Judging Before the Time

Wherefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall each man have his praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:5).

The Corinthian Christians were getting ahead of themselves and going well beyond what was written. Its fruit was manifest and ugly, and it did not please or honor the Lord.

Party factionalism threatened to tear the church in Corinth apart, and all about preacher preference! Some favored Paul; others, Apollos; others, Cephas; still others insisted on Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). The Corinthians were used to philosophical schools and philosophical cults of personality; it would not be difficult to imagine they saw Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and others in terms of Plato, Aristotle, or Zeno, and thus had to be reminded how in Christ God overthrew the wisdom of the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-32). Each preacher would have come with his manner and style of preaching; Paul made a defense for being rhetorically poor, and sought to show the Corinthian Christians how all the preachers worked toward the same goal of building up in Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-3:23). The Corinthian Christians were judging Paul based on his appearance, rhetorical skill (or lack thereof), and other features; he reminded them his judge was God who entrusted him with the Gospel (1 Corinthians 4:1-4).

Such judgmentalism seemed to come naturally to the Corinthian Christians, and for Paul, that was part of the problem. They had judged before the time; they were making determinations which could only be made known by the Lord when He returned (1 Corinthians 4:5). They should have instead learned from Apollos and Paul not to go beyond what is written, to not be puffed up against one another, and to not rely on fleshy judgmentalism (1 Corinthians 4:6ff). The Corinthian Christians were in the wrong not because their judgments were inaccurate; they were in the wrong because they were making much of their judgment in the first place. They arrogated for themselves a posture to which they had no right and regarding which they proved more ignorant than accurate. They almost split the church and caused great ruin in doing so.

Judgment before the time remains a challenge for the people of God. Far too many have received the impression somehow from somewhere that it is given to them to render judgment in any given situation. They have found some justification for judgment from the situation described in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and Jesus’ exhortation to judge righteous judgment in John 7:24. Rendering judgment in any given circumstance and situation is axiomatic and taken for granted: do we not have to discern? Don’t we have to render some kind of judgment about right and wrong?

Yet the same Apostle who told the Corinthians to judge those within in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 had just upbraided them for their judgment before the time in 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21. The same Jesus who told the Jews to judge righteous judgment warned them also how they would be judged by the same standard by which they judged in Matthew 7:1-2, and wished for them to take the beam out of their eye before they could help their brothers with the specks in theirs in Matthew 7:3-5.

It is one thing for us to discern what is right and wrong, to do and affirm the right and to avoid the wrong (Romans 12:8-9, Hebrews 5:12-14); it is another to presume to understand the complexities of a situation in which we remain mostly ignorant and act as a judge of the law rather than a doer of it (cf. James 4:11-12). It is one thing for us to hear from two or more witnesses and mournfully withdraw association from those who claim to follow the Lord Jesus but walk disorderly in practice or doctrine (Romans 16:16-17, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13); it is quite another to presume to sit in the Lord’s judgment seat and pronounce the judgment on the servant of another (Romans 14:10-12).

Christians do well to recognize why Jesus, Paul, and James say what they do in Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 14:10-12, 1 Corinthians 4:5, and James 4:11-12 just as they do for John 7:24 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Some things we must discern to maintain our lives in the faith; everything else is not for us to presume to judge.

This is not an excuse for Christians to bury their heads in the sand. Luke 13:1-5 is illustrative. Many times this passage is used to condemn a focus on “current events,” but note well how Jesus proved quite aware of the “headlines” of the day, bringing in the story of those upon whom a tower fell in Siloam alongside those whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus’ concern was less about the news and more with what the Israelites were doing with the news: using it to justify their current biases and not to consider themselves. Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.

As Christians we will be continually confronted with circumstances regarding which we are not equipped to render judgment at all, and certainly not before the time. We will hear of stories of people being killed in unjust ways. We will hear stories of people who have been oppressed and abused emotionally, mentally, physically, and sexually. We will hear of wars and rumors of wars.

In these matters we have every right to form an opinion. In forming that opinion we do well to consider different perspectives, always keeping Proverbs 18:17 in mind. We may express our opinion and our reasons for holding that opinion. Hopefully we are open to new evidence and reconsideration of our opinion if circumstances demand it.

Yet in all such things we must remember our views are opinions. Unless we are the judge in a given case, or called upon by the civil government to stand as part of the jury for a given trial, our determination of right or wrong, guilt or innocence, is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. We will never learn all the facts. Stories will get interpreted in light of prevailing narratives and operating assumptions, and people’s conclusions will often tell you about where they stand in terms of those narratives and assumptions. Every one of us will likely be in for a surprise or two when we stand before the Lord Jesus and all that has been hidden will be made known.

Thus it is not for Christians to presume to be the judges of the mentalities and behaviors of others. We are not called upon to make a final determination regarding what we hear in the news or from the narratives of the lives of others. It is not for us to look at the misfortunes of others to buttress a sense of self-righteousness, for unless we repent, we will likewise perish. We must recognize that whatever we hear is not the whole story; people are never as bad as they are at their worst, and are not as good as they are at their best. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13); if we are merciless in how we judge others, we should not expect to receive mercy from others, and perhaps not even from God Himself!

Our judgment often clouds the impulses we ought to cultivate as Christians: love, grace, mercy, and compassion. We should not need a court decision in order to feel empathy and compassion for those who have suffered tragedy and pain. We should not “wait for the facts to come in” before we express heartache and pain with those who mourn. We should not be naïve, yet we should also not become hardened. If we have no reason to doubt what a person tells us, then we should acknowledge what they have said and seek to empathize with them in whatever they are enduring. We should not quickly demonize the other; yet we also should not justify or give any kind of pass to excuse wrongdoing, oppression, or injustice because of our empathy, compassion, or willingness to give the benefit of the doubt.

Very few things prove straightforward in this life. We must watch our tendency to make much of our judgments, but recognize they are really opinions and ought to hold them lightly in humility. We will never know all the facts; all will only be revealed when the Lord comes. We do better to find ways to show the love of God in Christ and stand firm for His truth, righteousness, and justice, and obtain life when Jesus returns!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Responding to “Hot Takes”

Now there were some present at that very season who told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, “Think ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

These days it feels as if we are being consumed by the “hot take.”

Between 24/7 cable news stations and the Internet we feel awash with information and news. Information about events is distributed in real time; confusion often spreads before anyone can make any sense of what is transpiring. Since so many have access to both information and the means by which to respond to it, we are often made to feel as if we must respond so that people know we are aware and where we may stand on any given issue. So much seems to happen, and we get overwhelmed very quickly. We yearn for a more wise and reflective view of current events. And yet, most of the time, whatever might be the big news story today is often forgotten about by tomorrow. We are chasing the next big story; those who have to suffer the consequences of the last big story have to sort their lives out as everyone else has moved on.

We might imagine that such things are new to us in our hyper-connected digital age, but “hot takes” and responses to them are as old as humanity. Jesus Himself was confronted with a “hot take” in Luke 13:1, a fresh Roman outrage against the Jewish people: Pilate, procurator of Judea, evidently ordered some Galilean Jewish people to be slaughtered, and their blood mingled with that of the sacrifices offered on their behalf. The Jewish people already did not like Roman rule and felt that the Romans, like the Greeks before them, would attempt to suppress their ability to practice their faith without hindrance. And here is the Roman procurator killing Jewish people offering sacrifices! Was the time not coming when YHWH would deliver His people from these oppressive pagans? Was it not being claimed that Jesus was the Messiah of God? What would He have to say about such things? Surely He would take the opportunity to condemn the Romans for what they had done. Surely He would identify with His people against those who oppressed them!

Yet Jesus is not taken in by the “hot take.” It is not as if He is unaware of what happened, nor is He unaware of His audience’s expectation. In fact, He referenced another recent “hot take,” news involving the death of eighteen people when a tower fell on them in Siloam (Luke 13:4). He does not take the opportunity to condemn the Romans; instead, He spoke to the very basic and primal response to such “hot takes” and news. He asked if these people who have suffered in this way, be it from Pilate’s men or from a terrible accident, were any worse sinners than others. He wanted to make it clear that unless those to whom He spoke repented, they would likewise perish (Luke 13:2-5).

What does that have to do with these events? While we often speak of the Jewish people who live in the time of Christ in different ways than those who lived in Old Testament times, they are all being shaped by often consistent cultural expectations. One such expectation, seen frequently in wisdom literature, is that people get what they deserve. The righteous and industrious are wealthy and blessed; the wicked and lazy are poor and suffer indignity. Sometimes this happens; as we can see in Job and Ecclesiastes, however, sometimes the wicked obtain wealth, and the righteous suffer indignities. Even so, it seems that the Jewish people easily defaulted to the view that people get what they deserve: thus, it must have been that God willed for those Galileans to be killed because they were sinners, and God allowed that tower to fall on those eighteen because they were sinful. It also provides a nice comfortable cushion and barrier between the observer and the observed: since these things did not happen to me, but it happened to them, I must be in a better situation than they are. They must have been worse off; they must have deserved it; I do not, and therefore I will not have to suffer such indignity.

Jesus knew they thought these things, and so Jesus corrected them. In so doing Jesus opened up the very terrifying prospect to them that is all too real: bad things happen to people, and many times it has nothing to do with the type of person they are. Sometimes the righteous suffer and die; sometimes the wicked prosper. People become victims of random violence, the oppression of the state, or calamitous events. It was easier to believe, and hope, that such things happen to other people, and not to “us,” because we do not deserve it, and thus somehow they do. No, Jesus says; they are no worse than you. They did not deserve to have such things happen to them. They suffered tragically; nothing stops us from suffering as tragically.

It has always been almost comically easy to learn of “hot takes” and news about other people and remain entirely disconnected. Such terrible things happen over there to people like them. Such things would not happen here or to people like us. We have to find some reason to explain why they must suffer so and yet we should not; it is very comforting that way. And yet Jesus still says no. They are no worse than us. They did not deserve to have such things happen to them. They suffered tragically, and we could as well. We may live our lives watching bad things happen to “them,” and think it will never happen to us, until that day when “we” become “them.”

Thus we do well to learn Jesus’ lesson: we do better to identify with those who suffer than to try to find internal reasons to keep them at arm’s length. We are not guaranteed to go through life without suffering tragedy or becoming the next “hot take.” What happens to the other today may happen to us tomorrow. Our trust must not be in our righteousness or good fortune but in God in Christ. May we all change our hearts and minds to align our will to God’s so they we may not perish but obtain eternal life in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry