What do you believe about history? In his book, Christianity and History, the former Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, Herbert Butterfield, writes: ‘Our final interpretation of history is the most sovereign decision we can take; and it is clear that every one of us, as standing alone in the universe, has to take it for himself. It is our decision about religion, about our attitude to things, and about the way we will appropriate life.’
The Bible, and the Old Testament especially, is a total philosophy of history. It starts off by telling us that God created time. However you interpret Genesis chapter 1 that is clear. But the Bible does not only say that time had a beginning. It says that this present time or history will have an end. The Bible teaches that history is linear and not cyclical, like some religions and philosophies claim. It will not go on and on for ever. This morning we are to think about the end of history when Jesus Christ will come again, not this time as our Saviour but as our Judge. All this is regularly affirmed in the Christian Creeds said throughout the churches of the world. This is not the view of a wacky sect. This is thought through and thought out. Yes, as with much of God’s working and his dealings with us, it is unimaginable. But it is quite believable because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Listen to how Paul explained things to the sophisticated Athenians at a meeting of their Areopagus. Having given them some of this philosophy of history, he concluded his sermon with these words:
“... he [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17.31)
So as we continue our series on The Teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, we are to be looking at chapter 25.31-46. This is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. And I want to have five headings this morning.
They are first, THE JUDGMENT DAY; secondly, THE JUDGE; thirdly, THE JUDGED; fourthly, THE JUDGING; and fifthly, THE JUDGMENT.
First, THE JUDGMENT DAY
These verses are among the most serious and, perhaps, terrifying in the whole Bible.
Here you do not have an Old Testament prediction that has an uncertain application. Rather you have Jesus Christ’s own prediction about this great final event. Look at verses 31-32:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
That last phrase, by the way, shows that our passage is not really a parable. The only parabolic part of what Jesus is teaching is these words,
“as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
No! What Jesus is teaching here is for real. He just uses the simile of a shepherd separating sheep and goats for illustration. In Palestine, in those days, sheep and goats in the countryside would mingle during the day. At night they were often separated. Sheep, we are told, tolerate the cool air better than goats. They needed to be herded together for warmth.
Be that as it may, the certainty and significance of this fearful ‘separation’ at the final judgment is the backdrop to the belief and so preaching of Jesus’ first disciples. Paul defines the early believers at Thessalonica as those who have:
“... turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1 Thessalonians 1.9-10).
So Jesus here teaches there is going to be a judgment day. It is not ‘if the Son of Man comes in his glory’ but ‘when’.
Secondly, THE JUDGE
Who the judge is needs to be underlined with double underlining. For it is the ‘Son of Man’ (Jesus favourite title for himself) who is going to judge. Jesus himself, earlier in Matthew 11 verses 28-29, said this:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
So those people who have come to him are meant to have ‘rest for their souls’, not fear, or anxiety, or a new set of burdens by any of this teaching. They are to be like those Thessalonians who were confident that Jesus ‘rescues us from the coming wrath’. Yes, it is Jesus the Saviour who will judge. However, he is the judge and his judgment is terribly real. It is, therefore, vital that you come to terms with him as your Saviour now so that you do not have to face him then as your condemning judge. That is one of the challenges of Jesus’ teaching here in Matthew. So who then,
Thirdly, are THE JUDGED?
Answer: everyone. Jesus says, verse 32, that:
“All the nations will be gathered before him...”
This means all that have ever lived in the past and in the present or will live in the future. This is exactly what Jesus has said earlier as recorded in Matthew 16.27:
“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.”
And the apostles echoed that. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5.10:
“… we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
But what then happens to those being judged? We have already seen that there is a separation – or division into two separate groups – not three. There is no half-way house. You will either be among those here called ‘sheep’ or those here called ‘goats’. There will be no hybrids. Who then are the sheep and who are the goats? They do not correspond to any of the divisions people are used to in this life, such as from the east or west, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. No! For those like the sheep, on Jesus’ right hand, are described in verse 34 as ‘you who are blessed by my Father’. And in verse 37 they are described as ‘the righteous’. Furthermore they are, we can see from what they say, ‘humble’. They think that Jesus, called now ‘the King’ (verse 34), is too generous in his praise. Verse 37:
“ ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?”
Jesus has to explain (verse 40):
“… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
They are humble people. By contrast those likened to the goats on his left hand are simply the rest and are described as the "cursed" (verse 41). That is a dreadful description to be given to you by Jesus Christ. We can also see, from what they say, that they were spiritually blind and self-righteous. They did not think they had done anything wrong! Verse 44:
"Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?"
And Jesus will reply (verse 45):
'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
They were quite oblivious to their spiritual condition. So much for those being judged.
Fourthly, then, what is at the heart of THE JUDGING?
Answer: people's treatment of other people. But which other people? Verse 40 says it is "one of the least of these brothers of mine.”. Earlier in Matthew 10.42 Jesus had said,
"if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward."
So it seems that at the heart of this trial, or judging, are not mere good works, essential as they are to the believer. What is key is people's response to Jesus Christ as they have met him in his followers. The body of Jesus Christ, the Church, is so important. In a mysterious way, by his Holy Spirit, he is present and dwelling in all true believers. How important, therefore, if you are a believer that you are a good representative of Jesus Christ. It is on other people's reaction to you that their eternal destiny hinges. There is a famous saying of St Theresa of Avila that goes like this: "Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which is to look out Christ's compassion to the world; yours are the feet through which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now."
But, you say, does this mean that believers and non-believers, are all going to be judged by their works - by what they have done? The answer is "Yes". But you say, "doesn't that contradict what Paul teaches about being justified or saved by grace through faith; doesn't he say that all our works - even after we trust Christ - aren't good enough?" The answer is "No and Yes!" No! it doesn't contradict Paul.
But, yes, our works will never be good enough. So what is going on? It is very simple and very important. Saving faith in Jesus Christ, that puts you right with God now, means you don't have to wait for the judgment day to be confident. But that saving faith will lead to a change of heart and desires, if it is real and, therefore, also lead to good actions. You will now hate sin and love what is good, even though, this side of heaven you will still fall into sin and do what you do not want to do. But you will ask for forgiveness.
So you are right with God through faith - through a believing trust or trusting belief - in Jesus Christ. But that faith, if genuine, will always lead to good works - however imperfect - and repentance and confession when you do wrong. On that judgment day, therefore, the judgment for everyone will be on the basis of evidence. What people have done, especially their loving actions and care for Christ's followers when in desperate need. Without doubt these works will not justify you before God. Nothing you do will ever do that. At the best of times there are wrong motives or tainted motives. But the Bible teaches what we do is evidence of our faith. James puts it like this in his epistle James 2.14-17:
"What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead".
The problem was that the people on Christ's left side, likened to goats, simply failed to take action. They were judged for not giving food, or drink, or hospitality, or clothes, or comfort and help to the sick or in prison (God's people in prison for their faith). Paul in Galatians 6 verse 10 applies that to God's people themselves. He said ...
"... as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers."
Yes, believers have a prior claim, but you must not neglect others. This is serious and challenging stuff. What does it say about our involvement with Mburi in Kenya; or our support of TEAR fund this Christmas; or our support of Christians being persecuted by Muslims. It is now estimated that at present 1 in 10 Christians World-Wide are being persecuted. Or what does it say about our support politically of Christians in this country who suffer for contending for the truth? And what about the poor? Yes, in places like Africa there has to be ambulance action. But in this country so much poverty relates to the breakdown of the married family - without any doubt. Study after study proves that. Therefore, working for the re-establishment of the married family is a good work that Christian faith should lead to. So at the heart of the judging on the last day will be evidence from what we have done. However, the true believer will have a wonderful reward, as we will now see. For ...
Fifthly, and finally, there is THE JUDGMENT itself.
As Bishop J.C.Ryle said, the following are "words that ought never to be forgotten," verse 46:
"Then they [the people with no evidence of saving faith who are called the "cursed"] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Eternal punishment is described in verse 41 as ...
"the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
Yes, that seems to be picture language to challenge our imaginations. That punishment is also called "outer darkness" - a seeming contradiction. But in imaginative terms for describing the indescribable it is very powerful. It suggests the most awful of consequences. Eternal life, on the other hand, is described as verse 34:
"... your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world".
So do you see? The message of Jesus' salvation and hope relates to the final judgement and despair. But this is all part of his love. If you see a blind man walking towards a cliff's edge the loving thing is to warn him and to try to stop him. Well, this is precisely what God has done in sending Jesus to "rescue us from the coming wrath" and teach about this judgment day. And judgment day is because God does care about right and wrong. What sort of a God would he be who said the Holocaust didn't matter, or Stalin's purges, or the genocides that have happened in the world in living memory? But the problem is not just the Hitlers and Stalins. Behind them are the many who do nothing about what is wrong, particularly when it affects the true followers of Jesus Christ.
It is the sins of omission not the sins of commission that Jesus is talking about here. Evil so often happens when seemingly good men and women do nothing. But do you still have problems over God's judgment and over hell? If so, think about what Matthew is going to be saying later in this Gospel, when he records Jesus' last words on the Cross. Matthew 27.46:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
The significance of those words can be lost because they are so familiar to many. The essence of sin is to forsake God. The consequence of sin, therefore, necessarily is to be God-forsaken. Jesus' judgment for those on his left - all those who have rejected God and whose belief does not lead them to respond to Jesus' followers with care and compassion – Jesus' judgement is simply to underline a decision already made. Hell is, therefore, inevitable.
For hell is to be God-forsaken. It is to be forsaken by the God who created this wonderful universe and holds it all together, through Jesus Christ his Son. It is to be forsaken by the God who gives you all the good things you enjoy - life, health, wealth, pleasure - everything. Hell is simply the total opposite to all that and to an infinite degree. Heaven - if you take all the biblical imagery together - is going to be all those good things but infinitely better and to an infinite degree.
And you can have that because the love of God meant that his own Son suffered hell on the cross in your place for you. So by faith you can now be forgiven and brought to know the love of God in your own sinful and rebellious heart. You can be justified now or judged in the right with God now, before that judgment day. Such good works that you, a believer, then do, as distinct from failing to do them, will be evidence of true faith. Listen to C.S. Lewis:
“In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: 'What are you asking God to do?' To wipe out [people's] past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary.”
I must conclude and summarize.
First, there will be a judgment day. Secondly, Jesus himself will be the judge - so trust in him now, while there is still time. Thirdly, everyone will be judged without exception and put into one of two groups. Fourthly, the judgment will especially be on people's loving care for Christ's followers in need. Faith needs evidence. And, fifthly, there is heaven and there is hell - how foolish not to choose heaven.