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Will There be Degrees of Punishment?

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“As all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. They will receive a more severe punishment [NET BIBLE].’” [1]

“They will receive a more severe punishment.” The question posed is, “Will there be degrees of punishment?” Based on the words Jesus spoke in our text, the obvious answer is “Yes.” Some will receive “greater condemnation,” which implies “greater punishment.” While it is not possible to say definitively on the basis of this brief statement that there will be greater punishment, the obvious implication is that there will assuredly be greater punishment.

WHAT JESUS SAID — The word the Master used was the Greek word kríma. While the word may indeed speak on condemnation, the more common word to be translated “condemnation, would have been katákrima. Kríma speaks of judgement, of a sentence pronounced, of a penalty for wrongdoing. Katákrima unerringly speaks of condemnation. This is clear from the few times the word occurs in Paul’s writings.

In ROMANS 8:1, Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The word “condemnation” translates the word katákrima. Likewise, speaking of the salvation we have received in Christ Jesus, Paul writes in ROMANS 5:15-18, “The free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Again, the word that is translated “condemnation” in verses sixteen and eighteen is this Greek term katákrima. Clearly, Paul means condemnation and not sentence or penalty.

In our text, Jesus used the word kríma. It seems best to understand that He is speaking of punishment and not condemnation. I say this because we are assured that all sin is an affront to Holy God. Those who imagine that God treats sin lightly have never understood the sacrifice of His Beloved Son. According to the Word, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 CORINTHIANS 5:21].

Again, we need but recall the statement provided in the Letter to Galatian Christians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” [GALATIANS 3:13]. It was only through taking upon Himself our sinful condition, that God’s holiness could be assuaged. Christ received in Himself the punishment each of us deserved.

A similar passage expressing God’s holy hated of sin is this: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” [ROMANS 8:3-4].

On the whole, then, I believe the evidence suggests that Jesus spoke of punishment rather than implying that some were guilty of greater sin than others. We may discriminate about degrees of culpability; but, we know that sin is sin. The sin of the adulteress or the adulterer is as great as the sin of the one who leers at a woman if the words of the Master mean anything at all [see MATTHEW 5:27-30]. Similarly, the sin of murder is no more heinous than is the sin of unjustified anger at one’s brother [see MATTHEW 5:22]. Until we become convinced that sin—especially our sin—is “sinful beyond measure” [see ROMANS 7:13], we will continue to categorise behaviour and attitudes, justifying ourselves and diminishing the serious nature of our own sinful condition.

IMPLICATIONS FOR CHRISTIANS —Eliphaz may have been a miserable comforter to Job, but his lack of perspicuity did not stop him from uttering a disturbing truth. Man, said Eliphaz, “drinks injustice like water” [JOB 15:16]! Even the Apostle struggled with his own sinful nature. He confessed, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” [ROMANS 7:21-24]? If Paul had such struggles, should it be a surprise that we also struggle—and seldom successfully—against sin which “clings so closely” [see HEBREWS 12:1]?

We know that each Christian must appear before the Bema—the Judgement Seat of Christ [2 CORINTHIANS 5:10]. We know that our appearance will not be to receive condemnation, though undoubtedly each of us deserves condemnation. Rather, at that time we will receive the rewards for having lived righteous and holy lives. Nevertheless, we dare not presume against the grace of God. Paul pens a startling caution when he earlier wrote the same congregation, “No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” [1 CORINTHIANS 3:11-15].

I must note that Paul gives three acceptable motives for service. In 2 CORINTHIANS 5:9-13 he states that Fear of the Lord is an acceptable motive for ministry. In 2 CORINTHIANS 5:14-17 he teaches that Love for Christ is an acceptable motive for ministry. Finally, he informs us that the Commissioning of Christ is an acceptable motive for ministry [2 CORINTHIANS 5:18-21]. It is not that one or some multiple of these motives qualify for divine service; rather, the one who would serve in holy office must be possessed of all of these motives. Otherwise, the service presented is flawed and inadequate.

I don’t pretend to have the final answer to the statement concerning the burning of one’s work, or concerning the possibility of suffering loss. I have focused throughout my service before the Lord on the fact that even such a one as an individual who loses all through fire will nevertheless be saved. However, we should not imagine that we can live with no thought of whether we please the Lord or whether we live solely for our own pleasure and still anticipate receiving His commendation, much less receiving a reward.

Then, there is that disturbing warning James issues. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” [JAMES 3:1]. The brother of our Lord uses the same word that Jesus used, kríma. Clearly, James is warning that we must face at the least a review of our service, and we shall be held to account for how we have fulfilled the responsibilities we were assigned. Those who teach must anticipate judgement applied with greater strictness. We must not presume against the grace and goodness of the Master.

The scribes and the Pharisees [see MATTHEW 23:1 ff.] served as the teachers for the people. In their position, they assumed awesome responsibility before the Lord. Let me caution you with an observation I have made over the years. Many people within the churches will jockey for position within the congregation of the Lord. It is as though they imagine that through assuming a title they can exercise power over the assembly. All such people need to pause and remember the words of our text and the words I have cited from other writers of Holy Writ. We who assume the mantle of an elder, or those who think that through exercising authority as a deacon, must remember that we invite stricter judgement.

WARNINGS FOR OUTSIDERS — Have you never read these enigmatic words written by Peter? “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God” [1 PETER 4:16, 17]? If the warnings issued for believers cautions that we are held to a strict standard, what can outsiders expect?

For one thing, those who are outside the Faith must be warned that they are already condemned. The Word warns, “Whoever believes in [the Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” [JOHN 3:18]. Again, outsiders are warned by the Word, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” [JOHN 3:36].

Beyond this, there appears to be the very real possibility that judgement is intensified for some who are condemned. Challenged to give a sign, the Master warned, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here” [MATTHEW 12:39-42]. The implication, especially in light of the words of the text, is that judgement becomes greater still when an individual knows what is right and fails to do that which is right and proper.

Paul provides a clear statement concerning living up to the light one has in this Letter to Roman Christians. “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality [ROMANS 2:2-11].

Then, the Apostle adds this clarification. “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” [ROMANS 2:12]. The implication is that the greater the light one has, the greater the responsibility. We can conclude, therefore, that judgement is greater for some than for others. However, I pray that none to whom I speak fall under that condemnation. No individual need be condemned, for the Son of God has given His life as a sacrifice for sin to set at liberty all who are willing to receive His sacrifice.

This is the teaching of the Word which I repeat week-by-week. Jesus, the Son of God, gave His life as a sacrifice, taking upon Himself all the sin of mankind. He did not remain dead, however. The Word declares that He is risen from the dead. Now, ascended to the right hand of the Father, the Lord calls all who are willing to receive His free gift of life in a glorious promise. “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Master,’ believing in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be freed. It is with the heart that one believes and is made right with the Father, and with the mouth that one confesses and is set free.” You know that the passage concludes with the recitation of the promise of God first issued through the prophet Joel. “Everyone who calls on the Name of the Master shall be freed” [ROMANS 10:9, 10, 13]. [2]

Our sincere prayer is that each one who hears this message will believe and be saved. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers, 2001. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Author’s translation

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