Eternal life versus eternal punishment
Author Don Schwager – Gospel Reading: Matthew 25:31-46 (alternate reading: Luke 14:1-6)
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 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, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
37 Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, `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?’ 45 Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Old Testament Reading: Wisdom 3:1-9 (Deutero-Canonical)
1 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. 2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, 3 and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. 4 For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. 5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; 6 like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. 7 In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. 8 They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them for ever. 9 Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones.
Meditation: Is your hope in this present life only? What about the life to come after our physical death? God puts in the heart of every living person the desire for unending life and happiness. While physical death claims each of us at the appointed time, God gives us something which death cannot touch – his own divine life and sustaining power.
God does not abandon us to the realm of the dead
One of the greatest examples of faith and hope in the promise of everlasting life with God is the testimony of Job in the Old Testament. God allowed Job to be tested through great trial, suffering, and the loss of everything he had. In the midst of his sufferings Job did not waver in trusting God. In chapter 19 of the Book of Job, he exclaims:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27).
Through testing and purification God strengthened Job in faith and abundantly rewarded him for his trust and hope in God’s promises.
King David also expressed his unwavering hope in the promise of everlasting life with God. In Psalm 16 David prays,
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand (Psalm 16:9-11 NIV translation).
Meditation: Do you allow the love of God to rule in your heart? Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) said, “Essentially, there are two kinds of people, because there are two kinds of love. One is holy, the other is selfish. One is subject to God; the other endeavors to equal Him.” Jesus came not only to fulfill the law of righteousness (Leviticus 19), but to transform it through his unconditional love and mercy towards us.
The Lord Jesus proved his love for us by offering up his life on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. His death brings freedom and life for us – freedom from fear, selfishness, and greed – and new abundant life in the Holy Spirit who fills our hearts with the love of God (Romans 5:5). Do you allow God’s love to purify your heart and transform your mind to think, act, and love others as the Lord Jesus has taught through word and example?
The lesson of separating goats and sheep at the end of the day
Jesus’ description of the “Son of Man”, a Messianic title which points to the coming of God’s anointed Ruler and Judge over the earth (John 5:26-29, Daniel 7:13ff), and his parable about the separation of goats and sheep must have startled his audience. What does the separation of goats and sheep have to do with the Day of God’s Judgement over the earth? In arid dry lands such as Palestine, goats and sheep often grazed together during the day because green pasture was sparse. At nightfall, when the shepherd brought the sheep and goats to their place of rest, he separated them into two groups. Goats by temperament are aggressive, domineering, restless, and territorial. They butt heads with their horns whenever they think someone is intruding on their space.
Goats came to symbolize evil and the expression “scape-goat” become a common expression for someone bearing blame or guilt for others. (See Leviticus 26:20-22 for a description of the ritual expulsion of a sin-bearing goat on the Day of Atonement.) Jesus took our guilt and sins upon himself and nailed them to the cross. He payed the price to set us free from sin and death. Our choice is either to follow and obey him as our Lord and Savior or to be our own master and go our own separate way apart from God’s way of truth and righteousness (moral goodness). We cannot remain neutral or indifferent to the commands of Christ. If we do not repent of our wrongdoing (our sins and offenses against God and neighbor) and obey the Gospel we cannot be disciples of the Lord Jesus nor inherit his kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy. Separation of the good from the bad is inevitable because one way leads to sin, rebellion, and death and the other way leads to purification, peace, and everlasting life with God.
Love of God frees us from inordinate love of self
The parable of the goats and sheep has a similar endpoint as the parable of the rich man who refused to give any help to the poor man Lazarus who begged daily at the rich man’s doorstep (Luke 16:19-31). Although Lazarus was poor and lacked what he needed, he nonetheless put his hope in God and the promise of everlasting life in God’s kingdom. The rich man was a lover of wealth rather than a lover of God and neighbor. When Lazarus died he was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom to receive his reward in heaven. When the rich man died his fortunes were reversed and he was cast into the unquenchable fires of hell to receive his just desserts. The parable emphasizes the great chasm and wall of separation between the former rich man held now bound as a poor and miserable prisoner in hell and Lazarus clothed in royal garments feasting at God’s banquet table in the kingdom of heaven.
The day of God’s righteous judgment will disclose which kind of love we chose in this present life – a holy unselfish love directed to God and to the welfare of our neighbor or a disordered and selfish love that puts oneself above God and the good of our neighbor.
When Martin of Tours (316-397 AD), a young Roman soldier who had been reluctant to fully commit his life to Christ and be baptized as a Christian, met a poor beggar on the road who had no clothes to warm himself in the freezing cold, Martin took pity on him. He immediately got off his horse and cut his cloak in two and then gave half to the stranger. That night Martin dreamt he saw a vision of Jesus in heaven robed in a torn cloak just like the one he gave away that day to the beggar. One of the angels next to Jesus asked, “Master, why do you wear that battered cloak?” Jesus replied, “My servant Martin gave it to me.” Martin’s disciple and biographer Sulpicius Severus states that as a consequence of this vision “Martin flew to be baptized” to give his life fully to Christ as a member of his people – the body of Christ on earth and the communion of saints and angels in heaven.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) wrote, “Christ is at once above and below – above in Himself, below in his people. Fear Christ above, and recognize him below. Here he is poor, with and in the poor; there he is rich, with and in God. Have Christ above bestowing his bounty; recognize him here in his need” (excerpt from Sermon 123, 44).
On the day of judgment Jesus will ask “whom did you love”?
When the Lord Jesus comes again as Judge and Ruler over all, he will call each one of us to stand before his seat of judgment to answer the question – who did you love and put first in this life? Inordinate love of self crowds out love of God and love of neighbor. Those who put their faith in Jesus Christ and follow his way of love and righteousness will not be disappointed. They will receive the just reward – life and peace with God in his everlasting kingdom.
If we entrust our lives to the Lord Jesus today, and allow his Holy Spirit to purify our hearts and minds, then he will give us the grace, strength, and freedom to walk and live each day in the power of his merciful love and goodness. Let us entrust our lives into the hands of the merciful Savior who gave his life for us. And let us ask the Lord Jesus to increase our faith, strengthen our hope, and enkindle in us the fire of his merciful love and compassion for all.
“Lord Jesus, be the Master and Ruler of my life. May your love rule in my heart that I may only think, act, and speak with charity and good will for all.”
Psalm 19:8-10, 14
8 The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
A Daily Quote from the early church fathers: Gathering and Separating, by an anonymous early author from the Greek church
“And he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” So then, people on earth are intermingled, and not only intermingled in that the righteous live side by side with the wicked, but they are also indistinguishable. Between the righteous and the wicked there is no apparent difference. Even as in wintertime you cannot tell the healthy trees apart from the withered trees but in beautiful springtime you can tell the difference, so too each person according to his faith and his works will be exposed. The wicked will not have any leaves or show any fruit, but the righteous will be clothed with the leaves of eternal life and adorned with the fruit of glory. In this way they will be separated by the heavenly shepherd and Lord. The earthly shepherd separates animals by their type of body, whereas Christ separates people by their type of soul. The sheep signify righteous people by reason of their gentleness, because they harm no one, and by reason of their patience, because when they are harmed by others, they bear it without resistance. He refers to sinners as goats, however, because these vices characterize goats – capriciousness toward other animals, pride and belligerence.” (excerpt from INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 54, the Greek fathers).
Meditations may be freely reprinted for non-commercial use – please cite: copyright (c) 2018 Servants of the Word, source: www.dailyscripture.net, author Don Schwager
Scripture quotations from Common Bible: Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1973, and Ignatius Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 2006, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Citation references for quotes from the writings of the early church fathers can be found here.
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