Article 37 - The Last Judgement
THE LAST JUDGMENT
Finally, we believe, according to the Word of God, that when the time, ordained by the Lord but unknown to all creatures, has come and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as He ascended (Acts 1:11), with great glory and majesty. He will declare Himself Judge of the living and the dead and set this old world afire in order to purge it. Then all people, men, women, and children, who ever lived, from the beginning of the world to the end, will appear in person before this great Judge. They will be summoned with the archangel's call and with the sound of the trumpet of God (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Those who will have died before that time will arise out of the earth, as their spirits are once again united with their own bodies in which they lived. Those who will then be still alive will not die as the others but will be changed in the twinkling of an eye from perishable to imperishable. Then the books will be opened and the dead will be judged (Revelation 20:12) according to what they have done in this world, whether good or evil (2 Corinthians 5:10). Indeed, all people will render account for every careless word they utter (Matthew 12:36), which the world regards as mere jest and amusement. The secrets and hypocrisies of men will then be publicly uncovered in the sight of all. And so for good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to the wicked and evildoers but it is a great joy and comfort to the righteous and elect. For then their full redemption will be completed and they will receive the fruits of their labour and of the trouble they have suffered. Their innocence will be known to all and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring upon the wicked who persecuted, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.
The wicked will be convicted by the testimony of their own consciences and will become immortal, but only to be tormented in the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). On the other hand, the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honour. The Son of God will acknowledge their names before God His Father (Matthew 10:32) and His elect angels. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 21:4), and their cause - at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil authorities - will be recognized as the cause of the Son of God. As a gracious reward, the Lord will cause them to possess such a glory as the heart of man could never conceive. Therefore we look forward to that great day with a great longing to enjoy to the full the promises of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20).
The lives we’re given to live have a distinct beginning and a marked end, birth and death. No one can observe what becomes of us beyond the grave, except to say that our bodies decompose. Given that life is finite, it seems logical that one ought to make the most of life while it lasts. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isaiah 22:13; 1 Corinthians 15:32).
The temptation to focus on the here-and-now was great for deBres and his congregation too. By decree of the authorities, the Protestants were persecuted so that the faithful could not be sure of their lives or their freedom. If, then, there is nothing beyond the grave, if life is simply what the eye sees, how tempting to make the most of the few years one has on earth – and so give up the faith to get the persecuting authorities off one’s back!
However, God’s revelation assured deBres that reality went beyond what the eye could see. So, as a faithful shepherd of his flock, deBres drew his congregation’s attention to God’s revelation about Christ’s return. Messengers from heaven had once assured the disciples that “this same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). That Jesus Christ would return to this earth was incentive for the persecuted congregation to look beyond the sufferings and pressures of this life, and encouragement to keep the bigger picture in mind. Hence deBres’ confession, “Finally, we believe, according to the Word of God, that … our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as He ascended, with great glory and majesty.”
Christ ascended in kingly fashion. He told His disciples before He left that “all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), and so it was fitting that at His ascension a cloud should receive Him out of their sight (Acts 1:9) – the same cloud that served as the vehicle of Almighty God in the Old Testament (Exodus 19:16; Ezekiel 1:4; see Psalm 104:3). Such is the royalty of the King of kings that when He comes again He will (as Jesus told the Sanhedrin at His trial) return “on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64; see Revelation 1:7).
The welcome He will receive at His return will befit His kingship. The loved ones we buried in the cemetery will acknowledge His Lordship at His coming. “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). For a King greater than Death has entered the land; yes, so great is this King that even those who succumbed to Death in the course of many centuries will hear His summons and obey (1 Corinthians 15:24-26), “both … the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15). Despite what the eye sees, then, death is not the end of one’s existence. Life continues on and on, eternally beyond the moment of Death.
At the return of the King, “the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17). When the Roman emperor made on official visit to a city of his empire, his visit was formally announced with trumpets and fanfare, and the citizens of the kingdom made it their business to meet the emperor outside the city and escort him in. The greater the king, the greater his reception. So it shall be on the last day. So great is this King of kings that when the Lord Jesus returns to His kingdom, all the saints –those who were dead as well as those still alive at the time– will leave the ground to meet the Lord in the air – and so welcome Him into His kingdom.
All those made righteous through Jesus’ blood will welcome Him eagerly. The unrighteous, on the other hand, will be overcome with terror at the appearance of this King. “The kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’” (Revelation 6:15-17). Yet, despite their fear, every knee shall bow before Him and “every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10,11). For the saints of deBres’ day who lived under the crushing hand of oppressive governments, here was a word of comfort and encouragement. “Their cause –at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil authorities– will be recognized as the cause of the Son of God.” Despite what the eye sees, the people of God are on the winning team!
As King coming to His kingdom, Jesus Christ shall also serve as Judge. Exactly because He is King of the world, all residents of His kingdom are duty bound to acknowledge Him. In fact, though, over the years of earth’s history countless residents of His kingdom have denied and continue to deny His kingship; they live in defiance of His commands and actively rebel against Him. As the righteous Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25), the Lord will give each their just reward. The following texts are relevant:
- Matthew 12:36,37: “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
- Matthew 25:31-33: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
Judgment from the Judge is, of course, not limited to the Last Day. The world in the days of Noah experienced the judgment of the righteous Judge, so that all people perished except for Noah and his family. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah also tasted the judgment of God, so that all perished except for “righteous Lot” (2 Peter 2:7) and his daughters. The Lord God judged the Egyptians in the days of Moses, and destroyed the Canaanites because of their sins. The people of Israel experienced the heavy hand of God on their unbelief in the days of the judges, and centuries later were carted off into exile. That was according to God’s promises to Israel to bestow blessing on obedience and curse on disobedience (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28).
Though the Lord may cause sinners to experience His judgment in this life, the final judgment is reserved for the Last Day. In Jesus’ parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), righteous Lazarus at his death “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom” (vs 22). The rich man, on the other hand, was “in torments in Hades” and complained of his agony (vss 23,24). Jesus has Abraham tell the rich man in Hades, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented” (vs 25). The implication of Jesus’ words is that a judgment has occurred at death, so that Lazarus and the rich man both received their just reward at the time of their death.
One of the two criminals on the cross with Jesus pleaded with the Lord to remember him when He came into His kingdom. Jesus replied, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus had no such word for the other criminal, from which we may conclude that he would not be with the Lord in Paradise but would receive his reward elsewhere. The apostle Paul, righteous as he knows himself to be through Jesus’ blood, could insist that for him “to die is gain” for then he shall “be with Christ” (Philippians 1:21,23). Conversely, the Holy Spirit relates concerning Judas Iscariot that he went “to his own place” (Acts 1:25), a euphemism for hell. Scripture is also clear that no one who has rejected Christ in this life will find a place in heaven at all. It is clear, then, that at one’s death one appears before the Judge and receives his eternal reward.
Yet the Scripture is unequivocal that at Christ’s return all people who ever lived, every rich person and poor, every man and woman, will appear before the King who comes to judge. To our minds such a ‘second judgment’ is unnecessary, for the Lord has already allocated our sentence at death. Yet the point is not whether we find such a judgment necessary; the point is that the Lord has revealed that it shall happen. All the righteous shall be gathered at Jesus’ right hand, an innumerable crowd from every tribe and race and language, all needing to give account of every idle word they have spoken – and all shall point to the gospel of Jesus Christ, how the Son of God suffered the righteous wrath of God in their place, that they might go eternally free. All the ungodly shall be gathered at Jesus’ left hand, an innumerable crowd, too, from any tribe and race and language, all needing to give account also of every idle word they have spoken – and they shall not be able to…. They have not embraced the Savior in faith, and so their sins are not washed away in His blood. The Judge –He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness” (Habakkuk 1:13)– will cast these rebels “into the furnace of fire” where “there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42,50; 24:51) without end.
What purpose, then, does this final Judgment have? Why would the Lord have all nations gather before the Judge to give account of all their sins? The point is not that those who have died might perchance receive a different sentence than they received at their death. There shall on that day be no surprises or second chances. The point of the exercise will be that the King’s glory will be displayed for all to see. That there shall be on the one hand an innumerable crowd delighting in the gospel of forgiveness of their sins –what mercy the Lord displays!– shall be cause for great rejoicing, and glory for the King of kings. That there shall be on the other hand an innumerable crowd who must hang their head in shame for their rejection of their King and His atoning work and therefore rightly receive their sentence of condemnation shall again give glory to the King of kings – how righteous is His justice! All of it together shall cause the angels, and every person also, to join in singing the song of Moses and of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints! Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You, For Your judgments have been manifested” (Revelation 15:3,4).
For a people oppressed under the heavy hand of ungodly rulers and persecutors, here is enormous encouragement! DeBres caught the matter so well, “And so for good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to the wicked and evildoers but it is a great joy and comfort to the righteous and elect. For then their full redemption will be completed and they will receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered. Their innocence will be known to all and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring upon the wicked who persecuted, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.” And: “their cause –at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil authorities– will be recognized as the cause of the Son of God.” It is a day to long for!
Yet the delights of that Last Day lie not only in the vindication of the righteous over against the bullying of the kingdom’s rebels. We live today in a vale of tears, subject to all the curses God pronounced over the human race as a result of our fall into sin. We know of pain, both physical and mental; we know of sickness that can bother us for a short time or lead us to death. We know of toil and sweat, of anxiety and stress (Genesis 3:16-19). But with the return of our Lord the King, all the brokenness and the frustration that marks our lives today shall be taken away – at least for the righteous. Peter tells us that on the day of the Lord “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). All we’ve toiled to build up in the course of a lifetime will disappear; no church or house, no bunker or bank will survive. Everything touched by the fall into sin will be destroyed as the judgment of God breaks out over the earth. In its place the Lord will fashion “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). It will be a place of splendor such that “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the hearts of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox,” and none “shall hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain” – who would have anticipated that such a dream shall actually come true?! Yet that’s the promise of holy Writ: because sin is taken away, every effect of the fall into sin shall be taken away also! Instead of people being driven from God’s presence and exiled into a world of thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:18,24), God “will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3,4). God Himself will make His home on Planet Earth; here we shall live eternally with the Lord our God (Revelation 21:2,3).
Shall we work in the New Jerusalem, or sing all day? Shall we recognize those who are there, or not? Will there be animals, and what will they eat? Will we use the technology that the human race has developed over the centuries, or not? We have so many questions – and the Lord has not given an answer; we shall need to wait and see. Yet these questions are not so important in the big scheme of things. The purpose of our existence –today and forever is to give glory to the King of kings. Scripture keeps directing us to that purpose, and does not want us to busy our minds on questions borne of curiosity. Jesus taught us to pray first of all, “Hallowed be Your name” (Matthew 6:9). It is how Jesus prayed before He went to the cross: “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). We shall see His glory, and so much shall we be taken by that glory that everything else will fall into its proper place. DeBres catches the point: “as a gracious reward, the Lord will cause them to possess such a glory as the heart of man could never conceive. Therefore we look forward to that great day with a great longing to enjoy to the full the promises of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
When, however, shall this great day be? The church for 2000 years has looked forward eagerly to the return of the Savior, but that great day has not yet come. May we expect it soon? Or must there first come many trials and tribulations upon the earth?
Our chief Prophet and Teacher has answered the question this way: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:36-44). Thieves do not announce their intentions, yet we all take precautions against the possibility of a break-in. The Son of Man too will not announce His coming and ring no doorbell. Suddenly, while people are doing their regular, daily activities, the trumpet will sound and the King will be there.
The apostle Peter picks up on Jesus’ instruction about the thief. “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night” (2 Peter 3:10). Paul repeats the comparison: “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3). This means in practice that King Jesus is able to come into His kingdom today. Paul considered it possible that the Lord could come while he himself was still alive (see 1 Thessalonians 4:15) – now nearly 20 centuries ago. Jesus Himself declared, “Surely I am coming quickly” (Revelation 22:20). That He has not yet come is not because the Lord “is slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). With what anticipation, then, shall the church await the arrival of the King! We shall do the work He gives us daily to do, but we shall keep (so to speak) one eye on the sky, watching for the coming of the Lord – waiting for Him, ready for Him. Well did deBres quote John’s inspired cry at the end of Scripture: “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
Such eager anticipation of Christ’s return must, of course, affect the way one lives one’s life in this vale of tears.
- Paul readily concedes that if life is no more than the eye sees between birth and death, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). As it is, though, life is much more. When Christ returns all people will rise from the dead – for life continues beyond the wall of death. For that very reason Paul was willing to “stand in jeopardy every hour” (1 Corinthians 15:30), was willing to put up with dangers of every sort (2 Corinthians 6:4-10; 12:23-28). He knew there was laid away for him –and for all who love the appearing of the Lord– a great reward in heaven that made the sufferings of this life insignificant. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen” (2 Corinthians 4:17,18). How encouraging for persons burdened by the weight of wrongful persecution!
- The same encouragement extends to those who struggle with sicknesses and weaknesses – as we all do in one form or another, sooner or later. “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). In the midst of life’s tears and struggles, one may look forward to receiving the crown of glory – and who would begrudge anyone that crown?!
- If all the works of our hands shall be burned up on the day of Christ’s return (2 Peter 3:10,13), it makes no sense to invest my talents in building up an earthly kingdom. The Lord will not return, and so the grief of this life will not be replaced by the delights of the New Jerusalem, “until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed” – said the Lord to the souls under the altar (Revelation 6:11). The gospel, then, needs to be brought to all men (Matthew 24:14). Would I, then, desire the Savior to return quickly? I can “hasten the coming of the day of the Lord” (2 Peter 3:12) by being strategically busy in His kingdom, be it in causing the gospel to go forth through mission work, be it in teaching my children who their heavenly Father is and training them to live for Him, be it in living as a light in a dark world. Being caught up in work or pleasure or consumerism does not hasten Christ’s coming – and is not conduct fitting for the child of God who longs for the coming of the King. The people of God are “pilgrims” (1 Peter 1:1), en route to the Promised Land.
- Again, it is tempting for any one wronged through the bullying tactics of another to seek revenge under the banner of justice. The fact that the Judge comes soon is incentive for the child of God to leave revenge to the Lord. Paul writes, “it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
As the conscientious child of God observes the developments of world history, he may be inclined to feel discouraged. There is so much evidence of the power of sin, in our culture, our work environment, our homes, even in our churches and in ourselves. The devil and his rebels, it would seem, have the upper hand. Yet the reality of the King’s return in glory on the day of the Lord puts it all into consoling perspective. Jesus Christ rules over this world from heaven above until it is time to come to His kingdom. There is no force anywhere in the world that can stop His appearance in glory, and there is no force either that can sabotage His judgment over men and demons. Without a doubt, the day is coming when all who today resist the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and the cause of His people will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15) – after they have bent the knee to the King of kings.
Today we wait patiently, with eager anticipation, for that glorious Tomorrow! And as we await that Day, we carry on doing the things God has given us to do today – faithful servants obeying the command of their Lord.
Yes, come, Lord Jesus! Maranatha!
Points for Discussion:
- Why does deBres in Article 37 long for Christ’s return?
- Does Satan hate you? How is that evident? How does this reality affect the way you live?
- The reality of Christ’s return affects the way the Christian lives. Explain how this is so.
- Explain what will happen when the Lord returns. Will all our questions be answered? Why is that (not) important?
- Does the Lord’s prophecy concerning what will happen at Christ’s return seem credible? Need it be? Why or why not?
- Why is the thought of the last judgment horrible for unbelievers?
- If sins are forgiven today, why do we on the last day have to give account of every idle word we have spoken in this life? How can we?
- When will Christ return? Will we receive warning?
- Does collecting a fortune and a palace make sense? Explain your answer.
- Discuss the lesson of Abraham and Sarah in Hebrews 11:8-16, with special reference to vs 14.
- What does Philippians 3:20 tell us about our attitude to this world?