to wag a wrathful finger out some warped sense of justifiable hatred.  Rather he does out of a sense of HOPE!  The hope is that present judgment (sometimes perceived as “sufferings” or “punishments” depending on one’s perspective – see Heb. 12:7-11), will bear the fruit of righteousness – righteousness in the sense of the faithfulness of us to God and our covenantal relationship with Him, and His faithfulness to His own covenantal promises to bring the whole world into the glory and redemption of His people (see, again, Heb. 12:11).

After having said all this about judgment at the first level (Level One:  The Judgment of God), there is still much more to be said about judgment at the second level (Level Two: The Judgment of God’s People).  What is our role in relationship to Judgment?  Are we to judge?  If we are to judge, how do we execute judgment?  What do we make of Jesus singular commandment:  “Do not judge.” (Matt. 7:1)?

Claim #3 Concerning Judgment:  It is not our job to execute judgment concerning the salvation of ‘the world.’  That job belongs to YHWH, and YHWH alone.  Further (something that should startle us), if we decide to take that job up, we end up condemning ourselves.

It is difficult to get this if we are deficient in our understanding of Judgment at the first level.  The first level (God’s Role as Righteous Final Judge), does not involve us helping God get that final judgment right.  It claims, in fact, something quite different; namely, that we humans, whenever we attempt to execute judgment, get it quite wrong.  And isn’t it funny that our judgment of the world never simultaneously includes us as participants in the sin-problem of the world.

One great passage is helpful here, because, again, it involves both God’s final judgment and our own present efforts to judge for ourselves.  The passage in mind is Romans 12:14-21 (esp. vs. 19).

“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

Refusing to prematurely assign ourselves the Divine duty of final judge, is, in essence, an act of faith and trust in God and His own righteous final judgment.  A lot could be said here, and, indeed, a lot has been said about this.  But, for the life of me, I cannot understand why this point is so difficult or so hotly debated.  It seems rather simple to me.  We are not given the duty of exacting final judgment, issuing statements of judgment concerning the salvation of others, or pretending to know how God is going to finally sort out the righteous from the unrighteous in the end.  Jesus spoke quite plainly concerning this in the Sermon on the Mount – “Do not be judge.”  (Mt. 7:1)

Finally, this brings me to a forth claim concerning God’s people and their role in relationship to judging – a role that, I fear, has been all but lost in Western communities of faith.

Claim #4 Concerning Judgment:  God’s people are called into community with one another.  Such a community is sustained by the Holy Spirit and called to be set apart (Holy) from the world, in order to bear witness to the world God’s good intentions for the world.  (phew… big statement).  Being a part of such a community with such high stakes, will naturally involve that we submit ourselves (our lives) to the discipline of judging one another.  Therefore, God’s people are to judge one another by the Spirit of Love.

I will run the risk, at this point, of seemingly contradicting Claim #3, by referencing Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he reminds them that they will judge the world.  I hope to use this text to both reinforce my 4th claim and to straighten out any confusion that might linger about my 3rd claim.

So let us turn to the text:

 I Corinthians 6:1-6

“When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?  Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?  And if the world is to be judged by you, are incompetent to try trivial cases?  Do you not know that we are to judge angels – to say nothing of ordinary matters?  If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church?  I say this to your shame.  Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer – and before unbelievers at that?!”

Interesting passage, no?  I can hear contemporary Christians reading Paul.  Paul says to them, “Aren’t you aware that you are going to judge the world?  Aren’t you aware that you are going to judge the angels?”  And reading this, they speak back to Paul, “Well actually, Saint Paul, no we weren’t aware of that at all!”

Yet it is all part of Paul’s message.  Paul is leaning on something that he assumes we all possess – that is a strong theology of what the future holds for us – the New Heavens and the New Earth, at which God exacts his final judgment over the world, making, at last, his enemies his footstool, and redeeming all of creation from bondage to decay and bringing it into the glorious freedom of all God’s children.  And what of life after that final act of glorification?  We, by the power of the Spirit, that now fully inhabits earth “as the waters cover the seas”, enact God’s original intentions for us back in the Garden scene of Genesis 1.

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.  God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have every green plant for food.”

God intends to restore all that has been broken.  The full meaning of “God’s righteousness,” is weighed heavily throughout Paul’s letters, and finally, when all he wrote is taken in view together, is revealed to mean that God intends to be faithful to his promise to the world, through Abraham, to bring the whole world into the glorious freedom of God’s children.  When he does that he “restores” us, also, as the rightful and original good stewards over ‘the world’ whereby we act as judges on behalf of God’s wise and good ordering of the world.

With this “end” in mind, what shall we do then in the meantime?  Our first responsibility is to be faithful representatives (the church) for the world (In the Old Testament the phrase “a light to the nations” was common.   A phrase Jesus himself adopted in the Sermon on the Mount).  Therefore we are to judge one another – that is, we are to judge the body of Christ.

This is probably, if not definitely, what is meant by Paul in I Corinthians 11 by “discerning the body” – he surely meant “When you eat and drink at the Lord’s table, it is a time to discern the body of Christ, to judge one another with wise and good love of Christ.”   Paul envisions the Lord’s table as a community practice whereby the entire body (church, community, ekklesia, peoplehood, etc), is judged with a sort of wise discernment about whether or not it is functioning according to its calling – that calling being, at least in part, to be faithful reflections of God’s future glory.

That is why Paul can say, in I Cor. 11:31, “But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged.”  He does not mean “If each individual would judge themselves…” which would betray his commandment one sentence earlier to “discern the body.”  Rather, he means “If the ekklesia would submit to the practice of judging one another, we would not be judged.”  In other words, judgment comes in one fashion or another.

Final Comments Concerning Judgment:

Final judgment belongs to YHWH.  A day indeed is imminent whereby God will exact his justice on the world , not to destroy it, but to restore it.  This is what the whole world is waiting for (Rom. 8:18-25).  In the meantime, God continues to pursue renewed fellowship with His people, sometimes, requiring him to use present judgment, not to annihilate, but, “in the hope” of reconciliation.  (A point I did not explore, is that God has shown evidence within the narrative of Scripture, to annihilate anything or anyone that threatens to thwart his final plans for glorified humanity and creation.)  With God’s role as ultimate judge in mind, then, we find that our own role as image-bearing humans does NOT include acting as final judge.  The condemnation of humankind is not our task, rather, belongs fully and only to God.  But this does not mean that our life is devoid of wise judgment.  Instead, we are called to discern/judge one another, in love (the “in love” part being crucial).  The end of such discerning of the body is to faithfully reflect to the world a community/ a people that lives under God’s good intentions for it.  Living apart from such wise and good judgments is not advisable, lest our lives fall prey and victim to the world’s ways of getting along.

Comments

  1. Joe, You are on the right track, but I believe you might inspire the larger following you deserve if you limit you posts to 500 words, 1,000 tops. You’ve got good things to tell us, and we do want to listen. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the advice! I know you are right. This particular post was from a paper for Graduate School, so I couldn’t afford to condense it, but I will keep your advise in mind moving forward. Thanks for reading and for the compliment!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s