The wide spectrum of Christ’s character always challenges me, especially in light of how the roles and tasks he assumes undergo a shift from the incarnation to his ascension. It’s clearly stated in the Gospels that Jesus didn’t come to judge, and when he’s on the earth as the Word-made-flesh Son of God, there is no judgment to be found. Yes, he displays righteous anger at times. He also has plenty of harsh words for the Pharisees, but even then there would be grace readily available to them if they would only accept (consider the story of Nicodemus). At the end of Scripture, though, Jesus has changed in the book of Revelation. He’s taken on the role of a judge, doling out summations of how people have spent their time—what they could have done better and what they did right. I feel as if there’s something here that’s crucial to recognize.
If Jesus’ goal as God incarnate walking among us was not to judge, then he had to have some other agenda, and we can easily observe from the Gospels it was to do not just one thing, but two. Most people acknowledge the first one by saying, “Jesus came to save,” and that’s all well and good, but I would argue that it’s not enough—at least, not enough for the here and now. Salvation is great and all and can even bring a psychological sense of freedom to the current situation—a sort of “things will get better someday” mentality. Thus, you will hear Christians say right now, “We are free.” That’s slightly true given the future, but the apostle Paul makes it clear in Romans 10 that life is still very difficult primarily because of how our spirit is alive, yet weighed down by a “dead” body of flesh. (Intimations of this also appear in 2 Corinthians chapter 4.) So, we’re free, yet chained. So, a question bursts out of that dichotomy. The very fact that we’re “free” while a struggle exists seems to beg the question, “Now what?” Thankfully, Jesus’ imperative was to do more than just show up and bail us out for eternity; his second agenda was that he also showed us how to live.
Jesus said he came so that we might have life to the full. Given his knack for a lead-by-example mentality and his proclivity for parables, we can quickly answer the question of, “Well, how do you do that?” by simply observing what he did and by studying what his illustrative stories indicate we should do. This is why bracelets that ask, “What would Jesus do?” have little to no significance, for it’s probably more sensible to simply ask, “What did Jesus do?” The Son of God loved to get into the grey areas of life enough to where we have plenty of meat to chew on without having to ask a conditional question blatantly latched onto our wrists. (Should we want to know, though, what Jesus would do in a situation, he made it very clear that he provided the Holy Spirit for those instances, but that’s a different discussion.)
Here’s the interesting thing, though. Answering the question of what Jesus did doesn’t bring the focus solely on what he spent his time actively doing; it’s important also to take note of what he spent his time avoiding. The invisible speaks just as loudly as the visible, should we give it a glance. (This is a typical and excellent Marxist literary technique—looking at what the text doesn’t say or doesn’t show.) If Jesus says he did not come to judge, that should get our attention just as much as him saying he came to show people what it means to live a full life. The two are connected, and it makes no sense to disassociate them. Likewise, it would not make sense to disconnect the incarnate Son of Man from the ascended Son of God. He’s still the same person, but his roles have shifted, and we should look into that, as well, because in the book of Revelation, Jesus has changed appearance- and agenda-wise.
Not only does he look different, but he begins to give an account of different groups (specifically churches) and indicts them for their shortcomings—the areas where they completely missed it. This seems very different from the Jesus we see on the earth. Yes, he criticized the Pharisees, but in Revelation the actual giving out of judgments is much harsher and more intense than Jesus’ earthly ministry. I wouldn’t say there is a contrast as much as there is simply an addendum to his character now. Since he’s no longer on earth, he assumes the mantle of a judge.
Now, judgment is a fidget-inducing word because a lot of us simply don’t like it. There are many reasons we give—it’s not very loving, it’s inhumane, et cetera—but none of them are actually very accurate reasons, so it might be that at the core it just rubs us the wrong way. While we might write off judgment as a whole with our remarks, this is a mistake because we’re just lying to ourselves. It’s not judgment that we don’t like; it’s simply ill-placed judgment we’re averse to. So, really, we all share something in common—distaste for bad justice. No one likes it. But when it comes to true justice, every single one of us longs for it to be brought about. When a friend has her heart broken, we want someone to pay. When someone molests a child, we want his head. When people blow up buildings, our temperatures rise. When churches hold up signs that say, “GOD HATES FAGS,” we want to burn their building down. (You may deny ever feeling any of these emotive responses, but I will go ahead and think you to be a liar and hypocrite, for we all feel these to some degree.) We are not naturally gracious people. We want revenge or someone to get locked away. When we’re going the speed limit and someone whizzes past us, we slam the steering wheel in frustration because there’s no cop around to catch the guy. This is just how it goes. So, no, when people say they don’t like judgment or justice, they’re lying. We all want judgment to occur in some form or fashion.
And yet, by his example Jesus makes it pretty clear that this temporal realm is not the place for judgment to occur. It belongs in his hands because he knows how to administer it, and it belongs postmortem when all is said and done here. Some people will shudder at the thought of Jesus being judge because it doesn’t fit into their crawl-into-his-lap-and-be-held preconceived notion of him—the Jesus who is their best friend who just wants to hug them all the time. Perhaps that mismatch is good, then. Such a romanticized view of Christ with an ethos about as profound as Telletubbies can’t be that healthy in the long run. But if we stop and consider who is wielding the tools of judgment, there is reason to realize that all of this is comforting and not frightening. Jesus being judge is an ideal scenario.
Again, I don’t get the idea from Scripture that it’s a different Jesus now occupying his rightful place in heaven. Same guy. He’s just returning to the place he left behind for the thirty-odd years he was on this earth. So by not disassociating earth Jesus from heaven Jesus, I stop and consider the characteristics of compassion and integrity Jesus displayed while doing his ministry. While it’s terrifying to consider that Jesus can see people as they really are, there is comfort in remembering he called out the socially prominent, hypocritical, self-righteous religious leaders of the day. He outright lambasted them because he saw them for who they really were. In contrast, he reached out to the people who couldn’t take care of themselves and had been shoved aside by society and had never known mercy. The prostitutes, tax collectors, diseased, and impoverished had purer hearts than the religious leaders. Jesus stretched his hands of love out to them because he saw them for who they really were. It’s one thing if someone plays judge over a person they don’t really even know, but for the blameless Son of God, who knows all of us and our hearts better than we do ourselves, to be judge over us—well, there is comfort in knowing he’ll handle that entire affair with integrity. Even people who incorrectly label judgment as a fire and brimstone act should be comforted by this idea. There’s no scarier thought than the possibility that a judge, an administrator of justice, might not have a heart of pure integrity. But Christ does. That alters our preconceived notion of judgment.
Anyone from the secular, hate-everything-that-has-to-do-with-religion crowd may be interested to know that one of the first things Christ does in the book of Revelation, as aforementioned, is slam the churches that aren’t doing their job of loving him and loving others. While I don’t believe wrath typifies God’s all-consuming nature, there is a part of him that will bring righteous justice, and perhaps the people who hate Christianity would take some relief in knowing occupants of pews won’t escape that scrutinizing eye. God’s judgment is just as much for his “followers” as it is for those who step all over the downcast and oppress the downtrodden—especially when those two groups are one in the same, I would think. (The book of James fleshes out this idea.)
None of this is a new thought because I am not that intelligent, and there is also nothing new under the sun, as Solomon so aptly stated. But the new thought for me several months ago was that, even though judgment has a time and place, it will never be in this life, and it will never be in my hands.
This is not to say we don’t need a justice system or don’t need people to step in when others try to wreak havoc on the populace or that parents shouldn’t discipline their children anymore. Those are all highly necessary functions of society. But even those systems will be flawed from time to time, try as hard as they might to get it right on each occasion. There will always be people wrongfully executed on death row. There will never be a perfect parent. So, as crucial as those systems are, it’s important to acknowledge how we, as blemished human beings, can only go so far with our administration of a righteous right hand because, well, we’re not righteous, we’re not unbiased, and we’re certainly not always just. Therefore, what I’m saying is that true justice will never be seen in this life. And Christ’s withholding of judgment during his earthly ministry shows that this is not the environment for it. There is another time and place for it, a more appropriate juncture. Again, you can’t get more blatant than Jesus proclaiming to people, “I didn’t come here to judge, but to save.”
When I consider the way in which Christ—through his examples and not so much his words—shows how to do things, I come away very disappointed with the Church, with her spoon-fed conformists, and with myself. Jesus seems to make a very compelling case for what a life lived sans judgment can look like and what an incredible wellspring of hope and love can grow from it. When you stop spending so much time vilifying, you can start healing. When you stop nitpicking, you can start restoring. Ill-placed judgmentalism is, perhaps, one of the greatest distracters the devil ever fashioned. Maybe that’s why Jesus stayed so far away from it.
Now, I can see how this entire post can be frustrating for an atheist. For me to say, “Be patient. Justice will come, but it comes after our chapter here closes,” isn’t necessarily easy to hear if you believe nothing comes after the light at the end of the tunnel. All I would say to the atheist is, “Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t defend the oppressed, put the child molester on trial, and try to get people access to clean drinking water. All of those need to happen. But keep in mind the limitations of this life.” Jesus encapsulated this truth quite well when he said, “You will always have the poor among you.” He didn’t say that to make us despair. He simply said it to note that there will always be work to do for his kingdom.
To be honest, this wait for true justice isn’t an easy idea to swallow for me, either, given my own predisposition for wanting everything instantly because of the microwave culture in which I live. But I at least can stop and return to my belief that injustices will be rectified beyond this life. For a person who doesn’t believe in another time after the grave, the admonition to just be patient and wait on the Lord to take care of it all seems utterly ridiculous. To each his own, and I’m sorry if you feel that way. I can sympathize with the frustration, though. Faith is never easy because it means some things aren’t in your hands. But as stated before, I’m glad this one on judgment isn’t in my hands.
I say that because I’ve seen what it turns into when humans wield it, or rather, I’ve seen them attempt to wield it, and it always turns out messy. Whenever broken people try to do the things that belong solely to God, everything becomes distorted. Solomon said there is a time for everything, and I agree, but that doesn’t mean there is a time for everything to be done by us; there is simply a time for everything to take place, meaning some things may never be our responsibility. Instead, we can look to Christ and listen. Love, mercy, sacrifice—these are the tenants of an earthly ministry Jesus would have us assume. That is our role to play. Being a judge is simply never on the docket. And even in that there is grace. I wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure of doling out judgment, nor would I be too keen on trying. It might work out nicely, then, if God doesn’t want me to, either.
A closing note for the skeptical crowd. This was a post I started writing back in January, put aside, and then picked up last month to finish. Conveniently, my pastor, Dave, brought a timely sermon a couple of weeks ago that wrapped up our church’s summer series that went through 1 and 2 Peter. While Dave didn’t preach on exactly what I’m writing about here, he largely touched on this idea of dissatisfaction—whether you mock Jesus or love him—with God’s silence and seeming nonexistence in certain aspects of life. Dave’s message on God’s timing, our need to wait on him, and the Lord’s patience with us and what that means for our lives is, in my opinion, one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard him give. I’m not one to usually post videos of sermons because I think it’s asking a lot to expect someone to pause for thirty minutes and watch the whole thing, but then again, when it’s truth like this spoken with such grace, that’s not such a sacrifice to ask, really. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, I think you might benefit from watching this. If I’m wrong, feel free to leave a comment and tell me why. I do hope you find it worthwhile, though.