Today is the last Sunday in the Church Year, called Christ the King Sunday. For many Christians, this Sunday gets lost in the hectic run-up to what the retailers call “the holiday shopping season,” but we dare not miss Christ the King Sunday! The doctrine of Christ the King is absolutely essential not only to knowing and worshiping Christ, but to understanding who we are as Christ’s people.
The Gospel lesson for today is Matthew 25:31-46, but we will be looking at several other Scripture passages as well that will help give us a clear vision of Christ, our King.
I. Christ is the King Right Now
Evangelicalism stumbles on this point. If there is one doctrine that Evangelicals have missed, it’s the Kingship of Christ. Part of this, I’m convinced, is because of their neglect of major parts of the Church Calendar, in particular the Ascension, Pentecost, Christ the King, and Advent. The typical Evangelical leaves Jesus on Easter and doesn’t meet up with him again until Christmas. But after Jesus rose, he ascended to heaven and was seated in the heavenlies, demonstrating his kingship. In his position as King, he sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As King, he will return to judge the living and the dead, and that’s what Advent is all about. When we get to Christmas, we have learned from living the Christian Year that the baby in the manger is the King of kings, that he became what he was not without ceasing to be all that he was in eternity, that (as St. Augustine said) although he was contained in the manger, he nevertheless continued to fill the heavens!
When these major Sundays and seasons (Ascension, Pentecost, Christ the King, Advent) are ignored completely, and the coming King we recognize in the Advent season is completely swept aside in favor of the “little baby Jesus” of Christmas, it’s no wonder that many Evangelicals have an inadequate view of Christ.
The Scriptures make it clear: Christ is the King. Right now. The reign of Christ is not some future event that the church awaits. It is a present reality.
The Church throughout history has consistently rejected “millennarianism” or “chiliasm,” the view that the “millennium” (thousand years) mentioned in Revelation 20 is a future event that has not yet begun.
“The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Church history confirms this conclusion.
St. Augustine, in the City of God (5th Century), explains the nature of the “millennium” and thus of the reign of Christ. “If God’s people do not now reign with Christ, then the church cannot be the kingdom of Christ.” In other words, if the “millennium” is a future, not a present, reality, then the Church is not, cannot be, what the Bible says it is.
Let’s look at the “millennium” passage in Revelation 20:4-6 . . .
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
This passage speaks to us of the first and second resurrections, and of the first and second death. What does that mean? Jesus explains it very plainly in John chapter 5:24-29 . . .
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
So regeneration–the new birth–is the “first resurrection.” The “second resurrection,” then, is the “resurrection of the body” at the Last Day: the one we confess in the Creed. In the same way, the “first death” is physical death, while the “second death” is eternal separation from the Light of God’s presence. The “millennium” or “thousand years,” then, is not some future period when Christ will reign on earth. The Revelation passage makes it clear that this “millennium” is a heavenly kingdom. The “millennium” began with the Resurrection of Christ and will continue until the Second Advent.
Augustine was not the only Church Father to reject millennarianism or chiliasm, but Justin Martyr in the second centruy, Epiphanes and Eusebius in the fourth century, indeed all of the Church Fathers, rejected chiliasm or millennarianism. The Council of Ephesus in the year 431 condemned belief in a future millennium as superstitious.
Indeed, the very mission of the church is predicated on the assertion that Christ does in fact rule and reign right now. Matthew 28:18-20 says this:
Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Because of his Resurrection, Christ had earned the title of King. It was as King that he ascended into heaven, and it is as King that he will return. It is as the King that he sent the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. It is as the King that he rules and reigns over his church right now. It is as the King that he will come again to be our Judge. That’s why I say it is crucial that Christians celebrate Ascension, Pentecost, Christ the King, and Advent.
II. Not only does Christ reign now, but his people reign with him now.
Revelation 20 says those who “come alive” rule and reign with Christ for “a thousand years”, 1,000 being a symbolic number of completion: 10 times 10 times 10. Again, Jesus explained this to us in John 5: Those who believe in his word have ‘passed from death to life.’ They have taken part in the “first resurrection.” Being born again is the first resurrection. And being born again or born from above, receiving eternal life from Jesus, entails ruling and reigning with Christ. The two are inseparable. Those who come to life, i.e., those who are born again, are those who rule and reign. Psalm 24 says, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, yet Scripture also teaches that God appointed Adam to have dominion over the earth: dominion means “lordship.” (Today’s appointed Psalm, Psalm 100 begins with the words, in Latin, Jubilate Domino. “Dominus” means “Lord,” so “dominion” means “lordship.”) The Bible teaches that God is the Lord of the earth, but that he has also appointed man as the lord of this earth, as God’s vice-regent, if you will, to exercise dominion, lordship, according to God’s sovereign will. In the same way, Christ is the King, but he has made us kings and priests unto our God.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan is unmistakably the King of Narnia. Yet he enthrones Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy at Cair Paravel, not as princes and princesses, but as kings and queens. Why? Because “he has made us a kingdom and priests forever” (Revelation 5:10, which was part of today’s Assurance of Pardon). Aslan is the King, but the Pevensie children reign as kings and queens in his Name. Those four thrones were waiting for them all along. Ruling and reigning with Christ is what we were destined to do: it is just a part of being God’s people.
So, just how do we rule and reign? What does it mean to exercise dominion?
III. Christ explains dominion very concretely in today’s Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46).
Sometimes, when certain Christians talk about “exercising dominion,” they make me very nervous. They sound almost like Marxist revolutionaries: a “seize the means of production” kind of attitude. But that is not all the picture of “dominion” the Gospel paints for us.
Psalm 99:4 says, “The King in his might loves justice.” So we who are kings and queens, ruling on the thrones he has set up for us, as his representatives in this world, are to love justice as he, the king, loves justice. That raises the question, what is Christian justice?
Christian justice recognizes that only God is truly just (Matthew 19:17), and that God is love (I John 4:8). This just God, who is love, tells us that love is the fulfillment of his law (Romans 13: 10), because only true love is impartial. Christian justice, then, is love: the kind of love that God demonstrates to us. To be just is to be fair, impartial and righteous. Justice is fair to everyone, including one’s enemies: Jesus said to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. So Christian justice is not affected by person or situation: God is not a respecter of persons. It is also not affected by time or place: God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and so his justice is not a “situational ethic.”
True justice is revealed to us in the New Testament. When we were unfaithful to God and rejected His friendship, He did not give up on us, condemn us or take revenge. Jesus said that “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” God demonstrated his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Out of His love for us, Christ stooped to our weakness and selfishness, emptying his life on our behalf and putting his life in us. Therefore, true justice does not condemn others. Instead, Christian justice shows mercy by forgiving others, and by sacrificing self, in order to help others to recover from their weaknesses. In our litigation-crazy society, St. Paul’s words in I Corinthians 6 sound strange indeed. Listen to what he says:
“To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”
St. Paul teaches us that, the fact that we have legal disputes amongst ourselves in the first place means that we have already failed to practice Christian justice. He tells us that, it is better to be wronged and robbed than to fail to show love and forgiveness.
Christian justice can be summed up in the words of Jesus which we know as the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). We can paraphrase the Golden Rule in a negative sense also: don’t do anything to someone else that you wouldn’t want someone to do to you. Isn’t that what Jesus is saying in our Gospel lesson today? Those who inherit the kingdom, who hear him say, “Come, ye blessed of my Father,” are those who have lived out the Golden Rule. Why feed the hungry? If you were hungry, what would you want someone else to do about it? Why give a thirsty person something to drink? What if you were thirsty? Why clothe the naked? What would you want others to do if you didn’t have warm clothes to wear, and it was ‘way down in the fall’? Why visit someone who is sick or confined in some way? What if you were sick, or imprisoned, or all alone for some other reason? What would you want others to do?
Make no mistake: Christ is the King. He reigns right now. And his people rule and reign with him. The way they rule and reign, the way they exercise dominion, is by practicing Christian justice, which is summed up in the Golden Rule.
In a few moments, we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the “Our Father” or the “model prayer.” It says, “thy kingdom come” (adveniat Regnum Tuum, whence we derive the word “Advent”). What do you think about when you say those words? Do you think about the Second Advent, the Final Judgment, and the life of the world to come? That certainly is a part of it, but I don’t think that’s Jesus’ main point in giving us those words in that prayer. I believe that phrase, “Thy kingdom come,” is explained by the next one: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (fiat voluntas Tua, sicut in caelo, et in terra). Christ’s kingdom is a present reality, as he rules and reigns from his heavenly throne, but that kingdom is realized more and more here on earth as we, the ones whom he has made kings and priests unto himself, seek to do his will here on earth as it is done in heaven. As we practice Christian justice, Christian love, the Golden Rule, his kingdom comes.
Several years ago, I did the English translation of a German hymn based on the Our Father. The hymn is called, logically, Das Vaterunser (German for Paternoster or “Our Father”). The original text was by Jakob Holl. I won’t take up your time by reading the original German, but here’s my translation of the stanza containing Holl’s poetic take on these words from the Lord’s Prayer:
Let thy holy kingdom come
Down to earth below;
May thy sovereign will be done,
That thy justice all may know.
The hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal” by Ernest Shurtleff also sums it up quite nicely:
Lead on, O King eternal,
Till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper
The sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords’ loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy
The heavenly kingdom comes.
In the Name of God. Amen.