Come, You Who Are Blessed by My Father

Giotto, Last Judgment, Scrovegni Chapel
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Are you ready for a pop quiz?  I’m going to read a quote and I want you to determine whether it is a statement of sound doctrine or false teaching.  Don’t worry.  I’m not taking grades.  I’m not even going to ask you to raise your hands.  Just listen and answer in your own mind.  Give yourself bonus points if you can identify the source.  “At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds.  And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.  This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”

So, is it sound doctrine or false teaching?  It’s sound doctrine.  In fact, it’s part of one of the three ecumenical creeds confessed by the Church.  If you turn to page 320 in Lutheran Service Book, beginning at verse 38, you’ll see that they are the closing words of the Athanasian Creed, a beautiful confession of the Christian faith, particularly the mystery of the Holy Trinity.   

I recall one particular Sunday.  A dear woman approached me after the service.  She was probably the best catechized Lutheran in the whole congregation, regular in her attendance at worship and Bible studies.  Well into her 80s, she could still recite any portion of the Small Catechism upon request.  That’s because she and her family read from it every day for devotions.  She said, “Pastor, I have a problem with those words that we just said in the Athanasian Creed.” 

I thought maybe it was the words “catholic faith” that bothered her.  They sometimes seem foreign to Lutheran ears.  And I was ready to explain that this just means this is what the true Church of all times and places has confessed.  But she already understood that part. 

“No, Pastor,” she said.  What bothers me is that it seems to be saying that Christ’s judgment is based upon our works.” 

I think it shocked her when I said, “We are judged on our works.”  Actually, I said it a little bit more pastorally:  “I understand your concern.  It does seem confusing, especially to out Lutheran ears, so well taught from Scripture that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  We are not saved by our works.  But Scripture does make it clear that we are judged by our works.” 

I then pointed her to St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”  And Romans 2:6: “He [God] will render to each one according to his works.”  And Jesus’ words in John 5:28-29: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

Then I pointed her to our text for today, Matthew 25:34-36: “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me. 

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?  And when did we see You a stranger and welcome You, or naked and clothe You?  And when did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’  

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.’” 

That’s when I really needed to do some explaining.

On the surface, our text is simple enough.  It is a picture of the Final Judgment, when Jesus will separate believers from unbelievers.  But there’s one strange note: It seems that the righteous get into heaven for helping the underprivileged, while the unrighteous are condemned for their failure to do so.  But that would mean that we are saved by our works, not by faith.  And we know for certain that is not true.

Fortunately, when we encounter a difficult text in God’s Word, we know what to do.  We don’t rely on our inadequate human reason or limited knowledge for biblical interpretation.  We see if other portions of Scripture can help us out.  “Scripture interprets Scripture.”  And that’s why our sermon begins today with a look at Matthew 10.  If you have your Bible, please feel free to follow along.

In Matthew 10, Jesus sends the twelve disciples to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near.  Before the disciples leave, Jesus tells them, “Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor staff, for the laborer deserves his food.” 

Jesus’ disciples are to carry with them no extra supplies as they go out to preach the Gospel.  They are to rely upon the hospitality of those who believe the Gospel that they preach.  Believers will feed them, give them water, care for them in sickness, visit them in prison if need be.  They’ll do so in response to being forgiven, in thankfulness for God’s pardon and peace. 

As for those who reject the Gospel and the disciples who preach it, what will happen to them?  Jesus declares in verse 15: “It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” 

We should note two more things from Matthew 10.  As Jesus concludes His instructions to the disciples, He tells them in verse 40, “Whoever receives you receives Me.”  The disciples are Jesus’ ambassadors, proclaiming His Word.  To receive them is to receive Him.  To care for them is to care for Him.  To reject them is to reject Him, because they proclaim His Word.

And note Jesus’ final comment in verse 42: “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”  Jesus praises those who will give water to His disciples because they are His ambassadors; and in that praise, He calls His disciples “these little one.”  They are not little ones in the sense of infants or little children; but as servants of the Servant, they are among the least of all.

Now there’s a reason we have spent so much time speaking of Matthew 10 so far: I propose to you that Matthew 10 is the best commentary you’ll find to explain our text from Matthew 25.  Notice the connections.  In our text, all people are gathered for the Final Judgment.  The believers enter the kingdom of heaven and eternal life; the unbelievers depart into everlasting fire—a judgment far worse than the momentary fire and brimstone that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah.

What is the measure by which they are judged?  They are measured by their treatment of “the least of these.”  To the believing sheep, Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.”

When the sheep express confusion as to when they did this, Jesus responds: “Truly, I say to you, as you did to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.”  He condemns the unbelieving goats for their failure to do the same.  When they object, He says to them: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”  It’s an echo of Jesus’ words from Matthew 10.  So we ask the good Lutheran question: “What does this mean?” 

First of all, it does not mean our text teaches that the sheep save themselves by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or visiting the sick or imprisoned.  We know this already, of course; for if believers are saved by such things, then they are saved by their works—not by the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus.

However, this is often how this text is interpreted: Help the one in need and go to heaven; ignore them and you’ll be condemned.  This is the popular application of our time—social gospel—the false teaching that the Gospel is all about helping the underprivileged in this life, and not really about forgiveness and eternal life.

We must be clear what else this text does not teach.  It does not teach that believers are saved by how well they treat the apostles—or pastors who continue the apostolic ministry.  If believers are saved by making sure that the pastor is fed and clothed, then they are saved by their works—not the atoning death of our Lord.

So, what does this parable teach?  It teaches that people are saved because they believe the Word.  Really.  Let me explain: Jesus sends His apostles as His ambassadors to preach His Word.  Those who receive the Word are saved—not by their work, but by the work of the Holy Spirit.  When they receive the spoken Word, they receive Christ, the Word-made-flesh who told His disciples: “Whoever receives you receives Me.”  In response to that Word, they receive the ones whom He has sent and care for them.  In fact, the word “welcome” in our text is the same word particularly connected to the early Christian practice of providing hospitality for traveling missionaries throughout Acts (see 16:14-15; 17:5-9; 18:7-8; 21:8). 

The sheep are saved because they believe the Word.  Believing the Word, they want it proclaimed to all nations.  This desire will lead to good works, and they will take care of those whom Jesus calls and sends to do the public proclaiming.  Those who do not believe the Word are condemned; not because of their lack of support, but because they did not believe the Word.

So let’s apply this text to our present day.  First, there is this plain truth: Judgment Day is coming.  Jesus will return in glory to judge all nations.  But you have nothing to fear.  If you remember the One who sits on that throne, you will want no other seated there to do the judging. 

For one thing, He has not always sat in heaven, waiting for judgment.  Indeed, He has done much to prepare you for a favorable judgment.  At times, Jesus was hungry—as when He was tempted in the wilderness and remained righteous for you.  At times, He was thirsty—as when He suffered on the cross.  At times, He was a stranger—as when His hometown rejected Him and sought to kill Him.  At times, He was naked—for the soldiers stripped Him bare before they drove the nails into His hands and feet.  He was sick, too—for He bore your sickness and infirmity to the cross.  And though He was not imprisoned, He was in the brutal custody of Roman guards who scourged Him before His death. 

As Jesus suffered these various torments, who was there to help Him?  No one!  But there is reason for this: Jesus did not undergo such agonies so that you might do something for Him.  He suffered them to do something for you—to present Himself as a holy sacrifice, to deliver you from sin. 

In addition to Christ’s suffering, consider His death.  You were under the sentence of death—everlasting death—for your undeniable sins against Him.  But this Judge suffers the sentence of death for you—in your place!  Do you know of any other judge who serves out the sentence of the guilty who stand before him? 

Friends, what cause for joy as we anticipate Judgment Day.  The Judge has arranged the trial so that you are innocent.  There’s only one way you can still be condemned.  You can insist on it.  The undone works are only a symptom of the real problem: lack of faith.  If the goats had called on the Lord in faith, He would have forgiven them, prepared them, and completed good works in them. 

This is the curse of unbelief, for the unbeliever says, “I don’t believe that I’ve done anything wrong” or else “I don’t believe the Judge has died for me, so I don’t want His pardon.”  It is a frightening demonstration of the blindness of sin, that so many cling to the one way to be lost.

But you can rejoice!  As you anticipate Judgment Day, you already know the verdict.  Even now, the Judge says, “You are not guilty.”  While the Gospel writers and Paul continually remind people of the final judgment on the Last Day, they also insist that even now we live under God’s judgment.  And for you who have been brought to faith in Christ that is Good News.  In Christ, God has executed His judgment, for which the Last Day is a public proclamation—the revelation and public vindication of all believers. 

Even now you hear Christ’s not guilty judgment in His Word.  Baptized into Christ, you are blessed by the Father to inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  In the Absolution, the pastor bestows Christ’s forgiveness in His stead and by His command.  In the Word preached and read, the Holy Spirit connects you to Christ, applying His saving work to you.  At the Lord’s Supper, Christ Himself gives you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  These means of grace prepare you to stand before Christ on the Last Day—whenever that might be!—because they strengthen your faith in His forgiveness. 

Therefore, as you wait for Christ’s coming, you are set free to do good works, according to your vocation.  Whether or not our Gospel applies to all in need around us in general, or fellow Christians in particular—serving our neighbor is certainly what Christ are set free to do.

In the vocation of father and mother, parents care for those who are hungry, thirsty, and sometimes sick.  In the vocation of child, adult children may find themselves doing the same for aging parents.  In the vocation of neighbor and citizen, there is always the opportunity to assist the poor, the unemployed, and downtrodden.  You are set free to do these things because the Lord has served you with such compassion.  You do not do these things to become a believer.  You do these things because you already believe, because you’ve already heard and received the Word.  And the Word leads to the deeds.

It is not inappropriate that we speak of another vocation—that of church member.  Even as those early believers cared for those who declared the Word, so you also have opportunity to give offerings so that the church is heated and the lights are on, so that people might gather in comfort in to hear the Word.  And such offerings go to pay pastors, so that they can spend their time studying and training others to share God’s Word. 

Please note: Jesus declares: “As you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.”  Offerings to the Church are an acknowledgment that Christ is present here in the Word that is proclaimed.  Again, such offerings will not earn your salvation.  They do not have to, because you are already saved.  Your offerings are given in thanks, and they are part of God’s plan.  They are dedicated to the proclamation of the Gospel, so that others will hear and be saved.  So that you and your fellow Christians would continue to be blessed by God’s Word of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Therefore, each Christian is set free to give such support as he is able, and in proportion as that ability changes. 

What a message we find in our text.  There is the warning that Judgment Day is coming.  Christ will come to judge all.  People will be judged on the basis of their deeds.  But yours is not a life of terror in the meantime.  Instead, it is one of joyful service and grateful obedience to Him.  This is because you already know the outcome of the Final Judgment for you. 

On the Last Day, all will stand before the judgment seat of Christ.  The King will say to you and all His sheep: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  Receive eternal life.  Having suffered your sentence for you, I declare you not guilty.  I declare you My sheep.  I declare your works good in My sight.  I declare you righteous.  I declare you blessed.  I declare: You are forgiven for all of your sins. 

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

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