2nd to Last Sunday in the Church Year + Matthew 25:31-46
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
St. Paul tells the Athenians in Acts 17:31 that God “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” The man by whom God the Father will judge the world is His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified, died, and was buried, yet rose from dead on the third day. As His resurrection is true, so is His second coming to judge the living and the dead. But as it goes for the resurrection, so it goes for His return. Mockers and scoffers who don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead have no reason to believe that He’ll return in judgment. The unbelieving world stops up its ears. People go on with their lives imagining that such a day will never come. And if there are some who think that that day might actually come, they calm their consciences by imagining that God will judge them based on their good deeds, so that if the good things they’ve done outweigh the bad things, then they’ll be alright. And of course everyone imagines he has enough good to outweigh the bad.
Today’s gospel lesson teaches us to beware of both of these misconceptions. First, there is most certainly a judgment. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separated them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.” Judgment is coming and God the Father has ordained His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the judge. The judgment isn’t something that be ignored indefinitely. The day, as Paul said, has been appointed and all the disbelief in the world won’t stop that day from arriving or halt Christ from coming. The second misconception, that men will be judged by their good deeds on that day, seems to be confirmed by Jesus parable though. The sheep, those on the right, are those who have fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, taken in the stranger, and visited the sick and imprisoned, while the goats on the left haven’t done any of those things. Jesus speaks about the resurrection of the dead and final judgment in John 5:28-29 and says something similar. “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth -- those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” Again it seems as if we will be judged by the good or evil we have done.
But in both cases Christ tells us something else before He begins talking about doing good and doing evil. To the sheep on His right hand, the Son of Man will say, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Then He goes on to enumerate their good works, which by the way, they were completely unaware they did to Christ. With this Jesus tells us precisely why the sheep are the sheep and it isn’t their good deeds. The kingdom they inherit, not earn, was prepared for them from the foundation of the world before they could do any good works. These are the elect, those who believed the Gospel in their earthly life and endured in that faith unto the end. They are sheep who heard the voice of their Good Shepherd in the Word and Sacraments, and followed Him in faith. Christ promises eternal life to His sheep who hear His voice and continue in steadfast faith. He also says in John 5:24, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”
The sheep aren’t sheep because they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, and visit the sick and imprisoned. They’re sheep because they heard the voice of the Good Shepherd in the Scriptures and preached by Christ’s undershepherds. The sheep on Christ’s right hand do all those works because they hear the voice of their Good Shepherd and have eternal life. The opposite is true for the goats on Christ’s left side. They have no good works because they have no faith in Christ. They had ample opportunity to love their neighbors but they didn’t. St. John tells us, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20). The goats did not love God. They were not sheep who heard Christ’s voice and believed and followed Him, therefore they had no good works of love. Good works of love for one’s neighbor can only come from the heart that believes Christ’s promises. “For without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6), and “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
These works that the sheep have done are done out of faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit, who dwells in their hearts by faith, brings forth His fruit. This is why the sheep they have no idea they’ve done those good deeds to Christ Himself, who is present in the hungry and thirsty brother and the sick and imprisoned neighbor. The goats, by their unbelief, cannot do a single good work. Outwardly they may do good things but without faith those works aren’t good works in God’s sight. Paul describes them in Titus 1:6, “They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.” To the goats He will say on that day, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” That is the final judgment of those who reject the Gospel and are ignorant of Christ on the Last Day. He does not know them because they are not His sheep who heard and fled to Him for mercy from all their sins. Without faith they cannot please God, regardless of their works.
But to the sheep the judgment is a good verdict. “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” “Come and take possession of what I promised to you during your earthly life.” “Come, enter into the inheritance promised to you of everlasting innocence, righteousness, and blessedness.” You do not earn the kingdom with your good deeds. You receive it by God’s grace on account of faith alone. No merit. No work. No worthiness on your part. Just faith that Christ’s atoning death is good for your sins, faith that His perfect merits are yours simply because He’s offered them to you in the Gospel. The works you do, and you should be pursuing them zealously, for you are children of God, those good works are the fruit of your God-given faith. Those who love God and trust in Him for their salvation cannot help but begin to love their neighbor in this life, not with large flashy works, but with simple, everyday acts of kindness that meet their neighbor’s needs. Judgment is coming. This is most certainly true. Let that fact curb your sinful flesh in temptations to sin. Judgment is coming and the judge is your Lord Jesus who has died for your sins and lives to justify all who believe in Him. Let that thought comfort your conscience, for “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1) by faith. Therefore we say boldly, “Come, Lord Jesus and bring us into our eternal inheritance, which you have won for us by your precious blood.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.