November 20, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
The past two Sundays, you have heard Jesus tell parables about His return. Now, on the Last Sunday of the Church Year, you hear Him give a detailed description of what will happen at the Last Day. No parable this time; just a straightforward depiction of events. So what does Jesus say about His arrival on the Last Day? He tells you about His appearance, about His actions, and about His declarations.
Jesus’ description of the Last Day begins with a statement about His appearance: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.” This is no arrival of an unimportant individual! No, this is an appearance that rivals and surpasses all the pomp and circumstance of any earthly ruler. Jesus comes with an entourage. But it is not men and women in bespoke suits and sunglasses. Jesus doesn’t have a crowd of adoring people. Instead, He brings His own divine glory with Him. His entourage is the heavenly hosts, the army of angels, the corps of celestial beings. His seat is a throne that overlooks the entire creation.
This appearance of Jesus stands in stark contrast to how you first encountered Him: wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. This time, you do not see Him riding a donkey colt into Jerusalem. There are no mocking regalia—crown of thorns, purple cape, and scepter of reed. Instead, the full authority that Jesus possesses is on full display. This is the end that the apostle Paul described: “when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” At that point, Jesus stands over the entirety of creation: “Before Him will be gathered all the nations….”
So what will Jesus do on that day? He tells you about His actions: “He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Jesus’ work on the Last Day is to perform the great sorting, the judging of all individuals. Before that day, all people are intermingled. Jesus Himself told you about that in His parables: weeds and wheat mixed together, only to be separated at the harvest time; bad fish and good fish caught in the same net, only to be divided when the boats reached the shore. But the day will come when there is no longer any mixing of people. Standing over all humanity, Jesus moves them from one side to the other: “He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left.” On that day, all is revealed about mankind, just as Jesus’ glory is fully displayed. There is no neutral position, no sitting out the game. Nor is there any hiding or disguising.
Then come the declarations from Jesus’ mouth. Two statements are made by Him concerning the people, pronouncements that are 180 degrees different from each other: “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.’ … Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” As it was in the two parables of Jesus—about the wise and foolish maidens and about the servants with the talents—two outcomes are brought about on the Last Day: one with eternal benefits, the other with eternal loss.
So what determines the outcome? It is what Jesus decides. But that decision is not rendered for the first time on that Last Day. No, that decision has been years in the making. Consider what Jesus says about the people after He sorts them. He calls those on His right “you who are blessed by My Father”. He states that they had a fate set for them from eternity: “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” What Jesus grants to those on His right is nothing new, but as old as creation itself. Before any of them existed, what they were to receive had been set. It was all part of the divine will from before time began.
But note what else Jesus says about those on His right. He mentions that their involvement in the eternal plan had effects in their earthly lives: “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.” The actions of those who are blessed by the Father have a particular character; they reflect His character. They are consistent with what He Himself did for them: “I Myself will be the shepherd of My sheep, and I Myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” The actions of compassion that the Lord did for His people culminated in His sending His Son to be the Redeemer of mankind by being the substitute for Adam and his descendants: “For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
That same characteristic of graciousness is what drove the actions of the blessed ones. Yet, note what they say about them: “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger and welcome You, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’” The questions show surprise and unawareness. When did they see Jesus in need? When had they helped Jesus? But His answer explains what happened: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of My brothers, you did it to Me.’”
Jesus’ statements show what the faith of the blessed ones leads to. Their identity as the righteous people of God had been granted to them. It is a gift. What Jesus accomplished as their substitute is credited to them. It is theirs, as Jesus feeds them the bread of life, gives them the water of eternal life, welcomes them into His household, clothes them with His righteousness, heals their disease of sin, and delivers them from prison of Satan’s oppression.
The same holds true for you. You are made righteous by having the merits of Jesus’ death and resurrection applied to you. You are given what He earned. In fact, you are given a new life and identity. It is not passive, but is full of action. That new life includes the works that are summarized by Jesus in His statements about those blessed by His Father. You are the ones who feed Jesus, quench Jesus, welcome Jesus, clothe Jesus, visit Jesus, and come to Jesus. It is done every time that you do the same to those who are in the Father’s household—your fellow believers. You are a family, brothers and sisters of Jesus. The way you treat the little ones among you is how you treat your Older Brother who also happens to be the Judge of the living and the dead: “As you did it to one of the least of My brothers, you did it to Me.” He is the One who will declare those whose faith and actions are righteous: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
But all that is lacking in those whom Jesus places on His left. Remember what He says to them: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Why is such condemnation spoken against them? Jesus tells them: “For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome Me, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.” The judgment is leveled against them, revealing what they did not do, what their actions failed to accomplish. And when they ask about when they had ever offended Jesus, He tells them: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” Their treatment of the brothers and sisters of Jesus showed what they believed about Him. As they failed to show any concern for those who are of the Father’s household, so they also failed to show any concern about the Judge of the living and the dead.
The condemnation that Jesus speaks against the cursed ones is what He will declare to those who persecute His Church, who despise His Word and the preaching of it, who would rather have none of His people around and nothing of His will come to fulfillment. Those who abuse Jesus’ disciples will receive their just rewards. The curse spoken against their sins will not be lifted by the One who could do so.
But you must also think with some sober thought about what Jesus says of those who end up on His left. The statement that Jesus makes should be jarring: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” What had they not done? They had not fed, quenched, welcomed, clothed, visited, or come to the disciples of Jesus. There was mistreatment of those who belonged to Jesus. And that is similar to what the Lord God said about some sheep, some who belonged to the people of Israel: “Behold, I, I Myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue My flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.” A warning is given about “sheep-on-sheep crime” committed within the household of God. The mistreatment of Jesus’ disciples, even if done by Jesus’ disciples, is noted, recorded, and acted against.
So you also should consider what you do. How are you treating even the least of Jesus’ brothers? If it is not the way that He intends, then the time for correction is now, so that it will not be judged against at the Last Day. Your fellow believers are brothers and sisters of Jesus. As you behave toward them—whether good or ill—so you behave toward your Older Brother who is the Judge of the living and the dead. And that deserves your utmost attention.
This end of the Church Year brings the reminder that the Last Day will indeed arrive. What Jesus describes will come to pass. So now is the time to repent of what you have done contrary to His will. Now is the time to recognize that you have not been perfect in obedience. Now is the time to note that the blessed and righteous status that you possess has not been achieved by you, but has been given to you. Even the imperfect acts of compassion that you participate in are part of the identity that has been granted to you. They are not a record that you can stick in Jesus’ face, to brag about all your works that you did to Him. They are only what you did as you were regenerated and renewed by Him to reflect His divine character.
Yet, this is what Jesus Himself will praise and commend when He returns and gathers all His people to Himself and sets them on His right hand. Like all the others who will hear the welcome into life everlasting, you will not know all your acts of obedience, all your good works that you have done to Jesus. But that’s the way it’s meant to be, so that you have no pride in yourself, but only fear, love, and trust in Him. Direct your attention to what Jesus has done for you. Put your old self to death and rise in the newness of life that is given through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Act on the new will and desire that faith in Jesus gives to you. Then on the Last Day, as you see His appearance, experience His actions, and hear His statements, you who are “blessed by the Father” will have your place in the “kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.