The Areopagus was agog. The cream of Athenian society, those insatiable seekers after intellectual innovation, had gathered together to hear some new thing. As they gazed on the diminutive figure waiting to address them, they felt sure that they were in for a treat: the exposition of a philosophical system that would be unfamiliar and stimulating. As the apostle stepped forward all Athens strained to hear what he had to say.
What they heard was one of the great apostolic discourses in Acts. On previous occasions, the preacher had been able to assume some level of acquaintance with Scripture, but this audience was deep in the darkness of pagan polytheism. As Paul spoke, that darkness was pierced by a brilliant gleam of divine revelation. Paul proclaimed the greatness of God as the Creator of the world, and the Giver of life. He spoke of a God Who is more than silver or gold or stone, Who transcends His own creation. And he presented a God Who desires a relationship with humanity, Who has made Himself known to His creature. The expectations of Paul’s audience had not been disappointed. This was a message very different from the usual arid speculation of their philosophers.
Paul was still speaking when a ripple of consternation ran through the crowd. This creating, revealing God, Paul told them, had, in the past, overlooked their ignorance, but now He required, commanded, their repentance. Worse still, that repentance was required because a resurrected Man was going to judge the world. Soon the crowd disintegrated into disagreement, some prevaricating, some mocking, and just a few believing.
The command to repent and the warning of judgment are never popular or palatable. Yet, if we are to preach it faithfully we must follow Paul’s example and warn sinners of a judgment that is universal with implications for “all men.” It is inevitable; the day is divinely appointed, and assured by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
In Revelation 20:11-15 John sees the court prepared, a “great white throne” set up in space. The throne speaks of authority, and its greatness emphasizes the cosmic jurisdiction of this court. The whiteness of the throne denotes the holiness of the judge, His unquestionable moral authority. This presiding judge is described as the One “from Whose face the earth and the heaven fled away” (v11). Acts 17:31 and John 5:22 identify the One Who sits as judge. He is the man ordained, the Son of God, into Whose hand God has committed all judgment, Himself God (Rev 20:12).
John then describes the individuals present at this scene. He sees “the dead, small and great stand before God.” These are those spoken of in verse 5 as “the rest of the dead.” These men and women, drawn from every imaginable demographic and social class, have never exercised faith in God and have never been born again. Thus they had no part amongst the blessed of the first resurrection, and they now stand before God to receive their final judgment. “Death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them,” souls and bodies reunited to hear the pronouncement of their eternal doom.
As they stand, evidence is produced. “The books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works” (v12). How solemn it is to think of these volumes, a minute and meticulous record of every thought, act, and word of every individual. Every action will be weighed, not to determine guilt, but to apportion punishment. Apart from the “book of life,” nothing that is written in these books can avert punishment. Before sentence is delivered, the “book of life” is opened and its pages scanned. No one who stands before the great white throne will be found written in the book of life, but it is opened and examined as a last, and incontrovertible proof of the sinner’s guilt.
The sentence is passed; the guilt has been demonstrated beyond challenge. “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death” (v14). How inexpressibly solemn it is to think of men and women, boys and girls, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, being cast, with full consciousness, into “eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41), beginning an eternity of torment “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44). As we survey the tragic, terrifying scene, let us take a moment to consider whether our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, guaranteeing our eternal safety. And let all of us who have the responsibility of preaching the gospel to perishing sinners lay to our hearts the example of the apostle, and faithfully warn our hearers of the inevitability of coming judgment.
When the judgment of the great white throne has been completed, the final act in the drama of time will take place. Creation, which has witnessed so much of the greatness and grace of God, and of the failure and fragility of man, will have fulfilled its purpose, and will be folded up like a worn-out garment (Heb 1:10-12). Notwithstanding the speculations of scientists, and the musings of poets, the universe will not simply wind down. The world will end not with a whimper, but with a bang. “The heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2Peter 3:10). Every trace and taint of sin will be eradicated finally and ferociously, and a new creation will be brought into being “wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2Peter 3:13).
The telescope of Scripture allows us to see to the far horizon of time. Even as Peter describes the events that will mark the end of the old creation and the inauguration of the new, he reminds us that prophetic truth is not intended for mere speculative contemplation, but to mark and mold our lives. “Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?” (2Peter 3:11–12).