As you remember, the theme of the last judgment has run through the previous material. We have already read of the separation between the saved and the lost at the end of chapter 24, in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, and in the parable of the talents. The accent has fallen on the condemnation and punishment of those who are unprepared for the Lord’s Return. We have seen them consigned to the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth; seen them shut out of the marriage banquet. The accent in all this material, addressed as it is to church members, to those who think themselves the Lord’s disciples, is warning. Do not fail to be ready. The way to be ready is to live a life of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. This final paragraph sums up all of that teaching in a far more explicit account of the judgment that occurs at the end of the age when Christ returns to earth.
The paragraph we are about to read is sometimes mistakenly described as a parable. In fact, it is, quite unlike the previous two paragraphs, straightforward teaching about what will happen when Christ returns. It is much more like chapter 24 than the first two parts of chapter 25.
v.31 “When the Son of Man comes again…” explicitly links this paragraph to all that has gone before it all the way back to 24:3 when the disciples asked Jesus what would be the sign of his coming. The paragraph we are about to read is the climax of all the Lord’s teaching on his coming again and the end of the age.
v.33 We should not miss the significance of this artless description of Jesus Christ: when he comes all the angels of heaven will be in his train; all the nations will be gathered before him; and he will judge the world. The man from Galilee, the man the religious leadership is about to crucify with the help of the Romans, is no one less than the living God, the Majesty in heaven, who will judge mankind at the end of the world.
In Palestine sheep and goats are regularly mixed together and are harder to distinguish superficially because the sheep are not white like the European and North American varieties we are familiar with. From time to time, and in cold weather every night, the shepherd had to separate the animals in his flock. Once again the Lord employs a common practice to illustrate the point he wished to make. In the Bible, sheep, which are more valuable than goats, are regularly a metaphor for God’s people. Once again the point is that there are but two groups. There is no middle ground between the saved and the lost. [France, 356] “Right” and “left,” then, as in many cultures still today, symbolize favor and disfavor, good fortune and bad.
In any case, this is an old fashion, no nonsense test. Everyone either passes or fails. No cases are deferred for later consideration. [Blamires, Knowing the Truth about Heaven or Hell, 36]
v.34 “Inherit the kingdom” reminds us that here too salvation is by grace. Something that one inherits comes as a gift, not as a payment.
v.40 Verse 40 is key to the understanding of this passage and its message. It has often been thought that what the Lord meant in vv. 34-36 was that the standard of the judgment of any human life will be good works, especially works of kindness to the poor and the needy. The righteous, therefore, are those given to compassion and philanthropy. It was even sometimes taught that, in teaching this, Matthew was in opposition to the Apostle Paul who taught that sinners were made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ. Matthew taught salvation by good works; Paul taught salvation by faith. But this ignores how much Matthew has already said about salvation being by grace and through faith.
But that is also a capital misunderstanding of what is actually said here. The standard of judgment, as Jesus explicitly says, is the response of mankind to Jesus as evidenced in their treatment of those who represent him in the world – whether we think of the Lord’s brothers, as he calls them in v. 40, as Christian missionaries, preachers, or simply as Christians in general. We have already read in Matthew of the gospel mission to the nations that would follow the Lord’s ascension to heaven. Jesus is talking about the fortunes of that mission here. He is talking about the nations and about his kingdom here again in Matthew 25:31ff. Remember, earlier in 24:14, we read about the gospel of the kingdom being preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations. Here in Matthew 25:32 we read of all those nations being gathered before the Lord. Here too the underlying assumption is that of the gospel of the kingdom and the response to it that will be made by the men and women of all the nations of the earth. There are good works here, to be sure; but they are the works of those who have believed the Gospel and acted accordingly. They loved Jesus in their treatment of his people. The term “brothers” in v. 40 is, in the context of the Gospel of Matthew and of the rest of the NT a term, not for people in general, but for the followers of Christ, the disciples of the Lord. The good works, the making the most of opportunities, such as was the burden of the parable of the talents, are always and only those good works that arise out of a specifically Christian motive, out of love for Christ and faith in him; those good works that demonstrate Christian faith and Christian love. Here those good works are the works that are performed on behalf of the Lord’s servants and disciples. This is, by the way, “eloquent testimony to the condescension of the King” that he should be present incognito in his humblest followers and should consider himself served in service on their behalf. [France, 357] But it is the response to Jesus, as v. 40 makes clear, that is the criterion of judgment on the Last Day and how that response is indicated and manifested and demonstrated.
This is why, in this greatest of all descriptions of the Last Judgment in the Bible, nothing is said about murder, or child abuse, or wife-beating, or assault, or robbery. In fact, no specific sin is referred to. It is what men did not do that damns them, not so much what they did. They did not receive Jesus Christ and their lives proved it.
v.41 Once again, as in 7:43 and 25:10 the punishment of the unrighteous is that they are banished from Christ’s presence. That may seem a small price to pay for many people nowadays but that is because they do not realize how desolate life is when all of Christ’s presence has been removed from it nor that the failure to submit to Christ the King also brings positive retribution, as the verse goes on to say. The unsaved will be lumped together with the Devil and his angels, whose work they have done in the world. However unwittingly, they did it willingly.
v.44 Once again, as a number of times before in this material, the emphasis falls on the surprise of these people who find themselves condemned on the Day of Judgment. They did not expect this. And again, their great failure is not what they did but what they didn’t do. They didn’t receive the gospel from the Christians who brought it to them.
v.45 “least of these” is, of course, once again the Lord’s disciples, as the comparison with v. 40 demonstrates.
v.46 The origin of the term “eternal punishment” is found here.
It is worth noting that with this solemn account of the last judgment and the eternal separation of the saved and the lost, the Lord’s teaching, at least in a formal sense, comes to its close in the Gospel. Next comes Matthew’s account of the passion. This account of the Last Judgment then is, as it were, the Lord’s last word.
Now it will not come as a great surprise to you that the doctrine of the Last Judgment has fallen on hard times in the modern western world. I suppose that you could drive past a great many churches in Pierce County, far and away the majority of churches in Pierce County – churches of all stripes, Protestant and Roman Catholic, liberal and evangelical, charismatic and non-charismatic – before you would pass one in which a serious sermon on the subject of the Last Judgment or the damnation of the unbelieving and the unrighteous has been delivered in the past year, or two years, or three, or four.
Even Bible-believers are having a harder and harder time coming to terms with the stern, unrelenting proclamation of coming judgment that we find so often in the Bible and, especially, in the teaching of the Lord Jesus. In our comfortable, man-worshipping, and sentimental day, eternal punishment is an idea, a prospect so foreign, so alien, that it is becoming difficult to believe even for believers. But set these growing doubts over against the longstanding and impressive consensus that united all parts of Christendom through the ages. The reality of the Last Judgment was the teaching of the church fathers, of medieval Christianity, of both the Roman Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation, and of all forms of Bible-believing Christianity since the enlightenment. Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox, no matter all their other disagreements, agreed about this: that there would be a Last Judgment and that the unbelieving and the unrighteous would be damned.
It was a feature of the 19th century sects – Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others – that they denied eternal punishment. These groups were roundly condemned for their departure from biblical teaching on this as on other points. But nowadays mainstream evangelicals are toying with the same departures. The corrosive effect of modern culture has made it harder and harder to believe in a God of such holiness that human sin would require eternal punishment. Modern men find it harder and harder to believe in a God of justice or in the glory of perfect justice. This culture has great difficulty any longer believing that any punishment is just that is not designed to rehabilitate the offender. Retributive justice – justice designed to settle accounts, to repay debts, to redress offenses – is much harder to believe in if a culture does not have a living awareness of the holiness of God.
But historic Christianity never believed eternal punishment because Christians found the doctrine easy to believe. Charles Hodge, the 19th century Presbyterian, spoke for them all when he wrote that everlasting punishment
“is a doctrine which the natural heart revolts from and struggles
against, and to which it submits only under stress of authority.”
[Cited in J.I. Packer, “The Problem of Eternal Punishment,” The
J.I. Packer Collection, 221]
No they believed the doctrine because, believing the Bible to be the Word of God as they did and do, they found it inescapable and because, believing as they did that the next world is foreshadowed in this world, they found intimations of hell everywhere they looked, just as they found intimations of heaven. But nowadays you will find even evangelicals dabbling with universalistic views – that at the last, finally, everyone will be saved – or with annihilationist views – that the punishment of the unbelieving and the unrighteous is not continuing punishment in the next world, but simply extinction, a ceasing to exist.
Clever men, serious men, and, I have no doubt, sometimes genuinely believing men have attempted to show that these prospects are the teaching of the Bible itself, but none of their interpretations of biblical texts, however clever, however in each case perhaps theoretically possible, is either natural or likely. There is a reason why the believing Christian church, through 2000 years, has believed and preached the Last Judgment and the damnation of the unbelieving. It seems quite plainly to be the teaching of a great many texts and explicitly the burden of much of the Lord Jesus’ own teaching. As another 19th century Presbyterian, W.G.T. Shedd famously observed,
“The strongest support of the doctrine of endless punishment is the teaching of Christ, the Redeemer of men… Christ could not have warned men so frequently and earnestly as he did against the ‘fire that shall never be quenched,’ and ‘the worm that dieth not,” had he known that there is no future peril to fully correspond to them… Jesus Christ is the person who is responsible for the doctrine of Eternal Perdition. He is the Being with whom all opponents of this theological tenet are in conflict.”
Those are strong words, but they certainly seem to be accurate. Denying this doctrine of the judgment of the lost is to make little of truth that Jesus was at pains to stress. What is more, to deny the great peril of the unbeliever is to cut the heart out of the gospel. Jesus and his apostles preached the gospel as a message of eternal life to a dying world. If there is nothing to be saved from, or if the fate of the impenitent and unbelieving is not really horrible, there is much less reason left for committing oneself to Jesus Christ and following him. The reason his life and death are so important, the reason such a terrible sacrifice on his part was justified, was precisely because there was a terrible fate awaiting men which he was desperate to same them from. It was a fate so awful that it justified the Son of God enduring far and away the greatest humiliation, the greatest suffering, the greatest sorrow ever endured or to be endured in human history in order that men and women might escape it.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believed in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
And then John goes on to tell us in that same 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John what it means to perish. It means to be condemned. It means that man will not see life and that God’s wrath remains upon him. When the rest of the New Testament and when the Lord Jesus himself goes on to depict that fate under the images of unquenchable fire and outer darkness and wailing and gnashing of teeth and when it is promised repeatedly that the unbelieving will not escape this eternal punishment, we have provided for us the grand explanation for the Bible, for Jesus Christ himself, for the gospel message of salvation in his name. Take away hell and the reason for Christianity disappears. It is an idea hanging in mid-air. Men are doomed; Christ came to save them; there is salvation from that doom for all who believe in Jesus. Take damnation out of that equation and you are left with nothing. No salvation, for there is nothing to be saved from; no savior because we have no need of one; no gospel, no good news, because there is no longer a message of deliverance from death and judgment; and no great love at the center of the universe, a love that came down to save God’s people from the consequences of their sins.
The fact is, if you take even the mildest form of unbelief in the Last Judgment and the damnation of the unbelieving and the unrighteous, which is annihilationism – the doctrine that unbelievers are simply extinguished – I say if you take that view and teach that there is still some loss to be suffered by those who do not believe in Jesus – they don’t get to go to heaven, even if they don’t go to hell – you have still cut the heart out of the gospel of Christ. Most people today would not be terribly upset to learn that annihilation awaited those who did not believe in and follow Jesus; that their lives would simply be extinguished, to exist no more, that they would fall asleep and never wake up. A great many people live in this world already believe that to be their coming fate. It is a simple fact that most people think very little about what will happen to them afterward. They give scarcely a thought to the last judgment. They are experts at suppressing such thoughts. If they were to hear that they would simply fall asleep, never to wake up, it is hardly likely that they would move heaven and earth to discover how they might avoid that fate. Such people would keep thinking about the present and never about the future. Men need storms in their heart to send them running to Christ for refuge. Annihilation is not and has never been such a storm. It is, in fact, a doctrine invented to make the future of the unbelieving more palatable not less; more acceptable; less repellant.
And Christians themselves would be hard pressed to maintain the kind of zeal for evangelism, for seeking the salvation of the lost, if the unbelieving suffer no positive retribution but simply fall asleep, never to wake up. No! It is precisely the terrible seriousness of life, its eternal and everlasting consequence that, in the Bible, is laid before us as motivation for living. The fact of a coming judgment, the reality of heaven and hell; it is this that makes Christ’s love for us so great a power in our lives; it is this that makes Christians so serious about living their own lives in that way that God approves; it is this that makes them so serious about the condition of the unsaved.
Again and again Jesus himself preached to the people of his day, “Unless you repent you will all perish.” He told his disciples that the gospel would be preached to the whole world before the end and he told them that not all would believe the message. And he told them that those who did not believe would be consigned to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Eternal fire is an image, a figure of speech, we know that. We do not speculate as to the precise nature of existence in hell. But the images used to describe it by our Savior are obviously designed to teach us that this is a fate we should avoid at all costs. So too outer darkness, the worm that doesn’t die, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus is warning us! He is telling us to avoid the fate of the unbelieving and the unrighteous at all costs! That is why Paul was willing to become all things to all men that he might save some. That is why Jude urged his readers to snatch people from the fire if they could.
Listen to me: I have heard all the objections that can be raised against the Bible’s doctrine of eternal punishment and the prospect of a Last Judgment with so appallingly serious implications. I have felt the force of those objections in my own heart and mind. I’ve heard some say that it is cruel and unusual punishment. That it would be unworthy of God to punish men so severely and at such length. But I have long since realized that profoundly sinful human beings are the very last ones who should be passing judgment on what is just or unjust for an infinitely holy God to do. I know very well how easy I am on myself for my sins and how hard it is for me to reckon with my just deserts. I know very well how little of God’s love of righteousness and hatred of sin I have.
I’ve heard others say that the harmony and joy of heaven would be marred if many human beings were suffering elsewhere for their sins. But how can anyone know that? And, what is more, we can hardly say that of God! Surely his experience of perfect goodness and perfect joy is not marred by the practice of his own justice. Well, in heaven, we are going to be finally like God himself in the perfection of his character. We will love what he loves and hate what he hates and will feel as he does about the perfect justice of his ways. There may be a right kind of sorrow in seeing it, but there is also a right kind of satisfaction when we see already in this world the wicked get their just deserts. We know how terrible a place this would be, how demoralizing, if that never happened.
I have felt the force of these objections, as I suspect every thoughtful Christian has. But it doesn’t take much thought to realize that they all amount, in one way or another, to fallen creatures telling their Creator what he may or may not do. There is a lot of this in our day and age. We have become used to celebrities with sordid pasts lecturing the rest of us on what is right and wrong and of terrorists accusing their victims of all manner of evil. The fact of the matter is that there has never been a person in this world more able to give us an honest assessment of these things, there has never been a person we should trust more than Jesus of Nazareth and he spoke plainly and urgently about damnation and the sufferings in hell of those who would not believe in him. Who shall we believe? Those who have most to gain by denying the doctrine or the Son of God who gave himself to unimaginable suffering in order to save men and women, boys and girls, from the sufferings of the damned.
People tell us nowadays that it is impolitic for us to preach the Last Judgment and the reality of damnation. They tell us that with this message we will drive people away. They tell us that if we want a hearing and if we want to persuade people to become Christians we must remove this obstacle; we must leave out this part of the Bible’s message or exchange it for something less revolting. Our message needs to be more positive or people will not accept it.
That is undoubtedly true. In the same way Paul knew that it was impolitic to preach the cross of Jesus Christ as the only way of man’s salvation and to preach his bodily resurrection from the dead as man’s hope of eternal life. People wouldn’t stand for those doctrines either and a great many to whom Paul preached turned away precisely because they thought the message of the cross offensive and that of the resurrection simply unbelievable. He knew his message would be a stumbling block to many and that people everywhere would take offense at what he preached. He also knew that were he to change his doctrine in some particulars many more people would have heard him gladly. Nevertheless, he stuck with his widely unpopular message of the cross because he knew it was the wisdom of God and the power of God. He knew it was not his business to create a message but to declare that message which he had been taught by Jesus Christ himself. It is the truth that sets men free and the truth, any honest man knows, is often hard to accept.
Jesus wept over the unbelief of his contemporaries. His was a heart of love. He wept because he cared for these people, cared more deeply, more feelingly than you or I can possibly imagine. And why the tears? Because a judgment awaited them that they would fail and, failing, they would fall under God’s wrath. It was this man, this Savior, who loved others at such terrible cost to himself, it was he who taught us that there would be a separation on the Last Day, that vast multitudes would be shocked to find themselves cast away from God, and that there was waiting for them a place and a condition best described as “eternal punishment.”
This fact, for fact it is, is a universal acid that eats away at all the petty, selfish, worldly pieties of modern life. Everything must be viewed in a completely different light in view of this Last Judgment and this all too real damnation. If the character of one’s life, if one’s relationship to Christ, if one’s behavior as a demonstration of his loyalty or disloyalty to Jesus Christ is going to be made the standard by which he is welcomed into heaven or consigned to hell, then – suddenly – everything changes. The meaning, the significance, the measure, the evaluation of everything that a person does or does not do changes and changes profoundly. What pleases God is good; what displeases him is evil. No matter the evolving standards of morality in our culture; no matter the confidence so many now express in their moral opinions. No matter the modern distaste for moral certainty. The Last Judgment is a test that brooks no argument, no explanation, no pleas of ignorance or good intentions. Faith or unbelief; righteousness or disobedience to God; a gospel life or not. That is all and that is what will determine a person’s future forever.
Jesus’ words must tell. The Son of God had lived in heaven until he came to earth; and he rules over hell. He knows both places as the real places that they are and he spoke out of that knowledge. What is there, after all, about our world, about the world we live in that leads us to believe there will not be a judgment, a price to pay for man’s indifference to God, his selfish disdain for others, his worship of himself. Intimations of that judgment are everywhere we look. God shows us hell a thousand times a day if only we will look and think about what we see with an honest heart.
But take note of this: Jesus is very plainly warning us. That is what he is doing in all of this material and supremely in this final paragraph concerning the Last Judgment. If we would be wise, we will spend our lives finding ways of showing our gratitude to Christ by living for him and serving his kingdom. That will ensure that we will not go to hell, the hell we all so richly deserve whether we feel it so or not, and will instead go to heaven where we will be with Christ forever. And we will think of hell not only to remember what would have been our fate had Christ not intervened, but to keep us, like Jesus himself, seeking, trying, as the Lord’s half-brother Jude put it, to snatch others from the fire.