“THEN THE KING WILL SAY …”
August 6, 2006
We have spent a big part of this past week thinking together about the King of kings. We had the privilege of looking at what it meant to be a king and what it means for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to be the King of kings. Those are facts from scripture that are helpful and instructive. Sometimes if we are not careful we will allow ourselves to treat them only as devotional thoughts. We don’t get around to seeing what the implications of that fact would be in our everyday lives. I have chosen this morning to follow up our study in our Vacation Bible School with the fact that all of us want to be concerned with what the King will eventually have to say to us.
To help us think through that idea I would like to ask you to consider the last part of Matthew 25. We are going to begin reading in a moment at verse 31. This is a well-known passage to most of us. But this morning we ask you to consider especially the emphasis here on what the King will have to say. This is a picture of Jesus as King which needs to be important in the way we are living our lives.
The Lord in the last week of his public ministry says, “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. 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 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.' Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Let’s start our study by observing that this passage needs to be handled well. I know a young man who has concluded that only the parables in the New Testament are to be used as the bases for recognizing how a person stands in relation to the Lord. He would argue from a passage like this that it does not matter what one believes or where one stands on the great doctrines of the Bible, that it does not matter how he is living his live morally or what’s at rule in his heart, but only whether he treats people with compassion like this passage says.
It might be helpful for us to remember that even in this very chapter Jesus lays down other things that are involved in determining our eternal destiny. For example, in the first story in this chapter he emphasizes that each one of us must see to it that we make ourselves personally prepared, that we make personal preparation for the bridegroom’s arrival. Then he taught in the second story of this chapter that it involves our using the talent and the ability that he entrusts to us. Whether we do our best for him will determine whether we are regarded as faithful servants of the Lord. So even in this context other things are involved than this one parable. But consider, if you were to follow such a line of thinking, you could argue from this teaching of the Lord that not even faith in Christ would be necessary for our eternal destiny to be settled. The Lord doesn’t mention it in this passage, does he? While this passage teaches on judgment, it is not the only passage on this theme. It is important to bear that in mind.
Secondly, there have been some who conclude that this text is the only thing involved in determining what the work of the Lord’s church should be. Some have arrived at the conviction based on this passage that only those works which may be classed as benevolent works are important in the Lord’s service. They would argue that pure and undefiled religion only involves caring for the fatherless and the widows (Js. 1:27). When this passage mentions feeding the hungry or giving drink to the thirsty or caring for those who are lonely or clothing those who are without or showing compassion for the sick or imprisoned, etc., they would argue that that is all that is involved. I remember well a man who came here one day asking for help with food. He had a little boy with him. While we brought out the food which you folks had provided, the little boy was looking through the food excitedly and thanking us for it. The fellow said to the little boy, “That’s alright. That is what they are supposed to do.” Well, he is right in a way. Certainly the Lord’s people ought to be compassionate to the needs of others, but there are two things to bear in mind. One is that James also mentioned bridling the tongue and keeping ourselves unspotted from the world. There is certainly something wrong if in our faith we don’t care for the fatherless and the widows. But, even Matthew ends with saying to the church, “Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” This same book says that to the Lord’s people. That also is our work.
What is at stake here in this passage is the fact that there will be a judgment and that you and I need to be prepared for it. It is no surprise that there will be a judgment. The Bible has emphasized it throughout. For example, in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament in Ecclesiastes 11:9, the Bible said, “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things, God will bring you into judgment.” Enjoy yourself but remember you will be accountable. Do what you are willing to answer for. And the last verse of Ecclesiastes says, “For God will bring every deed into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Of course, as you know, the New Testament certainly emphasizes that same thing. II Cor. 5:10 would be an example. All of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ. We must answer for what we did or didn’t do.
But it is not just that there will be a judgment that gets our attention here. The surprises begin to occur with the how. These surprises of our relationship to the King are what we need to consider.
A respected Bible commentator by the name of R.V.G. Tasker, writing on what Jesus taught here, observes, “One of the most striking features in this very striking passage is the way in which those on the left hand, in order to excuse themselves for having failed to render service to their Lord on the ground that they had no opportunity to do so, ask in a tone of injured innocence, though in a form more condensed and in a manner more agitated, the same question that the righteous had asked in innocent surprise and fully conscious of the implication of every word, in order to disclaim the service with which the Lord had credited them.” (Matthew, p. 239) In other words, he is just making the point that there is a surprise here, and it is that when people stand before the Lord to give answer, some are surprised that he is recognizing their service while others are surprised that they are responsible for their selfishness. Some feel overwhelmed by his kindness and others feel that he is being unfair to them. Some can’t remember these acts of service. Others distinctly remember that if Jesus announced that it was he who was at stake, they would have been glad to minister to him. Think of the surprises then. Think of this whole story against that background.
The first surprise in this text is to learn that every single one of us is accountable to the King. It says that the Son of man sits down on his throne of glory (notice that is the position of a king) and then he did something that ancient kings had the power to do. He acted as the judge. One thing the New Testament emphasizes throughout is that Jesus is the one who has that power. Judgment is given to him. In Acts 10:42, as Peter preached the gospel of Christ to the household of Cornelius, he said, “that he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” You will remember that the same announcement is made by Paul, another apostle, to even the pagan philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens in Acts 17, verses 30 and following. There, the proof is his resurrection. This theme is assumed in the background of so many of the statements in the New Testament. In II Timothy 4:1 it says, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to be judge of the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom.”
We are living in a time in which it is fashionable to assume that every human being can and should develop for himself his very own approach to spirituality and to religion, and that each one of us designs something that we like to think about how things will be, and then for us that becomes our truth and the realm in which we live. How surprising it must be, then, to find out that here is one King to whom all people everywhere are called to give account, and that what that king thinks and what that king says becomes the entire measure of all of life and of everything. That is a surprise to so many!
The second surprise here is how that king wants to be served. We would suppose that any king (and certainly the more powerful the king becomes, the more famous his rule and his name, the more far reaching his wealth) would want to be made the focus of flattery and the focus of attention. He would want to have people heap on him ceremony and all kinds of material things, and would want to be made over and have people to fall down before him and proclaim the greatness of his name as if it were a show. That is how kings in the ancient eastern world operated. That is what the people who heard Jesus teach this the first time would have been accustomed to. Look at this, will you? Jesus wanted to be served, not in any of those ways, but by having his servants go out and care about the hungry by practical means, to deal with the thirsty according to their needs, to be there for the stranger with a welcome, to clothe those who were without, to care for the sick, to be for those who were in prison, etc. He regarded that kind of thing as actually service given to himself. What other king has there ever been who regarded service to him in that manner and who rewarded service to him upon that basis? I can’t think of any.
There is an old story that Barclay tells in one of his books about Martin of Tours. Martin was a Roman soldier in days of old who also had come to believe in Christ. The story is that one cold winter day Martin was entering a city and a beggar stopped him to ask for alms. Well, Martin had no money, but the beggar was blue and shivering with cold, so Martin shared what he had. He took his soldier’s coat which was rather worn and frayed, and he cut it in two and gave half of it to that beggar. That night Martin had a dream, the story goes. In it he saw the heavenly places and all the angels and Jesus in the midst of them, and Jesus was wearing half of an old Roman soldier’s cloak. One of the angels said to him, “Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak? Who gave it to you?” The Lord answered softly, “My servant Martin gave it to me.” That, of course, is only a legend, but it certainly portrays the truth of this passage. That is how our King thinks! That is the kind of service that he regards.
That leads to the third surprise of this text, and it is the surprise of the servants of the Lord that he noticed and remembered what they had done for him in these ways. Surely a great king has so many things on his mind! He has a kingdom to rule. He has enemies to deal with. He has crises to answer. He has requests to respond to. He has responsibilities to bear. And, these folks had not done what they had done because they thought somehow it would be noticed and remembered. They hadn’t been mercenaries, trying to see to it that somehow they would secure a reward from him. They had done it because of who they were, humbly and quietly, but the surprise is that the Lord, the King, remembered.
From time to time as Christians we should be reminded of this crucial truth. The Lord remembers. In Matthew 10:40 remember that Jesus said to his disciples as he sends them out, “Whoever receives you, receives me. Whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” Then he says in verse 42, “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.” Even these small acts of practical kindness are noticed! In Hebrews 6, to Christians who were becoming weary (I suppose we would use the phrase “burned out” to describe their condition; they had been at it for a long time; it seemed like the needs overwhelmed the supply of their energy), the writer said, “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints as you still do.” The same thing is taught in Galatians 6:9-10 where he says, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” That is the same idea. Hebrews 6 applies that truth: “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness, to have the full assurance of hope until the end so that you may not be sluggish but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (v. 11, 12) The idea that what is done in little, practical ways is done for the Lord, and that he remembers, is important.
One of my favorite old poems is the story of Conrad the Cobbler. This old shoemaker was a man who was good and decent. The Lord had promised him he would come by to see him one day. Conrad’s friends come by and find his home ready for this honored guest. On the table is honey and milk and delicious bread, and the old cobbler’s face is shining as he tells of his dream and the Lord’s promise that he is coming to visit him that day. “The friends went home and his face grew still as he watched for the shadow across the sill. And he lived all the moments o’er and o’er when the Lord should enter the lowly door; the knock, the call, the latch pulled up, the lighted face, the offered cup; He’d wash the feet where the spikes had been, he’d kiss the hands where the nails went in; And then at the last would sit with him and break the bread as the day grew dim… There passed his pane a beggar drenched by the driving rain, he called him in from the stony street and gave him shoes for his bruised feet; The beggar went and then came a crone, her face with wrinkles and sorrow sown; and a bundle of faggots (sticks) bowed her back for she was spent with the wrench and the rack; And he gave her his loaf and steadied her load as she took her way on the weary road; Then to his door came a little child, lost and afraid in the world so wild; Catching her up he gave her the milk in the waiting cup and led her home to her mother’s arms, out of the reach of the world’s alarms. Well, the day went down in the crimson west and with it the hope of the blessed guest; And Conrad sighed as the world turned grey, Why is it Lord that your feet delay? Did you forget that this was the day? Then, soft in the silence a voice he heard, Lift up your heart for I have kept my word; Three times I came to your friendly door, three times my shadow was on your floor; I was the beggar with the bruised feet, I was the woman you gave to eat, I was the child on the homeless street.” That makes the point, doesn’t it?
The fourth surprise in this passage is that a final separation is made on the basis of how people have treated the least of the Lord’s brothers. This king had made preparation for all of those who stood before him that day. On the one hand he said, “Come, you blessed of my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” He wasn’t guarding a kingdom for himself. One had been in preparation for these blessed of his father. He wanted them to inherit it, for them to enjoy its blessing, and for that to be their home. He refers to this at the end of this passage as eternal life (v. 46). Eternal life is inheriting what God has prepared for his blessed ones from the foundation of the world.
On the other hand, he says to those who have lived by the rule that you ought to just watch out for yourself because that’s all that matters, “Depart from me ye cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Whereas the first had been blessed, these are cursed. Whereas the first were told “come,” these are told to depart. And whereas the first have had a place prepared for them, so have these had a place prepared for the devil and his angels. This eternal place was not what God ever had in mind for people. It was prepared for the devil and his angels, but some have chosen the devil and his angels to be their circle of fellowship. Some have chosen the principle by which the devil and his angels live to be the rule of their lives, and therefore, they walk over what God wants. It is a surprise that anyone would ever make that kind of choice!
Only a couple of days after Jesus taught these words, he endured the fire of suffering. He offered himself to make it possible for any of us to be counted among the blessed ones of this passage. He paid the price for those who were starving for spiritual food. He provided the drink to replenish life. He is the one who provided the clothing of righteousness for those who had lived in filthy rags. He provided friendship and love for the sick and the suffering. He provided hope for the hopeless. He made it possible for all of us to hear him say, “Come, you blessed …” When the gospel was preached some 50 days later, he invited everyone to so believe in him that they would repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. Maybe today you need to make that beginning. If we can be of help to you, will you come while we stand and sing together?