Jesus, the judge, is coming back, and following him is an all-or-nothing proposition. Dr. Donald Fortson preaches on Luke 17:22-37 in chapel at RTS Charlotte.
Well, y’all made it through that unfamiliar hymn, didn’t you? That was a good old Charles Wesley hymn, the tune not as well known, but powerful words, powerful, powerful words.
If you’ve got your Bibles, turn with me to Luke 17, and I’m going to begin reading at verse 22. Christ is speaking.
And he said to his disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all—so it will be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is in the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:22–37 ESV)
Amen. Let’s pray.
Lord, I pray that you’d be with us now as we look at a difficult topic and let a passage of Scripture which we need to hear and pray that you would be our teacher today, in Christ’s name, Amen.
Jesus as Judge Is an Important Theme in Luke
Well, you know, with a sermon title like “Jesus the Judge,” some of you are probably thinking, “Well, this is really going to be depressing.” Well, perhaps I should give a brief word of explanation: why this sermon? Now, if you were asked the question, “What is your favorite part of the Bible?” you know what the answer is supposed to be: all of it. But if you were to ask me, I would say it’s the books of Luke and Acts taken together is my favorite part of the Bible.
I’ve had a habit for many years of reading through Luke-Acts once a year. And I believe that it keeps me grounded in the essential narrative of our faith: the life, death, resurrection of Christ and the story of early Christianity. This last time through, I was especially struck with the theme of judgment in St. Luke’s Gospel. Now, perhaps I noticed it more clearly this time due to my increasing distress over the rampant depravity in American culture or especially the ongoing brutal murder of Christians in the Middle East. And if you’re like me in my heart, sometimes I ask, “Are people really going to give an account for all of this evil?” The message of the Bible is a resounding yes.
Folks would prefer to talk about Jesus’s forgiveness and mercy, and we tend to minimize the biblical picture of Jesus, the judge.Now, the notion of Jesus condemning and judging people doesn’t get much press these days. Folks would prefer to talk about Jesus’s forgiveness and mercy, and we tend to minimize the biblical picture of Jesus, the judge. But the theme of Christ as judge runs throughout the Gospel accounts, indeed the entire New Testament, and carefully rereading Luke, I observed in a fresh way how Luke seems to accentuate this theme in the chapters that lead right up to the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Christ in chapters 22 and 23.
Luke is returning to a theme, though, that he had announced at the very beginning of that Gospel. You know, after the first two chapters of Luke, which talk about the infancy of Christ, in chapter three this character named John the Baptist is preaching, and this is what he says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). This the announcement of the coming of Jesus. Jesus is going to separate people. Some will be saved, others will be burned with unquenchable fire. This is what John the Baptist pronounces: the impending judgment at the hands of Messiah. Now, this doesn’t sound like good news. But as the rest of the Gospel of Luke unfolds, it is indeed good news.
Well, let’s fast forward to our text in Luke 17. The theme of judgment occurs again in reference to one of Messiah’s titles, the Son of Man, undoubtedly a reference to Daniel 7, for the Son of Man is given dominion and glory. Now Luke will mention this title again in chapter 21, when he talks about the Son of Man coming with power and glory. Luke’s emphasis on the impending judgment is also highlighted in this part of Luke and several of the parables that Jesus tells. And sandwiched right between Luke’s words about the coming of the Son of Man we find two parables about swift judgment against those who reject authority. And you remember these parables, let me just recite them briefly just to remind us of the context.
The first story is the parable of the ten minas. A nobleman’s going off to a country to inherit a kingdom. And he calls ten of his servants and gives each one of them a mina and tells them to be involved in business, invest what I give you. But then it says that his citizens sent a delegation after him to say, “We hate this man and do not want him to be in charge of us.” So the nobleman comes back, and you remember the story, he asked about the mina. One man had invested the mina, got 10, so he is rewarded tenfold. One man five, rewarded. Another man says, “Well, I know you’re a harsh man, and so I hid it and kept it in a handkerchief.” And the nobleman says, “Take what he has and give it to the man who has 10.”
Seems kind of harsh, but then this is the last verse of that parable from Luke 19, “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.” That’s Luke 19.
Let’s go to the next chapter, Luke 20, the parable of the wicked tenants. A man buys a vineyard, and he also goes away to a far country. He sends back one of his servants to get a little fruit out of his investment. You remember the story. They beat him up, cast him out. He sends a second server to go and visit the tenants. Again, he is struck and he is cast out of the vineyard. He actually does it a third time, same thing happens, beat up the servant, send him out. So what does the owner of the vineyard say? “I know what I’ll do. I will send my own son. Certainly they will respect him.” And what do the tenants do? They take the servant, the son, and they kill him, thinking to themselves, “Well, now the inheritance will be ours.” What’s the last part of that text? “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
So these are the two parables that are sandwiched between this reference to the coming of the Son of Man. So you kind of get the idea in Luke, the judgment is coming at the hand of Messiah.
Jesus Describes His Coming Judgment in Terms of the Days of Noah and Lot
Well, let’s look at the text. Verse 24 of chapter 17 simply says, “For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” So what’s it going to be like? And now Jesus goes off in his discussion about two of the most well-known stories in the Old Testament which are emblematic of the wrath of God. Well, you want to know what the coming of the Son of Man is going to be like? It’s going to be like the time of the flood, and it’s going to be like the time of Sodom and Gomorrah. Everyday life is going to be going on, and suddenly God’s terrible swift sword cuts everyone down. The coming of the Son of Man is going to be like the days of Noah and the days of Lot. This is the teaching of our Savior.
The coming of the Son of Man is going to be like the days of Noah and the days of Lot.Now, every first-century Jew knew these two stories very well from Genesis. Jesus ties the two stories together and at the end of telling briefly what those accounts were about, he says, “Thus it will be in the days of the Son of Man.” And then he concludes, he says about both the flood and the fire, “It destroyed them all.”
Well, let’s think back to the text in Genesis 6. These are the illustrations, the stories that our Savior is using to describe what it’s going to be like. One of the saddest verses in the entire Bible comes from Genesis 6. And you remember the words: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually, and the Lord was sorry that he had made man upon the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” There are over 1,000 chapters in the Bible, the 66 books we have. Six chapters into the holy book, God is disgusted that he even made humanity. That’s very sobering. We forget about that because it’s at the beginning of the book, but Jesus brings their memory back to this. God blotted them all out.
Then a few chapters later, Genesis 18 and 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. As one New Testament commentator commented about this story, “This is the most graphic example of judgment to be found in the whole Old Testament.” It’s kind of hard to argue with that. It shows up in many of the Old Testament books: Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos all refer to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. A vivid image again in the mind of these first-century Jews listening to what he says. The wickedness of man comes before the Lord again. And here’s what we read in Genesis 18, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave.”
Now, remember, Abraham decided to barter with God. Very interesting story, “Well, Lord, you’re a merciful God, what if there are 50 faithful? What if there are 45? What if there are 30?” And Abraham talks God down to 10. Interesting conversation between the Almighty and the father of our faith, Abraham.
Well, the sin in Sodom is very specific. It just says the thoughts and intentions of their hearts were evil when it talks about the flood, but here it’s very clear what it is: it’s homosexual practice. Now, liberal scholars explain away both of these stories as pure mythology, pure mythology. A worldwide flood didn’t happen. God did not rain down fire on Sodom. In fact, in recent decades, some mainline Protestant scholars have even busied themselves with trying to explain away the sin of Sodom as something other than homosexuality. Well, we don’t have time to get into the evidence of these revisionist interpretations, but it’s very clear in the New Testament that this picture of the judgment on Sodom was all about sexual sin. The little book of Jude, verse seven, says this: Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”
Well, what’s Jesus’s point? It’s pretty clear in Luke 17, he says, “You want to know what it’s like? The flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.” And you know, this picture of Christ as the judge of all the earth is not a peripheral issue. I would suggest to you it’s central to the Christian faith. In fact it’s front and center in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. “He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” This is clearly picking up on the centrality of this in God’s Word.
Jesus Coming as Judge Has Implications for Communicating the Gospel
Well, let’s think about applying this. You know, those are very sobering things to hear. We don’t find these things fun to our ears, but what’s an application? I think it has a lot of implications for how we communicate the gospel. While it is appropriate for us to put accent on how Christ brings meaning to one’s life and offers us gracious acceptance into his kingdom, it’s not the whole story of the gospel. The gospel includes the bad news also: the need for repentance. Yes, God loves you, and he does offer a wonderful plan for your life. It is also true God hates your sin, and he promises to punish you unless you repent. I don’t know how the Scriptures could be more clear. And the reality that I think is seen, interestingly in another one of the stories right here, close to Luke 17.
God loves you, and he does offer a wonderful plan for your life. It is also true God hates your sin, and he promises to punish you unless you repent.In Luke 16, we find the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke’s at it again. Here’s this picture of this man suffering in Hades, and he’s having a conversation with Father Abraham. And here’s what he says, “Please send someone to warn my five living brothers so they do not have to come to this place of torment.” Now, what’s Abraham’s reply? “They don’t need anyone to warn them. They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them.”
It is not loving to hide the truth about the coming of the Son of Man. Yes, people need to be warned, and this is one of the purposes of the Bible. It is a book warning humanity that Jesus, the judge, he is coming. I think as we’re observing ramped up opposition to Christianity in our own society, believers more and more are going to need some Holy Spirit boldness if we are going to be faithful. Proclaiming Jesus the judge is a hard sell in our age of toleration and abhorrence of ever speaking a word of judgment or about the consequences of sin. But I want to remind you, brethren, it is not loving to hide the truth about the coming of the Son of Man. That is not loving to hide that. It’s a false gospel that proclaims a Jesus who will never sit on the throne of judgment.
Now, in earlier generations, American preachers were bold about speaking about God’s judgment. And if we had time, I could read you some passages out of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and some of you would want to bow your heads or you’d be angry at me. You couldn’t believe he actually said such things about God holding humanity over a pit of fire, God’s wrath being a great flood and a dam that is rising his wrath against you. And if the angry God that held you in his hand let you go, you would perish in a moment.
Now, let me tell you an interesting thing about that sermon. You can read George Marsden’s biography. Edwards actually preached that sermon a lot of different times. We know this from the notes in the margins, in other places: this was not a one time-off sermon. He preached it repeatedly, and as those of you that have studied the Great Awakening in America know, the revivalist preachers that preached the terrors—that’s what they called it—gave very explicit warnings about God’s judgment. They were hammered by respectable Christian people and they were told, “How dare you preach such things in our midst?”
One interesting thing about that sermon, the most famous occasion was 1741 in Enfield. Two months later, Jonathan Edwards was asked to give the commencement address at Yale. And the professors at Yale were really upset at this point in time, and the students were getting really rambunctious about this revival and were beginning to say some things unkind about the professors. And they thought, “Well, we’ll bring old Dr. Edwards in here and he’ll straighten them out.” Here’s what Edward said: he justified preaching on judgment. Edwards said, “If there is really a hell,” this is what he told the faculty and students at Yale, “if there really is a hell of such dreadful and never-ending torments as is generally supposed in which multitudes are in great danger, why is it not proper for those of us that have the care of souls to make great pains to make men sensible of it?”
We have a responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God, especially those portions that are sometimes uncomfortable.If I’m in danger of going to hell, I should be glad to know as much about it as I possibly can. Those of you that are heads of families, if one of your children was in a house full of fire and in imminent danger, would you not cry aloud and warn them about this? Now, I know all this makes some of you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable to talk about these things, but I’m convinced that we have a responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God, especially those portions that are sometimes uncomfortable. And yes, we do need to talk about God’s judgment, his wrath, and the reality of damnation.
Charles Spurgeon, in one of his sermons that he gave after a mining accident in Wales, he made this comment, and he talked about our responsibility to warn others about impending judgment. Here’s what Spurgeon said in his sermon: “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.” A powerful statement from one of the great prince of preachers.
Believers Also Need to Be Warned about Jesus Coming in Judgment
Well, there’s not much more to be said. Luke 17 is pretty clear he’s coming back and he is not happy. That’s what Luke 17 says very clearly. But I want you to know this is not just about the bad guys getting it in the end. This is a warning to believers, Remember, he’s speaking to his disciples. Edwards is preaching to people in church when he talks about the terrors of judgment. Christ, after he had rehearsed the story of Sodom’s destruction in verses 32 and 33, this is what Jesus says to the disciples. He says, “Remember Lot’s wife.” “Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”
And now we live in a very challenging time. You think of that on the heels of the destruction of Sodom and what is taking place there. We live in a time in which the sexual depravity among us as Americans is so rampant, so accepted, even making its way into the church in some corners. Sometimes we hear those saying not “I’m struggling with sin,” but “I want to continue in it, and I want God to bless it.” There are numerous warnings about these things. I will just remind you about Christ’s words to the church in Thyatira. Very poignant words from our Lord: “Unless there is repentance from this immorality and adultery, I will strike her children dead. Each of you will receive according to your works” (Rev. 2:22–23). Well, this Gospel account is very clear about judgment. This is serious business, and it must begin with God’s people. And Jesus simply said, “Remember Lot’s wife.” We can’t look back on our old way of life. We can’t look back on our old way of life.
Now, some of you are asking yourself, “Where’s the gospel and good news in all of this?” It’s very interesting. Isaac Watts, when he first read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” preached by Edwards, wrote in the margins, “There’s very little gospel in this, although all of it’s true.” Well I want you to know there is some good news here. And it’s rather a promise that Jesus gives to the disciples. The second part of verse 33, “But whoever loses his life will keep it.” It’s a promise.
Self-denial is the heart of Christian discipleship.You know, self-denial is the heart of Christian discipleship. We know this, we talk about it a lot around this place, and it really is true. In living one’s life and denying self, transformation in Christ is what it means to genuinely be converted. And I think that’s something that we all need to take to heart. Now, I think it’s time for professing believers to think seriously of their own standing before God.
Now, I’m going to give you an illustration—some of my fellow faculty members have heard this one before, but it’s one of my most powerful experiences since I’ve been a professor here in my 19 years. One of your fellow students, this is many, many years ago—you have no idea who this is, trust me—came into my office and sat across the table and began to confess to me his deep concern for his multi-year struggle with pornography. This had gone on for years and years and years. And I listened very patiently and pastorally to all he had said. And at one point he bowed his head and he said, “I have even questioned my own salvation.” And I looked at him and I said, “You should question your salvation.” Now, I think it kind of shocked him. He was expecting to hear from me, “Oh, don’t entertain such thoughts like that.” But that’s what I told him. And, you know, God use that to put a holy fear of God in him and in the grace of God in the coming months, he began to be liberated from that. And he had struggled with it for years.
Following Christ is an all or nothing proposition.Listen, the judgment of God is for his people. These warnings are serious, and this is what Jesus said to his disciples, they’re listening to him talking about, “Look, it’s going to be like the flood and the days of Sodom. Remember Lot’s wife; do not look back. Whoever wants to save his life is going to lose it, but if you lose your life you’ll be saved.” And that’s what the Lord says here, and it’s important for us to remember this. Following Christ is an all or nothing proposition.
I always think of that little hymn I learned as a child. I don’t even think it’s in the Trinity Hymnal, but all of you probably have heard it. “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back. The cross before me, the world behind me, no turning back, no turning back.” Simple hymn, but very correct. Whoever loses his life will keep it.
We dare not hide from our congregations and from ourselves the danger of God’s judgment if we do not turn our backs on the old way of life.Conclusion: I think the church in America, all of us, need to do some soul searching. I think pews across this land are filled with nominal believers who profess Christ but live for themselves. They’re not interested in losing their lives. They want Jesus to bless the life they have. And, you know I’m telling you the truth about the folks you preach and teach to and about yourself. But we dare not hide from our congregations and from ourselves the danger of God’s judgment if we do not turn our backs on the old way of life. Jesus could not be more clear in this warning to his disciples: whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, whoever loses his life will keep it.
Jesus, the judge, is coming back, and he is not happy. And don’t take my word for it. Study these things. I commend to you the Gospel of Luke, the whole thing, from beginning to end. Jesus as the judge is a part of the gospel. Don’t neglect it, warn the lost about it, and apply that truth to your own life. May God give us grace to do it. Amen. Let’s pray.
Lord, in these very serious words, we’re confronted with the reality that you really do hate sin among your human creatures. Father, we have turned our back on you. But Lord in your grace, you have delivered us and given us the gift of salvation. Oh, Father, may we be faithful in proclaiming that good news and warning those around us that don’t yet know you about the reality of these things. And Father, help us to be very serious about our Christian walk, this is not a joke, it is not a light thing, and you do hold us accountable, and we want to love and honor you. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.