The sight of the glistening knife of Shylock was enough to strike terror and fear into the heart of Antonio. He had defaulted on a loan taken from Shylock. As part of the frightening conditions of the contract, Shylock had stipulated taking a pound of his flesh should he fail to pay back the loan in time. Standing before the jury, Antonio is so overwhelmed with the dreadful sword of Shylock that his fears dominate his trial and obscure the role of the jury. All he sees across the horizon of the judgment hall is Shylock and his sword. Further, his sense of fear is heightened by the fact that Shylock remains inflexible and insists on the pound of flesh.
However, unknown to Antonio, the jury, including his friend Portia, is doing everything possible to save him from the real threats of Shylock. As the story ends, the jury frees Antonio from the menacing scythe of Shylock.1
Why the Dread of Judgment?
Like Antonio with the terrible knife of Shylock staring at him, ready to pounce for a pound of his flesh, the thought of a coming judgment often saps our hope and smothers us with dread. After all, who is not afraid of God’s wrath, which has been portrayed with gruesome horror and terror? I recall reading about the alarm and panic that gripped the hearts of the congregation when Jonathan Edwards was preaching his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The concept of judgment, tied in with his graphic illustration of the inferno of hell, made some of the present members reach out to grab and hold tight to the columns in the church lest they slip to hell!
The scenario looks even more frightening whenever we pause to reflect on the fact that we shall be judged with reference to our works (Matt. 7:21; Rom. 14:12; 2 Cor. 5:10). Besides, the truth that “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23), coupled with the thought that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), is enough to snuff out all vestiges of hope in a future judgment. Who can stand the divine searchlight? Ellen White captures the intensity and luminosity of God’s searchlight in the following words:
“Opposite each name in the books of heaven is entered with terrible exactness every wrong word, every selfish act, every unfulfilled duty, and every secret sin, with every artful dissembling. Heaven-sent warnings or reproofs neglected, wasted moments, unimproved opportunities, the influence exerted for good or for evil, with its far-reaching results, all are chronicled by the recording angel.”2
Not the End of the Story
But that is not the full picture. Beyond the barely visible rays of light at the end of this frightful tunnel of judgment is a glowing glimmer of light and hope. Scripture presents a wonderful array of reasons we can live in joyful anticipation of God’s judgment rather than shriveling up in hopelessness. Before presenting this glorious vista of hope however, let’s remember who wants to frighten us about the coming judgment and distract our attention from all things but dread and terror in this judgment.
The Chief Antagonist
Like Shylock, there is someone who scares us about the judgment. The Bible identifies him as the “accuser of our brethren” (Rev. 12:10).3 He has a longstanding track record of cruelty. He was the one behind the fall of our first parents, a maestro at deception and misrepresentations. In fact, Jesus Himself identified him as the father of lies (John 8:44). He holds a doctoral degree in rebellion against God; a master’s in inciting us to sin; and a bachelor’s in flatteries, empty promises, and vain allurements. He is a skillful general with an incredible and intractable working experience of more than six millennia. He is committed to the destruction of humanity. He was the architect behind the suffering of Job (Job 1; 2); the fierce complainant against Joshua the high priest (Zech. 3); and currently the relentless accuser of God’s people (Rev. 12:10-12).
But we do not have to give way to despair because of the devil’s temptations and accusations. Since the Fall, God has been on a relentless mission to reconcile us to Himself. The sanctuary service is God’s operation room where our salvation is being enacted.
Let me highlight one aspect of the sanctuary service that may dispel our fears of the judgment. It has to do with the breastplate of the high priest. Exodus 28:29 describes its function like this: “So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel on the breastplate of judgment over his heart, when he goes into the holy place, as a memorial before the Lord continually.”
As a child growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church I thought that the sanctuary service was all about calculation of historical dates and ancient movable structures in the wilderness. However, I somehow overlooked this particular element of God’s rescue plan. God instructed Moses to design a breastplate for the high priest. The names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel were engraved on the breastplate. As the high priest bore the breastplate on his heart, so Jesus, our heavenly high priest, bears our names on His heart before our Father. Using a simple and yet profound imagery, Christ, the high priest, has the names of His children on His heart. This point becomes more significant when we realize that this is a judicial setting. Can you imagine the sense of assurance you may have when you stand before the U.S. Supreme Court knowing that the chief justice is your personal friend who knows you by name and cares about you?
The high priest wore the breastplate as a memorial before God. Interestingly, the word translated “memorial” is related to the verb “remember.” Whenever God remembers, deliverance is not far off. This syntactical link between “God” and “remember” occurs only four times in the Bible: in Genesis 8:1 when God remembered Noah, he and his family were all saved from the Flood; in Genesis 19:29 when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, God remembered Abraham and delivered Lot; in the third occurrence, after struggling with the desperation and humiliation of barrenness, when God remembered Rachel, she gave birth to Joseph (Gen. 30:22); finally, after more than four centuries of hard servitude and oppression, Israel was delivered when God remembered them (Ex. 2:24).
Here is the hope we can be completely confident of: Jesus, our high priest, bears our names on His breastplate and continually remembers us before God. In fact, more than being our defender, Jesus assures us that “the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). So the Defender is also the Judge—which helps us better understand another text in John 3:18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned” (NIV).4
Living Without Fear
Why then should we dread the judgment when Jesus has our names engraved on His breastplate making intercession for us before the Father? He is the only attorney who can say with confidence and tender sympathy: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me” (Isa. 49:16).
A story is told about an angry lion that met a lamb. The lion was ready to pounce on the weak and helpless lamb for dinner. But surprisingly, the lamb showed no dread at all. Approaching the lamb, the lion saw a hunter behind it with his rifle cocked and ready to shoot the lion should he attempt to move farther toward the lamb. In desperation, although furious, the lion ran away disappointed.
In line with that story, we are no match for the devil, but with Jesus as the judge and our defender, we can face the judgment without fear. With this assurance we can say with Martin Luther: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.”5
Knowing that Jesus is our sympathetic advocate, attorney, defender, as well as the judge in the heavenly sanctuary, the author of the book of Hebrews writes with confidence to fellow Christians: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16, NIV).
Being conscious of this wonderful rescue plan, Satan has sought throughout history to present God as a harsh, demanding, and relentless God, who is ready to condemn us. He seeks with growing intensity and zeal to divert our minds from this wonderful work Jesus is doing on our behalf. “The archdeceiver hates the great truths that bring to view an atoning sacrifice and an all-powerful mediator. He knows that with him everything depends on his diverting minds from Jesus and His truth.”6 Instead of being afraid and dreading the coming judgment, we can live in joyful anticipation of the judgment because we know that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1, NIV). Jesus Himself put it this way: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned” (John 3:17, 18).
As children of the heavenly King, we can live without the fear of God’s judgment because with Jesus, our Best Friend and Redeemer, bearing our names on His breastplate before the Father, we have “everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but [have] passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
1 This scene has been taken from William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (London: Yale University Press, 1923).
2 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 482.
3 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this article have been taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
4 Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5 The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), no. 506.
6 White, The Great Controversy, p. 488.
Derick A. Adu, a native of Ghana, lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is hoping to complete his M.Div. degree from Andrews University in May. This article was published March 15, 2012.