Serving Self and Serving God

The video of Victoria Osteen saying that we should focus on our self and our own happiness when we worship and serve because our happiness is what makes God happy has been getting hammered pretty hard by Evangelicals this last month. The coverage of her has been biting enough that I don’t need to pile on. There is a facet of the debate (no wait, there’s been no debate; it’s been outright condemnation) that has not been mentioned, and it’s something I find far more subtle and thus more interesting than the narcissism and idolization of self expressed in the video. That question is: What is the “self” and what is its role in the Christian life?

Scripture is pretty clear that our “selves” are in a pretty sorry state. It is a doubly sorry state because we don’t even recognize the sorry state we’re in. Jesus, for instance, tells a group of very religious people that he can make them free. They’re incredulous. “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, `You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn 8:32-34)

And let’s face it, for the most part, being a slave to sin doesn’t seem that bad, unless one manages to fall into some horrible addiction or something. Everyday life that scripture describes as slavery to sin is actually a pretty fun life for most folks. So what’s the big deal?

First, as many others have said, because of a profound societal problem, the question is all wrong. It’s the old and well-known story of Western society taking a terribly wrong turn around the time of the Enlightenment. The focus on individuality and self led inexorably to an emphasis on happiness and self-fulfillment, which led inexorably to our contemporary narcissistic culture.

In this contemporary context if we ask, “What is the self?” We end up with a reductionistic view of who we are. What makes us human? How do we identify the core of our individuality? What makes me, me? (In contrast to you or my pet dog, or someone we look up to, such as Mother Theresa, or someone we despise, like Hitler?) In the modern world these questions lead to common denominator and least common denominator sort of answers.

But instead of going in that direction, what if we ask, “What can I become?” That is a far more interesting question. The Bible itself says very little about it. Paul says we’re “the Body of Christ” and “living stones” making up a living building. Peter says we’re “partakers of the divine nature.” Jesus uses metaphors like “sheep,” “branch,” etc., to get at this mystery. But for the most part scripture is silent. And there’s good reason for this silence, because “what I can become” cannot be put into words and recorded on a page. It is something, rather, that grows organically out of a combination of my own purposefulness and the tutelage of another person. (In Bible language, this is “discipleship” in contrast to book learning.)

In college I discovered that to become a master trumpet player, one not only had to practice, one had to practice particular things in a particular way. There were subtle issues of breathing, embouchure, the pressure (or lack thereof) of mouthpiece against the embouchure, posture, etc. Then there was the relationship of one musician with another, that unspoken communication which allows music to be made rather than just notes being played. Similarly, athletes, soldiers, scholars, and actors have to learn their craft from others, not from a book.

The Christian life is similar. To advance far in the Christian life requires a great deal of discipline under the practiced eye of the correct mentor. The result of all this is the expansion of the “true self.” And with this we get into something that we Westerners who have cut our teeth on Enlightenment presuppositions and Western culture find pretty darn esoteric. But it is neither new nor very secret. These are disciplines that Christians and Jews (and other religious traditions) have been practicing for centuries around the globe.

What dedicated Christians have discovered is that our “self,” our “inner being,” our “heart,” our “true self,” or nous (to use the Greek term that is often used untranslated in technical discussions) has atrophied. It is tiny and quite useless in its “natural” state (which is actually a highly unnatural, sinful, broken, and dead state, separated from the life-giving presence of God).

If I invite God into my heart, that can be a remarkably fulfilling, joyous, and glorious state of being. But precisely because it is fulfilling, we fail to recognize just how much of God we are missing because of the smallness of our heart.. But under the correct conditions God can soften and expand the heart. The more it expands, the more room there is for God. The more room there is for God, the more fulfilling, joyous, and glorious the experience becomes. Unfortunately most Christians don’t take the steps necessary to become a “spiritual athlete,” to become fully alive because that rudimentary experience of having God in our hearts and lives (as tiny as they are) is so wonderful.

The spiritual giants speak of the heart, or true self, expanding so that there is room to take in the whole world. That is something so strange I’m not even sure what it means. But when it happens, the ability to effectively pray on behalf of others is expanded exponentially. When that happens we experience what are true purpose is as a “kingdom of priests.” (And living according to our true purpose is far more fulfilling than merely being “happy.”) Furthermore, with that much room for God, God’s ability to transform us is also increased exponentially and the resulting transformation into something that is truly living and holy (while still living in this world! this is not a description of what will happen in heaven) is simply unimaginable for those of us who have only invited God into our atrophied hearts.

So oddly enough, Victoria Osteen was right. It is all about us, about our “self.” But not in a way that she or her Evangelical critics can even imagine. When our true self begins expanding and making room for God and the world, for which we pray, it is almost as if we become a different being altogether: A living human being free to serve others and worship God, free to give God an expansive place to live. And when that occurs we begin to realize that this is what we are created for, and to return to our former paltry lives, no matter how fun, how happy, how fulfilling they were, would be simply unimaginable. Thanks be to God.


Yet another Word about Judgment

Someone emailed me, pointing out that 2 Thessalonians 1:5 (from the previous essay) is yet another judgment text. Given my penchant for commenting on such texts, they were surprised I didn’t say anything. Okay, I’ll bite, because it is an interesting facet of judgment.

Verse 5 occurs in the midst of one of those ridiculously long sentences for which Paul is famous. This one begins in v. 3, where I’ll begin. (I’m quoting the RSV, which breaks it into several sentences.):

[3] We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren, as is fitting, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. [4] Therefore we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring. [5] This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering — [6] since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, [7] and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire …

Notice that the righteous judgment of God is that these Christians are being persecuted and afflicted and yet their “faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing;” they are “enduring.” In this case the judgment doesn’t refer to the end times, nor to their eternal reward, but rather to God’s determination, before the fact, that these people were made of the stuff that was able to withstand persecution and still grow in faith and love.

Before the fact the Thessalonians didn’t know whether they would hold fast or fold under the pressure; only the actual forthcoming events would demonstrate that. But God, who can discern the heart, did know, through his righteous judgment of who they were, even before it was revealed to them.

I don’t want to dismiss the seriousness of judgment, especially the Last Judgment. As humans caught in the web of death, we are profoundly sinful. As Christians we have the capability of becoming profoundly holy in this life. Judgment, in general, and the specific Judgment that we face will sort all of that out, and it is a fearful thing to face the holy God who can discern us to the very depths of our being far more thoroughly than we can do to ourselves. But judgment is so much more than just what happens at the end of our lives. God is always watching, weighing, approving, correcting where needed, afflicting to strengthen us, withdrawing (seemingly) to remind us of the goodness of his presence, and shining upon us because he loves us. All of these things together form the many facets that are involved in judgment.

It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘from’ is

Proper manners include refraining from talking religion at work. But at my recent jobs it’s been known that I used to be a pastor, so manners be damned. People come to me with the strangest religious questions, conversations, and controversies. Most recently, a colleague asked about a fringe heretical group who believes in the destruction of the soul after death. (The person asking is a fiery Baptist and prefers eternal torment of wicked souls in hell fire and brimstone.) The text in question was 2 Thess. 1:9. The context is vv 5-10, so I’ll quote the paragraph.

[5] This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering — [6]  since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, [7] and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, [8] inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. [9] They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, [10] when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

The specific answer to this question, by the way, is twofold. First, there is no exact equivalent to the Greek word used for “destruction” (olethros). It does not mean “annihilation.” It is closer (but not exactly like) “corruption.” So destruction is a sort of ongoing and progressive death. It is what happens when there is an absence of life. One might think of the lives of Adam and Eve after the Garden. In the Garden they had ongoing life because in the Garden the source of life was present and renewing them regularly. Outside the Garden, they died. It wasn’t instantaneous (as if they were annihilated), but rather progressive; and it occurred precisely because they were then separated from the source of life in the Garden. So this verse about the destruction of souls is not contradictory to the idea of eternal punishment.

Second, the overwhelming New Testament evidence is that life continues for all after death. Building a doctrine on one passage which seems to disagree with the majority of evidence is a dangerous business indeed!

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But what is the “punishment” to which this text refers? (v. 9) Well, it turns out (to misquote former Pres. Clinton), “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘from’ is.”

The cubicle conversation was notable for me because it brought 2 Thess. 1:9 to my attention, and I’ve been looking for this verse for some time. My problem was that my preferred English translation is the RSV (quoted above) and the way it chooses to translate the verse is rather opposite of the classical understanding of what this verse says. So I kept overlooking it because what I was expecting it to say something other than what the RSV says. The problem is in the prepositions.

The preposition in question is “apo,” which means “from” (translated as “exclusion from” in the RSV) But there is subtlety to the word that cannot be captured very well in English. The picture (below) is a graphical representation of the most common Greek spatial prepositions. It is adapted from Lexical Aids for Students of the New Testament Greek by Bruce M. Metzger, p. 80. The Greek is transliterated into English for the sake of this blog audience.


Note that there is a preposition (ek), which is graphically similar to the preposition “apo.” Both represent the same movement but are spatially different. “Apo“ implies a sense of distance that “ek“ does not. So, if I was going to say, “The light comes ‘from’ the sun,” I would use “ek” because the sense is that the light and the sun are, in a sense, the same. But, if I was going to say, “The shock waves that tipped the Humvee on its side came ‘from’ a bomb beside the road, I would probably use “apo” rather than “ek” because this is an action that emphasizes the distance and the disjunction of the bomb and the Humvee.

As a result, the Greek preposition “apo” can also be translated “away from” in many instances (or “exclusion from,” as in the RSV). The command, “Get “away from” me!” would probably use the preposition “apo” (although there would be other ways to say it in Greek that would add the word “away” so that the meaning would be clear.

And here’s the problem. You could properly use either “apo” or “ek” in the sentence about the bomb and the Humvee, but it would not be correct (or at the very least, quite misleading) to use “apo” when saying, “Light comes ‘from’ the sun,” or “ek” when saying, “Get ‘away from’ me.” In short, discerning the force of “apo” in English is a bit tricky and involves as much art as science. And this brings us back to 1 Thess. 1:9.

I do not have the resources to  trace this back in an authoritative manner, but it appears that the Greek East tends to understand this verse as, “[The wicked] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction [resulting] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” The Latin speaking West tends to understand it in a manner similar to the RSV: “[The wicked] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction [and exclusion] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Both are grammatically legitimate understandings of the verse, based on different interpretations of the force of the preposition “apo” (from).

Given the fact that the original text is in Greek rather than Latin, I would tend to agree with the former version that the ancient Greek speaking Christians preferred. (Full disclosure: I am Eastern Orthodox, and that is the normative understanding of the text throughout the Orthodox Church.) So, what does that version of the text mean?

The divine presence (the glory of God, the face of God, the divine fire … whichever Old Testament image you want to use) is a double-edged sword. The normal human was warned against approaching it because it would kill them (or destroy them, to use the word from 1 Thess. 1:9). Human sinfulness is incompatible with the purity of the Divine Light. To switch metaphors slightly, if we are nearly pure gold, the fire will only purify us further. If we are primarily impurities rather than gold, the fire will destroy us.

It is this very metaphor (based on 1 Thess. 1:9) that gets at the heart of the Eastern Orthodox understanding of heaven and hell (and “vengeance” in v. 8). They are the same place, the same thing. God casts no one aside; everyone comes in. But this is no sloppy universalist vision of eternal bliss for everyone. For the Christian, who has been transformed by life in Christ, there will be no more night “for the Lord God will shine on them” (Rev. 22:5). But for those who have rejected Christ, his presence is “the punishment of eternal destruction resulting from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might.”

This idea is not new with the ancient Greek speaking Christians. The very same sensibility can be found in Prov. 25:21f, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” (Paul quotes this  passage in Rom. 12:20.) Furthermore, this perspective solves many of the tensions between the love and justice of God and the problem of divine vengeance that has befuddled the Christian West for 1500 years. And thanks to the fact that a co-worker was rude enough to talk about religion in the workplace, I managed to find this verse once again.

Jesus’ Final Word on Judgment in John’s Gospel

Although it wasn’t the original plan (the “original plan” was no plan at all, this all just sort of happened), I’ve ended up writing essays on all the significant passages about judgment in the Gospel of John. This essay is about the final significant passage found in Jn. 12:31. John 12 tells the story of Jesus’ Entrance into Jerusalem (ie, Palm Sunday). Verse 31 itself is in the middle of a longer passage that is difficult to summarize, so I’ll quote the whole thing.

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. [24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. [25] He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [26] If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him. [27] “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. [28] Father, glorify thy name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” [29] The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” [30] Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. [31] Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; [32] and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” [33] He said this to show by what death he was to die. [Jn 12:23-33]

Verse 31 itself is a rather odd sentence. It is three declaratives (essentially, stand-alone sentences) connected with the Greek equivalent of a semicolon. The three declarations are: “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; … I will draw all men to myself.”

“I will draw all men to myself” seems self-evident, in light of the New Testament as a whole. This is Jesus’ mission in the world. The second declaration is almost as obvious. The “leader of this world” is Satan and he will be (or is now) cast out of his role as ruler. Furthermore, these two declarations are interrelated. It is the Passion specifically (that begins with the Entrance into Jerusalem) that marks both the defeat of Satan and the glorification of the Son (as punctuated in the resurrection). That leaves the first declaration. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Now is the judgment of the world”?

If the Passion ties the second and third declarations together, it is likely that the Passion is also at the center of the first declaration about the judgment of the world. The words bring to mind Jn 1:10, “the world knew him not.” It is the cross that puts an exclamation point on this statement from Jn 1:10. The crowds celebrated the hot new Rabbi and Messiah-hopeful on Palm Sunday, but as soon as the tide began to turn, they were just as willing to shout “Crucify him!” as they were to cry out “Hosanna in the highest.” Hope is not the same as knowledge, and while the crowd clearly hoped for some theoretical salvation, they didn’t actually know Jesus as Christ and Son of God.

This is also our condition. I’ll offer a couple of examples. If we grew up in an American Evangelical church, chances are we invited Jesus into our hearts as children. (I did.) But how much of that decision had to do with wanting to please our parents, or peer pressure, or the seductive coerciveness of an altar call on a hot and humid summer night? An evangelical conversion experience is far more realistically one small step on a long journey than an absolutely life-transforming moment. (Of course there are exceptions to this. Saul of Tarsus, who, in one blinding moment became Paul, is the obvious example. But even Saul/Paul spent a couple years in the desert before becoming the Apostle, missionary, and author of much of the New Testament.) Similarly, for those who grew up in church without a specific identifiable moment of conversion, but rather simply grew into their faith, the profound implications of Jesus as the Son of God, the Christ (Messiah), and Lord of all who sits at the right hand of God, were not (and likely still are not) obvious. The path from initial recognition to full-blown faith and Christ-likeness is a long path.

One of the great challenges of familiarity with the faith is that we don’t know that we don’t know. We assume we know far more than we actually do. We even occasionally assume false things to be true. And that misplaced trust in familiarity instead of actual knowledge is a very dangerous confusion that Jesus addressed in Mt. 7:23f. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and coast out demons in your name, and do many might works in your name? And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’”

This brings us to the role of judgment in every person’s life. Judgment (see the previous two essays) is not a declaration of what is to happen to me in the future, but rather a revealing of the way things are here and now. Every professor (ie, one who professes Christ) must, at some point be made aware of the way things really are, in contrast to the way they think things ought to be. The profound truth of the matter must be revealed. (Typically this happens many times in a lifetime, for we can only handle the truth in bits and pieces, little by little, over time.) And every time “the truth of the matter” is revealed to us, we must recommit to this new insight into the truth and consequent new way of living. And this can be extremely difficult because often we are shackled to cultural misperceptions that cause us to reject the truth.

We see this very dynamic in John 6 where Jesus offers a particularly difficult and profound teaching (ie, revelation of who who was). John tells us that “after this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (v 66). The truth of the matter was revealed (ie, it was a moment of judgment) and the result was that many of his disciples (not tag-alongs, not interested followers, but disciples) no longer followed him.

It is this very dynamic that is so profoundly described in Jn 12:31. Judgment, the defeat of Satan, and Jesus drawing all men to himself … these three seemingly separate things … are in fact a single event. In our own lives and in the life of the church corporately over time, we know that it is a single event repeated over and over in the lives of disciples. Something new is revealed; the implications are made clear; the disciple is freed from his or her shackles, and in that moment the disciple must decide whether to continue on with Christ or draw back and no longer follow him.

If, as a believer, I take each of these moments seriously, then I am constantly judged in an ongoing manner. And if I step up and through each of these revelations/judgments, willingly letting go of my precious falsehoods and grasping on to the much harder truth of the matter, the Final Judgment is not that big of a deal, because the truth of Christ has already been truly revealed, and my own attitudes, actions, and conscience have also been revealed. I have been revealed to be a follower of Christ. Judgment is life. Judgment is the defeat of Satan. Judgment is my very salvation. At least that is the implication of Jn. 12:31.


Why This Sudden Change of Tune?

In the previous essay I pointed out that in John 5:19 Jesus says to his audience, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise.” But moments later, in v. 22, he says, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.”

The Son can love only because the Father loves. The Son can give life because the Father raises from the dead. But the Father judges no one and gives it to the Son. What is it about judgment that the Son can do, seemingly on his own?

Why this sudden change of tune? First, there is a clear rhetorical device at work. The sudden change is introducing a central teaching about Jesus found in v. 23: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”

The subject of this story is not judgment, but a declaration of who Jesus is and how we should respond. You can’t honor the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob without honoring the Son of God; the two go hand in hand — and Jesus is implying that he himself is the Son of God. The seeming change from “I only do what the Father does” to “The Father doesn’t do this, but has given it to me” serves to emphasize the central teaching that follows: “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”

But if the change is merely rhetorical, one might argue that there is a contradiction at work. This brings us to the second point. Jesus says the Son cannot act unless the Father acts. But judgment is not an act in the same sense that love or giving life are an act. Judgment is “reflexive” in that it is not an action of the Son, but rather an observation that is a reflection of the action of the person being judged. Judgment, in the biblical sense, is not a declaration of how things are going to be going forward, it is rather a revelation of how things have been in the past. Judgment is therefore in an entirely different category than either love or giving life.

And the fact that the Father judges no one but gives it over to the Son ties in with another central truth of the Christian understanding of God. No one has seen the Father, but the Son makes him known (from Jn. 1:18). When one thinks in trinitarian terms, one can say that the Son is the face of God. The Son is the one who was made flesh and became human. The Son is the one who we heard, who we looked at and touched with our hands.

Since judgment is reflexive it becomes obvious, when we think about it, that the Father judges no one but give it over to the Son. The Son, being the face of God, is the one who necessarily reflects back our actions and reveals our attitudes and conscience that lie behind those actions. It is, by definition, the Son who must judge rather than the Father, even if the Son can nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing (v. 19).

So it is that v. 22 marks a turning point in the text. Up until this point, the religious leaders (who, I remind you, have the right and responsibility to judge) have been judging Jesus. Now the tables are turned. Jesus will begin revealing their hearts. Those leaders are going to condemn Jesus, but in his judgment of them, Jesus reveals that their condemnation is not rooted in who Jesus is, but rather in what is hidden in their own hearts. It’s the sort of thing that can only happen in a face-to-face confrontation.


Judgment, or The Judgment, or even more specifically, The Last Judgment conjures all sorts of negative connotations in our culture. But the New Testament word “judgment” (krisis in Greek) is not as negative as our cultural stereotypes. At its root it refers to a point of decision that can no longer be put off. And this is indeed the root meaning of the English term “crisis.”

For classic Sci-Fi fans, Isaac Asimov’s “Seldon Crises” in the Foundation series of books gets to this root meaning. In that story the time of crisis felt like looming disaster and uncertain future. But at the heart of each “Seldon Crisis” (named for Hari Seldon, who, in the book, predicted these events) was a moment of time when circumstances would reveal the right choice. Make a decision too soon and the decision might be wrong because the way is not yet obvious, but wait for the “crisis” to fully mature and present itself, and the correct way forward, in contrast to the other paths which may well lead to disaster, will become obvious.

Asimov’s fictional “Seldon Crises” illustrate quite wonderfully the root meaning of that Greek term which is translated as “judgment” in the New Testament There is a sense of unease and worry about what is to come precisely because “what is to come” is hidden. There is often a sense of pending disaster because when faced with the unknown we naturally assume the worst. But the krisis or “judgment” itself, rather than disaster or condemnation, has elements of discernment, revealing, and ultimately, clarity, as that which is hidden becomes clear.

This is why the Orthodox Christian tradition typically describes the judgment (or The Judgment, and even, The Last Judgment) as “the opening of conscience, and the revelation of all that is done.” (That specific wording comes from Michael Gillis, pastor at Holy Nativity Orthodox Church in Langley, BC).

John 5 illustrates this arc of meaning quite beautifully. I don’t often think of it as a judgment text because it is read on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Given the season, it is more often the themes of Christ and healer and life-giver, and the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God who is working in the world that are talked about.

The idea of John 5 as a judgment text came to me when I recently arrived at v. 22 and found it utterly incongruous from the verses that had come before. The Jewish leaders chide Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus, in his response, refers to God as “my Father,” and the leaders correctly surmise what’s at stake: “For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (v. 18).

Jesus’ lengthy response is as follows:

Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing; and greater works than these will he show him, that you may marvel [thaumadzo, “amazement” – an apocalyptic word in much the same way “judgment” or krisis is]. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him (vv 19-23).

I found v. 22 quite jarring on two counts. First, Jesus just said that he can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. And then, in v. 22, he says that the Father does not judge, but has given all judgment over to the Son. Why this sudden change of tune? (That question is for another essay.) This verse jarred me for a second reason. I think of this as a resurrection text (4th Sunday of Easter) which is all about the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God, healer and life-giver; why does Jesus suddenly start talking about judgment, seemingly out of the blue?

Ah, but on further reflection, it’s not so out of the blue. These leaders, who are in a very real sense, the judges of Israel, representatives of Israel’s highest legal body, the Sandhedrin, saw an anomaly – a man carrying his bedroll on the Sabbath (something forbidden by the legal tradition, based on Jeremiah 17:23), and determined (ie, judged) that he was breaking the law. Furthermore, upon questioning of the young man, they discovered that Jesus, the upstart Rabbi, was the cause of the trouble and judged him to be a trouble maker. After conversation with him, they heard him equate himself with God and determined him to be worthy of death (a charge that would, in a matter of months, actually be brought before the Sanhedrin for proper, legal judgment).

In other words, there’s already been a whole-lotta judgment going on, and Jesus simply names it (albeit, in an oblique manner) for what it is. And Jesus implies that they have judged wrongly. They may have gotten the facts straight, but they drew the wrong conclusions. If it were a “Seldon Crisis,” we might say that the events had not yet reached that correct moment when all would be revealed and the correct judgment would be obvious. They judged too soon, and as a result, judged incorrectly. Let me also quickly add that Jesus is not telling them not to judge. That is their job. They are representatives of the Sandhedrin. But if we judge, we need to judge correctly.

What they actually and inadvertently judged was their own motives or conscience. (Remember our description of the judgment: an opening of the conscience, or in this case, the unconscious.) Jesus is not condemning them (as if judgment is merely a form of condemnation), he is revealing what is going on in their head and their heart. A revelation has indeed occurred, and that revelation is that the religious leaders managed to get it all wrong.

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A movie critic (note that the English term “critic” is yet another form of the Greek term “krisis”) isn’t doing a job if he merely likes or dislikes a movie; rather, a critic strips the movie back layer by layer and tells the reader what is there. The critic’s job is to reveal. The critic often goes on to offer an opinion as to the quality of what is there, but the underlying job is to reveal what is there, underneath the surface.

This gets at the heart of judgment. It reveals and discerns what is there, it lays bare (when the subject is a human being) the conscience and the motives – that is, the heart. When we equate judgment with condemnation or approval, we turn it upside down. It is not the judge who condemns or approves. We condemn or approve ourselves when what is really there, hidden underneath the surface, is revealed. In John 5, the judges (the leaders) were judged by the Son, and what was revealed was pretty ugly; it was found wanting.

In vv. 24f Jesus continues his soliloquy: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

At this point Jesus uses the term “judgment” (krisis) in its popular sense of condemnation. When the future is hidden in the mists of unknowing, we humans tend to assume the worst. Thus judgment, in popular thinking, never ends well. This is not the root meaning of the term, but an extension of popular usage rooted in our human pessimism. I will offer a final story to illustrate.

In high school end of term math tests were for most students a matter of dread. (Remember above, the Greek word thaumadzo, translated “marvel” in v. 20?) People knew they were going to fail the test. Their lack of understanding, or more accurately, their lack of daily preparation and study, would be revealed, and they were going down in flaming failure. Certain folks (Linda, myself, Tom – we liked math and did our homework after all), always approached those tests with quiet confidence. I emphasize quiet. We didn’t trumpet our confidence because it would have sounded like arrogance. But just as they knew they were going down in flames, we knew we were going to ace that thing. The final test was the judgment. Word around the lockers was that it was going to be condemnation (the popular meaning of judgment). In truth, it was merely a revelation what had actually happened throughout the whole term.

So it is with The Judgment. In technical terms, everyone “comes into judgment” (v. 24) but not everyone is condemned. Some “hear and believe” and thus enter into life; some are condemned, not by the Judge, but by what was revealed as to already be there in their own hearts, and enter into the living death.

True confession is judgment in its purist form. True confession lays bare the soul and reveals what is there so it can be corrected. In this sense, I can be judged now or I can be judged later. The Last Judgment, in contrast, is confession writ large. It is the ultimate unveiling of what is in the heart. And to that end, it is a “crisis” in that it will determine which way will go, into life or regret.