The Perfect Judge: Our current age will not last forever. One day Jesus will return, the dead will be raised, and all will give an account of their lives to Him. What will that day be like? What hope is there for any of us to stand before the great white throne on Judgment Day? Our hope rests on the fact that the Judge is also the Savior. Recorded on Apr 10, 2022, on Revelation 20:11-15, by Pastor David Parks.
This message is part of The Supremacy of Christ sermon series. The Christian gospel claims that Jesus is far greater than anyone or anything. And it’s true that his first coming was marked by humility, suffering, and even death on a cross. But is that how Jesus is today? Absolutely not. Jesus has risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God. Today, Jesus reigns and rules over all of creation and will one day return in glory to judge the living and the dead.
All year, we’re focusing on, The Greatness of God. And today, we’re finishing a sermon series called The Supremacy of Christ. For the past 6 weeks, we’ve been saying that the Christian gospel claims that Jesus is far greater than anyone or anything. And it’s true that his first coming was marked by humility, suffering, and even death on a cross. But that is not how Jesus is today. Jesus has risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God. Jesus reigns and rules over all of creation and today we will consider his return in glory to judge the living and the dead. During the past few years of dealing with Covid and other difficult things, it became clear to me that far too many Christians have way too small of a vision of who God is. And it’s true that if we fail to get this vision of Jesus, high and lifted up, supreme over all, we’ll have all sorts of problems in our life and faith. In this series, we’ve considered a number of ways that Jesus is far greater than anyone and anything. But now, let us look ahead to things yet to come, to the end of time and the end of this age of sin and struggle. A few weeks ago, we heard the promise of the angels at the ascension of Jesus that he would one day return in the same way. What will that day be like? What will happen on that day when the King of heaven returns? If you have a Bible/app, please open to Revelation 20:11.
Revelation 20:11-15 (NIV), “11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Earlier this year, we finished our Encounters with God series by considering the Apostle John’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the Island of Patmos toward the end of his life living in exile there. And just as the ancient Israelites needed the incredibly vivid prophetic imagery of Ezekiel and Daniel when they were in exile, so John and the early Christians needed John’s vivid imagery of the cosmic battle between good and evil found here in Revelation. Now, the book of Revelation is really unique in the Bible because it’s written in the Jewish apocalyptic literary style, which we don’t really have anymore. And I suspect that it’s for this reason, and the fact that at least some of the events he describes take place in the future and therefore might turn out a little different than we imagine today, that there are so many different interpretations of Revelation among Christians. As such, it can be very difficult to know from the text whether certain things John describes are meant to be taken as literal or figurative or spiritual in nature or some combination. I believe from John’s gospel and his letters that he is perhaps the most poetic of the Apostles of the NT. If so, then surely God would use his artistic sensibilities for our benefit. But in approaching Revelation, just as we might approach any prophetic work, we must proceed with caution, speaking loudly on the things which are clear in the text and allowing some measure of mystery on the things which are not yet clear to us. Ok! Let’s start back at v. 11.
Revelation 20:11 (NIV), “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.” In this passage, it’s not clear if it is God the Father or Jesus the Son who is on the white throne of heaven. Since there is one God with ultimate glory and authority, either the person of the Father or the Son would be appropriate, but I believe that it is Jesus who is here, seated on the throne. The reason is that in the next passage, the one who is on the throne is described as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. And this title is only used for Jesus by John in Revelation. In Revelation 19, Jesus is depicted as a mighty warrior who has conquered Satan and all the forces of evil. Here, he is seated on the great white throne. What is the significance of this image? I believe the white throne is a symbol of the righteousness and justice of heaven and reflects the holy beauty of a perfect God. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” (1Jn 5b). But in the glorious presence of the King and Creator God, all of creation is displaced. This is what it means when John says, “The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.” Now does this describe the physical destruction of our current universe? We know that God has promised to make a new heaven and a new earth. In the very next passage, in Revelation 21, John has a vision of this new heaven and earth. So perhaps yes, this moment is the great transition, the end of our age and the beginning of the new age of eternity. Let’s continue v.12.
Revelation 20:12-13 (NIV), “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.” First of all, if you’re familiar with the OT in the bible, this whole passage should immediately remind you of Daniel’s vision of the throne room of heaven in Daniel 7. There, one who is called the Ancient of Days is seated on a throne and the books were opened. I believe John had this exact passage in mind when he recorded his vision because there are a number of intentional links between the language he uses here and the language of Dan 7. But what exactly is he describing? This is Judgment Day. This is the day when every single person who has ever lived, from Adam and Eve on down to you and I and every soul who comes after us, will stand before the throne of Christ and give an account of our lives to him. All of the dead will be raised to life, wherever their bodies came to rest, on sea or on land, whatever their manner of death, and no matter whether they were richly entombed and greatly mourned or whether they were lost and forgotten. Every man and woman, rich and poor, great and small will stand before their maker, and each person will be judged according to what they had done in life.
Now, of course, it’s not only John who teaches us of this coming Day. This is a thread that runs through the whole Bible. God says through the prophet Jeremiah, “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” (Jer 17:10). The prophet Daniel writes, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Dan 12:2). Jesus taught his disciples, “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” (Jn 5:28-29). Finally, the Apostle Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2Co 5:10). I know that we modern people hate the idea that anyone could judge us. We love the idea of justice but hate the idea of judgment. This is, of course, an incoherent contradiction. There is no justice without some sort of judgment that something is right or wrong. But the reason I share so many examples of this teaching is so that you wouldn’t be tempted to move quickly on and ignore this doctrine. We don’t know the timing of the return of Christ. And we probably don’t have all the details of his return figured out. But one thing the Bible is very clear on is that Jesus will return, the dead will be raised, and all will stand before him to give an account of our lives. We are not our own. We are creatures who have been made by a Creator. And it is his right, and his right alone, to assess whether we have lived how we ought to have lived or not. Let’s finish this passage with v. 14.
Revelation 20:14-15 (NIV), “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” So first, here death and Hades, or the grave, are personified and thrown into the lake of fire. John says that the lake of fire is the second or final death. The very next passage says that death and mourning and crying and pain are part of the old order of things that have passed away. This means that this age of illness, aging, and death will not continue forever. This age of war and decay and destruction will one day come to an end. Praise God. I can’t wait for that day. But secondly, and terribly, John says that anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire as well. The book of life is also called the Lamb’s book of life in Revelation. When his disciples came back from sharing the good news in groups of two and were so excited by what they saw God do, Jesus said, “…do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Lk 10:20). Having your name written in the Lamb’s book of life is the same thing as being born again or having a relationship with God by faith in the person and work of Jesus. As John famously wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16). The death that John refers to here is this second death of hell. The opposite of eternal life, which might be called eternal death. The picture here of this sad reality is one of fire. Throughout the Bible, several images are used, some of which even seem to contradict each other. In some places, this place of judgment is described as darkness, while in other places it’s described as fire. I think what is going on is the same thing we saw in our Encounters with God series. The Biblical authors are using earthly language to describe a spiritual reality. Now, fire is also a metaphor in the Bible, a picture of refining. Does this mean that after a time of punishment or refining, these people might be released? The truth is that God only knows. Of course, we trust in the goodness and mercy of God, but we are not given any indication of this from His word.
So what do we say about such things? What hope is there for anyone of us on that great and terrible day of judgment? I would say two things: First, there’s the curious detail that John mentions about the books. So does God really need a book to remember the details of someone’s life? The answer is no. God is infinite in wisdom and knowledge, he is omniscient and omnipresent, therefore he knows not only the things that we have said and done but also every thought and motive of the human heart. The books are a metaphor for this divine knowledge. But do you know what this means? The perfect knowledge of God means that he will also be the perfect judge. Even the best human judge cannot understand every extenuating circumstance, every factor that influenced your behavior that you had no control over. No human judge can fully see or know the human heart. We can barely understand what’s going on in our own hearts half the time, much less perfectly judge someone else. We should want God to be our judge. For a perfect judge will ensure that perfect justice will be done. This means that in the end, evil will not win and justice will be done. Every time when it seems as if someone has gotten away with some terrible evil, we can take comfort in the fact that they too will one day stand before the Lord. Every wrong will be set to right. Praise God. Now, this is helpful to remember when someone has sinned against you and has hurt you deeply. But this isn’t necessarily a comforting thought when you consider your own sin.
So secondly, what about our sin? What about our judgment? We say it all the time, no one’s perfect. We can pretty easily admit that. And it’s true, we have not perfectly loved God, heart, soul, mind, and strength. And we have not perfectly loved our neighbor as ourselves. In fact, there isn’t a single person who has ever lived who has even met their own internal sense of right and wrong. How will any of us stand before his throne? Well, we have already seen from John chapter 3 that the Judge is also the Savior. The good news of the gospel is that the One who is seated on the great white throne of judgment is also the One who stepped down out of heaven to seek and to save the lost, and ultimately to give his life, facing the hell of the cross so that we might be welcomed into heaven. Believing in Jesus results in a great exchange. One where Jesus takes on our sin and death and we receive the gift of his righteousness and his life. So please hear this invitation: be reconciled to God. Give your sins and your struggles to him. He’s already paid the price with his death on the cross. And if you do, you have nothing to fear on that future day. For when you stand before the throne, your sin will not be on display, but rather, the righteousness of Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Ro 8:1a). On that day, you will not be shamed or punished, but welcomed as a friend and a brother or sister because of the glorious grace of God. And the One with all the glory/authority of heaven will be the one who wipes every tear from your eye. So turn to him today, while there is still time, and receive him, welcome him with joy and thanksgiving as the Savior and Lord of your life. He will never leave you or forsake you. And he will reveal himself to be greater than anyone or anything both now and forevermore. All glory, honor, and praise be to him. Let us pray.