The God who judges - Matthew 25:31-46
I want to begin by telling you the tragic story of a man named Martin. Martin lived in the city of Hobart which is the capital city of Tasmania (the city I come from) and on the outside Martin appeared to be a fairly normal Tasmanian bloke, although some of the people who knew him better, described him as being "a quiet lad and a bit of a loner."
Anyway, on the 28th of April, 1996 Martin jumped in his car and drove to Port Arthur, which was once the site of one of Australia's most brutal penal settlements and is currently Tasmania's premier tourist attraction. Now there was nothing unusual about this, the drive from Hobart to Port Arthur is lovely and on a fine autumns day like April 28th 1996, he was one of 500 others who had arrived at the site by lunchtime.
What made Martin different from the other visitors, however, was that he had brought with him an AR15 semi-automatic rifle, and shortly after his arrival Martin began to shoot people.
Some of his victims included young children, one of which he actually chased and then shot behind the tree which she was using as a hiding place from the man who had just murdered her mother and her younger sibling.
By the time police got a hold of Martin he had killed thirty-five men, women and children and wounded another eighteen making him the most notorious spree killer of all time.
Now you can imagine the impact that this event had on a city of roughly 1/2 the size of Hull. Hobart's citizens were absolutely furious! The Island screamed for justice. People could not believe that such a thing had happened and they wanted this man punished. Most people wanted dead. The idea that he could possibly walk away from such a horrific crime without punishment was unthinkable. He had rocked the Island of Tasmania and justice had to be served!
Now the death penalty is not used in any of Australia's states, so Martin isn't dead, but he did get the maximum penalty.
Martin will spend the rest of his life in prison and he will spend it completely alone, because if any of the other prisoners could get near him they would kill him.
Now nothing could make up for the lives Martin destroyed, but Tasmania's wrath was on the whole satisfied and most people breathed easier knowing that justice was served and I'm sure you can relate to that. You see as human beings we crave justice don't we? It's interesting that some of the first words a child learns to say is "that's not fair" and it's interesting that the movies that get us wound up the most are the ones in which the bad guys get away with horrific things whilst the innocent suffer. We crave justice and this is really the theme of this evening's passage. Justice.
You see Matthew 25: 31 - 46 is the climax of a section that began back in Matthew 24 and this section is about the way in which Jesus' followers are to live in the light of Jesus' second coming, a time at which Jesus would judge all people and a time at which justice would be completely served. So lets take a closer look at our passage and we'll begin with verses 31 - 33, The warning of judgment.
1. The warning of Judgement.
Look down at verse 31 with me.
31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Well the first thing that we need to notice is that Jesus is making use of some Old Testament imagery here. In the Old Testament book of Daniel chapter 9 we meet this character called the Son of Man and Daniel nine uses the imagery of thrones and angels and glory, the same pictures that Jesus is using, and this figure this Son of man will come and he will be given all authority over everything and everyone will bow before him and he will rule over a mighty kingdom that is invincible, it's amazing imagery and it forces us to picture the appearance of this mighty ruler!
The second Old Testament passage that is being referred to here in Matthew 25 is Joel 3. Now in this passage God is speaking and he speaks of a time when he will gather all of the nations before him and he will enter into judgement against them.
In Matthew 25 Jesus is drawing on these two Old Testament references and applies them to himself. So let's put it together. Now Jesus often used the title Son of Man to refer to himself and what he is claiming here in Matthew 25 is that he, Jesus, is the one whom Daniel was speaking about! He will come in glory, he is the mighty king before whom all must bow and he will come! But it's more than just Daniel 9 because we must add Joel 3. Here Jesus is applying God's words in Joel 3 to himself! You see in Joel 3 it was God who would gather the nations before him and judge, but in Matthew it is Jesus the son of Man who will do this! So if we put this together then what we have is Jesus claiming to be God, the Judge, he will come in glory and he will judge! One day justice will be served by none other than God himself! Perfect justice!
But it is also important to note that Jesus whilst being fully God, is also fully man! A man judges!
You see the Christian God knows what it is like to live on earth, to feel like a man, to struggle with the things that men struggle with, to suffer like a man. He knows all of this because he became a man, the son of man, Jesus Christ. The God of the Bible is not only involved with humanity but actually became part of humanity. He is the perfect judge, who understands the issues perfectly well and yet is also perfectly fair.
The next thing that we must notice, is that there will be two distinct groups at this time of judgement. The sheep and the goats. Now why did Jesus refer to sheep and goats? Well he might be referring to another Old Testament passage. In Ezekiel 34: 17 God speaks about judging between sheep and goats, but the point is that there will be two very distinct groups that were all mingled together but will be separated.
You see at the end of the day the shepherds had to separate their flocks, the goats had to be separated from the sheep as they needed a warmer place to sleep for the night, so Jesus is making use of a common everyday practice to illustrate the point that one day humanity will be split in two.
Judgement is coming, we've just been warned. We will all be judged one day and we will end up in one group or the other. There are only two options. So let me ask you, are you ready to face judgement before a pure and holy God? It's an uncomfortable question isn't it?
When I first went to Germany to visit a good friend of mine there were a number of things that made me feel uncomfortable. It was my first time in a completely foreign country. But nothing made me feel more uncomfortable than being flown down a German highway at over 200 kmph (the max. speed limit in Tasmania is 100kmph). What made things worse for me, however, was that the German government had invested in a whole bunch of signs which appeared with great regularity on the side of the road. These signs featured a picture of four or five vultures eyeing the highway with hungry eyes with a great big speech bubble coming out of their mouths saying "we're waiting for you". It was a very uncomfortable picture. But then it was meant to be, it was a warning and warnings are meant to make you uncomfortable so that you will think and act and avoid disaster. In this case the warning is to drive carefully.
Well here in Matthew 25 Jesus has given us a warning, a warning of Judgment.
Now if we're going to take this warning seriously then we are going to have to ask the following question, "what is the basis of this judgement?"
2. The Basis of Judgment
So what's going to get us a favourable result on judgment day? What's going to get us into the sheep pen?
Well at first it looks like doing good things is what will help you. Simple. Look after people and Jesus will be pleased, don't do the good things and your a goat! At first glance this seems to be what the passage is saying doesn't it? But when we look a little closer, however, we see that this can't be the case. Take a look at the language used in verse 34. The sheep are to take their inheritance, not their wages. Now your inheritance is not something that you earn, it is a gift given to you because of who you are.
What's more in the next chapter Jesus speaks about how his blood will be given for the forgiveness of sins. Now what's all that about? Well in the Bible sin is man's big problem. It's what makes us stand guilty before God and worthy of judgement. and Matthew's Gospel, like the rest of the New Testament teaches that the only way to be forgiven our sin is by the blood of Christ. You can't make up for it by doing good things. So what does the passage mean then, if it's not about earning your way into Jesus' good books?
Well, The answer is in verse 40 where the identity of those who receive the generosity is revealed:
"The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
It's Jesus' brothers who are in view here. O.k. so who are Jesus' brothers then? Well Matthew's Gospel answers this question for us when we look at passages like
12: 48 - 49 and 28: 10. These passages show us that Jesus' brothers are his followers. His brothers are those who hear his words and obey.
Before we go on and pull everything together, however, it is important that we realise that this passage throws us back to an earlier chapter of Matthew's Gospel. In Matthew 10: 40 - 42., Jesus sends out his disciples, his brothers, to preach and the sign that someone accepts them as preachers of the truth and therefore their message is that they look after them. And Jesus says that he who accepts you accepts me! It's the same sort of language that is used here in chapter 25.You see care for Jesus' followers is evidence that their message and therefore Jesus has been accepted. If you accept the message of the Gospel then of course you will accept the one who brought it to you, after all he is the bringer of truth, your brother, how beautiful are the feet of them that bring good news! To encounter one of Jesus' followers, one of Jesus' brothers is to encounter the message of Jesus and those who accept Christ will be sheep, those who don't will be goats.
You see there is no other way to get a favourable result on judgement day. As we saw before the big problem is sin, the fact that we have all chosen to reject God as the true king over our lives. This is why we need judgment. Such a crime deserves to be punished doesn't it?
What could be worse than trying to de-throne God? To say to him I don't want you to rule over me? Right now I know what's best! I don't care that you're there, get out of my way! In fact I'm going to completely murder you in my mind and pretend that you don't exist at all. If justice is to be served then our crimes must be punished and there's nothing we can do about it. Only Jesus actually taking your guilt away and baring the punishment for it by the shedding of his blood can save you.
So where do you stand? Have you sincerely accepted Jesus Christ?
Now I think that for many of you the answer that will jump straight into your minds will be "yes, of course I have. I'm here aren't I? and what's more I've been here (or a place like this) every Sunday of my life! I've been Baptised and born into a Christian family, of course I've accepted Jesus. What's more I've never done anything that bad either. Just compare me to Martin Bryant that evil spree killer, I never did what he did! I haven't ever done anything like that. I can't be in that category! Adolf Hitler might be and you could put Josef Stalin in that pen as well.
But me, I don't do those things, I'm a different animal I'm a sheep and they're not!
But actually this passage won't let us get away with this thinking at all. Because when you re-read these verses, you quickly see that you don't have to do anything to be a goat! In fact what makes you a goat, what puts you in the goat pen is what you don't do! It's what the goats fail to do that makes them goats verse 45:
45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
I don't know if many of you have ever spent much time in the Mediterranean before, but due to my wife's Greek descent we have and what is particularly interesting when it comes to sheep and goat observation in that part of the world, is that it's pretty difficult to tell the difference between the two. They all mingle around each other, they're all pretty much the same colour and height and build, it's actually very easy to mistake a goat for a sheep.
And do you know what, if we apply Jesus' imagery to ourselves the same thing could be said. You see you might look as sheep like as they come. You might go to all the right Christian meetings. You might have been brought up in Christianity all your life. You might take the Lords supper you might have been Baptised. You might sit there week after week. Maybe you've never killed anyone or gotten drunk or done drugs. But you're a goat.
You're a goat because you haven't really accepted the Lord Jesus, you haven't really turned to him. Because if you had it would transform your life you would look after his brothers. When you walk right up close to a Mediterranean animal and examine it closely, then you see pretty quickly whether it's a sheep or goat and if we did the same to your life, if we got right up close and had a good hard look, then we could tell the difference with you too no matter how sheep like you appear on the outside. We could tell because your faith and love of the Lord Jesus will be shown clearly by the way you live. What you do can't save you, we've already seen that, but your faith in Jesus, your acceptance of him (the one thing that can save you), will change you.
It's that sincere acceptance of the Lord Jesus, which is so sincere that it can be seen in the way you live your life, in the way you treat his brothers, that makes you a sheep and those who fail to do this goats.
3. The Implications of Judgment
Well you have probably already picked up that what I have been speaking about has some pretty serious implications, so let's finish by spending a little time thinking through these implications now.
We began by speaking about the desire that we share to see justice served. So often we long for it. All you need to do is speak to someone who has been burgled and lost things that are of value financial or personal. It's unfair isn't it, that someone should come in and take that which you've worked hard for or that which you treasure. It's not fair. But the thieves are very rarely caught The atrocities and crimes and injustices continue every day all over the world, all over this city! But just about everyone seems to get away with it! We yearn for justice but we strive in vain because true justice is never served!
But the wonderful news of Matthew 25 is that this wont go on forever. One day everyone will be brought to justice and no one can escape, There will be no approving Government to hide behind, there will be no suicide to bale out with. All people, from all time, will stand before Jesus Christ and justice will be served.
Now that is good news isn't it for a people who crave justice?
But we also need to remember it's not just the thieves and Martin Bryants that will be judged, you will too and if you are found to be a goat, then the consequences are very serious indeed verse 41:
41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
The imagery is terrifying isn't it? But this is justice. So have you accepted Christ. Perhaps this is something you need to think about and act on.
There is good news however here in Matthew 25. There is a way out.
If we accept Christ, if we welcome him and what he has done for us; and if we do so sincerely which will be evident in the way that we treat his brothers and the way in which we live the rest of our lives for that matter, then on that final day, that day when the son of man comes in his glory, that day when he will gather all people before him for judgement, we will hear him say:
'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world"
You see there is a great hope for the one who accepts Christ. There is the promise of eternal life in the perfect kingdom of God. A place where there is no injustice, a place of blessing and this a wonderful encouragement to us to continue pressing on until that day when the Son of Man comes in his glory.
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