Artwork: The Last Judgment (~1430), by Fra Angelico (1395–1455)
When Jesus speaks his coming, he speaks of the separation of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31–46). However, we ought to remember that this picture is not just a parable of animals. Jesus is speaking of the final judgment of “all nations” (25:32). While we think of people in terms of family, clan, nation, ethnicity, etc., the truth is that there is only really two different kinds of people, the “blessed” (25:34) and the “cursed” (25:41).
In the Final Judgment, Jesus will separate all people into these two groups. There will be no middle ground. Fra Angelico’s The Last Judgment (the artwork above) pictures this vividly. Just as there are only two groups, there are only two destinations: the heaven of the new creation and the torment of hell. Both are worth pondering.
We should acknowledge that hell is real, and therefore fear God’s wrath and punishment. But so also, we should consider heaven and what great things God has prepared for the elect.
To what end then does Jesus tell his disciples about the Final Judgment? What purpose does it serve? Should God’s people think of this Word of Jesus as Law or Gospel? Should we be troubled by Jesus’ teaching, or should we rejoice and be comforted?
The truth is that this account serves more than one purpose. For those who are secure sinners, Jesus’s teaching should trouble them. But for those who are faithful saints, Jesus’s teaching should provide them with comfort and remind them what is really at stake in the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel. In the end, there is no neutrality. What we teach and preach is life or death. Therefore, we should take it seriously what God has to teach us in this account.
The Mindfulness of Eternal Realities
Nowadays it has become common to talk of “mindfulness.” For Christians, we should be mindful that in the Church we are participating in eternal realities here in time, and that at Christ’s second coming there will be two eternal destinations. For this reason, Jesus simply speaks of two “ways” or “gates.”
So, according to Jesus, we are either on the broad way to the wide gate of hell, or we are on the difficult way to the narrow gate which leads to heaven. There are only “two ways” and there are only “two destinations.” The evil and unrepentant are on the broad way which leads to eternal suffering, and the righteous who trust in Christ are on the narrow way which leads to eternal joy.
This means that the way in which we are walking now matters. As when one plans to go on a long journey to a far away destination, he plans ahead of time how he will get there, so also Christians who are mindful of eternal realities should also consider what God has given him in order that he reaches the intended goal.
In the epistle reading from this week, St. Peter writes simply that it is God’s intention and will not that “any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). While we often think that this “repentance” happens in a moment, the reality is that the Christian life is one of continual and daily repentance.
So, for example, when we speak of Holy Baptism in the Small Catechism, it is certainly true that we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation in the moment when we are baptized. However, Holy Baptism is also the sign or symbol of what is to happen daily in our lives. Luther writes in the Small Catechism:
How then can we stay mindful of this need for daily repentance? By continually reading and hearing God’s Word, by attending to the sermon and listening to preaching. If we do so, then we are reminded of our need for forgiveness, our need for confession and absolution, and our need for the Lord’s Supper. To be a Christian is to walk this narrow way in view of the end. To be a Christian is to have a long term view of God’s plan for our lives. To be a Christian is to be mindful of those things which God has given to keep us on this narrow way. As it is written:
These things are the narrow way which bring us to our eternal destination, in order that we might enter into the narrow gate that is Christ himself.
Separation: Law AND Gospel
Now, considering the Final Judgment, we are told that Jesus does something that we don’t normally think of: separation. We are taught that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep and brings it home (Luke 15:4–7). St. Paul says that Christ has “broken down the wall of separation” by his death on the cross for all people (Ephesians 2:14).
This is certainly true. For all who are in Christ Jesus, there is no longer separation with God, but rather there is communion. There is no longer a veil that we cower behind in fear, but we have free access to God through the blood of Christ.
However, the Final Judgment is a day of separation. While Christ’s death and resurrection brings communion or fellowship with God, it also means that there are those who will not have eternal communion and fellowship with God.
If this were not clear enough from the Gospel reading, Jesus teaches the same in other places. In one place, Jesus says that the reapers (the angels) will come and separate the tares from the wheat. The tares will be burned in the oven, but the wheat will be gathered safely inside the storehouse (Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43). Likewise, Jesus says again that the angels will separate the wicked from among the just just as fishermen separate good fish from bad fish. The bad fish are cast into the furnace of fire, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:47–50).
For those who are not in Christ Jesus and therefore are not righteous by faith, this is the strongest law. Pondering hell and eternal punishment should cause us to fear. There are repercussions for all of our actions and there is recompense for our sins.
However, for those who are in Christ Jesus this is pure gospel. For with the separation at the Final Judgment, evil is finally put in its place and is destroyed. Those who wickedly cling to their sin, who despise God and his saints, and who would hate and persecute the Church will no longer be able to do so. Instead, God will keep his saints from all evil, and every tear will be wiped away from their eye.
Our Confession Matters
A theologian once wrote, “Forgetfulness of the Final Judgment is the mother of security, but the daily remembrance of it is the mother of earnest piety.”1 When we remember that we are going to die (memento mori) and be judged, we are turned away from thinking short-term and considering our lives in days, weeks, and months. Instead, we think of things that are greater than ourselves.
When considering death, people often think to themselves: What will be my legacy? What will I leave behind? What will I be remembered for? However, what we should ask is this: What will God think of me when I die?
In the end, there is only one thing that really matters: What is your confession? What is your faith? What do you believe in? While you might leave treasures and possessions and behind, they will rot and decay. In the end, not all that glitters is gold. Moth and rust have a habit of bringing destruction (Matthew 6:19–21). Things we built today are destroyed tomorrow. It is inevitable.
However, there is a place where neither moth nor rust destroys. Jesus calls us to lay up treasure there. How do we do this? Faith and confession. By faith, we lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven. By faith, we “inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). By our confession of faith, we also teach others to do the same.
God works through means. God works through us. God works through fathers teaching their children about Jesus. God works through mothers teaching their children to love Jesus. God works through brothers and sisters reaching out to long lost relatives. Our confession matters, for our sakes and for our loved ones.
Treasures Temporal and Eternal
We have many treasures in the world because God has been a good Father to us and given us good things. But he also has better things planned for us. Sometimes we forget this and we need a reminder. There are many trees that bear fruit from which we may eat, but there is only one tree of life which offers eternal life. It would be foolish to indulge in all the fruit of the world and become so full as to forget the tree of life. It would be foolish to live for today and so forget the joy that is ours in Christ Jesus, whose cross is the true tree of life.
If you think that God does not have better things to offer what he has given you now, you are sorely mistaken (Thanks be to God!). God tells you so in Scripture. Jesus tells you he has prepared a place for you, and St. John gives you a picture of that heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21–22). So what has he prepared for you, O sheep? Better things that you could ever imagine. So forget the temporal treasures. Remember the end, remember the Gospel; for eternal treasures are a terrible thing to waste.
- Johann Gerhard, On the Last Judgment, Theological Commonplace XXXI, § 119. ↩︎