Sermon: Judging the Living and the Dead

[This sermon is part of a series on the Apostles’ Creed, which was confessed corporately prior to the sermon. It may be helpful to read the creed and its exposition in Question 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism]

We have come to the end. Not the end of our series on the Apostles’ Creed, but the end of all things. The promise of scripture is that Jesus, who ascended to heaven, will return. He will return to judge the living and the dead. This morning, that brings us to the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible. Revelation 20:7-21:8. If you would like, you are free to open your Bible with me and follow along as we read and study God’s word together. But before we do, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth – Gog and Magog – and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown in the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated upon it. The earth and the heavens 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 was the book of life. The dead were judge according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and every person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! The dwelling place of God is among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

I imagine that some of you are thinking, “Finally! No one talks about judgment and hell anymore. It is about time we heard a sermon about it.” In the four years we have been here, that has been a recurring observation. It used to be a staple of the Christian diet to hear about the coming judgment and the need to repent of our sins and turn to Christ for salvation. Now, however, we rarely hear the words mentioned in our churches, let alone be part of the teaching of the church. Some of you might be, not exactly eager, but pleased to have a sermon that speaks of the coming judgment.

I imagine others of you are more anxious. This may be a difficult topic for you. You may struggle with what it means that God would save some and leave others in condemnation. You may struggle because there are particular people in your life who are far from God and you fear for them. You may simply find this teaching uncomfortable, or outdate, or bizarre.

Whether you are eager, anxious, or somewhere in between, I want to keep things simple this morning. Christians have confessed from the beginning, on the basis of Scripture, that Jesus Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. We will examine this claim by looking at what Scripture teaches about judgment and redemption, particularly here in Revelation 20 and 21. We will take some time to make sure we understand what it says and then ask the question: How is this part of the good news?

We pick up the story in the book of Revelation with a couple details we are not going to try and explain this morning: After a thousand years, Satan is released from prison. Satan begins by doing what he always does: he deceives and opposes God. He deceives the nations from the four corners of the earth and gathers them for battle against God and his people. This new force is the final culmination of all those forces that oppose God, his people, and his will. This army of Satan surrounds the camp of the people of God and prepares for battle. However, there is no battle. At the last day, when the enemies of God surround the redeemed, the saints do not go out to battle. Instead, God goes to battle. He rains down fire from heaven and devours them. Then the devil himself joins the beast and the false prophet in the lake of burning sulphur – a place of torment, suffering, and judgment.

One day, the battle will be finally over. For us, life is often a struggle. We struggle against temptation, against our own sinful desires, against the deceit of the devil. We struggle in a world where the wicked seem to prosper while the faithful live in obscurity. For centuries, Satan has sought to surround and crush the people of God. This vision of God’s coming judgment reveals that one day the struggle will be over. One day, Satan will gather all his might and all his force against God’s beloved children and he will be utterly defeated. Not by our strength, but by the power and justice of God Satan will fall. It is Satan himself who first undergoes judgment.

In a world of injustice, the justice of God is good news. This is the consistent cry of the Psalms, that God would come in justice, set right all that is wrong, and make sure those who promote wickedness do not finally get away with it. Justice is not about petty vengeance, but about affirming the power, goodness, and faithfulness of God. It can seem at many times that evil is triumphing and that those who serve themselves and take from others always go free. It will not always be so. At the final battle, God will be shown the victor and his people protected and vindicated. Satan will fall and evil will be vanquished.

After this final battle, we are brought before the throne. Before the presence of the holy one who is seated there, earth and heaven flee. Corrupted by sin, they, like the rest of us, are not worthy to be in God’s presence. Then everyone who has ever lived, great and small, stands before the throne of God to be judged. This is a courtroom where the rich and powerful cannot turn the scales of justice in their favor and the poor and weak will not be overlooked. Great and small, all stand equal before the justice of God. That God shows no favoritism in his judgment is one of the most deeply held convictions of Scripture.

Then books are opened. At the end of all things, the truth will be told. Nothing will be forgotten. These books contain the record of what we have done and left undone. The protests that were silenced and the people who were shoved to the side will finally be heard. But so will the violence and oppression that was considered acceptable in the eyes of the world. So will the many times we have walked away, turned our backs on God and chosen to serve ourselves. All the good deeds no one saw will be revealed, but also the sins we thought no one knew or that were hidden only in our hearts, these, too, will be laid bare. Nothing is hidden from God.

This judgment, where the fruit of our lives is revealed will not be balancing scale. Our good deeds will not be weighed against our bad in hopes that our account eventually tips in our favor. Instead, in the midst of the joy of our limited faithfulness, it will be the constant reminder of the truth of Romans 3: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In this judgment, all of us deserve condemnation. On the basis of the works of our lives, every single person stands condemned before the judgment seat of God.

This is not a popular teaching today. It seems unfair to many. Why does God condemn anybody? It is an honest question that I do not want to dismiss. However, I want to suggest that we often have too high a view of our goodness and too low a view of our sin. The question of why condemns anybody often has behind it the belief that most of us are pretty good people. There are the truly evil people out there, but most of us are pretty good. It seems unfair that good, decent people should suffer eternal punishment. It might be unfair if that were true.

We think we are all decent, good people because we think of our sin like dents in a car. A few dings here and there, a loose clutch, and touchy brakes, but overall it is still a good car.

However, scripture paints our sin very differently. Take a deep breath. I believe that there are legitimate and valid reasons for NFL players to protest by kneeling during the national anthem. However, I know that for many of you this is deeply offensive. When they kneel, you feel that they are dishonoring this country you love, its values, and the sacrifices that have been made on its behalf. In this small act, something not so small is believed to be happening. Those who are upset by this protest are not upset just about the action itself, but what is seen to be dishonoring the name of America.

Right now, I do not want to get into a debate about the issue of the protest itself. I simply want to note that sometimes actions can be caught up in something bigger than the action itself. If, as I hope you do, you love God even more than you love this country, should we not see the dishonoring of his name as an even greater offense than anything we believe dishonors this country? That is how Scripture portrays sin. It is not just a series of small mistakes, but an affront to the very honor and name of God Almighty. When we sin, it is not just the act itself that is the problem. Sin is treason and no amount of nice words to your neighbor will undo it.

When the books are opened, the truth will be told. We often ask, Why is anyone condemned, but the fundamental question of Scripture is ‘Why is anyone saved at all?’ Every God-fearing person at the time of Jesus believed there would be a judgment. They had read their Bibles. They knew that God was just and would one day uphold his justice. What was amazing was that any of us could be saved at all. Even more amazing was that the Messiah came to save even Gentiles.

God does save. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. Elsewhere in Revelation, this is known as the lamb’s book of life. Our final judgment is determined by that book. Anyone whose name was not written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. To have your name written in the lamb’s book of life is to have eternal life, without it, we get what our sins deserve – eternal death. There is no getting around these two ends. In Christ, there is life, apart from him is death. His cross and death has won our life. Either we will stand at the judgment on the strength of our works, or we stand on the strength of his. There is a book, where those who belong to Christ have their names written. At the final judgment, they enter eternal life, not because their lives deserve it, but because Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose for them.

What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my father in heaven. In fact all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ by his Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

When we belong to Christ, when we know him as Lord and Savior and have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, we are assured of eternal life. We do not need to fear the final judgment, but can eagerly await the redemption of the world.

For that is the hope of the judgment of Christ, the redemption of the world. After the judgment, the story turns. Heaven and earth are made new. The old way of things passes away and though heaven and earth will be recognizable, they will be so full and complete and joyous that we can hardly imagine. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. We have never lived in a world without death, mourning, crying, or pain. It is truly hard to imagine what that day will be like.

A couple years ago, I had a lot of pain in my neck. I could not turn my head to either side. I contemplated pain medication, but Olga and I decided I should go to the chiropractor first. I had never gone and was worried he would accidentally snap my neck and kill me. I went in, he turned my head, crack, and the pain was gone. I had not realized how much pain I was in until it was gone.

When God sets all things right and makes all things news, we will not realize how much pain we have been in until it is gone. But it will all disappear and never enter again.

But the greatest promise is God’s presence. Look! The dwelling place of God is among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. God’s presence with us is the greatest promise of heaven. The book of revelation reverses how the story of humanity began. In the beginning it was good, but we fell into sin and experienced judgment and exile. At the end, there will be judgment, but those who are in Christ will come out of exile into the presence of God, where he will dwell with us and we with him forever. What began in garden will end in a city, but one where there will be no end.

May each of you know Jesus Christ and have your name written in the Lamb’s book of life, and whether we see each other next or never again on this earth, may we rejoice together in the New Jerusalem, where God will dwell with us and we with him forever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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