Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Earlier in the Gospel, our Lord sent His Apostles out to preach among the lost sheep of the house of Israel. They were to travel among the cities and towns of the children of Israel, healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons. They were to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is at hand in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. When they encountered a house that would receive their preaching of Jesus, they were to remain there as long as they stayed in the town. But, if they encountered a town where they were not received, Jesus told them to shake the dust off their feet as they left as a judgment against that town. He said, “The one who hears you hears Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” (Luke 10:16, English Standard Version) In a way, we see this playing out on a world-scale in the Gospel text today.
This text is another part of the same conversation we heard last week (and which we’ll hear next week). It takes place on the Mount of Olives, maybe even in the Garden of Gethsemane, during Holy Week. The Disciples had earlier asked Jesus about His return, and He used the opportunity to teach about the destruction of Jerusalem alongside the day of His return to raise and judge the dead. This is what our Lord is teaching about in the text today. Here we learn that our Lord will indeed return to separate the sheep from the goats, those who respond to His Word in works of mercy and love from those who don’t.
Our Lord’s teaching today touches upon two subjects that are called fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Fundamental doctrines are things that must be believed which, without belief in, one might easily find themselves outside the Christian faith. Some examples would be: the belief that all mankind are sinners, unable to merit salvation in anyway whatsoever, justified freely by God’s grace through faith in Christ’s redemption. A fundamental doctrine is something that, if you take it away, the Christian faith falls. The two in our text today are: Christ’s return for judgement and the resurrection of the dead. With the faithful Christian Church of all times and all places, we gladly confess our faith in both of these things. In fact, we do this every Sunday.
We believe that on the Last Day, our Lord will return on the clouds with the cry of an archangel and with the sound of the trumpet of God. At His return the dead bodies of all those who have ever lived in every part of the world will be raised. We heard from St. John last week, “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him.” Then, John adds, “even those who pierced Him.” (Rev. 1:7) Our Lord Himself once said, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (Jn. 5:28-29) Our Lord spoke of what is happening in the text this week. At His return, He will raise the dead of all nations and gather them before Him for judgment. Though all the dead will be raised, their ends will be quite different.
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left.Matthew 25:31-33
Our Lord’s judgment will not be some long drawn-out procedure, but an immediate pronouncement and separation of the righteous from the wicked. And this is the judgment, Jesus said, “whoever hears My Word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn. 5:24) However, how shall we reconcile this with what our Lord says in the text today?
When we hear this text, and particularly the reasons for those on the right being on the right and those on the left, it’s easy to come away with a sense that Christ’s eternal judgment will be based on the works of each individual person – that each person will enter life or damnation based on their own merits. Well, that’s not really what the Scriptures say, is it? So, what are we to do? Maybe we should first recognize that a works-righteous reading of this passage is wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that I have, at times, read it that way; it makes sense to read it that way. However, because we are sinners, we should be suspicious when a text from Scripture inherently lines up with what we want it to say. Let’s try looking at this passage a little differently.
As Lutherans, we recognize that God works through means. God works through certain things to bring about our salvation; He doesn’t just snap His fingers. We see this first of all in the Incarnation. Our God provides salvation through the life, death, and resurrection, of the One who is both God and man – Jesus Christ. He works faith in Christ in us through certain things in creation. We call them the Means of Grace, the Word and the Sacraments. Through these, we receive the forgiveness of our sins and – dare we say – God Himself. To reject the Means of Grace is to reject God, actually. Just as God sends certain means to bring about our salvation, He also sends people. Chiefly Christ, but also the Apostles and the generations of faithful Christians who have gone before us. Our pastors, teachers, Sunday school teachers, parents, friends – all these, and more, have proclaimed Christ and the forgiveness of sins to us. Without their labors, perhaps we would not be here now.
Remember what Jesus said before, “The one who hears you hears Me.” God works through means and people in our lives, people whom He sends. How we receive and behave toward them is how we receive and behave toward Christ. The emphasis in our text is on how we behave toward other Christians. We care for other Christians because from them and in them we receive the love of Christ. How we treat those who’ve gone before us or who follow after us is, actually, how we treat Christ. If we, in faith, seek to love and serve those of the household of faith, we have the assurance that we are truly serving Christ.
When we reflect on our behaviors and attitudes toward those fellow Christians whom God has placed in our lives, we see that we have not always been joyous in our concern for them. On a national level, our schools and universities suffer want. Rather than seeing it as a blessing to educate our children in the Christian faith and for faithful service to the world, we consider the cost of time and money more persuasive and let our school doors close. At times, our funding for missionaries and church planting falters as well. Consider the opportunities for works of mercy or to comfort burdened consciences with forgiveness of Christ that we have lost and avoided. Jesus said, “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” (25:45)
Our failures to provide and care for those who share in the Gospel with us reflects our failures toward Christ. We don’t just fail in whole, but as individuals. Let us consider how we have behaved in our own congregations. We bite and thrust at each other. We are quick to judge and slow to forgive, and we gossip. When we so behave against those who are our own flesh and blood, we do it to Christ; for He dwells in their hearts by faith, as in ours. Jesus also said, “As you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” (25:40)
The final judgment will not be based on our works as the deciding factor, but on how we receive Christ. These two are connected, though. How we receive Christ should be reflected in how we treat our fellow Christians. We must confess today that, we should be heaped into eternal damnation with those gathered on the left. We bite and tear and judge and hate. As we have behaved toward our fellow Christians, so we have toward Christ. St. Peter said, though, that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise…but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Let us, therefore, hear these words today in repentance. We deserve nothing but wrath and eternal damnation. If the scale were set with us and our sins on the one side, the bottom would fall out and the jaws of hell would swallow us up.
As it stands, we’re not in the scale alone. Jesus said that everyone who believes in Him has already passed from death to life. We who are baptized into Him are clothed in His righteous robes, and when the Father looks down at us, His own children is what He sees. We have the forgiveness of sins now, and we remain here awaiting the Resurrection with manifold opportunities to serve and love. St. Paul said, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Gal. 6:10) When we seek to serve those whom Christ places in our lives, we know that we are truly serving Him. Therefore, in repentance and faith, let us take confidence that our Lord – for His sake alone – will say these words to us, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (25:34)