“Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:3) is one of the most obscure statements in 1 Corinthians – a letter that contains many references to local circumstances in Corinth and is a reply to correspondence received by Paul which we do not have.
The literal reading of Jehovah’s Witnesses’, and others, is no explanation:
Many churches, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, which take “Satan and his angels” literally as referring to real rebel angels read this verse as meaning that Christian believers in the resurrection will actually take part with Christ in judging the fallen angels of Jewish and Christian folklore. We’re not going to spend time on addressing that here, as the reasons why Satan is to be read consistently with the few Old Testament mentions as a parable are given in multiple other answers on this website. But, just for a moment consider that the early medieval Christian ideas about Satan as Lucifer are correct – under what scriptural scenario does anyone see resurrected human beings being literally able to judge fallen angels at the Last Day? Would Christ stand there and say “John Smith, this fallen angel is Asmodeus” (the demon that Tobit drove away with smoke from burning the heart and liver of a fish in the Apocrypha), “now his judgement is up to you”. This scenario does not make any sense; there is no scriptural basis for the idea that resurrected beings who are themselves forgiven sinners should have individual life and death judgment of anyone, let alone a fallen angel, be delegated to them by the sinless Son of God to whom all judgment has been entrusted. So if insisting on a “literal” reading of the text, that then requires a “literal” follow-through to an impossible conclusion.
So what does it mean?
What it does mean however is no easier to say. Among the ideas that have been suggested are the following:
Can “judge” mean “rule”, or co-reign?
One idea that has been canvassed – possibly as a result of abbreviated lexical sources using Strong’s numbers – is the idea that “judge” here can mean “reign”, as in co-reign with Christ “who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand–with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” (1 Peter 3:22). The problem however is that the Greek verb krino (κρίνω , judge) only can be stretched to the idea of “rule” when the role of judgement is being used to show authority to judge – and the only New Testament use of “judge” in this sense is when Christ promises the Twelve that they will sit upon twelve thrones “judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). This is just Old Testament regal language reflecting one of the regular tasks of the kings of Israel, to literally judge cases as a kind of court of appeal.
What’s more of a problem with the “rule” and “reign” explanation for “judge angels” in 1 Corinthians 6:3 is that the whole section repeatedly uses krino (κρίνω , judge) to talk about individual legal judging.
1 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law (krino in the passive, κρίνεσθαι, be judged) before the unrighteous instead of the saints? 2 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 in trivial judgements (κριτηρίων, noun) ? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4 So if you have such judgements (κριτηρίων, noun) , why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6 but brother goes to law (krino in the passive, κρίνεσθαι, be judged) against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (1 Corinthians 6:1-8)
In fact 1 Corinthians 2:2; 2:2; 4:5; 5:3; 5:12; 5:13; 6:1; 6:2; 6:3; 7:37; 10:15; 10:29; 11:13; 11:31 contains a whole string of krino uses which all require “judge” as the meaning by context.
Can “angels” mean “human messengers”?
Another idea canvassed is that “angels” can mean “human messengers”. Well yes sometimes it can, the word means “messenger”, but very rarely in the New Testament is it used of humans. And here the hyperbole Paul is using only makes sense if he is referring the the main use, “divine messengers”. If it didn’t what would be the point in saying “do you not know you will judge human messengers?” – it would be redundant in the argument Paul is making.
Is it a reference to the Enoch myths?
In scholarly commentaries on 1 Corinthians the possibility of a reference in “judge angels” to what is usually called the Enoch literature, Jewish folklore of the Maccabean period onward is often mentioned. It is a fair place to start to look for extra-scriptural cross references. The multiple quoting – and in the view of this website contradiction – of 1 Enoch and other fallen angel literature in 2 Peter and Jude is almost universally acknowledged in all academic discussion of 2 Peter and Jude. However it is difficult to see how Paul’s “judge angels” comment can be connected to the Enoch myths. Although the fictional journey of Enoch to see the angels that sinned in the prison in Tartarus is a major part of Enochic mythology, the Enoch character does not actually get to “judge” the angels who have already been judged and chained by God and his loyal archangels. The fictional Enoch is just a tourist. And again, back to the real word of the New Testament, nowhere did Christ promise the right to judge angels to anyone. Christ’s only possible comment on the Enoch myth is his statement in Matthew 22:30 that Angels cannot marry – which confirms that Jesus had heard the popular myth based on Genesis 6:4, but at the same time destroys it. The parallel account of Jesus’ answer in Luke goes further by defining “sons of God” not as fallen angels but as resurrected Christians – “for neither can they die any more, for they are equal unto the angels and are the sons of God, being the sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36).
The other problem is that neither 1 Corinthians nor 2 Corinthians have any strong links to surviving extra-biblical sources. 1 Corinthians 14 dealing with a sub-group practicing tongues “without meaning” in Corinth has some contact points to sources related to charismatic Alexandrian Jewish groups – Philo’s ”On The Contemplative Life” and the apocryphal ”Testament of Job”. 2 Corinthians 11 “Satan transformed as an angel of light”, “caught away to Paradise” has some contact points with the Jewish Life of Adam books. These connections are strong and discussed in commentaries. But evidence of any influence on the Enoch myths on Corinth is allusive at best. Given how direct 2 Peter and Jude are in citing the Enoch material when dealing with the problems of their letters’ recipients, we might expect that Paul would and could have done the same if his “judge angels” is related to the influence of teachers preaching the Enoch traditions in Corinth.
So, in a word, unlikely.
Is it connected to the other angel references in 1 Corinthians?
Having opened up the relation of 1 Corinthians 14 to charismatic Alexandrian Jewish groups, and specifically the Therapeutae described in Philo’s ”On The Contemplative Life” and thought to be the source of the apocryphal ”Testament of Job”, leads us to consider the other angel references in 1 Corinthians. We have three more:
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.. (1 Corinthians 4:9, ESV)
For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. (1 Corinthians 11:10, KJV)
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1, ESV)
(Note: The 11:10 reference has been left in the word-for-word King James rendering because there is some disagreement about how to render “power”. But that issue probably does not affect “judge angels” in 6:3)
The first one is interesting in connection with “judge angels” (6:3) in that there is role reversal – Paul and the apostles are beyond trial, already condemned to death, with an audience of angels and men. This is the opposite of “judge angels” where believers turn the tables on the audience of “spectacle,… to angels and men” (4:9). The third and fourth uses of angels both connect to the angelic tongues in Jewish material (particularly angelic praise tongues in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the praise tongues of the three daughters of Job in the Alexandrian Testament of Job, though to be a Therapeutae work). Although the first section of 1 Corinthians 11, verses 1-16, is often dragged into discussion of the adjacent discussion of disunity at the eucharist meeting in Corinth, the verbs for meet used in the two sections indicate that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 probably is not related to the meeting where the Corinthians took bread and wine, but to the chaotic praise and prophecy meetings described in 1 Corinthians 14.
Connection to other “judge” references:
At first sight the “spectacle, to angels” (4:9) reference seems to connect better with “judge angels” (6:3). The connection is not based on “angels” alone. That long string of “judge” verses in 1 Corinthians 2:2; 2:2; 4:5; 5:3; 5:12; 5:13; 6:1; 6:2; 6:3; 7:37; 10:15; 10:29; 11:13; 11:31 also includes context on judgement before the concluding “spectacle, to angels” in 4:9.
4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:4-5)
The reference forward to the “because of the angels” (11:10) and “tongues of men and angels” (13:1) seems less strong that the immediate context. However a reference forward to the charismatic and order problems in 1 Corinthians 11-14 can’t be ruled out since Paul does often point forward in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians to issues which he deals with more fully later in the letter. The later uses of “judge” include the following:
I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined (krino, twice) by someone else’s conscience? (1 Co 10:29)
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? (11:13)
29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.[h] 31 But if we judged[i] ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (11:29-32)
Connection to 1 Corinthians 5?
It is difficult to say from the above whether “judge angels” (6:3) is connected to any of the previous or following “angel” or “judge” references in 1 Corinthians. Having failed to find any strong connection to “judge angels” in contemporary Jewish literature, we have to return to the immediate context in 1 Corinthians 6:1-5. That context is a robust call for the Corinthians to discern and judge for themselves. To understand the context in 1 Corinthians 6, we need to start a few verses earlier with 5:12-13.
12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (5:12-13)
The context here is not just a repeat of the previous call to temporarily excommunicate the brother who had his father’s wife (5:5), Paul is going further to broaden the issue to other cases of immorality. The obscure “do you not know we will judge angels” call is not really the point of Paul’s comment. It is evidently hyperbole, and it’s only purpose is to challenge the Corinthians to clean up their house. The meaning of “do you not know we will judge angels”, is basically “no one gets a free pass”.
The case in 5:5 was evidently made difficult because of the man’s standing in the church. Perhaps he was supported by either the conservative Cephas faction or liberal Apollos faction. Factions tend to enable abuse of all kinds by members of their own faction. Or maybe he had family connections. Family connections likewise can help to sweep damaging moral behaviour by members of a powerful family in a church under the carpet. Whatever, Paul’s point is that not even an angel gets a free pass for immoral behaviour.
This is the point. Paul is not promising the Corinthians that they will sit as magistrates while sullied angels are led before them, Paul is simply pressing a point – as he does often in both letters to Corinth, in language suitable to – as Paul himself says – reach people who force him to write to them as children.
Another consideration of the same question is found at https://bibleq.net/answer/3394/