This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
The world in which we live both begins and ends with the judgments that the Creator makes upon men and women. To our first parents the command was given that they were not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were under probation, tested as to whether their first loyalty was to Jehovah or to anything else – themselves or another spiritual power. They were warned of the judgment that would come upon them if they defied the will of God. The day they ate from that tree they would surely die. But within a few days of hearing that word from God they actually took and ate the forbidden fruit and judgment came upon them. They were driven away from the presence of God. In our text Paul tells us as clearly as possible that all mankind is facing a future personal judgment from God. “It will take place,” he says. It is not only that every day all men and women evaluate and assess their own lives, and that that process is being commented on here in vivid language. No! There will be one tremendous day, and it is coming nearer and nearer, and on that occasion God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ. This will happen because the whole creation and all of us are God’s, that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, that in God we live and move and have our being, that this is a moral universe. It began with the mankind that God had made rejecting God, hiding from God, and answering to God for what they had done, and this also is how it will end.
1. THERE WILL BE A DAY WHEN THE WORLD WE KNOW WILL END.
The next revealed event on God’s earthly timetable is not a revival. It is the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. At his ascension, forty days after his resurrection, he went up to the throne of God to take his seat as co-regent of the world. Our Saviour became the head of the church and the ruler of his newly-established kingdom. He became the shepherd and high priest of his people. He didn’t forget about them, and so immediately he’d ascended to heaven he called a couple of angels and sent them on a mission, to go back and address the little group of concerned and abandoned apostles. They’d watched him going up a little, and then a cloud had hid him from their sight. They could no longer see their dear friend of the last three years. They were standing there gaping at the cloud. Would he come back down again? Was this a temporary departure? The angels Jesus had sent appeared and they asked the eleven, “. . . why do you stand looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into the sky will come back in the same way that you saw him go into the sky” (Acts 1:11). They were merely confirming what Christ had personally told them about seven weeks earlier in the Upper Room. “I am going to prepare a place for you, and if I go I will come again and take you unto myself that where I am there you be also” (Jn.14:1-3).
It is on predictions like those that the church has based its belief in a bodily, visible return of the Lord to the earth some day. The Apostles’ Creed is repeated each Sunday by many congregations and they say these words about Christ, “and he will come again to judge the quick and the dead.” This was the message of Paul; he adds the word here in our text, “as my gospel declares.” You find Paul writing to the Thessalonian church (it is one of his first letters), and he fills in the details a bit more, disclosing the fact that believers (transformed either by resurrection or still alive and active in the world when he appears) will ascend to meet the Son of God. They will be caught up as a welcoming body to greet him and then escort him with the already glorified church as he comes back to earth (1 Thessalonians 4:13). I can remember so well after I had been a Christian a couple of months reading in bed my Bible with Scripture Union notes and the passage for the day was I Thessalonians 4 and I read those words about the coming of Christ, and I thought, “Right! This is where the second coming is taught in the Bible.” That is how we learn, isn’t it? We simply read the Bible for five minutes as often as we can each and some things stick. We establish simple new rhythms.
Then, again, one of Paul’s last letters is one that he wrote to Titus and it is this theme of the second coming that the apostle returns to. He describes it as the “appearing of the glory of the great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” He also calls his “blessed hope”; it is his “happy expectation” and that of the whole church (Titus 2:13).
In every passage that deals with the return of the Lord Jesus the emphasis is always upon his coming back to the world; it is never upon our going away! On that joyous occasion, when Christians see him they shall become like him; they shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and this body of weakness will be gloriously strengthened and transformed. We shall be raised from the dust with new bodies, and sinless natures. We will focus upon our Lord; not upon ourselves. The hymn writer was right when she wrote that our gaze would be “not on the crown He giveth but on His pierced hand”.
But when will this remarkable event take place? Throughout the centuries, men have set dates and upset the peace of the church. We cannot know the time of the end of the world. It is not that our minds couldn’t cope with it. It is that God has deliberately kept that information to himself. The Lord Jesus himself has said, “No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk.13:32). He has kept the knowledge of the times and seasons in his own power, and yet time and again the mind of the church, and the curiosity of God’s people, has had the audacity to pit itself against that declared limit on the part of God’s revelation.
The Lord says, “nobody knows.” It is past finding out. It is absolutely impossible for any sinner to announce that such and such a date is the day of the return of the Lord of glory. We have to live with that limitation. We have to submit to it. The great argument of the New Testament with regards to that fact is that “in such an hour as you think not the Son of Man comes.” Our preparedness and alertness is not a response to any definite knowledge of the time of his return, it is in fact a response to the total uncertainty of his return. You don’t know when he’s going to come, and because of that the church must keep itself in a state of constant preparedness. Our loins are girt about and our lamps are lit. We make ourselves ready for the appearing of the Bridegroom by being good and faithful servants regarding our families and children and vocations and the service that we give to the church. Be wise and truthful with what God has entrusted to you. Our Lord desires fruitfulness and increase; this brings glory to God. Stay faithful to the Lord as your first love. Never be ashamed of his gospel. Present your bodies as living sacrifices to him. Stay devoted to him, and so on.
To those who find it difficult to wait, and are overly anxious for the Lord to come, perhaps it would not be out of place to remind them that they are alive today only because the return of the Lord didn’t happen centuries or even decades before! God is not willing that any of his elect should perish, but that all of them should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:2).He is not delaying the coming; he’s busy today gathering all the elect into his kingdom over the years. When the last one has come to faith – and not before that event – the end will surely come.
Someone asks, “Do you really believe that it will happen after waiting all these years?” Why shouldn’t I believe it? Those patriarchs waited, together with those who followed them, for millennia until Christ the Messiah arrived for the first time. Why shouldn’t I also be expected to wait for his second coming? Shouldn’t you wait? Shouldn’t you? You’re not persuaded. You say grudgingly, “I guess that’s so.” Then you add, “But it’s almost like going to the doctor and having to wait again . . . for more weeks or months after the time, for the final appointment.” But Jesus’ coming – just as in the first time he appeared – will be exactly according to the divine schedule. It won’t be like waiting for a London bus. Don’t you remember what Peter said about patient waiting? He said that it was mercy and grace that’s causing the apparent delay. You mustn’t miss Peter’s point. He said God is waiting until all of the nations of the earth had heard the gospel and favoured sinners in every part of both hemispheres had been saved. Would you rather have Christ come in your lifetime even though that would mean that some unsaved persons, your children and grandchildren perhaps who have not yet believed, would go to hell because God refused to wait for them to have an opportunity to hear the Gospel? Think about this: had Jesus come when some of the early Christians had hoped he would, you’d be one of the people who wouldn’t have been saved. In fact you wouldn’t have been born!
So there is going to be this day of reckoning, and that day will be the end of the world. It will not end as Bertrand Russell described its final, horrible destination in these words of his; “All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction . . . The whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” No. It will end with the return of the Lord Jesus in triumph and majesty, just as he promised.
2. THAT DAY WILL BE A DAY OF JUDGMENT.
Again we are dependent on the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount for our information about this. The man who healed every kind of sickness, and delivered people from all devilish influences, and raised the dead, and spoke as no man as ever spoke, the one who made such extraordinary claims to be one with God, and to be the resurrection and the life, who existed before Abraham, and be the only way to God. Those are either cruel horrendous lies or they are the words of the incarnate God.
What did he say in Matthew’s gospel? Can you trust the words of the Lord Jesus? “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All 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. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (Matt. 25:31-33). And so Jesus’ faithful apostle Paul spoke and wrote about this event just as his Lord had spoken. He did so in his pioneer evangelism. He went to Athens and he met there some of the philosophers on Mars Hill and he taught them what was the message he had received from the Lord. He said, “Now God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30&31), and some of his hearers scoffed at him then – just as men scoff today, but some of the Athenians were persuaded, including one notable and influential man and one woman. How thrilled we would be in our evangelism to see such eminent instant fruit. They became founder members of the church in Athens, and today there is still a gospel church there, and not long ago two of their members worshipped with us for three years during their studies at the university.
So the Day of Judgment was an integral part of Paul’s preaching, his presentation of the gospel included the Day of Judgment. It was not a special scary message that he preached on a low attendance Thursday night to draw a few curious people along. The Day of Judgment is not a leaf and twig Christian doctrine; it is a trunk and branch doctrine. Paul also wrote about this event in his letters. For example he said in 2 Corinthians chapter 5 and verse 10, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” Paul was simply teaching Gentiles what his Lord Jesus taught the Jews. The writer to the Hebrews could not make this event more clear and plain. He wrote, “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after death the judgment.”
Perhaps the passage that brings our emotions most powerfully to this truth is found in the last book of the Bible, Revelation chapter 20. In verses 11-15 we read these words, “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Why was the event of the Day of Judgment such a prominent declaration of the gospel of Christ, whether it was Christians being addressed or the philosophers of Athens?
i] In the Day of Judgment God’s grace will be glorified in his people. In places like North Korea today his people suffer unspeakable punishments and death. They are tortured but will not deny that Jesus Christ is their God and Saviour. In the Day of Judgment God’s love for them will be fully revealed before all the angels in heaven and all people that on earth do dwell. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:10-12). The day when God judges men is not principally about striking fear into the hearts of the defiant and wicked. It is the occasion for God publicly and definitively to demonstrate just how much he loves his people. He wants the opportunity to vindicate his own, to say to the cosmos, “This is my beloved. This is my bride. These are the children I died to redeem. They are the ones I will take to heaven to live with me for ever. I will change every one of them to become my Son’s brothers and sisters. The world hated them and killed some of them. Satan tested and tempted them all, but I have kept them and here they are!” He will take them into his banqueting house, and his banner of them will be love. Great will be their reward in heaven. Again…
ii] In the Day of Judgment those who loved their wickedness and said that they didn’t know how any 21st century man could believe in God will be silenced. Their guilt and shame will be acknowledged. Their mouths will be stopped. The truth overwhelms them. Their terrible words and dreadful deeds will be illuminated before men and angels afresh and they will be seen and heard and their true horror manifested, and God’s verdict of condemnation upon them will be righteous and just. There must be a clear difference between the sheep and the goats, as clear as their final destinations. It will be well with those who have done well. It will be evil with those who have done evil. Each one will reap what he has sown. So no one will say, “It’s not fair.” If there would be just one person condemned in that day who would dare to cry out that he’s been dealt with harshly, then I would cry out with him also that his condemnation is harsh. No. There will be no one! All will be calm and peaceful and totally just in that great day. The Day of Judgment will not be a scene of noisy chaos.
iii] In the Day of Judgment God’s just nature will be seen. He had driven our first parents out of the Garden; he had judged the world at the flood; he had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. When he made his own Son to be sin for us, then he did not spare him the anathema and the darkness. All those were warnings pointing forward to the future definitive judgment. They were saying that God is not indifferent to what is happening in tens of thousands of prisons in the world today, and not indifferent to how women are being treated all over the world today, and that he doesn’t care how cruel men are to children and to animals this very day! Each one who commits such crimes shall face a final judgment. They thought that no one had seen them do such monstrosities. They thought they were secrets just known to them, done in darkness behind locked doors, the evidence all destroyed, the victims silenced or warned to be silent, and told that no one would believe them. But Paul says in our text that, “God will judge men’s secrets” (v.17).
3. THAT DAY WILL BE THE DAY OF JESUS CHRIST.
Look at those striking words; “God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ” (v.17). What secrets do you have? They will not be secrets for ever. What are the implications of what we read here?
i] God will give Jesus Christ the glory that is uniquely his. He was in the beginning with God and was God, and yet he came into the world that knew him not, that disdained him, and beat him and killed him by crucifixion. His first coming was into a state of humiliation. Yet he knew what men were thinking. He knew what was in man. On the Day of Judgment God will display to every eye the glory of his Son, and every knee will bow before him. At his first coming he was the one who stood as a figure of hate before a human tribunal, and witnesses were bribed, and men lied, and sinners declared that he was guilty of blasphemy. They condemned him to the accursed death of the cross and mocked him in his lingering dying. But then he will sit upon a glorious throne and Caiaphas and Annas, the priests who insisted that he die on a cross, will have to stand before him and receive their eternal destinies from his lips. When he first came he did not come to blame but to save. Now he has come to render to every one as each one deserves.
ii] God will give to Jesus Christ the possessions that he has purchased by his agony and bloody sweat. He will be seen to receive that name that is above every name. He will receive the honour, glory and praise that are uniquely his by man and angels. His triumph over Satan and the false prophet and beast will be manifested to all in earth and heaven. He will cast them into the bottomless pit. Then he will take all his people into the inheritance that he has prepared for them, into likeness to him, into freedom from all their temptations and falls. Their separations from those they love will be over. A new heavens and new earth which will be filled with his righteousness will be theirs to enjoy and replenish and subdue for evermore. There they will know fulness of joy and at his right hand there will be pleasures for evermore. That is what he longed to obtain for them and those possessions he will give them in that great day, never to be taken from them again.
iii] God will reward those who were utterly faithful to Jesus Christ. He will know what they have done with their talents, and they will be honoured as those who gave glory to Jesus Christ in their lives. He will know what they did to the least of his children. They are the ones who believed Jesus’ teaching. They were unashamed of him and his words. They loved him. They declared war on his enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil. They obeyed his commandments. They are going to be judged by their friend, the one who loved them and died in their place, and so their experience of judgment will not be terrifying but rewarding. It will be the consummation of their salvation and the beginning of the eternal state. There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. None whatsoever; no mild disapproval, no frowning, no wagging of the finger.
The Day of Judgment for the Christian will be utterly different from what it will be for the rebel sinner and the ungodly. Jesus makes this transparently clear: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (Jn. 5:24). Or again there are those words of Paul, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Roms. 8:1). There is no condemnation whatsoever. There is no mild rebuke. There is no quizzical look. There is no wagging the finger. There is no “Tut-tut!” There is no heavy sigh, because all that is condemnation, especially on the face of the Ancient of Days. You are presuming, when the Devil persuades you to think like that, that God is still unhappy with you for some things you have done. Your own conscience condemns you and so you think that God is going to condemn you too, but God is greater you’re your conscience. There is no condemnation at all – none! Because God has laid it all on Jesus Christ; he has made him sin for us; he has omitted nothing. We are now made the righteousness of God in him. There is nothing for God to frown about, or wag his finger at, or just give us a mild half-smile and with a little reluctance open the doors of glory for us. Would he do that for his Son Jesus Christ? Wouldn’t he give him an abundant entrance? Then he will do it for all who are in him. Did the father of the prodigal son do anything other than embrace his son and hug him and celebrate his return home? So it is with all of the people of God. It will be thus for the worst sinner among them, saved by the skin of his teeth. Each one will be declared righteous and welcomed home.
What there is of judgment will be very positive, acknowledging the sacrifice and loving obedience and magnificent self-denial of some Christians. “Come! Great is your reward in heaven!”
4. IT IS THE APOSTOLIC GOSPEL THAT DECLARES THAT DAY.
You see what our text says so clearly “God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (v.17). You ask, “But what is ‘gospel’, what is ‘good news’, about a universal judgment coming nearer and nearer to every one of us? Isn’t that bad news?” Not at all; the very reverse. Let me explain . . .
i] We rejoice that those who have done the most unspeakable cruelties and wickednesses and got away with it completely, leaving families bereft with their lives destroyed, are going to be judged. All of us have suffered because of thieves and liars. Then God comforts us when we hear his word – “Be sure your sin will find you out!” Those monsters will get exactly what they deserve. God knows men’s secret sins. There is in the heart of every natural man a need for justice in this world. Paul tells the slave to be submissive, even to cruel masters. Do your work as unto the Lord, and he gives this reason for obedience, “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favouritism” (Col. 3:25). It is good news for another reason . . .
ii] It strengthens us in our duty to forgive others and not to take vengeance into our own hands. I was with a Christian man this week who has been the recipient of a letter which seven men signed in which they accused him of ‘deep sin’ – that was the phrase they used, and they told him that he needed to repent, but they did not specify what that sin was and then they released that letter to all and sundry in their circles. It has gone round the world. And if you heard a preacher was guilty of a ‘deep sin’ you would immediately think of adultery, wouldn’t you? But there is no such sin as that in him. He is a righteous man. He has written to them numbers of times to ask for a meeting and asked them to tell him . . . please . . . what is this ‘deep sin’ of which they are accusing him so that he can repent and do what needs to be done, but they refuse to answer his letter or meet with him. How has he kept becoming bitter? How can he offer forgiveness to them? How can he love his enemy? This is one way, that the issue will not be eternally unresolved. There is a day of righteous judgment. I can apply what Peter says to him: “He trusts in him who judges justly” (I Pet. 2:23). He knows that he will not be for ever and ever and ever grieving over this wretched accusation. The spotlight of God will be upon the truth in that day, and he and they will be judged. We will all be judged, and the depths of sin and falsehood will be brought to light. That is wonderfully good news to the broken hearted parent who laments the abduction and murder of her daughter, or to the man slandered before the world.
iii] The Day of Judgment provides another motive to us to live righteously in everything we do. It is an incentive to faithfulness and living a high, holy and just life. God has a high enough opinion of us to evaluate our lives, to praise us or condemn us. That is why it is good news. Again . . .
iv] It provides a great motive for evangelism. Ezekiel knew what lay before all men and so he preached the more earnestly to them, “Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die?” (Ez. 33:11). You can find in all the great evangelists that God has blessed this theme of the day of judgment coming to the fore and announced clearly, and men and women indeed turning and trusting in Christ. That is why it is the gospel that declares the day of judgment.
5. HOW THEN ARE WE TO LIVE, IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT LIES BEFORE US?
At the end of his ministry, in the shadow of the cross, our Lord spoke three times on the Day of Judgment. He did so quite uniquely by telling his disciples three parables making one great point in each instance.
i] Be ready at all times for the Day of Judgment. Christ said that there were ten young women who had been invited to a wedding banquet. Five were sensible and five were stupid. The five sensible girls prepared for the feast by buying oil for their lamps. They knew that brides and bridegrooms are frequently late. The five stupid girls didn’t prepare for the long haul of every wedding day. They were there on their own terms and the evening hours went by and all ten slept. Suddenly a cry shattered the night, “The bridegroom is here! Come out to meet him.” They got up and went out into the night, but the five stupid girls had long since used up all the oil in their lamps and had none left. They had no alternative other than to go to the oil merchant to buy more and so they missed their chief part, welcoming the bridegroom when he arrived and accompanying him in a procession of lighted torches into the house when the door was shut. Later the five stupid girls returned to a locked door. They knocked and they called at the door, “Lord, Lord, open to us.” But they’d not been there when they were needed when the bridesmaids held their lamps aloft and led the bridal party into the home. Now they seemed to be gatecrashers or even felons. They and their illumination were absent when he appeared, and he cried to them, “Truly . . . I don’t know you.” (Mt. 25:12). Who were they? Were they people to whom the wedding of this bridegroom and this bride was really very important? They wanted people to think that they did care very much about the bride and groom, and that it was a great honour to be asked to accompany him to the wedding supper, but in fact they were people who’d made the most perfunctory preparations for meeting the bridegroom. They were tested and were found wanting. They warn us; we can ignore the trouble of strengthening our souls and being ready for the Day of Judgment. They were noisy enough, shouting out ‘Lord’ but they had no readiness for the Lord’s appearing. Jesus concluded, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt. 25:13). Be ready for the appearing of the King! Continue to grow in your love for him! Continue to serve him and his kingdom. Obey his commandments, and pursue holiness and serve Jesus Christ diligently. Don’t stop! Don’t quit! Don’t backslide. Don’t get distracted! Don’t lose heart. Be on the alert!
ii] Use all you have to God’s glory. The second parable was about three servants given different gifts to be invested and multiplied while the master was away. Two doubled their gifts, however the third hid his gift away. When the master returned he condemned that servant, taking away his talent and casting him forth into the outer darkness. God has given us all personal rights and privileges and opportunities and abilities and resources. They are to be used exclusively for the glory of God and the good of our neighbours because these are the only things that last. Man’s chief end is to glorify God in all he does. Do not hide away what God has given you.
iii] Have such a high view of the life of Christian service that the most demanding and menial things that need to be done for others you are able and willing to do, because they are done for the Lord. Christ told the parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats. The goats are those condemned in the Judgment because they neglected to feed the Lord when he was hungry, even to give him a drink when he was thirsty, to welcome him when he was a stranger, to clothe him when he was naked, to visit him when he was sick and to comfort him when he was cast in prison. They just saw demanding and time-consuming work. They didn’t see Jesus right there in the people they were serving. So to be ready for the Day of Judgment I have to meet the needs of Jesus’ disciples today. I’m ready to clean the chapel steps of the drunkard’s Saturday night vomit so that there would be no distraction for those who love the Lord on his day.
Prepare to meet your God! Behold the true man Jesus Christ! Look to this one for salvation. He loves sinners like. He died and rose again. Turn from your sin and place your trust in him as your Saviour! Today is the day to do this.
23rd March 2014 GEOFF THOMAS