“The Sheep and the Goats” – that fearsome piece of teaching from Jesus in Matthew 25 – what is it REALLY about? Many would say that it is a judgment by God based on how many good works a person has done in his/her life, and how caring they have been towards their neighbour. If any doctrine of salvation by works needed some proof-text, surely it would start here?
But this is NOT teaching which is encouraging us to volunteer at Foodbanks or local charities, nor to enrol on a hospital visiting programme, nor to engage in wider hospitality and prison ministries – for fear of otherwise being condemned by Christ at the Day of Judgment. For several reasons we can deduce that it is NOT a works-based salvation that he is referring to here: (1) The teaching of the New Testament is of salvation by faith alone, with good works being the purpose, the fruit and the evidence of a living-saving faith. (2) The judgment is too ‘black and white’: how many times would you need to visit someone in hospital or in prison, and what about the person who was kind to his neighbour on a few occasions, but not all the time? (3) Jesus does not use the term ‘neighbour’ at all here.
This teaching/parable is aimed at the Jewish religious types in particular, and at those who might claim to be spiritual or godly in more general terms. Jesus then judges them entirely on the basis of how they have treated Him – which seems harsh, since almost all of them will never have even met him! But the key verse is 25:40 – “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus uses the phrase “My Brothers” to mean his followers, his disciples; these are the righteous ones who have chosen to submit to his commands and to hold on to his teaching. (See Matthew 12:48-50; 18:21-35; 28:10.) They represent him and are filled with his Spirit. It is “Christ in us, the hope of glory” and we carry him around with us each day of our Christian lives.
Therefore, Jesus is claiming that the way that any person or people group treats their spiritual brothers and sisters is an infallible indication of their own spiritual health and status. Much of the book of 1 John takes up this theme and talks about those who claim to love God and yet don’t love their brothers in Christ; it concludes that if they don’t do the latter, they cannot be lovers of God either! So, in Matthew 25, our attitude and behaviour towards those who belong to Christ will flag up our eternal destiny; if our hearts have been cleansed by faith and we therefore show love towards fellow believers, then we are clearly righteous and will inherit eternal life with him.
Those who have persecuted the redeemed, and rejected their Redeemer, demonstrate that their hearts are still sinful, and their consciences seared; they have not given their lives to Jesus, whatever their lips may say. To those people, Jesus utters the terrifying words: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”! The non-Christian world mocks our faith and makes fun of our Saviour, giving the opinion that they will, in any case, much prefer to be having ‘a good time’ in Hell, rather than having to put up with ‘all that religious nonsense’ in Heaven. But no-one will be having a good time in Hell – it is an impossibility – since all goodness will have been extracted from the place. Anything that we find genuinely enjoyable or pleasant on earth is part of the goodness of God that will be found entirely in the Kingdom of God. So much so that, in heaven, it will be impossible to be bored or sad or sick or regretful.
The eternal fire was not prepared for mankind, but for the devil and his angels; it is therefore doubly terrible that unsaved men and women will find themselves – in huge numbers – inhabiting a state of eternal punishment – for ever and ever – a state that they were not created for. The warning signs will have been around them for a long time, but they will have chosen to ignore them all. Rushing, lemming-like, over the cliff-edge of death, they will sadly realize all too late that they have made the biggest mistake of their lives.
As believers, we have the opportunity to make some more warning signs and to turn some people back from that tide of destruction. Now is the time for us to be sad on their behalf, and to do something about it!
JOB 40, 41 and 42
Today the Book of Job draws to a close. The Lord singles out two of his creatures for special attention: the Behemoth and the Leviathan. Much speculation has been made on what these creatures were, whether mythical, or everyday animals such a hippo and crocodile, or perhaps related to the long-disappeared dinosaurs. Interpretation is driven as much by your scientific beliefs as your biblical understanding. It is true that Behemoth is described as most like a huge diplodocus-type creature with its massive legs and belly, and its heavy, lengthy tail; its total size making it the first amongst the works of God. It ate vegetation, not meat. The Leviathan, on the other hand was clearly carnivorous, dragon-like, and unbelievably frightening, yet also graceful and fearless. It seemed equally home on land or in the water. God’s point is simply: Job, you are in awe of these animals, and yet I made them and control them!
Again, Job takes the hint and repents of his presumption in speaking of things he had no hope of understanding, therefore admitting that the Lord is totally sovereign. God forgives Job and then distinguishes between Job’s truthfulness and his friends’ arrogance – but allows Job to pray for those friends (no mention of Elihu) to be forgiven too. Significantly, praying for others – even the truly underserving – was the key to Job’s restoration, as God healed him and restored to a replacement family and greater wealth (double the number of livestock that he started out with). Then 42:16 tells us that “After this Job lived 140 years and saw his children and their children to the fourth generation”, which gives an insight into Job’s age at his death. Jewish tradition holds that Job’s latter years were twice his former years before the time of testing, given that God doubled all his possessions; this would mean that he was around 70 years old at the time the Book of Job begins, and died at the age of 210. Most scholars believe that Job would have lived just before the time of Abraham; Terah, Abraham’s father lived to the age of 205, so Job’s age is consistent with that era.
It is very comforting to realise that God’s idea of restoration is to give you much more than you had lost in the first place – that is another feature of his grace! The Bible always seems to ‘compress’ time to better emphasise its message; in reality, the full restoration of God’s servant would have taken 40-50 years; so we must avoid expecting an instant ‘fix’ on every occasion. Finally, Job died, old and happy, having seen the births of his great grandchildren. The phrase “full of years” has the joyful sense of our lives storing up precious time that has been spent in the service of the Lord, valuable to God and preserved in eternity.
The role of this great book, then, is to attempt to explain SUFFERING.
- It creates in us Christlike character;
- It draws us closer to the Lord and he to us;
- It is a test of our trust in the Living God;
- It is a malfunction in a broken world;
- God has already been through these sufferings with us and knows how it feels;
- It is an opportunity for honesty and confession, for drawing closer to one another;
- We realize that God is totally sovereign and loves every aspect of his creation, so it inspires us to call on him for mercy, confident that he hears us.
- And we know that one day, we will be changed to be like Jesus, and our bodies transformed to be like his glorious body, ready to rule and to live with Him in the New Heavens and New Earth. So…
“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18.)