Let the Word Speak!

Reconciling Revelation’s God of Judgment with the Gospel’s God of Love

The fourth through sixth visions deal with how Satan, the Roman Empire, and the unbelievers are judged and punished for their rejection of God. The judgments of Revelation draw heavily on the descriptions of judgment in the Old Testament, but with the redemption already provided by the Lamb’s sacrifice. This mixing of Old and New Testament concepts presents many 20th Century church-goers with difficulties, because “Christian” values in our society, such as fairness and the worth of individuals, conflict with historical events from the Old Testament, as in Joshua, under orders from God, leading the Israelites to kill every person in the city of Ai (Joshua 8:24-29). More to the point, we so treasure how God loves each of us so deeply and so personally that we cannot comprehend how God could turn his back on anyone in eternal punishment. At the same time, we know that with God “there is no variation or shadow due to change,” (James 1:17), and that God seeks to show us “the unchangeable character of his purpose” (Hebrews 6:17).

It is not my purpose in a study of Revelation to discuss the context of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under Joshua, but I will digress enough to offer a few ideas for thought. Given that God is constant in both His love and His righteousness, we conclude that differences between the Old Testament and New Testament teachings are the result in differences in the people receiving God’s word. One of the most significant differences is that The Covenant God gave to Abraham was between God and a nation, while the Covenant that Jesus established by his death and resurrection is between God and every individual. It is exactly the individual nature of the New Covenant that provides us today with our societal value of the worth of individuals — a concept that was completely foreign to the Old Testament world. Finally, we cannot allow ourselves to confuse earthly death with eternal judgment — we assess the killing of every resident of Ai to be a grave condemnation of capital crimes in worldly terms, while the God who received their eternal souls is the only true Judge.

What I prefer to do to better understand the perspective of these images of judgment in Revelation is to explore references to judgment in the teachings of Jesus. I have listed below several passages where Jesus is recorded in the Gospels as teaching about the judgment. I have chosen passages that are more direct, rather than figurative, although that choice doesn’t ensure that all of us will understand these passages the same way. The gospels record that Jesus’ disciples were frequently confused, so we should be patient with ourselves if we are sometimes confused. I have selected several of the many texts from Matthew, Luke, and John concerning judgement to contrast the purposes the writers had of recording these teachings of Jesus and the similarities of what they record of Jesus’ teachings on judgment.

Matthew

Matthew wrote his gospel for Jewish readers, showing that Jesus was the Messiah promised by the Old Testament prophets, and that he was exactly consistent with the true Law and teachings. Not surprisingly, Matthew’s gospel contains frequent, vivid references to judgment.

Matthew 5:21-22 (from Sermon on the Mount)

21 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, [a harsh insult] shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell [”Gehenna”] fire.

There were two locations that are translated into English as “hell.” One is Hades, the holding place of the dead, and the other is Gehenna, the place of eternal fire and punishment.

Notice in this teaching that Jesus presents us with impossible standards of righteous conduct, with eternal punishment as the sentence for violating those standards. Clearly, we are all sinners and fall short of God’s standards, so we must rely on God’s grace and forgiveness for salvation.

Matthew 7:15-20 (Sermon on the Mount)

15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Jesus pictures here the hopeless condition of those who work in opposition to God’s plan. There is no sense here of tolerance, but there is a certainty and a reasonableness to judgment.

Matthew 8:10-12

10 When Jesus heard it [words of faith from the centurion], he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.
12 But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Where Jesus frequently spoke of judgment as weeds being thrown into fires, here he explicitly warns that many Jews will be permanently separated from God. Couldn’t this eternal separation from God be so devastating to those of us made in His image to describe the experience as a lake of fire?

Matthew 23:29-33

29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,
30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.
32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.
33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Jesus saved his harshest warnings of condemnation for the religious authorities, because they were the most adamant in rejecting his teachings.

Luke

The Gospel According to Luke, and its continuation in the Acts of the Apostles, was written to emphasize the relevance of Jesus Christ for all the world, and to call all the world to follow Him. He presented Jesus as a perfect person, both God and Man, fitting the Greek school of thought for a divine human being. As such, Luke presents judgment in terms of “natural” law and consequences, more in keeping with Greek thought and social values.

Luke 7:29-30

29 And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.
30 But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him.

To paraphrase, the people who had repented acknowledged the justice of God, but the leaders rejected God through their choices. Luke was making a key point that God does not reject people, but instead that people reject God. The religious elite over and over rejected the opportunities to accept God’s teaching given in the Old Testament and spoken by John the Baptist and Jesus. It is their rejection that cut themselves off from God’s salvation.

Luke 12:8-9

8 Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God:
9 But he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God.

Luke emphasizes the theme of human choice of accepting or rejecting Jesus, and what are the obviously fair consequences in the response of Jesus. Other gospel writers made it clear that Jesus’ acknowledgment in heaven of our acceptance or rejection is at the final judgment — that there is a time when it is too late.

Luke 13:6-9

6 He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.
7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?
8 And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:
9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.

A little botany lesson helps here: fig bushes grow quickly and start producing fruit four times a year after just two or three years. After having waited three years, the vineyard owner made an obvious and prudent judgment that this specific plant was hopeless, and further more, it was taking up valuable growing room in his vineyard. Thus come the two lessons from this parable: it is obviously just and sensible to destroy the unfruitful bush. The gardener showed foolish mercy and patience with this plant, just as God has unreasonable patience and mercy with us, but even that patience cannot go on forever.

Luke 13:23-28

23 Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them,
24 Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.
25 When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are:
26 Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets.
27 But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity.
28 There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.

Jesus presents the sad warning that it takes more than a casual belief in Jesus to accept the gift of salvation. This passage is similar to the more pointed description in James 2:18-19:

18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

Luke 15:11-24 (First part of the Parable of the Prodigal Son)

11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:
12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

The father provides unreasonable forgiveness, and unwise restoration to a child who had wasted the possessions the father had earned and accumulated over the years. Not only that, but the father acted in unseemly eagerness to run out to embrace his son, when any self-respecting man would have waited for the son, or at least walked with dignity. God is like all of those things, but we have to start the process by turning around and heading home.

John

The apostle John’s gospel is not so much a historical account of the life of Jesus as it is a Hebrew thesis proving that Jesus was the Messiah. John mixes topical accounts in the life of Jesus with discourses and reflections on the nature of Jesus and God. To show the seriousness placed in the construction of this book, John makes thoughtful use of “seven”s, such as building the outline of his gospel around seven public miracles and including seven times in which Jesus described himself starting with the phrase “I am.” Therefore, John’s discussion of judgment explores the philosophy behind the judgment as well as the fact of the judgment.

John 3:16-19

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

While John presented his Gospel in light of Hebrew philosophy and Luke presented his Gospel in light of Greek values and common wisdom, they both share the universal truth of God’s love and sinful humanity’s choice to reject that love.

John 3:36

36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

Here John is able to show how God’s judgment fits within human choice — God doesn’t choose who to punish, people make that choice.

John 5:28-29

28 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice,
29 And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.

The message of judgement to come is consistent no matter what the background or theme of the specific gospel.

John 8:3-11

3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

Notice the grace for this sinning woman, compared to the condemnation of the arrogant Pharisees. The woman, with no choice, acknowledged her sin and received forgiveness. The rulers’ reaction, when confronted with their sin in Jesus’ directive, was to hide from this condemnation.

John 12:47-49

47 And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.
48 He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.
49 For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.

In Greek thought, words had an existence of their own when spoken, so Jesus here presents that he works to save the world, but people who reject him will have to answer for that rejection.

Summary

It is not “grace” if God forces us to be forgiven. God loves us enough to allow us to choose to follow him. We each have the opportunity to reject God’s love, even though that option seems absurd and unbelievable to those of us who live in God’s love. For those who reject God, there is no choice but eternal separation from God, which leaves us unprotected from our own sinful, destructive nature.

Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Morris
Web Page Design by ARI•ADS LLC
Using WordPress content management software suite