READ : Luke 11:31-32
Daniel Webster once said that the most solemn thought that had ever entered his mind was that of his accountability to God. One day, he believed, he would answer before heaven’s court for the life he had lived. That is the awesome reality of what we call “the Last Judgment.”
Have you ever thought about what that will be like? The Bible pictures for us a scene in which the entire human race will be assembled before God’s throne. Both peoples and individuals, generations and families will be judged according to their varied degrees of responsibility. Listen as Jesus describes it to the people of His generation. I’m reading from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 11, beginning at verse 31:
The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
SOME CONDEMN OTHERS
When all are assembled before the Lord, Jesus says that some will condemn others. What does He mean by that? It’s not a personal charge, obviously, as though some were usurping God’s place as judge over their fellows. They do not voice a condemnation. What condemns will be their example, the lives they have lived, the responses they have made to God’s overtures in their time.
In all the long history of the world, nations and peoples, as well as families and individuals, have enjoyed varying degrees of light. For some the revelation of God has been full and clear. Others may have received only faint glimmers of understanding. Some have lived in periods when faithful spokesmen of God have openly proclaimed His truth. Others have endured what the prophet Amos once called “a famine. . . of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11).
No one has been left completely in the dark. In the wonders of creation, in the whispers of conscience, every human being on earth has been made aware in some way of God’s existence and of His claim upon their lives. All are, therefore, as the apostle Paul puts it, “without excuse.” They have known God enough to know that they should honor and give thanks to Him. But none have done this as they ought.
At the same time, the responsibility for some is far greater than for others. And what distinguishes one from another on the day of judgment is the response each has made to the light and truth he or she has received. Jesus put it this way, “To whom much is given, of him shall much be required” (Luke 12:48). The more we know, the more privileged we’ve been, the more exposure we’ve had to God’s truth, the more He expects of us.
The apostle Paul, writing once to his Philippian friends, urged them to “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Have you ever puzzled over what that means? How do you count others as better than yourself? Suppose you play first violin in the orchestra. Are you required to tell yourself that those in the lower chairs are really better violinists than you are? If you score a lofty 145 on an I.Q. test and the student next to you rates barely over 100, are you still to say that he or she is more intelligent than you? That can’t be what the apostle has in mind. Humility is not dishonesty. It’s not denying the gifts and graces that God has given you. What is it then?
I find the answer in what we’re talking about today. It’s what we do with what we have that matters. Whenever we’re inclined to feel superior to someone else, it’s a sobering reminder to realize that all of life is a stewardship. People are variously gifted, some with ten “talents” and some with one. But God’s judgment doesn’t discriminate among us on that basis. No. It’s what we make of the one or the ten that distinguishes between us. And it’s always possible; in fact, it’s highly probable that many of the people around us who may seem in some way inferior are doing a better job with the hand they’ve been dealt than we are. It could be that those we are most tempted to despise will rise up with us on judgment morning and condemn us simply because they have made better use of the light they had.
THE ANCIENT WITNESSES
Who are the persons whom Jesus envisions as witnesses against His contemporaries? One He calls “the queen of the south,” or “the queen of Sheba.” You may remember her. Having heard of Solomon’s fame as a king endowed by God with great wisdom, she came to Jerusalem to test Him with hard questions. To her amazement, Solomon answered every one. There was nothing hidden from the king, we read, which He could not explain to her. This was her reaction: “And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings which he offered at the house of the LORD, there was no more spirit in her” (1 Kings 10:4 5). That is, she was overwhelmed. Then she said to the king, “The report was true which I heard in my own land of your affairs and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it; and, behold, the half was not told me” (vv. 6, 7).
Quite a response to the report she had heard! She came a long way to check it out. She listened eagerly to what Solomon had to say, and when she was convinced, she sang his praises and gave him a fortune in gold, spices and precious stones.
Then there were the people of Nineveh in the days of Jonah the prophet. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, a cruel and tyrannical regime. So hated and feared were the Ninevites that when God called Jonah to go and preach to them, he refused. He got on a boat and sailed off in the opposite direction. “Anywhere but Nineveh! To anyone but those hated Assyrians!”
But Jonah couldn’t get away. God put him through some harrowing experiences and brought him to the end of himself. Finally, he was willing to accept his mission.
When he got to Nineveh, Jonah preached. He laid it on the line for the people of the city. His message was brief and to the point. “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That was God’s message and we get the distinct impression that Jonah relished the thought.
But these proud Assyrians did the unexpected. They didn’t set upon Jonah to stone him or run him out of town. They didn’t argue with him. They didn’t even laugh. Instead, the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
Then the Assyrian king, in Jonah’s eyes probably the embodiment of all evil, heard about this. He got up from his throne, took off his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. The king! Here was his royal decree: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not!” (Jonah 3:7 9).
Quite a response, wouldn’t you say, to Jonah’s preaching? Wholesale repentance, a city wide awakening, a transformed people! They heard a one sentence sermon and it turned their city right side up.
Now Jesus lifts up the example of the queen of Sheba and the people of Nineveh as a kind of indictment to His generation. Why? Because they, with such limited light and revelation, responded at such a deep level. The queen hears a report about the God given wisdom of a Solomon and goes all that way to hear him, bearing priceless gifts. And who is Solomon? A famous king? Yes. A man endued with wisdom? Yes. But also a weak man who later gave in to folly and covered himself with shame. But the queen, nonetheless, prized the wisdom Solomon was given to impart.
And the Ninevites, as we’ve seen, didn’t hear much, just the withering announcement that . their city would soon be destroyed. But they acted on what they heard. They repented and brought forth the fruits of it. All in response to the meager words of a reluctant, peevish prophet!
MUCH LIGHT, MUCH RESPONSIBILITY
By contrast, what have the men and women of Jesus’ generation done? When the word of God came to them in the preaching of John the Baptist and the words of Jesus, they seemed unimpressed. They didn’t prize the word of the Lord, many of them. They would scarcely have gone across the street to hear it. And when they did hear, instead of enthusiastic appreciation and wholehearted commitment, they offered carping criticism. They even conspired, some of them, to get rid of this troublesome teacher. When Jesus called them to repent, they were resistant. They refused to believe His warnings. They would not respond to His invitations. They heard the searching word of the Lord from His lips but, unlike the people of Nineveh, they hardened their hearts.
Here’s the supreme irony of that. The light these first century people had was far brighter than anything ‘former generations had known. Hear how the writer to the Hebrews describes the contrast: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1 2). Jesus was God’s final self revealing, His last, best word. Solomon and Jonah merely spoke the word. Jesus was the Word, the Word made flesh.
Those who rejected Jesus were so tragically responsible because, as He put it, “something greater than Solomon is here.” Something greater than Jonah is here. The wisest of the sages, the best of the prophets, were like the day star in the east. The coming of Jesus was the sunrise. Paul put it like this: “God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
In the days of Solomon and of Jonah, people responded profoundly and eagerly to faint gleams of the truth. But those in Jesus’ day, on the other hand, seemed to shut their eyes to the kindly light of full day.
Here’s another strange twist to the story. The queen of Sheba and the citizens of Nineveh were Gentiles, remember, outsiders looked down on by those in the covenant community. But those who heard the teaching of Jesus, who beheld His mighty works, who stood in His presence, they were all insiders. They had the heritage and the privileges of God’s chosen people. They were sure about God, they thought, but they missed Him when He came. When God called them and came to them in the person of His Son, they should have welcomed Him, but they didn’t. The tragedy of their lives was that when the glory came among them, they looked the other way. Something incomparably great was in their midst, but they didn’t hear; they didn’t repent. And none are so blind as those who refuse to see.
We’ll meet them all on Judgment Day, won’t we? The queen of Sheba, the men of Nineveh, the first century Israelites, and every generation before or since. For us too, the great question will be: How did we respond to the light we had? Today you are hearing the good news that God has come to us in Christ. He has come to teach us the truth, to take upon Himself our sorrows, to die for our sins so that we may have life. He comes as the Lord of glory to receive a people to Himself. What will your response be?
Solomon told his proverbs; Jonah thundered that Nineveh would be overthrown. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). In Christ, something, someone immeasurably greater has come. Oh, friend, make the most of that. Welcome Him as your Savior. Submit to Him in repentance and trust as your Lord. You will taste and see that the Lord is good, and you’ll say like that famous queen: “The half was not told me.” “Christ is more to me than I could ever have imagined!” May it be so for you!