Who Will Judge the World?
Welcome back to the podcast. We start this new week off with a solid Bible question from a listener named Andrew. “Pastor John, hello to you! My question is about who will judge the world finally — Jesus, the Father, or the word of Christ? Of course, John 3:17 and John 12:47 tell us that Jesus did not come into the world the first time to play the role of judge. I understand that. That comes later. And as John 5:22 says it, it’s not the Father who judges in the end, but Christ. But then other passages, like 1 Peter 1:17, seem to actually say, no, the Father judges in the end. And then John 12:48–49 says final judgment comes from the word of Christ, under the authority of the Father. Can you help me understand all this? In the end, who judges the world?”
I think if you put all the pieces of the New Testament together, the answer goes something like this (it’s kind of a complicated answer, but I’ll unpack it): God the Father judges the world through Jesus Christ, the God-man, sharing that judgment in appropriate ways with apostles and Christians and with the confirming indictments of sin and truth. So that’s the sentence that answers the question as I see all the pieces going together. But before I give the building blocks and unpack those pieces, let me say why I think this is worth talking about.
“Every single human being will be held personally accountable before the Maker of the universe.”
I mean, I think this is really important. And the reason is because every single human being, every single individual listening to our voices, will be held personally accountable before the Maker of the universe for the way each of us has responded to the measure of revelation that each of us has concerning God, concerning his ways in the world, and for the way we have lived our lives — including our attitudes and our words and our actions in response to the witness of God in nature, in Scripture, in our own conscience (which is just another witness to God’s reality). “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God,” Paul says in Romans 14:10.
So that’s why it matters. And I think there should be a kind of trembling seriousness about it over against the superficiality of most of what happens in the world.
Judged by Father and Son
Now, here are the building blocks of that complex answer that I summed up in that sentence about who judges the world. There are biblical passages that say, plainly, that God judges the world — the Father judges the world. First Peter 1:17: “If you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” So there it is, clear. The Father judges, impartially, all of us. Or Romans 3:5–6:
If our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?
So that’s the first building block. The Father judges the world.
Here’s the second one. You have biblical passages about Christ judging the world. So, 2 Timothy 4:1 says, “. . . Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom” — he judges the world. So, you have Christ at his second coming described as the judge of the living and the dead.
Judged Through the God-Man
And then, if you ask how these two threads of Scripture — that talk about Christ and talk about the Father judging the world — fit together, how those threads are woven together, the clearest answer is that God the Father judges through God the Son, the God-man, Christ Jesus. And the New Testament expresses that relationship between the Father and Son in different ways.
For example, Luke in the book of Acts expresses it by saying that God appointed Christ to be the judge of the world. “[Christ] is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). We see the same thing in Acts 17:31: “[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” So that’s about the clearest statement you could get of God judging by a man, Christ Jesus. So God judged through Jesus Christ.
Then Jesus expresses this relationship between the Father and the Son in judgment with the same kind of emphasis, with focus on the God-man — that God intends to do his judging through a man, an incarnate Son. John 5:27: “[God] has given the Son authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.”
So, I think when Jesus says in John 5:22–23, which is just a few verses earlier, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father” — I think when he says that, he doesn’t mean that the Father is not involved at all in judgment, but that he’s not involved in judgment without the Son. “The Father judges no one” means, I think, “The Father judges no one apart from the Son.”
And I say that because eight verses later, Jesus says, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just because I seek not my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). In other words, both God the Father and God the Son say, “I don’t judge anyone without perfect harmony between my will and my Father’s will,” or “my will and my Son’s will.”
Judged by Apostles and Saints
Now, besides the judgment of the world through the Father and Son, the New Testament also speaks of the involvement of the apostles and the saints in the judgment of the world. This is really amazing. For example, Jesus says to the twelve apostles in Matthew 19:28, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” And then Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:2–3 to the church, the whole church,
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!
Now, if that sounds incredible, which it does, it gets even more incredible in Revelation 3:21, where Jesus says, “The one who conquers [that is, the one who triumphs over persecution and temptation by keeping the faith — the one who triumphs], I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” That’s just breathtaking.
“To be part of Christ’s body, his bride, is to be part of his rule.”
In other words, to be part of Christ’s people by faith — simple, childlike trust in the infinitely worthy Christ — to be part of his body, his bride, is to be part of his rule. That’s what he said. And part of his rule includes part of his judgment. So, if we sit with him on his throne, in some sense sharing in his rule, we then share in his judgment, just like Paul said.
Judged by Sin and Truth
Now, there are two more building blocks in that sentence that I gave. So besides God, Christ, apostles, and Christians, listen to the way Jesus describes the judgment in John 3:19: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” In other words, it is our own sin, our own love of darkness, that will be our judge at the last day.
And then Jesus says in John 12:48, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” In other words, at the last judgment, the truth that Jesus spoke — and that we knew and did not follow — will rise up as our judge. So, the truth and our sin will also be our judges.
What Judgment Means
Now, let me draw in one last cluster of a different kind of building block to use when we’re building our biblical theology of divine judgment. There are not only six judges, so to speak: God, Christ, apostles, Christians, truth, sin. There are at least six meanings of the word judgment. And we should ask, each time we’re talking about it, Which one are we talking about?
- Judgment is an expression of the highest and final authoritative decision about our destiny by God (Romans 3:6).
- Judgment is an expression of the immediate execution of the act of judgment (Acts 17:31).
- Judgment is an act of final and decisive separation from God for non-Christians (Matthew 25:32).
- Judgment is an act of meting out various rewards to Christians (1 Corinthians 3:15).
- Judgment is any effect of truth that has been believed or rejected (John 12:48).
- Judgment is an effect of sin in response to truth (John 3:19).
So, we should always clarify what we’re talking about when we ask about particular texts concerning God’s judgment.
Christ Judged for Sinners
So, to give the summary answer once more: Who will judge the world? God the Father judges the world through Jesus Christ, the God-man, sharing that judgment in appropriate ways with apostles and Christians, and with the confirming indictments of sin and truth.
And I think, Tony, that the note we should end on is the distinctive Christian reality. Lots of religions believe in the final judgment of God. There’s nothing distinctively Christian about final judgment.
The distinctive Christian reality is that God’s Son came into the world in order to take on himself the judgment that we deserve when he died on the cross, so that these words from Jesus in John would be gloriously true. He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). That’s the distinctive Christian message.