Scripture Reference: Matthew 25:31-31:46
The Nations In ProphecyDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | September 14, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
Christ’s kingdom is coming, and a judgment of the nations will precede it. Seated on His throne in Jerusalem, Jesus will separate the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous will enter eternal life and everyone else will be sent to eternal destruction. Are you ready and prepared?
I’m sure you’ve probably heard the story of the boy who was reading a novel in the living room when his mother said, “Come help do the dishes.” But he said, “No, Mama, I can’t because I’m in chapter 6 and right now the evil robber has someone pinned against the wall, and I have to see how it turns out.” Well, as most mothers do, she persisted, and finally, knowing that he had to go, he just flipped to the back page of the book and he read it. And he said, “You know, that robber is doing alright in chapter 6 but is he ever in for a surprise when he gets to the last page.”
Today we’re going to look at the last page. You know that this has been a series of messages entitled God and the Nations. We’ve spoken about God’s sovereignty in raising up leaders and God’s sovereignty in bringing them down. We’ve also studied how one nation is used by God to judge another. That’s all been a part of this series. And now we come to a passage of Scripture that tells us that God personally is doing the judging through Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s called in the Bible – The Judgment of the Nations. And what we’d like to do in the next few moments is to give you five features of The Judgment of the Nations and zero in particularly on the one that is the most troubling, namely that it appears as if some people inherited eternal life because they were kind to others. And so we’re going to have to unravel that particular passage with its mystery.
So with that background, the passage is Matthew 25 where Jesus speaks about The Judgment of the Nations, and as we look through these features, I want you to notice that first of all, the time is at the glorious appearing of Christ. Matthew 25:31: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne (in heavenly glory).”
We have to take a moment to give you a timeline here. When you look at all of the prophecies of the Bible, it makes most sense to put them all together to believe that first of all, there’s going to be a rapture of the Church, then a period of great tribulation that lasts about seven years plus. And then you have the glorious appearing of Jesus to the Mount of Olives. And this is an appearing that is so beautiful that if you notice in Matthew 24 it says in verse 30: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” That’s the event that is spoken of here. And then after the time of the glorious appearing of Jesus, you have what is known as the Millennial Kingdom that lasts a thousand years plus. And then after that you have a Great White Throne Judgment given in Revelation 20. So here you have the glorious return of Jesus. That’s the time of this judgment.
Let’s hurry on and let’s go to the place of the judgment. Where does it happen? When the Son of Man comes in His glory with all the angels with Him, He shall sit on His throne. Is this the throne of heaven? No, it says, “When the Son of Man comes in the throne of His glory (He’s going to come to earth), the Bible says in Zechariah 14:4: “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley.”
Jesus is actually coming to this earth. The people on earth shall see Him. Every eye that is still able to see at that period of time of all those that are living shall see Him as He returns to this planet. You see in the Old Testament, those prophecies that were made about a glorious rule on this earth have never been fulfilled. Now some people, bless them, want to spiritualize them. They want to make them into poetry, but some of us actually believe that God is going to literally fulfill them.
For example, it says in Isaiah 2 that “He shall judge among the nations and shall settle disputes among many different people, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.” Now those words evidently are engraved in a wall in the United Nations in New York. But I need to tell you, in case you haven’t heard it before, the United Nations will not bring that kind of peace to this earth. Sorry! Thank you for trying, but you’re not going to do it! Only Jesus is going to do it. And He’s actually going to rule.
You say, “Well, where are we going to be?” Well, if we are raptured we’re going to have glorified bodies. We may come with Him. You’ll notice that the Scripture says that all the angels are coming with Him. In ancient days when a king traveled to another country (the king of France or the king of England) perhaps 1,000 or more people accompanied him - butlers, cooks, all kinds of various servants. There would be advisors, people who would be like soldiers, guarding the presence of the king, what we call today the Secret Service. All of those would go with the king. And when Jesus comes to earth, what a descent it is going to be. And the Bible also talks about us coming with Him at this glorious appearing when Jesus comes to this earth. And that’s where I believe it’s going to take place.
So we’ve looked at the time. We’ve looked at the place. Who are the participants? Let’s pick it up in verse 32. It says: “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. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” The imagery is that of sheep and goats – the people like sheep and goats!
Now it says all the nations. Ethnos is the Greek word from which we get the word ethnicity, or ethnic differences. All of the ethnics (ethnic people), usually referred to in the New Testament as Gentiles, are going to be gathered before Him. Who are they? They are ones who survive this great tribulation. Remember rapture, tribulation and glorious appearing of Jesus Christ! They survived the great tribulation, and now they are going to stand for judgment.
Whenever I would hear about the judgment of the nations when I was a child, I used to think that all the nations would come up before God like Canada or like the United States, and then you’d have them go into one column or another just like on election night here in the United States where you have all of Illinois going Democratic. And you have all of California going...! (laughter)
You know, there was a little boy who said, “Daddy, do people still tell fairy tales today?” And his father said, “Oh yes. And those fairy tales usually begin with, ‘When I am elected, I will….’” But the judgment of the nations is not like all of the nations going in one column or another. It is an individual judgment, as you can see. All of the people, the Bible says, are gathered before Him. And you have some who are sheep, and you have some who are goats, and they are going to be set apart by the Lord, and they will have two separate eternal destinies.
You know, you can go to Israel today if it were safe, and you could see shepherds still doing this because sheep and goats graze together during the day, and oftentimes at night they are separated for various reasons, and the shepherd stands in front of the herd. And as it comes toward him he takes his rod and he taps the sheep perhaps on the right, and they go to the right. And he taps the goats on the left side of their heads, and they go to the left. And that’s the imagery that Jesus is using for this final judgment. Who are the participants? The sheep and the goats!
Another feature is the purpose of this. What is the purpose of this judgment anyway? Now we have to look at the text. Very specifically in verse 34 it says these words: “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.’” It’s to determine who is going to go into this millennial kingdom over which Jesus Christ will reign. And all those who go into the millennial kingdom in this context are believers. And they’re still going to have their earthly bodies. They will have to die some day and be resurrected because the Scripture does say that in the millennial period there is going to be longevity. A child shall die being a hundred years old. But the total curse has not yet been lifted, and flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, so these earthly bodies cannot live in an eternal existence, so what you have is Jesus here separating those who are wicked into one place and those who will enter into the millennial kingdom will enter into the kingdom that has been prepared since the foundation of the world. The goal is to determine who enters the kingdom over which Jesus shall rule.
Well, we have looked at the time – the glorious appearing; the place, which is earth; the participants – the sheep and the goats; and the purpose – who goes into the kingdom. But now we come to really the thing that has troubled us at times the most about this particular judgment, and that is the basis upon which they are judged. Let’s read the text.
You’ll notice that the king says in verses 35-40 to the sheep who go into the kingdom, “‘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.’ 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?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
And we want to say, “Wow!” I suppose if you believe that salvation is by works, this would be the clearest passage that you would have in all the Bible to argue that way, that if you do good deeds you get to go into the kingdom and you get to heaven. If you do bad deeds you are excluded. But that would be a mistake to draw that conclusion for a number of different reasons. First of all, it’s because the Bible so clearly teaches in other passages that it is not by works. “By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight.” We can’t be saved by good works for the simple reason that the only works that God ultimately accepts are the works of His beloved Son who was perfect. And unless we put our trust and faith in Jesus we will be excluded even if we happen to do some good works. That is clearly taught in the Bible.
The simple fact is that the best deed in the entire world is not an answer to our deep depravity and our sin. But we read this, and it seems as if the basis of judgment was indeed what they did with these brothers of Jesus. And then we ask ourselves, “Well, you know, if good deeds were the way to heaven, what about somebody like Ted Turner? Didn’t he give a billion dollars to charity, or something like that? And yet he claims to be an atheist. I mean, what happens to him?”
This makes us look at the text a little bit more closely, doesn’t it? Let’s put it all in context. Who are these people anyway, and these brethren? During the period of great tribulation, the Bible says that there are Jews that are converted to Christ, multitudes of them. Revelation 7 says 144,000, and it even lists the various tribes from which they come. And it says that they are sealed and they are servants of God, and catch this, they have their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. Well, during the great Tribulation, Antichrist is ruling. Antichrist is forcing everyone to take the mark of the beast, and if you do not take the mark of the beast, the Bible says you cannot buy or sell. You couldn’t go to Jewel to buy a loaf of bread unless you go through some kind of a scanner or some kind of an indicator that says that you have the mark of the beast. And so all that you can possibly do in that situation is somehow survive. And Gentiles helped these Jews, who may be the brethren about whom Jesus speaks, by the ethnos, because the only way that they could survive was with help. And in doing this, the Gentiles, whatever problem they also had to buy or sell because they would have been ones who didn’t receive the mark of the beast either, at least had some kind of wiggle room, whereas during the period of Tribulation the Jews are specifically targeted by the greatest hate and satanic campaign in history. So for these Gentiles to help the Jews is definitely a sign that these are Gentiles who also believe in and trust the Messiah. And they do not take the mark of the beast. And their good deeds are obviously an indication of who they are and to whom they are loyal. And so, Jesus says, “As a result of that, you did this to my brethren, you visited me in prison, you clothed me, and because of that you will enter into the kingdom.
Now hang onto that for a moment as we look at the goats and see what happens to them. You’ll notice it says in verses 41-45: “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. 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.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘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.’” And then comes the most ominous verse in this whole chapter that should give us chills. “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Who are the goats? They are the ones who took the mark of the beast. They are the ones who would not sacrifice anything to save anybody’s life or to help anyone, much less the Jews, because to do so meant that they were putting themselves in peril and the possibility of death. And having taken the mark of the beast, they, of course, were rejecting any possibility of helping Jesus Christ’s brethren, and that would be the sign that they are unbelievers.
You know when you read the book of Revelation, and of course we don’t have time to do that today, but as you do, one of the things that you discover is that during the Tribulation period, the distinction between believers and unbelievers is very clear. For example, in the fourteenth chapter it says explicitly that all those who take the mark of the beast are destined to the eternal flames where they will be tormented day and night forever and ever because once you do that, you side with the devil. And by the way, there’s no evidence that people in hell would ever repent of their sins. Sin has certain consequences, and once you have cast your lot, you take the train all the way to the station.
As we look at this passage of Scripture I’d like to leave us with two very important lessons that should be transforming in our lives. The first is that we have to ask a question, and even though this refers to the Tribulation period, the basic principle is still there for us, isn’t it? And the basic principle is whom are you following and who is Jesus Christ for you?
Bonhoeffer, you remember, used this passage during the time of the Nazi rule in Germany, asking the parishioners of his churches, “Who is Jesus Christ for you?" “To us,” he said, “Jesus Christ today is the Jew. So what we should be doing is inviting Jews in. We should be defending the Jews. We should be willing to extend ourselves. And we should be able to look into their eyes and to say, ‘You are for me Jesus Christ. If you need clothes, I will clothe you. If you are in prison I’ll visit you. If you need food I’ll put food on your table because I’m going to serve you as if I am serving Jesus.’”
So who is Christ for us? Is it a biracial child? Is it, by the way, a child that perhaps is unwanted? For some of you mothers, God bless you, the father of your child may no longer be in the home for whatever reason, and you have to raise that child alone. Maybe it was a child you didn’t want, and there is some resentment in your heart. Can you look into the eyes of that child and rear him as if he were Jesus Christ? I have to tell you, of course, I know he doesn’t act like Jesus Christ. But is he Jesus Christ for you?
Is the child that you tutor over at Cabrini Green Jesus Christ for you? Is there someone in need in your community or in the inner city, someone for whom you are extending yourself, someone to whom you are able to meet their need and to say, “Yes, you are Jesus Christ to me and I’m caring for you as if you were He?”
I read this passage and I am overwhelmed by the words of Jesus and how personally He takes our interaction with others. Did you know that in verse 35 He uses the word “I” six times? Let me read it emphasizing that. “I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat.” No wonder the people are so surprised. “What do you mean Jesus hungry? I didn’t see You hungry.” Ah! “You saw the least of these and you fed them.” “I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited Me in. I needed clothes and you clothed Me in that Osiri Refugee Camp. That’s Me who needed clothes. I was sick, and you looked after Me.”
I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to say this again, but it’s coming right now. Did you know that during the early centuries, during the plagues, that some of the early church fathers said that it was the plagues that actually helped Christianity spread because of the difference that people saw between unbelievers and believers. And the difference was this. Unbelievers fled for their lives whenever there was a plague, not wanting to get the disease. Christians willingly risked their lives to take care of others, believing that they had a higher calling than life itself. And so Cyprian, one of the early church fathers said, regarding the plagues, “Bring them on. They’re great. They help us show the reality of the Christian faith.” And so Jesus said, “I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
So I have to ask you today. Is there anyone in your life who is Jesus Christ to you? Should we not all have someone who is in need, whom we look upon as being Jesus, whom we can serve? What a transforming church it would be if all of us were involved in the life of someone else who needed us.
There’s a second lesson and this, of course, concludes our series of messages on God and the Nations, and that is simply this. Obviously history is going somewhere. We as Christians do not believe that history is cyclical, that it keeps going around in circles and just comes and goes with no end in sight. History is on a march that ultimately is determined by God.
With your open Bible I’d like you to look one more time at verse 34. Jesus is saying to the righteous, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Notice that this kingdom was in preparation for a long time. It doesn’t mean, you know, that God has to get His act together and needs to work. What he’s saying is that it’s in the mind of the Father from the beginning. Do you realize that you were in God’s mind from the beginning? And Jesus said that this kingdom is being prepared and has been prepared from the beginning. But notice that the same word is used in verse 41: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed (Last time I spoke on the fact that we have a god in America who can only bless. He cannot curse or He cannot judge.), into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” He doesn’t say it was prepared for man per se. No, it’s also clear in the book of Revelation that that’s where they all end eventually who reject Jesus Christ as Savior.
Aren’t you startled by the contrast that there is of the two categories, and that there’s no in between category here? There’s no sheep and goats, and then something that is neither sheep nor goats. It’s either one side or the other side for all of eternity. There are some people, bless them, who think that hell cannot be eternal because we just don’t want an eternal hell, but notice what it says in verse 46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” And there you have two separate eternities as history marches on.
You know in Canada somewhere up north in British Columbia you have the Fraser River crashing down and then it separates. And part of it goes to the right and part of it goes to the left. One of the streams goes to the Atlantic Ocean. The other eventually ends up in the Pacific Ocean. Now eventually that water might meet somewhere but not in this case where you have the great divide – Jesus separating people from one another forever.
And so I guess I have to ask you this question. Have you personally come to trust Christ as Savior in such a way that you say, “Yes, I know which side of the divide I will be on.” If you were to take the time to read Matthew 26 and 27 and 28, you’d discover that Jesus is dying on the cross, and the reason that He’s dying on the cross is because we are sinners. And through His death salvation comes to those who believe. And then as that gift of salvation works itself out in us, we begin to serve others. We begin to find the least of these, his brethren, and we begin to serve them as if they were Jesus. Eternity is a long time.
I say to the young people present, the people who took the mark of the beast followed a loser. He appeared to be a winner but they followed a loser. Don’t ever follow somebody who appears to be a winner, but in the end loses.
During the time when you had Gladstone as the Prime Minister of England, there is a story about a young man who came to him and said, “I hope to do great things.” And Gladstone said, “That’s good. What do you plan to do?” He said, “I want to get a good education.” Gladstone said, “That’s great, and what then?” He said, “After I have a good education I want to be elected to the British Parliament to make a difference.” Gladstone said, “That’s good, and what then?” And then the young man said, “After that I’d like to write some books to pass my wisdom on to future generations.” And Gladstone said, “That’s good and what then?” The young man said, “Well, eventually I’m going to have to retire.” He said, “That’s right and what then?” The young man said, “Well, of course, you know at some point I’m going to have to die.” “Yeah, that’s right! And what then?” And the young man said, “I don’t know how to answer that question.” And apparently Gladstone said, “Get on your knees and stay on your knees until you have thought life through to the very end.”
These righteous go into eternal life. These others – eternal punishment! And there’s nothing in between. Whoever you are, think life through to the very end.
Our Father, we are overwhelmed by this passage because we think of its implications for our lives. And then we think, Father, of the fact that it is coming, and it is true, and eventually You will have the great separation. And we think, Father, of how families are going to be separated, husbands and wives, children and brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles, all determined by what they did with Jesus. Would You, Father, cause those who are present today, who have never trusted You as Savior, to believe even at this moment, to say, “Jesus, I receive You because I want to be a part of Your company?”
Why don’t you just talk to God now no matter where you are at in your spiritual journey? Simply say, “Father, I am desirous of serving You.” If you are a believer you can say that, but those who have never trusted Christ, say, “Jesus, save me. Eternity is coming.”
Father, do in us that which is well pleasing in Your sight we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.