"Yes, Virginia, this life is a test."
Sermon for February 28, 1999
Text: Matthew 25:31-46 and Isaiah 60
We continue our search for purpose as a church by looking at the Last Judgment and it is through the possession of certain knowledge of that which is to come, through an awareness of the dread solemnity and finality of this occasion, the Last Judgment, that we are to be urgently about the business of serving our Lord Jesus Christ through in-reach (study, worship and preaching of the Word) and through out-reach (evangelism, witnessing, service and self-sacrifice). That awareness must shape our world-view and determine our priorities, both short term and long term.
The title for today’s sermon is taken from a series of books written to persuade Virginia that there is eternal life, a hell etc. in response to a lie published originally by the New York Sun relating to Santa Claus and Christmas. However, what I most want you to take away from the preached word today is the knowledge that this life is probationary, a time of trial for the testing of your soul. It is a pass/fail test with no make-ups or retakes. If you pass you go to heaven and reside particularly and personally with the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You will be there surrounded by all the saints and all God’s holy angels, absolutely immersed in glorious worship which is the satisfaction and fulfillment of all your heart’s truest desire. If you fail, you will have a destination as well: hell. There you will experience everlasting torment and separation from God. You will be in the company of all unforgiven sinners, serving Satan and all his wicked angels, demons, principalities and powers then, even as you did in this life. There will be no break, no respite and no mercy because, in the time of your testing, you chose to shun grace and elected for judgment.
Now the passage before us has been dismissed by some modern scholars as mere parable, suggesting that it couldn’t be simply a straightforward account of what is yet to come, an outline of the final judgment. While the passage does contain the figure of sheep and goats used to signify saints and sinners as well as a future dialogue between the Judge and the judged, Jesus is describing what will happen when He comes to judge the world, the quick and the dead, every one who ever lived everywhere: 1. He will come (v.31) in "His glory, with all the holy angels" and 2. He will sit upon the "throne" of judgment in resplendent glory, heavenly; and 3. He will execute judgment. As it is written, judgment comes from the Son (Acts 17:31—"For he (God) has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man (Jesus) he has appointed. He (God) has given proof of this to all men by raising him (Jesus) from the dead."). Part of our purpose as a church is, in possessing such certain knowledge of what is to come, to be so taken by the dread solemnity, and finality of this occasion (the last judgment) that we are urgently about the business of preaching the gospel and serving our Lord faithfully.
The Last Judgment will be incomparable. While King Agrippa and Bernice came with "great pomp" (Acts 25:23) to hear the Apostle Paul’s defense, the event was meta poles phantasias in the Greek, a great and powerful fancy. It was a high, state occasion. It was orchestrated for effect and impact--everybody who was anybody came in formal regalia and ceremonial dress. Some of us may recall the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana which was a man-made spectacle of tremendous beauty. It may represent the best twentieth century imitation that we could muster, on the human plane, of that celestial counterpart, the last judgment, which we consider today. The royal couple, and, we may imagine, first century Agrippa and Bernice were impressive, BUT the Lord our God will be fall on your face awesome—His glory, the sun of righteousness shining in full meridian lustrousness, brighter than the shining of a billion convergent suns. A manifestation in fullness of all His riches, all His honored majesty acted out publicly—for all to see! Yes, for the whole world to see. . .something which now only the saints believe. The One who came in obscurity will never be obscure again. . . never in hiddenness again, clear, irrefutable beyond quibble and question: Lord of Lords and King of Kings. There will be spontaneous worship and praise in His presence.
Not only is He resplendent beyond description, His retinue consists of all the holy angels. Their counterparts, the unholy, or fallen angels have been prepared for quite another service in the regions of torment and everlasting separation from God! The holy angels are there as ministers of justice, they are there for state and for service. For state, they come to call the court into existence (1 Thess.4:16: "For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first."). For service, they will gather the elect (Matthew 24:31:0 "And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to another." ). They will bundle up the tares (Matt. 13:40-41: "As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil."). They will be witnesses to the glory of the saints (Luke 12:8: "I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God."). And they will witness the misery of cursed sinners (Rev. 14:10b: "He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.").
So, the One who is seated even now on the throne of grace (which is also the seat of government—it is upon His shoulders—as well as the seat of the priesthood—He is our High Priest) will ascend the judgment throne, the throne of glory. It was the sight of that glory which sustained Jesus through His humiliation and persecution and it is also an encouragement to us for we shall share in that momentous glory after our sufferings! (Daniel 7:9—10: "As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; and ten thousands times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.") It is fair to say that the most impressive earthly throne that ever existed, the throne of Solomon, will appear as a dung hill in comparison to the throne of God in that hour.
He will ascend the throne of judgment and all the children of men will be arraigned before Him (v.32), everyone from the beginning of man through to the end of human history as we know it. Then it will become plain that all nations consist of one blood despite their cultural, ethnic and racial differences.
At the last judgment two worlds emerge: one of recompense and one of retribution. You will enter one or the other as will every soul that ever was. And, for those to whom this applies, you will enter that world according to what you did, or didn’t do, to the "least of these my brethren." (v. 40) Now pay attention, the Lord doesn’t say, your eternal destination depends on how you treat unbelievers, or mankind in general. No, it depends on how you treat "these brothers of mine." When Saul was traveling about making life miserable for Christians, the Lord confronted him with "Why persecutest thou Me?" Christ completely identifies Himself with those who completely identify themselves with Him and people go to heaven or hell depending on how they treat the church, the saints, the members of Christ’s body on earth. This text is not a basis for showing contempt towards any one made in God’s image, still less is it about being unkind, or uncharitable—those works of universal charity are commanded elsewhere—rather, here, it is about what happens to those who show contempt for Christians. They go to hell. No dishonor is promoted here against humanity; in fact, it is astounding that one of our own, Jesus, who shares our human nature should be so elevated as to render judgment over all. The splendor and glory that cover Him also cover us in Him.
The sole grounds? "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat." Obedience, our works, are evidence of faith, or interest, in heavenly reward. Obedience is the sure evidence of a soul’s interest in that inheritance. Show me your faith by your works. This is not salvation by works, rather this is an exaltation of works of charity done to other believers—this is confirmation that His demand that we love one another counts for everything. Show me, the Lord demands, that faith has given you contempt of the world—that you only hold things in order to do good with them and not to please yourself. Show me that your love of Christians exceeds best wishes. Demonstrate your belief by relieving the poor in Christ, instinctively and habitually. Earn your living and more, so that you can, and do serve others freely, beginning with the household of faith. Ephesians 6:8 "because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free." Show me the proofs of your Christian love! The Lord’s disciples are everywhere in want, due to persecution and circumstance—some can give relief and some need relief. Show yourself to be merciful in these circumstances. Even though the best that we do must seem paltry, poor and worthless compared to His matchless works of love, we are to demonstrate our faith—thinking less of what we do for others than of what they have done for us. We are people marked with practical gratitude. And still, not even the lest deed of kindness to Christ will go unrewarded. . .they will be given the best construction imaginable: they were done unto me!
Those who are precious by faith will be separated from those who are vile. This separation exists right now, but we are unable to see it due to the infirmities of the saints and the hypocrisies of the sinners. But, eventually, the sheep and goats will be separated and parted forever. The innocent, patient, mild and useful sheep separated from the unsavory, unruly and ungodly goats according to God’s holy and just standard. All other distinctions will cease to matter and the sham of worldly tolerance and inclusion will be violently exposed—are you a blessed saint, or are you a damned sinner. There will be no mutants, no half-breeds, no gray area, no compromise. . .in, or out; up, or down. Remember, the Lord Himself said, "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven." Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers!" (Matt. 7: 21 &23)
At this moment of judgment, the godly are acquitted first. It is their calling to join with Christ in the assessment of the wicked. This divine acquittal with increase the misery of the damned because they will witness the admission of the saints to heaven. The glory, spoken of in Isaiah 60, will be conveyed onto them by their preference and reward—the comparison with the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana is apt because this moment is that of the Bride, the church, coming to the Bridegroom. The wicked will be witnesses there, powerless to divert, distract, or impede the saint’s exoneration, their acquittal—they will see bliss on the faces of all those who were over-looked in this life along side those who were oppressed, harmed and even killed. "O Come ye blessed of my Father!" They are the blessed of the Father, not of the world which held them to be of no account, worse than scum. And in that "Come" resides ten thousand welcomes and those who are beloved, the delight of God, who have for this all too long season been kept at a distance, will come into His embrace. Yes, the Holy Spirit bids us "come" now in the Word. Yes, the Bride has been saying, "come" in the centuries of church history through prayer. But now the Bridegroom, the One with authority, says "Come!" Where the word of the King is, there is power and authority and dominion and rule forever and ever. Amen.
"Come," He says, "Inherit the kingdom." That kingdom of greatest wealth and honor. And the saints will come, wearing the glories of their crowns, robed in white and righteousness. They will enter into royalty, into such measure of treasure that all earthly treasure pales in comparison. For this kingdom is a work prepared by divine counsels—designed by the Father and purchased by the Son. We are prepared for it by the Holy Spirit and at the same time it is being prepared by our preparation. It is suitable for us, suitable in every respect for saved souls both particularly and personally—it will be that heavenly home. It has been prepared since before the foundations of the earth. It is the end of history as it was first in divine intention. It is the fulfillment of scripture which proclaims: "All things are for our sakes." ( 2 Cor. 4:15) It is ours by decree and not by procurement—even as we are all "sons of God by adoption." It is ours beyond alienation—when we come of age, we shall enter it (Galatians 4:1-2)
Those on the left hand, the wicked and self-serving seek to excuse themselves. But the Lord says, "Depart from Me, ye cursed." Excluded from comfort, called to life but preferring death, they lived cursing life and others and so it has come back on them. Their damnation is fully of themselves—they sold themselves into sin and death. So they go into fires of torment also prepared long ago. They must enter those fires with all evil company, Satan and his angels. There, with the ring leader of rebellion, they shall receive due recompense for unforgiven sin. As it is written: "For if the message spoken by angels was binding (i.e. the Law), and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:2) We must note here that the damned are indicted for sins of omission, not just sins of commission. It is what they didn’t do that did them in! If He were in prison, how often would we visit Him? Or in poverty and relieve Him? Well, He is there. . .let us serve Him. And all they have to offer up is excuses, not even caring to repeat the charges such is their terror of impending judgment. They had neglected, slighted and ignored persecuted Christians; as they say, they didn’t know He was in the matter. They had only held silly, poor, weak people in contempt. . . they allowed the affliction of the meek of the earth and didn’t realize that Jesus Christ was in the midst of those being harmed. We come abruptly to v. 46 which is the dread execution of judgment. Execution is the life of the law. Suddenly it is over, beyond reprieve, those who have misspent the day of grace and studied how to render their natures, created for relationship to God and for the glorification of God, inalterably evil, find themselves driven from light into darkness. And that darkness is doom itself, for no savior will ever venture into that darkness, that place of ultimate and justified guilt, that final despair of mercy, to deliver any. For there, all is lost.
But for us, the saints, all these images of judgment and the coming glory are meant to impress upon us the exultant expectation with which we are to draw our every breath. He is coming. . .O Lord, the saints, cry, come quickly. It is our purpose, with such blissful and eager anticipation, to draw others into the wonder of this coming spectacle. . . to prepare souls to be ready for that second advent. Are you ready? Are those you care for ready?
Dearly beloved, when I speak of the terrors of damnation, its inescapable finality and doom, I am not speaking meta poles phantasias, a great and powerful fancy. I am speaking about reality, real events taking place in real time. Let these truths bring your life into focus. Don’t allow wishful thinking to distort your vision. The Last Judgment is coming. Flee the horrors that await the damned, and swiftly pursue the everlasting bliss of the saints. When I describe the blessings of heaven, again, I do not speak meta poles phantasias, I am speaking truth. Turn your heart, mind and soul towards heaven where the glory of God is. That glory is as certain a hope for the redeemed as is the judgment itself. Then those who are precious will be separated from those who are vile. . . without exception.
Now if there are tolerant, well-meaning parents here today, who say, "I don’t want to force my child into any Christianity. I want them to make up their own mind about religion." It is plain you have no concept of the reality of the Last Judgment. It has not gripped you that choices matter ultimately, that your child’s opportunity could pass disastrously. Would you take a chance now knowing the final and irrevocably terrible judgment that your child must be subjected to? And what of the judgment rendered against you who withheld the truth of God and their hope of salvation? Is it not a thousand times better to urge and exhort strongly your children frequently to choose God, to consider the Christian faith rather than to have them come to that terrible day with no decision made which would render them safe from wrath?! Do you parents know that you may be condemning your children to everlasting torment by your negligent tolerance? How Satan must appreciate your enlightened child-rearing practices(!), which practices empty heaven and fill up hell!
Life is a test. Pass/fail. Two worlds will emerge on graduation day: a world of recompense, a world of retribution. Faith determines which world you will enter for your eternal life. The Lord is coming in great splendor, He will ascend the throne and all souls will be arraigned before Him, and He will execute righteous judgment upon all vindicating the saints and punishing the wicked according to all they have done. These are matters of consequence, the most important matters in all of life, bring your life in conformity to them. . . the time is short and the course of events is sure. Let your world-view be shaped by these truths and put your priorities in such an order as to bring blessing in the Last Day.