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“The King’s Coming, and Our Seeing Capacity”

Nov.20, 2011 Mt.25:31-46


Today’s Scripture passage deals with two groups of people and two different ways of seeing. There’s a tendency in a capitalist, materialistic society (such as ours) to become more small-c conservative as one succeeds in acquiring goods. Having increased one’s holdings through a combination of happy circumstances and hard work, one starts to look askance at the poor and struggling, projecting onto them the opposite of our successful path. “If they’re poor,” the reasoning goes, “they must be lazy, or not wise in handling their money, or some of both.” For instance, a relative recently posted this remark on Facebook about the protesters in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement: “Why are the occupy people looking for a new place to camp, why don’t they use this energy to find a job??” I’d say that comment could be classed as representative of the ‘socially conservative’ camp.

    Then there are others who seem especially sensitive to those who may be in need, and feel empathy for those that might be ‘invisible’ to the majority of folks. As an example of that, here’s another relative (our daughter Emily), with a blog from this past week...

“he stumbled down the street in his pajamas and cardigan, cars swerving around this old man who wore desperation on his face and

if we truly knew the weight of the world, we would never rise from our knees.

he didn't see the cars, the way his face was twisted in anguish as if he felt so lonely that he'd up and left his bed just to know he was alive

and i drove and the world blurred tears and i didn't know his story, all i knew is i wanted to stop the car and give him a hug and what was it like to feel that alone?

a boy on a bike, then, a boy with a face so long and haggard he rivaled the old man in the sweater and i wondered if they'd bump into each other and if that jarring, that human contact would give them enough faith to make it through tomorrow

and i wished i could empty the casinos and the parks and the nursing homes and the alleyways and carry the lonely home and they could sit there in their pajamas and their cardigans, their faces haggard from no one seeing them and they could sit there and see each other...

and then maybe they wouldn't have to run into the street and feel the rush of death just to know they were alive” (http://canvaschild.blogspot.com/2011/11/imperfect-prose-on-thursdays-when-youre.html)

    What do we see when we look at others in need – somebody who ought to expend some energy to find a job, or someone in need of shelter and our care? And what does God see when He looks at us? At the end of Matthew 25 we find a powerful teaching of Jesus about what He’s looking for from us.


Prepare yourself: we’ve come to a crucial point in Jesus’ teaching, as presented by Matthew. There are five major sections of teaching like the five books in the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy); Jesus in a sense is like a new Moses, declaring God’s revelation of what we need to know for our lives. As this fifth section draws to a close, we find a story that goes beyond parable into prophetic reality. As a skilled author may save the climax of the novel for the final chapter, here Matthew records a lesson from the Lord that is very dramatic. It has overtones that will echo through eternity; our own personal fate may hinge on what we do with this!

    V31, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.” Now just stop right there - don’t be in a rush to get into the rest of the section. Did you catch something emphasized, a bit of repetition? “The Son of Man comes in His glory...He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory.” Jesus’ coming will be GLORIOUS! The Greek word is ‘doxa’ (as in ‘doxology’): splendour, brightness (as of the sun, moon, and stars); magnificence; excellence, preeminence, dignity, grace; majesty (the lexicon continues) - “the absolutely perfect inward or personal excellency of Christ.”

    Have you witnessed a ‘glorious’ sunset - one that practically arrests you, stops you in your tracks, it’s so gorgeous? God has hard-wired us to notice and respond to such outstanding beauty, we sort of want to ‘drink in’ the goodness of what we’re gazing at. Or maybe the Milky Way catches you by surprise on some crisp cloudless night. Or, one of these days we may be waking up to a pure white blanket of snow covering the ground as far as eye can see, glistening in the morning sunlight, dazzling one’s vision with a myriad of tiny diamond-points of reflected light. That’s a hint, just a small foretaste of the glory Jesus will make obvious when He comes; a lot of the pleasure of eternal life will centre on standing in rapt awe and appreciation of the Lord’s beauty. His excellence will make streets of gold and gem-gates anticlimactic by comparison. We’ll pinch ourselves and ask, “How could we have been so blind before?”

    That obvious glorious-ness forms a sharp contrast to the Lord’s invisibility, the degree to which He’s disguised, in the rest of the story. In vv37-39 the question the ‘sheep’ ask is repeated 3 times: “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 invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” Yes – WHEN DID WE SEE YOU...? We would surely have noticed such a glorious being! Hardly could YOU have been hidden! In the same way, the goats in v44 also answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty (etc.)?” How could we possibly miss the most beautiful and splendid being in the whole universe?!

    How, indeed...Christ is about to disclose that He intentionally disguised Himself in order to show the hidden truth about ourselves. Like a spy or ingenious detective about to blow the cover off a deep mystery, Jesus the “Glorious One” on His glorious throne has cloaked Himself in human need as a disguise.


Verse 32 has profound implications for humans’ eternal destiny: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Separate the people - as a shepherd separates sheep from goats: there is a definite dividing, splitting, segregating. The verb root for ‘separate’ is ap-horizo, as in ‘horizon’: as you head west around Carlow or along the shore you can to see the vastness of Lake Huron on the horizon, a clear dividing line between earth and sky.

    In Palestine, a shepherd would watch over sheep and goats grazing together during the day, but as they went into the fold for the night, or when it came time to shear the sheep, he would stand at the gate and with his staff steer them right or left, dividing them. Just so definitely, Jesus predicts, He the Good Shepherd and Just Judge will separate the righteous from the unrighteous on the day of judgment. The righteous will be at his right hand, the place of honour.

    As dramatic as the contrast between lake and sky at the horizon - so is the stark contrast between the fate of the righteous and that of the wicked. High stakes! V34, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.’” Literally, “Receive-as-an-inheritance the kingdom prepared for you...” Whereas those on His left hear v41, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Cursed, not blessed; eternal fire, not a “kingdom prepared”. V46 also highlights the contrast, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” They go away from the glory; to punishment, correction, or penalty; and this is for eternity, not some limited length of time. The same adjective is used for both, so you can’t limit the punishment (in the sense of a type of purgatory) without similarly limiting eternal life.

    John MacArthur’s comment on this verse is sobering. “The punishment of the wicked is as never-ending as the bliss of the righteous. The wicked are not give a second chance, nor are they annihilated. The punishment of the wicked dead is described throughout Scripture as “everlasting fire” (v41); “unquenchable fire” (3:12); “shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2); a place where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk 9:44-49); a place of “torments” and “flame” (Lk 16:23f); “everlasting destruction” (2thess 1:9); a place of torment with “fire and brimstone” where “the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever” (Rev 14:10f); and a “lake of fire and brimstone” where the wicked are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10). Here Jesus indicates that the punishment itself is everlasting – not merely the smoke and the flames.The wicked are forever subject to the fury and the wrath of God. They consciously suffer shame and contempt and the assaults of an accusing conscience – along with the fiery wrath of an offended deity – for all of eternity.” (Do you think that’s being too severe? MacArthur adds:) “Even hell will acknowledge the perfect justice of God (Ps 76:10); those who are there will know that their punishment is just and that they alone are to blame (cf Deut 32:3-5).”

    Remember Jesus started the passage mentioning His glory, and the glory of His throne. Our sin offends or derides the glory of an infinite God, so is worthy of eternal punishment. That makes Jesus’ atoning death for us at the cross all that much more precious, for only an infinite, perfectly holy sacrifice can cover our transgression against an infinitely worthy and glorious God.

    The stakes are high; this is a game you play for keeps, for eternity. Yet, here in what Jesus teaches, difference between the righteous and the unrighteous boils down to exceedingly simple deeds. Six things, as Jesus lists them in vv35-36: “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, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” No, you don’t have to go climb Mount Everest; you don’t even have to climb the steps of Saint Peter’s on your knees. What Jesus lists are ridiculously simple gestures of kindness that anyone can do, regardless of how wealthy you are. Share your food with the hungry – even a school child can do that with their lunchbox; give someone a drink; invite over someone new to the neighbourhood; share your clothes; visit those who are sick or in prison. These are NOT difficult deeds!

    What’s very amazing here is the actions that determine one’s eternal destiny are really not all that difficult. These are all very simple, basic examples of kindness that anyone can do! Chrysostom, an early Church father, notes: “He said not I was sick and ye healed me; or in prison and ye set me free; but ye visited me and came unto me.”

    The simplicity of what the deciding factor is comes through most blatantly in the protest of the unrighteous in v44: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” The verb translated ‘help’ is diakoneo, from which we get ‘deacon’ or ‘minister’; literally, “to be a servant, attendant, domestic, to server, to wait upon.” Can you serve someone’s basic need? Can you wait upon them, attend to them, help them in the most fundamental sense? Then, guess what – you’re qualified to serve the King! You can be a minister of the One who sits on a glorious throne!


Does this mean a person can be saved by works, apart from faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour? No; no works can qualify us for heaven - that’s only possible through Jesus’ accomplishment for us in dying for our sins at the cross. Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith— and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Also Titus 3:4-5, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit...” Faith is part of that ‘rebirth and renewal’: faith is a commitment that ushers in a new way of seeing; Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” By believing, we become assured of what’s not visible, what you can’t see with the naked eye. So, we start to see God at work behind-the-scenes, coming to us in sometimes distressing disguise, appealing to us through a person who’s poor or hungry or sick or in trouble with the law. And so faith responds, God’s new life within us motivates us to act in love and compassion as suggested by the need. James (Mr. ‘faith-without-works-is-dead’) puts it this way: “I will show you my faith by what I do.” (Jas 2:18b)

    Back to our lesson in Matthew 25: in verses 37-39 we get some insight into how the righteous ‘see’ when they have faith. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you...When did we see you a stranger and invite you in...When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” (Virtually the same question the wicked respond with.) Precisely - they DIDN’T see Jesus; He was hidden, He was in front of them by proxy, that poor person was His stand-in. If Jesus had shown up in all His kingly heavenly glory, OF COURSE any fool might have served Him; but that was the test – whether the person’s heart would respond when He DIDN’T show up so impressively. Faith, their trust in Jesus and appreciation for His grace showered upon them mirrored in baptism, softened their hearts so that God’s love within them reached out in loving action to the needy ‘nobody’ right in front of them.

    There’s a lot of ‘pretending’ goes on in churches. That’s one of the key gripes non-churchgoers state about why they don’t go to church: “It’s full of hypocrites.” The ‘goats’ in the story protest that if Jesus had given them a fair chance, if HE had actually shown His glorious self as hungry or thirsty or an immigrant etc, they’d have catered to His every whim. But the fact that God used less impressive others to be His proxies was the test by which the Lord discerned the true state of their heart.

    God sees right through our pretending, our flakiness, our hypocrisy, putting on the appearance of being a fine church-going Christian but not really loving Him or our neighbour from the inside-out. God doesn’t judge by the external appearance but examines our heart. Those who have died to themselves and received Jesus as Lord in their life experience a new birth by the Holy Spirit that pours God’s love into our hearts in an unmistakable way. This internal change shows up in compassion toward others.

    The apostle John wrote in his first letter, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death...This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1Jn 3:16-18)


Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who’d become a Christian. One cold winter day, entering a city, he was stopped by a beggar asking for alms. Having no money, Martin took off his coat, cut it in two, and gave half to the beggar. That night, Martin had a dream of heaven, and Jesus was wearing half of a Roman soldier’s coat. An angel asked the Lord, “Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak?” Jesus answered, “My servant Martin gave it to Me.” (Myron Augsburger, The Communicator’s Commentary: Matthew) Let’s pray.