Many Christians and often, entire churches or denominations, suffer a kind of “split personality” with regard to judgment and grace. It’s easy to find dueling scriptures that seemingly instruct us to be conveyors of God’s anger or His love toward sinners simultaneously. Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we end up swinging from one end of the judgment/grace pendulum to the other, with the extra bonus of always feeling guilty while we do.
I’m not arguing that there is not a place and time for judgment. In Matthew 7, Jesus instructs that we should not worry about a speck in our friend’s eye when there is a log in our own. He doesn’t say to forget about helping our friend. He says to first remove the log from our own eye, and only then help our friend. Please note that we are not permitted to beat our friend with the log that came out from our eye.
When my wife and I visited Israel in 2009, we stopped at a site near Capernaum, thought to be the ancient city of Chinnereth. The most interesting artifacts of the city include the collapsed stonework of a synagogue that dates back to the first few centuries of the Christian era. A large stone chair remains in the worship area, which is commonly referred to as a “judgment seat.” The judgment seat is typically elevated above other seating and is reserved for an authoritative teacher of the Law, a wealthy benefactor of the synagogue or a cheeky tourist, such as myself in the photo.
The judgment seat is exactly the image Jesus creates, as He tells His followers that the “scribes and Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses,” (Matt. 23: 2). The “chair” clearly represents the authority or “right” to judge. In verse 3, Jesus says, “So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.” Notice that Jesus makes a clear distinction between the authority and the character of the judge. We can read about the “chair of Moses” in Exodus 18, as Moses‘ father-in-law, Jethro, comes for a visit.
“The next day, Moses took his seat to hear the people’s disputes against each other. They waited before him from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he asked, ‘What are you really accomplishing here? Why are you trying to do all this alone while everyone stands around you from morning till evening?’ Moses replied, ‘Because the people come to me to get a ruling from God. When a dispute arises, they come to me, and I am the one who settles the case between the quarreling parties. I inform the people of God’s decrees and give them his instructions.’ ‘This is not good!’ Moses’ father-in-law exclaimed. ‘You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself.’ ” (Exodus 18:13-18 NLT).
Jethro isn’t judging Moses, (intended irony). Jethro offers some excellent suggestions to relieve Moses’ burden. Moses immediately embraces and implements every one of Jethro’s recommendations. Though his methods needed help, Moses’ right and responsibility to judge is never in question. In the interchange between Jethro and Moses, we see some very fundamental truths regarding judgment.
- Right judgment starts with good intentions. In Exodus 18:14, Jethro asks Moses why he would spend all day sitting in judgment. Moses answers, “Because the people come to me to get a ruling from God.” (Exodus 18:13). Moses’ purpose is to serve God and help the people. Contrast this with the type of self-righteous judgment that occurs through gossip and back-biting. Self-righteous judgment does not start with good intentions; it exists only to raise the stature of the judge.
- Right judgment isn’t enjoyable. Moses is miserable and his father-in-law plainly sees it. When Jethro offers a solution, Moses acts without hesitation or debate. Contrast this with the judgment of the Pharisees. Jesus says regarding the Pharisees, “And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues.” (Matthew 23:8). The self-righteous relish sin for its opportunity to exact judgment.
- The judgment-seat is all-consuming. When he sat on the judgment-seat, Moses’ time was consumed from, “morning till evening.” If our outlook is judgmental, every interaction must be evaluated. We must classify each new acquaintance in terms of doctrinal variance or sin. Real fellowship is reserved for only our most trusted friends and we often begin to wonder about them.
- The judgment-seat is exhausting to everyone concerned. Jethro sees it right away. He knows that always sitting in a place of judgment will wear Moses out. Beyond that, Jethro sees that it will wear out the people, as well. I’ve been a part of churches that occupied themselves with finding and settling every sin and point of doctrinal disagreement. This is the kind of heavy burden that Jesus is referring to in Matthew 23:4. This is how religious leaders tie up loads and put the weight of guilt on their followers’ shoulders.
- The judgment-seat isn’t very comfortable. Okay, so this is my contribution. The seat in Chinnereth is made of flat stone; I was uncomfortable within moments. In a spiritual sense, judgment should never be comfortable. In the Beatitudes, Jesus speaks, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned,” (Luke 6:37 NASB).
- Old men know the dangers of judgment. It’s no mistake that an older man such as Jethro quickly sees the danger in Moses’ approach. Perhaps this is the same reason that as Jesus interrupts a crowd of men stoning a woman caught in adultery, the older men turn away first, (John 8:1-11). There’s nothing like life experience, to teach that the faults most readily seen in others are the sins most often discovered in our own hearts.
- The judgment-seat is lonely. Again, Jethro speaks to Moses that he has taken on this task all by himself, (verse 18). When we place ourselves on the judgment seat, we sit alone. By nature, judgment sets us above and apart. Our actions and intents garner more attention from men and God. It’s a dangerous, lonely place to be. Moses quickly learns that he wants to spend as little time in judgment as possible.
It’s not that judgment is unimportant; it is. In this life, it’s an opportunity to learn. When exercised gently, humbly, and reasonably, it maintains growth in our lives. In John 15:2, Jesus says, “every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.” I remember as a young man that my pastor asked me casually and privately why I was so opinionated. It stung a moment, but it changed my life. Caring Christian family does that for one another. It wasn’t a big production, but it wasn’t an everyday occurrence either; I can count those types of moments in my life on one hand.
What about judgment toward the world? That’s is simply not our job. Yes, we abstain from sin, but it’s God’s job to judge the world. In speaking to the church at Corinth, Paul took the opportunity to say, “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders… God will judge those on the outside,” (I Cor. 5: 12-13 NLT).
Finally, I’ll say that the only effective judgment comes through or is guided by the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit speaking directly to an individual is the best possible means of judgment; it’s called conviction. On the other hand, gossip is not judgment; it’s slander. In Romans 1:28-32, gossip is listed along with wickedness, greed, evil, envy murder, strife and much more. In verse 32, gossip is listed with sins that are “worthy of death.” Judgment, on the other hand, is for the purpose of our growth.
But what about that pendulum swing toward grace? Judgment has its place, but grace is the power that changes everything. “For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ,” (John 1:17 NLT). In Romans 5:20 we read:
“God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
If you’re wondering how to stop the pendulum from swinging between judgment and grace, next week we’ll see an outlook that can change the world.