Readers of these notes may have noticed that I passed over John 5:22-30 without addressing the difficult topic of “judgment”. I confess at first, I just wanted to duck the whole subject. But it will not go away if we are to faithfully read the whole of John’s Gospel.

In my defense, the topic of “judgment” in the Gospel of John is enormously difficult and complex. As an aside, it is important to note that any sacred text which does not at times confound our understanding, is probably not worthy of designation as “sacred” text. It is the nature of sacred text to deal with the inscrutable mysteries of life which at their core are ultimately beyond the grasp of human formulation or articulation. Texts that are immediately, totally and easily understandable are unlikely to shed much light on the deepest mysteries of life.

To give some idea of the confusing and conflicting statements attributed to Jesus, compare:

22The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son (John 5:22)

30b As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just (John 5:30b)

15You judge by human standards; I judge no one. (John 8:15)

39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement (John 9:39)

47I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. (John 12:47)

These few statements, all drawn from the same book of the bible, give a bewildering picture of the place of judgment in Jesus’ ministry. He is said both to judge and not to judge. He came for judgment but he does not judge anyone.

We are dealing here with a profound and difficult mystery. Any honest commentator must admit that anyone teaching on this difficult topic must approach it cautiously and with the admission that we do not, and cannot in any definitive way, know exactly what this teaching on judgment really means. At best we are groping in the dark. Dogmatic statements should be avoided; there is no place here for pounding the pulpit. Humility is essential.

The Greek root at the base of the references in John to judgment is krino. It refers in its origin to the idea of separation or division. Thus, “to judge” is to separate. It is the root of the English word “critic”. A critic is one who divides the “good” from the “bad”, in the critic’s mind at least.

There is an interesting picture of division in John’s Gospel. Jesus has been teaching in the temple. In response to his teaching, some people are saying Jesus is a prophet others that he is the Messiah. Some are arguing that Jesus cannot possibly be the Messiah because “he comes from Galilee”. And so, John says,

there was a division in the crowd because of him. (John 7:43)

Simply by showing up and speaking truth, Jesus has brought division. The separation is not intended or mandated by Jesus, it is caused simply by virtue of his presence. When Jesus speaks truth, they are divided between those who are able to accept what he says and others who are unable to receive the truth he speaks.

This is simply a description of a reality in all our lives. We all accept truth to greater and lesser degrees. There are things about myself I am not ready to face. There are truths about life I am not yet able to fully embrace. When I reject any degree of truth, I am under a degree of judgment. Measured against the fullness of absolute truth I will always be judged to some degree to fall short.

Jesus wants us to know both that judgment/separation are real, but also that they are never final or ultimate –

17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn (nb: krino – same word more commonly translated “judge”) the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

47I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.  (John 12:47)

Jesus came ultimately for “salvation” ie. “wholeness” not separation. The fact that his presence reveals division in peoples’ hearts and even between people does not mean it is his intention to sit in judgment; but his Presence does uncover division. When the fullness of the light appears, areas of darkness are revealed.

The challenge of all the “judgement” language in John’s Gospel is to examine my heart. These passages invite me to ask where I might be divided within myself or against other people.

Where might I be tempted to live in a way that creates separation rather than the “salvation” Jesus came to bring?