A sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on November 22, 2020, Christ the King Sunday.
I. What If It’s Not About “That”?
If you’re joining us for the first time (or just need a refresher), today we’re both ending one season and beginning a new season together. Today, Christ the King Sunday both concludes and opens the Church Year (= a way of keeping time oriented around God and his saving acts in Jesus Christ). So today, we end by proclaiming Jesus Christ will reign over all – that all authority in heaven and earth is his. But we also anticipate beginning a new year together, preparing for Advent with the summons that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead.
And that’s what our passage in Matthew 25:31-46 is all about it. Only, I ask you, what is it all about? I confess that I have struggled and labored over this passage through the years. But, if I’m honest, I’ve also struggled with accepting how modern Christians seem to understand this passage. It’s as if this passage has something very clear to say to us, but we keep trying to hear something else.
Here’s what I mean: think back on how you’ve heard this passage – maybe in a book you’ve read or just in conversation. Typically, the way this passage is understood is to say that the “brothers” (v.40) are those in need at large in our world today and that we will be judged by Christ based upon our reaction to them. Now, hear me clearly: I in no way want to be heard today denying God’s call to love the poor and the vulnerable – what we might call “social ministry” or “mercy ministry.” In fact, we’re here today, in this particular place, in part, because we believe in that call. And the call in Scripture is clear:
“As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)
Jesus summarized the Law by saying what? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-38)
But what if this passage isn’t about “that”? What if this passage has something else to say to us? What if, instead of trying to pit this passage against grace alone, faith alone, in Christ alone salvation, we saw it in light of that? What if it really is all about the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Now, look you may walk away today disagreeing with how I’ve presented this passage, but I hope you agree, at least in theory, that that’s not a bad idea.
Just to be clear at the start, when I say “the gospel” what I mean is, “the life-transforming message of salvation from sin and all its consequences through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is both a declaration and a summons: announcing what has been done for us in Christ and calling us to repentance, faith and submission to his lordship.” (from GAFCON.org)
II. Who are the Brothers?
The passage, and what we make of it, turns on verse 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 (ἀδελφός), you did it to me.’
Side note before we get started: this passage is crystal-clear on who Jesus is. He is the shepherd. He is the king. He will judge all people. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. If your Jesus fits into a box bigger than himself, you’re not talking about the real Jesus! He’s as big as it gets.
First of all, this word, “brothers,” which can also be translated “brothers and sisters” is used overwhelmingly in the New Testament to refer to Christians. To the foundational sibling relationship given to us in Christ.
In Matthew’s Gospel, it’s used almost exclusively in this way, but with an even sharper point. Here, the brothers, as distinct from the sheep, are those sent with Gospel of Christ. In verses 35-39, the brothers are those ones who were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and in prison. What I’m suggesting here is that we have to read this in light of what Matthew has already said in his Gospel.
Go back to Matthew chapter 10. There, Jesus sends out his Apostles, and he says this:
“[G]o … to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. 9 Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.”
Later in the same passage, Jesus says this:
“40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 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.”
See the parallels between Matthew 25 and Matthew 10?
So who are the brothers? The brothers are all those Christians, beginning with the Apostles, who gave themselves to work of spreading the message about Jesus. And here, Jesus makes the tightest identity between himself and these brothers. Throughout the centuries, the people change: evangelists, priests, deacons, missionaries, Sunday School teachers, lay men and lay woman, live and die, but behind them all stands Jesus Christ, who said, “I will be with you.” He, his message, and his messengers, are one. “As you did to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Two questions to consider:
First, are you called to be sent? Is that a call you’re resisting? It is my heart’s prayer that more people from this congregation are called to be sent with the Gospel in a sustained way. That may mean planting a church. That may mean a call to evangelistic work. That may mean a call to ordination as a priest or a deacon.
What this passage affirms is that, by God’s design, the divine Gospel comes to us through human hands. As Paul proclaims in Romans 10:14-15, “14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” Is there a call from God stirring upon you to be sent?
Second, if you are sent, what an encouragement! What this passage says, in fact, is that what you proclaim is bound up with Jesus himself. He gave it, he empowers it, and he will see that it bears good fruit. You are not running on your own fuel.
III. The Goats & the Sheep
Next, let’s look at the distinctives of the sheep and the goats.
First, let’s look at the goats. The pronouncement upon them is exactly the opposite of the sheep. The word spoken to them is, “Depart.” It has been said that if we receive Christ, God gets all the glory, but if we reject him, we get all the blame. We see that pictured here in this passage.
When Jesus tells them of their rejection of him, they respond by saying that they never saw him! But again, the measure is the same – what did they do with the messengers, and thus, the message? And, the judgment that is placed upon them is based upon how they responded to the message of Christ in this life. Our choices matter eternally.
In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says something else that is instructive for how we understand this passage. There he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Bonhoeffer is helpful here. In Jesus’ answer, he says that Jesus points to the one thing this group of people won’t say: I knew you. I knew your works. I knew and received what you, Jesus, did for me.
Here, the goats are sent away from the presence of the Lord into an eternal fire, not prepared for them, but for the devil and all his angels. For “God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) C.S. Lewis wrote that “each day we are becoming a creature of splendid glory or one of unthinkable horror,” and it is all based upon how we received the message of Christ in this life. Let every person within the sound of my voice take heed this morning.
Lastly, the Sheep. It’s been said by some that Jesus, the great King, will ask them what did you do… but that actually doesn’t happen here. In fact, no question at all is asked of either the sheep or the goats. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth to the sheep is, “Come, you blessed!” They are twice declared to be “righteous” because they already have the righteousness of Christ and need have no fear of final judgment. Moreover, it was their reception of and love for the brothers (the messengers) that demonstrated their acceptance (and continued acceptance) of Christ himself.
I love the reaction of the sheep to Jesus’ words. When Jesus tells them of how they received him, they are puzzled. They have sudden amnesia. They are not people who are keeping track of their good works. That’s not how their relationship with God works for them! Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this: “our sanctification is veiled from our eyes until the last day, when all secrets will be disclosed. If we want to see some results here and assess our own spiritual state, and have not the patience to wait, we have our reward. … God alone knows our good works, all we know is his good work.” (The Cost of Discipleship, pg. 296-297, emphasis mine)
Let’s step back for a moment and reflect on some application here. First, where do you need to remember and be thankful for the human hands that brought (and continue to bring) the gospel to you? Who loved you when you were unlovely? Who was it in your life that taught you of Christ? Who helped water that seed? Who helped bring that seed to maturity?
Second, how is God calling you to remember, support, strengthen, and build up the work of those carrying the gospel with human hands? Not everyone is called to be an evangelist, but we are all called to carry on the work of evangelism. Supporting these “brothers” (and sisters) is not an optional, extra-curricular part of God’s kingdom. In fact, I believe God will do this very thing here in this place. As a people on mission, I believe that God is calling us in the year ahead to become a mothering church! To see new works launched from this place! Pray for that. And remember the brothers, here and abroad.
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)