He Will Come To Judge the Living and the Dead–2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year, 2015.
Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 25:31-46
November 15, 2015
“He Will Come To Judge the Living and the Dead”
Largely adapted from Tilemann Heshusius
The Gospel reading for today deals with the last judgment, the article of faith that we confess in the Apostles’ Creed when we say From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. This article of the faith is full of comfort for Christians, even though it sounds terrifying. It will be terrifying for those who have not believed in Christ, to be sure.
But for Christians there is no greater comfort than to know that Jesus will return and judge the living and the dead. We do not believe in Jesus so that we can have a better life in this world. If we do, we will be disappointed and disillusioned. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 (:19). Why is that? Because this world is not a pleasure garden. It is a valley of sorrows for everyone, because God put a curse on the earth after human beings fell. But for Christians it is even more difficult. Believing in Christ and walking by faith in Him arouses the bitter hostility of the world and its ruler, the devil. “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you,” our Lord told His disciples on the night He was betrayed (John 15:19). We are not looking for a kingdom in this world. We are waiting for Jesus to return and destroy this world and bring us into a new heavens and a new earth. “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and let us thus offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29)
The Bible does not leave it up in the air whether Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. It is certain, as certain as death. That means there will be a reckoning for our lives. In this life God does reward and punish people, but not for everything. Sometimes, even often, unbelieving people prosper in this life, while those who believe in Christ and keep God’s commandments suffer and there seems to be no justice. But God’s Word makes it clear that there will be a reckoning. On the last day Christ will come in judgment “and render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6). St. Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
How will the Last Judgment happen? Jesus told the high priest before He was crucified, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). And when Jesus ascended into heaven, two angels told the stunned apostles, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). That is, He will come in the sky in great power and glory. “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so. Amen.” (Revelation 1:7)
And when Jesus appears in His glory there will be “the voice of an archangel” and “the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:16). Then all the dead will rise from their graves, and the angels will gather all the people together before Christ. And our Lord will separate the people like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. He will separate those who are His from those who belong to the devil. There will be no middle ground. Everyone will be in one group or the other—those at Jesus’ right hand and those at His left. And then He will pronounce judgment on the two groups of people. It will not be a long jury trial. It will be swift.
Now the question before us is—how will Christ judge? What will be the basis of His judgment? The Gospel seems to make works—specifically works of mercy—the ground on which Christ judges. For when He gives eternal life to the saints, He says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” but to those who are damned He says, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink.” So it seems that Christ will judge by the law and by works. And there are many other verses that say that at judgment day God will give to every person according to his works.
But this is a misunderstanding. If Jesus were going to judge us by the law of God, we would have to keep the entire law, not just do works of mercy like feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and the prisoner. But Scripture makes it clear that no one fulfills the law of God; everyone comes short of the righteousness He requires in the law. Even the greatest saints of the Bible confessed that they broke God’s Law and would have to be condemned by it if God didn’t show them mercy. David says in the Psalms “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2). “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that You may be feared.” (Psalm 143:3)
God has another kind of righteousness by which the ungodly are justified and by which sinners may stand before Him with joy on judgment day. This is the righteousness that God promises in the Gospel. In the Gospel God promises that He will forgive the sins of those who believe in His Son, that He will count His obedience to them, and give them eternal life as a gift of grace.
This gracious promise of the Gospel is the only thing we have to comfort ourselves with on the last day. Our comfort, our hope, our assurance for the day of judgment is that the One who comes to judge the living and the dead is the same One who died for our sins on the cross, who was judged for our sins already, and who endured the wrath of God for us. He also desires to give the Kingdom that He won to poor sinners without any merit of their own, and say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).” We must and can be certain of this judgment, because it is a free gift that Jesus promises in the Gospel through His obedience and suffering in our place.
He promises again and again that through nothing else than believing that He has accomplished everything for us we are counted righteous by God. In John chapter 5, our Lord promises “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in Him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
But didn’t we say earlier that everyone, believers and unbelievers, all have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ? How can Jesus say that those who believe in Him “do not come into judgment”?
Yes, we will appear before the judgment seat of Christ. But we will appear with great joy because He has justified us. And we will not be judged or condemned, but instead with Christ we will pass judgment on the world and the devil.
We will stand on Christ’s right hand and will hear words of pure joy: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The strict judgment of the law will fall on unbelievers and hypocrites, not on Christians.
You should take this great comfort of the Gospel to heart. Hide it away and treasure it, so that you may be comforted by it when the devil attacks you and when you are dying. You should not fear judgment day on account of your sins if you believe in Christ. You shouldn’t think, “How will I be able to stand on the Last Day? How will I give an answer to God, since I have so often sinned against Him, and since I don’t have any good works? How will Christ call me blessed and say, “Come here to me” when I have done nothing good?” When such thoughts attack you, consider whether you believe that Christ died for all your sins and paid for them on the cross. If you believe in Christ, that He has done away with all your sins, then the one who comes to judge on the last day is not merely your judge but your advocate, the one who speaks in your defense. He is the one who gives and counts to you all His obedience. Who can be afraid of a judge like that?
So a believing Christian should not pay attention to the fact that he is a poor sinner. He should be certain that he will stand with the sheep on Christ’s right hand, and hear the joyful voice of the Son of God, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” Believing this, we can await the glorious appearing of Christ with joy, and pray every day that He would come soon.
This is the comfort that belongs to those who believe in Christ and receive His Word of grace. But the unbelieving and the godless will hear another sentence and judgment: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)
Do you hear the sentence that will be spoken on all hypocrites and unbelievers, on those who live as though there will be no judgment day, on those who do not listen to God’s Word? When a criminal is condemned to death, the sentence goes through his heart and his bones, and he trembles. But this judgment is far more serious, because it will be no mere man, but God Himself who speaks this judgment.
Here a person will not be put to shame before a few of his peers, but before all of heaven and all of the world. The pain will not only be for a short while as the body is put to death, but body and soul together will suffer in the fire of hell, and this torment will last for all eternity. All unbelieving hypocrites, mockers and despisers of God’s Word, and people who live as if this life is the only one should take this to heart. He who is the judge of the living and the dead warns you faithfully. If anyone has up until now been godless and not considered the last judgment, if he turns and repents, and comforts himself with the holy gospel, the terrifying judgment will pass over him. But if a person despises grace, does not receive Christ the Savior, but continues in sin without repentance, then all the sins that they have done through their whole life—all cursing, mocking, despising God’s Word, drunkenness, greediness, sexual impurity, all evil thoughts and desires of their hearts, and all useless talk—will be revealed before the whole world and punished with eternal pain and the fire of hell.
But someone might reasonably ask—if Christ judges His believers according to the Gospel, why does He say so many words here about the works of mercy? The answer is that the Scripture teaches two things—first, that God will forgive the sins of believers for the sake of His Son, because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. But secondly, Scripture teaches that God will also richly reward all the obedience and good works of Christians in eternal glory.
Not that good works earn salvation, or that good works are necessary for salvation. Jesus doesn’t say that, and whoever teaches it perverts the whole Gospel. Because the Gospel is that Jesus’ obedience has completely won for us eternal life.
The comfort must remain certain, that everyone who believes in Christ does not come into judgment, even if they find no good works in themselves. In the Gospel before us, the believers on the last day themselves confess that they don’t know about the good works that Jesus praises in them. By this Christ teaches us that the saints do not depend on their good works at all on the day of judgment, only on the grace of the judge and the gracious promise of the gospel.
But Christ also witnesses here that He will richly reward all the good works of His believers with eternal joy and blessedness. No work is so little, as long as it comes from faith in Christ, that it will not be rewarded. In Matthew 10 Jesus says, “Whoever gives one of these little ones a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt. 10:42)
The whole Scriptures say the same thing. God said to Abraham, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Gen. 15:1) Colossians 3 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.” (Col. 3:23-24). We should constantly have these divine promises before our eyes, so that we are willing and prepared to serve God and our neighbor.
And here Jesus says most comfortingly that when we have fed and given drink to poor people, visited the sick and the imprisoned, He will confess on judgment day that we gave Him, God’s Son, food and drink. That will be an inexpressible joy and glory before all the world, when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, confesses in the presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit, before the saints and angels and the whole world, that we fed Him and gave Him to drink.
How great is the grace and mercy of our Lord! He not only counts His righteousness to us, so that we inherit the kingdom of God by faith in Him alone. He also promises to remember the good works we do in faith and to reward them. May this grace of Christ be so fixed in our hearts by faith that we eagerly wait for the day of His return to judge the living and the dead.
The peace of God, which passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria