So which one are you: sheep or goat? How do you know? How can you know? It sounds like Jesus is saying you can’t know—or at least you don’t know. Surely this is one of His most confusing stories.
Most often, we hear this story as a call to do mission work. To care for the hungry and thirsty and naked and imprisoned. And the conclusion drawn is often that if we reach out to the hungry and thirsty and naked and imprisoned, we’ll be counted among the sheep—we’ll receive eternal life and not eternal punishment.
But is Jesus really saying that our final judgment will depend on our good works?
Surely not. Wasn’t there a long and bloody period of reformation in the 16th century fought largely over this very issue? And wasn’t the conclusion, the very foundation of our Lutheran heritage, that we’re saved by faith and not by works?
And if that’s the case, then how can it be that Jesus is saying that our eternal fate is dependent on our works?
And if that is what He’s saying, then why is it that the very next words out of His mouth after this passage were, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matthew 26:1)?
Why did Jesus need to be hung on a cross to die if we can by saved by caring for the hungry and thirsty and naked and imprisoned?
And why is this the gospel reading that the lectionary gives us for Christ the King Sunday?
Obviously we’ve missed the point. If I had to select a single passage from all of the gospels to illustrate just how important it is to consider every part of Scripture in the context of the rest of Scripture, this might well be the one. Because the only way to understand what Jesus is really talking about here is to look at it in light of the rest of Matthew’s gospel.
So, just as two weeks ago we took a lightning tour through the Book of Acts, this morning we’re going to take another tour, this time through the gospel of Matthew.
Right there is our first clue—this is a gospel. And none of the gospels are about telling us what we should do; they’re about telling us what God has done. What He has done for us because He knows that we can never save ourselves.
Matthew’s gospel is very intentional not only with the message that we can never hope to save ourselves, but also that God can never be stopped. And that God is continually at work in our world—all the time.
So if you have your Bibles with you, I’d like you to turn to the beginning of Matthew’s gospel (if you’re not in the habit of bringing your Bible with you, you might want to consider doing so).
Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy because he wants us to understand right from the beginning that Jesus is a real person. When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, he wants to send her away, but the Lord intervenes to stop him.
God is at work.
Jesus is born and magi, wise men or kings from the east show up to worship Him even as King Herod is looking for Him to destroy Him. The Gentiles are searching for the Messiah while the Jews are already trying to kill Him.
Once again God intervenes and Joseph takes Mary and the baby and escapes to safety in Egypt.
Then we have John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Messiah and calling people to repentance. He gets arrested and Jesus begins His ministry. He calls the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, and they immediately begin to follow Him.
Chapter 4:23-24 say, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought Him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them.”
And then He begins to preach the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, … blessed are those who mourn, … blessed are the gentle, … blessed are those who hunger and thirst, … blessed are the merciful …” (Matthew 5:3-7).
Jesus is using a form of “Show and Tell” here. The crowd is filled with all those people who have just been healed, people who have already been touched by Jesus. People who had been blessed because The Kingdom Among Us had touched them with Jesus’ heart and voice and hands.
Jesus is saying that they’re blessed because they know they can do nothing without God. He’s saying that blessed are the spiritual beggars when the kingdom of heaven comes upon them. These are the people who know they’re nothing special. They’re not important, they don’t have any great talent or ability. And yet, “He touched me.” The kingdom of heaven drew near and they received it.
But the way that we often interpret this passage, along with our gospel reading from Matthew 25, pretty much removes Jesus from the scene. And yet, these two passages are like bookends on the teachings of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.
Here in the beatitudes, we often seem to think that Jesus is saying we’re blessed if we’re poor in spirit or if we’re mourning or if we’re persecuted. So we think that we need to figure out how to be poor in spirit.
Really? Is He saying that we’re to go looking for persecution? To go looking for people to “utter all kinds of evil against you” (Matthew 5:11)? Of course not.
To understand it this way is to understand that salvation is by works. Maybe even by attitude or situation. Or chance?
But Jesus didn’t say “Blessed are the poor in spirit because they’re poor in spirit.” He said blessed are the poor in spirit because they know that they need help. They know they need a Savior—and when He showed up they were blessed to receive Him.
He’s speaking to a crowd where He can say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” and point to those people who were spiritually impoverished that He has just blessed. “Blessed are those who mourn …” and point to the mourners that He has just blessed.
Show and tell.
Again, it’s the gospel. It’s about what God has done for us, not what He expects us to do for Him.
As He comes to the end of His sermon, Jesus warns His listeners to “enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (7:13-14).
And: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (7:21).
What is the will of His Father? How do we know?
We’re up to chapter 8 now—where, as soon as Jesus finished speaking, a leper comes and kneels before Him and Jesus heals him. Leprosy was an incurable and fatal disease in Jesus’ day—a lot like the spiritual condition of man. But now the kingdom of heaven has arrived and there’s no one that God will not touch—if we will just let Him.
A centurion comes to Jesus, recognizing in Him an authority greater than that of the Roman government. Jesus heals his servant and then He heals Peter’s mother-in-law, who immediately “began to serve him.”
Matthew 8:17 says, “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” Matthew’s pointing out that already Jesus is bearing our sins.
Then in chapter 8, in the midst of more miracles, we find another warning: two men come up and tell Jesus that they want to follow Him—but on their own terms. Jesus says, “Follow me.” He’s saying, “You don’t get to set the terms of our relationship. Admiring me, liking what I do, isn’t enough. You need to be prepared to risk—or spend—all your earthly security.
This is the Father’s will—that we follow Jesus. That we be prepared to go where Jesus tells us to go and do what He tells us to do.
Are you seeing a pattern here? It’s those who are willing to acknowledge Jesus’ lordship over them, who are willing to follow Him and serve Him that are blessed—who receive the kingdom of heaven. Not at some future time but immediately.
He is Christ the King.
In the midst of all this, in chapter 9:9, “Jesus … saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.” Think of it—Matthew the tax collector, despised by his fellow Jews; watching and listening to Jesus for weeks or even months. Probably thinking that he was too far gone for Jesus ever to want to have anything to do with him. And then Jesus looked at him and said, “follow me.” What must it have been like?
Then in chapter 10, we come to the passage that I believe is directly connected to this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus has finally gathered twelve disciples—and now he sends them out. Sends them out to do what He’s been doing. He tells them to “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support. And whatever city or village you enter, inquire who is worthy in it, and stay at his house until you leave that city. … If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if it is not worthy, take back your blessing of peace. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matthew 10:6-15).
Here Jesus is clearly connecting the day of judgment with the way that His disciples are received. He tells them that preaching the kingdom of God isn’t going to be easy. Lots of people won’t want to listen, won’t want to receive them. Some will not only reject them, but their message of the kingdom of God will make them angry–persecution will come. “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (10:22).
You might wonder why anyone would reject the message of the gospel? And here, I think, we come to the sheep and the goats and the confusion over which camp we fall into. Have you received the gospel message?
Because what Jesus is saying isn’t just, “Do you believe in me?” Or “Will you let me be a part of your life?” What He’s saying is, “Follow me.” Not even “Will you follow me?” Never once in the gospels does He ask this as a question. He simply says, “Follow me.” “The choice is yours. I won’t force you to follow me or even try to coerce you. I’ll invite you—you can decide.”
He’s Christ the King.
10:37-38 says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
And then He says, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives his 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” (10:40-42).
In Matthew’s gospel, little children are all who put their trust in Jesus as Lord. Little children are those who will follow.
Clearly, the little one that Jesus is referring to here is the one sent by God to be His messenger. And clearly Jesus is saying that how we treat those messengers sent by God represent how we treat God Himself.
When John the Baptist sends word to Jesus in chapter 11 asking whether Jesus is really the Messiah, Jesus’ response is: “The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at me” (11:5-6).
11:20 “Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.” And again, “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (11:22).
We find in the parables and stories and healings a continuing warning of judgment combined with instructions on how to serve God. It’s all about heart—never ever in Matthew’s gospel is it just about what we do. Never about thinking that we’ll go feed the hungry in a soup kitchen today or visit someone in prison because those sound like good things to do.
Always, for Matthew, it’s about following Jesus, allowing Him to rule over our hearts and our lives.
Letting Him be our King.
Matthew point this out very plainly in chapter 19, with the story of the rich young ruler who is very willing to do lots of good things, to keep the commandments—but who turns away when Jesus told him that what he needed to do was “follow me” (19:21).
This is the key to the whole of living the Christian life—they key to being certain that at the final day of judgment, we’re one of the sheep and not one of the goats. Jesus says, “Follow me.” And this is so hard for us—it’s giving up control. We’re all happy to do good things—as long as we get to decide what things.
19:29 “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”
Then comes Palm Sunday and Jesus knows that the cross is only a few days away. Matthew gives us Jesus’ final teaching: eight “woes,” describing the problems of the Pharisees, which really all come down to the fact that while they do what they think is the right thing, their hearts are bad. They refuse to follow—they insist on leading.
Finally, chapter 25. We have the parable of the ten virgins, all of whom look alike on the outside, but five are ready and five aren’t. We have the parable of the talents, where we find that it’s not about how much we’re able to increase what we’re given, but whether we know who Jesus really is, who the Father really is.
Is He “a hard man, reaping where he did not sow”? Or is He the compassionate God who cannot say no when called by one of His lambs to heal them? To help them? Do you know that there is not a single instance in the gospels where Jesus refused to heal someone who asked for it?
And we come to our gospel reading. To a picture of a great and worthy king, a king who left His heavenly home to come and live in our midst. Came even knowing that many would reject Him, that many would refuse to listen to Him, many would reject His offer of the kingdom of heaven. He came anyway.
He came to extend an invitation to all who would listen. The question for you and me is: how did we receive those who came? Did we welcome them and did we welcome their message of the kingdom of God? Or did we reject them?
And so when “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’” (25:34), He’s talking to those who weren’t afraid to go wherever He called them to go to declare that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Who weren’t afraid “to preach, to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
The message isn’t “do this to become part of the kingdom of heaven,” but rather “If you are part of the kingdom of heaven, this is what you will look like.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, are you willing to follow Jesus? To follow the King of kings? Are you willing individually? And are we willing as a congregation?
As we gather downstairs to begin a conversation on our future, will we let Christ the King be in charge? Are we prepared to seek His will and then to follow Him? No matter where He might lead?
Our eternal future depends on your decision.
Let us pray.