The Separation of Life and Death

Editor’s note: This article, based on Matthew 25, was recently written by a Chinese house church pastor to share with his congregation. His reflections address the basic questions of life and death at the forefront of Chinese minds as they are confronted with their mortality in light of the recent coronavirus epidemic. As Chinese Christians live in a society paralyzed by fear, this pastor encourages Christians to remember the eternal importance of being united to Christ.  

“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 thirsty 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 also 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 into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46

There are inevitable distinctions between people: between men and women, tall and short, fat and thin. In this passage, there are differences between the sheep and the goats. The goats are placed on the left, and the sheep on the right. The distinction does not seem that significant, but at the end of this passage we see it is actually the difference between eternal life and death.

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Throughout this epidemic in Wuhan, many families have been separated by death – but this is not the greatest tragedy. The greatest tragedy is being separated by eternal death. This is worse than being separated by physical death. On the day of judgment, those who have no share in Christ will be forever separated from the Lord of life and cast into hell. There is a frightening distinction between the children of God, who will inherit eternal life, and the children of the devil, who will be punished.

I. This Separation Reveals the Glory of Christ

The passage just prior to this one is the parable of the talents. That passage discusses giving an account before God; this passage discuses judgment. The previous passage concerns servants; this concerns all nations. In the end, every person will face judgment.

In the parable of the talents, the master settled accounts with his servants. Here, the king judges the nations. The glory of Christ is greater here: he has received his kingdom; he has conquered; he has received glory; and he has come again in this glory. His disciples realize their Lord is more than as he first appeared. In the past, they knew he was their master, but now they realize he is Lord of lords. In his glorious judgment, every mouth will confess and every knee will bow.

When Solomon pronounced judgment, it gave him great glory. The Israelites feared him, for he could distinguish between truth and falsehood, good and evil. But the judgments of Solomon were only a small example. Christ, in comparison, will judge every unsolved case, every hard-to-judge issue, and every wrongful conviction. He will even judge the fallen angels, and throw death and Hades into the lake of fire. On this final judgment on the last day, the world will fix their eyes on his glory.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that Christ first suffered the humiliation of the cross. He humbled himself, he became hungry and thirsty, he was stripped naked and put in prison, he was mocked and spit on, he was hung on a tree and crucified. Christ suffered great humiliation at that time, but at this time he will receive great glory! Those who humiliated him and all the peoples of the world will repay him with double glory.

When it comes to judgment, often we are only concerned about the light of justice shining on our own darkness. But whose justice is this? To whom should we give glory? All this is secondary! This is why people do not believe in Jesus.

Many people believe there will be a judgment on the last day, but they do not care who will be judging. They believe that in the end justice will be revealed, but they do not care whose justice it will be. Who is the master that will bring us justice? When Christ’s glory is revealed, the nations of the earth will wail! Famine, earthquakes, and pestilence are but warning signs. His coming will shake us to the core!

II. This Separation Reveals Those Who Are Righteous

The final judgment that will take place when Christ returns will not be like the judgments of this world which are based on abstract ideas of justice. The Lord of justice and of judgment, the Lord who distinguishes between right and wrong and good and evil, is not an idea. He is a concrete, living person.

Look again at Solomon’s judgment when he ordered that the child be split in half. Was this just? The most unjust thing is to split justice and injustice. The most unjust thing is to place God and the devil – the true God and idols, truth and lies – on the same level, to place them under the same religious department and designate them as the great religions of our country.[1]

It is unjust to place the Lord of judgment and the sinners who are to be judged in the positions of prosecutor and defendant, making ourselves the judge. What happens when we do this? Sinners who deserve to be judged act as judge. These sinners judge the Lord (who rightfully judges sinners), and then they crucify him. True justice regards God as the Lord and God of eternal life. This world is guilty of much injustice, but our Lord rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will come again to execute true justice.

The separation that will take place at the final judgment does not simply entail division into the “left” and the “right.” Dividing into equal halves is not fair to the righteous, because the wicked end up taking over half of the land. The word “separate” in the original Greek, aforízo, means to choose or to call, just as we have been chosen and set apart in this world by God. It does not simply mean to separate, but to take out of. This is consistent with other biblical teachings: the wheat will be separated from the chaff, the good from the bad, the living from the dead. For the chaff, this separation is frightening, but for true Christians, it is the hope of our confession.

Divisiveness is often disguised as separation. It is a rupture between life and death, but disguises itself as life. In Christ, we are one body, and each person is a member of this body. We should therefore display peace, patience, tolerance, and unity. Those who cause division and drift toward heresy cut themselves off from life. They cut themselves off from Christ’s body and from the kingdom of God.

We also face challenges from a world that does not like us to talk about separation. The Bible says we are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. This teaching will be seen as causing division within the nation and society. We ourselves are required to make no distinctions between belief and unbelief, to hold no positions based on religion. But even as we are required to not make distinctions, we are clearly treated with distinction. Why do we experience greater pressure because we are Christians? We are treated differently, but God treats us differently and sets us apart, too! The persecution we experience for the Lord, the cross we bear, is the sign that God has set us apart.

The difference between left and right is a relative difference that must always maintain a relative balance. But the differences between front and back – between up and down, between life and death – are absolute. Oil and water appear similar, but their essences are different. It is frustrating to try to create unity between them. Just like the sheep and the goats, they are different. You cannot force them together forever.

The difference between the sheep and the goats is the difference between the blessed and the cursed. This distinction has existed since creation within God’s eternal will. The people in our lives on earth may be brothers, spouses, loved ones, or friends. We should bear with one another. But when the end of all things comes, the essential difference between believers and unbelievers will be fully revealed. The former will enter the kingdom of heaven, and the latter will enter hell.

Dear friends, turn and believe in the Lord. Otherwise, like passengers on the same train, we will end up in different places as we switch trains. Christ is the Lord of all, and although the differences in our attitudes and responses to him seem miniscule, they are actually miles apart. The difference may appear to be a few inches, but it actually spans the distance between heaven and earth, between life and death.

III. This Separation Reveals True Good Deeds

The difference between the sheep and the goats is the difference between true and false goodness, the difference between true and false Christians. How, then, should we define true goodness? True goodness is goodness that is united to, connected with, and that shares in Jesus Christ.

On the surface, this passage appears to say that whether or not we do good determines whether or not we obtain eternal life. The former do good and receive good as their reward; the latter do not do good and are cursed and thrown into hell. We certainly approve of and encourage good deeds. We recognize the value of good deeds. But this cause-and-effect relationship leads to a form of justification based on works, which is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. In reality, the kind of good deeds discussed here are good deeds that are connected to Jesus: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.”

There are non-Christians in this world who do good deeds. They give alms to the poor. During Laba Festival they give Laba porridge. They even “give away all they have and deliver up their bodies to be burned.” But none of this has anything to do with Jesus. The good deeds discussed here are performed to the Lord Jesus. The people to whom they give alms are the people to whom Christ shows grace. Those who receive grace are connected to Christ, and those who bestow grace are also connected to Christ. This connects them to Christ in a deeper way. 

In real life, our good intentions might be wasted. Our good intentions might turn bad, or they might only make things worse. Good intentions, good desires, good people, good deeds might have nothing to do with Christ and may not be accepted by God.  I am not saying we should only do good to Christians and not help non-Christians; I am clarifying the nature of good deeds. We must acknowledge the goodness of God, otherwise our goodness turns into evil. In this fallen world, the only good deeds God accepts are those performed by his son, Christ.

God is the Lord of eternal life and the source of life. But he took on flesh and became a man who needed sustenance to live. He was hungry and thirsty. He suffered and died. And in the end, he rose from the dead and saved his people from their sins.

The greatest good is the gospel of Christ. Our redemption is the good work of God in Christ. Therefore, every good work we do stems from and testifies to the life of Christ. When we sheep are finally separated from the goats, that will be the result of God’s good work. He who began a good work in us will complete it.

IV. This Separation Is Our Ultimate Separation from the World

Cars have clutches, which is critical in the process of driving.[2] When we drive, we must continually control and operate it. The Lord’s children live in the world, but we are not of the world. We must become good at operating the clutch in order to perform proper good works.

Scripture reveals that man’s normal way of living is to unconsciously do good or to unconsciously do evil. When we use the clutch to put our lives in gear, that is the gear our lives will operate in. It will then immediately become apparent whether we are the body of Christ or messengers of the devil.

A person who belongs to this world does not have the ability to get up and do good of their own accord. When someone is hungry, he does not give him food; when someone is thirsty, he does not give him drink. This may be because he passively lacks the ability to do good, or it may be because he is actively persecuting that person. What this person does is determined by whom they belong to and whom they are united to. If a man does good, he will be ridiculed by his friends. If he does not do evil, he will be hated by his friends. He does not have the courage to turn to Christ and be reconciled to God, because the world will persecute him if he does not go along with them. When he refuses to turn to Christ, this means his clutch is broken. He cannot leave the world and escape from the judgments of those around him. This is why the Lord says, “Depart from me! Since you could not leave this world and that circle of evildoers in your ordinary days, leave me on this day of judgment!”

There was a popular song by Zang Tianshuo called “Friend”: “My friend, my friend, you once remembered me. If you have found a new paradise, then please leave me.” If you do not see the Lord as your paradise, the Lord says to you, “Depart from me!” Paradise has come, the kingdom of heaven has come. If you do not regard the kingdom of heaven as paradise, then you will regard hell as paradise.

The one who belongs to Christ is united with Christ and is part of the heavenly kingdom of Christ. The one who does not belong to Christ, the one who has become deeply ensnared in this world because he has no share in Christ, will ultimately become deeply ensnared in hell. We do not want to face the vicissitudes of life, but we must take up our crosses and be united to the Lord. In our temporary home in this world, we must learn how to use the “clutch” and separate ourselves from evil, so that we do not separate ourselves from the good we should not separate from, and are consequently cast into hell forever.

In 1689, the United Kingdom issued the “Toleration Act,” which made the government’s tolerance of the church the foundation for religious freedom. This also became the foundation for the Chinese view of “religious freedom.” Both the government and ordinary citizens believe religion will eventually die away. They simply tolerate religion for a short time. But the Bible teaches the exact opposite. It teaches that Christians should tolerate and be patient with others all the way to the end, because we have received eternal life in Christ, while those around us still live under the threat of sin and death. They have not yet been saved. They even face the punishment of hell. This includes those who are persecuting us. 

Exercising patience takes time. It is a complex process that requires us to participate in the reality of daily life in this world. But when Christ returns, the end will come. Our patience will run its final sprint. God will fully reveal the children of redemption. At that time, not only will we be separated from the goats – from the evildoers, from the sorrows and suffering and curses of this world – we will also be seated together with the Lord Jesus Christ. We will receive the kingdom and enjoy its glory together with him.

[1] In China, one government bureau oversees the five religions officially recognized by the Chinese government.

[2] The word “clutch” 离合in Chinese literally means “separator.”

Translation provided by the China Partnership translation team.


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