Starting last week we began a short series of sermons called “Last Things” looking at the themes of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. We don’t like to think about those sorts of things too terribly often, but your convictions about those issues have a profound influence on the way that we think about life here and now, about what really matters, about why you do what you do and value the things that you value. So these are critically important subjects to grapple with and think through carefully. And we made a start last time looking at Romans chapter 5 and the subject of death and this morning we’re going to think about judgment. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for a man to die once and after that comes judgment.” So last time we dealt with death; this time we’re thinking about judgment. And to direct or thinking we’re going to read together from the book of Revelation, chapter 20. So if you would please go ahead and take a copy of the Bible from the pew racks in front of you and turn there with me. Revelation chapter 20; page 1040. And at the very bottom of the right-hand column on page 1040 you’ll see verse 11. We are going to read from there through verse 15, the end of the chapter. Before we do that, it’s our custom to pause and to pray and to ask for God to help us understand His holy Word. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, would You help us please to face ourselves with honesty, to see the uncomfortable truth about ourselves as we stand unmasked before You in the light of Your holy Word. Thank You that presiding over the throne of the universe there reigns not an arbitrary and random evolutionary principle, nor an abstract law of fate or of karma, but a glorious, merciful, righteous, just person, the Lord Jesus Christ, who judges all people in equity. We pray as we hear Your Word read and preached that by the work of the Holy Spirit we might, all of us, be enabled now or anew to bow in repentance and faith before Him here that none of us need bow in fear and regret, having lived in rebellion against Him, when we stand before Him hereafter. Would You do that please, by Your Word and Spirit among us, for the glory of the name of Christ in whose name we pray. Amen.
Revelation chapter 20, reading from the eleventh verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Amen, and we thank God that He has spoken to us in His holy Word.
The Calm of the End
Here in Revelation chapter 20 we find ourselves at the end of history and despite the Hollywood disaster movie images to the contrary, this final climactic moment is not marked or characterized by chaos but by an extraordinary stillness. It’s the stillness, the poise and solemnity of a courtroom. Its features, although they are elevated to the sublime here, are nonetheless familiar to us. Take a look at the passage please. There is a judge. Do you see him, seated on the throne? All the accused are present. There is evidence presented, weighed and evaluated. There is a verdict delivered and a sentence is executed. Here is our final court appearance; one all of us must keep. And though perhaps for some of us justice in life may have been an elusive thing, here all the loose ends will be tied. Here, as we all stand before the heavenly Judge, perfect, infallible justice will be done at last.
Notice first of all please what we are told about the Judge who takes his seat. Look at verse 11. “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.” Actually, the throne is a dominant, perhaps the dominant image in the book of Revelation. If you were to scan through the book from chapter 4 verse 2 onward, throne or thrones are mentioned some thirty-two times. The whole book actually is structured around a series of throne room scenes. Chapters 4 and 5, chapter 7, the opening verses of chapter 8, chapter 11 verse 15, chapters 16 through 19 - throne room scenes punctuate the book and each time we find ourselves in Revelation before the throne of God we notice there is an anthem of praise or the prayers of the people of God ascend to the One who reigns from the throne. Except here, in the climactic throne room scene, there are no prayers, no praises. Here now there is silence. As the final tribunal is called into session there is a hushed solemnity that descends before the throne.
I. The Judge
And notice the One who takes His seat, “The throne and him who was seated on it.” Who is seated on the throne? The Apostle Paul in Romans 14:10 speaks about the throne of God, the judgment seat of God. We can be a little more specific than that in light of the teaching of the book of Revelation as a whole so chapters 4 and 5, chapter 5 in particular, that first throne room scene we are told the Apostle John turned and saw between the throne and the elders and the living creatures, these angelic beings, he saw “a Lamb standing as though it had been slain.” A better translation would be, “in the midst of the throne, a Lamb, looking as though it had been slain.” Here is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world and He rules from the throne of God. The God who presides over all things, reigns in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s exactly the same message that Jesus Himself gave us in a passage that echoes the structure and teaching of this one. Matthew 25:31, speaking about the day when He would return to judge the world, Jesus said, “The Son of Man, when he comes in his glory and all the angels with him, will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” John 15:22, Jesus says, “The Father has committed all judgment to the Son.” Who is the Judge to takes His seat in the final tribunal? It is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain.
That’s important because as we see the Lord Jesus taking His seat to judge, we are to remember that He does so as one who Himself was judged unjustly and condemned. He will summon before Him human beings who, when He stood before them, they condemned Him to die an unjust, ignominious death, even the death of the cross. He is the Lamb who judges. That means He will just with empathy and understanding, one who was Himself unjustly condemned who will therefore judge in righteousness. He judges from a white throne. Did you see that detail? That means that He cannot be bribed or bought. He will not judge in a biased manner. His judgment will be pure and righteous and holy and pristine and unimpeachable and fair. The Judge.
II. The Accused
Then secondly, notice the accused, summoned into the dock to stand before Him. Verses 11 and 12, “From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne.” The fabric of the material universe flees from the immense majesty and purity and holiness of the Judge, sullied and stained as it is by human sin. But there are others called to give an account before the judgment seat who cannot escape, who cannot flee. No, they must answer. Can you see who they are? They are “the dead, great and small, standing before the throne.” Or look down at verse 13, “The sea gave up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, every one of them.” Who will be judged? Everyone will be judged. Everyone will be judged. The great and the small, the rich and the poor, the important and the ordinary. There will be no partiality. The ground before the judgment seat of Christ is perfectly level. No preferential treatment, all alike, standing before the judgment seat. What a sight it must have been for John - this immense sea of faces. Think about the mall in Washington on the inauguration of the president and the camera pans out, right, and the whole place, it’s just a sea of faces as far as you can see. Now imagine all the way on the right hand side to the horizon and on the left and before you and behind you. No ground can be visible; just a mass of humanity. Everyone who has ever lived, summoned before the throne. This will be a universal judgment.
Let me make it more concrete. That means, as John casts his eye over this sea, he sees your face in the crowd. You are here before the judgment seat of Christ. You are summoned into the dock at the final great assize. Maybe you’ve deceived your parents. Perhaps you’ve pulled the wool over the eyes of your spouse. Maybe no one knows the truth. You may even have deceived yourself or perhaps you think your sin doesn’t matter. There is no accountability. You answer to no one but yourself. But the truth is, there’s no hiding from the gaze of the Lord Jesus Christ. John describes Him in chapter 1 verse 14 as “the one who has eyes like flames of fire.” He has a penetrating gaze. “No creature is hidden from his sight,” Hebrews 4:13, “all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.”
III. The Evidence
Which brings us to the third thing to see here. The Judge, the accused, and now thirdly, the evidence, the trial. Look at how the trial is conducted. Verse 12 again, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” In the symbolism of the book of Revelation, these books are a way of talking about the perfect memory of Almighty God. And there are two sets of books; did you notice that? One set are the books of deeds, the books of works; plural. “Books were opened.” They contained the record of the thoughts and works and words of all people. They are the action replay of the whole of your life - your interior life, your private life, your public life, replayed and scrutinized, as it were, play by play and judged and evaluated in light of the perfect holiness of Almighty God Himself. There are times when we think we’ve gotten away with it, aren’t there? We think that if no one knows and no one sees then we have nothing about which to be concerned. We may even really be persuaded there is no accountability beyond the laws and expectations of this life. Of course when people actually try to live on that basis their slide into monstrous debauchery is almost inevitable.
The Longing for Justice
Let me give you a few examples. Trevin Wax, in a Christianity Today article, makes precisely that point as he reflects on life during Ceausescu’s reign in Romania. He said, “My wife grew up in this environment and she witnessed firsthand the injustices that took place there. Ceausescu was a devout atheist because he had no fear of what might occur after death. He could live in luxury while systematically starving his people. Without any fear of standing before his Maker, Ceausescu was able to justify any selfish craving that he had.” Or try this, words from an 1878 letter by the great novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, to a man called N.L. Osmanov. He said this, Dostoyevsky, “Now assume there is no God or the immortality of the soul. Now tell me why should I live righteously and do good deeds if I am to die entirely on earth? And if that is so, why shouldn’t I, as long as I can rely on my cleverness and agility to avoid being caught by the law, cut another man’s throat and rob and steal?” Or listen to this from the book of Psalms. Here’s what happens in a culture when people stop believing that they will be held to account. Psalm 94 verses 4 to 7, “They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage. They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless; and they say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.’”
I hope you can see that when we jettison the Bible’s teaching about the final judgment we create the moral plausibility structure that will allow for almost anything. If there is no judgment, no final accountability for us all, well then all the rules are relative and Dostoyevsky was right and the only thing that can constrain your appetites is your own ability and ingenuity to carry out your desires without getting caught. But most of us don’t live that way. We can’t live that way, actually. And so whenever we bristle with moral outrage in the face of injustice, even those of us who reject the Christian faith completely, nevertheless implicitly acknowledge the fact that cosmic accountability is real and necessary and inevitable. We acknowledge that justice must and will be done one day. We need it to be done. Its part of the message of Revelation 20:11-15 but there’s a hard part to it. We need it to be done, justice, final accountability - we cannot live on any other basis. But if there’s final accountability then we ourselves will be held to account when that great day dawns. To be sure, there will be no injustice; there will be no need for trial lawyers to demonstrate reasonable doubt. The facts, whole and entire, will be fully known. Nothing will be hidden. No one will be able to say to Jesus on that day, “It’s not fair! There are mitigating circumstances!” All the circumstances will be seen and understood, the whole story known and weighed in perfect equity and unimpeachable justice.
Two Books: Deeds and Names
While no one else may know, God knows, and your sin is recorded in the books. You may think it inconsequential, hardly worthy of a second thought, but God has marked it and it has been recorded in His books. Perhaps you’ve measured your life against your evaluation of other people’s behavior and frankly compared to them, “I’m a fine figure of a man!” You have acquitted yourself in the court of your own conscience. Will you hear the same verdict when the books are opened and your life is measured against the character of the One who said, “Be holy as I am holy,” and “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord”? When measured by the standard of the flawless purity of God’s own character, I wonder what the verdict will be pronounced over you, when your case comes up. After all, Romans 3 at verse 10, “No one is righteous, no, not one.” Verse 23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” If you go armed before the judgment seat of Christ only with your own best efforts are your argument, in the final tribunal you will have no hope of acquittal, no hope. “There is no one righteous, not even one.”
But John sees another book, doesn’t he, just one book. Not a book of deeds; this is a book of names. He calls it in verse 12 and again in verse 15, “the book of life.” Its fuller title has been given back in chapter 13 verse 8. It is “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” The book of life of the Lamb who was slain. When you notice the difference between the verdicts delivered from the judgment seat over all people, ask yourself, “What’s the difference? What is it that has made the difference between those who are dispatched into the lake of fire forever and those who are received with joy into the presence of Christ? What is the difference?” It is not that those who are acquitted have no misdeeds written in the books. No, they are as guilty as the rest of humanity. What is the great difference? Is it that their names are written in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. It is that they have taken Jesus Christ for their Savior who was Himself judged and condemned that they may live and receive pardon.
Righteousness from the Redeemer
The One John saw still bearing the nail marks in His glorified hands, the Lamb standing as though it has been slain the midst of the throne, the Judge, the Lord Jesus, He’s the one who will preside in the final assize. Think about it. He who will pronounce a terrible sentence on those who do not know Him is the One who has already acted personally to deliver any and all who would trust Him and come to Him that you might not die. He died! That you might not be throne into the lake of fire, the white hot fury of divine wrath rolled down upon Him in your stead! He was judged and condemned without mercy that when you stand before the judgment seat yourself, trusting Him, you may receive mercy. You know if you will believe on the Lord Jesus Christ here and now, whatever is recorded in the judgment books, the books of your deeds, when the ledgers are opened and your name is found, there will be a line, as it were, drawn through your name, scored through your name, and above it written another name - Jesus Christ. He has been held to account for your misdeeds, for your transgressions. And when the book of life is opened and the record of the perfect righteousness and obedience of your Savior is accounted, beside it is your name, believer, and with joy you are received into the presence of your Master. When you stand before the judgment seat, if today you are a believer, on that day the sight of His nail pierced hands will speak a word of peace and joy in your heart. When you come to the final judgment and you look to the throne, believer in Jesus, you see the thorn marks in His brow, the evidence of His sufferings for you, it will speak a word of serenity and assurance - your deliverance has been bought and paid for; your penalty, the sentence you deserve, has been carried out and exacted from Him and you are free.
But if today you reject the Lord Jesus Christ, if today you sit there holding Him at arm’s length, if you continue to live in rebellion against Him and will not bend your knee to Him, when you come before Him at the last and you look to the throne and you see the nail marks in His hands, what bitterness will fill your heart, what regret as you recognize that all along He had been ready to receive you having made full, complete provision for your deliverance. He died for sinners like you and there will be the marks that He had done so and you would not come to Him! How profound will your bitter regret and shame be on that day as the Lamb who was slain must say to you, “Get away from Me! I never knew you.” The book of life is the book of life of the Lamb who was slain - a perfect Savior for sinners! “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” “No condemnation now I dread! Jesus and all in Him is mine!” Won’t you come to Jesus Christ and bend your knee here and receive pardon? If you will not, you will be made to bend your knee hereafter as you confess there to your chagrin that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father after all. May the Lord have mercy upon us and help us to flee to Him and not from Him. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we bow before You with gratitude that the great Judge is the Lamb who was slain. We pray for any here who do not know Him. Would You, by the mighty work of Your Holy Spirit, draw them now to Him? Bring them to repentance and faith. Teach them to trust the Savior and not themselves, that when they see Him face to face they will see One whom they have known and loved in life, whose nail pierced hands will embrace them and welcome them home at the last. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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