In the Gospel of John there are a string of pas­sages that present clear teaching on the subject of our responsibility to judgment. This interest­ing series show us the quite definite mind of the Lord upon the responsibility that came to those who heard his word. John’s Gospel presents many interchanges between himself and the leaders of the Jews. They were religious men, very anxious to preserve the traditional beliefs and practices of their forebears, and they became highly reactive when they perceived that this Jesus of Nazareth was not limited to their own prescribed religion. They saw themselves as the custodians of the faith and thus they entered into public controversy with Jesus in many chapters of this Gospel. They resented his teachings that obviously inspired interest in many of their former disciples. They became his bitter and scheming foes, setting themselves forth as the teachers of God’s truth and doing all they could to oppose this carpenter who claimed to be the Son of God. Their professed loyalty to the God of Israel gave them the justification to think that they should jealously preserve his Name and put to death this Jesus of Nazareth.

Nicodemus comes by night

Nicodemus was a leading member of the Sanhedrin, “a master in Israel”, but was sincerely troubled with the growing crisis in the Jewish eldership: ‘Jesus of Nazareth or Judaism, which was right?’ He came, therefore, to the Lord to find out firsthand what were the facts of the case. He openly accepted that Jesus was a teacher come from God and that his bona fides were there in the miracles that he had performed: God was with him.

The question we ask is, what would be the future of one in Nicodemus’ position? He’s not commit­ted to Jesus yet but he certainly is curious and in fact admits that the Lord is a teacher of God and a performer of miracles. There were many being baptised at this time but he wasn’t one of them (John 3:22-23). In John 7 he is still in the company of the Sanhedrin (v50–52), though obviously having second thoughts about them.

What is Jesus’ reaction to this non-committed man? Was he accepting of Nicodemus’ present situ­ation or did he warn him about it? He most certainly did not condone his present stance: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v 5), “art thou a master in Israel and knowest not these things?” (v10) and again, “We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen: and ye receive not our witness” (v11). Nicodemus’ position was untenable to the Lord and if he continued in this position he would be condemned and perish: “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (v18).

Equivocation about accepting the name of Christ was no safe position. Instead there must be a response to the love and benefits God was offering through His Son.

What was the ground of this essential response? “This is the condemnation that light is come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil”. (v19) Equivocation was no shield from condemnation. We cannot hide from the consequences of hearing and know­ing the Truth on the grounds that avoidance of baptism means avoidance of condemnation and we can therefore escape from the future judgment of Christ. The exposure to the light of the gospel is a great privilege and whoso refuses it risks the condemnation of Christ.

This is the very clear mind and teaching of the Lord. His words are almost entwined with those of Job, who in chapter 24 speaks of those who “rebel against the light” (v13) and in the following verses mentions “the light”, “the night”, “the eye”, “the twilight”, “the dark”, “daytime”, and finishes with the statement “the morning is to them even as the shadow of death: if one knows them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death” (v17). It is a very old principle and made even stronger when the love of God was shown in the giving of His Son (John 3:16). Knowledge of the Gospel is a precious privilege and refusal to respond or procrastination is no shield from judgment to come. Putting off baptism doesn’t alter the responsibility: the liabil­ity to judgment is still there.

“They that hear shall live”

This principle of respon­sibility to knowledge is given special emphasis in the Gospel of John. Perhaps this is so because John outlived the other Apostles and saw the con­tinued disbelief of many of the Jews for several decades. Let us see what the Lord thought of this.

John chapter 5 de­scribes the healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda. It was a re­markable miracle and a joyous one for the lame man after 38 years of be­ing unable to walk. But the event occurred on the Sabbath: “therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the Sabbath day”. They were eye­witnesses of the miraculous healing and they knew who performed it (v15).

Jesus’response to these critics is given in his long discourse that followed in verses 17 to 47. These men knew the facts of the case but they refused to respond. What was Jesus’ response to this?

His first statement was, “My Father worketh hitherto and I work.” This was a brilliant opener! God was in the whole matter; the Jews were criticis­ing what God had done; that God was his Father. These miserable critics were so consumed with their own status that they had failed to see the obvious role of God, who gave the power for the miracle: “The Son can do nothing of himself but what he seeth the Father do” (v19). These evil men thought they could be well-respected leaders of the people of God and yet reject Jesus, His Son.

The Lord’s retort is that all his words and all his works were a response to his Father’s will. Further, the Father loves the Son and has committed to him His own powers even of resurrection and judgment. The certain evidence of this claim was in the restora­tion of the lame man. His argument was simple: you cannot claim to act on God’s authority and reject the Son of God before you: “He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him” (v23). The Father and Son were united, so how could they speak for God and yet refuse and persecute His Son?

The Lord accentuates the seriousness of this by introducing the subject of judgment: “The Father … hath committed all judg­ment unto the Son” (v22). Resurrection, quickening and life eternal are in the power of the Son: “As the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also …” (v26­27). And that judgment after resurrection will result in life or death. His critics refused his words then but the day will come when they “shall hear his voice”, whether they like it or not! And “shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life: and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of condemnation” (v29).

Reflection

This text of John chapter 5 is extraordinarily relevant to this article. These zealous bearers of Judaism have no shield because they decided to refuse the Son. The favour of God rests with those who accept the gospel of the Son: Father and Son cannot be divided. These antagonisers of the Lord were not free to arbitrate their own future. The Lord did not hold them liable to judgment because they were in covenant relationship through circumcision. This factor did not even enter into the discussion. He held them accountable because they had heard his words and had not believed. In addition to this, they were doubly culpable because they had also seen his miracles and rejected his claims. In this chapter 5, the Lord Jesus makes it plain that the privilege of enlightenment is ac­companied by the responsibility to judgment. His argument is clear and powerful.

Two good examples which illustrate the point that covenant relationship through circumcision has no bearing on the question of resurrectional respon­sibility can be found in Luke 11:31-32. Here the Lord said: “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineve shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.” These were non-circumcised Gentiles who will rise up in the judgment on the sole basis of hearing the word forcibly preached to them. Knowledge of that word preached brought the corresponding accountability.

That at the appearing of Christ prior to the establishment of the Kingdom, the responsible (namely, those who know the revealed will of God, and have been called upon to submit to it), dead and living – obedient and disobedient – will be summoned before his judgment seat “to be judged according to their works,” and “receive in body according to what they have done, whether it be good or bad.”

(BASF Clause 24)

Our Statement of Faith

This principle of responsibility is really sum­marised in the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF), Clause 24; “that at the appearing of Christ prior to the establishment of the Kingdom, the responsible (namely, those who know the revealed will of God, and have been called upon to submit to it) dead and living – obedient and disobedient – will be summoned before his judgment-seat …”

This is why the Lord made this comment in Luke 12:47: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes”. The basis of judicial examination for this servant was that he fully knew his lord’s will. As James said: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” ( James 4:17).

Similar Verses in the Gospel of John

In chapter 9 we have the remarkable story of the healing of the man who was born blind. There are similarities to the incident recorded in chapter 5. The startling, unprecedented miracle was followed by the embarrassment of the Jewish elders, who finding no argument against the Lord or the man that had been blind or his parents, then resorted to abuse and denunciation of the man and his parents and the Lord! The incident was so compelling that there was a division among the opposition for they all knew that this man was blind from birth and now he saw.

Jesus’summary after he had found and comforted the convinced blind man was this: “For judgment I am come into this world … that they which see might be made blind”. The sense is that those who had eyes to see refused to acknowledge the evidence of Jesus’ claims and yet others, like the blind man, could really see its truth, though born physically blind. Jesus was sent into the world to judge the one from the other. The sense is essentially that of chapter 3, verse 18: “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God”. The message to us is the same in both passages, namely that knowledge of the gospel of Christ is the basis of responsibility.

The appeal of the Lord in John 12:44-45 arises from the fact that whilst “among the chief rulers … many believed on him” yet they would “not confess him lest they should be put out of the synagogue” (v42). They loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. So Jesus’ words are of strong appeal to shake them out of complacency. There was no virtue in sitting on the fence, no security in hiding in the numbers! His appeal of verses 48 and 49 are poignant to our theme:

“He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day. For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak” (John 12:48-49).

Also that of John 15:

“If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin. He that hateth me hateth my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father” ( John 15:22-24).

The witness to the Lord’s authenticity was in the words which he spoke (v22) and the works or miracles (v24) that he performed. So these verses neatly summarise the apostle’s writing on this mat­ter. They would not have been accountable for the sin of disbelief and rejection had not Jesus come and spoken: but now their sin had no excuse because he had spoken to them (v22 RV; John 16:8). Again the prime principle stands out: the knowledge of the teachings of the gospel of the Lord brings respon­sibility to judgment, in keeping with the Clause 24 of The Statement of Faith.

Old Testament

Many other passages teach the same good sense, for how can one be adjudged a sinner if he had not been told what God expects. Privilege is always linked with responsibility. We practice this in our families. More is expected of the older children because their understanding of the parents’ will is greater. Discipline is less stringent upon little ones because they are only beginning to comprehend their mother’s requests.

In the same vein, Yahweh spoke to Israel in the beginning saying, “Hath God assayed to go and take him a nation from the midst of another nation, by temptations, by signs and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by a stretched out arm? … Unto thee it was shewed that thou mightest know that Yahweh he is God; … thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day” (Deut 4:34-35,40).

Amos is very bold: “You only have I known of all families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (3:2).

Peter and Paul

The apostles have eloquent passages on the same teaching: “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (I Pet 4:17-18). The term “ungodly” refers to the disobedient saints whilst the term “sinner” refers to those who are not in covenant relation­ship with God but who will appear alongside the others to give account before the judge of all the earth. They are present because they have heard the gospel and rejected it.

Note Paul’s comment: “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). The command for all mankind to hear, believe and repent removes this state of ignorance and non-accountability from the Gentile world.

Summary

All of these Scriptural passages teach the obvious truth of our Clause 24 of The Statement of Faith. The principle is clear, ‘to whom much is given’, whether it is God’s word or His actions, ‘much is expected.’ There is no passage that says that resurrection is dependent on whether we have been baptised. Baptism has many consequences, forgiveness of our sins being preeminent (Acts 2:38;22:16). The idea that we are born in His anger and that baptism unlocks a legal sentence of estrangement from God has no echo in the pages of the Bible.

What an affront to the God of heaven it would be if mortal man could turn away disrespectfully from his Maker and refuse His Word with impunity. We are not told the degree of awareness that makes a man liable to resurrection and judgment but the general principle that light brings responsibility is quite clear throughout Scripture.

It is knowledge which makes a sinner responsible for his sins; and if responsible, therefore, obnoxious to the vengeance of God, if he die unpardoned. When men are made acquainted with God’s law they can no longer plead ignorance, whether they will become ‘constituted righteous’ persons, or ‘enlightened transgressors’: for the knowledge of God’s law renders it absolutely impossible for them any longer to remain merely sinners.

JOHN THOMAS, The Revealed Mystery