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Sweet and Terrifying

Matthew 25:31-46

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C. S. Lewis called it “the most terrifying section of the New Testament.” John Chrysostom called it “that most sweet section of Scripture.” As you will; but no mind awake yawns through this passage.

Son of Man

Mat 25:31-33 NASB "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. (32) "All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; (33) and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

Judgment Itself

Talk to most Christians about the return of our Lord and you will meet with a curious reaction: they will certainly agree with you about the facts, but will have an indifference to them. It is “academic” to them, a thing for scholars to puzzle over. Our Lord certainly did not treat it that way.

  • First, He tells us that it will come. Winston Churchill once wrote that the British people have the habit of assuming that since the danger had not yet arrived, it was already past. This habit, he tells us, “has led them into some very narrow escapes.” This time, there will be no escape.
  • The judgment is accorded to the Son of Man – the perfect man. The judgment is delivered by one who knows our weaknesses, and thus it is that we are not all condemned.
  • That judgment will come in glory, the glory Christ had with the Father in the beginning of all things.[1]

It is also clear that all will appear before the Judge. The word “nations” here is ethnos in the Greek, from which we get our word “ethnic.” There are some who hold that Christians will never face judgment; the plain sense of the Scripture here seems to be to the contrary.


Please note that the separation is not made on the basis of something found out at this judgment; the sheep and the goats were sheep and goats when they were gathered. So while this will be a surprise to many, it shouldn’t be. The Judge is simply separating one from another on the basis of what already is, not on the basis of some new criterion. In short, we choose which we want to be:

·         Sheep are noted in the Scripture for being mild and obedient – and following a shepherd. This is the obedient Christian.

·         Goats have a particular use in Scripture: they bear the sins of the people.[2] Symbolically, these are the unforgiven sinners, bearing their sins.

The Christian is admonished to be in the world but not of the world. We are to be separated and thus holy. The judgment does not create this fact, in confirms it.


Why a judgment at all?

The idea of a judgment at the end of time seems to many to be a cruel and vindictive thing. Why would a merciful God do such a thing?

  • God is his attributes, Aquinas tells us – so just as we can say “God is love” we can say “God is righteousness.”[3] It is His very nature.
  • Revelation assures us that He will bring about a new heaven and a new earth, in which He will dwell with his people. In His presence no evil can stand; He must therefore send it away from Himself.

Some will argue that God cannot be both powerful and righteous, otherwise He would have made grease spots of us all. So either He is not powerful, or not righteous – or not finished yet.

The Righteous

Mat 25:34-40 NASB "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (35) 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; (36) naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' (37) "Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? (38) 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? (39) 'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' (40) "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'


It is of some importance that the righteous are addressed first. It was promised that the Apostles would sit on twelve thrones and judge the tribes of Israel; so it would seem that the righteous must be declared first to take their part. Some hold that the righteous will be given judgment.[4]

Whatever else, we see that the righteous are not simply permitted to go their own way after the judgment, but rather are greatly blessed.

  • They are said to be blessed of the Father. The ruler of all things confers upon the righteous His blessing; there is no greater.
  • They are to inherit the kingdom – an expression of great richness. How often have your daydreams been of winning the lottery or inheriting riches? Add to this authority, all beyond your imagination, and still you are not close to the blessing.
  • That blessing is not an afterthought but the original plan of God. The kingdom of God was planned from the foundation of the world.

So what are the criteria that Christ uses in this separation? We may see how generous He is:

  • He rewards obedience itself, not the grandeur of any gift we bring Him. Obedience is a “lowest common denominator,” something which any of us can choose.
  • It is also clear that He recognizes faith by our works, not our words. Though our works might necessarily be small, He knows what they signify.
  • Even the smallest of acts are greatly rewarded; faithful in little means faithful in much. The obstacles of today do not compare with the rewards He will bring.[5]
Character shown in reaction

Look, if you please, at the reaction of the righteous. It shows their humility, for they were not out to impress others with their charity. They were simply being charitable, which is to say loving. God is love, and His children show it. In their humility they disclaim any pretension.

But it does raise a question: do we see Christ in the poor? How often I have heard that the man by the road with the cardboard sign is a fraud! No doubt some are. But many are not. Sometimes we do not see the image of God in the poor, though they are created in His image as we are.

Perhaps it is a new thought to you, but recall this: the only material thing Christ included in the Lord’s Prayer is “our daily bread.” If it is so important that it belongs there, perhaps then we should be willing to share it with others.

The Wicked

Mat 25:41-46 NASB "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; (42) for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; (43) I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.' (44) "Then they themselves also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' (45) "Then He will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' (46) "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."


The blessed are “blessed of my Father”; the cursed are simply accursed. God condemns no one to hell; they are all volunteers.

Note, please, that those who are the wicked are not simply sinners; they are the ones who have failed at all acts of mercy. We should not be legalistic about this. I have visited those in prison, both those I knew beforehand and those I did not. But this does not impose an obligation to do so upon all Christians. The point here is that the wicked have failed in all aspects of mercifulness.

The comparison with the merciful continues. The righteous are rewarded for their acts “to one of my brothers”; the wicked are condemned because they did not do so to one of the least of these. The righteous need not seek out only the poorest and worthiest; need alone will suffice for them. The wicked do not even look for the poorest and worthiest.

Seven accusations

(I am indebted to John Chrysostom for this list). This passage is seldom mentioned in our time, perhaps because hell has given way to “Christless eternity.” The original still maintains its force; please permit me these seven accusations against the wicked:

  • Consider the slightness of the poor man’s requests: a cup of water, some bread; shelter for the night. Are these so heavy a burden to you?
  • Consider the destitution of those who ask: are you being asked to aid the rich, or the poorest of the poor?
  • Consider, too, what happens to your sense of compassion if you continually ignore the please of the poor. What do you become? Compassion, like conscience, can be seared with a hot iron – and the effects are equally deadly.
  • If that does not suffice, what about the expectation of God’s promise? Would you not lend to the Lord for His repayment?[6]
  • Just who is the recipient of your gift? Is it not the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Is He not worthy of your love?
  • Consider too the honor bestowed. If you had the power to present a gift to the President you would be a “shaker and mover.” But here you have the power to present a gift to the King of Kings; which is the greater honor?
  • Finally, consider the matter as one of righteousness. All that we have is His; we are but stewards. Would not the righteous steward use His things as He commands?
“Surely a loving God…”

To some, it seems impossible that the God who is love would ever allow anyone into hell. To this there is a simple answer: are you accusing God of fraud? Christ is clear on the subject, and mentions it frequently.

There is a more subtle objection. The existence of evil means the possibility of repentance. Surely God would allow the wicked one more chance? This argument eventually comes down to the idea that as long as there is wickedness in the world, God will wait. Hell has veto power over heaven, in short. Should God delay in bringing His true children to paradise? When is it more loving to bring the righteous to their new home than it is to delay, hoping for repentance? God alone knows, which is why He alone knows the day and hour of Christ’s return.

Finally, there is a positive reason why the wicked will suffer forever. You will note from the story of Lazarus that the righteous can see the wicked in torment. Perhaps the eternal punishment of the wicked is given so that the righteous will be eternally grateful.

[1] See also Revelation 20:11-15

[2] Leviticus 16:7-10

[3] Compare, for example, Psalm 71:19

[4] See Revelation 20:4

[5] Romans 8:18

[6] Proverbs 19:17

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