Just over two years ago, God clearly revealed something to me that is both powerful and important in discussing the issues before us today. As the immigration debates rage on, many will justify their positions by pointing to a portion of Matthew 25. Often, they will specifically point to the portion of Matthew 25 that fits their argument, but will ignore the complete context of the passage. If you're following these discussions at all, you likely know what portion I'm talking about, and particularly this one specific verse: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:40).
Before we can fully understand this passage, we must view it and understand it in its proper context. You see, Scripture is not just a collection of verses. The original manuscripts didn't even have verse numbers or chapter numbers; those numbers were added later for ease of reference and discussion. And while the verse numbers and chapter numbers do help us when referring to Scripture, they should not serve as an excuse to take individual verses out of context just to make a point. All of Scripture is truth (John 17:17), but it is truth that must be first understood in its proper historical, cultural, and textual context, and only then can it be properly applied to our lives today. And so it is with this portion of Matthew 25.
Looking at the full context, this verse is part of the "The Final Judgment" of Matthew 25. I had read this passage many times before, and never fully understood it. Indeed, it seemed to almost create somewhat of a paradox. After all, many of us have helped the least among us -- but virtually all of us have also ignored the least among us (Matthew 25:45), probably more times than we can count (or even realize). We all seem to fall into both camps. And as should be clear to any Christian (who are my primary audience here), we obviously cannot end up in both heaven (Matthew 25:34-40) and hell (Matthew 25:41-46) at the same time. So what gives? What was I missing?
Thankfully, on that night just over two years ago, God showed me what I needed to see. The clarity stemmed from a discussion with a committed Roman Catholic friend, who was using this passage to justify the idea that we only go to heaven if we do "more good than bad." He was quite sincere in his beliefs and convictions, in a way that I found unusual compared to most Roman Catholics that I know. And so, I did the only thing I could think of doing: I went to God in prayer.
Perhaps more importantly, I went to God in prayer with a humble heart. I didn't ask God to show me why I was right. I asked God to show me if I was right. Even more precisely, I asked God to show me if my friend was right. "God, is there something I'm missing here?" I did not want to "win the argument" -- I wanted to know the truth, whatever that truth may be. My heart was open and seeking, not proud and proving. This wasn't about me or any sort of pride. This was purely about my desire to know God and to please God, to be sure that I was both living and teaching others the actual truth of Scripture -- not just what I wanted it to be, or what someone had "taught" me along the way.
And so I went to God in prayer, and with a humble heart. In that moment, God both slowed me down and spoke to me, showing me something about this passage in such power and clarity that I could not possibly miss this truth any longer. To help you understand what God showed me, please allow me to walk you through the passage in the same way that God walked me through it just over two years ago:
Slow down. Start at the beginning of the passage. Matthew 25, verses 31 and 32: "31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 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."
This passage pertains to the Final Judgment. At the Final Judgment, Jesus will come back in all of his glory, and will be sitting on his throne, and all of the angels will be with Him. That's verse 31. All of the nations -- that means ALL of us (or at least of us who are not Jewish by birth) -- will be gathered before Him. And He will separate us into two groups. That's verse 32.
And then, read verse 33: "And He will place the SHEEP on His right, but the goats on His left."
Almost immediately upon reading that sentence, I heard God say to me: "John, who are my sheep?" His voice wasn't audible, but it was close. It was most certainly clear, and personal. And He immediately took my heart to the answer. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (John 10:27.) The sheep are Jesus' people. More specifically, they are those who both hear Jesus' voice AND follow Him. They are those who know Him intimately -- not just those who know His Word, as important as that is, but those who know HIM personally and intimately. Those in whom the Spirit of Christ truly dwells. (See, e.g., Romans 8:9.)
They are the people on His right at the Final Judgment. They are the sheep.
As for the rest? Well, all of the nations are before Him -- and all of the people must be accounted for at the Final Judgment. And so everyone who is not a sheep -- everyone who does not know Jesus Christ intimately and in obedience to Him -- is a goat, as much as it pains me to write that. They are the people on Jesus' left.
After Jesus divides His sheep from those with whom He did not have an intimate fellowship (the goats), He then turns first to His Sheep and commends them for the good that they did in this life -- much of which was done without even realizing it. NOTABLY, HE DOES NOT UTTER A WORD OF CONDEMNATION FOR HIS SHEEP, THOSE WHO ARE TRULY BORN AGAIN OF THE SPIRIT. And you see, this is entirely consistent with the full truth of Scripture. For in the heart of the magical Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul clearly said, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1.) This forgiveness is both promised and expected for those who have truly given their lives to Christ and who have been born again of the Spirit.
You see, the glorious blood of Christ has covered every last sinful thing that regenerate, Spirit-led Christians have done. Scripture is clear about that. (Romans 8:1-4.) And so, with our sin having been nailed to the Cross and our record of guilt expunged (Colossians 2:13-14), Jesus can now honestly declare His sheep "righteous" and "Not Guilty!" Instead of being honestly required to condemn us, He can now honestly reward us at the Final Judgment for our good deeds. And thus, Jesus blesses His sheep immensely at the Final Judgment with entry into the kingdom of heaven, but it does not end there. (Matthew 25:33-34) Jesus also rewards His sheep -- and only His sheep -- for the good works that they did in this life, often including things they did not even realize they were doing for Him: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:35-40 (emphasis added); see also 1 Corinthians 3:10-14.)
Then, and only then, does Jesus turn to those that He did not intimately know, those whom were not His sheep -- the goats standing on the left. And to those who were not born again of the Spirit, JESUS DOES NOT UTTER A WORD OF PRAISE. RATHER, THE ONLY DEEDS MENTIONED ARE THEIR SINS, SPECIFICALLY THEIR SINS OF OMISSION. For as hard as this is to hear, apart from faith we cannot please God. (Hebrews 11;6.) In fact, everything in your life that "does not proceed from faith is sin." (Romans 14:23.) Until you are reconciled to God through the finished work of Jesus Christ as applied by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, even your "good deeds are like filthy rags." (Isaiah 64:6.)
Thus, having rejected the offer of salvation through the sacrifice of our LORD Jesus Christ, the goats are left to fend for themselves at the Final Judgment. And much like an Earthly trial, they are condemned for the sins they did commit, and those sins are not excused simply because of some good deeds that they committed along the way. If you dispute that, imagine a judge who presided over the trial of a murder. Imagine a scenario when there was a perfect and irrefutable record of the man's guilt. And yet imagine that the judge slammed his gavel and declared the man "Not Guilty!" The judge has shown mercy, but the judge would no longer be fair and righteous. The arbiter of justice himself would fail to be just. But because God is just, He also cannot look at a guilty man and honestly declare that person "Not Guilty" (let alone "righteous"). God would actually cease to be God in that moment, because He would be rendering a dishonest verdict.
But yet, God loves us. God does not want to have to punish His creation, even though that's what we all deserve. (Romans 3;23; Romans 3:10; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Nahum 1:1-6.) God wants all people to reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9.) God wants all people "to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved." (1 Timothy 2:3-4.) And that "truth" includes the whole counsel of God, including especially the truth about the sinful, rebellious, and condemned reality of mankind in our natural state -- but also the truth of a God who loved us so much that He took the punishment for those who were willing to trust in Him, a God who loved us so much that He died in our place, so that those who put their faith and trust in Him (and in Him alone) may be saved. Through His death on the Cross, God both remained "just and [became] the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." (Romans 3:26; see also Colossians 2:14-15.) We are not saved because of our good works, which would actually be self-righteousness, but rather because of Christ's finished work on the Cross. (John 19:30.)
And if you are truly saved, that salvation starts now, for "this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." (John 17:3) We are saved not merely to keep us from hell, but so that we may know the One True God intimately -- and even internally -- and so that we may know Him starting now. In writing to the true spiritual church, Paul made this point quite clear: "God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Colossians 1:24-27 (NKJV) (emphasis added).)
And so that brings us back to the sheep. Those who are truly saved are those who truly know Jesus Christ now, in this life, and who continue in that faith until the end of their days. Those who are truly saved are His sheep, and they stand on His right, both forgiven and ready to be rewarded for their good deeds. For truly, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, only commendation and rewards for what we have done with our salvation. (Ephesians 2:8-10.)
The goats, however, stand on the record of their own life -- and that record contains more than enough evidence to find them guilty every time. And like a guilty person standing before the highest Judge of all the Earth, no amount of good deeds can save you from the punishment you deserve for your sins. The destiny of those who have not received an assurance of forgiveness from Christ is an eternal hell, a bottomless pit, an existence where the fires never go out.
As I realized that last part for the first time two years ago, my heart wept. I was broken, and almost paralyzed with angst, and with the weight of the Spirit. And in many ways, just as Paul was, I still am. (Romans 9:2-3.) In no small part, this is why I "preach" so much -- to make Jesus known, but also so that no one who knows me for any amount of time can make it through this life without hearing the true reality of who we are apart from Christ (condemned sinners), as well as who we can become through Christ (beloved children of God, see John 1:12-13).
And so if you're still with me after all of that, then please consider the two things that I believe God wants me to emphasize about this passage. I hope they can bless all of us as we persevere through these turbulent times on Earth, and beyond into our eternities:
(1) You MUST have an actual relationship with God. No one in the bible had the bible. Knowing Scripture certainly helps inform you as to who God is, and what God wants from us. But a theological understanding is not enough -- you must have an intimate relationship with Jesus. He must know you as a disciple, and you must know Him as Lord. If you have never truly heard His voice (and I mean that literally, not figuratively), then get on your knees and cry out to the Lord. Repent in sackcloth and ashes if necessary, but cry out to the Lord and seek Him with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength. For even when standing under God's wrath, He nevertheless promises to reward those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6.)
(2) Absolutely no amount of good deeds can save you. This is especially true for those on the godless liberal left, but also for many professing Christians (and others) who do not truly know God. (Matthew 7:21-23.) Many of you have established your own set of moral absolutes, while simultaneously rejecting the absolute authority of God's Word. You strive for equality, but in doing so celebrate sin. You beg for tolerance, but barely tolerate (if at all) those who love God. You hide behind, "Judge not, that you be not judged" -- while openly judging President Trump (and virtually all of his supporters) as racist, and so much more. (Matthew 7;1.) You say "Only God can judge me," not realizing that He already has. "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil." (John 3:19.) And lest there by any doubt, the light is Jesus (John 8:12), the only One who can truly save you both in this life, and for the next.
And so yes, for those who are saved and truly know Jesus Christ, our eternal rewards are determined by what we do for others, although even there I would note that Jesus is specifically talking about what we did for the Brothers (and Sisters) in the verse that started this whole discussion, Matthew 25:40. And considering the love Jesus feels about His Bride, the Church (see, e.g., Revelation 19:7, 21:9), as well as the angst against those who persecute the Church (Acts 9:1-4), that is not surprising.
But for those who do not know Christ, no amount of "good works" or human-created morality can save you, and this remains true no matter what our modern "knowledge" and "wisdom" and "culture" tell you. The only way to be made right with God is through repentance and belief, through putting your faith and trust in Christ and in Christ alone, and through the regeneration of the Spirit that truly leads to the new life -- both now and into eternity.
Trust ye not in yourselves or your works, but trust in Christ and in Christ alone! (See, e.g., Acts 4:12.)
"For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." (Acts 20:27)