by The Rev. Mark Buetow
St. Matthew 25:31-46
Judgment Day! The prophet Daniel tells us about the throne with fire coming out of it. The court is seated and the books are opened! The apostle Peter describes how the earth and the heavens will be consumed by fire on that day and this heaven and this earth will pass away. These are scary images. They are the sorts of pictures that, if we stop and consider them, should frighten and terrify sinners. They should cause us to fall down and cry out in repentance for our sins! Then comes our Lord Jesus' words. He describes that Judgment Day and speaks of the separation of the sheep and the goats. And our sinful flesh, which only ever thinks of itself, grabs onto the idea that what is going on is that Jesus is judging people based on how they lived. Those who served their neighbor get to go to heaven. Those who didn't do good works for others go to hell. If you do good works, you get rewarded. If you don't do good works, you get punished. Brothers and sisters in Christ, if that's what you get out of this Gospel reading, then repent! Do you think that Jesus preaches His works and His grace and then the apostles preach that we are saved by grace through Christ's work and your pastors preach that you are saved by what Jesus has done and then, on the Last Day, it's suddenly going to change so that no you are actually saved by how you lived your life? The Lord doesn't change. His grace doesn't disappear. His work of saving you from your sins doesn't end on that Last Day! Let's listen carefully to what Jesus is actually saying as He teaches of the sheep and the goats and we'll be comforted against our sins and rescued from false fear of that Last Day.
First of all, let's look at Jesus' work on earth. The prophet Daniel says that the Son of Man received a kingdom from the Ancient of Days. That is, Jesus receives a kingdom from His Father. How does Jesus receive this kingdom? Does He come to earth and teach people how to live a good life so they can be a part of His kingdom? No! He comes to live a good life in our place. He comes to keep the commandments that we break. He comes to fulfill the Law that we cannot. Yet Jesus comes to do more than just live. He comes to die. To die for sinners. To die in the place of sinners. To die covered with the sins of sinners. To give His life as a ransom for sinners. Everything Jesus is about in His earthly life is accomplishing, achieving, winning FOR US, the forgiveness of sins. Just think about when He hung on the cross as a King, crowned with thorns. There is a a thief who despises and mocks Him. A goat, we should say, who has no share in Christ's kingdom because He despises Christ. On the other side, though is a sheep, a sinner who has nothing to trust in or cling to than Jesus' mercy. And that day he was in paradise with Jesus. So let's be clear. Everything that Jesus comes to do and accomplish is HIS OWN work done on our behalf, for us, and in our place. That doesn't change on the Last Day. So knowing what our Lord has done for us in His flesh, let's listen carefully to the words He speaks about the sheep and the goats and we'll be rescued once again from despair or false hope.
Jesus says that He will separate the sheep from the goats on the Last Day. It doesn't say He will decide who's a sheep or a goat based on what they've done. When all people stand before the Lord on the Last Day, they will already be sheep and goats! Jesus says elsewhere, "I know my sheep and my sheep know me." He knows the sheep before that Last Day. What is it that makes you a sheep? Your Baptism into Christ. Jesus dies on the cross for the sins of the whole world. That salvation is given to you, bestowed upon you, becomes yours at the holy font. At the moment you are washed with water and the Word, you are born again from above. You are made a part of Christ's kingdom. At the moment of your Baptism, you are made a child of God. One of Jesus' little lambs. I want you to realize, dear Christians, that when you stand before the Lord on the Last Day, it will be as His holy and beloved sheep. If you ever doubt that, then remember you Baptism. If you ever are uncertain, if you ever worry that perhaps on that day you will be in the goat line, then hear it again: you are a sheep of Christ because you are baptized into Him! Don't ever doubt that!
Now listen carefully to Jesus' next words to His sheep. "Come you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." Think about that for a second. From the foundation of the world. Before we were created or born, our heavenly Father had a kingdom prepared for us. Now, how can we inherit a kingdom by our good works if that kingdom was planned to be given to us before we were even alive to do any good works!? Think about that. Our heavenly Father has already made ready our eternal kingdom before we were ever born or did anything. Which means that when Jesus is speaking to His sheep on the Last Day, He's not telling them about some reward they've earned. He's giving them a gift that has always been a gift. It has always been something from God's mercy, not what we have earned or deserved! This is important! These words of Jesus, that the kingdom has already been made ready for the sheep demolish ANY notion that somehow the sheep are getting something they've earned or worked for. The key to understanding all this is Jesus, of course. The Bible says that Jesus is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. That the Father has always intended to send His Son to save us from our sins. The kingdom is prepared before the world was made because it was decided that Jesus would save the world before it was even made! Again, how can you be certain that this kingdom is prepared? That it's ready for you? That's what your Baptism says. When you are absolved of your sins, you are being reminded that nothing will keep you from the gift of a kingdom that your Father has prepared. When you eat and drink Jesus' body and blood, you are united to your Savior in such a way that when He receives His kingdom, it's YOUR kingdom too. In Christ, all that He has is now yours. And that's exactly what He'll say to us on the Last Day. "It's all yours! Come and enjoy it forever and ever!"
Now we come to the good works part. Again, by listening carefully to what Jesus actually says, we'll be prevented from reading His words wrongly, misunderstanding them and falling into false fear and despair. Jesus tells the sheep all that good things they have done and then says, "Then the sheep will say, 'When did we see you all these ways and do all these things?'" When they did it for the least Christian brother, they did it for Jesus. Notice that Jesus tells us that the sheep don't even know they did these things! They weren't aware they were serving Christ as they helped their neighbor. In other words, the sheep were NOT doing good works because they were keeping track and trying to get into heaven by doing enough good works! They lived their lives as Christians and what they did, the Lord counts as good works in Christ. Dear Christians, what good works have you done? What will be said of you on the Last Day? The answer is: you have no idea the things you have done for the Lord! You don't even know how many works you have done! There is so much you have done and accomplished for others and thus for Christ that you don't even know! But you will on the Last Day. For all the world to see, your good works will be commended by your Lord. They are not commended now. What you do you don't always know and if you did, you might get smug and proud and self-righteous. But on THAT Day, everyone will know what you have done: not your sins. Those are forgotten in Christ. They will know what good you have done in Christ. Not of yourself. It is the Holy Spirit working through you by faith. As for those who have done no good works? Apart from Christ, their works are nothing. They have despised Christ and their neighbor and they will be sent away to torment! But you, dear Christian, never worry about how you're doing. Because you are in Christ, your good works are piling up and you don't even know it!
So beware, dear Christians, of despairing of salvation when you hear the story of the sheep and the goats. Beware of thinking that somehow its all going to come down to what YOU'VE done. If it did, we are all indeed doomed! But on that Last Day, it all comes down to Christ. As it always has. It is His life, death and resurrection that have won salvation for us. It is His Baptizing us that makes us His sheep before that Day. It is His gaining us a kingdom that means it has been prepared before we were even made. It is His living in us through His Word and means of grace that means all our works done in Him are good works. Don't fear but rejoice in that Last Day. Look forward to it! Because on that Day all that Christ has done for you by His life and all that He has given to you in your life will be fulfilled in the gift of an everlasting kingdom for you to enjoy! In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Mark Buetow is Pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in Du Quoin, IL. Pr. Buetow is the editor of the Higher Things Reflections and Internet Services Executive. He has also been a guest on Higher Things Radio.
Created: November 16th, 2008