We now try to grasp how the Old Testament writers spoke about the Lord as judge. In one of his psalms King David speaks of his Lord as the supreme Judge of the world. "The Lord sits enthroned forever, he has established his throne for judgment. He judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with equity . . . Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you" (Psalm 9:7-8, 19, 94:2, 96:10).
Another psalm says "The Lord has established his throne in the heaven, and his kingdom rules over all" (Psalm 103:19). We could use this text to preach on Ascension Day, but evidently the Lord was already viewed as King almost a thousand years before.
Other psalms connect the Lord's judging with the language of his coming. "Let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity" (98:9, see 99:4). The prophet Isaiah combines the idea of the Lord as Judge, King, and Saviour. "The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our King; he will save us" (Isaiah 36:22).
This suggests that every day of the Lord also has another side to the coin. Judgment on oppressors will at the same time vindicate and bless those who have suffered injustice. In this sense a Day of the Lord can be viewed as a blessing for some or a judgment for others, or a mixture of both.
Among all people it is the function of human judges to assign consequences and arbitrate differences between citizens. But often they not only fail to do this justly, but they actually misuse their power to oppress the weak. In many countries people are faced with massive injustice, and they assume there is no remedy for the situation.
Proponents of post-modern deconstruction remind us that all laws and systems of justice are motivated by the self-interest of powerful elites. This was no doubt as true in Israel as in all other nations. What Isaiah tells us is that, if human judges fail to protect the rights of individuals, there will be a day of the Lord to put matters right. "The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor" (Isaiah 3:14-15, 4:7).
This is why the prophets use the language of the Lord's vindication. " "The Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of vindication" (Isaiah 34:8). And the longing for vindication is a frequent prayer in the Psalms. "Make them bear their guilt , O God; let them fall by their own counsels" (Psalm 5:10). "You have maintained my just cause; you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgment" (Psalm 9:4, 26:1, 24:8).
The imprecatory psalms that so many find upsetting are an expression of this longing for just retribution (Psalms 35, 58, 59, 69:22-28, 109). We do not have to use such prayers for vengeance in our petty situations, but sometimes, faced with the enormity of brutal injustice in our world, we may need them. And even if we pray wrongly, it is the Lord himself who decides what is the proper outcome in terms of his loving purposes. All that we need to grasp is that in the language of the Old Testament men and women of faith looked to God to intervene in justice. And New Testament believers also did this (Luke 18:7, Romans 12:9, Galatians 5:12, Revelation 6:10).
Admittedly his timing is not what we might choose. As we pray for justice we are frustrated that God's judgment is not immediate. We need patience to wait for the Lord to act (as in Isaiah 25:9, 33:2, 49:23, 51:5)..
When we speak of poetic justice we echo the idea that our world does not evolve by mere chance and survival of the strong. As humans we instinctively long for justice. We expect retribution to be assigned, and when it happens we are glad. By the very fact of looking for justice, praying for vindication, and feeling thankful when wrong has been put right, we already have faith in a just personal God.
When we move from injustice within a nation to quarrels between nations there was no human tribunal to settle such cases (even now the United Nations hardly does this effectively). So it was the Lord himself who was viewed as performing the function of judge. "He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples" (Isaiah 2:4, 3:13). "He shall perform his purpose on Babylon, and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans" (48:14, compare the Lord's interventions on Damascus, Edom, Tyre, Moab, and Israel in the first three chapters of Amos).
We can recognize that Old Testament history and its prophetic commentary was written from the point of view of Israel and Judah. And there was a huge amount of racial pride and prejudice, as in any nation's history. We do not have to approve all that the Jewish people did in their wars, but we will find that their history and prophetic comment constantly illuminates our own national situation.
God could have chosen to illustrate his just interventions from the history of any other nation. In chapter five we will see how in some sense Jerusalem was chosen to be the focus of the Bible's view of history. But the story could also have been told from the point of view of ancient cities like Athens or Rome, Moscow or Beijing, Paris or London.
The surprising merit of the Old Testament prophets was their vision to see the sins of their leaders and the courage to expose what had gone wrong. They also observed wrath consequences, and recorded the story in great detail for people of all nations to read (see chapter 5).
It is also important that from the beginning of their history the Jewish people recognized that they were only one people among many, and God's ultimate concern must be for all nations of the world. Paul put it this way when he preached in the city of Athens. "From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him" (Acts 17:26-27).
The original covenant with Abraham included "In you all families of the earth will be blessed" (Genesis 12:3, 22:18). The promise was repeated to Isaac (in 26:4) and to Jacob (in 28:14). And the prophets remembered and looked for the eventual fulfillment of that promise (Isaiah 49:6, 51:4-5, 52:10, 56:7). But their hearers mostly ignored the original calling to be a blessing to all nations.
Jesus reminded us that the Messiah was Lord of all nations. "I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:11). And when the Lord came into Jerusalem he cleared the temple and told the people what the temple should have been. "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations but you have made it a den of robbers" (Mark 11:17, quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11).
In recording what Jesus said about the destruction of the temple in that generation Matthew's Gospel tells us that there would be a first mission to the nations. This was the first wave of world-wide mission by Paul and other apostles (Matthew 24:14, see Romans 15:18-19, Colossians 1:5-6). The Gospel ends with the great commission to engage in this task. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).
There are various explanations of a later vast in-gathering after the fall of Jerusalem. "He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matthew 24:31, Mark 13:27). Some say this refers to the end of the world. Others put this in-gathering before or after a coming which is still in the future. In the commentary on this verse (see Matthew 24:31, www.canlink.com/brow) according to our preferred model this refers to the vast in-gathering that took place after the fall of Jerusalem. For the first two hundred and fifty years there was terrible persecution in the Roman empire, but hundreds of churches were planted in Arab countries to the east and into India. This growth of the Kingdom would be a visible manifestation of "the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with great glory" (Matthew 24:30, Mark 13:26).
Some commentators assume that Daniel wrote about the books of heaven in which our eternal destiny is written. "As I watched thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne . . . the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened" (Daniel 7:10). But in that same chapter it is clear that the judgment refers to an event in the historical process when the Lord overthrows the fourth empire (Daniel 7:17 & 19) and God's people are vindicated. "Judgment was given for the holy ones of the Most High, and the time arrived when the holy ones gained possession of the kingdom" (Daniel 7:22, 27).
This kind of vindication as a result of prayer to the Lord of history has happened again and again (as in Esther 9:16, 22, 10:3). The best known example was the conversion of Constantine. But the history of missions records many other examples of kings and tribal chiefs first opposing and then bringing their people in to be taught the Christian faith. As we have kept seeing, it is important to avoid a literalism that misses the powerful metaphors that are used by the prophets and by Jesus himself.
If the Lord is reigning as King of all nations, and he intervenes as Judge, we wonder what kind of judging he engages in? First we note the surprising fact that there is not one example in the Old Testament of God's justice condemning people to eternal damnation. The consequences are always here and now.
This fact is important because many preachers begin with the justice of God. They tell us that God's justice has been affronted by our sin, and God's wrath could only be satisfied by the death of Jesus on the cross. They usually add that until we make a decision to accept Christ as our personal Saviour, we are condemned to burn in the fires of hell for ever. There is hardly a shred of evidence for such an idea in the Old Testament.
There are however numerous references to the Lord's judgment and terrible consequences in human history. "When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 7:4, 9:14, 12:30, 1:27-28, 15:6,7). The Lord chose to use the Babylonians to take the people of Jerusalem into exile, and we have seen how the Lord judged Babylon (Isaiah 13) and other nations.
Christians have often given the impression that the main message of the Bible is that we are guilty sinners under the judgment of God. Without repentance and faith we burn in hell. The main message of the Bible is that the Lord reigns, and all his judgments are with a view to God's eternal purposes.
In the discussion of day of the Lord interventions in history it is helpful to see them in the light of the original reason for the creation of the human race. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit agreed together to work at perfecting humans for fellowship with them. "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27).
>From the New Testament we know that God's very nature is love (1 John 4:8-12) which suggests that the whole design and ordering and judging of this world is with a view to perfecting us in love. If this is what God ultimately has in mind, then the Lord's coming again and again is designed to enable us to learn and grow in the image or love of God. And love can be defined as caring for the freedom of the other (see John 8:32, 36)..
In such a model of the purposes of God all day of the Lord interventions are lovingly designed to restore human freedom. Whenever individuals are being trampled on by rulers who greedy for their own power and pleasure, we should look to the Lord to destroy that oppressive system. The New Testament adds that God intends to free people for the love and joy and peace that are the good fruit of his Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
That means that God's love takes precedence over his justice. God's justice does not require that sinners be condemned to eternal damnation, but rather that they should have the environment and empowering of the Spirit to be perfected in love.
We therefore need to distinguish two quite different meanings of the words for judging and judgment. One set of meanings relates to the history of the Jewish people as the prophets describe the Lord's interventions and coming as Judge among the nations. This is the point of view of Mark's Gospel and Matthew's Gospel. They are mainly concerned with the Lord's coming into our world, the way his Kingdom on earth works, and his intervention as judge in that generation to destroy the temple and the religious leadership of Jerusalem. There are only a very few references to eternal or everlasting life beyond this world system.
All three synoptic Gospels refer to the Jewish theologian's question about eternal life (Matthew 19:16, 29, Mark 10:17, 30, Luke 10:25, 18:18). Luke refers to eternal habitations (Luke 16:9) and "in the age to come eternal life" (18:30). The parable of the sheep and the goats is often interpreted to mean that individuals go to heaven or to hell based on their treatment of the needy. In a commentary on Matthew 25 31-46 we give evidence that the parable refers to the Lord's continual evaluation of a nation's treatment of the weaker members of society (See Matthew 25:31 & 32 on www.canlink.com/brow).
In the next chapter on wrath we will suggest that Jesus' words about everlasting fire and punishment refer to consequences in this life, not to the eternal state (Matthew 18:8, 9, 25:41, 46). But even if one views them as references to hell, one could easily conclude from the synoptic Gospels that our eternal destiny was only an incidental matter in Jesus' preaching.
When we turn to John's Gospel the focus is quite different. And it was perhaps to put Jesus' work on earth in the context of eternity that John's Gospel keeps referring to the other-worldly outcome that God has in mind (John 1:12, 3:15, 16, 3:36, 4:14, 36, 5:24, 29, 39, 6:27, 35, 40, 47, 51, 54, 58, 68, 8:12, 10:28, 12:25, 50 17:2, 17:3).
In the first chapter John carefully sets these eternal consequences in terms of the work of the Son of God. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it . . . He was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world" (John 1:5 and 1:9 margin). We have seen how the Lord, the light of the world, has kept coming to nations and to people within each nation. And we have suggested that the purpose is always to free us in this life with a view to our eternal good.
John's Gospel makes clear that the way we respond to the circumstances of this life, and the interventions of the Son of God, result in a free choice of loving that light or hating it. God does not condemn us to eternal darkness. It is our own love of the light or outer darkness that is decisive. "This is the judgment (the Greek word krisis or crisis), that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God" (John 3:19-21).
This confirms the impression we get from the Old Testament that the day of the Lord interventions of the Son of God are an expression of his reign and judging in the historical situations of this life. But when it comes to our eternal destiny Jesus himself makes clear that he is not interested in judging to condemn us. "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). "I came not to judge the world, but to save the world" (John 12:47).
In the last chapter we wondered what we could make of "He will come to judge the living and the dead" (Nicene Creed). We have seen how every nation, past and present, and every individual, alive or dead, has been and will continue to be under the loving judgment of the Lord.
In our model the first intervention of his reign after the Ascension was the coming he predicted in the lifetime of his hearers. It was fulfilled in that same generation with the destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. And we suggested in the first chapter that this was the end of the age that the early Christians expected.
Once we know that he is risen and is reigning as King of kings and Lord of Lord, we then expect him to continue his day of the Lord interventions (as in the Book of Revelation). Instead of speaking of a second coming, we should be looking for him to come and intervene as judge again and again. He will topple oppressors, correct injustices, and forward the work of his kingdom.
"He comes to break oppression, To set the captive free; To take away transgression, And rule in equity." ("Hail to the Lord's Anointed," James Montgomery 1821)
Christians in every country, every oppressed group, can therefore look joyfully in faith for him to come as Judge in their own generation . "See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work . . . Surely, I am coming soon." And we respond, "Amen, come, Lord Jesus" (Revelation 2: 12, 20-21). That does not deny a final Advent when this space-time world will be rolled up. But it expresses our hope for the Lord to intervene in our national, social, and very personal situations.