Does Jesus judge the nations?

Somebody’s leading a discussion on Christian gratitude and generosity. He cites Deuteronomy 6, where Moses reminds people, once they arrive in the promised land and have cities they didn’t build, houses they didn’t provision, cisterns they didn’t dig, and crops they didn’t plant, not to forget the Lord who brought them there from slavery in Egypt. But one man, an older Christian, says he has a problem with that, because these things were taken from the Canaanites, sometimes by violence.

It’s the old “Canaanite genocide” problem that keeps coming up on internet discussions, only more generalised. The objector isn’t so much saying, “I find this a problem; can we discuss the reasons for God’s actions here?” as “I find this a problem; God could not possibly be involved here.” A little thought shows how widespread this feeling is – the more progressive Evangelicals nowadays blithely embrace the human fallibility of Scripture, whilst the more timid, somehow, grant Scriptural authority but read around passages like this without even noticing them.

The trouble is, there is an awful lot to read round in this area which, if we consider things carefully, is about the rule of God over the nations of the world, which is also to say he is the Lord of human history as he judges the nations. In other words, that he is God. In order to read round it, one has to deny one of the most prevalent teachings of both the Old Testament and, as I will come to, the New.

When I was writing God’s Good Earth, I realised that some of the clearest teaching on God’s daily involvement in nature is in the covenant blessings and curses God gave Israel in Lev 26 and Deut 11. Much of God’s government of the covenant – the very foundation for Israel’s relationship with Yahweh, remember – depends on his ability to turn nature either for or against their good, to bless or judge. Nature, then, is God’s willing agent. But the rest of the government these passages mention, though I didn’t stress it in the book, depends on divine control of Israel’s political success, or defeat by its enemies. The ultimate sanction is the final curse of the destruction of land and temple, and exile terminating the covenant. You need to remember that this exile in the event actually came, first to Israel through the Assyrians, and then to Judah through the Babylonians. These events are confirmed bountifully by history, and form one of the major Old Testament themes.

The exile – foretold or described retrospectively as God’s work in all the prophetic books from the Torah onwards, as well as in many psalms – is the defining event leading to the announcement of the New Covenant in Christ, which is introduced as the reversal of that spiritual and political disaster. If God wasn’t, as Scripture universally asserts, the one who brought about the end of the Old Covenant, then there’s no reason at all to make him the author of the New Covenant. And consequently Christ’s coming is unintelligible.

I began this piece, though, with a passage about God as the author of the Old Covenant – and even before that, in fact, as the author of the covenant with Abraham, on which both Israel’s and Christ’s covenants are repeatedly said to depend by biblical authors from Moses to Paul. You will recall that God brought Abraham out of Ur with the promise, which became a covenant and then a solemn oath, that his descendants would possess the land on which he walked… but the land was already occupied by tribes (numbering 10 or 11 when God swears his oath in Gen 15). God reiterates this promise repeatedly to the Patriarchs, and to Moses when he is called to deliver Israel from Egypt – an exodus also achieved by God through plagues and the destruction of an army.

Now, this displacement is not without reasons, some of which we are told. God tells Abraham in Gen 15 that his people will be in bondage for four centuries, whilst the sin of “the Amorite” (a term presumably encompassing all the Canaanite tribes) becomes complete. Elsewhere in Torah the Canaanite judgement is shown to have been inevitable because of the “pollution of the land” by false religion (oh dear), including the sacrifice of innocent infants (oh dear, oh dear) and sexual immorality and perversion (oh dear, oh dear, oh dear).

Neither is the displacement of the Canaanites unique in Scripture. Although obviously the Torah’s interest is primarily Israel, God restricts their settlement by pointing out that he has already given Moab and Ammon to Lot’s descendants, the Horites to Edom, and the Avvim to the Caphtorites (Deut 2). From this we can infer that the migrations and conquests of people generally, though the exact reasons are not given, are one way in which God governs the world and, in the words of Psalm 10, “The Lord is King forever.”

This truth is repeated throughout the prophetic writings, in which the coming judgements on Israel and Judah are linked to corresponding judgements on lists of other nations, and sometimes even on those powers he raises up to judge his own people. You can find it in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. And in the few prophetic books I’ve not mentioned, generic statements about the judgement of nations by warfare are made. In other words, it would be hard to find a doctrine of Scripture better attested than that God governs human society by using its own violence against itself.

In fact, Paul is clearly thinking of this when he asserts to the Athenians in Acts 17 that God has “determined the nations’ appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.” So it’s a New Testament teaching too, for the Bible mentions no other way in which such changes occur.

The only difference in the case of Israel, and of Abraham, is that in both cases they are made party to God’s judgements, rather than simply being part of them. Abraham is told (Gen 18-19), because of his elect status, of the judgement on the cities of the plain, leading to his well-known dialogue with God: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” To which the answer, being yes, is a demonstration that God does, indeed, judge in real time. Israel, too, is chosen as “a kingdom of priests,” and so it is appropriate that, as such, they should participate in God’s judgement… and this is a key point to note.

For the whole narrative of the Bible, as I’ve often said before (and cf Greg Beale’s magisterial New Testament Biblical Theology for a thousand-page treatment) is about God’s intention to install mankind as the co-ruler of creation (see Psalm 8). Adam fails in this, and Abraham is the father of those who will live by faith and inherit the promise, though it is for after his time. Israel, like Adam, fails to fulfil this role. But there is a promised one, a king like David and a prophet like Moses, who will indeed rule with God over the nations. Guess his name.

And though Messianic prophecies are found everywhere in the OT, the classic evidence is the one prophet I’ve omitted – that of Daniel, whose entire message is that God appoints and deposes the rulers of the world as he alone wishes, and that (from Daniel’s historical perspective) he will raise up three powerful empires after Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, before establishing his own eternal, righteous kingdom under an anointed King to shatter them. It’s not coincidental that Jesus’s own term for himself – the Son of Man – is taken from Daniel 8, nor that he applies the eschatological imagery of Daniel to himself more than any other book.

Jesus, as we know, proclaimed the kingdom of God. What that means only really makes sense in the context of prophecies like Daniel, but the New Testament details – which usually seem to be simply ignored – show how it applies to the totality of biblical teaching. If I’m honest, for most of my life I’ve regarded God’s Old Testament kingship as an honorary title (the world actually being in an ungodly chaos), and the kingdom of Christ as a future promise. But that’s not what the Bible teaches.

Future consummation of the kingdom there certainly is, but the New Testament is unanimous in saying that Jesus has already been raised to the right hand of God as King. But if, as I’ve tried to show, God has always been the king and judge of nations (and if you still question it, even just a word-search on the word “nations” should prove my claim beyond doubt), then Jesus should now be judging the current political systems, not merely being a ruler-in-waiting. And indeed, Rev 1:5 asserts that the risen Christ is not only the faithful witness, and the firstborn of the dead, but the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” This thought might alter our understanding of Jesus.

In another context (that of creation), Murray Rae writes:

We are accustomed to Paul speaking of Christ as the one who died for us, who reconciles us to God, who calls us forth to a new form of life, and who gives the Spirit in order to enable our full participation in that life. Taken by themselves, however… these claims could be and often are pieced together to produce a picture of Christ as some kind of spiritual guru, a life coach, one to whom we may turn for counsel and solace. Paul will have none of that. In Christ, we have to do with the one in and through whom the entire universe came to be. We are encountered by the one who is in person the very logic of creation, the one who reveals the end and purpose to which all things are directed.

The Bible does teach that – but it also teaches that he is the logic of history, too. But what, then, has changed between the Old Testament and the New if God governs the same way in both eras?

Well, first, I want you to take a deep breath and realise, again, that the Bible makes a very strong claim (it’s scattered through the NT as well as the Old) that God does, indeed, rule the nations by raising them up and breaking them down. That goes against the grain with my friend in the discussion group, and against perhaps a majority of modern Evangelicals, who are unwilling even to believe that God would judge sinners at the end of the age, let alone that he is active in the ructions of the worlds’ empires. Until we get our heads round the fact that God’s ways are not our ways, and that he tells the truth in his word, then I may as well say nothing. But, as the Puritan Richard Baxter used to say in the face of popular doctrines of his own time, “Scripture does not change.”

Once it’s accepted that God is truly the King of kings, and not merely a constitutional monarch, the point of Jesus’s elevation to the right hand of God can be seen to be this: the intention of God, from Genesis 2 on, that man should govern the world with him has been fulfilled, not in Adam, and not in Israel, but in the man Jesus Christ as the forerunner of the redeemed at the final resurrection.

True, before the Incarnation the Son shared the Father’s glory and ruled the nations with him, but the “rod of iron” with which Christ rules (as a couple of NT passages say) is a humanly wielded rod. The business of judging the nations – the government of the history of sinful humanity’s powers, in other words – is the same as it always was. But now, it is the business of a righteous, loving, human king as well as a righteous, loving Trinity.

There is therefore no divide between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God” in their respective theologies of divine government. Certainly we are in a different era since the resurrection, known as the Last Days, when the message of salvation in Christ is complete and is offered to all mankind.

But the judgement of the world has been handed by the Father to the man who is also the eternal Son. And, if you are ready to accept it, he anticipated that power of judgement in his earthly ministry in his prophecies against his own unbelieving generation, represented in the temple and the city of Jerusalem. N T Wright treats this at length in his New Testament and the People of God series. Space does not permit a full treatment here, but a few references to ponder in the light of the historical events of 69-70AD, and 130AD, are: Mt 10:15; 11:20-24; 12:39-41; 21:12-13, 18-21; 22:7; 23:34-36; 24:1-41; 26:60-65 [cf Dan]; Mk 11:11-23; 12:9; 13:1-37; 16:61-62; Lk 1:51-52, 69-75; 2:34-35; 10:12-15; 11:32, 47-52; 13:1-9, 13:34-35; 17:26-37; 19:41-44, 45-48; 20:15-18; 21:1-36; 23:27-31; Jn 11:48-52; 13:37-41 (cf Isa 6); 19:10-11; Acts 1:6-8.

If we fully appreciate the fact of Jesus’s present government of the world, in the political sphere, with respect to an understanding of current affairs, I believe we will gain a more authentic, and complete, picture of our Lord and Saviour than the “Prince of Niceness” of much contemporary belief. Maybe we need to dig more into the basic theology of the Old Testament to begin to see how far we must revise our assumptions.

Ruth and Boaz – typical occupiers of Canaan

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, History, Politics and sociology, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Does Jesus judge the nations?

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Obey God. why does mere man know better then god what judgement is?
    First God is allowing all mankind to die as punishment. otherwise we would live forever.
    so God is , kinda , killing everyone as a deserrving punishment. including hell afterwards which is worse. thus god himself had to die etc etc.
    then he adds that some peoples who are , EVEN MORE, evil then the rest of us die before the natural decay of life. All sorts of criminals are listed in the bible as deserving death.
    then god , in this case, cleaarly said the Canaanites were evil. in fact somewhere he said they had NOT YET crossed a threshold of evil and so NOT YET were to be destroyed.
    Yes they all deserved death. i would do it to them if around then under Gods orders.
    then the Hebres constantly were said by God to be destroyed/killed.
    then all peoples who cross boundaries of excessive evil.
    Today great evil is domne in not executing murderers. this is literaly evil while holding back saying those who oppose Death penalty are evil.
    Oy yeah. Noahs flood was to kill everyone as punishment.
    Opposing the Cannaites be killed and stuff taken is a absurdity for anyone aware of gods decisions in the bible.
    why do these folk think mankind dies? God is killing us all. (I think its really Satan but God allows it).

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, said, “The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.”. I haven’t been able to trace a source for that quote, but I knew it back in 1984, and it makes sense. People are unhappy with a God who judges, now, and it’s for sociological reasons, not souynd theological ones.

    However, my stress here isn’t on extreme individual sin, but on the universal failures of nations, whose judgements appear to be executed in this age, rather than at the final judgement. They are executed characteristically by the falls of empires, by invasions and migrations.

    So, whilst we have no Jeremiahs or Isaiahs to tell us the particular significance, in terms of judgement, of national troubles, we ought be acknowledging God’s hand in them. The easy ones are examples like the collapse of Soviet Communism. More salutory are the declines in modern political and economic powers like ours, that consider themselves the arbiters of the world.

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