JESUS THE JUDGE
Written by Doug Ponder on April 11, 2013
Jesus Isn’t Cross-Eyed
The oldest known icon of Jesus is the Christ Pantokrator. (Icons are religious works of art meant to teach and to help with worship and prayer.) In this painting of Jesus, he is shown with one eye looking straight at you, while the other eye seems to be staring off into the distance.
Modern observers have mistakenly concluded that the painter made Jesus look cross-eyed, but that’s just because we don’t understand the symbolism of the painting. On one side Jesus’ face looks happy, his hand is raised in blessing, and his eye is fixed on the observer. No matter where you move, Jesus is there to bless you. But the other half of Jesus’ face looks stern, his other hand clutches the Book of Life, which records everything you’ve done whether good or bad, and his other eye stares in a different direction—not off not into the distance, but into your future. The point is clear: Jesus is both our savior and our judge.
Chances are, though, you don’t think of Jesus as your judge. You probably think of him as your Savior, your Redeemer, your forgiveness, and so forth. Perhaps you might even call him your “Lord” (which is true and powerful, if we really understand all that it means). But the point I’m getting at still remains. You almost never think of Jesus as your judge. To our ears, Jesus the judge doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Jesus the Redeemer, does it?
And yet it’s true.
“God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). We’re even commanded to tell this to others: “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).
A Common Theme: Jesus the Judge
As surprising as it might be to some, Jesus’ identity as the just judge is repeated in almost every letter of the New Testament (cf. Matt. 25:31-46; Luke 12:42-48; John 5:22-24; Rom. 2:16; 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:11-15; 4:5; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:5-7; 1 Tim. 5:24; 2 Tim. 4:1-8; Heb. 9:27; 10:30; 12:23; James 4:11-12; 5:9; 1 Pet. 1:7; 1:17; 2:23; 2 Pet. 2:9; 1 John 4:17; Jude 1:14-15; Rev. 11:18; 20:12, et al.).
In case your eyes skipped over all those Scriptural references, let us draw your attention once more to the fact that the theme of judgment is repeated in almost every book of the New Testament, and usually it is mentioned more than once in each of these books. You almost get the idea that the biblical authors thought judgment was an important thing for us to consider… (But if you’re like me, you probably don’t think on it often. We’re saved by grace, so who needs to worry about judgment. Right?)
Here we’re left with two conflicting realities: (1) The description of Jesus as the just judge is one of the most repeated themes of the New Testament, but (2) virtually no one thinks of Jesus in that way. We mostly think of him as our gracious Savior, not our righteous Judge.
This discrepancy seems to reveal what we think of Jesus and of what we think of ourselves. There are two reasons we reject the idea of judgment:
1. We don’t like authority.
“Don’t judge me.” “You can’t tell me what to do.” “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” The last popular quote is, of course, from the Bible. But we miss the point of what is being said there. Those were the words of Jesus given to sinful people. He says that we ought not judge others in such a way as to think that we are above the same judgment ourselves (Matt. 7:1-2). But Jesus never said that no one will be judged. He simply meant that only the proper authorities should do the judging.
Think about it. A world without judgment would mean anything goes. Rape, murder, child molestation, lies, greed, hate, racism, infidelity—all of these would be acceptable. But those sorts of things are not acceptable, and everyone knows it. So you could say that we need judgment in order to live in just and peaceful societies. That is not a strange thing to say when you understand what judgment is. Judgment is the authoritative declaration that one thing is good and to be upheld, while another thing is evil and to be avoided. It is to be avoided, because it will be stopped by the proper authorities. The same is true with Jesus, our ultimate authority.
And with that last sentence we have arrived at the heart of our problem. We don’t like the idea that someone else is the authority over us. We have a government that must answer to the people (or else they won’t get re-elected). But it’s not so with Jesus. He doesn’t answer to us; we answer to him. And if you wonder what “right” Jesus has to judge any of us, if you find yourself thinking, “Who is he to judge me?” You should know that thinking like that is result of belittling Jesus and inflating our own egos. You have reduced to Jesus to your buddy, your equal, when he is first and foremost your Lord. He’s the boss. He created the universe. You exist because he wants you to, not the other way around (Rev. 4:11). What he says goes, whether you like it or not. But you should like it (and not as you should like a vegetable that is good for you but tastes bad). Rather, you should like this because of who Jesus actually is. He is the source of all goodness and beauty and truth; therefore, his judgments are perfectly fair. Not to mention, if you turn your back on the source of everything good, what will you have left? (Nothing good, obviously.)
You see, the judgment of Jesus would be a scary reality if he were some malicious dictator hell-bent on ruining our lives. But he’s not. Instead, he is dead set on ruining evil, by judging it and stopping it completely. His just judgment means that he won’t let evil go unchecked, and that’s good news. Judgment is good news.
Now for the bad news: we deserve judgment. This factors into the second reason why we tend not to think of Jesus as our judge.
2. We don’t like guilt.
We feel the weight of our guilt for not doing the things we ought to have done, or for doing the things we know we shouldn’t have. Some try to deal with this guilt by explaining it away. They say, “I’m not really so bad as all that. Look at that guy. He’s way worse than me.” That kind of thinking may relieve your conscience for a moment, but it won’t lessen your guilt (nor the judgment your actions deserve).
Other people try to relieve their feelings of guilt through religious activity. They think, “If I do a bunch of good for God, then maybe he’ll overlook all my failures.” Depending on your background, you might think of feeding the homeless, giving to churches or to charities, passing out gospel tracts, reading the Bible, obeying God’s commands, and so forth. Regardless of what you choose, all of those are ways of trying to “bribe God.” Maybe you don’t think of it in those terms, but that’s basically what you are doing if you try to earn God’s forgiveness through good behavior. But what kind of judge would let a murderer off the hook simply because he had also given a bunch of his money to the judge’s favorite charity? We would rightly call into question the justice of that judge’s actions.
The Judge and the Pardoner
And so we are left with a problem: judgment, in general, is good news for it means that evil will be stopped. But when we look at ourselves, judgment sounds like bad news because we are caught up in the evil that will be judged. What are we to make of all this? Is there no hope for us?
Behold, Jesus is the judge who took upon himself the judgment that we were due. It’s as if you were guilty of wrecking a car that you couldn’t afford to repair, and Jesus volunteered to repair the car for you at great cost to himself. Only in this case, the “car” that was wrecked is actually your life. It represents your failure to love God and love your neighbor with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Your failure to do so will be judged; indeed, it must be judged if God is truly just. That is the good news of the gospel. Jesus the judge took upon himself the judgment we deserve so that we might be freed from our guilt.
But there are those who say to Jesus, “Thanks, but no thanks.” In effect they are telling him that they don’t need or want what he offers. As a result, they are choosing to face the judgment of God for their sin on their own. They will fact the full force of his justice for the evil they have committed, and the only just “reward” for that is separation from the goodness of God forever. “We know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:30-31).
Everyone who follows Jesus, however, need not fear that kind of judgment. Jesus himself says that those who believe in him will not come into that kind judgment (John 5:22-24). There is “no more condemnation” for them, since Jesus has already bore the judgment they deserve in his death on the cross (Rom. 8:1).
Free From Condemnation, Not From Obedience
Jesus’ free pardon doesn’t mean that we can get on with our lives doing whatever we please. In fact, Jesus himself said the person who calls him Lord but doesn’t want to do what he says isn’t really his disciple (Luke 6:46). So it simply won’t do for us to pretend like Jesus’ sacrifice means that obeying God is optional. Once again, Jesus said that obeying God is one of the main ways we demonstrate our love for him (John 14:15).
Nor does it mean that once you are “in Christ Jesus” that what you do doesn’t matter to God. Some people have taught, quite wrongly, that if you have been rescued by grace through faith in Jesus that what you do is ultimately irrelevant. “After all,” the thinking goes, “since I can’t improve upon the righteousness of Jesus, my actions are of no real value.”
That may be how you learned the gospel in Sunday School, but it’s not how the Scriptures apply the that truth. For the same man who wrote, “there is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” also wrote, “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). He also wrote, “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:10-12).
Forgiven Yet Accountable
This theme of accountability to God runs throughout the New Testament as a continual reminder not to waste our lives (Matt. 14:45-47; 25:14-30; Luke 12:35-48; 16:1-13; 17:7-10; 19:12-27; Rom. 2:16; 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:8-15; 4:5; 9:17-27; Col. 3:23-25; 1 Tim. 2:3-6; 2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Pet. 1:7; 5:4; Rev. 4:4, 10; 22:12).
Jesus himself told many parables about unfaithful managers, people who did not steward the time and talents they had been given by God to bless others in his name (e.g., Luke 12:35-48). The point of his parables was always the same: if we are true followers who know the goodness of our Lord, we should faithfully invest our lives in the service of his kingdom. His followers who have done much good will be rewarded, Jesus said. Those who were selfish, lazy, disobedient, and unfaithful will receive some kind of punishment. They will “suffer loss,” as Paul says. Listen to his words:
“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become evident, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:11-15).
This teaching has upset many people, for they feel offended that Jesus doesn’t give everyone a gold star for participation. Others wrongly claim that this teaching is some kind of legalistic works-based salvation. But that’s not true. It simply says that (1) those who love Jesus will strive to serve him and (2) that those who do will be rewarded, while those who don’t will “suffer loss.”
What Kind of Rewards?
We don’t know exactly what these rewards will be like, but Jesus’ teachings give us some idea. When the master comes back to check on the work of his servants, he will say to some, “‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matt. 25:21). This suggests that God will praise the faithfulness of his servants (cf. 1 Pet. 1:7), that God will give them greater responsibility and opportunity in his eternal kingdom (cf. Matt. 25:24), and that the servant’s may have a greater capacity to share in the Lord’s happiness (cf. 2 Cor. 1:14; 1 Thess. 2:19-20). Meanwhile less faithful servants will still be saved “as through fire,” Paul says, but they will be rebuked for their unfaithfulness (Matt. 25:26; Luke 12:48), stripped of some responsibility in Jesus’ eternal kingdom (Matt. 25:29), and perhaps feel some grief at the realization of how much time they wasted when they could have been serving their king.
Whatever the other rewards may be, it’s important to point out that the greatest reward is seeing Jesus face-to-face and living in his presence without sin (1 John 3:2). It’s also important to point out that Jesus, though our Savior, is still the one to whom we give an account. So while we do not live as people afraid of being cast out of God’s presence forever, neither should we wander aimlessly through life wasting the time that we have been given. Jesus says to you even now, “Behold, I am coming soon. Blessed are those who keep the words of this book” (Rev. 22:7).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.