The Names of Jesus #14

"Judge of the Living and the Dead"

July 26, 1998 / Acts 10:42

As Peter was explaining the importance of knowing Jesus to his first Gentile acquaintance-pupil, he told Cornelius the basic facts of his life and work. Because the Roman soldier had attached himself to a Jewish synagogue as one of the "God-fearers" (i.e., Gentiles seeking a knowedge of Hebrew Scripture), Peter was able to tell the story against the backdrop of the Old Testament prophets.

You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead (Acts 10:35-41).

Here are all the essential facts about the Messiah/Christ and Lord, Son of God and Son of Man. Peter preached basically the same sermon as on Pentecost, adapted only slightly for his Gentile hearers: (1) Jesus fulfilled the predictions of Israel’s prophets about the Messiah, (2) was authenticated to the public by the signs from the Holy Spirit, and (3) was ultimately declared to be Lord of all by his resurrection from the dead.

It is most interesting that Peter closed his lesson about Jesus by explaining the mission he and his fellow-apostles were them carrying out:

He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:42-43).

We have not finished telling the story of Jesus today until we declare him as Judge of the Living and the Dead and plead with people to believe in him for their salvation and hope.

The Certainty of Judgment

Consistent with a biblical view of history, God has consistently announced that his purposes are being unfolded in human events. He has revealed his will. He has overcome and punished those who have tried to defy his will; he has affirmed and blessed those who have participated in his purposes. In all this, he has taught humankind that we are are accountable to him. But accountability is a fiction, if there is no judgment.

Old Testament prophets spoke often of a coming "Day of the Lord." The Day of the Lord was a judgment in history — actually a series of judgments. First one nation and then another would be called to account for its treatment of Israel, Yahweh’s covenant community (Joel 3:2; cf. Amos 1:3ff). Indeed, even Israel itself would have its Day of the Lord and be called to account for its own deeds (Mal. 3:2-5).

Jesus and the apostles used the same motif of the Day of the Lord to point to the certainty of a final, ultimate day of reckoning in which every individual — among both the living and the dead — will be called into judgment. Consistent with Daniel’s vision of "one like a son of man" to whom the Ancient of Days entrusted dominion and judgment, Jesus as the Son of Man announced his own role as Judge. Thus he questioned his disciples: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8; cf. Mark 14:62; Matt. 11:24).

Various New Testament writers picked up the theme of a final Judgment and affirmed it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

"‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’"

So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God (Rom. 14:9-12).

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Heb. 9:27-28).

Harry lived in a cabin on the edge of Spirit Lake, just five miles from Mount St. Helens. When earthquake activity began under the mountain for the first time in 123 years on March 20, 1980, geologists warned people to leave the area because of an eruption that was surely coming. Harry ignored the warning. Then, on May 18, 1980, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake sook Mount St. Helens. A major eruption of punice and ash poured out for more than nine hours. Fully 1,300 feet of the mountain’s peak collapsed or blew outward in the eruption. Millions of tons of rock, ask, and mud rushed down the mountain at 200 miles per hour. Fifty-six people died, including Harry.

Harry didn’t have to die, for he had ample warning of what was coming. But there is something in us that says "Maybe they’re wrong" or "It won’t be as bad as they are saying." His decision to ignore or minimize the warnings led to his death. The decision of many to ignore or minimize the warnings about death, judgment, and eternity will lead to their spiritual deaths. No one be brought to Judgment who has not been warned it was coming. There will be no injustice on the part of the Judge on that day.

The Nature and Purpose of Judgment

Most of the pictures of the Judgment we carry in our minds are likely traceable more to some of the preaching we have heard than to the biblical portrayal. Do you envision people stepping up one at a time to have courtroom-type trials? Do you see Satan prosecuting and trotting out all your dirty laundry? Does Jesus then reply to each charge to tell the Father whether it was committed before or after you were saved, whether a time is in the official record of your repentance toward that deed? Will you be in suspense during a deliberation time, after which the verdict is announced? I don’t think the evidence from Scripture can be used to support such a television scenario.

Judgment before Jesus Christ in the last day is not for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence, condemnation or salvation. That issue has been settled already in one’s lifetime, and each person’s fate is sealed at death. Do you remember, for example, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus? Each had long ago made his choice as a Jew under the Law of Moses about living in harmony with God’s kingdom purposes or in defiance of them. The one had lived as a pious man, though he had suffered from a terrible illness and had been treated with contempt by many who saw his horrible condition — including the Rich Man on whose property he had been known to beg. The Rich Man had paid precious little attention to Moses and the prophets, and he had apparently been notable for his lack of compassion toward the poor and suffering. When they died, their eternal destinies were fixed, known, and entered. "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side" (Luke 16:22-23).

With Jesus as Judge on that day, he knows those who are his own and confesses their names before the Father (Matt. 10:32). Rather than bringing a mixed audience for the determination of guilt or innocence, people of every generation, language, and race will come before him in two great masses — sheep and goats, saved and lost, believers and unbelievers (Matt. 25:31ff). There won’t be any surprises at the Judgment about salvation. Those who have put their trust in Christ for salvation live and die in confidence; those who reject him for lesser things will learn once and for all what life has told them about the insufficiency of all but Jesus.

What, then, does the Bible mean by saying things like this: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad"? (2 Cor. 5:10). This text sure can be read to sound like people’s lives are going to be weighed in the scales of justice, with the good-to-bad ratio deciding our fate! But that would be inconsistent with every clear teaching of the New Testament about salvation.

Salvation is the result of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, not the accumulation of enough good works to get us through the pearly gates. Since that is so, what do the passages about judgment based on our works mean?

The New Testament seems clearly to teach that there will be degrees of reward and punishment. Everyone who is saved is completely saved, mind you (Matt. 20:1-16). But is there no difference between the eternal state of a Christian martyr who suffered horribly for the Lord and someone like me? I’ve had it "easy" in my own spiritual life. I grew up in a Christian home. I had repeated encouragements to follow Christ. My adult life has had constant affirmations from Christians who love me. Where would be the justice in my having the same reward as one who kept faith with his or her Lord against repeated threats, torment, and death? At the least, would that person not have a far greater appreciation of the great reversal that will take place at Christ’s coming when truth and righteousness are vindicated against its enemies?

Paul seems to point in this same direction at 1 Corinthians 3:10ff. Some Christian workers build with "gold, silver, costly stones" on the foundation, while others work with "wood, hay or straw." Each person’s "work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light." The work of some will survive; that of others will be burned up. "If it is burned up, he will suffer loss," says the apostle, "he will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames."

This metaphor is not too difficult to understand. Think of someone who escapes a housefire but loses all her furniture, clothes, and personal items. She has been saved from the fire, but she escaped empty-handed. Is her rescue enough? Certainly. Is there still something unfortunate in her loss? Of course. All who are in Christ will be saved, but some will have misspent their energies on projects that bear no eternal fruit for him. In the Apocalypse, John writes: "Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them’" (Rev. 14:15).

A Personal Testimony

That Jesus Christ has been exalted to the right hand of God and will someday — soon, I pray! — return as the Judge of the Living and the Dead fills my heart with confident hope. I know this world does not tell the full story of a human life. A believer will live into eternity with her Lord! Thus whatever happens in this life is to be kept in perspective for its temporary and limited effects. Let me list just a few of the areas of human life and experience where this matters to me.

Because Jesus is Judge of the Living and the Dead, I am not afraid that those who have died have perished or that death will harm me. I will not only see and be with my Heavenly Father reasonably soon but my human Dad, saints whose stories have inspired me, and a dear Christian lady who sent word for me to come see her in the hospital — but who died before I got there because I didn’t know she was critically ill. As I have prayed with Martha Alice over the past few weeks, we have been able to thank God together that her impending death from cancer is her path to healing that didn’t come here. If I were to die today, grieve ever so slightly — then rejoice for me!

Because Jesus is our Judge, I can hold out hope to people who are living through hard times. He will bring about the great reversal that will vindicate the honest person working for a dishonest boss, the faithful spouse whose heart has been broken by betrayal, and the child who has been born with a tragic birth defect. Near the end of the first century, Christians were being persecuted. In a vision of those martyrs, John saw them under a heavenly alter and heard them crying, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Rev. 6:10). Righteousness will have the last word, and those who have suffered most for his sake will receive the most beautiful crowns and most honored places near God’s throne. No more than evil could keep Jesus in the darkness of the tomb can it defeat the holy and pure.

Because Jesus is the Judge, I know the Last Day will be filled with surprises. Yes, surprises! We human beings judge things on the basis of our flawed values and impartial knowledge. Jesus will judge according to his perfect values and infinite knowledge — of both deeds and motives. He said, "For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open" (Luke 8:17). Rather than hear this as a threatening passage, I hear it as a portent of surprises. We will find out that some of God’s most effective and powerful saints were some of the quietest ones. We’ll be shocked to know that we sat with them in church and never knew the burdens they bore with grace or the kindnesses they showed to people in distress (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). "Little" things we thought insignificant will be praised by our Lord as having eternal value. Many of the "least" will be declared "great," and vice versa. And we will be surprised.

Because Jesus is my Judge, I have a goal for every day that passes before his return. "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (1 John 3:2-3).


Peter did not believe his preaching of the gospel to Cornelius was complete without telling him of the day that has been appointed for Judgment. What a comfort it must have been for that Roman centurion to discover that the same person offering to save him would also be his Judge. Perhaps Peter used the same words Paul would later write to saints in the Imperial City to explain what that would mean for him: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).

There is no reason for you to fear condemnation from Judge Jesus either. If you are in Christ today, you have the same right to assurance that Paul put into words this way: "Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing" (2 Tim. 4:8).

Come, O Lord!

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