How We Will Be Judged
Text: Matt. 25:31-46
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We’ve officially made it through another church year. We’re now one year closer to the return of our Lord. And in these last three weeks, we’ve heard a lot about the return of Christ, when He will come to raise the living and the dead. These readings we’ve had these final weeks have given us a glimpse into what to expect. From the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, we learned to be ready because the Bridegroom can return anytime. From the parable of the talents last week, we learned how to be ready: to trust in our Master’s generosity and joyfully make good use of what He has entrusted to us. But this week’s reading—I have to say that it’s one of my favorites in the church year. It brings together so many different threads, it teaches us so much, that it really deserves this place in the year, pulling together all these lessons and more, teaching us how our Lord and Shepherd will judge when He returns.
Jesus has given us insight about how He will initiate the new heavens and the new earth. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” Jesus says, “and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” At that moment, when He returns, this will be when the reign of God that we believe in by faith—even though sometimes we can’t see it—that reign of Christ will become visible to our resurrected and perfected eyes. “Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.”
And now we get to how Jesus will judge at the end of all things. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘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.’” Now at first, this sounds like the opposite of what we’ve been hearing all year long—that those entering the kingdom of heaven are judged by their works. And if we ignore some very important details at the very beginning, we can see how someone could end up at that mistaken conclusion. But go back to the start, before Jesus starts listing anything that the righteous sheep did. He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
The sheep, those on Jesus’ right, the saints are first declared blessed by God the Father. That’s before anything else ever happened. The kingdom is prepared for them from the foundation of the world, from the very first moments of creation, before any of these saints even existed. It’s always been theirs because the Father has willed it so. It’s His joy to bestow this upon them. Before they could lift a finger, before they even took their first breath, before they came into being, eternal bliss was prepared for them—prepared for you. This has always been your Father’s will.
Then, to hammer the point home, look at how Jesus tells them they will receive this kingdom. “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Inherit. Now what must you do to inherit anything? Nothing. Someone else has to do something, but for the one inheriting, they don’t have to do anything at all. The only thing that has to happen for you to inherit anything is for someone else to die. And indeed, someone else has died so that you can inherit the kingdom. The Son of Man has died. Jesus has died so that everything that’s His, His kingdom, His righteousness, His eternal life, would become yours.
So for the sheep, this judgment is not a terrifying thing. They’ve been trusting in their Shepherd’s characteristics of generosity, graciousness, compassion, mercy—just like the faithful servants in the parable last week trusted their master. So like them, we, the sheep in this reading, are set free to go about joyfully doing the work of God’s kingdom, without worrying that it will earn or cost us anything. We’re set free from worrying that somehow our salvation relies on it. We just do it because it’s who are as citizens of this kingdom. It’s who we are as members of the Good Shepherd’s flock. That’s why the sheep are surprised: “Lord, when did we see you in any of these states and do any of these things for you?” Then He will answer, “When you did it for the least of these my brothers, those who couldn’t repay you, those who couldn’t reward you, then you did it for me.” Our faith in our Shepherd and all that He’s done for us is revealed in those little acts of mercy. As we’ve received grace and mercy, it overflows from us to those around us.
This is unlike the goats, who try to justify themselves. When the Son of Man tells them what they have not done, they go on the defensive. “Lord, when did we see you like that and not minister to you? We either never saw you, or whenever we did see you, we did serve you. Surely that must earn us something!” Like the wicked faithless servant last week, who thought his master was a hard and unfair man, so too these goats, trying to put up shield of self-justification, who try to point to their good works, or at least their lack of bad works, they end up cutting themselves off from the joy of their Master, the pleasure of their Lord. They’re sent into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Notice that it hasn’t been prepared for them—but because they’ve tried to climb their own way into heaven, it’s the only place left for them because they lived without faith and trust in the goodness and mercy of God. It’s not His joy that they end up there, but when they insist to the very end that things should be their way and not His, they’ve made their own decision to be apart from Him.
We can learn a lot from this reading. It shows us exactly how Jesus will judge and how we spend our time waiting for Him to return and do it. He’s already done all the work of saving us, so we don’t need to save ourselves. That means that we can serve others, even those who can’t serve us back; even those who won’t. We always remember that just as He has come to us once at Bethlehem, just as He comes to us every week in the Lord’s Supper, that He will come again. And when He comes again, it will be to usher in His kingdom. That means that we’ll be judged, but that holds no fear for you. You already know the verdict. You’ve heard it today already. Hear it again: By virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of Word, I announce the grace of God to you; and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, who is coming to judge the living and the dead, I declare you innocent. I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. So come, you who are blessed by the Father, receive the body and blood, the forgiveness, the life of Son of Man. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. In the name of Jesus, who will reign forever. Amen.