Don Carson | The Parable of the Sheep and Goats

– [Don Carson] It’s an enormous
privilege to be with you. And this morning, we’re going to focus,
in this first session, on the last part of Matthew 25. Now, Matthew 24 and 25 together
are sometimes called the Eschatological Discourse, that is,
the discourse about last things. But when you look at those two chapters
carefully, you discover that half of Matthew 24 is really about last things,
and I don’t have time to unpack that part at all. But from halfway through 24,
all the way to the end of 25, that is a chapter and a half,
it’s all about how to wait for the end. In other words, it’s not about the end
exactly, but it’s about how to wait for the end. Before I read our passage,
let me ask a question and reflect on it with you. How does our culture envisage
the end of the world? Shall we see ourselves choking
to death in our own pollution? Following the spirals of decadence,
and decay, and meaninglessness powerfully portrayed, for example, by T.S.
Eliot, “This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends,
not with a bang but a whimper.” Of course, he wrote in the days
before a nuclear holocaust. So, shall we think less in terms
of T.S. Eliot than in terms of nuclear holocaust? On the beach, for example,
nuclear exchanges, and eventually the entire planet dies, or one of the new
films of catastrophe that are circulating quite nicely. Or shall we project billions of years
into the future after our sun burns out? Will the whole human race
colonize other planets? We think less in terms of T.S. Eliot than
Isaac Asimov forStar Warsor the like. But all that seems very remote,
so most of us don’t really think much about that. In any case, if we’re going to think about
the end, we think only of our own end. How should we think of our own end? And then we may fight. Like Dylan Thomas who counsels his
dying father, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should rage against
the dying of the light. Rage, rage against the
dying of the light.” Or worst of all, what many of us do in the
western world is simply refuse to think about these things at all. They’re simply suppressed. We live for today, even amongst us who are
Christians, even when we confess that Jesus is coming again,
and we may actually sing hymns anticipating it from time to time. Yet whether or not that anticipation works
out in terms of how we live or not is another issue. We can be confessing believers and
functioning atheists in terms of changing how we live. Some, of course, simply scoff at all such
notions of Christ’s return, and the end of the age,
and resurrection existence. Paul, however, says that belief
in the fact that we shall have resurrection bodies in the new heaven
and the new earth is a necessary correlate to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. He ties the two together so tightly that
if you hold that Jesus rises from the dead, then you must see this as
the first step toward the resurrection that we will experience at the end. You can’t have one without the other. But at the end of the day,
my brief this morning is not to talk so much about the end per se
as to how to wait for the end. There are lots of different
ways of waiting. My son is a Marine, a strapping 6’2″.
6’3″, pretty powerfully built, with these big blue eyes that
pierce you right through. When he was about 3 and a half,
he was perpetually hungry. He was born big and born hungry,
and it hasn’t stopped. When he was about 3 and a half,
you could be sure that when it came close to mealtime, he was
mommy’s little shadow. Wherever she went, he went. He had no idea of deferred gratification. He wanted something to eat now. And we had the disgusting rule of making
people wait for their meal times and not snacking endlessly between meals. And so he was mommy’s little shadow. And if she said to him,
“Hang on, Nicholas, just wait. It’s only 10 minutes.” He had no idea what 10 minutes look like. He just wanted food now. Meanwhile, I might have been in my study
trying to finish writing one more paragraph to finish something off. All the pieces are in my head,
and I’m trying to get it down. And I look at my watch,
and I see I’ve got 10 minutes. And I’m waiting for those 10 minutes
to pass too except I want them to pass very slowly. Nicholas wants them to pass very fast. It’s the same 10 minutes,
but the way we wait in those circumstances is quite different. There’s the waiting for the sun to go down
when you’re sitting beside someone you love and you don’t want it ever to end. There’s the waiting for the nausea to pass
when you’re going through chemotherapy. There’s the waiting for a loved aged
person with Alzheimer’s to go. I’ve seen all of those up close,
haven’t you? Very different kinds of waiting. How then shall we wait for the end? If we’re Christians,
how do we wait for the end? Now, the fact of the matter is that
Matthew Chapter 24 verse 36 all the way to 25:46 deals
with the different facets of waiting for the end of the world,
of waiting for Christ’s return. And what I’m going to do is outline for
you the five different facets that are presented to us in this chapter
and a half, but especially focus on the last one. The last one is the parable
of the sheep and the goats. Let me begin by reading that last one,
and then we shall go back and run through the argument that
brings us to that point. Here is the Lord Jesus speaking then
in Matthew 25, beginning at verse 31. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory
and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before
him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates
the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right
and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his
right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance,
the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you
gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me
something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I needed clothes, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you looked after me. I was in prison, and you
came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give
you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite
you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or
in prison and go to visit you?’ The king will reply, ‘Truly, I tell you,
whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters
of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me you who are cursed into the eternal fire prepared
for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you
gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me
nothing to drink. I was a stranger, and you
did not invite me in. I needed clothes, and you
did not clothe me. I was sick and in prison,
and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we
see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or needing clothes, or sick,
or in prison and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly, I tell you,
whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal
punishment but the righteous to eternal life.” This is the word of the Lord. Now come back to Chapter 24 verse 36,
how then should we as Christians wait for the dawning of the consummated
kingdom, for the coming of the king, for the end of the age? Five things, but then we’ll spend our
closing time on the last one, the one that I’ve just read. Number one, wait for the Lord Jesus as
those who do not wish to be surprised by the master’s return. Wait for the Lord Jesus as those who do
not wish to be surprised by the master’s return, especially verses 36 to 44. “But about that day or hour no one knows,
not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” For in the days before the flood,
people were eating, and drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage,
up to the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing about what would
happen until the flood came and took them all away. This is how it will be at the
coming of the Son of Man.” Now, don’t misunderstand that passage. It does not say, “The days when Jesus
comes will be as wicked as the days of Noah.” That’s not the nature of the comparison. The nature of the comparison
is sheer normalcy. In the days of Noah, when the flood came,
the argument runs, people were getting married, and having babies,
and there was a funeral now and then, and they were getting on with their
business and worrying about the retirement packages, and whatever. Do you see it was normal? Now, undoubtedly, it was a wicked time,
but that’s not the nature of the comparison drawn here. It’s the normalcy of the thing. “So it will be at the coming of the
Son of Man,” we’re told. In other words, there won’t be a whole lot
of immediate precursors that are tipping you off. “Okay, folks, screw up your courage. Get ready because now is the time
that you really should focus.” No, you must understand that
there will seem to be normalcy. And that’s when the master will return. Or to push it with another image,
“Two men will be in the field, one will be taken and the other left.” Now, in the nature of first-century
farming in Israel, two men in a field are likely to be father and son,
or conceivably two brothers, or something of that order. So, very close ties, but one is taken. Whether this means taken away in judgment
or taken away to be with the Lord, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that there is an
instantaneous division. One is taken and the other is left. Even though two are quite close,
one is ready and one is not. And it’s not just the men. “Two women will be grinding
with a hand mill.” They used to have whopping big mills for
grinding flour that were pulled by oxen. But in a little hand mill,
you’d have a flat stone, another stone on top with a stick sticking
out, and a hole in the middle. You put your seed down the hole,
and then two women would squat on either side of this hand mill. And one would pull that handle around 180
degrees, and then the other one on the other side would pull it
around her 180 degrees. And then the first one would pull it
around 180 degrees and keep pouring in seed, and gradually the seed
would be ground to powder. And in the nature of first-century living,
almost certainly, these would be two sisters or a mother and daughter. Again, very close, and one is taken,
and the other is left behind. What’s the point? Verse 42, “Therefore, keep watch
because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this,
if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was
coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready because the
Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Now, the point of the analogy of the thief
is not to say that Jesus has the ethics of a burglar when he shows up. Like all analogies, there are limitations
imposed by the context. The point is that just as a thief’s coming
is unexpected, so also Christ’s coming is unexpected. That’s the full nature of the analogy. And that’s understandable. I’ve only been robbed once in my home. I was a university student at the time,
and my dad had loaned me a spectacular handcrafted leather case
with straps and was cowhide. It was well tooled. It was impressive, one of these
handpieces, which, today, would cost an arm and a leg,
and he had had it a long time. And he let me have it to bring some things
back to McGill University, where I was studying, and I stored it downstairs
in the storage area connected with our little flat. And when I got home that night,
we had been robbed. The case hadn’t even been locked. The thief could have just opened it but
couldn’t be bothered doing so. But had taken some sort of sharp sheave
and just slashed wide open. Was utterly destroyed. Now, it was just a case. The things we lost were
just material things. But on the other hand,
I assure you of this, that if I had known he was coming that
night, he would not have got away with it. Whether we would have had just a few of
our friends there to welcome him, or phone the police in advance,
I’m not sure what we would have done, but I guarantee he wouldn’t
have got away with it. But the point is he came when
we weren’t expecting him. And the lesson to learn at this juncture,
Jesus says, is the return of Christ is going to be that surprising,
that unexpected, so be ready. Be ready. What does that look like? Well, that brings us to the second point
Jesus makes about how to wait. Wait for the Lord Jesus as stewards who
must give an account of their service, faithful or otherwise. Wait for the Lord Jesus as stewards who
must give an account of their service, faithful or otherwise. Now, we’re looking at 24:45
to the end of the chapter. “Who then is the faithful and wise servant
whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them
their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose
master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly, I tell you, he will put him
in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and
says to himself, ‘My master’s staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat
his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come out
on a day when he does not expect him, and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a
place with the hypocrites where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Now, what you discover as you read through
these various little parables and so on, all telling us different facets of how
to wait for the return of the Lord, in each case, as you move on, the new
one picks up one or more of the themes that have already been laid out. So, in this case, the suddenness of the
event, the unexpectedness of it is picked up from the first one. But now there’s an overtone that
was not there in the first. Now, there is a slightly additional
emphasis, namely, when he returns… at a moment, admittedly,
you may not be expecting, when the master returns,
he will also ask you to give an account of your stewardship. And supposing someone says,
“I know he’s coming back, but, you know, it’s been a long time,” and thus begins
to exploit the other servants. This person who seems to be such a good
servant and has actually been put in charge, yet now, apparently,
he’s corrupt with the funds, and he is dishonest in his own labors,
and he is exploitative and manipulative, and controlling of other people. He’s become really a mean,
little, petty boss. A nasty piece of dictatorship. But he’s going to give an account
of everything he’s done. So when the master comes back,
it’s not just that he’s coming back and that’s the end, it’s he’s coming back
and then we give an account. That’s what the text says. So, wait for the Lord Jesus as stewards
who must give an account of their service, faithful or otherwise. I am sure that there will be many,
many pastors who will fall under verse 51 on the last day, people who are perceived
to be leaders of the flock of God but have left the gospel behind, or are deeply
deceptive in their own teaching, or proceed with mere desires for power. And it’s not just pastors,
you can get leaders in the church like that too. Sometimes people who are successful
in business think that they ought to be in charge of the local church too,
regardless of the state of their own lives. They just want to be bosses. They like power. They just like power. They too will all give an account. And then that there may be other leaders
in the church who run this and run that and all of that, but deep down, they’re
nasty little tongue-wagging gossips. They will give an account on the last day. Now, if you put this truth into the
framework of the entire gospel, then we discover that the only thing that
is going to make us acceptable at all is going to be Christ’s death on our behalf,
Christ shedding his own blood in Matthew 27. But one of the things you see about the
gospel in the New Testament is that when the gospel does come to a person,
that person does change. It doesn’t mean that that person becomes
perfect, it doesn’t mean that that person has suddenly reached the consummation. Now, that’s still to come. On the last day, all of us are going to
have to plead Christ or we’ll have no ground for entrance. Yet, having said all of this,
nevertheless, if the gospel has truly come to us, we will have changed. We will not be what we would have
otherwise been, and we will give an account. I love the words of John Newton. Now, the way he said it was an old English
that’s too long and complicated to regale you with, but his summarizing paragraph
on this point is really moving. You remember who he is. He was a slave trader. He transported, he figures, about 20,000
slaves across the Atlantic before he was converted. And eventually, he was converted,
and some years later began to prepare for ministry and became pastor of the
little church in Olney in England. I’ve been to the museum there that
has so many of his remains, including some handwritten manuscripts
of his sermons that have never been published, for example. But he’s the one who wroteAmazing Grace. For he said in his life that, thereafter,
when he had nightmares, it was hearing the slaves cry from the
ship, 20,000 souls, he says. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that
saved a wretch like me.” And toward the end of his life,
he wrote, then, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be,
I am not what one day I will be, but I am not what I was. And by the grace of God, I am what I am.” And genuine Christians look back on their
lives and say similar things. If, instead, you look back in your life
and there is no change at all, your God is still money, or power, or sex,
or control, manipulativeness, you’ll give an account on the last day. The gospel does not really come to you
regardless of your creedal formulations. “And the master will cut such a person to
pieces and assign them a place with the hypocrites, where there will be
weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So wait for the Lord Jesus, in the second
place, as stewards who must give an account of their service,
faithful or otherwise. Number three. Wait for the Lord Jesus as those who
know the master’s coming may be long delayed. Wait for the Lord Jesus as those who know
the master’s coming may be long delayed. We have now reached the
Parable of the 10 Virgins. I’m not going to read this entire passage. I’m sure most of you know the story,
but there are some wedding customs there that you need to understand
to make sense of the parable. In the ancient world,
the focus was on the groom rather than on the bride,
just the opposite of today. Today, you read a newspaper account,
and the bride is described in great detail, what she wore,
and the taffeta this, and the train of that,
and the style of her dress, and what her bridesmaids were wearing,
and so on, so on, so on. And then down toward the bottom
of the newspaper notice it says, “The groom was also present.” Whereas in the ancient world,
partly because it was the groom who paid for the whole shot, then things
tended to focus on him. That’s also why men
got married a little later. They had to pay for it. So the bride here doesn’t even appear. She’s not part of the story. It doesn’t really make a difference. She’s not there. The way these things worked, however,
was that usually, there was some sort of minor ceremony in the bride’s house,
at her brother’s home, or her father’s home,
some ceremony for immediate family, closest friends. And because they weren’t so concerned with
time as we are today, trying to get things done exactly by 3:16 or whatever,
therefore, those things could go on a bit. And then there would be a procession
through the streets to the groom’s place. And at the groom’s place,
that’s where the official ceremonies began. And if it was a relatively poor chap
that was getting married, they would go on for the rest of the day. If it was someone who was posh, well,
in that case, they could go on for a week. It would be a week-long wedding
celebration, and those who were invited to come would actually join in on the
wedding procession to enter into the groom’s place and participate
in the festivities. In this case, the groom is pretty posh. When he gets there, he’s in a walled home. There’s a gate, and a wall, and so forth. And so, this is apparently
a pretty big do. And then people who are supposed to join
in along the line are the ones who have their invitations, they join in. But, you know, experience has told them in
this culture that sometimes the initial do at the bride’s place could be delayed and,
therefore, you have to be ready to join the party at night, have your torches
ready with an appropriate amount of oil so that you’re covered. And amongst the people that
are waiting are 10 virgins. Five are described as wise, 10 as foolish. The wise ones have brought enough oil
to accommodate even the longest delay. The foolish ones have not. Now, some people have tried to say that
the oil symbolizes good works, or the oil symbolizes grace,
or the oil symbolizes the Holy Spirit. You have to have enough of the
Holy Spirit, or you have to have enough of grace to get in, or something like that
misses the point entirely. Misses the point entirely. The whole story turns on one feature,
the groom’s delay. Nor does it matter that they went to
sleep, both the wise ones and the foolish ones went to sleep. What else are you going to do? You’re waiting for hours. But at midnight, rather, the cry goes up,
“Here comes the groom.” We would say, “Here comes the bride.” But they say, “Here comes the groom.” You assume the bride is there as well. And those who have lots of oil,
then they fill up the little containers again from an additional flask and get
everything going, and they’re ready to join the procession. Whereas the foolish ones,
they didn’t bring any extra oil, and their lamps have gone out. There’s nothing that can be done. And they say, “Let us have some of your
oil,” and it’s just not transferable. There wouldn’t be enough. So they have to go into town and knock up
some little shopkeeper who’s living above his shop perhaps and wake him up in
the middle of the night, “We need oil. We need oil really urgently.” And by the time they’ve got the oil and
they get back, the parade has already gone by. And the legitimate guests have entered
into the compound, the gate’s been shut, and they’re shut out. In other words, wait for the Lord Jesus as
those who know the master’s coming may be long delayed. We don’t know when he’s coming. We don’t know when he’s not,
so we have to be ready, but there could be a long delay. And, we will be held accountable
for waiting for that time. That becomes significant
as to how we live. If, for example, we knew unambiguously
that Christ were coming back in two years, unambiguously, certainly, without any
hesitation, without any debate at all, don’t you think it would make a difference
on what we did in these next two years? But supposing he’s not coming
back for another 200 or more, then you have to start
thinking institutionally. It’s not just a question of winning
somebody to Christ, winning as many as possible to Christ,
there’s now also a question of how you train them. How you train these people
to win other people. How you develop institutions
and structures to pass things on to another generation,
to your children, to your children’s children. Do you see? You are thinking institutionally because
you don’t know when he’s coming, and he may be long delayed. That sort of truth is taught in many
places in the New Testament. Peter writes in one of his letters,
“Don’t you know that with the Lord, 1,000 years is like a day,
a day is like 1,000 years?” If he’s long delayed,
don’t don’t be too surprised. He’ll come when he’s ready,
and you have to be ready when he comes. But you have to throw in the possibility
that he may be long delayed. Now, the first generation of Christians
had to come to grips with this truth as well and begin to think about the
formation and structure of local churches, and their governance, and how to pass
things on to the next generation. Institutional structures of discipleship
and discipline and the like. Do you see? It’s a little different if everything is
going to happen in the next 36 hours, or 3 weeks. So, how do we wait for the Lord’s return? We wait as those who know the master’s
coming may belong delayed. Then number four, which I’m going to deal
with a great length tomorrow with the pastors, I will say
relatively little about it now. Verses 14 and following,
Wait for the Lord Jesus as slaves commissioned to improve
their master’s assets. Wait for the Lord Jesus as slaves
commissioned to improve their master’s assets. This is the Parable of the Talents. Now, that word talents, in many of our
English Bibles, can sometimes trip us up. The reason the word is used in English is
because the Greek word is talanton. And a talanton sounds more or less like a
talent, so it’s come down to us as the Parable of the Talents. You’re given so many talents,
and you have to use them responsibly. But a talanton in Greek doesn’t refer
to a talent, it’s a weight measure. It’s a weight measure of precious metal. So that a talanton of silver was about
6,000 dinars, about 20 years of wages of a working person. And if it was of gold, then it was
a huge amount of money. You’re talking millions and millions
of dollars in each one of these talents, each talanton being worth a great deal. And this money has been entrusted to them. Now, I’m not going to go
through this parable in detail. As I said, I will deal with it
at greater length tomorrow. But the point of the parable
is pretty clear. If the Lord entrusts things to you,
here pictured as bags of gold, lots of money, if the Lord entrusts things
to you, then while you wait… and the waiting here, once again,
is long delayed, picking up, again, the earlier theme. These themes get pulled together
one by one into each new parable as it comes along. The delay is long. And, as you wait, you are responsible
for improving the master’s assets. The two faithful slaves actually
improved their master’s assets. The other one just buries it in the
ground, and then thinks he can get away with handing it back and that’s enough. I should say this about this parable. When we read it and we hear what the last
slave says, we almost have a certain kind of sympathy for him. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you
are a hard man,” verse 24, “harvesting where you have not sown
and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out
and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.” You can understand his point, can’t you? He’s a slave. So, if he invests the money,
and the economy goes belly up, and he loses at all, he’s accountable. If, on the other hand, he works hard,
invest the money, and buys and trades companies, and eventually
makes a good deal of profit, he doesn’t get any of it in return. He’s a slave. It’s all for his master. So he decides, instead, he will
simply withdraw services. Now, from our point of view,
that makes sense. Because, after all, if you’re in a trade
union, you have the right to withdraw your services. But the whole point here is that,
in the social ordering of the day, he’s a slave. This is no more justifying slavery than
the earlier parable justified burglary. It’s an analogy. The point is, however, that,
in the analogy, the slave must do what his master says. And if he doesn’t, he’s in big trouble. So, the point is that genuine Christians
don’t have the right to withdraw their services either. We’re not union employees under Jesus. We’re his slaves. And genuine Christians find that slavery
to be actually delightful and liberating. But what you can’t do is
withdraw your services. As long as we’re here,
we’re tasked with improving the master’s assets. Now, there are many lessons to be learned
on that one too, I’m going to skip them. I don’t have time. And now we come to our one,
the sheep and goats. Now, I’m going to tell you what
I understand this parable to mean in a moment. But let me tell you how it is often
understood, I think misunderstood a little bit because it’s
ripped out of the context. It’s often understood to mean
something like this. On the last day, according to this
parable, with this interpretation of it, on the last day, we’ll be judged on the
basis of how kind we’ve been to poor and indigent people. Just simple as that. In as much as you dig wells in the Sahel
for poor people there, in as much as you run a soup kitchen,
or in as much as you look after poor people, in as much as you’ve
done all of this, you’ve done it for Jesus. So that it doesn’t matter what you
believe, or how much you trust Christ, or whether you believe in the resurrection
of the dead or anything. If, in fact, you are careful with respect
to poor people, and generous, and self-denying, then you’re in. And, on the other hand,
if you are hard-hearted and selfish, and stingy, condescending, arrogant,
selfish, then you’re out. And the final division is spectacularly
decisive, verse 46, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life,” the sheep, and the goats. It all depends on what you do. In fact, when I was a young man,
everybody was reading for a while a book simply calledIn As Much. That was the title. Because in the King James version,
which the author of the book was quoting, verse 40 reads, “I tell you the truth, in
as much as you did it for one of the least of these brothers, you did it unto me.” In as much. So the book’s title was
simplyIn As Much. Now, on the face of it,
there’s something along the line of looking after the poor,
and the indigent, and the hungry, and the ill-clothed. There’s something
about that here all right. I don’t want to talk that
in the slightest. And I insist that there are many, many,
many passages in the Bible, many chunks of Scripture that deal with
generosity and the importance of caring for the poor, especially the poor who are
poor for no fault of their own, poor because they are oppressed,
or the poor because they have been exploited, or the poor because
of “natural” circumstances, or the poor because they have come
from terrible family backgrounds. There are lots and lots of passages that
the talk along those lines. Read Amos, for example,
or read the opening chapters of the prophecy of Isaiah. Many, many passages run along such lines. And I don’t want to dilute any of them. Yet, at the same time,
to take the interpretation of this passage that I’ve just outlined for you and make
it the whole turning point of what will happen to us when Christ returns means
that just about everything else in the New Testament doesn’t make much sense. After all, where is this
Gospel of Matthew going? This Gospel of Matthew,
like all the canonical gospels, is rushing toward the cross. What does Jesus have to die for? Why does he say, on the night that he was
betrayed, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me. This is for the remission of sins.” Why does he have to die? Why does he say that the Son of Man did
not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. Why is there so much in the New Testament
that talks about the importance of Christ’s death and resurrection on our
behalf and as the one who bears our sin? Why is it that Christ’s righteousness is
reckon to me and my sin is reckon to him, and he pays for it all? He takes the punishment. That’s what he does
so that I might be free. Why are there so many texts that say,
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved,” if,
at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you believe
so long as you’re good to the poor? Now, sometimes there are just tensions
in Scripture, and you just have to live with them. But on the face of it,
there are so many texts in Scripture, not least in the book of Matthew itself,
that make this interpretation at least a bit suspiciously off center, somehow. But I think that there are lots of hints
in the text about how you should understand this parable. Let me state the point,
and then unpack it for you. Wait for the Lord Jesus as people whose
lives are so transformed by the gospel that they unselfconsciously serve brothers
and sisters in Christ.” Let me repeat that and then explain it. Wait for the Lord Jesus as people whose
lives are so transformed by the gospel that they unselfconsciously serve
brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, there are two bits in the parable
that we simply have to understand more closely. Both in verse 40, and in verse 45,
Jesus says something like this, “Whatever you did for one of the least
of these brothers,” and the brothers are understood to be male and female, hence,
brothers and sisters, “you did for me.” And, again, in verse 45, “I tell you,
whatever you did not do for one of the least of these,” that is, these brothers,
“you did not do for me.” So the question is this,
in Matthew’s Gospel, who are Jesus’ brothers? You see, if you assume that this is Jesus’
way of talking about everybody in the whole wide world who is poor, or indigent,
or broken, then you necessarily come up with the first interpretation. But if you think that these brothers may
be referring to a particular subgroup, then you have to find out which group. And the only way you can find out is by
discovering what Jesus means when he talks about his brothers as he does in a variety
of passages in this gospel. Occasionally, the brothers of Jesus in
this gospel are his literal half brothers, that is, the sons, and then for the
sisters, the daughters, of Mary and Joseph. But when he is not speaking so literally,
then, without exception, his brothers are his disciples. For example, Matthew 12:46,
“While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers,”
and that certainly means his half brothers, his biological kin,
“stood outside wanting to speak to him.” Someone told him, ‘Your mother and
brothers are standing outside wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to them, ‘Who is my mother,
and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples,
he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers, for whoever does the will
of my Father in Heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.'” Now, he’s not denying that he had kin. He’s not denying the genetic relationship
between Mary and himself. He’s not denying the genetic relationship
between his half brothers and himself. What he is saying is that those closest
to him, those who are part of his, shall we say, most important family,
controlling family? They’re his disciples. For, at the end of the day,
those are the ones who will be with him forever. Those are the ones who,
by the power of the gospel, are declared to be genuinely the sons
of God, joint heirs with him. Or, again, it’s not just here,
but in other passages, we find similar kinds of expressions. 23:8, “You are not to be called Rabbi
for you have one teacher and you are all brothers.” So, the disciples of Jesus are
again called brothers. Or, again, in Chapter 28,
the last chapter after the resurrection of Jesus. Chapter 28, verse 10,
“Then Jesus said to them after the resurrection, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There they will see me.” And the brothers in the context
is clearly the disciples. So what you have then in Chapter 25,
in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, is this, “Truly I tell you,
whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,”
these disciples of mine, “you did for me?” In other words, what Jesus is talking
about is the attitude of Christians toward other Christians,
especially those who are being persecuted, being put in jail, robbed
of all of their goods. Jesus, in Chapter 10, warns that
that is going to happen to a lot of Christians. Do you know that there have been more
Christian converts in the last 150 years than in the previous 1,800 years combined? And there have been more Christian martyrs
in the last 150 years than the previous 1,800 years combined? There are a lot of people around the
world who understand that following Jesus costs something. And when it happens to these brothers
and sisters, our brothers and sisters in Christ, what is the response of the
remaining brothers and sisters? Well, if they’re genuine brothers and
sisters in Christ, without even thinking about them, they bring them
food and clothing. They provide shelter. They hide them from persecutors. They risk their own lives. They look after them. And what does Jesus say? “In as much as you did it to one of the
least of these, you’ve done it to me.” Because Jesus identifies with his church. Do you recall when Saul is persecuting
Christians in the Book of Acts, and takes his terror campaign to Damascus? On the Damascus road,
the resurrected Christ appears to him, and he says to him, “Saul. Saul, why are you persecuting…” not the church, “but why are you
persecuting me?” Because insofar as we are persecuting the
church, we’re persecuting Christ. Christ identifies with his own people. “In as much as you’ve done it to the least
of these, you’ve done it to me.” For there is a sense in which, after all,
the church is itself Christ’s body here on Earth. Again, do not misunderstand me. Not for a moment am I trying to diminish
the many biblical passages that do talk about the importance of being generous
with respect to the poor generally. There are a lot of biblical passages along
those lines, but this isn’t one of them. This is focusing on Christ’s brothers
and sisters, that is, fellow Christians. The other little bit of detail that is
very illuminating is this, both the sheep and the goats are
surprised by what Jesus says. Have you noticed that? “Lord, Lord, when did we
see you hungry or thirsty? When did we see you a stranger
and invite you in? Or needing clothes and clothe you? They’re both surprised. Both the sheep and the goats
are surprised by Jesus’ words. Do you see, they’re not surprised
at the place assigned them. That’s not where their surprise turns on,
but at the reason that Jesus gives. That is, they didn’t think that when
they did do these things, or in the case of the goats,
when they didn’t do these things, they were doing them or
not doing them to Jesus. That’s what surprises them. And now you see the point. The Christians don’t see other Christians
in need, maybe in need for natural reasons,
in need in this congregation because of losses, or hurt, or lost jobs,
or whatever, or in need because of persecution, or violence,
or whatever the cause may be. And, they don’t stop and say,
“Well, well, well. I got to get a few extra brownie points
if I do it to this brother or sister, therefore, I’m doing it to Jesus.” That’s not the way any Christian thinks. No Christian starts saying,
“I will be kind to my brothers and sisters in prison in a totalitarian regime and see
if there’s something I can do because I want to do it for Jesus.” You do it because they’re brothers and
sisters, that is part of what shows you to be a Christian. And, meanwhile, the goats likewise,
are not saying to themselves, “Well, I’m not going to do it
because I want to stiff Jesus. I can’t stand him. I don’t want to have anything to do
with him, and, therefore, I won’t have anything to do with him.” No, they don’t care about them. They’re Christians and no
concern of theirs. They’re not thinking that what they’re
doing is actually an offense against Jesus himself. In other words, the surprise of both the
sheep and the goats turns precisely on the fact that Jesus is
identified with his people. And what we do towards others Christians,
were doing toward him. So, we are to wait for the Lord Jesus
as people whose lives are so transformed by the gospel, that they unselfconsciously
serve brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, the implications of this for the
local church are huge. For, you see, if we start participating in
a local church, this one or any other one, and, quite frankly, we’re more concerned
to be the kingpin, we’re more concerned about how people are treating us than we
are about caring for others, then we might find ourselves
here with the goats. Because genuine Christians are so
transformed by the gospel that they learn to care for and serve their brothers
and sisters in Christ Jesus. That’s how you can spot the genuine ones. And we are to wait for the master’s coming
as people whose lives are so transformed by the gospel, that we are
unselfconsciously serving brothers and sisters in Christ, waiting for the master
to say, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least
of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” I’m sure that in this congregation,
there are people here who provide meals for those who are going through really
difficult circumstances. I imagine the church has a poor fund
to help brothers and sisters going through difficult economic times,
or you lose someone and you don’t feel that you can even organize meals
and the church takes over. Or, there’s someone going through chemo
treatment, and the entire family is disrupted. And the church takes over. Why? Because they’re sitting around and saying,
“Oh, well, you know, I don’t really like them. I don’t want to do it, but I’ll do it
so I can get some brownie points with Jesus.” It doesn’t work like that. These are your brothers
and sisters in Christ. And, unselfconsciously,
if you’re a Christian at all, you do these things for them. And then hear on the last day,
the master saying, “And you know what, my child? You did it for me.” And that’s how we’re supposed
to wait for Jesus. Let us pray.

Comments 1

  • It is my belief that the most important thing about a person and what I would see as recommending them greatly, what I would speak and think highly of them for is faith in Jesus Christ.
    Not a person's, stature or physical features or career path. Tell me of their love for our great God, whose appearing we are waiting for! That should spring forth first no matter the context!

    " For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Mark 8:36✝️

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