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February 25, 2016, 5:14 PM

A Matter of the Heart: Matthew 25 Sheep and Goats

Propelled by an in-depth Thursday night Bible study discussion, the controversial topic of eternal salvation, or more specifically “once saved always saved,” has been in our little church community’s hearts and minds recently. It was a good Thursday night experience for us to be questioned on why we believe what we believe. And can we back up our beliefs and explain them when asked the stumping questions out in the world and even within our own church? I know in a couple cases some serious prayer and studying went into motion after this discussion about controversial scriptures and controversial life experiences. As a result, last month’s newsletter article began with tackling one of the major speed-bump passages that seems to say salvation is not permanent but must be maintained by your works: Hebrews 6:4-6. This month I’d like to walk through the troubling passage of Matthew 24:31-46 for it seems to say you cannot make it to heaven if your faith is without works. It reads as follows:

                “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on the left. Then 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. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you took care of Me; I was in prison and you visited Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or without clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and visit You?’ And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’ Then He will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!”

And the rest of the passage (vs 42-46) goes on to say that the metaphorical goats didn’t feed, clothe, and care for Him. First of all, when we read this, we interpret these poor people without food, clothing, and good health to be a general description describing all of humanity in need – whether past, present, or future. We visualize the people on the corner of McDonald’s that are begging for money and probably haven’t showered in weeks. Or we picture the single mom with five children. It’s very admirable of us to make this passage so applicable to our everyday 21st century lives, but these poor brethren Jesus is speaking of in the passage may not be alluding to who we think they are. We need to get a better context to interpret what Jesus is talking about. If you jump back many chapters in Matthew, you will find some parallels and definitions even.

In Matthew 10:6, Jesus tells his disciples to begin seeking out and ministering to the “lost sheep” of Israel. Jesus was sending them on a mission to spread His gospel. He also gives them some specific instructions before embarking on this journey. In verses 9 and 10, He says, “Don’t take along gold, silver, or copper for your moneybelts. Don’t take a traveling bag for the road, or an extra shirt, sandals, or a walking stick.” Basically they were going to be nomads with a purpose. In fact, they were probably going to be traveling lighter than a nomad – with no possessions at all! They were going to be poor, hungry, thirsty, tattered, exhausted controversial strangers that would likely be threatened with prison in communities where they were not well received. Jesus tells them in Matthew 10:12 and 14, “Greet a household when you enter it…If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off your feet when you leave that house or town.”

Are you seeing a parallel yet? The disciples were instructed to spread the gospel by traveling door to door, town to town, with nothing material to bear but good news of salvation. If their message was received well and individuals cared about knowing this Christ they spoke of, they would take the disciples in, feeding them, clothing them, giving them shelter, staying in contact with them through whatever pains befell them. Receiving them meant receiving Jesus Christ. And indeed, being imprisoned was within the possibilities just as the scripture says, “I was in prison, and you visited me.” In Matthew 10:16-18, Jesus warns His disciples, “Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves. Because people will hand you over to sanhedrins and flog you in their synagogues, beware of them. You will even be brought before governors and kings because of Me, to bear witness to them and to the nations.” Wow! Sounds like they were going to face imprisonment to me!

A skeptic might say, “Is that all there is?” The answer is: no, there is more that may be reason to interpret this passage in a new light. In another section of Matthew before our troubling passage, Jesus defines who His “brothers” are that He talks about in Matthew 25:40 when He said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” While Jesus is teaching the crowds in Matthew 12, the Bible says his mother and brothers (assumed to be biological) were standing outside the group waiting to speak with Him. Matthew 12:47-49 narrates, “Someone told Him, ‘Look, Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak with You.’ But He replied to the one who told Him, ‘Who is My mother and brothers?’ And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers!’” So as Jesus clarifies, He considers His brothers to be His disciples or his followers. And we can metaphorically extend that to include ourselves here in the future. But for this passage in chapter 25, for that group of people in thatsetting, when He referred to whether or not people fed and clothed His brothers, it is very possible that He was referring to whether or not people received His disciples that were on a spiritual mission traveling from town to town.

We have that same invitation today. We may not have one of the twelve disciples at our doorstep to physically receive/protect him and his cause for Jesus in our mildly persecuted Christian culture. But we still have the opportunity to receive Christ into our homes and lives or deny His message. If you deny it, the ugly truth is: yes, by your own choice, hell (or eternal separation from God) is what you will get! But as is consistent with the abundance of scripture on eternal salvation that is not based on works, you can continue to interpret this passage Matthew 25 to mean salvation is still based on faith. The decision to receive His gift (just as it was theirs to receive the disciples’ message) is what separates the sheep from the goats.

For those who do not accept this interpretation of the passage or believe the verses could mean both interpretations (including that feeding and clothing needy people is a condition of making it to Heaven): the passage could still be defended in that God accepts [the sheep who do good works] because they had a genuine life-changing encounter with Christ. Their acceptance of His gift wasn’t done half-heartedly, with shallow intentions, or superficially as a “get out of hell free” pass. Those that accept Christ as THE relationship of their life and the desire of their hearts, will bear fruit, even if only a little. People that don’t understand the point of salvation (communion and right relationship with God) will not minister to and love those who are lacking. Either way, Matthew 25 does not prove we have to earn our way into acceptance by doing good deeds. It's still by grace! Praise the Lord!


03-12-2016 at 9:30 AM
Karen Schmidt
Very good teaching on this matter. I do not recall having this explained so well. Comparing scripture with scripture we always get the full picture. Thanks Cheryl for this message. God is using you for His Glory!
03-03-2016 at 8:11 AM
Mark Tatum
You have great insight and a good grasp of've done an awesome job in these last two posts of explaining what Salvation really is! Love you!
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