Updated: Jun 18, 2020
This week’s Bible word is the Greek noun krima, which means “judgement”. This word appears in the Gospel (Jn 9:1‑41) of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, year A, when Jesus, having healed the man born blind, declares that “it is for judgement that I have come into this world”.
The noun krima is one of a group of 5 other related Greek words, all with meanings related to judgement: the verb krino is “to judge”; the noun krisis describes the activity or process of judging, and a krites is a judge. These 4 words account for the vast majority of the 195 occurrences of these words in the New Testament.
There are also 26 other words which (as is characteristic of Greek) are formed by adding various prefixes to krima- or krino- words. These collectively account for another 349 occurrences in the New Testament. In total, they widen the range of meanings, but most of them still relate in some way to assessments, often related to what is good and what is not. They cover:
the quality of judgements or decisions, whether positive (such as sincerity or righteous judgement) or negative, such as prejudice, or the word hupokrites, which means "hypocrite";
dialogue, such as the verb apokrinomai, which means “to answer”;
intellectual processes, such as distinguish, join together, classify, inquire (anakrino, which we’ll come across later) and even doubt.
Other compound words provide a sharper focus on particular legal aspects of judgement; so we have specific words for condemnation (katakrino, another word we’ll encounter later), investigation and sentence.
These Greek words give us various English words: “crime”, “criminal”, “crisis”, “criterion”, “critic”, “critical”, and even “discriminate” and “discern” (the latter via the Latin cerno, which comes from Greek krino). But it’s very important to avoid the English words “crime” and “criminal” colouring our sense of the Greek word krino, implying that judgement in the Bible is always about condemnation. Rather, we must remember that someone is only a criminal, guilty of a crime, once they have been judged to be so, by a proper process of assessment. So it’s the process, and quality of judgement that we must consider, as much as the outcome.
Because the range of meanings is so wide, in this article I will focus mostly on the main 4 words: krima, krino, krisis and krites, as a single group, since their meanings are closely related - to the idea of judgement. However, as usual, I may sometimes look at other variants of the word for specific points.
In the secular Greek literature of the ancient world, krino originally meant “to separate”. We see this sense in the Iliad book 5, which describes the goddess Demeter who separates the wheat from the chaff. Plato, in the Republic Book 2, uses the verb krino to mean assessing alternatives, and this dialectical sense continued into various domains of activity: considering the victor in a contest for a prize, or even for warriors contending with each other. It was a natural extension to apply krino and krima to legal processes, including not only the process of making a judgement, but also accusation and sentence. Judgement was not solely a human affair: the Gods made judgements, though their verdict could be unpredictable and at times capricious; their worshippers could never know what their gods would do next, nor whether what they did to placate their deities, would be pleasing to them or not.
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ, all judgement ultimately belongs to God. Even though Moses appointed human judges to judge justly between a man and his brother in a dispute, Moses reassured the judges not to fear, “for the judgement (krisis) is God’s” (Deut 1:16-17). Judgement belongs to the Lord, because He is both judge and ruler of Israel, and of the whole world (for example in Psalm 97, where the Lord reigns and makes Zion glad of his judgements (Ps 97:1, 8). Indeed, the Hebrew verb shaphat and the related noun misphat, refer to both judging and governing.
God’s judgement is linked to His covenant with Israel. The prophets report God as having a controversy (krisis) with His people, in which He pleads His case when Israel has been unfaithful (for example in Hosea 4:1 and Micah 6:2).
And God’s covenant faithfulness means that His judgement is often associated with His mercy. He delays punishment to allow time for repentance, and to save the just, as when Abraham lobbies God, “the One judging all the earth”, for the sake of even 10 just men in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:22-32). His judgement includes protecting the oppressed: in Deuteronomy 10:18, He executes justice for the widow and orphan, and judges the poor with equity in Psalm 72:2. Indeed, God is the very definition of justice, since all His ways are just (Deut 32:4), and no-one taught Him judgement (Isa 40:14).
However, ultimately God’s judgement will result in a separation between those who follow Him and those who rebel against Him. In Ezekiel 20:36-38, God promises to “enter into judgement” with His people, and purge from them those who transgress. Similar separations happen when Noah and his family is separated from the rest of humankind, before the Flood (Genesis 6-7) and in the Exodus, when the Lord saves Israel but punishes Egypt.
God’s judgement is depicted as coming in stages in a kind of divine instalment plan. Sufferings in the present are exhibited as God’s interim judgements, which function as a merciful warning to renounce evil and submit to God – for example in Amos 4:6-13, which describes a series of misfortunes (hunger, drought, plagues and crop failure, war) with the recurring refrain “yet you did not return to me” – ending in the ominous climax “prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”. The final sentence is sometimes portrayed as shocking, and even violent – but it is no irrational outburst; nor should it be a surprise to those who have been warned, for “they shall know that I the Lord have spoken” when “I will execute judgements [krimata] on you” (Ezek 5: 8, 10, 13).
When men judge in the Hebrew Scriptures, their judgements should reflect God’s justice.
The judges of the book of Judges were more deliverers than arbitrators: only Deborah among them presided in a court (Judges 4:5). But the Lord’s intention, in saving Israel from the power of its enemies, was that they should listen to the judges He appointed, so that they would remain faithful to Him (Judges 2:16-18).
Kings also bear a responsibility for ruling with judgement, especially for the sake of the oppressed – and in doing so they are to imitate God as ruler and judge. Solomon asked God to “endow the king with your judgement [krima]” (Ps 72:1-2), and Solomon became famous for His judgements, including the conflict of 2 women over an infant, when “all Israel heard of the judgment [krima] which the king had rendered [ekrinen]” (1 Kings 3:28). Poignantly, Absalom desired to usurp the role of the king (David) in providing judgement [krísin] to anyone who had a suit [krísis] for the king; he wanted himself to be judge [krites], in 2 Samuel 15:2, 4 and 6.
In the New Testament, the Gospels and Letters, and Revelation, all speak of judgement. And there is little doubt that Jesus both assumed and taught the reality of divine judgement, however uncomfortable the notion seems to contemporary readers. Indeed, Hebrews 6:1-2 regards judgement as one of the "elementary teachings about Christ".
The focus in the Hebrew Scriptures is mostly on judgement for the people of Israel, in the context of their covenant. But the New Testament’s emphasis is more on Jesus as judge, appointed by His Father, and on judgement for individuals, based on their response to Jesus.
In the Synoptics, judgement arises from what one does, not as a means of earning credit with God, but because it reveals one’s position regarding Jesus: those who are faithful to Him do the will of His Father, while those who oppose Him (including the Pharisees, who are criticised at length by Jesus as hupokrites in Matthew and Luke) will face judgement [krisis], which will result in their condemnation.
But it is in John’s Gospel that the krisis, the decision about Jesus, that has to be made by every individual, is set out most explicitly. Jesus says, after the healing of the man born blind (Jn 9:39) that he has come into the world “for judgement”. The Greek phrase eis krima is literally “with the result of judgement”, since the preposition eis implies a point reached or entered, and krima (as with other Greek nouns derived from verbs and ending in –ma) is the result of the process of judgement; the process in John’s Gospel is conveyed by the word krisis. Krisis, or judging, is the responsibility both of individuals and of Jesus, and the result is krima.
- Although Jesus has been given authority to execute judgement [krisin] by the Father, he judges [krino] with the Father, and according to His Father’s will (Jn 5:30). And Jesus’s aim is not to condemn, but to save the world (Jn 3:17, 12:47). In John 8:31, Jesus refuses to condemn the woman caught in adultery ("condemn" is in the Greek, the intensified variant of the verb katakrino (literally “hand judgement down”). So Jesus does not presume guilt; instead, the result of the judgement, the krima, depends on our response to Jesus.
- For Jesus’s coming provokes a judgement [krisis] whereby each person must judge either with righteous judgement (Jn 7:24), or else by appearances (Jn 7:24) or by human standards (Jn 8:15). One way will result in accepting Jesus, which is expressed in various ways: receiving sight (Jn 9:39), believing in Him (Jn 3:18), loving the truth (Jn 3:19) or doing good (Jn 3:21, 5:29). The other way, rejecting Jesus, is expressed as blindness (Jn 9:39), not believing (Jn 3:18), loving darkness (Jn 3:19) or doing evil (Jn 3:19-20, 5:29). Rejecting Jesus means that people will be judged by the word Jesus has spoken (Jn 12:48) – in other words by their own refusal. As CS Lewis said, those who persist in rejecting God may hear Him with tragic irony, say to them: “your will be done”. On the other hand, accepting Jesus leads to salvation, or “eternal life” (Jn 5:24) and avoids condemnation (Jn 3:18). Characteristically in John, who loves double meanings, the same word krisis is used both for the process of condemnation and also for the activity of human judgement, because in John, they are two sides of the same coin. And such judgement is not just at the end of time: those who reject Jesus are already condemned (Jn 3:18, 12:31).
The trial of Jesus in all 4 Gospels is an ironic paradox, that as the world pronounces judgement on Jesus, it seals its own judgement: the trial of Jesus turns out to be the trial (krisis) of the world, in which the ruler of this world is driven out (Jn 12:31).
The diagram below shows all the uses of judgement words in John’s gospel, and illustrates how Jesus’s judgement is based on people’s response to Him.
All of this puts a perspective on the well-known statement of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not judge” (Mt 7:1). As we have seen, it certainly does not mean to prevent us exercising our judgement in favour of Jesus, and against evil. But we must be careful when assessing others, that we judge in the right way. For Jesus goes on to warn us that the standard (the krima) we use, will be used to judge us (Mt 7:2). So what standard, what krima, should we be using? The Bible identifies 4 different levels or stages of judgement that we should be using, and a 5th which is God’s prerogative alone.
1. The first stage is understanding: knowing right from wrong. This wisdom comes from God, as Solomon recognised, when He asked God for “an understanding mind to govern [diakrinein] Your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern [krinein] this Your great people?” (1 Kings 3:9). Scripture is a good source to acquire such knowledge: In Acts 17:11, the Jews of Berea “received the word with all eagerness, examining [the Greek word here is anakrinontes] the scriptures daily to see if these things [Paul’s preaching] were true”.
2. The second stage is discernment: applying understanding to see what is right and wrong in a specific situation Hebrews 5:14 characterises those who are mature, as being able to “distinguish [diakrisin] good from evil”. Jesus encourages the discernment of Simon the Pharisee by saying “you have judged rightly” about Jesus’s parable of the debtors, in Luke 7:43.
3. In the third stage, application to self, we resolve to follow the right and reject the wrong. 1 Cor 11:29-34 is an excellent example of such application, where the Apostle Paul uses different krino- words, to illustrate the different actions disciples should take, to participate in the Eucharist worthily. He says that those who eat and drink must be discerning [diekrinomen] about what they do, so that they do not come under judgement [eis krima] for participating unworthily; such discernment will help them to avoid condemnation [katakrithomen].
4. It is only in the fourth stage that we can apply judgement to others’ behaviour. It is valid to do so, as when Lydia asks Paul to judge whether she is faithful to the Lord in Acts 16:15; this is a request to encourage the good. It is also necessary to challenge the wayward; not to do so would make us guilty of a flabby relativism. But our challenge must always be applied in the same way that the Lord corrects: with love, with mercy, and with a care for the individual and their soul, to “win back your brother”, as Jesus puts it in Mt 18:15. So Jude 1:22 asks disciples to have mercy on those who are wavering (the Greek word here is the negative sense of diakrino, to doubt). When challenges are made, they must not be based on our own ideas, but on the word of God, which Hebrews 4:12 describes as kritikos: able to discern the thoughts of the heart.
5. The 5th and final level, final judgement, is God’s alone to make: for as James 4:12 says: “there is only One who is the lawgiver and judge [kritēs]; and Paul warns in Acts 17:30-31, ”He has fixed a day on which he will judge [krinein] the world in righteousness”. Specifically, we must not “pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes” (1 Cor 4:5). In other words, we may challenge, but we may not sentence. Our responsibility is to ensure we follow God’s word ourselves first, and leave ultimate judgement to God; as Moses told the people of Israel: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deut 29:29).
So, our own judgements must always be interim, hoping for repentance and reconciliation, and applying judgement first to ourselves, awaiting the Lord’s definitive judgement with hope, so that we can, as 1 John 4:17 tells us, “have confidence in the day of judgement [kriseōs]”. Like Jesus, we should “entrust [ourselves] to the one who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:23). For Jesus did not come to condemn [krine], but to save the world (Jn 3:18).
So, what does all of this mean for us?
First, how sound is our judgement? Do we keep it informed? The Catechism (1783) teaches us to inform our conscience, so that we can make good judgements. Without such groundwork, we are building a house upon sand rather than rock (see Mt 7:24-27).
Second, does our judgement make us an example to others? Do we go along with the world, which refuses to make sound judgements, and, by declining to be an example or to challenge others, do we implicitly adopt the relativism of secular society? Can we be instead a “sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34), like Noah, whose obedience to God challenged (katekrinen) his generation (Heb 11:7)? If we do challenge others, is it with humility and love, rather than as modern Pharisees, so that the standard (krima) with which we judge is the Lord’s?
Finally, do we see God as a judge to be feared, or an advocate? Is our image of God like a stern magistrate, ready to impose sentence? Or do we welcome the just judge, because we hope in His mercy? Can we, like the Psalmist, “rejoice at the presence of the Lord, Who comes to judge the earth” (Ps 98:8-9)?