Short Sayings of Jesus

Wherever the Corpse is, There the Vulture Will Gather

Matthew 24:28

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We are in the middle of a series entitled “Short Sayings of Jesus.”  Jesus was a master teacher who employed many teaching forms.  He also uttered short sayings that are easy to memorize and have wide application.  He used two types of short sayings:

Mini-teachings, which briefly develop an important truth.

Aphorisms, which are short, pithy sayings that express a general truth.  “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is an aphorism that emphasizes how children’s weaknesses are often connected in some way to their parents.  Today we will look at another one of Jesus’ aphorisms – read Matt. 24:28.  Let’s first ascertain the general meaning of this aphorism, and then consider its importance and relevance.

General meaning

Like me, you probably assume that Jesus is not just commenting on one aspect of the eco-system – that road-kill attracts eagles/vultures and other scavengers.  Both the immediate context and other biblical passages indicate that Jesus is using this common natural phenomenon as an illustration of the certainty of God’s judgment on evil.[1]

Matt. 24 is about the end of this age, when terrible wickedness will nearly destroy the world (24:15,21,22a).  Then Jesus will return to rescue His people and to judge the ones responsible for the wickedness (24:28,29a,30).  Why will they mourn?  Because He comes to judge them – (Dan. 7:13 quote is a reference to this).

The Old Testament uses this aphorism in the same way, and Jesus is probably alluding to these passages.  Speaking of His judgment on Israel (for their idolatry) through the Assyrians, God says (Hos. 8:1).  Speaking of the Babylonians as instruments of His judgment on Judah, God likens describes them this way (Hab. 1:8).

Revelation uses this same imagery to (probably symbolically) describe this aspect of Jesus’ return at the end of the age (Rev. 19:17,18a).

So this aphorism teaches a truth that is very prominent in the Bible – that the God who exists is a God who is opposed to evil, and that He intervenes into human history in various ways and times to judge human evil.  Before we go deeper into what the Bible teaches about God’s judgment, we need to first consider how important this unpopular biblical teaching is . . .

Why is God’s judgment important?

Christians in our culture tend to be embarrassed about this doctrine, but it is both deeply biblical and superior to the way other world-views address the issue of evil.

When God revealed Himself to Moses, He described the essence of His character this way (read Ex. 34:6,7a).  God is compassionate and gracious, and He expresses this through patience with and forgiveness for sinful people.  God is also righteous and just, and He expresses this by punishing the (unrepentant) guilty.  This passage is probably the most-quoted passage in the Old Testament – so the truth it teaches is foundational.  On what basis God forgives sinful people, how He determines who is “guilty” and when He punishes them are important questions that we will look at in a moment.  But Christians have no right to separate these attributes of God, or to hold to and teach the one and reject and deny the other.  In fact, God’s judgment is indivisible from His love.[2]

The importance of this truth becomes even clearer when we consider how the two other current major world-views address the issue of evil. 

Pantheism (the basis for Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age thinking) believes in karma – that we are being punished in this life for the sins of our previous lives.[3]  Such a world-view is profoundly legalistic, because there is no category for mercy or forgiveness.  It also tends to lead to detachment or apathy about current social evils.  Delivering victims of oppression would be rebelling against karma, and bring further punishment for the reformers in their next lives!  This is a big reason why significant social reform movements rarely emerge from pantheistic cultures – and when they do, it is often because of the influence of the biblical world-view (e.g., Gandhi was influenced by the Sermon on the Mount and other biblical teaching).

Secularism (i.e., atheism, scientific naturalism) likewise has no solid philosophical basis for fighting against evil (although many secularists are admirably committed to this).  If ultimate reality is time plus matter plus chance, then on what basis do we say that something is evil?  If the evolutionary process is simply the survival of the fittest, how would we refute Hitler’s statement that “I cannot understand why man should not be just as cruel as nature?”  Or these statements by other 20th secular tyrants?[4]  It astounds me that secularists regularly point to religion as the biggest perpetrator of social evil.  This is a reality (e.g., extremist Islam), but secular regimes in the 20th century were responsible for more innocent deaths than all the previous centuries combined.  Without God to define evil, and without God who judges evil, how can we consistently oppose evil?

Only the Bible reveals a God who takes evil seriously, who intervenes to judge evil, and who provides a basis to oppose evil with hope and overcome evil with love.

Key biblical insights into God’s judgment

Most Christians have an accurate but shallow understanding of God’s judgment.  “God must judge sin, all humans have sinned, Christ died for our sins, and belief in Christ exempts us from God’s judgment.”  This is wonderfully true, and we should share this good news with everyone we know.  But we need a deeper understanding of God’s judgment to live effectively for Him.  The Bible reveals many ways in which God judges, and many operational principles by which He judges.  Let’s overview these . . .

God exercises His judgment of evil in many ways.  Let’s think about how our passage fits into these different aspects of His judgment.

God will execute a final judgment at the end of the age – a judgment that sets our eternal destinies, to be either with Him in His kingdom or to be forever separate from Him in hell (Rev. 20:11-15).  But He also judges temporally, within this age, to prevent evil from totally corrupting or destroying a culture or the human race (e.g., Amos 1:13-15).  Matt. 24:28 is an example of temporal judgment.

QUALIFY: Without inspired prophets to accurately interpret current events, Christians should be tentative or agnostic about declaring current catastrophes to be God’s temporal judgment (Lk. 13:1-5; Jn. 9:2,3; e.g., 1980’s AIDS epidemic as God’s judgment on America for tolerating homosexuality).  But this category is important because it is one way God restrains a fallen humanity from descending into the abyss of evil.

God judges individuals – both eternally for their unrepentant guilt (Rev. 20:11-15), and (sometimes) temporally humble them and to protect others (e.g., Nebuchadnezzar in Dan. 4; Herod in Acts 12).  But He also temporally judges whole natures or cultures for their moral depravity and/or apostasy (e.g., Israel & Judah being exiled).  Matt. 24:28 is a mass temporal judgment.

God sometimes judges through His direct intervention (as in Matt. 24:28; Rev. 20:11-15).  But God often judges indirectly – through fallible nations who themselves may be later judged indirectly (e.g., God judges Judah through Babylon, and then judges Babylon).  He also exercises judgment through imperfect governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-5).

God sometimes judges actively, by inflicting punishment either temporally or eternally (see above examples, including Matt. 24:28).  But He also often judges passively, by letting the natural consequences of our rebellion take their course (“You cannot ultimately break God’s moral law; you break yourself upon His moral law;” Rom. 1:18-32; seal and trumpet judgments in Rev. 6,8,9).

God judges retributively, to exact a just penalty for a person’s or group’s moral guilt (e.g., Dan. 5:27,28; Rev. 20:12,13 “according to their deeds”).  But He also judges redemptively, to warn (e.g., Judah’s military defeats as a warning to turn from its idolatry) or to discipline (1 Cor. 11:31,32).  In fact, even God’s retributive judgments are also redemptive (for others; see Matt. 24:28,22; Rev. 11:18).

Finally, God’s judgment operates not only negatively (by inflicting punishment on the guilty; Matt. 24:28), but also positively – to promote justice (Rom. 13:3,4) and reward service and good deeds (1 Cor. 3:14; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12).

So as you can see, God’s judgment is multi-faceted.  How does God decide when and how to exercise His multi-faceted judgment?  We don’t know fully (Deut. 29:29), but God does reveal some of His operational principles.  Let’s survey them briefly.

God does not show partiality in His judgment.  He can’t be bribed (Deut. 10:17), and He doesn’t show favoritism (Israel and Judah were expelled from the land for their apostasy).  Yet this does not mean that His judgment is impersonal.  He knows all things and He weighs all of the factors (e.g., ignorance vs. knowledge; degree of the crime) so that his judgment is totally fair (Lk. 20:47).

God prefers to show mercy rather than judge retributively.  We saw this clearly in Ex. 34:6,7.  God says emphatically that He “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” but prefers that people repent and live (Ezek. 18:23).  He even calls retributive judgment His “strange/alien work” (Isa. 28:21).  Yet remember – God will ultimately judge the unrepentant (Ezek. 18:32).

God warns and waits long for people to repent before He judges.  He waits over 400 years before dispossessing the Canaanites from their land because “their iniquity is not yet full (Gen. 15:16).  He warned Israel and Judah for centuries before he expelled them from the land.  He says that He “is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9,10).  But don’t misinterpret God’s patience to mean that He won’t judge (Rom. 2:4,5).

Finally, and most remarkably, Jesus has taken God’s judgment for our sins to provide the basis for showing mercy.  This is what the Bible calls “propitiation” (Heb. 2:17) – the satisfaction of God’s wrath by His chosen sacrifice.  This is the “cup” that Jesus drank on the cross so that we would not have to drink it.  Yet He will not impose His payment for our sins; we must humbly ask for it through faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:25; Lk. 18:13; contra universalism).

So what?

Receive God’s exemption from His final retributive judgment by entrusting yourself to Jesus (read Jn. 5:24).  Why not respond today to this amazingly generous offer?

Appreciate God’s judgment as one of two key bases for forgiving those who have seriously wronged you.  Along with the logic and motivation to forgive others because God has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32; Matt. 18:21-35), God reminds us that forgiveness also involves “transferring the case to a higher court” (read Rom. 12:19).  This speaks to our (correct) sense of justice, that sin must be punished.  Those who do not repent and turn to Christ will be judged by God for their sins against Him and others.[5]

Appreciate God’s final judgment (negative & positive) as a key basis for hope in a darkening world.  Evil is a terrible reality, and the Bible says that evil will increase as we draw near to the end of the age (2 Tim. 3:1ff.; etc.).  This should pain us, make us cry out to God, etc.  But God’s people frequently struggle with cynicism or escape or despair because they capitulate to the lie that evil is sovereign.  But evil is not sovereign – God is sovereign, and He will one day triumph utterly over evil and fully establish His righteous kingdom![6]  Therefore we can fight evil through love (Rom. 13:11,12).


NEXT WEEK: John 7:37,38


[1] “The most natural application of the imagery is to judgment, which may be the point of the proverb here. When the Son of Man comes, the judgment of the world will take place (cf. vv 30, 39, 51; 25:30, 46).” Hagner, D. A. (1998). Matthew 14–28 (Vol. 33B, p. 707). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[2] “Why (are we embarrassed by) the thought of God as Judge?  Why do we feel the thought to be unworthy of Him?  The truth is that part of God’s moral perfection is His perfection in judgment.  Would a God who did not care about the difference between right and wrong be a good and admirable being?  Would a God who (made) no distinction between the beasts of history (e.g., Hitler and Stalin), and His own saints, be morally praiseworthy and perfect?  Moral indifference would be an imperfection in God, not a perfection . . . (and) to not judge the world would be to show moral indifference.” J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 143.

[3] “Because you have committed countless sins and accumulated much evil karma in (your past lives), you must expect to suffer much retribution (in your present life) for what you have done.”  Nicheren, a 13th century Buddhist, cited in Os Guinness, Unspeakable (HarperOne, 2005), p. 200.

[4] “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic” (Josef Stalin).  “Communism is not love.  Communism is a hammer which we use to crush the enemy” (Mao Tse-Tung). “Since he is of no use anymore, there is no gain if he lives and no loss if he dies” (Pol Pot).

[5] “It can bring us some relief to know that all sin will indeed be punished. In his journals, John Wesley, after describing how a person had been ill-treated, resulting in his premature death, wrote, ‘But still our comfort is, “There is a God that judges in the earth.”’  When people ask the question, ‘How can he get away with such a crime?’ we answer: ‘But he won’t get away.  He will have to face the awesome judgment of God one day.’  The doctrine of judgment is a powerful truth that can destroy the root of bitterness in our hearts, the sense that we are always a victim at the mercy of the sins of others.  Bitterness is often caused by a belief that the person who has hurt us will somehow escape from punishment.  We wrongly assume that they have got away scot-free while we must live with the wounds they have inflicted.  But the truth of God’s judgment reminds us that no one gets away with sin.  Sin is always punished.  In the end, there are only two ways that sin is paid for: we pay it at the cost of our own blood, or Jesus pays it at the cost of his.” Ajith Fernando, Reclaiming Love, pp. 58,59.  We should also note that Christian offenders will not escape the discipline of the Lord.

[6] “The doctrine of final judgment  . . . stresses . . . the certainty that justice will finally triumph over all the wrongs which are part and parcel of life here and now . . . (This) brings calmness and assurance to those in the thick of the battle. . . . Judgment protects the idea of the triumph of God and good . . . Judgment means that evil will be disposed of authoritatively, decisively, finally.  Judgment means that in the end God’s will will be perfectly done.” (Leon Morris, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment, p. 72).