Summary: Does God judge on a curve. Do some actually anticipate greater degrees of punishment?
“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].’”
“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]?