God created the world and the people on it and so he gets to set the rules. God is holy and righteous, he sees the end from the beginning, he has a purpose in creating the world, permitting it a time of rebellion, and restoring it. Essential to the plan and to his sovereign rule is his right to judge. God defines what is good and acceptable, and what is evil, sinful and unacceptable, and he judges on that basis, with impartiality and justice. The biblical word for “justice” is the same word as “righteousness,” and carries the idea of living appropriately, by God’s rules. It is quite common in the Bible to see justice and righteousness expressed in the context of God’s judgement. God is a righteous judge and his judgements are just (Gen 18:25; Psa 7:11; 9:8). In the past, God executed judgement on Israel when they rebelled, and on the nations. The Old Testament is full of declarations of such judgements, but also predicts that God himself would judge the world in one final day of judgement. That is God’s prerogative, and it will culminate in the great Day of final reckoning.
“The LORD comes to judge the earth” (1 Chron 16:33). “It is God who executes judgement” (Psa 75:7). “The LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness” (Psa 96:13). “For the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver; the LORD is our king; he will save us” (Isa 33:22). Psalm 82 is particularly interesting. It speaks of God taking his place in the midst of the divine council, holding judgement in the midst of the “gods,” who have not been doing a very good job of judging righteously on God’s behalf. These “gods” are not deities, but rulers of Israel, who rejected God’s laws and then rejected Christ (see Isa 41:3 and John 10:33–39). “Like men you will die, and fall like any prince,” declared God, but the final verse proclaims, “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Psa 82:8). In what sense would YHWH, God of the whole earth, “inherit” the nations? Aren’t they already his? The answer lies in other passages which speak of the Lord’s judgement, and the One who would inherit and rule as King over the nations that he judges.
…The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his anointed… He who sits in the heavens laughs… ‘I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill’… ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession…’” (Psalm 2)
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed” (1 Sam 2:10).
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice!” (Psa 72:1)
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him… his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…” (Isa 11:1–5)
Then a throne will be established in steadfast love, and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness” (Isa 16:5)
So, from these and other passages we can see that the coming Judge is YHWH, but is also a King of the line of David, to whom his Father gives the nations as an inheritance over which he will rule. This King is able to judge with the perfect righteousness, justice, equity and knowledge of YHWH. None of the judges or kings of Israel achieved this, not even “wise” Solomon, which Psalm 72 speaks of in parallel with the coming Anointed one. Sure enough, when we reach the New Testament, the Judge shows up; the Son of David, the Saviour who is Christ the Lord, Immanuel, God with us. And this Judge is Jesus.
Jesus himself claimed that he was the coming Judge, that he had the divine prerogative of judgement from his Father. “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgement to the Son, that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him” (John 5:22–23). Later in this discourse, Jesus gave the reason why he has authority to execute judgement; “because he is the Son of Man” (verse 27) and because “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgement is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (verse 30). One interpretation of these verses might be that it is because Jesus is human, not divine, he can relate to those being judged, or by his obedience he has earned the right which no other human had, and that he can do nothing as a mere human, but only as he is enabled by God. But there are several problems with this attempt to deny Jesus the divinity that this passage is ascribing to him. Firstly, it is to confuse Jesus’ advocacy with his act of judging. Hebrews 2:18 speaks of the importance of Jesus’ humanity, “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Jesus’ humanity and familiarity with suffering and temptation makes him our perfect Advocate, and when we stand before him in judgement there will be no condemnation because we are clothed in his righteousness (Romans 8:1–4). But this is not what John 5:27 is about. Jesus’ authority as the Son of Man is not emphasising his humanity, real as that is, but his divinity. The Son of Man is a divine figure, as we see in Daniel 7:13–14:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah-King, the Son, who will receive the nations as an inheritance, the one who arrives with the clouds of heaven, fit to approach the Ancient of Days and to open the judgement books (Matt 24:30; 26:63–64; Rev 1:7; 5:1–14; 20:12). He was also claiming a oneness with the Father, in keeping with his having been sent by his Father. The Son does not operate autonomously from the Father and the Spirit; he came down from heaven to do his Father’s will, and he and his Father are one (Matt 10:40; 11:27; John 3:34–35; 5:19; 7:16; 10:30; 12:49–50) and to honour the Son is to honour the Father. The Son does not take action independently from the Father as if he were a separate God; everything he does coincides with the Father’s work, everything he says is what the Father says; this is grounded in his Sonship and oneness with the Father. And who else but God could do “everything the Father does”? One cannot function as God without being God; it’s not like a home-schooling mother “functioning as” a teacher or a foster parent “functioning as” a parent. To ascribe the functions of and honours worthy of God to someone who isn’t God would be idolatry. Jesus functions as LORD God because he is God.
Jesus proclaimed himself as the one who would judge the world (Matt 7:21–23;19:28; 25:31–46). In Revelation 2:23, Jesus says, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works,” a direct reference to Jeremiah 17:10 where God says, “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give everyone according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” In citing this, Jesus added the grammatically redundant pronoun ego, “I,” to the first person singular of the verb “to be,” eimi, as he does in the “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel. The effective message is, “Remember how Jeremiah had YHWH saying ‘I am he who searches mind and heart’? Well, I (yes, me!) — I am he who does that. Jeremiah spoke of me as YHWH.”
The Apostles also proclaimed Jesus as the one who would judge the world (Acts 10:42; 17:31; Rom 2:16). Paul equated the judgement seat of God and the judgement seat of Christ (Rom 14:10–12; 2 Cor 5:10) and spoke of both God and Christ judging (1 Cor 5:13; 11:32; 2 Tim 4:1, 8). The New Testament writers also applied Old Testament verses which spoke of the judgement work of the Lord God, to the judgement work of the Lord Jesus. In Romans 4:8, “blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin,” Paul cites Psalm 32:2, where the referent is God. Similarly, Romans 9:28–29, “For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay. And as Isaiah predicted, ‘If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah’” is a quotation from Isaiah 10:22–23 and an allusion to Isaiah 1:9. Romans 12:19, “It is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,’” quotes Deuteronomy 32:35. Romans 14:11 “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God” quotes Isaiah 45:23 which Paul in Philippians refered to Jesus, deliberately using the same word “Lord” for Jesus as for God. Likewise the Day of the Lord is the day when God himself will judge the earth (Isa 13:6-9; Ezek 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:31; 3:14; Amos 5:18-20; Zech 14:1; Mal 4:5), and the New Testament writers refered this to the day of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2:16–21). “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” warned Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and similarly 1 Corinthians 1:8; 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14 and 2 Thessalonians 2:2. In Psalm 96:13 “the Lord . . . comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.” This judgment will be with fire (Isa 66:15–16). In 2 Thess 1:7–8 we look to “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
God will judge the world, not as Father, but as Son, the Son whom the Father sent to be God with us, to die for our sins in perfect righteousness so that we might stand before the righteous Judge clothed in his righteousness and receive no condemnation. He is the Living One, who will come on the clouds of heaven, the righteous Judge, worthy to receive all honour, wisdom and power and to judge the earth in righteousness, because he is the divine Son of Man, before whom all will bow.