Life in the Community

| Matthew 25:31-46 | May 14, 2017

Life in the Community

Week of May 21, 2017

The Point:  Loving Jesus means personally helping those in need.

Judgment Day:  Matthew 25:31-46.

[31] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. [32] 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. [33] And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. [34] 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. [35] 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, [36] I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ [37] Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? [38] And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? [39] And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ [40] 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.’ [41] “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. [42] For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, [43] 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.’ [44] 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?’ [45] 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.’ [46] And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”   [ESV]

“We come now to the last recorded teaching of Jesus Christ in Matthew’s Gospel: the parable of the sheep and the goats. But it is not strictly a parable. It is a dynamic description of the last judgment, using a few symbolic elements: a shepherd, sheep, and goats. This story is unique to Matthew and is an appropriate ending to the chapter in which Jesus speaks of His return. The story builds on the two previous parables and on the illustrations in chapter 24. The illustrations in chapter 24 and the first of the parables in chapter 25 stressed the need to be ready when Christ returns. The parable of the talents taught the need for faithful work and service, which will be rewarded at the judgment. The final story is of the judgment itself. There is also a progression. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the women who were not ready are only shut out from the banquet [25:10-12]. In the next parable, the wicked, lazy servant is thrown out into the outer darkness [25:30]. In the story of the sheep and the goats, those who have ignored the needs of Christ’s brothers are cursed with an eternal punishment [25:46].

Interpreting the Passage.  We might expect that a story as straightforward as the separation of the sheep and the goats would be easy to interpret, but that does not seem to be the case judging from interpretations given to it by generations of Bible students. There seem to be four main views, depending on how the interpreter understands the words the least of these my brothers [40]. (1)  The words might refer to anyone who is hungry or has other physical needs. This has been the majority view in church history, and it has led to many sentimental and sometimes fanciful stories. (2)  The words might mean the Jews. This is the dispensational view, which understands the judgment to be one of several judgments, this one placed at the close of the great tribulation after Christians have been removed from the world by the rapture. It is usually described as a judgment of literal nations on the grounds of their treatment of the Jews. This view is possible only if the entire dispensational understanding of prophecy is valid. (3)  The words could refer to the apostles and other Christian missionaries. This would mean that the reaction to them and their gospel determines the nation’s fate. This is closer to the text than the other ideas, and it has support from Matthew 10:40-42, where Jesus said to the disciples, Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. … And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. Some of these views are better than others, as I have indicated. But the trouble with all of them is that Jesus does not use the word brothers in those ways in this Gospel. In Matthew, brothers means “disciples,” all who follow Christ or all Christians [Matt. 12:48-50; 23:8; 28:10]. Those who are the least also refers to Christ’s followers [Matt. 5:19; 11:11; 18:3-6; 18:10-14]. This use of the terms means that the next interpretation is the right one. (4)  The words refers to Christ’s disciples or all Christians. This does not mean that the Bible is unconcerned about the poor and the oppressed. It is. We read about them often. But that is not the thought here. What Jesus means here is that the fate of individuals depends on how they relate to Christ’s followers, which means how they also relate to Him. This understanding of the separation of the sheep and the goats should not surprise us, because it is one of the tests John gives in his first letter as to how we can know we are Christians. He has three tests. The first is whether we believe that Jesus is God come in human flesh [1 John 2:20-23; 4:2-3; 4:15; 5:1]. The second is whether we obey Christ’s commands [1 John 2:3-6; 3:4-10; 5:2]. The third is whether we love other Christians [1 John 2:9-11; 3:14; 4:7-21]. This last test is the one on which the story of the separation of the sheep and goats depends, for the issue is whether we love and care for Christ’s followers, hence, whether we love Christ. This is what determines our destiny.

Faith and Works.  Whether we love others has direct bearing on the relationship of faith and works that bothers some Christians. We know we are saved by faith alone apart from works according to the explicit teaching of the New Testament. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. But if that is the case, as we believe it to be, how is it that judgment can also be based on works, as in the story of the separation of the sheep and goats or even in the parable of the talents? The answer, of course, is that passages that speak of judgment based on works are merely saying that it, like all judgments, will be on the basis of demonstrable evidence. The works Christians perform do not save them, but the works are evidence that Christians love and trust Jesus. In other words, this judgment reflects on the highest level what we attempt on a much lower level when we admit people into membership in a particular church. When we do so we look for what we call a “credible profession,” meaning a verbal profession of faith in Christ supported by a consistent way of life. An inconsistent life invalidates the profession, however sincerely it may be expressed. But there is a point worth noting. The evidence of a credible Christian profession is not how many great works have been performed for Jesus, how many churches have been built or sermons preached or millions of dollars given to Christ’s cause. The proofs of conversion are not “great” things at all. They are little things, as most people think of them: sharing food with a brother who is hungry, giving water to a sister who is thirsty, welcoming a stranger, offering clothes to one who needs clothing, caring for the sick, or visiting a person who is in prison. It is because these are little things that the righteous do not even remember having done them. They ask Jesus, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? [37]. It is also because these are little things that the unrighteous did not do them. They might have done them if someone important, such as Jesus, had been there. But they hadn’t seen anyone like that. 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? [44]. Of course, they only delude themselves by such comments, because they would not have helped even an important person in a truly selfless way. They would have done it only for what they could have gotten in return. Let’s notice one other thing as well. The wicked are condemned in this story not because of some great positive evil they have done but for their simple neglect of doing good. Or to put it in other terms, the people spoken of here are not the great sinners of the world. They are the good people who occupy the pews of churches and serve on philanthropic boards. Therefore, when the judgment comes, they are astonished. They are like the foolish virgins who cannot understand why the groom will not open the door for them or the servant who cannot perceive why the Lord is not satisfied by his zero-growth performance. The desire to do good comes from receiving the life of the Lord Jesus Christ within, which is regeneration. It is only when this is true that our actions are then acceptable to our Lord and Judge.

Hell: How Bad Is It?  We sometimes hear people say that they cannot believe in an Old Testament God who is full of wrath and judgment and that they prefer the God of the gentle Jesus. But they forget that it is Jesus more than any other person in the Bible who speaks most clearly about hell. Matthew 25 is an example. In the parable of the talents, the master cries, cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness [30]. In the separation of the sheep from the goats, the King tells the goats, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels [41]. The chapter ends with Jesus’ frightening summation: And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life [46]. We may not like these statements, but they were spoken by Jesus, the very Son of God. We would do well to take His warnings seriously. Should we take them seriously? Is hell to be feared? Jesus described hell this way: (1) Hell is a total separation, and not just from those who will be with Christ in heaven. It is separation for God. Jesus expressed it when He quoted the King as saying, Depart from me, you cursed [41]. Jesus divides all of humanity into two classes: those who will go away into eternal punishment and those who will enter into eternal life [46], between the saved and the lost. That division is absolute. (2) Hell is a bad association. We learn something interesting about hell in these verses that is not taught explicitly elsewhere. Hell was prepared for the devil and his angels [41]. If hell was prepared for the devil and his angels – the angels that followed him in his rebellion against God and are now known as demons – we can be certain that they will be in hell some day. And if that is the case, it means that those who have refused Christ and have shown it by their neglect of Christ’s followers will be sent there to be with those demons. Some people think of hell as a place where the devils torment sinners. But Jesus pictures hell as a place where fallen angels and rebellious human beings are together in their suffering. What a terrible association! What a destiny! To spend eternity shoulder to shoulder with an evil being whose one goal has been to defy God and bring others to share in suffering forever. Will the devils not gloat that they have succeeded in bringing people to hell? Will they not gloat over you if you are there? (3) Hell is suffering. I suppose the references to hell as a place of eternal fire [41] or lake of fire and sulfur [Rev. 20:10] are symbolic, if for no other reason than that the demons are disembodied spirits and thus cannot be punished by fire in the literal sense. But what of that? The purpose of imagery is to point beyond what literal language can convey. If a literal burning by fire is bad, the reality of hell’s suffering must be immeasurably and inexpressibly worse. Even if the suffering is only mental, internal, or psychological, it is something that produces an eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth [30]. (4) Hell is darkness. After fire, darkness may not seem so bad, but this is a darkness that shuts off all sight of others, indeed, all sight of everything, even sight of oneself. The only thing that will be left is the conscious, mental self in its rebellion. The idea of eternal suffering has been so disturbing to some people that there have been countless attempts to deny it or limit its duration. People have claimed that eternal suffering is inconsistent with the goodness of God, who certainly will never allow any of His creatures to remain in hell forever. But God is a better judge of what is consistent with His goodness than we are, and it is He who says that hell is eternal. Others have argued that an eternal hell is inconsistent with the justice of God, for no sins committed in time could ever deserve such punishment. But what makes sin an infinite evil is that it is against an infinite God. Besides, we must remember that hell’s punishments vary in severity according to the nature of the sin [see Matt. 11:22; Luke 12:47-48; 2 Cor. 5:10]. The bottom line is that verse 46 uses the same exact word to describe the duration of the sinner’s punishment in hell as it does to describe the duration of the believer’s life in heaven. It is the word eternal.”  [Boice, pp. 540-545].

“Literary Context.  This is the final section of the discourse and develops a slightly different aspect than 24:36-25:30. Here it is the nations who are to be judged, and the basis of that judgment is how they treat God’s people. There is no atmosphere of delay or the unexpected timing of the parousia. Yet, similar to the parables of the wheat and the weeds or the good and bad fish of 13:24-30, 47-52, this final part of the discourse centers on the glorious appearing of the Son of Man and the judgment of the nations that will ensue.

Main Idea.  The righteous will be rewarded because in showing mercy and taking care of Jesus’ messengers they have cared for Him. The wicked will be punished because they did not show mercy to Jesus’ messengers (note the contrasts – come/depart, blessed/cursed, inherit the kingdom/eternal punishment/eternal life). The theme is first the unity of Jesus with His people and then the responsibility of the world to accept and minister to His followers in mission.

Theology in Application.  This final extended metaphor concludes the Olivet Discourse and moves from the responsibility of the disciples [24:36-25:30] to the responsibility of all the world in light of the imminent appearing of the Son of Man and the final judgment He will bring. Both groups – the righteous and the wicked – are responsible for the decisions they have made and the conduct that resulted from those decisions. Moreover, those decisions have eternal consequences, and there will be no turning back. (1) One with Christ. We are one with Christ and so share His power and presence. We saw aspects of this in 10:11-14 (we have a charismatic presence of Christ in our message and speak with His voice) and 10:40-42 (when the world welcomes or rejects us, they are actually receiving or rejecting Christ). Here we have the third aspect, that the way the world treats us is an essential part of their reaction to Christ, because we are an essential aspect of His presence in our community. Since Christ is in us [John 15:4-7], people’s mercy toward us personifies the way they respond to Christ. (2) Works as Faith Response. There is no true antithesis between faith and works. While works cannot save us [Eph. 2:8-9], works are the necessary response to and proof of faith [Gal. 2:10; James 2:14-26]. Further, this passage does not teach salvation by works but rather centers on the ethical implications of faith salvation. (3) Only Two Kinds of People in the World. In our “seeker-sensitive” environment, we are often guilty of elevating seekers to a third type of humanity – those who reject Christ and are headed for eternal damnation, seekers who are almost there, and believers who are headed for heaven. This is wrong; seekers actually belong to the first group. We might add to this the “quasi-Christians,” those who attend regularly but show no fruit of this in their lives. Some belong to the first group and some to the second. There is no middle ground. Every person on earth is going either to heaven or to hell. Moreover, the decision will be made in this life, so it is essential that every person be confronted by the gospel and challenged to make a decision. There is no neutrality, and nothing in life is as important as this question, because it determines every person’s eternal destiny!”  [Osborne, location 24811-25086].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Who are the least of these my brothers? Why does Jesus identify this group with Himself (you did it to me)? How does this identification help us to understand Jesus’ condemnation of the other group in verses 41-45? How does Jesus contrast these two groups?
  1. What does Jesus teach concerning hell in this passage? For whom did God prepare hell [41]? Imagine spending all eternity in the company of the devil and his angels! Jesus teaches in this judgment passage, as He does in all His judgment teaching, that there are only two groups in the world: the righteous and the wicked. What separates the two groups? How can you make this “either/or” truth a central part of your witness to the Gospel?
  1. This passage points out the danger of forming a doctrinal position on any one passage, especially one that uses symbolic language. Jesus does not mean that verses 34-40 is the only test for entrance into His kingdom. What three tests do we find in John’s first epistle? Neither is Jesus teaching that our acceptance by God is based solely on the works that we do. What is the Bible’s teaching on the relationship between faith and works? What role does works play in our salvation? What evidence of faith do you see in your works?

References:

The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2, James M. Boice, Baker.

Matthew, vol. 1, Daniel M. Doriani, REC, P&R Publishing.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar Eerdmans.

Matthew, Grant Osborne, ECNT, Zondervan, ebook.