The King’s Judgment
Saint Matthew 25:31-46
Over the course of the last three Sundays, we’ve been moving toward the end of the world and the Judgment. Our progress toward this great and awesome day has, of course, been both literal and with regard to the theme of the Church Year, as reflected in the appointed readings. We believe that Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead. We are not scoffers, of the sort Saint Peter mentions in today’s Epistle, who reject this—who say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” and who back up their denial by claiming, “For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” Well, to a point, they’re right about this. Things are continuing, as they were—not from the beginning of creation, but from the moment that sin entered into this world with Adam’s transgression. And with that sin came the penalty and curse of death, which has come to all people. Throughout all the generations, life has gone on with the unchanging reality of sin and death set firmly in place. Other things may have changed in this world—geopolitical boundaries drawn and redrawn, advances in technology made, social norms and customs narrowing and expanding—but the way of sin and death in this world has never changed, that is, except how it has been overcome and upended in Christ.
The great change in the course of this sinful world, which we have in Christ our Saviour, is due solely because of our heavenly Father’s love that transcends and yet fills this world. The promise of Christ’s coming to judge the living and the dead, that the scoffers deny, is of that same wondrous love of the Father that sent His Son to suffer and die for the sins of everyone. The Judgment, and with it, the end of this world, is a loving act that will come so that sin and all the pain and trouble and anguish that sin brings will be ended, once and for all. It is coming to restore what God, in His love for us, intended from the very beginning of creation.
The Day of Judgment will be a day both terrible and wonderful. The magnitude and scope of it all will be absolutely overwhelming. And each one of you, dear friends, will be there—right in the thick of it— either to receive the crown of everlasting life or to perish eternally. Sadly, as you will see, many will perish on that day—many will be damned for all eternity, but not because God wants this to happen. As Saint Peter tells us today, God wants no one to perish; He wants everyone to repent and be saved. He wants everyone to trust in Him for His goodness and mercy—to have faith in His Son Jesus, our Redeemer and Saviour. Your heavenly Father wants you to believe and be saved, because He loves you.
Last Sunday, you were told by our Lord Jesus to be ready—to “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” in which the Bridegroom will come. Sure, the moment of His coming will be well proclaimed. As we heard from Saint Paul the previous week, there will be heard “the voice of an archangel” and “the sound of the trumpet of God,” but then the end will be upon us, and living or dead, we will be standing before Christ the King, who will judge us all.
And, as already mentioned, what a scene that will be! Jesus tells us today that “before him will be gathered all the nations.” All the people from every place on the earth and from every day and age will stand before “his glorious throne.” And that number before Christ will include all the scoffers, all the deniers, all the despisers of God and His Word, as well as all those who believe. The King will judge us all. He will judge this vast multitude of humanity with fairness and equity according to the lives that each one has lived. As Saint 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.”
But what does the apostle mean by this? In the context of these words alone, it is as so many in this world think, including a great many who call themselves Christian. They think that if they’re good enough, nice enough, and not too terribly bad, they will fare well at the Judgment. But what Saint Paul actually means is defined by what he says next, which is, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” The account of your life—what you have done and not done—will be judged according to whether you know “the fear of the Lord.” And knowing the fear of the Lord, dear friends, means having faith—believing that your eternal fate lies completely in God’s hands and not in your own. For what can you do to help your case? Scripture tells us that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “there is not a just man on earth who does good and never sins.” If you trust in your own works for salvation, you will surely be disappointed at the judgment you will receive. But if you fear the Lord and trust solely in Him—in His mercy and grace in Christ Jesus, you will receive the crown of everlasting life.
Let’s turn our attention again to the words of Jesus before us this morning. In the picture that He gives us of the Judgment, He says that those who will have the reward of everlasting life will be rather swiftly and efficiently divided from those who are facing damnation. It’ll be like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats at the end of the day. The two animals may appear similar in many ways, but the shepherd—the one who knows his sheep and calls them by name, has no trouble at all in sorting out the two. On the right go the sheep and on the left go the goats. In the same way, Christ our King, knows by name each and every one that He will set on the right hand side for salvation, for He is our Good Shepherd and we who believe and trust in Him are the sheep of His flock.
The remainder of what Jesus tells us about the Judgment in today’s Holy Gospel has to do about what we’ve already touched upon, namely, that faith in Christ is the reason for being judged worthy of salvation and everlasting life—faith that joins you and binds you to Jesus and His atoning sacrifice for you and for the whole world on the cross of Calvary. The way that our Lord talks about this, however, can easily be misunderstood.
So, what again is it that Jesus says? Well, in His telling of what the Judgment will be like, He says that He, the King, will turn to those on His right and declare, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 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 me.”
From the sound of it, it seems like Jesus is saying that salvation is theirs because, in their lives, they did a whole lot of nice things for Him. And while not objecting to the blessing of eternal life and salvation that they’re receiving from Jesus, these ones on the right question how this can be, for they don’t remember doing all of those nice things for Him.
Well, the answer that they hear in reply is, that in doing these things “to one of the least of these my brothers,” they had done it to Him. But just who is “one of the least of these my brothers,” and what does Jesus mean by this?
A view held by many is that Jesus is referring to those in our world who are least able to help themselves—little children, the homeless, the elderly and infirm, those oppressed by injustice, and the like. But this isn’t what Jesus means—it’s not how the Christian Church historically has understood these words, that is, until Calvinism came to influence Christian thinking, with its view that the only way a Christian can be certain of salvation is by seeing the good works that he or she does for ones neighbour. But good works do not provide you with any certainty, do they? No one is assured of salvation by anything that they may do, because it’s all Jesus; your certainty rests entirely in Christ and His saving merit—His works, not your own. So while believers like you are to do good works that help your neighbour, and God works in you so that you will do these things, it is not the doing of anything by you that saves you. It’s only Christ—Christ for you.
So, what’s the right understanding of “the least of these my brothers?” Prior to the influences of Jean Calvin’s theology, this was always understood as referring to the undershepherds of Christ—to the apostles and pastors who serve in the stead of our Lord Jesus. In at least five other places in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers to His disciples—to His future apostles and pastors as His “little ones,” and He also calls no one brother except His disciples.
Now, this does not mean that you have salvation and everlasting life because you treat your pastor well, as much as I appreciate it. Rather, it’s all about how you value what your pastor is bringing to you—how you hold preaching and God’s Word “sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.” Your salvation has much to do with how you regard that saving Word of Christ in your baptism, in the Absolution spoken to you by your pastor, and in the Word made flesh that the Word Himself gives you, through your pastor, to eat and drink in faith for the forgiveness of your sins.
Those who despise that Word, through which faith to believe and be saved is given, should not be surprised to find themselves on the left hand side come Judgment Day. They will have no one to blame except themselves. And those who, by the grace of God, find themselves on the right hand side will have no one to credit but Jesus, who gives you the confidence, the sure hope of salvation, in the forgiveness that He has purchased and won for you with His innocent suffering and death in your place.
The King is coming, dear friends. Fear Him with truest love and trust above all things, but do not fear His coming, for He comes to deliver you from this veil of tears, this valley of the shadow of death to bring you into the joys and splendour of His eternal kingdom that has no end. Come, Lord Jesus; quickly come, we pray. Amen.