THE GLORY OF CHRIST AS JUDGE OF THE WORLD
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Christians do not settle in with injustice in this age. Even as it surrounds us. Even as we find its impulses within us. In Christ, we aim and act for genuine justice. We do not pretend that the anger of man will work the justice of God (James 1:20), or that fallen humans can execute full and final justice, but still we make justice our aim.
Yet in Christ, we also know that full and final Justice is coming. Just as Grace incarnate came in him, so also Justice will come with his return.
Glory of the Great Judge
It is precious to know Jesus as our advocate (1 John 2:1). And so he is for us by faith. Few of us ponder this glory nearly enough. It is worth daily reflection and enjoyment. This is at the very heart of the Christian faith.
But our gospel not only acknowledges Jesus as our advocate. He is also our judge. Indeed, the Judge, of all the earth and of all history. One day soon, the man Christ Jesus will sit on the very judgment seat of God, and execute full and final justice for all mankind and for all time.
One of the great glories of Christ is that God will judge the world through him. “According to my gospel,” writes the apostle Paul, “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16).
Early Church Preached It
That God will judge the world through Jesus Christ is not only a stunning reality to acknowledge, but a glory to embrace. It is not just fact; it is good news. The early church not only received it; they rejoiced in it. The apostles proclaimed the coming Justice as a warning to Christ’s opponents, and preached it as gospel to his people.
When Peter opens his mouth to proclaim the message of Christ to the Gentiles for the first time, he not only recounts Christ’s death and resurrection and the witnesses “who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39–41). He also says that Jesus
commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42)
As Christians, we not only celebrate that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name,” but we also declare, and delight in, the glory of our Christ as “the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.”
So also, the apostle Paul, proclaiming the good news in the public market in Athens, preaches that 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. (Acts 17:31)
Yet how often today do we linger over the glory of Christ as Judge? Do our simple hearts and minds tend to reduce our Lord merely to the Lamb who gave his own neck to the knife, and rose again (hallelujah!), and forget that he is coming again, with the very omnipotence of God, to judge the living and the dead?
He Comes to Bring Justice
The glory of Christ as the judge of all nations goes back to God’s first-covenant people. Buffeted and embattled as they were, a constant refrain in their worship was that their God was indeed the “God who judges on earth” (Psalm 58:11; 82:8). When he comes to judge, he will save the humble (Psalm 76:9) and repay the proud (Psalm 94:1–2). He is Lord far beyond Israel and will “judge the peoples with equity” (Psalm 67:4).
Psalm 96, in particular (and then Psalm 98, which echoes its final stanza), praises Yahweh as judge of all peoples (Psalm 96:10) and, like Psalm 9, culminates with the coming of God, in the fullness of divine power, as judge of the nations:
He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:13)
For centuries, the great hope of God’s faithful people was that he would come in judgment — to rescue and vindicate his own, and to execute justice on all who had assaulted and threated them. As God said through the prophet Joel,
I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel. (Joel 3:2)
Grace Came, So Will Judgment
Then God did come. But not as his people expected. He came as a baby, and as Grace incarnate (Titus 2:11). Despite the hopes of his cousin John, he came not (yet) to lay the axe to the tree, but first to lay down his own life to cover sin, beginning with the sins of his own people — and then, offering beyond expectation, reprieve to the Gentiles, love to his people’s enemies. Yet in that same first coming, he promised he would come again:
The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:27)
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:31–32)
First he came to offer salvation to a world under condemnation. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Yet he will come again to put the axe to the root of the tree. First he came to sow. Then he will come to reap.
As the Christian gospel shows us the glory of Christ not only as sovereign and sacrifice, but also as final judge, we might identify at least five distinct aspects of this coming Justice.
1. He will come in glory.
First and foremost, this second coming, as final judge, is very much about the glory of Christ.
As we’ve seen, “The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father” (Matthew 16:27), and “the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him” (Matthew 25:31). In his glory. In the glory of his Father. Augmented by “his angels” — “all the angels.” No eye will miss this (Revelation 1:7). No corner of the earth will be unaware. All else will stop. All other pursuits will cease. It will be the end of the world as we know it, and every eye will see him — in his glory.
2. All will stand before him.
But not only will every eye see him. Every person will stand before him. “Each person,” says Jesus (Matthew 16:27). “Each one,” says the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:10). And not just those alive at the time but “the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42; Romans 14:9; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5).
“We will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10). And whom will we see seated on that throne? “Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead” (2 Timothy 4:1). “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
3. He will separate wheat and weeds.
Then, for those who are in him by faith, there will come a glorious and perfect discrimination:
Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:32)
This discrimination will not fall along ethnic lines, political lines, class lines, educational lines, or earthly achievement lines. In this glorious and horrifying moment, all other pretenses and illusions to identity will be stripped away, and one thing will matter: Are you wheat or weed? As the Judge had said in his first coming, “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matthew 13:30).
4. He will redress every wrong.
First the weeds, he said, will be bundled and burned. And in that day, every just cry for justice will be answered, and far more fully and finally than we are able to answer pleas for justice in this age. We will put our hands over our mouths as the risen, omnipotent Lamb exacts perfect justice in his perfect righteousness, with no excess and no compromise.
As the 24 elders in heaven declare in worship, he will “destroy the destroyers of the earth” (Revelation 11:18). He will repay the wicked. And he will settle every dispute: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3). How many seemingly irreconcilable conflicts in this age, which our judges and judicial systems stumble over again and again, await the day when the Judge finally comes and sets all to rights? And we will marvel at Justice.
5. He will reward the righteous.
Then, finally, he will gather the wheat into his barn. Having redressed every wrong, he will reward every cup of cold water given in his name (Matthew 10:42). As the elders declare in worship, the time will come for “rewarding [his] servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear [his] name, both small and great” (Revelation 11:18). He will reward the righteous — those who are righteous ultimately by faith but also in true measure by the Spirit.
In his extravagant generosity, grace, and mercy, he will lavish his people not only with entrance to “his barn,” a new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells, but on top of it all, he will reward his people for what good they have done “in the body” (2 Corinthians 5:10). As Paul approaches the end of his race, the time of his departure, he writes, “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). “Not only to me,” he says, but “to all who have loved his appearing.”
Marvel at the Final Judge
On that great day, we will see it with our own eyes — and feel its full effects as recipients of his great mercy by faith: our advocate will stand supreme as final judge and complete the arc of his glories as the God-man.
Not only was he in the beginning (John 1:1), not only were all things made through him and for him (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16), not only did he preexist Abraham (John 8:58), not only did he rescue a people out of Egypt (Jude 5) and give them water in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:4), not only did Isaiah see him (John 12:41), not only did he come as one of us and do signs and wonders (Acts 2:22; 10:38) and all things well (Mark 7:37), not only did he give his own throat to the knife, as the Lamb, for the sins of his people, and conquer death, and ascend to God’s right hand, and pour out his Spirit, and rule the church age on heaven’s throne with all authority in heaven and on earth, but he comes again to judge the world.
In the end, we marvel at the glory of Christ, our brother, the God-man, “the righteous judge” (2 Timothy 4:8), in the wisdom, purity, and power he has, as God, in glorified human flesh, to judge all nations and all history and each and every person. And why does the Father do it this way, “giving all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22)? “That all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father” (John 5:23).
It is good news, in a world of evil like ours, that Justice, full and final, perfect and complete, is coming. His name is Jesus. Oh, how sweet to be hidden in him.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.