The Coming Judgment

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 25:31-46

Few of the themes of New Testament teaching are less popular today than the idea of a coming judgment, but if we are interested in the teaching of Jesus, then we had better listen to what he says on this subject too.

Samuel Johnson once observed,

I remember that my Maker has said that he will place the sheep on his right hand, and the goats on his left. That is a solemn truth which this frivolous age needs to hear, for it strikes at the very roots of life and destiny.

Johnson’s frivolous age was the 18th century. Our own even more frivolous age (witness popular television programming) should therefore be in even greater need of hearing this solemn truth.

It is a truth that Jesus taught in the parable to which Dr. Johnson referred, the parable of the sheep and goats. It’s the last story he told just before the end of his life on earth.

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. . . . . Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father . . . For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to see me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you?’ . . . And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” . . . Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed . . . Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-41

I don’t know about you, but that parable about the sheep and goats has always troubled me. I feel uneasy at the prospect of having my life judged on the basis of the care and compassion that I showed unto “the least of these,” as Jesus calls them, “my brothers and sister.” And I suspect that’s exactly the way Jesus wants me to feel when I read this story.

Judgment Is Coming

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . he will sit on his throne . . . and all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people . . .” (vv. 31-32). Thus Jesus begins his final parable. As he opened his public ministry with the Sermon on the Mount, so now he brings it to a dramatic conclusion, with his great sermon on the end of the world, delivered in the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem just a few days before his own crucifixion.

And the one sermon reflects the other, for the theme of Jesus’ parable about the last judgment could be summed up in a phrase from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). I just called this a parable of the last judgment, but it really isn’t. The only symbolic element in it is the reference to the sheep and the goats on the right and on the left. This isn’t some kind of metaphorical story. It is a solemn account of what will actually happen “when the Son of Man comes” again.

Notice the sequence of events that Jesus describes. Referring to himself as “the Son of Man,” he speaks of his visible, physical return to the earth: when the Son of Man comes, he says, not if. He stresses the glory of that day: he will come “in his glory,” with “all the angels with him” and “he will sit on his glorious throne.” What a contrast that will be to Christ’s first advent. Then he came in all lowliness and humiliation, but on the last day it will be all glory. And, says the Bible, “every eye shall see him” (cf. Matthew 24:30). There will no longer be any question about who Jesus is, or whether the Bible is true.

Jesus describes the last judgment this way: “Before him will be gathered all the nations.” Every human being will be present; no one will evade or avoid that solemn assembly. “And he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” So judgment at the end of time will be a separating, identifying process. All other distinctions which people make so much of and strive so hard to maintain in this life will then be erased. There will be no more rich and poor, no more black and white, no more native and foreigner, no more educated and ignorant, no more have and have-not; there will only be sheep and goats, the blessed and the cursed.

And between those two groups there is an infinite, final, and everlasting difference. For the one group is blessed by the Father, and the other he calls accursed. The one is invited to come in to eternal life and the other is commanded to depart into eternal fire, a horrific symbol of the awfulness of existence apart from God. From this final sentence there is no appeal, no chance of reversal, no opportunity of parole.

The New Testament speaks movingly of the final transformation and unification of all things in Christ. Ephesians and Colossians, Romans and Revelation all testify to the day when God will make all things new, uniting the whole redeemed creation and all of saved humanity in Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t mean every last person. For according to no less an authority than our Lord himself, before the eternal uniting there will come an eternal dividing. A solemn truth, indeed for a frivolous age!

Of all the doctrines that orthodox Christianity teaches, I suppose that none is as objectionable to our society as this one. People today scoff at the notion of hell. They are offended by the idea that some are saved and some are lost. The common criticism is that Christians who say this have distorted the simple message of Jesus. Jesus came teaching a gospel of love, such critics say, but it’s his followers who have twisted it into all kinds of hard-line things. You know, only somebody who has never really read the Gospels could make such a claim. In fact, it was Jesus himself who spoke most often of judgment. It was Jesus who prophesied an eternal separation between sheep and goats. That is a truth upon which careless people would do well to reflect. Judgment is coming. We spend our lives making choices and decisions, but one day an eternal decision will be made about us, based on what we did, or failed to do, for Jesus himself.

Judgment Is Surprising

And then, finally consider this: this last judgment is going to be surprising, full of results that people didn’t really expect. I find it especially significant that Jesus says both the sheep and the goats are shocked by the sentence of the King. According to Jesus the outstanding feature of the Last Judgment is the unexpectedness of the verdicts, at least for many. When the Son of Man, seated on his throne of glory with all the angels around him, pronounces his solemn sentence of blessing or of curse and gives the reasons for it, both the sheep and the goats ask in astonishment, “Lord, when did that happen? When did we ever do that for you? When did we fail to do that for you?”

We need to be very clear on what Jesus is saying here. He is not saying that anyone will be saved by their good works. The Bible doesn’t teach that. It says that for believers, that is, for anyone who trusts in Jesus Christ, there is no longer any condemnation (see Romans 8:1). But it also says that we must still appear before the judgment seat of Christ to be judged by our works (2 Cor. 5:10). The Bible says we are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Christ, and thank God for that. But the very text that says this, Ephesians 2:8-10, also says that we are saved for good works.

So saving faith is more than just talking a good game. How did Jesus himself once put it? “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21). So the quality of our confession will be judged by our actions, not our words. Everyone who is saved will be justified by faith, not works, as the apostle says, but it will be faith, he adds, that is “working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

So Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment should give us pause if we’re confessing Christians. It should force us to examine our lives and especially our works carefully. Do we really care about the poor, the sick, the imprisoned? But it should also make us hopeful, for does not the Lord say that many will be saved unexpectedly in that day? Reformed Christians rightly emphasize correct biblical teaching. But what will matter most in the end will not be how much you know about Jesus, but whether or not you reached out to him in love by caring for his needs in the face of the persons of the poor, and the sick and the prisoner. Dare we hope that some may be exercising such faith in him without even realizing it, and that they too will be welcomed by him in the end?

May God grant that you and I will be so welcomed, and that we will find ourselves among the blessed of the Father on that great day.