“It is indeed a mark of the Last Things that they stop us in our tracks,” (448) wrote Werner Elert. The lectionary for these Last Sundays of the Church Year do stop us in our tracks as they not only remind us we perpetually walk in the shadow of death but that the finality of God’s unimpeachable judgment breaks into the ordinariness of life with a finality which cannot be overcome by human wisdom. In one sense, of course, every Sunday is the occasion for eschatological preaching as the Nicene Creed draws us week after week to confess Christ Jesus who “will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose Kingdom will have no end.” The Creed reminds us of the promise of our Lord’s return in glory presents a bigger picture than my personal hope for a life beyond the grave. It shows us how all of human history will come to fulfillment in a judgment to everlasting shame (Hell) or a vindication to eternal joy in Christ (life in a new Heaven and Earth).
Just as the Creed confesses that the crucified and risen Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead:
“The entire New Testament is consistently linked with the last judgment. Therefore, Christians cannot look for this in the same manner in which we as onlookers await the suspenseful end of a drama. Nor is this a modification of any late Judaic-Hellenistic myth. Rather, it occupies the same elementary and simple relationship to us as do the Law and the Gospel, which change hearts and minds. Indeed, the expectation of the Parousia pertains to nothing other than what constitutes the core content of Law and Gospel. The Law proclaims judgment; the Gospel proclaims Christ. The parousia-expectation combines both. Its only particular feature is its futurity: Christ and the judgment are in the process of coming” (465).
Elert’s statement gives focus to the preaching of Matthew 25:1-13 (Pentecost 23), where there is judgment for the five foolish virgins and the glad news of welcome for the five wise virgins. Likewise, in Matthew 25:14-30 (Pentecost 24), there is condemnation for the slothful servant who hid his talent and reward for the servants who had invested the money entrusted to them. This theme of judgment and grace in the final coming culminates in the Gospel for the Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:31-46) with the condemnation of the goats and the blessing of the sheep.
“The entire New Testament leaves no doubt that His verdict will mark a final separation of persons. And this will bring surprises” (476).
The entire New Testament leaves no doubt that His verdict will mark a final separation of persons. And this will bring surprises.
In this final judgment, Christ will have the last word.
“The fact that we must appear before the judgment seat of Christ in the last judgment tells us the final decision rests with Him who is the content of our faith – with Christ in whom we believe – because He is our righteousness. But it also tells us the final decision rests with Him who cannot pardon him who refuses to lend an ear to His Word. But in the last judgment the most obstinate ear will be opened, not to give man a chance to reconsider his decision, but to shut the door to that possibility forever” (478).
The coming of the Lord will be abrupt, like a thief who overtakes his victims unaware (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; the Epistle for Pentecost 24).
“This is told us so that it might spur us on to untiring vigilance. The cosmic signs mentioned by Christ (see Mark 13 and Matthew 24) are no pre-signs but the very tokens of the dramatic end itself. With their advent the cosmos itself falls into ruins. They no longer announce the end of history. Rather, they are the means whereby the dissolution of the world comes about” (463).
The old order of things dominated by sin and death collapses and expires with the consummation of Christ’s unshakeable reign.
“We believe in the consummation of the Kingdom. We believe that the powerful alliance of God’s enemies will be completely and conclusively annihilated” (483).
Reflecting on the words of the Epistle for the Last Sunday of the Church Year (1 Corinthians 15:20-28), Elert concludes:
“The new cosmos is free from all conflict. The last resistance against the Creator is broken down. He pardons whoever was to be pardoned. He condemns to eternal death whoever refused to lend an ear to His pardon. There is no apocatastasis, no restoration for those who rejected His grace. They die the death of the evil one eternally. The Kingdom of God has become completely one with the dominion of God. The Son delivers ‘the Kingdom to God the Father’ (1 Corinthians 15:24). The new cosmos no longer stands in need of redemption. The work of atonement is finished. The Kingdom of Peace is consummated. There are no ‘eschatological problems’ for us beyond that. The consummation of the Kingdom is the beginning of the infinite possibilities of God which are no longer thwarted by the contradiction of unbelief. Human fantasies are always only abstractions springing from earthly experience. Thus, they tend to put restrictions on God’s possibilities, and these, of course, cannot be restricted. Man is given to the ‘eager longing’ (Romans 8:19) of the creature which cannot await the time of God. But we wait because we hope, and we hope because we believe. For us, the beginning of the full, undisputed exercise of God’s mercy and might is also the beginning of ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21)” (484).
Elert’s masterful overview of the biblical doctrine of “the last things” gives substance and focus to the proclamation of the word of the cross in these gray and latter days, to borrow a phrase from Franzmann. All Christian preaching is done in view of the eschatological horizon as we proclaim the Lord who will return as the Judge of all in glory who can no longer be contradicted or denied.
Preaching Law and Gospel reckons with the reality that, “Some live in the light of the Last Day; others live in its shadow” (460). The light of the Last Day is refracted through the cross and empty tomb of Christ Jesus.
 All citations are from Werner Elert. “Last Things” in One Lord, Two Hands? Essays on the Theology of the Two Kingdoms, ed. Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2021. 443-484.