Judgment

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 25:31-46
2 Corinthians 5:10

The purpose of Jesus’ parable about the last judgment is to disturb our comfortable, self-centered complacency, “a truth which a frivolous age needs much to hear.”

Christians believe that Jesus is coming again. And we also say why he’s coming. “From there,” we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed — that is, from God’s right hand, the symbolic position of supreme honor and authority where Christ is now seated — “he shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” As Christians we believe that Jesus’ return in glory at the end of time will accomplish many things. It will signal the resurrection of the dead, all the dead. It will bring the transformation of the universe and the inauguration of the new creation. It will usher in the kingdom of God in all its fulness and begin the eternal joy of life in the world to come.

But, in addition to all these wonders and blessings of salvation completed, Jesus’ return will also mean judgment. The universe, the earth and its inhabitants, and all of history will come to a close, neither in a whimper nor with a bang, but with the personal, physical return to the world of the Lord Jesus Christ. History is not open-ended. The human race doesn’t face an infinite future of growth and development in the conquest and colonization of the stars, the way science fiction envisions it. Nor is history circular, as Eastern religions conceive it to be, with things passing into and out of existence in an endless cycle. The symbol of the east is a circle, but Christianity’s sign is a straight line, or rather two lines, which intersect in a cross. Time and history are headed someplace. They had a beginning. They follow a course, and they are approaching a conclusion. According to Jesus, that conclusion is judgment.

God has committed the responsibility for judging all people into the hands of Christ. Jesus once said, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). The apostle Paul told the Corinthians that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). And one of Jesus’ best-known parables is “The Sheep and the Goats,” a story that begins,

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Matthew 25:31-32

The Sheep and the Goats

I don’t know about you, but the parable of the sheep and goats has always made me a little bit uneasy. I’m not sure I’m looking forward to having my life judged on the basis of the care and compassion I have showed to “the least of these my brethren,” as Jesus calls them. And I suspect that is exactly the way Jesus wants me to feel. The purpose of his parable about the last judgment is to disturb my comfortable, self-centered complacency. As the great Dr. Samuel Johnson once commented, “My Master has said that he will separate the sheep from the goats. That is a truth which a frivolous age needs much to hear.”

So let’s hear the truths that Jesus teaches us in this story about the last judgment. I think I can identify four of them.

Judgment Is Certain

The first is that judgment is certain. The scene Jesus describes in his parable is universal and comprehensive — all the angels are with Christ and all the nations are gathered before him. Judgment is the one inescapable reality for every creature of God. Human nature being what it is, we have a tendency to bail out of uncomfortable situations (just witness the divorce statistics, for example), but there will be no avoiding that examination before the Son of Man in glory. People sometimes think that Jesus came teaching a simple gospel of love, but his followers have twisted it into a message of fear and wrath. Only someone who has never really read the Gospels could make such a claim. In fact, it was Jesus himself who spoke most of judgment. And it is Jesus here who prophecies the dreadful eternal separation between sheep and goats, between sinners and himself. That is a truth upon which the careless would do well to reflect. Judgment is certain and no one will escape it.

Judgment Is Final

The second truth Jesus shows us here is that judgment is final. The New Testament word for judgment means to separate, and that is the central action in Jesus’ parable. In Palestine flocks of sheep and goats grazed together by day, but they were separated at day’s end because the goats needed shelter while the sheep remained in the open. And Jesus lifts this one very ordinary experience up in order to illuminate the meaning of the final judgment.

Judgment at the end will be a separating process. All the other distinctions which people make so much of and strive so hard to maintain will then be erased. There will be no more rich and poor, no more black and white, no more educated and ignorant, no more civilized and savage, no more haves and have-nots; there will only be sheep and goats. And between those two groups there is an infinite and final difference. The one group is blessed by the King, and the other he calls accursed. The one is invited to come in to eternal life and endless bliss. The other is commanded to depart into eternal fire, a horrific symbol of the awfulness of existence apart from God. From this sentence there is no appeal, no chance of reversal, no opportunity of parole. Judgment is final.

Judgment Is Surprising

Here’s a third truth: judgment is surprising. Read the parable and notice the reaction of both sheep and goats to the Lord’s decision. All of them are alike shocked and stunned. According to no less an authority than Jesus himself, the outstanding feature of the Last Judgment is the unexpectedness of the verdicts, and the primary reaction of those being judged is surprise. When the Son of Man pronounces his awful sentence of blessing or curse on each human being, he adds that the reason is what they did, or failed to do, for him. And both sheep and goats ask in astonishment, “Lord, whenever did we do that?” And Jesus replies, “As you did it or failed to do it to one of the least of these my brothers [and sisters], you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

The world doesn’t value the things the sheep did: giving a cup of cold water, visiting the sick or the imprisoned, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. All of them are humble acts of love for the insignificant and despised of humanity. Most of them go unknown and unremembered to any but the giver and the receiver. No doubt the goats were all busy doing more important things, things that brought them recognition and reward and glory. They didn’t have time for Christ or for the poor of the land. Does this mean that ultimately people are saved by their good works? No. People can only be saved by trusting in Christ. But it also means that genuine faith is made known by the kind of life it produces.

Here’s a lesson, I think, for us as Christians. Believers in Christ are saved by God’s grace through their faith. For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is no more condemnation (Romans 8:1), the Bible says. We do not need to fear the judgment; for our sins are paid for and forgiven. Nevertheless, we must still appear before the judgment seat of Christ, “that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad,” as the apostle adds (2 Corinthians 5:10).

The outstanding feature of the judgment as Christians will experience it, will also, I think, be the unexpectedness of many of the verdicts. We have been so affected by the world’s values. We are so used to measuring our spiritual standing by worldly standards that we are going to be shocked by the revelation of what kind of ministry God considers to be gold and what he dismisses as wood, hay, and stubble (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). So judgment in the end is going to contain many surprises.

The great hymn writer and pastor John Newton once said near the end of his life that three things were going to surprise him when he got to heaven. The first would be to see many people there whom he never expected to see. The second would be to fail to see many people there whom he did expect to see. And the last and greatest surprise, he said, would be to find himself there in the end, by the amazing grace of God.

Judgment Is Fair

Finally, judgment is fair. If the sheep’s cry conveys a note of surprised joy, that of the goats has an implied complaint about it. This isn’t fair, they seem to be saying to Jesus, when did we fail to help you? We certainly would have done so if we had known it was you! How can you blame us? We didn’t know it was so important to respond to you.

But of course, they did know. Everyone knows instinctively what they should be doing, how they should be living. We will all be judged by our actions, by what we do, not just by what we say. We will be judged by what we do to others, especially the poor and disadvantaged, not just what we do for those we naturally care about. Most alarming of all, we will be judged for what we fail to do when we see a brother or sister in need. It’s the little things that count with God.

God is looking for the small acts of love the world never notices, things even the sheep have forgotten they did. He won’t evaluate us on how much we knew, or how much we said, or how much we made, or how much we accomplished, but on how much we loved. Is that fair? Yes it is, for the Lord himself is telling us right here what he expects of us. And none of us will be able to plead ignorance in the last day. Is this works-righteousness? No, it isn’t. We will not be saved by doing works of love. Anyone who is saved will be saved by grace alone through faith alone. But as the great Charles Spurgeon once remarked, faith that doesn’t change your behavior will never change your destiny.