Last week I posted two articles on “all nations” from the perspective of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel, and the New Testament writers. Those articles sparked a train of thought that gave me a new insight into the story of the Sheep and Goats from Matthew 25. I'm sure others have noticed this before, but I wanted to point it out to you because it is pretty cool!
First, let's read the passage together:
But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and 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 of 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 invited Me in; 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, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.' Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.Matthew 25:31–46
A couple of quick observations:
- When Jesus says “all the nations,” this isn't a universal declaration. In other words, He is not literally talking about every single nation as we saw in the last few articles.
- The nations He has in mind have been specifically listed by Him already in the gospel of Matthew, including cities like Sodom and Nineveh.
- The surprising part about this parable is that Jesus is alleging that there are both sheep and goats among the other nations, but the measure by which He would separate them is love.
- Jesus surprised both the righteous and the wicked by His decision.
So, let's talk about a few things: a cup of water, casting out demons, someone else surprised at judgement, Naaman, and Romans.
A Cup of Water
He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.Matthew 10:40–42
Hospitality goes a long way. As the Hebrews writer said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). When we serve others by showing love towards are neighbors (including our enemies), we are showing love towards God. Giving a cup of water to someone in need is the most sincere form of worship there is.
Casting Out Demons
John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.”
But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.”Mark 9:38–41
How many times have we prevented someone from doing good because they aren't following us, they don't do things exactly like we do, or they have different beliefs/ doctrines from us? Jesus says to leave these people to their work. The religious leaders of Jesus' day were consumed with debates concerning who was following who (like the church at Corinth), but if someone is showing their faith in love, then they will not lose their rewards – even if they do not follow us.
Surprised at Judgement
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. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'Matthew 7:21–23
What is the will of the Father?
In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the law and the Prophets.Matthew 7:12
You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:43–48
We can do good works in the name of Jesus, but if we do not live a life of love, we do not truly know Him. We do the will of the Father by treating others with respect, loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute, and being kind to one another.
In Matthew 7:21-23, the people there were surprised because they emphasized good works, but they didn't have love.
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.1 Corinthians 13:1–3
Naaman was a Gentile who had leprosy. Elisha healed him, and this miracle convinced Naaman that God exists, but he had a problem.
“In this matter may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter.”
He said to him, “Go in peace.” So he departed from him some distance.2 Kings 5:18–19
Naaman was a man of character. He tried to give Elisha a gift, but Elisha refused. Then he had a peculiar request: it was inevitable that his master would go to worship in the house of Rimmon, and he would have to bow down alongside him. In this, he wanted to be pardoned. Elisha doesn't shame him, question his motives, or gets onto him; he just says, “Go in peace.”
Do we have the patience to say, “Go in peace” to those with whom we disagree? People who come from different backgrounds, traditions, or cultures?
Would the God of Elisha, the one who tells Naaman to go in peace, really send someone to Hell because they worship with an instrument?
It puts things into perspective, doesn't it?
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.Romans 2:14–16
How could someone who was of the nations do the things within the Law without even knowing the Law? Paul says that the Law was written on their hearts.
So, they knew intuitively to do the things in the Law without the need to have a guide to lead them towards those things, and Paul says people like that will be defended at judgement.
How does this work?
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.Romans 13:8
He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law.
I'll give you a bonus!
Faith Working Through Love
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.Galatians 5:6
Can you hear the “what abouts” in response to this verse?
The only thing that means anything is faith working through love.
“What about circumcision? Ins't it obvious that the Law wants people to be circumcised? Even foreigners?”
“Well, the clean and unclean foods are obviously important! People can't just be unclean, can they?”
“But we have kept Sabbath for hundreds and hundreds of years; do you mean it is just done?”
Paul responds in all these scenarios, “The only thing that means anything is faith working through love.“
He does the same to our rules, laws, and traditions too. Whatever we may throw at him, this would be his response because, for the one who has the fruit of the spirit, “against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:23).
So, whether you are visiting someone who is sick, caring for the poor, or giving someone a cup of water, if your faith is working through love, then you are doing those things unto Christ.
There are a lot of ceremonial clean goats and a lot of Sabbath-breaking sheep. There are sheep from nations you would never expect, just as there are goats among some of the most religious people you may know. Jesus and Paul turn all of our conventional categories of who is in and who is out upon their heads by making the bold claim that to love God is to love our neighbor.