Our Lord Jesus Christ, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, was incarnate, took on our human flesh by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. He was crucified also for us, suffered our sin and was buried in our death. The third day, however, He rose again because death could not hold him. He ascended into heaven and is sitting to this day, ruling and reining over all things so that death can no longer hold us who have here been buried with him by baptism into death. Finally, then, we believe that He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. Of that day his disciples asked him, in the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Seeing in his mind’s eye all the false prophets and teachers that would come along throughout history presuming to answer that question, our Lord’s very first word of response was, “See that no one leads you astray” [Matthew 24:3-4 (ESV)]. Then answering their question clearly, our Lord pointed to the convulsions of the creation, the warring madness of the nations, the atrocities and love grown cold among people as signs; he emphasized the necessity that the Gospel of the Kingdom be preached to the whole creation, that no one knows the hour or the day, and so commanded his disciples always to be ready in faith for his return, and, in today’s Gospel, described his return in judgment in no uncertain terms.
For all the details of this picture of the Day of Judgment, the most important thing to note is that the judgment has already happened. The King knows who are his sheep and who are the unbelieving goats so as to place them on his right and his left in the beginning, right off the bat. “I know My own; My own know Me. You, not the world, My face shall see” [LSB 645:5]. Therefore the scripture says, “‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” [2 Cor. 6:2 (ESV)]. In other words the judgment happens now depending upon whether you receive Christ or reject him now, today. The only thing different about the Last Day of Judgment is that then there will then be no more second chances.
Therefore this text serves as both a warning to those “who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” [2 Thess. 1:8 (ESV)], but more as a blessed comfort and assurance for those who are in Christ. It is the warning as blessed Paul the Apostle wrote, that “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day,” and it is the blessed comfort and assurance that, when he comes on that day, he will “be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” [2 Thess. 1:9-10 (ESV)].
The Day of Judgment is a comfort for us, first of all, as it emphasizes the central doctrine of salvation by God’s grace through faith alone. The listing of the works—“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”—are not mentioned as works that qualify you for salvation, but rather as the evidence of the living faith that saves. The amazing answer of the righteous, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,” etc., witnesses to the fact that Christians, most of the time do their humble good works naturally, hardly even thinking about it. Faith is an active, living thing that changes us, that brings about holy living. We certainly do not keep a record of works in hopes of impressing God, even as He keeps no record of our sins (Psalm 130:3-4).
The unbeliever, on the other hand, sins against God in all his works, both his most mundane, everyday tasks as well as his greatest philanthropic efforts, not because of the works themselves but because he is an unbeliever, has rejected Christ. In a similar way they will answer, asking, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” as if to say, “If we would have known it was you, we certainly would have done it.” But you cannot do anything truly helpful “to one of the least of these” or to Christ apart from faith which alone constantly beholds its Lord and God in and through all the details of life.
These words are a comfort, secondarily, because they say that the bliss and joy of our entry into our eternal home on that Day will not be marred by any notice of the impending doom of the goats, the unbelievers. The judgment begins with the sheep, with the righteous. These are the words we long with certain and comforting hope to hear on our last day: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Through those words we already possess that certain hope that comforts us even now in our various trials, as blessed Saint Peter wrote:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” [1 Peter 1:3-9 (ESV)].
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father” says our Lord today. And so we come with a humble spirit and a contrite and faith-filled heart not as to give God anything or seeking some reward, but to receive the blessed benefits of the sacrifice of his only Son in his own life-giving body and blood and be made one with him.
May what we thirst for soon our portion be:
The vision of Thy glory, and Thy grace. [LSB 640:5]