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John 5:25-29

Last week we pointed out that to understand the good news, to appreciate why the gospel is news to shout from the housetops and to carry to the ends of the earth, we must first get a grasp of the human problem, the danger that faces everyone on the face of the earth, the imminent catastrophe that looms over human life. The good news is that God has acted to deliver us from death and grant us happiness forever when otherwise we had no chance of such a deliverance. We began last week by pointing out that everywhere in the Bible the reason why such a dark future awaits human beings is their bondage to sin, their moral badness, their failure to be good. This is the presupposition of the Gospel, the reason for it, the explanation of it.

But someone might well ask, “So what?” We are sinners; we admit this: we think, say, and do unworthy things. If we are honest we’ll admit that we do that constantly. But, so what? Why does our sin, our immorality, our selfishness, our lack of love for God and man, pose such a threat to us? Our text this morning explains why!

John 5:25-29

My task as a preacher, particularly as the preaching pastor of a congregation to whom I preach the Word of God Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, is to nurture in your hearts and minds a consciousness, a perception profoundly different from that of the culture round about you. My task is to educate you to think differently than most others think in America today. My duty is to create and then to nourish an alternative perception of reality. And, in particular, I must do that chiefly by relentlessly connecting your lives at this moment to the issues of eternity. Like Arthur Stace – who after being delivered from his life as a derelict and a drunk by faith in Jesus Christ, began writing the word “eternity” on the sidewalks of Sydney, Australia – Sunday after Sunday my calling is to write that same word upon your hearts. Human beings never cease to exist. In the Bible life and death are invariably states or conditions of existence. And that single alternative looms above human life and every single human being. This is the solemn fact that makes the news of Christ’s deliverance good news, joyous news, thrilling news!

I could have chosen any number of texts to make the point, but it is made plainly enough in these few verses in John 5. There is a judgment that awaits human beings at the end of history, a judgment that will divide the race into two and only two companies: the saved and the lost, the acquitted and the condemned, the righteous and the wicked, the merry and the miserable. That judgment will be executed by Jesus Christ himself, who, as God himself, will know everything about everyone. Punishment awaits the sinner who does not find forgiveness with God through faith in God’s Son who gave himself, the just for the unjust, to save us from our sins. That is why sin is so consequential! That is why a message that we can find deliverance from sin is so thrilling! Sin pays a wage and absent God’s forgiveness, we must pay that wage! Or as we so often read in the Bible, the soul that sins must die; or the one who fails to keep God’s law will be judged and cursed by that law.

As we read in Hebrews, it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. No human being will ever cease to exist; but will he or she exist in living life or in living death? The reason the good news is such impossibly good news is because apart from the deliverance from sin and its guilt and corruption, a deliverance that only God could accomplish, we must be condemned in the judgment and suffer the penalty imposed by divine justice. That we can escape that judgment is good news, indeed, the very best possible news.

This coming judgment is mentioned times without number in the Bible. But even when it is not mentioned, it is the presupposition of everything the Bible says. What is salvation, after all, if there is nothing to be saved from? What is the cross, after all, if there were no punishment for Christ to endure in our place? Why the urgent summons to believe in Jesus and be saved, if there is no danger in unbelief? And what is heaven, after all, if not the alternative to hell? This is why Paul can say, as he does in Romans 2, that the prospect of the last judgment is part of his Gospel. He who despises the disease, despises the doctor. Or, as the poet Joseph Hart put it: “What comfort can a Savior bring to those who never felt their woe?” And this is why, through the ages, people have come to Christ precisely because their eyes have been opened to see the extent to which they are justly threatened by the judgment of God! But, of course, we know only too well how little human beings – including ourselves, who know better – in the foolishness of their pride and the dullness of their minds, fear the judgment of the Lord. “There is no fear of God before their eyes,” a verse we read last Lord’s Day morning. Here we are on a blustery Sunday morning thinking about anything else but that event that matters more than everything else!

I know that some of you have stood in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican and stared admiringly at Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment,” the magnificent fresco that adorns the altar wall of the most famous chapel in the world. There are the bodies being raised from the dead; others are being cast down into hell, with the Lord Christ in the center executing his righteous judgment. There is much to admire in that great painting: the artistry, the technical skill, and the commitment of one of the greatest of all painters who spent five years of his life on that single work. But there are precious few among the multitudes who stream in and out of the Sistine Chapel day after day who view that impressive painting as an artistic image of what is soon to come to pass in time and space and of what might be their own fate on that final day.

And in our day when the few people who still read Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the greatest epic poems of human literature, take up the Inferno, the first part of that great work, they admire the literary skill of the great Italian poet, his inventiveness in describing the various circles of hell and the judgments meted out to various kinds of sinners, but in only the rarest cases are those readers arrested by the thought that what Dante has done is imaginatively to describe the actual fate of unbelieving mankind. They don’t really consider the possibility that the great poet might have been describing their own future! Few find themselves worried that the punishments he describes as he descends further and further into hell might be their own just sentence.

On the other hand, Peter Hitchens, brother of the late Christopher Hitchens – Christopher, you remember, being one of the most celebrated of the so-called “new atheists” – began his journey to Christ and salvation while on vacation in a town in France staring at Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th century painting The Last Judgment. As he put it, “I simply had no idea that an adult could be frightened, in broad daylight, and after a good lunch, by such things.” “A large catalogue of misdeeds, ranging from the embarrassing to the appalling, replayed themselves rapidly in my head. I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned if there were any damned.” [The Rage Against God, 103]

Some of you may remember the trial some years ago of Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry. He was caught red-handed using drugs in an FBI sting. Everyone saw his criminal activity and his arrest on videotape, saw Barry yelling at his former girlfriend who had turned FBI informant. There were felony and misdemeanor indictments but the jury acquitted him on all of those charges and found him guilty of a single misdemeanor charge from a previous incident. Judge Thomas Jackson of the Washington D.C. court, livid at the jury for giving the mayor a slap on the wrist when everyone knew perfectly well that he deserved much more significant punishment, — the kind of punishment that other people were receiving for precisely the same crime – delivered a sharply worded dissent to the jury in which he said, “The jurors will have to answer to themselves and to their fellow citizens for the way in which they discharged their duty.” Perhaps Judge Jackson thought that would worry the jurors. But, in fact, that is precisely why the jurors did what they did. To say that they would have to answer to themselves and to their fellow citizens was, in effect, to say that they would not have to answer to anyone for anything. Those words “so help me God” in the vow that they swore were just so many empty words. If they wanted to poke the establishment in the eye with a stick they could. Nobody could do anything to them; they were never going to suffer any punishment for letting a guilty man go free. Judge Jackson’s tirade has stuck with me as the perfect summary of how hollow all notions of moral accountability have become in our society precisely because we no longer believe that God will bring our lives into judgment and render a verdict and impose a punishment precisely in agreement with the facts.

People nowadays find the notion of impending judgment a violation of our freedom, our right to self-determination. Hell, in modern Western thought at least, is undemocratic; a violation of our civil rights. All of this makes complete sense and is absolutely convincing to the modern mind, shaped as it has been by the spirit of the age: tolerant, relativist, non-judgmental, pluralist, and pleasure-seeking. The Last Judgment as it is described in the Bible does not fit into this worldview at all. I understand that.

But that is a very different thing from saying that there will not be a Last Judgment. People believe all sorts of things that are not true. In fact, we all believe things every day that are not true. And if we know anything about people’s beliefs, our own beliefs – especially our own beliefs about ourselves – we know that they, that we tend to believe what we, as they, want to be true. That is why it is easy to understand why most people in our land still think there is a heaven and almost everyone thinks he or she is going there. A majority of people also still believe that there is a hell, but almost no one thinks he or she is going there. Is there a serious argument here or is this simply predictable human sentimentality: believing to be true what one wants to be true. As a matter of fact, however, there are very impressive reasons for believing the Bible’s account of the Last Judgment. Let me mention just a few.

1. We all are forced to accept the fact that in human life, to a remarkable degree, our behavior and, in particular, our misbehavior, regularly is visited with unwelcome penalties. If you stop and think about it, you will be struck by how universal this principle is in human life. We encounter it everywhere. Sometimes the judgment is imposed by other human beings. More often it just happens. Driving too fast gets you a ticket. Robbing a bank gets you jail. Promiscuity gets you a disease or an unwanted pregnancy. Infidelity ruins your marriage. The misuse of alcohol or the use of drugs can lead to addictions that a person then finds it impossible to escape. In fact, this law of retribution is far more deeply enmeshed in human experience than we usually recognize or admit to ourselves. Misbehaviors of all kinds dog us all our lives. We cannot escape them and they harry our steps; we are in their grip and we suffer their judgment. Patterns of speech and behavior that we formed early in life bring us and others pain for years thereafter. Cruelty, unkindness, or indifference leave us with little respect and few friends. And so it goes. Violate the laws of human life, both great and small, as those laws are recognized by everyone, and pain and trouble are the result. This world rings with judgment. Why on earth would someone suppose that there will be none in the world to come?
2. On the other hand, two more facts about human life are likewise obvious and important to everyone. First, there is often a significant lag between misbehavior and consequence or judgment. A drunk does not immediately find himself with cirrhosis of the liver. A philanderer is not always immediately discovered and can sometimes escape the consequence of his infidelities for a long time. Consider Matt Lauer or Harvey Weinstein. A lazy person does not always immediately suffer the loss of the rewards that come from hard work. It often takes time for our sins to find us out, for their consequences to catch up to our moral failures.
3. Second, all our sins are not punished in this life. In fact, most of the real harm that human beings do to one another is never really punished in this life. Many crimes are never solved. A murder occurred on the campus of our Covenant Theological Seminary some years ago. The police think they know who did it, but they couldn’t find evidence sufficient to arrest and indict. The man walks free today. But there is so much more harm that is not criminal, however evil it is. How many husbands have blasted the hopes and dreams of their wives or wives their husbands. How many children grow up to bear terrible burdens in life because of what their parents or some other adults from their childhood did to them or never did for them? Think of all the heartbreak that is caused by the selfishness of others, all the sadness and hopelessness and despair that washes over human life in our sad world every moment of every day. Little of it is a crime for which someone might be arrested and sent to prison; most of those who cause this untold misery never answer for it here in this world. We know the connection between sin and punishment and we justify it in our own judgments about the behavior of others every single day. We believe that sins – especially the sins of those who sinned against us – ought to be punished, but we know they usually are not; not in this world.
4. And what of this universal and inescapable human penchant for moral judgment. My goodness how can a modern American deny this. Social Media as it has come to be, like all human conversation before it, is a vast universe of moral condemnation: people judging other people – what they said or did, or didn’t say or didn’t do. If there is no God who has imposed his moral will upon the life of mankind, it is certainly hard to explain why that moral code exists in every human mind and is so inflexibly applied by everyone to everyone else’s conduct. Everyone is offended, even thieves and murderers, when a lie is told to them, when their property is stolen, when their names or reputations are sullied, when people tell tales about them, when sexual license is practiced at their expense. Whatever people say about this when they are philosophizing, every human being makes categorical moral judgments about the behavior of others every single day that he lives. If these moral judgments in fact mean nothing and are nothing but people’s ephemeral opinions or even their indigestion; if they do not reflect a transcendental reality that comes upon man’s life from outside, then no one can begin to explain human life as it actually is; and certainly not the most important part of human life to every one of us, viz. its personal and moral character: love, truth, meaning, justice, goodness, and badness.

When Mother Theresa and Islamic terrorists use the same moral code to justify their actions and to condemn the actions of others, when you and your enemies appeal to the same standards of behavior, it is the counsel of despair to argue that such morality is not real, that it does not come from outside of us, and does not rule over us. But if that standard is real and is outside of us, then it came from somewhere and, because it is so personal in its nature, it came from someone. Will that someone not care about our obedience or disobedience to that moral standard when we care so much?
5. But we are still not done. The Last Judgment is here and everywhere in the Bible described as a sudden catastrophe that breaks upon the world and takes it by surprise. There is nothing in our experience to make that seem impossible or even unlikely. Catastrophes aplenty dot the history of our race; unwelcome surprises meet us at every turn. We encounter life- and even civilization-ending disasters again and again. That there should be one final such catastrophe may be an unpleasant prospect, but it is hardly unbelievable. Indeed, some people worry about such an event all the time, though they do not attribute it to divine justice but to global warming or nuclear war or drug-resistant diseases.
6. And may I mention finally that we live in a cosmos in which nothing ever really disappears. It is an axiom of science that no material object can really be destroyed. That which disappears in one form reappears in another, in another form of matter or in the form of energy. We are used to this fact but hardly ever consider what it suggests concerning the continuing existence of human beings. When things “die” in the autumn we know they will “live” again in the spring. The reality of continued existence after death is not the reach many people seem to think it is. But if not, what makes us think that God’s moral judgment that has pressed with such weight upon us here in this world would not meet us in the next world, the next life?

I could say so much more. All of this leads me to say simply that the sort of naïveté regarding the Last Judgment that we encounter in our culture nowadays should not trouble our faith as Christians. We can easily understand the reticence of people to believe it true. It is an unwelcome truth and those are the hardest truths of all to believe. But the question is not whether we wish it so; the question is whether it is so.

If it is actually possible, even likely that a man or woman will be, in Andrew Bonar’s words, “crushed between the millstones of omnipotence,” pray tell me what else matters to that man or woman but that he or she finds salvation before it is too late? The Devil is hard at work in the world assuring men, as he assured Adam and Eve, “You surely shall not die.” But what if he is wrong; what if he is lying? The Devil, after all, has been a liar from the beginning?

Almost no one in our world except the devout Christian is in deadly earnest about these things. This ought to be something that distinguishes you as a class of people, as a community of people: your deadly earnestness about these things. You have heard the story – true or not I cannot say – about the skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume being caught by a friend hurrying to hear the Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield. His friend remarked in surprise, “but you don’t believe any of that.” To which Hume replied, “No, but Whitefield does!” We know Hume went to hear Whitefield a number of times. William Wilberforce summed up the great power of Charles Simeon’s ministry by saying simply, “Simeon is in earnest.” The first thing the gospel will do is to make a man or woman take a serious view of human life precisely because of the question of its ultimate issue. If eternity, if the world to come, does not make a man or woman serious, what pray tell, will?

The Second Coming makes people earnest or serious precisely because it is the Day of Judgment, the Day of Reckoning, and those who are unprepared for it must suffer eternal loss. Everyone knows John 3:16, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

That is the good news! But John hurries on to explain why the appearance of the Son of God in the world is such good news.

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”

“Wrath” in the Bible is God’s holy justice and judgment in operation. Divine wrath is not a fit of temper or a loss of control. It is the settled determination of the judge of all the earth to punish sinful man according to his deserts. It is this wrath that awaits the human race at the end of history! No one feels the violation of true goodness as God who is truly good feels it. No one recoils from the ugliness of the human heart as the God who is beauty itself does, who made that heart for love. There is something deeply abnormal about the world – most people usually think the world is normal – but it is not. It is abnormal. It is broken. It is a pale shadow of what it was intended to be. It is not at all what it ought to be. It is broken root and branch in every kind of way. And it is broken because human beings are broken and willing to be so, even defiantly so. And this is a matter of the greatest offense to God who made this world and made it to be something else than it is. Like it or not; protest it or not; such is in the world God made and such is God’s view of the world.

Tertullian said in his day, in the 3rd century, “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that [Christ] will one day judge the world.” And it has always been so and is in our day. R.V.G. Tasker was a typically liberal biblical scholar in the middle of the 20th century. He had risen to the pinnacle of his profession as Professor of New Testament at the University of London. His reputation as a scholar had been rewarded by his appointment as chairman of the translation committee of the New English Bible, the first of the spate of new English translations of the Bible produced in the second half of the 20th century. But he went once, largely out of curiosity, to hear Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the famous London preacher, speaking to a meeting of the University of London Christian Union (the equivalent of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship on U.S. college campuses.). Three years later Professor Tasker was the chairman of a meeting of the same University of London Christian Union and it fell to him to introduce Dr. Lloyd-Jones who was to speak again that night. He began his introduction of the speaker by saying:

“I don’t know who else heard Dr. Lloyd-Jones speaking in this hall three years ago on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But I know one man whose whole life was revolutionized by that address. That man is your chairman tonight!” [Dudley-Smith, John Stott, ii, 130]

The subject of Lloyd-Jones’ address that night three years before had been the judgment of the Lord, the Last Judgment. Reckoning with the Second Coming is something that R.V.G. Tasker had never done. He was a scholar of the N.T., a writer of commentaries on the books of the N.T. but he had never reckoned with the final judgment of human life. As a consequence he had never really understood or embraced for himself the good news. The two subjects are intimately related to one another. Without the Last Judgment there is no need for good news or there simply isn’t any good news. But in light of the Last Judgment the prospect of deliverance in and from that Judgment is the most exhilarating news that can be imagined.

From that night Prof. Tasker forsook his liberalism and took his stand on the faithfulness and reliability of Holy Scripture in a university world in which those convictions were scorned. It led to a considerable measure of isolation. His colleagues “sent him to Coventry,” as they say in England. He got the cold shoulder. But he didn’t care. He allied himself with the believers and kept on going. His life had become a serious business, and happy business for a reason that had never occurred to him before. For the first time in his life, though long a professional student of the New Testament, he loved the Lord and rejoiced in his salvation, because he realized what that salvation consisted of: acquittal and vindication at the Last Judgment. For the first time he really understood the good news: it is the proclamation of deliverance from the condemnation and punishment we so richly deserve!