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As a child, whenever I heard stories about Jesus, I enjoyed every word. But when someone started talking about the end-time judgment, I had to leave the room. My young mind simply couldn’t connect the dots between the grace-filled Savior who healed the sick and the fearful, wrath-filled Judge I had been told I would have to face someday.

Fortunately, since that time I have found out much more about God’s judgment, and I’d like to share with you what I have learned.

The Judge

The first thing I discovered was exactly who will do the judging. Talking with His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus said, “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it” (John 12:47).

Then He added these astonishing words, “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day” (verse 48).

I’m condemned by words?

Suppose someone says to me, “Charles, if you climb up to the top of that cliff and jump off, you’re going to fall to the bottom and die.” So, I climb to the top of the cliff and jump. Sure enough, I fall to the rocks below and I’m killed instantly. Did the person who warned me kill me? No. My life ended because I ignored his words.

Thus, according to Jesus, judgment rides on our acceptance or rejection of God’s warning message. What happens to us on that final day won’t be the act of a wrath-filled God. It will be an act instigated by ourselves. We choose whether or not to jump off the cliff. We choose to live by God’s words or perish by them.

Jesus went on to say that “I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life” (verses 49, 50).

There’s salvation riding on the back of God’s words as spoken by His Son. There’s hope hidden in every syllable.

Did the One who spoke these words live by them? Three times Jesus came face-to-face with known sinners. Three times He had the opportunity to judge them openly and severely, and three times He showed the part He longs to play in our lives.

Out on a limb

There’s a children’s song that says, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” Zacchaeus was small both in stature and in character. As a chief tax collector, he went around forcing his fellow countrymen to pay taxes to the despised Romans, who had forcibly occupied their land. What’s worse, he often collected more than was necessary and pocketed the difference, which made him a very wealthy man. It’s no wonder the Jewish people despised him! (This story is recorded in Luke 19:1–10.)

However, one day, Zacchaeus was in Jericho when he heard that Jesus, the famous Rabbi who healed the sick, was passing through. Zacchaeus decided that he wanted to see this popular Stranger. However, being a wee little man, standing in a curious crowd afforded him a perfect view of only backs and bellies.

Never letting his lack of height interfere with his tall plans, he looked around for a solution and found it towering nearby. Sycamore (or fig) trees dotted the landscape, and just down the road was a wonderful specimen, complete with sturdy branches and enough leaves he could hide behind.

Along came the Master Teacher, surrounded by attentive disciples, a group of recently healed sick people, a gaggle of questioning admirers, and even a few hecklers. Zacchaeus smiled inwardly. He’d found the best seat in the house!

However, he was horrified when, reaching the tree, Jesus suddenly stopped and looked up at him.

I smiled as I read this part of the story: Now Zacchaeus is going to get it, I thought to myself. That crook has come face-to-face with the God of the universe. Stand back everyone!

Slowly, with a smile spreading across His rugged, sun-tanned face, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).

I wish I could have been there to see what happened next. Stunned, the short man quickly made the journey from his tree limb to the ground. “You want to come to my house?” he asked.

Jesus nodded.

“This way,” Zacchaeus stammered, pointing down the road. “Just—follow me.”

Later, after Zacchaeus and Jesus had spent some time together, an incredible thing happened to the little man: he grew up. Not in height, but in character. “Lord!” he announced. “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (verse 8).

Zacchaeus the crooked tax collector had met Jesus the Judge face-to-face. And what was Jesus’ sentence? “Invite Me to your home.”

Undercover sinner

One day, just after dawn, Jesus was spending some quiet time at the temple in Jerusalem when a group of men tossed a woman at His feet. “Teacher,” they said, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:4, 5).

Yes, Jesus, I thought to myself, what do You say? She’s a harlot, a home wrecker, a corrupt sinner.

Silently, Jesus bent down and started writing in the sand with His finger. I have no idea what He wrote, but each of the men standing there saw something that made them decide that they were late for an important appointment elsewhere.

Soon, only Jesus and the woman remained—the sinner and the Judge facing each other. “Woman, where are they?” Jesus said quietly, “Has no one condemned you?” (verse 10).

The woman, sensing that this confrontation was going to turn out quite differently than she’d expected, answered in a whisper, “No one, sir” (verse 11).

The next words out of Jesus’ mouth, combined with the story of Zacchaeus, changed the way I looked at the judgment to come. Gazing intently into the eyes of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “Then neither do I condemn you. . . . Go now and leave your life of sin” (verse 11).

Hanging in the balance

Finally, my search for truth took me to a very dark place—a hilltop just outside the walls of Jerusalem, where I found Christ hanging in agony on a Roman cross. On each side of Him, impaled on their own crosses, were two sinners—thieves whose lives had been filled with violence and lawlessness. (This story is found in Luke 23:39–43.)

One cursed the dying Savior. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” he exclaimed (Luke 23:39).

The other thief turned to his fellow criminal, and groaning through his own pain, he said, “Don’t you fear God, . . . since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (verses 40, 41).

Then, looking over at Jesus, he said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (verse 42).

And what was Jesus’ answer? He promised the dying thief that “you will be with me in paradise” (verse 43).

Both thieves suffered and died that day. But only one felt the impact of heavenly judgment before passing away—not the cursing thief, but the one who made a simple request: “Remember me.”

Someday, I’m going to stand beside the taxman, the woman, and the thief, and look into the face of the One who judged us all worthy of salvation. We’ll each walk streets of gold because we chose to believe the words and felt the eternal touch of God’s judgment of love.

Judgment of Love

by Charles Mills
From the October 2011 Signs