The Judgment Everyone Wants to Hear

“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’
And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me'” (Matthew 25:34-40).

The disciples wanted to know what would be the signs demonstrating the end of the age (cf. Matthew 24:3), and Jesus has finally come to the point of obliging them. He has already declared that no one will know when it will be, and thus they are to be ready at all times– prepared, productive in the Kingdom (Matthew 24:36-25:30). Of course, it really is not that cut and dry in the text– Jesus uses the rich imagery of the days of Noah, a contrast between faithful and wicked servants, the foolish and wise virgins, and servants settling accounts with their master. All of these things are signs pointing to the climactic moment of the judgment day.

Jesus the King is on His throne and the nations are before Him, separated out (Matthew 25:31-33). Those on His right will hear the judgment everyone wants to hear– they are blessed of His Father, and they are to inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).

All of the readiness and preparations have paid off. Such people were, no doubt, active in God’s Kingdom, using their gifts to multiply the Lord’s investment. They are the same as those wise and faithful servants who have conducted themselves properly in their Master’s house while He has been away. Yet, in this picture of the Judgment scene, those are not the reasons why they are the blessed of the Father.

Instead, they are the blessed ones of God because they have fed the King when He was hungry, gave Him drink when thirsty, took Him in though a stranger, clothed Him when naked, visited Him when sick, and came to Him while He was in prison (Matthew 25:35-36)!

This proves to be astonishing news even to the blessed– they do not remember doing any such thing for the Lord (Matthew 25:37-39), and He does not disagree. He says that inasmuch as they had done those things to the least of “these my brethren,” they did it for Jesus their King (Matthew 25:40).

A detail question that invariably gets asked involves the identity of “the least of these my brethren.” That it involves fellow believers in God is without a doubt; God demands that believers take care of one another’s needs (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:16-18). But does it really stop there? The New Testament demonstrates that believers are to have concern for the needs of all men, not just believers (Galatians 2:20, 6:10); we do well to remember how the lawyer attempted to justify himself by wanting to know who his “neighbor” was, and found himself self-condemned by the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-36). It is the same Jesus telling this story; our concern should be with all our fellow human beings.

Nevertheless, we ought not allow the details of the story to overshadow the greater message. When it is all said and done, according to the presentation of the judgment day in this passage, it comes down to how we helped those who are in need.

Does this mean that everything else is unimportant? Jesus makes no such declaration. He has already emphasized the need for readiness, preparation, and faithful living in previous parables and discussions. Paul demonstrates the need for obedience in order to hear the good news on the judgment day in Romans 2:5-10; he speaks on other occasions regarding those sins which, without repentance, keep people from inheriting the Kingdom in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Galatians 5:19-21. Jesus is in no way attempting to say that we can be faithless in all other contexts but faithful in charity and somehow be justified on the final day.

Instead, Jesus’ declaration of why those who are blessed of the Father are those who have served others in need is entirely consistent with His previous messages about fruit bearing (e.g. Matthew 7:16-20). What people do is a reflection of their motivations, intentions, and purposes– essentially, what is in their heart (cf. Mark 7:20-23). If the heart and mind are right, the fruit will be right. If the fruit is not there, or the fruit is bad, then there is a heart and mind problem.

Ultimately, that is why Jesus’ declaration about the basis of judgment involves how one treats others. There is a type of religion, exemplified by the scribes and Pharisees, that so entirely emphasizes personal purity and doctrinal dogmas to the detriment of love, compassion, and mercy. They may have an intellectual understanding of many of the true principles of God and His will, but that understanding has not reformed their character– certain aspects of the mind might be right, but there remains a major heart problem. Likewise, there are many who view religion as a means of gain, be it for money, fame, prominence, or a little bit of each, like the false teachers of whom Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 6:3-10 and in other passages. Again we have a major heart problem, and where there is rivalry, covetousness, and a quest for fame, there is not true charity.

True charity, nevertheless, flows from an understanding of the nature of God, His love for mankind, and His character as reflected in Jesus His Son. The love spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 finds one of its most sublime expressions in the type of charity that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:35-40. One is inclined to visit the incarcerated and ill, feed the hungry, and so on, despite the fact that the incarcerated, the ill, the hungry, and such like are often hard to love, when one has truly developed the heart and mind of Christ.

Matthew 25:34 represents the judgment everyone wants to hear. But it will only be heard by those who demonstrate love, compassion, and mercy, as expressed in Matthew 25:35-40. And those demonstrations of love, compassion, and mercy come because of the reformation of the heart and mind according to Christ and not according to the world, demanding understanding of and obedience to the truth of God in Christ Jesus. Believers must be prepared for the final day, busy in the Lord’s Kingdom, and God will know them by their fruit– have believers been motivated by God’s love and compassion to show love and compassion to the least of those among them? If we want to hear the best news at the Judgment, we must reflect the heart and mind of Christ in our actions. Let us do so and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Firstfruits

But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ’s, at his coming (1 Corinthians 15:23).

Despair turned to excitement on that first day of the week so long ago when Jesus arose from the dead (John 20:1-31, etc.). In the midst of all the excitement, however, there was one theological conundrum that needed to be addressed.

The idea of resurrection was not foreign to the Jews; the Pharisees believed in the resurrection (Acts 23:8), and no doubt many other Jews did also. But “the resurrection” in which they believed was the resurrection on the last day. That is what Daniel 12:2 seemed to indicate. It certainly was the expectation of Martha when Lazarus died (cf. John 11:24).

But someone rising from the dead in the resurrection before the end? This was not something you would automatically take away from a reading of the Old Testament, nor was it something immediately obvious to Pharisees and others. Perhaps this was part of the challenge the disciples faced in not understanding Jesus’ predictions of the event (Mark 9:30-32, etc.). How could it be that One could rise from the dead before everyone was raised from the dead?

The Holy Spirit, through Paul, would make this understandable. Jesus was the firstfruits of the resurrection!

The idea of the firstfruits comes from passages like Deuteronomy 18:4:

The first-fruits of thy grain, of thy new wine, and of thine oil, and the first of the fleece of thy sheep, shalt thou give him.

The firstfruits were the first part of a harvest– the first wheat or barley harvested, the first wine processed, the first of the fleece shorn, and so on and so forth. The Israelites were to devote the firstfruits to God (Exodus 23:19), and God gave them to the Levites for sustenance (Deuteronomy 18:4). After the firstfruits had been offered, the rest of the harvest belonged to the people for their own consumption and use.

The firstfruits image, therefore, helps us understand the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection on the final day. Jesus is the firstfruits– the first to rise from the dead, never to die again (1 Corinthians 15:20). He had been given as an offering to God to atone for the people (2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 9:1-15). He paves the way for the resurrection to come, the resurrection of which we all take part (John 5:28-29, 1 Corinthians 15:12-57)!

There is something obvious about the firstfruits that is important for the resurrection. The firstfruits are not different in kind or type from the harvest that comes later. The firstfruits of wheat are wheat just as the “second fruits” or “third fruits” would be; the same goes for barley, wine, fleece, and the like. So it is with the resurrection: we should not believe that our resurrection will be something different from Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:23). The difference involves time, not type or kind. As Jesus died in the flesh but remained alive in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18), and was then raised bodily from the dead, the tomb being empty, and His flesh being transformed for immortality (Luke 24:1-49), so it goes with those who serve Him. All who have died, and those who will be dead before His coming, remain alive in the spirit, but will then be raised bodily and transformed for immortality (1 Corinthians 15:35-57, Philippians 1:21-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)!

In reality, the resurrection is a challenging concept, for one of the few “guarantees” in the physical realm is that once one dies, one is always dead. We do not see people rising from the dead, never to die again.

Yet that is precisely the hope by which the Christian must live (cf. Romans 8:20-25). And we have confidence in that hope because of Jesus the firstfruits. We do not have to wonder whether God can or will raise the dead, for we know He raised Jesus from the dead. If He is able to raise Jesus from the dead, He is able to raise us from the dead also, and He has promised to do so (Romans 8:11)!

The last enemy, indeed, is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship, believers now can have confidence in their spiritual regeneration in this life (Romans 6:1-23, 8:1-9). The believer is able to be a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), yet we are all still cursed with physical death.

But death will be abolished. The day will dawn when we all will have the victory over not just sin but also death through Jesus Christ our Lord, and on that day the rest of the harvest will be brought in to the praise and glory of God in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:53-57, 1 Peter 1:6-7). We can have complete confidence in this because Jesus gained the victory over sin on the cross and over death in the resurrection, and He is the firstfruits! Let us all serve God so that we may attain to the resurrection of life (cf. Philippians 3:11-13)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Watch and Pray

“But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. It is as when a man, sojourning in another country, having left his house, and given authority to his servants, to each one his work, commanded also the porter to watch. Watch therefore: for ye know not when the lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (Mark 13:32-37).

Humans have a preoccupation with the prospect of the end of the world– or, if nothing else, the end of their particular world.  People who would not otherwise consider religious messages eagerly watch shows speculating on the end of the world based upon all kinds of different “predictions” and the like.  There always seems to be some cause or another for such speculation.  Not long ago it was the turn of the millennium.  Presently many are focused on the end of 2012.  After that there will most assuredly be some other time.

This type of speculation is not foreign to Christianity, and it is certainly not foreign to interpretations of the so-called “Olivet Discourse,” presented in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21.  All kinds of postulates are made about exactly when the world will end and how based, at least in part, on Jesus’ words in this discussion.

If there is ever a time when it is good for us to be good Bible students, it is certainly when so much speculation is at hand.  Mark’s version makes the context very clear: Jesus has declared that all the stones of the Temple will be toppled (Mark 13:2).  Some of His disciples utter the same questions that haunt people to this very day–  “when shall these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).

In context, “these things” represent the Temple and its destruction.  And here we have the ultimate irony of this whole discussion: Jesus’ answer to the questions is not really what the disciples wanted to know.  And it goes a long way to show us that the questions that people most often ask today cannot be answered to their satisfaction!

Jesus goes on to say that there will be false Christs deceiving the people, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against one another, earthquakes, and famines (Mark 13:6-8).  Our immediate impulse is to look into the history books and find the precise events concerning which Jesus speaks, and, no doubt, we can find such things.  And that, of course, is Jesus’ point– at what point in human history have there not been false teachers, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against each other, earthquakes, and famines?  They are always happening somewhere!

Later Jesus will provide some specific conditions that will be met, and to “get out of Dodge” when the Roman army comes to town (cf. Mark 13:9-23), and predicts the establishment of the Kingdom and the end of the covenant between God and Israel (Mark 13:24-31).

But when?  We have the classic statement: only the Father knows (Mark 13:32).  Much has been made of this statement in terms of Christology, but that is quite separate from the point.  Jesus tells the disciples, point blank, that they will not know exactly when these things will take place (Mark 13:33).  There is no watering down of this idea, no concept that at the last minute a revelation will be given to them.  They simply will not know.

Attempting to ascertain the precise set of conditions and circumstances that will lead to Jesus’ return, therefore, is utterly futile.  If the disciples were not going to know precisely when Jerusalem would be destroyed, why should we believe that anyone is going to know precisely when Jesus will return?

It may seem unbelievable to many, but Jesus’ main point in the “Olivet Discourse” is not to lay out a road map to the apocalypse.  As Peter will say, all things will continue as “normal” until the moment comes (cf. 2 Peter 3:2-12).  True, Jesus does give His disciples some things concerning which they need to be considering and for which they must prepare.  And that, in the end, is the real message.

In declaring that no one will know precisely when these things will take place, He exhorts the disciples to take heed, watch, and pray (Mark 13:33).  He presents the image of the master leaving the house and instructing the doorkeeper to remain awake, since the master’s return may be at any time (Mark 13:34-36).  And Jesus’ universal message, to first century disciples awaiting the judgment on Jerusalem to twenty-first disciples anxious for His return, is to “stay awake” (Mark 13:37)!

This is the thread that runs throughout the whole discourse (Mark 13:5, 9, 13, 23, 33-37).  In the extended version that Matthew provides, the theme is just as evident (Matthew 24:36-25:30).  This is, in fact, the theme that runs throughout all of New Testament eschatology (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 Peter 4:7-11, 2 Peter 3:11-12, Revelation 2-3, 22:7, 11-12).

As long as God shows patience toward mankind there will be people who will speculate regarding the times and conditions of the Lord’s return.  Do not be deceived into believing any of them.  The “Olivet Discourse” does pave the way, but not in the expected sense.  It is not for us to know when the Lord will return, but the Lord has made many things evident.  He will return.  There will be judgment.  It will happen in God’s good time.  It is not for us to doubt these things or to speculate regarding them.  Instead, we need to be ready.  We must stay awake.  We must live our lives serving God, ready if the Lord returns tomorrow or after another two thousand years.  We must always be ready for the challenges that come with our walk with God, and to stand firm and endure despite them.  Let us avoid the frenzy of folly, and always be on guard for the Lord’s return!

Ethan R. Longhenry