A podcast listener named Brooke has today’s question. It’s short and to the point. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the podcast! My question for you is simply, what does the apostle Paul mean when he says that ‘we are to judge angels’ in 1 Corinthians 6:3? Can you explain the text and its context?”
The context of the question is whether Christians should use law courts, secular law courts, to settle matters with each other — that is, whether we should sue each other in secular court. Let me read it to you:
“Even though I may not know the specifics, the truth of this text is a breathtaking exaltation of ordinary believers.”
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1 Corinthians 6:1–3)
The first commentary I glanced at on this said this: “But exactly how we shall judge angels is not revealed to us.” Now that’s true, but we’re not left without any help in Scripture. This is pointing to something absolutely mind-boggling when he says, “We will judge angels.”
We would do well to reflect on this, which is what I enjoyed doing getting ready to answer this. Commentators disagree about whether the angels here are good angels or bad angels — angels who haven’t fallen and are sinless or angels who have fallen, which are in the category of demons now.
It does seem strange to me that this would be a reference here to absolutely sinless angels, since the context has to do with sorting out what is right and wrong among Christians who have sinned against each other and are going to law to get it sorted out.
That’s not the sort of thing you would need if you were dealing with sinless angels it seems like. Perhaps the reference is to judging angels, namely demonic spirits, who had played a role in your life by tempting and battering you. You can, then, become a witness at their final condemnation by saying, “This is how I experienced demonic assault.” You are then a witness to their increasing guilt. That’s a possibility.
Jesus the Judge
I think greater things are being pointed to in this verse, and it’s the greater thing that I want to mention especially. Remember, Jesus said, “He has given him” — Jesus, the Son of Man — “all authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:27). In other words, if we have any role in judgment at all, we humans, it will be a participation in the rights and the authority of Jesus, the Son of Man, who has supreme authority as the judge of all things in this universe because God has imparted it to him.
That is the most stupendous thing about this text and others like it. Whatever the specifics are, the implication is that we are being elevated to a status and a role in the coming ages that surpasses our present nature like the ocean surpasses a thimbleful of water.
Sitting on the Throne
Here’s what I mean. In Revelation 3:21 Jesus says to the saints, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” We get to sit with Jesus on the throne of God, who rules the universe! Try to let that sink in.
“If we have any role in judgment at all, it will be a participation in the rights and the authority of Jesus.”
In Revelation 2:26, Jesus gives a specific example with a promise: “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations.”
Paul puts it like this in 2 Timothy 2:12: “If we endure with him, we will also reign with him.” The spectacular thing about being told that we will judge angels is not mainly the specific ways that will take place, but the inexpressible greatness of the status, the position given to ordinary people like you and me — ordinary people of God — who actually share in the functions of the judge of the universe.
Fullness of the Son
Now, I think this really sheds light on a very puzzling couple of verses in Ephesians 1. At least they used to puzzle me a lot. I don’t presume to have everything right and clear and full about them, but consider this.
It says, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22–23). The first thing he says is that all things are under the feet of Jesus. He’s the absolute judge, absolute ruler over all things.
Then it says that Jesus is given as head to the church — head in the sense that the church is the rest of his body. He’s got a head, and he’s got a body attached to his head. With the body, he is now whole. Now you have a head with all authority over all things, possessing a body, which is the church of millions of believers.
“We get to sit with Jesus on the throne of God, who rules the universe! Try to let that sink in.”
Then he says, “This body is the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Now what could that possibly mean? What does it mean that the church, as the body of the ruler of the universe, fills it all? My suggestion is that the way Jesus fills the universe is with his rule, his control, and his judgment. He does this by means of his body, who shares in that rule, control, and judgment by sitting on the very throne with Jesus.
So the fullness of the influence and the presence of the Son of Man filling the universe is the presence, the action, and the judgment of his people positioned perfectly in every way for their greatest joy and his greatest glory.
My answer to Brooke is that even though I may not know the specifics of how we will judge angels, the truth of this text is a breathtaking exaltation of ordinary believers.
It should fill us with a continual sense of wonder, awe, hope, and joy. It should move us to confident engagement in helping others live this way, especially believers who are in conflict with each other and our being tempted to settle that conflict with worldly means, rather than as Spirit-filled Christians.