and he will come to judge the living and the dead
After affirming our belief in the divinity and lordship of Jesus, we’ve spent four studies addressing the work of Christ done on our behalf: His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Now Article 2 of the Apostles’ Creed concludes with the belief in Christ’s imminent return, the aspect of Christ’s work that we are still awaiting to be fulfilled.
THE COMING JUDGMENT
Each year that I preach an Advent series I always conclude with a sermon on the Second Advent (or Coming) of Christ. I do this because Jesus’ return is “our blessed hope” (Titus 2:13) and we should always be encouraging one another with that reminder (1 Thessalonians 4:18). But while the return of Christ brings for His people the consummation of our salvation, the resurrection of our bodies and life everlasting, the creed reminds us that Jesus will first come as a judge; rather, He comes as the Judge. We need creeds and confessions for precisely such reasons, to temper and balance our doctrine. We will conclude our study of the Apostles’ Creed with an extended look at the hope and peace that Christ’s coming will bring, but first we must look upon the warning: Christ will return to the judge the living and the dead.
In John 12:47, we find a potential interjection that we must address from the start. In that text, Jesus plainly states, “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” Jesus came into the world to rescue and save sinners, not to judge the world. We could also cite John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” If Jesus explicitly said that He did not come to judge the world, how then can we uphold His coming to judge the living and the dead as an essential doctrine?
We must understand that in those verses Jesus was referring to this first coming. As we have seen, Jesus did not come to condemn or judge the world but rather to suffer death by crucifixion as a substitutionary atonement for our sins. Jesus took on flesh to save us, to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
His second coming, though, will be different. Upon His return, Christ will come not as the Suffering Servant but as the King of Kings. In fact, three texts affirm this line of the creed explicitly. “And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:1). “But they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). Therefore, by threefold witness, Jesus will indeed come to judge the living and dead. Let us now consider five characteristics of this coming judgment.
A Sure Judgment
First, the Scriptures inform us that Christ’s return to judge the living and the dead is sure. The three texts above, Titus 2:11-14, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, 2 Peter 3:1-14, and Revelation 19 are a sample of the promise given to us of Christ’s return. Since, therefore, it is promise made by God, it must be fulfilled. Of course, our surety of its fulfillment comes through faith. Thankfully, we have the full testimony of the Scriptures to strengthen our hope in His coming. Abraham, after all, is called the man of faith because he believed in God’s word without ever seeing it come to pass. We, however, have trustworthy documentation of Christ’s first coming, of His death and resurrection. We have the advantage of knowing how God has proven faithful throughout all of history, so we place confidently our hope in Him to do so again.
A Just Judgment
Second, we know that Christ’s judgment will be just. Peter, in Acts 10:34, and Paul, in Colossians 3:25, both declare that Jesus’ judgment will be rendered without partiality. This means, of course, that no degree of favoritism will come into play. While judging, Christ will hold all men to the same standard as their neighbor.
Yet it also means that perfect justice will be done. “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he had done” (Colossians 3:25). The Psalms also particularly address this theme. Even from Psalm 1, we find that “the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (vv. 5-6). Though earthly justice systems often fail to deal out true justice, Jesus, whose Word is able to discern “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), will judge with righteousness and perfect equity.
An Exhaustive Judgment
Third, Jesus’ judgment will be exhaustive. I mean this in at least two senses. No person will escape His judgment, nor will any sin be overlooked.
By judging the living and dead, we are being told that every person who has ever existed will be placed into the hands of Christ to receive their verdict. We know this because all of humanity lies within these two categories. Everyone is either alive or dead. And Jesus will judge both. Those who are still living when He returns will face His judgment, as will those who have perished.
This should be a cause of great fear to any who do not know Jesus as both their Savior and Lord. Every trial in this life will eventually come to an end and will be escaped, even if that escape occurs through death. Indeed, some hardships are so severe that persons welcome death as a relief to their torment (i.e. Job). Yet consider that not even the dead can hide from the judgment of Christ. We are told in Revelation 20 that the sea and Death and Hades will surrender over their dead to stand before the judgment seat of Jesus, after which Death and Hades themselves will receive judgment by Christ, being cast into the Lake of Fire, the second death. “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). Follow, therefore, the command of the Psalmist: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (2:12). Fall upon the mercy and grace of Christ now rather than the wrath and judgment of Christ to come!
For the judgment of Christ is also exhaustive in that no sin will remain unpunished. Justice will not only be done to every person but also for every transgression against the Law of God that has ever been committed. This is both good news and bad news for us.
It is good news because we have the confident hope that no wrong will fail to be righted in the end. My wife told me about a story that she heard in Colombia of a man who was mowing the grass in a park. When the man came to a dog that didn’t run from his mower, he proceeded to chop off the dog’s legs. Such petty and vile malevolence is always present somewhere. For instance, an estimated 15 to 50 thousand women and girls are currently being trafficked as sex slaves in the United States today. Staring at such wickedness can make us question with Theoden from Lord of the Rings as he looked upon the vast assault upon Helm’s Deep: “What can men do against such reckless hate?” Mercifully, we can look to the end of the story, the final curtain of history, where God will justly and exhaustively bring vengeance upon the evildoer.
Yet this is also bad news for us. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we would quickly realize that if God is going to judge every single sin, then we have a great problem on our hands. A story is told that a newspaper once asked for people to write in opinion pieces about what they thought was wrong with the world. G. K. Chesterton wrote simply, “I am.”
His words are truer than any of us are able to wholly grasp. The primary fault of the world is not some disembodied them; it’s me. It’s you. It’s us. We each in larger or smaller, more subtle or more blatant, ways reject and disobey the almighty Creator of heaven and earth. We commit treason against the Authority, the one by whom we exist. God will not, therefore, only punish murder but also hatred. He will not merely judge rape but also every act of internal lust. Christ’s character is utterly consistent and pure, so no sin, no matter how small, will escape His wrath.
“How then can we be saved?” is the appropriate response to this truth. Praise be to God that Jesus has atoned for every sin of ours via His substitutionary death upon the cross! For all who look to Christ by faith for salvation, the judgment of their sins has already occurred. We, thus, are able to look back to that judgment day two thousand years ago as confirmation that when Christ comes again to the judge the living and the dead, we will not receive the just penalty of our sins. In this way, the bad news of Christ’s coming judgment is made for us into glorious news, into our blessed hope.
An Eternal Judgment
Fourth, His judgment will be eternal. Jesus Himself describes the coming judgment in Matthew 25:31-46:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 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.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirst and you gave me no drink, 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.’ Then they will answer, saying, ‘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?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
The reality of eternal judgment was not added to Christianity by the Apostles. Jesus Himself warns that on the day of judgment all people will be either ushered into eternal life or eternal punishment. For those whose sins have not been paid on the cross, they will spend all of eternity in torment. There will be no eventual annihilation to cease the agony. Nor will there be any eventual acceptance into paradise. Sin must be paid for either by eternal punishment or by the willful act of substitution by the Eternal One. These are the only two ends and destinations.
Eternal life or unceasing death.
Everlasting joy or misery without end.
None other exist.
An Imminent Judgment
Finally, His coming judgment is imminent. The book of Revelation closes the canon of Scripture with Jesus’ triple declaration of “I am coming soon” (22:7, 12, 20). Yet nearly two thousand years have passed since John was led by the Spirit to write those words, and Christ has not yet returned. What are we then to think? Has our Lord forgotten and abandoned us?
By no means! First, we know that time is a creation of God and, therefore, He does not abide by our rigid temporal constraints. Peter tells us, in answer to those who were asking why Christ hadn’t yet returned, that a thousand years is as a day to the Lord. This was not to provide a conversion chart for understanding heavenly timekeeping, but rather to remind us that God is not on our clock.
He further states, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Peter 3:9). His return is still imminent; though for now, He is patiently providing time for repentance. He is coming sooner rather than later. When he comes, like in the days of Noah, the flood of His glory will find us in the ordinariness of our everyday lives. We must, therefore, be ready at all times, awaiting this blessed hope of ours with eager expectation.
WHAT SORT OF PEOPLE OUGHT WE BE?
Now that we have taken a snapshot of Jesus’ return to judge the living and the dead, let us direct our attention toward how we ought to live in light of this truth. Consider three texts which address the second coming of Christ, paying careful attention to how they each encourage us to live as we wait.
Titus 2:11-14 | For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 | Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
2 Peter 3:8-14 | But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and ta thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.
To be honest, I would assume a call to evangelism to be the primary application of understanding Jesus’ second coming. But, although they each use different wordings, they are all commanding us to live holy, sober, godly lives. The pursuit of godliness is the great takeaway here. Since we have this blessed hope ever before our eyes, the return of the one who gave Himself for us, we ought to be zealous for good works. We ought to strive to be imitators of Christ.
Our lives must be marked by godliness and holiness. Such qualities do not happen by accident. They must be pursued with diligence, with devotion. Godliness is nothing less than seeking to image God with every facet of our lives. This pursuit in no way diminishes the power or truth of the gospel; instead, the glorious reality of the gospel ought to fuel our obedience to Christ. As Paul wrote to the Philippians: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:12-13). God’s work within us is both our strength and confidence for working with all our might for Him. We do this with sobriety, with wakefulness, with intentionality. We are children of the day, so we must not be content to slumber through life. We must be alert and vigilant as we long for Christ’s return.
Practically, this means pursing a constant communion with God through prayer and the Word. It means gathering each week to encourage one another as the day of Christ draws near (Hebrews 10:25). It means loving and leading our wives as Christ does the church (Ephesians 5:25). It means submitting to and respecting our husbands as the church does with Christ (Ephesians 5:24). It means raising our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, without provoking them to anger but with great love and gentleness (Ephesians 6:4). It means doing our work as though our employer was Jesus Himself (Colossians 3:23-24). It means eating and drinking everything with thanksgiving to God. It means doing everything to God’s glory.
The path of sober godliness is clear. We know what God expects from us; it’s just not very exciting. The oft-quoted slogan is quite true: “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.” We assure ourselves that we would never deny Christ even in the face of martyrdom, yet we rarely consider how to honor Christ through changing diapers and mowing lawns. He who upholds galaxies by the word of His power is also glorious enough to direct and be worshiped through the most miniscule tasks of our day. If we would live our lives for Christ, these are precisely the things, the moments, that we must give to Him. Our days are often composed of a myriad of mundane chores, yet we lay them at the feet of Christ our King, trusting that He will use them for the growth of His kingdom.
Living quiet lives as we faithfully love one another is the kind of work that God has set before us. In Christ, the Father is recreating both humanity and the cosmos, and, as new creations in Christ, we must faithfully live accordingly. But make no mistake, our training in godliness, in even the dull routines of life, is inherently evangelistic. Our lives will be utterly ordinary yet profoundly peculiar. When we soberly strive for godliness in every realm of our lives, we will stand as deep-rooted trees in the midst of a world of chaff (Psalm 1:3-4). The world has no category for understanding such lives of loving and careful submission to God’s ways.
Brothers and sisters, since Christ will return to judge the living and the dead, dissolving the heavens with His glory and exposing the works done upon the earth, we ought to live holy, sober, and godly lives that wait for and hasten our Lord’s coming.
We believe that Jesus, who humbled Himself by becoming a man and dying upon a cross to redeem us, who rose to life on the third day and is now reigning at the right hand of the Father, will return to judge the living and the dead.
Do you believe?