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.

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