Paul seems to assume his readers are already aware of their role in the final judgment. He twice asks the rhetorical question, “Do you not know?” And yet, if it weren’t for this very passage, how many Christians today would know? What exactly does it mean that we will judge the world and the angels?
The apostle Paul delivers several stinging rebukes to the believers at Corinth over the course of his first epistle. But perhaps the most interesting comes in 1 Corinthians 6:2–3. There we learn that due to their divisiveness and worldliness, the Corinthians have compromised their Christian identity by pursuing selfish gain through litigation against one another in secular courts. Such conduct betrays values that are no different from their pagan neighbors, so Paul reminds them of their ultimate destiny in Christ in order to expose the absurdity of their conduct.
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1 Cor. 6:2–3)
It’s an argument from the greater to the lesser. If they will one day judge the world and the angels, shouldn’t they be capable of handling relatively minor disputes among themselves?
What makes the passage so surprising is Paul seems to assume his readers are already aware of their role in the final judgment. He twice asks the rhetorical question, “Do you not know?” And yet, if it weren’t for this very passage, how many Christians today would know? What exactly does it mean that we will judge the world and the angels? What else does the Bible have to say about this? And what does this mean for us practically today?
Commentators through the centuries have offered several interpretations of this judgment of the saints. These can be broken down into three major options, followed by a fourth that expands on the third.
1. Judgment by Example
This view goes back to early church fathers like John Chrysostom, as well as a number of early Reformed commentators like Wolfgang Musculus. The idea here is that believers will not actively exercise judgment, since this is believed to be a prerogative of Christ (see John 5:22). Rather, it is the example of their faith that will condemn unbelievers. Jesus makes a similar point when he declares that the Ninevites and the queen of Sheba, who responded with repentance and wisdom in their day, will rise up at the judgment to condemn the wickedness of his contemporary generation (Matt. 12:41–42).