Where will you sit? On the judgment seat or the mercy seat?
A new generation is waiting. It has nose rings, tattoos, and green hair; it tweets, texts, follows FaceBook and gathers in ‘flash mobs.’ It smells of cigarettes and patchouli oil. And it scares the daylights out of many evangelicals. Like it or not we’re leaving the post-modern world and moving into whatever comes next, and it’s more than a “generation gap,” it is a cultural revolution. Yet, what looks to many like a dirty harvest, may be the first great awakening of the 21st century. It compels us to grapple with the issues of judgment and mercy.
Judgment and Mercy Collide
Few incidents recorded in scripture are as poignant with the heart of the gospel as this: an adulterous woman is brought before the Master for judgment. Caught in her shame, she is terrified at the prospect of paying the ultimate price, death by stoning. John’s gospel records the scene:
They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
One can almost feel the tension of that defining moment. Two people are standing in the full glare of social scrutiny: Jesus, the righteous rabbi, and an adulteress. Her very nearness to him is a clever attempt to smear his reputation. The accusers wait for Jesus to stand and judge…
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Rather than stand as judge, Jesus kneels instead, and writes? the Godly hand of flesh writing in the same earth into which God had once breathed life. Then He rises and extends mercy, first in the presence of the accusers, then to the guilty woman herself.
Here is the dynamic tension between the qualities of sin, righteousness and justice; and the potent demands of guilt, repentance and grace. These are Day of Judgment issues. But in the mean time, what will we do with them? When the post-modern adulteress is at our feet, how will we respond? It is one of the great ironies of modern evangelicalism that we who would rather not stand before the judgment seat, are easily enticed to sit upon it.
A False Judgment Seat
Scripture repeatedly tells the story of hapless humans who happen into the presence of the Holiness of God. The result is, invariably, instant self-realization. It goes like this: sinful man + the presence of God’s holiness = on your face until you’re invited to stand up! It’s a reflex. Even John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, reacted that way. According to John’s own account, “….when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as a dead man.” (Revelation 1:17 NAS)
The instinctive knowledge of the holy is wired into our souls. It is also symbolized in the scriptures. Consider the symbolism of the temple.
And behind the second veil, there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant. And above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat… Hebrews 9:3 (NAS)
More could be said about the ark of the covenant, but this is enough to make a vital point: Jesus came first, to the mercy seat, before he ascended to occupy His rightful place upon the judgment seat. Jesus, the fulfillment of the law, the embodiment of heavenly authority, and the manifest provision of God for life eternal—in short, the incarnation of every item within the ark—shed His blood upon the mercy seat, but refused to sit in judgment until a time yet to come. He became the mercy seat (the propitiation) for all who would respond to Him, as well as the veil of the temple that was torn as an invitation to boldly approach that “throne of grace.” The Lord’s Supper is a vivid reminder of that message—the cup is the blood that covers and atones for sin; the broken bread is the torn veil of His flesh.
Christ’s death and resurrection set into motion a remarkable exchange in the invisible warfare over the souls of human beings. First, God evicted Satan from his place of authority in the heavenlies. The book of Revelation suggests that event was greeted with considerable angelic enthusiasm.
And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even to death.” Revelation 12:10-11 (NAS)
This dramatic change in the heavenly balance of power is first suggested in John’s gospel in the 12th chapter as Jesus discloses to his disciples His imminent death. In that context He says, “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” A few chapters later He speaks of the time following the crucifixion and resurrection, when the Holy Spirit would manifest Christ’s presence among His people, “And He, when He comes, will convict the world…concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father….and concerning judgment because the ruler of this world has been judged” (Italics mine). Jesus becomes the mercy seat, which is the propitiation—it is the same word in the Greek. At the same time, the accuser of the brethren is cast out. After the resurrection and ascension, the Spirit of Christ comes to convict. Note, however, that at that time the devil will have already been judged.
The devil and his nasties are running out of options. God has thrown the accuser out and judged him. God has invited the world to the mercy seat and sent the Holy Spirit as a guide to help it get there. Humans have been entrusted with the power of God’s grace. The Holy Spirit is flooding human hearts with truth. This is bad news for the angels of darkness for whom— and this is a first for angels, fallen or not— the clock is ticking! John put it this way: “the devil has come down…having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.” For the first time in the history of creation, there are angels who are running out of time. Under such deteriorating working conditions what’s a devil to do?
Retaliate. By whatever means available, retaliate.
Since Satan cannot overwhelm and overpower, he must gain his authority by winning the cooperation of his human enemies through enticement and deception. The satanic counter-attack against grace is an alternative invitation. Rather than kneel humbly before a seat of mercy and forgiveness, sit with him on a false seat of judgment, accusation, and condemnation, not in the heavenlies—he is no longer granted access there—but right here on earth, often right in the middle of the people of God!
What a stark contrast to God’s strategy where mercy precedes, then triumphs over, judgment! In Satan’s scheme, judgment comes first. It becomes a double-edged sword that he delights to put into the hands of the unsuspecting. But a two edged sword slices two ways. Swung one way it hacks at the shortcomings of friends, acquaintances, family and newcomers. The swordsman imagines that he is holding up a standard of righteousness not realizing that judgment slashes two ways. Those caught in a pattern of judgment, often find that criticism catches them from behind, slicing at their own confidence, exposing them to constant fear of the same failure that they see in others. Those caught in the judgment trap are often stalked by religious inflexibility and legalism and driven to be justified by performance. The epistle of James describes it pretty well: “judgment will be merciless, to one who has shows no mercy…” James 2:13.
Wanted: The Accuser
Here is an important reality that we ought to grasp: a false judgment seat has been set up in the church, and the enemy of our souls invites us to join him on it. His invitation, if it were to arrive in your mailbox engraved and signed, might read,
The enemy of your soul requests the delight of your presence at a judgment seat erected in your honor.
Please join him above your brethren.
We would have no trouble catching on if Satan’s tactics were that bold. Unfortunately they are not, which explains why this ugly little throne continues to stand like a guard tower over the church of Jesus Christ, and why so many sit on it, looking down from the lofty heights of pride and fear to judge and accuse the unfortunates below. It is a place that exists in spite of the reality of Satan’s vanquished condition…but only because we allow it.
Too bad we can’t just hang a mug shot of the accuser in the foyer of every church; it would be a lot easier to arrest him. Still, his “M.O.” is easy to spot when you compare it to his “rap sheet” in scripture. At the top of his “hit list” is the harvest of God. The accuser wants to rob God of the harvest by setting up a judgment seat—a false one. Satan’s false and premature judgment seat is an effective barrier to countless souls who he wants to hinder from coming to the mercy seat. No wonder the accuser of the brethren is at the top of scripture’s “most wanted.”
Do you want to see what Jesus thinks of these tactics? The twenty-third chapter of Matthew is a real eye-opener. Here, Jesus, the gentle rabbi from Galilee, is making some enemies.
…Woe to you scribes and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in…
Sometimes we gloss over this section of scripture without realizing how scathing a rebuke it really was. Jesus has reserved His strongest words for the self-righteous and judgmental. Why? “You shut off the kingdom of heaven from men…” Judgment and pride place a barrier in front of the mercy seat, the “grace-door” to heaven.
The false judgment seat is a barricade. It hinders the harvest in two ways. First, it invites us to judge our brethren, and second, it encourages us to judge the harvest itself.
Jesus prayer in John 17 is a important glimpse into the purposes of God concerning the relationship among his followers. Here, Jesus prays,
“that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me… that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me.” John 17:21-23(NAS)
This describes God’s “weapon of oneness.” It is the means by which He will reveal His presence to the world and defeat the strategies of darkness. But if God’s people are taking turns on the false judgment seat, Gods purposes are hindered. Here are some of the ways that the work of the accuser—the false judgment seat—turns up in the church.
- Fault finding. Rather than focus on the perfection that is in Christ and give one another the gift of confidence, that is, that Christ is completing a work in us, we judge one another’s imperfections and keep a record of past failures.
- Value uniformity over unity. Mistrust others, particularly those younger or older than ourselves, because they are different or don’t measure up to our standards of appearance and behavior.
- Lowering our vision. Focusing on the faults of others causes us to lower our vision from God to people, and for purposes of self-defense, we become self-conscious of how we measure up to others.
- Divided relationships. Former friends become irreconcilable.
- Relationships become secondary to issues.
- Jealousy over the gifts of others. “If the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body…’” 1 Cor 12:16 (NAS)
- Personal Pride. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’… 1 Cor 12.
- Jealousy over the relationships of others.
Jesus’ charge against the Pharisees was based upon their hypocrisy and the way that they placed burdensome restrictions on those that wanted to approach God. Paul points out a similar tendency among the believers in Rome, then admonished them by saying, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” (Rom 14:13 NAS) Don’t we wish that those tendencies had died out as a result of Paul’s admonition!
We have a friend who, if we had known him 30 years ago, we would have written him off as lost cause. He was a dirty, foul-mouthed criminal. He hung out with bikers and lived a violent lifestyle. He was one tough dude. He tells of packaging cocaine to sell while listening to the sound of police helicopters circling the neighborhood looking for him. Fortunately, he got to the mercy seat before he encountered our judgment seat! He now pastors a church in Washington State.
When we look with judgment, distaste, and condemnation upon those who are outside God’s grace we put a false judgment seat before God’s harvest. The disciples did that to the Samaritans, the Jews to the gentiles. Back in the late 60’s, traditional churches did the same to the so-called “hippies” that were coming to Christ. God only knows how many souls have been turned away from grace at a false judgment seat. A sobering thought.
Today, the people who are responding to the gospel have traded love beads and tie-dye T-shirts for green hair, nose rings and tattoos; loud music, computers and smart phones. Jesus might well be saying to us, “lift up your eyes, saints! The fields are tinted and tattooed for harvest!” Will we stand with the lost at the mercy seat or greet them with cold reluctance at a judgment seat? Will we share God’s liberating grace or burden them with judgment by failing to distinguish between the lost and the sins and weaknesses that bind them? When we are in the position of judging the harvest we become a stumbling block to those who desperately need to be brought before the throne of grace with an appeal for mercy.
Whether we judge each other, showing the world a fragmented and splintered view of God’s church, or judge the harvest for not being more to our liking, we become unwitting accomplices with the accuser. Satan’s ability to rob God of the harvest is wholly dependent on our cooperation. God’s order for this age is first mercy, then judgment. Satan’s counter-attack is to encourage judgment before the time. All that is needed for his naughty little plan to collapse is for us to refuse to join the accuser —stop accusing. An empty judgment seat has no authority.
Each new harvest challenges our understanding of sin, righteousness and justice; of guilt, repentance and grace. We have to learn anew the lesson of Jesus and the adulteress. Jesus refused to leave the guilty one down in the dust and judge her. Instead, he pondered the earth—the stuff from which she (not to mention all of us) was made—and became the mercy seat. His example led to a scandalous horde of followers. There were Samaritans, tax collectors, and zealots; priests, sluts and thieves. This was the dirty harvest that Jesus gathered. When you think about it, it’s not much different from the rag-tag bunch that is beginning to respond to the gospel today.