We’re taking a section in these last chapters of Matthew, and today these famous words. They’re the last words that Matthew records that Jesus spoke to his disciples before his supper, arrest, and crucifixion. They’re magnificent words about his return and how he will judge the world.
So can you imagine, you’re sitting with somebody, the Lord Jesus, who is human and looks weak and is about to be arrested and crucified, and he says, “I will come with global splendour and judge everybody across the face of the earth.” It’s an amazing, honest, remarkable claim.
Bishop Ryle says, “The same Jesus who was born in the manger of Bethlehem and took on him the form of a servant, who was despised, often had nowhere to sleep, condemned, beaten, nailed to the cross, that same Jesus will judge the world in his glory. Let believers think of this and take comfort. He that sits on the throne will be their saviour, shepherd. They will have no cause to be alarmed. Let unconverted people think of this and be afraid. Their judge will be the very Christ whose gospel they now despise and whose invitation they refuse. To be condemned by him will be awful indeed.”
This is a stellar section of scripture. It is however consistently misunderstood. Almost every time I have heard Matthew 25:31-46 or seen some of the verses printed on a poster, or a brochure, the meaning is being twisted. People are going straight to the deeds of giving food and drink, clothes, care, and they’re telling people anybody anywhere that they must do them. And the implication is, strangely, that if you do them, well, you may go to heaven. If you don’t, well, you may not. So these verses are being twisted again and again as if they’ve become a rulebook, which is the key to salvation, which is like telling people who don’t have the Christian life to live the Christian life. It’s like telling trees that have no roots that they are to bear fruits.
And you’ll notice that God never does this. He always assumes that people outside of Christ are lifeless and helpless. And the invitation, again and again, is, “Come to Christ.” Get the life that he died for then you’ll be able to live. Then you’ll be able to go. The sequence is crucial. And you’ll see how the New Testament letters, again and again, begin with the salvation and then go to instruction. Salvation, instruction.
Here’s the sentence. Matthew 25 teaches the need to be a good receiver before you can be a good achiever. You must be a receiver before you can be any kind of achiever. So let’s think of this section this morning briefly under the headings of the judge, and then the judgment, and then a couple of conclusions.
We’ve been following Jesus’ teaching, I was looking at my Bible and all of chapter 23 is directed to the Pharisees, all of 24, to the disciples, all of 25, it’s all red. It’s Jesus with extended teaching. And it’s mostly answering the question in chapter 24:3, what is the Second Coming going to be like?
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We’ve seen in the last couple of weeks that the Second Coming is going to be sudden, it’s going to be global, it’s going to be wonderful, it’s going to be terrible. It’s going to be a day of recompense. Bridesmaids need to make sure that they have got oil in their lamps, and servants who have been given resources need to make sure that they are willing servants. And now Jesus leaves all the parables behind, and he goes on what we might call an “extended metaphor” from verses 31 to 46, of separating the whole of the world into two groups, just as a shepherd would easily separate sheep from goats.
Look at verse 31. “The Son of Man will come.” “Son of Man,” as you know, a loaded phrase. It doesn’t just mean something humble. “I’m the son of a human,” it’s a loaded phrase which comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel 7, where we read that the Son of Man was given authority, glory, sovereign power, all peoples, nations worshipped him. His dominion is everlasting and will never be destroyed. And this Son of Man, this cosmic owner, majestic person, Jesus, will come, everybody in front of him. And he comes with the angels, so it’s cataclysmic, and he’s on his own throne. It’s amazing.
We know from John 5 that the Father has entrusted all judgment to Jesus. It’s as if the Father has said to Jesus, “Will you do the judgment?” “Yes, I’ll do the judgment.” So we’ll meet Jesus. “And all the nations,” verse 32, “Will gather before him.” Everybody who’s ever been conceived will gather before Jesus, every king, every queen, president. It’s lovely, isn’t it? In the British coronation that the king or the queen has, in their left hand, an orb, a bowl with a little cross on the top, and they’re told something like, as they’re crowned, “This is to remind you that there is one who is King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. So in the very coronation ceremony, that powerful person is reminder that there is one who is sovereign over them.
Every celebrity will be there before Jesus, every actor, every journalist, every politician, every leader, every CEO, everybody who’s famous, everybody who’s unknown, everyone successful, every failure, everybody who’s been constructive, everybody who’s been destructive. Whether you’ve lived to 120 or you died in the womb. Everybody will be before Jesus. And there’ll be every size, and every colour, and every language, mind-boggling, mind-boggling. And with perfect justice, he will judge. He will put everything right. He will sit everything on its feet. He knows every detail, every extenuating circumstance, every hardship, every opportunity, every motive. And as I’ve said many times before, there’ll be no complaints on the day. Nobody will say, “This has been a bad case, we’re gonna seek further action.” Everybody will say, “Absolute justice has been done.” You’ll notice in the parable if you were listening, that people ask how the process has worked, but they don’t object when they’re told.
We could spend a lot of our time this morning on the four titles which Jesus gives himself in this section. He calls himself the Son of Man, verse 31, Shepherd, verse 32, literally, “the shepherd,” king, verse 34, verse 39, Lord, verse 37, verse 44. There are four mighty titles which are attributed to Jesus. And we could also spend a lot of time this morning on the role which he is claiming for himself, which is, as I say, is that every human is going to be judged by him. And that means, friends, every religious leader. Please don’t think that I’m having an easy go at religious leaders when I say this. I’m simply pointing out to you what Jesus himself says, which is that every religious leader will stand before him. The Buddha will stand before Jesus, Mohammad will stand before Jesus. They won’t be on separate thrones. He will be on the throne. Everybody will come before him. You know, you only talk like this, don’t you? If you are unstable or you’re deeply dishonest, or you’re astonishing. And everything points to Jesus being astonishing.
Let’s think secondly this morning about the judgment from verse 34. And I want you to feel the force of this. I know it’s a very familiar passage, and unfortunately for some of you, I’ve preached on this passage some times in different series, so you may feel as though you have heard everything before. But feel the force of this. Imagine that you’re there on the day and Jesus suddenly says to you, “Stand on my right.” And he says to you, “I want you to stand on my right for this reason. I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger; I was needy, you looked after me. You were good to me.” Is there not a little part of you at that point that thinks, “Did I? Did I do that? Are you sure you’ve got the right person?” Imagine the opposite takes place. He says to you, “Stand on the left. I was needy; you didn’t do anything. You refused to help me.” Doesn’t a little part of you at that point say, “But if I had known what to do I would have done it? Is this fair? Are you sure I’ve been that callous? And out comes the explanation, very important verse, verse 40. “It was your response to my brothers which I was looking for. And to those on the left, it was your carelessness about the brothers which is now costing you so dearly.”
Now, what is this, friends? Because it looks, doesn’t it? At first glance, it looks like salvation by works. And if this section is a section on doing good, which so many seem to imply with their posters and their brochures, it looks as though it is saying that if you do good things to a needy world, you’ll go to heaven, and if you don’t you won’t. But how can they teach that when the rest of the Bible says the exact opposite? How can they be setting up some kind of miserable ladder of achievement just as Jesus is coming to the end of his public ministry? A terrible, miserable ladder that will bring no certainty and promotes a kind of ugly self-righteousness. Just imagine what it’ll be like in heaven bumping into people. “Why are you here?” “Well, these are the people I gave food to. Here’s the list of people I gave drinks to. These are the clothes that I gave away?” “What did you do?” “Oh, these are the people that I fed much more than you. These are the people I gave drinks to much more than you.” What a terrible, terrible thing that would be. What a terrible piece of conversation.
During the week when I was walking home, I was watching a mother, a young mother with her little girl on a pushbike coming towards me, and the little girl fell off. And it was quite a nasty fall. And she was quite tearful. And a strange man that I am I went and picked a flower out of one of the nearby gardens and took it over to the little girl. And miraculously, she reached out, took it, said thank you and smiled. I mean, she could have said all sorts of things. And the mother said, you know, in a strange way, “Well, thank you.” Did I become as sheep at that moment? Did I just cross the line? Did I just choke up something at that moment which is going to be a key to my future? It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? How would I ever know whether I’ve been doing enough good deeds? And on the other hand, the flipside of this is how you can be a proud sort of person listing what you’ve done? What a desperate situation to be sitting around wondering if you’ve done enough that needs to be done?
I’d like to show you how we should read this very carefully. And the first thing is to point out the obvious, which is that Matthew 25 is followed by Matthew 26. Matthew 25 teaches salvation by deeds, then Matthew 26 says the exact opposite. Because Matthew 26 teaches that Jesus goes into the Garden of Gethsemane and kneels down before his Father, and he says in prayer, “Heavenly Father, is there any other way that people can be saved? Because if I could avoid the cross, I would, but if it’s the only way for people to be saved I won’t.” And the message comes back, “You must. It is the only way for people to be saved. It’s only because you will go through with the crucifixion and take the sins of the world and pay for the sins of the world that a person has got an opportunity to receive forgiveness from you.” So salvation must be by Christ not by self.
The second thing is that a proper reading of Matthew will show that the word “brothers” in verse 40 is not the word “neighbour” or “fellow men,” but Christian disciple. In chapter 12:48, Jesus specifically asks, “Who are my brothers?” And in the very next verse 12:49, he points to his disciples. When Jesus has risen from the grave, in chapter 28:10, he tells the women at the tomb, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee.” And we read a few verses later, “So the 11 disciples went to Galilee.” I know the phrase “brotherhood of man” is a very popular phrase, and there is a sense in which we are the human family in the world, but Jesus never uses the word “family” loosely. And he never uses the word “brothers” except as Christian disciples.
Third, all the language in Matthew 25 springs from the local mission of Matthew 10. If you were reading Matthew’s gospel on a desert island and you got to chapter 10, you would read about a little local mission where Jesus says to his disciples, “Go and preach the kingdom of heaven, and he who receives you receives me. He who receives me receives the Father who sent me. For anyone,” this is Matthew 10, “who even gives you a cup of cold water because you’re my disciple, will not lose their reward.” So do you see what’s happening? Jesus is the great sender of his people. And in Matthew 25, he is the great announcer of the response. Matthew 10 is the send-off, Matthew 25 is the judgment day. The question that Jesus is asking on the last day is, “How did you respond to the messengers?” And he might also be asking, “How did people respond to you who are my messengers?” “You’re gonna go out,” says Jesus, “In great weakness and great fear, but I’m going to watch, I’m going to guide you, I’m going to guide you, I’m going to use you, and I’m going to vindicate you. The way you have sought to be my servant witness in the world will be vindicated.”
So here is Jesus, he is teaching his disciples. Could it be more comforting than to say to you this morning, when you have been listened to, that gives the Lord Jesus great joy? When you’ve been refused and rebuffed, he noted, he noticed. If a person says, “Come to you, come and tell me the gospel, come and tell me the good news,” Jesus will one day say to that person, “Come.” If a person says, “Depart. Don’t tell me. I’m not listening,” Jesus will one day say to that person, “Depart.”
Now, this is incredibly significant for people who are seeking to be Christ witnesses in the world. If you think of the missionaries who work in extremely hard situations, and I don’t just mean physically, but I mean spiritually. I remember being at CMS Summer School once and listening to a couple who’d been in Japan for eight years and their church had grown to approximately eight. When two families were away, it was just the two of them sitting there, reading and praying together. And all those people who they have sought to love and witness to, Christ has noted.
Think of the people who are travelling at this very minute in the Outback of Australia, hundreds of kilometres to visit farmsteads, homesteads, to bring the gospel, only to find that at the end of that long journey, the people say, “Thanks very much. See you later.” Think of the people in this church who are seeking to be witnesses to their family in the business world, in the neighbourhood, with the people around them. Think of the teachers this morning who are down in the classes talking to the children. Think of those who are going to go to the scripture classes this week at the high schools and the primary schools all over this city hoping and longing, and praying that there will be some in the class who open their ears, eyes, hearts and receive Christ. Don’t think, you see, that the unbeliever is missed. Jesus has the very last word. I’m not saying this regarding delight on his part; I’m just simply saying to you that Jesus observes, watches vindicate his people. What a lovely thing that he would sit with his 12 disciples, 11 disciples, and say to them at the end, “I’m sending you out, and the way that you are received, I will announce it.”
Well, if a person, as I say, says, “Come,” he will say, “Come, “if they say, “Depart,” he will say, “Depart.” All the deeds of kindness which he speaks of in Matthew 25 here are the sort of areas of kindness which are given to the Christian messengers. Love for the people, a welcome for the messenger. And these responses have incredible consequences because as Bishop Ryle again, says, “As surely as God is eternal, so surely is heaven an endless day without night, and hell an endless night without day.” And I don’t say this morning to be depressing, but we do live in a world which is very selective about the Bible. Almost as though you can go shopping in the Bible and say, “I’ll take this and not this.”
And the world that we live in assumes that heaven is automatic and hell is impossible, and so we’ve got a world which sends hell up, comedians and cartoonists, we’ve got a world that removes it in the films and the funerals, or domesticates hell because hell has become just a bad week. And a lot of the church is also finding ways to get rid of this important doctrine.
Some in the church talk about universalism, which means that heaven is for everybody. Don’t need Jesus; he didn’t need to come. Some people in the church are talking about pluralism as if all roads will go safely to Jesus, which is an incredibly arrogant position when you think about it because it denies almost everything that every religious leader is saying. Some are teaching purgatory, which is just another shot of doing salvation yourself. Some are teaching annihilation, which is that basically, it won’t matter because you’ll just be kaput. And we, of course, would happily remove hell from the New Testament if we could, but Jesus speaks again and again of its reality. And nobody loved people like Jesus. And what would it say about us if we stood above him and said we disagree with him? But can you imagine anything more wonderful than getting to the last day and hearing him say, “Welcome? Come take your inheritance forever.” Can you imagine anything more terrible than hearing him say, “Depart? The fire, which was not prepared for you is your light.
Well, it’s not a new thing, friends, to have your future hang on your response to God’s servants. This goes right back to Abraham. If you remember God said to Abraham, “Those who bless you I’ll bless. Those who curse you I’ll curse.” It is the way of God to send His people into the world. And the way that the people are treated is the way the master is treated. The way the master is treated is the way the Father is treated. So I say again, I think this is great comfort for those of you who are seeking to live the Christian life and to be a witness in the circumstances where you are Christ watches. And there’s absolutely no reason why your witness isn’t going to suddenly, like a penny, drop in the person that you’ve been speaking to.
Remember the story of Luke Short who was converted at the age 103, sitting under a bush? And remember the sermon that he’d heard when he was 15. Astonishing, isn’t it? The sermon sat there for, what is that? Quick maths, 88 years, and at the age of 103, the penny dropped. And he spent the next two or three years of his long life telling people that he’d been a fool and they must not be a fool but turn to Christ. Christ watches and vindicates his people. However, let’s not, at this point, say, “Well, I think what the preacher is saying this morning is that we must give a good welcome to the messenger and get the gospel. And I’ve done that, so I can go home, finish.” Somebody told me once I’d preached a sermon to obstruction. It was a very sharp comment, but it was a very good comment because I don’t want to preach a sermon that ends up in midair.
I think what we must assume from this is that it is not enough for us to love the messenger who brings the gospel, who stands on the doorstep with the message. It’s not enough to love that person. Surely, that love for the message and the master and the Father is going to continue to the family of God. Surely. Surely, if we love the message, we love the people of God, and we start to produce the fruit of giving the food that is needed and the drink that is needed, and the clothes are needed, and the care that is needed, and the prison visits that are needed because His love has taken root in us and is starting to bear fruits through us.
I was reading that in India, which has more millionaires than there are people in Australia, and there are still 400 million, approximately, in India who live on a dollar a day or less. That there is a place in Northeast India called Nagaland, N-A-G-A-L-A-N-D, and it is mostly Christian. The Baptist missionary has done, under God, a wonderful job of seeing the gospel go all through the villages of Nagaland. And they have a tradition, which is that when a person becomes rich, they will gather their village together, and they will seek to be host to the village, giving to the members in the village all that they have accumulated. The food and the plenty, and they will feast for two to four weeks at the host who has become blessed as he liquidates his assets, and the village responds by giving to that person the gold coat.
Now, I’m not suggesting that this is the way the Western world should run, but what I am saying to you is, is it not interesting that there is a policy which is that you happily share what you’ve got with the remainder of God’s people? I think there needs to be some pooling of resources in every local church because there are members in the church here this morning who can afford anything and everything. And there are members here this morning who can afford little or nothing. There are people who have hundreds of thousands of spare dollars, and there are people who are owing tens of thousands of dollars.
Now, somehow, surely, if the love of Christ is going to spill over, we’re going to seek the equality that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians. And I sometimes need to know who I can turn to in the family when members of the family say, “I’m stuck. I am really stuck, what will I do?” And there are one or two people who I can regularly turn to and are regularly helpful. But I think since I’m not the conduits of pastoral care, but you are, it would be a wonderful thing if, in our fellowship, we increasingly knew one another so we knew how we could help one another. And I don’t just mean with money but with all the care and time, and possibilities that God gives to us. And then occasionally, there’ll be the person that nobody knows about who will ask me for help. And I’ll know that there’s 1 or 2, or 10, or 100 who said, “Let me know if somebody needs some help.”
I think this is the love for the message, which then spills over into the love for the people, which then overflows where possible to the love for those without the gospel. This, I think, is the love of Christ. It comes to us in the great message of salvation; we receive it. It spills over into love for the family of God. It spills even beyond to the people who are needy, where possible. We can’t solve the problems of the world, but we can solve those that are in our pathway. And on the last day when Christ comes, he looks, and he sees the evidence that his love has taken root and has borne fruit.
Well, let’s pray. Our loving Father, we thank you this morning for giving up your only son, your precious son. We thank you for the salvation that he has brought to us, which in value outweighs the world. We thank you for bringing us the message. So many here this morning have said to the messenger, “Welcome.” We pray Heavenly Father that you would hear our prayer for those who as yet have said, “Not welcome.” Please turn their hearts. People in this building, people amongst our loved ones, people in our street, people we mix with, would you change hearts and help us to be patient, loving, hopeful, helpful witnesses. And for we who have been blessed with your grace and have a new measure of love for you and a new measure of love for your people and for the people outside, we pray that you would take and use us for lasting good to your praise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.