“And if any man hear my sayings, and keep them not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47).
There are many passages of Scripture which many seek to use outside of their context in order to say something quite different from what its author intended. There are also times when students of Scripture over-emphasize context as an attempt to smooth out difficult and challenging statements. Jesus’ declaration in John 12:47 is a demonstration of each.
If we take the statement on its own it seems as if Jesus is saying that He is not going to judge those who hear His sayings and do not keep them. Such a sentiment would be welcome in a time and place where “tolerance” is stretched to the limit and acceptance of all sorts of “lifestyle decisions” is in vogue. Such an interpretation fits nicely in a picture of a Jesus whose love means that all sorts of moral standards can be fudged and truth becomes a take it or leave it proposition.
Such is not what Jesus intends. He speaks quite clearly in Matthew 25:31-46 about the judgment to come and the basis of that judgment; He warns that those who do not do the will of the Father will be condemned in Matthew 7:21-23. While Jesus does love all people, He does not love sin and its corrosive effect on people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and never in His life commended any sinful behavior. He warned that all who persisted in sin would perish if they did not repent (Luke 13:1-5).
The fuller statement of Jesus in John 12:44-50 bears this out. Jesus is emphasizing not Himself but His Father: those who believe in Jesus really believe in the Father, and those who see Jesus see the Father who sent Him (John 12:44-45). Jesus came as light so that those who would believe in Him would not abide in darkness (John 12:46): light is all that is right and holy, and darkness is all that is sinful and evil. After Jesus makes His declaration in John 12:47, He continues by saying that the one who rejects His word has a judge on the final day: His word, and that not because He spoke on His own authority, but because He spoke based on the authority of His Father, and His commandment is eternal life (John 12:48-50). Jesus cannot be construed as saying that there will be no judgment; there will be judgment on the final day, and all will be taken into account (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11)!
Yet we do well to spend some time considering why Jesus says what He says as He says it. Why would He say that He does not judge those who do not keep His word, since He came not to judge but to save the world (John 12:47)? We can immediately begin thinking of all sorts of statements in Scripture which seem to be in contradiction with this statement: Jesus will be the Judge on the final day in Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 17:30-31, and by His very life and being the light He manifests a delineation, or judgment, against darkness (cf. John 1:4-5). We can therefore understand why there is a strong impulse to explain this verse away. Yet we can see a similar statement and its antithesis in John 12:44, 46, in which Jesus says that the one who believes on Jesus does not believe on Jesus but on the Father who sent Him, and then in the next breath speaks of those who believes on Him as not abiding in darkness. On the surface, this is also a complete mess: how can Jesus say that those who believe on Him do not really believe on Him and yet do believe on Him? That seems to be a contradictory mess!
When Scripture seems contradictory, God intends for us to stop and think more deeply about what He is trying to communicate. Jesus’ declaration that those who believe on Him do not believe on Him but on the Father who sent Him in John 12:44 is not to be taken to mean that one does not actually believe in Jesus; it is designed to place emphasis in the right place. Jesus is who He is because He has been sent by the Father, and His statement in John 12:44 is designed to give glory to the Father and put the emphasis where it belongs. And so it is with John 12:47 as well: it is not that Jesus has no role of judgment, but a matter of emphasis: Jesus’ primary purpose in becoming flesh and dwelling among us was not to judge the world but to save it.
As Christians we must always remember and be thankful that Jesus is in the “saving business” and not in the “condemning business.” This does not mean that Jesus has thrown out any kind of moral standard or that we should in any way adapt or change the standards as set forth in Scripture. There will be a day of judgment, and on that day, many will be condemned because they did not know God or obey the Gospel and have not done the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Yet God does not condemn such people with relish; it saddens Him, for He wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). If condemnation is what God desired for all of us, there would have been no reason to send Jesus to the earth or to have Him die on the cross; we all stand condemned on the basis of our sin (Romans 3:23, 6:23), and God would not have to take extra or special action to catch us in our iniquity and to condemn us. That is why Jesus did not come to judge the world but to save it: the world was already judged as in darkness, already subject to corruption and decay, and people already facing an unpleasant day of judgment (John 1:4-5, 12:46, Romans 8:19-23)!
Jesus came to save the world: He came to be a light to people, to show them the way of God, to redeem them from their sins, to bring them back into a restored relationship with their Heavenly Father, so as to spend eternity with them in the resurrection (Matthew 20:25-28, Romans 5:6-11, Revelation 21:1-22:6). From the beginning Jesus has been seeking ways to bring people into His Kingdom, not keep them out of it (Luke 14:15-24, Ephesians 3:10-11, Colossians 1:13). In Christ God wants to give all things to His people (Romans 8:31-32)! Therefore, while we must make sure to understand Jesus’ declaration in John 12:47 in its context, we must also allow its emphasis to sink in deep and to keep it in mind. It becomes very easy in Christianity to become as the Pharisees of old and find all sorts of reasons to exclude people and to draw restrictive boundary lines. While there are times when we must stand firm for the truth of God against those who would pervert it, and have no excuse to justify what God has not authorized us to do (cf. Romans 16:17-18, Jude 1:3), we do well to remember that God’s primary purpose in Christ is not to condemn but to save, and may we ever give Him great thanks and praise for it, for if it were otherwise, what would come of us?
Jesus’ primary purpose is not to judge but to save. Let us seek to proclaim that great message of salvation so that many more may be added to His Kingdom and God be glorified!
Ethan R. Longhenry