JESUS CHRIST’S FIVE WARNINGS TO LATTER-DAY BELIEVERS
In Matthew 24:3, Jesus Christ’s disciples asked him “What shall be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” Many Christians know that Jesus responded with a discussion of global signs and events that would indicate the end of this age was imminent and his return was near. While the prophesied world conditions are important to understand, fewer Christians realize that the majority of Jesus Christ’s answer to his disciples’ question detailed five clear warnings to believers living at the end of our age. One of these warnings (his last one) is extremely important and serious.
Jesus’ answer is preserved in Matthew 24 & 25, and most of those chapters are devoted to his warnings to the latter-day church. This article will focus on Jesus’ warnings as the signs of our times indicate we are now living in the latter years of this current age. All believers need to take Jesus’ warnings very seriously because our futures depend on our responses to Jesus’ warnings. First a clarification is in order for proper context.
The King James Version translates the disciples’ question as “what shall be the sign of thy coming and of the end of the world?” The KJV translators actually gave a wrong impression in their rendition of this question. The Greek word translated “world” is “aion,” which actually means “age, indefinite time [or] dispensation.”1 The disciples were not asking when the earth itself would end, and Jesus answer didn’t even address such a question. The disciples wanted to know when this current age would end and the age of Christ’s reign would begin. This is consistent with Christ’s own answer in Matthew 24:22 that his return would occur to prevent the destruction of “all flesh” on earth.
Matthew 24:4 begins Jesus’ answer, which continues through Matthew 25:46. When examining Christ’s answer, it is easy to concentrate on his discussion of the “mega-trends” that will precede his Second Coming and his revelation about the circumstances of his actual return (Matthew 24:4-41). However, it easy to miss the fact that from Matthew 24:42 through Matthew 25:46, Jesus gives five specific warnings to those who will claim to be his followers in the time just prior to his return. These warnings are given in parable form, but they are part of his answer to the disciples’ question about the times that would precede his Second Coming. Therefore, these five parables are about attitudes that will prevail in the latter-day Christian church and also about the challenges and tests they will experience. All those who claim to be Christians should take these warnings very seriously. If anyone doubts that we are now living in the biblical “latter days” which will precede the literal return of Jesus Christ, I urge you to first read my article “Are We Living in the Biblical Latter-Days?,” available for free at this website. Then you will know for sure that these five warnings do apply to modern Christians.
Warning 1: The Timing of Christ’s Return Will Surprise Everyone
In Matthew 24:42, Christ warns that his followers at the end of this age need to “watch” because we will not know the hour of his return. In verse 43, he likens his return to the unexpected arrival of a thief breaking into a house, and he adds that if a homeowner had known the hour of the thief’s arrival, he would have made adequate preparations for that event. In verse 44, Christ cautions his followers not only to “be ready” but also to realize that “in such an hour as you think not, the Son of Man comes (emphasis added.).”
That last statement tells Christians that Jesus Christ’s return will come at a time that will surprise even his followers. This should humble all of us as many Christians do, indeed, “watch” world events to try and determine when his return might occur. Many Christians (this author included) examine world events to determine whether latter-day prophecies are being fulfilled so we can realize his return is drawing nearer. It is entirely right that we do so. Jesus Himself told us to “watch” for his return, and we do this by watching world events to see when (and how) latter-day prophecies are being fulfilled. If we can see that latter day prophecies are being fulfilled, this focuses our mind to spiritually be “ready” for his return. II Peter 1:19 also asserts that the Bible gives us a “sure word of prophecy” to which we should “take heed,” so God expects us to be familiar with biblical prophecies and learn from them.
Even though many Christians watch for and anticipate the Lord’s return, this first warning tells us that the timing of Jesus Christ’s return will be as surprising to his latter-day followers as the arrival of an unexpected “thief in the night” is to an unsuspecting homeowner. We need to take this warning seriously because we need to be spiritually ready when he returns. Expect to be surprised when Jesus returns.
Warning 2: Christians will be Squabbling instead of Preparing for Christ’s Return
Matthew 24:45-51 contains Jesus’ second warning. He likens his followers to “servants” who are waiting for the arrival of their Lord (Jesus Christ). However, something goes wrong with the attitudes of some of his servants. His faithful servants focus on doing their Lord’s will, and they are rewarded when Jesus returns (verses 45-47). However, some of his servants will let their attitudes and behaviors go lax as a result of their thinking that their Lord “delays his coming.” In other words, they think they have lots of time to prepare for the Lord’s coming, and they lose their sense of urgency re: their personal spiritual preparations.
What do they do? Instead of focusing on pleasing their Lord and doing his will, they “begin to smite [their] fellow-servants and to eat and drink with the drunken…” How do Christians “smite” each other today? In many ways! They can get bogged down in denominational and organizational fighting about every conceivable “twig” of doctrine. They can repudiate each other over denominational and doctrinal arguments. They can “shun” other believers and refuse to fellowship with other groups of believers due to arguments about an endless variety of religious, biblical and lifestyle topics which are called “strivings about the law” in Titus 3:9. Religious leaders can get carried away with seeking “the good life” now and forgetting about their obligations to prepare their congregations for the latter days and for eternity.
Christians in the Apostolic period had major disagreements about doctrinal issues (Acts 15:1-30), and they had their share of organizational/personality conflicts as well (Acts 15:36-41). It is very clear in Revelation 2-3 that the seven churches addressed by Jesus Christ not only describe the situations in those ancient churches, but they also must contain lessons for latter-day believers because the entire book of Revelation addresses the latter days of our age.
Revelation 2-3 confirms the beginning of Christian denominationalism even during the late-Apostolic period. The church at Ephesus had a solid doctrinal foundation but was rebuked for losing their “first love” for the faith. Smyrna was a persecuted, suffering church that lived in “poverty.” Pergamos was a church that had grown comfortable living in an evil environment and they adhered to heresies which Jesus actually “hated.” Those in Thyatira had many good works in their personal lives, but they had followed the teachings of a false “prophetess.” The church at Sardis had all but “died” in the faith. It was an empty shell professing to be believers, but there was little spiritual substance in their faith. The Philadelphian church had little strength, but Jesus had much good to say about them. He gave them an “open door” to serve the Lord and others, and promised them protection in a time of trial. The Laodiceans were rich and wealthy people with “deep pockets” to enjoy physical life. However, they were so lukewarm about their faith that they had “one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom.” They professed Christ, but loved the world and its riches. Christ states that he will “spew them out of his mouth” and send them into a time of affliction and martyrdom because that is the only way for Jesus to determine where the loyalties of the Laodiceans really lie.
Readers may see some parallels in the above descriptions to modern churches and groups of churches. However, it is clear that even as Christians in Asia Minor had very different congregational attitudes and beliefs at the end of the 1st century AD, there will be similar major differences among Christian denominations in the latter days. Has that ever come true! However, it is easy to overlook a very critical point. Despite these major differences in doctrine and character, Jesus Christ still acknowledged all of them as still being “his” churches! Jesus warns some of them that their faith and zeal is dying or that their doctrines need purification, but his corrections are given in love and he asks all of them to repent and improve. Indeed, latter day believers are repeatedly warned in Revelation 2-3 to learn from what the Spirit of God says “to [each of] the churches.”
Some modern Christian groups think at think that they are “the one true church,” and others regard themselves as “superior” to other churches due to some characteristic or knowledge in their own denomination. But Jesus’ said that he still acknowledged all these diverse groups as his genuine followers, even though they had major differences amongst themselves. Latter-day believers need to realize that while humans all too often think in an “exclusivist” way toward other believers, Jesus is looking at churches in an “inclusive” in spite of their differences (and even their heresies!). This will assume critical importance when we examine Jesus’ fifth warning to latter-day believers.
Jesus’ second warning is that latter-day believers will be far too occupied with fighting and squabbling amongst themselves instead of doing their Lord’s will in the time they have left at the end of this age. Many will think that the Lord has “delayed his coming” due to their own mistaken perceptions about delayed prophetic fulfillments even though Jesus really has not delayed his coming at all on God’s Divine timetable.
Warning 3: Jesus will Return Sooner than his Followers Expect
This warning is contained in the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Many messages have been given about the fact that five of the ten virgins are “wise” and have sufficient “oil” (the Holy Spirit) in their lives to be invited to the “marriage feast” (the first resurrection) with the bridegroom (Jesus Christ), while the other five virgins have so little of the Holy Spirit (“oil”) in their lives that they are excluded from the wedding feast. This is a waning to all believers that we need to maintain a close relationship with the Lord at all times so we will be ready spiritually no matter when he comes.
However, there is a warning in this parable which many Christians gloss over. This is the fact that all of the virgins (latter day believers) are surprised that the bridegroom (Jesus) returns sooner than any of them thought possible. The “wise” virgins with plenty of “oil” are just as surprised as those who have little “oil.” The first warning (described above) warns latter-day believers that they will be surprised at the timing of Jesus Christ’s return, but this third warning is more specific. It relates that his return will come sooner than latter-day believers expect, not later!
A third point is that the virgins who have “oil” in them are invited to the “marriage feast” with their Lord even though they were not expecting him at the time he arrived. This shows it is far more important to have the Spirit of God dominating your life than it is to be right about the timing of the Lord’s arrival. It is also evident that the virgins who are excluded are surprised at their exclusion (verse 11)! They thought they “knew the Lord,” but in fact, their relationship with Jesus was superficial because Jesus states that he “didn’t know them.” The superficial believers didn’t have an intimate, deep relationship with Jesus Christ in their lives. However, since they didn’t know what a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ really entailed, they didn’t know that they lacked such a relationship until it was too late.
Jesus’ third warning is that all his followers will be surprised that he returns earlier than they expect him, and that only those with a deep, personal relationship with him will be invited to “marry” the bridegroom when he comes.
Warning 4: Jesus Requires Spiritual Growth in Believers
Some Christians think that all that they need do to “be saved” is to “confess Jesus” at some point in their lives, and that is all the Lord requires of them. They are wrong, as this parable makes clear. A superficial conversion is a false conversion. One does not enter the kingdom of God (i.e. “kingdom of heaven” or “Messianic Age”) with an occasional nod toward religion while embracing this world’s activities and doing little to cultivate a relationship with Jesus himself. This parable tells us that Jesus requires us to produce some fruit (or “increase”) in our lives when we have receive an “earnest” of his Holy Spirit in our lives.
Acts 2:38 states that when a new believer repents and is baptized into Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, he or she receives the “gift” of the Holy Spirit from God. This initial gift of a tiny portion of the Holy Spirit is referred to by the Apostle Paul as an “earnest” of the Spirit (II Corinthian 1:22, Ephesians 1:13-14). Paul uses an analogy from contract law when he likens this initial gift of a tiny portion of God’s Spirit to “earnest” money put down on a contract, confirming the intent of the giver to give much more at a later time. The Greek word translated “earnest” means a “surety or pledge.”2 God promises to give a small “earnest” portion of his Spirit to new believers at baptism, but this initial gift signals God’s intention to give a massive gift of the Holy Spirit when believers are changed in the First Resurrection to Spirit Beings (I Corinthians 15:44-45, 52-54).
Christ’s 4th warning to latter day believers in Matthew 25:14-30 likens this “earnest” gift of the Holy Spirit to “talents” which are given by God to all believers to use in their lives until Christ returns. Matthew 25:15 reveals that God does not give equal measures of his Spirit to each new believer. It shows that believers receive large or small portions of the Spirit according to God’s decisions about everyone’s individual abilities and callings. Verses 16-18 indicate that recipients of the Holy Spirit are expected to produce some kind of “gain” in the amount of the Holy Spirit in them during their Christian life, and it warns against doing nothing with such an important gift. In verse 19, Jesus hinted to his contemporary listeners that his return would not occur until “a long time” into the future. Indeed, we are now living almost two millennia after Jesus spoke these words.
However, Jesus never changes (Hebrews 13:8), so he will apply the same standard of judgment to all his followers, regardless of when they lived and died.
When Christ returns, he will have a “reckoning” with all his servants to determine what they did with the “earnest” of the Holy Spirit which was entrusted to them. In verses 20-23, Jesus evaluates two believers: one who doubled his portion from “five talents to ten talents” and another who doubled his portion from “two talents to four talents.” Each receives the exact same “reward language” as each increased their measure of the Holy Spirit by 100%. Each is given the Lord’s praise and is rewarded with rulership over “many things” because of their faithfulness in the “few things” of this life. The subject of how Jesus judges and evaluates his servants is so broad and extensive that an entire article could easily be devoted to it; however, some commentary on this point is necessary in order to understand Jesus’ fourth warning to latter-day believers.
This principle of rewards in the kingdom of God is discussed in many other parts of the Bible as well. I Corinthians 3:11-15 indicates that some believers will build character likened to “gold, silver and precious stones” and their “work” endures when it is tested “by fire” (trials, afflictions, etc.), while others build weaker character likened to “wood, hay and stubble.” The weaker types of character get “burned up” in the fire of trials, but verse 15 indicates that such believers are still “saved” even though their reward is lessened because what they built with the Holy Spirit didn’t survive the “fire” of testing. This may be hard to understand because their “work” is burnt up in trials or tests, but such people at least had done something with the Holy Spirit so they are still saved.
Two more principles of Christ’s judgment are given in Luke 12:47-48. This verse indicates that people who “knew much” about their Lord’s will but didn’t do God’s will in spite of their level of knowledge are judged with “many stripes” (more punishment), but those who “knew little” while not doing God’s will receive “fewer stripes” (less punishment). This principle indicates that God is fair and he rewards or punishes people according to their level of knowledge. Obviously, those who “know more” are judged by a more exacting standard than those who know less. Verse 48 indicates that if God gives you “much”, he “requires much” from you.
Matthew 10:42 reveals that Christ credits his followers for even the slightest good deeds done in his name. Jesus states that those who give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person will earn at least some “reward” for even such a tiny good deed. I Peter 4:8 urges Christians to practice “fervent love” toward others because “love shall cover a multitude of sins.” In other words, loving deeds will cancel out judgments ordinarily due to us for a “multitude” of our sins and failures. Given that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, this is a powerful motivation for doing good deeds to others.
Jesus also warned in Matthew 7:1-2 that his followers should be careful about “judging” each other because Jesus will “judge” us by the same standard we use to “judge” our fellow servants. It is not our right to judge how well others are using their “earnest” gift of the Spirit; we are to focus on maximizing our own service to God. We are all “servants” of Jesus Christ and he is our Lord, and Romans 14:4 tells us that only Jesus has the right to judge and evaluate his servants.
We also need to realize that Revelation 2-3’s messages to the seven diverse Christian churches in Asia Minor reveals that Jesus has a much broader definition of who are “his servants” than many Christians have. Christ accepts as his servants those who accept him as their Savior even if they are in denominations and doctrinal understandings that differ from our own. We also need to realize that no church leader will “judge us” in the next life; all such judgment belongs only to Jesus Christ (John 5:22). As an illustration, I listened years ago to a sermon tape by a church leader who presumptuously claimed that the members of “his church” were all assured of “greater rewards” in the next life simply because they were in ”his church.” I promptly turned the tape off as that church leader had egregiously violated Christ’s’ warnings in Matthew 7:1-2, John 5:22 and Romans 14:4. I never listened to that “religious leader” again. Nor should you pay any heed to leaders who make such presumptuous claims. II Corinthians 10:12 warns that it is “unwise” to compare ourselves to other believers or other churches in evaluating our own spiritual growth. We should focus on striving to be like the Savior, not making comparisons among ourselves because doing so takes your focus off Christ. If we focus on Chris and his perfect standards, it will keep us humble. When people compare themselves to others, they can easily develop a false sense of superiority or inferiority.
What constitutes an “increase in one’s talents” in the eyes of the Lord? As noted above, it includes something as simple as giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty person. It includes a widow being hospitable to others (I Timothy 5:10) as well as having compassion on widows and orphans (James 1:27). Notice this last scripture indicates the need to “visit” widows and orphans, not just “write them a check.” The act of visiting shows one bears fruit for God in spending one’s time in service to others as well as financially meeting the needs of others. God has many perspectives in judging people. He “looks on the hearts” of his followers–not their outward appearances (I Samuel 16:7). Believers also bear “increase” to God by growing in knowledge and understanding (Philippians 1:9). God holds those in ordained capacities to a higher standard than the laity (James 3:1). Ephesians 4:11 relates that some people are given special gifts as evangelists, apostles, pastors, prophets and teachers to “edify the body of Christ.” Not everyone has those gifts, but everyone has some gifts! Perhaps your gift includes ministering to others via musical talents or maybe you have a special gift for comforting the afflicted and bereaved. The ways in which the Holy Spirit can manifest itself in service to others are beyond count. You need to use and develop whatever gifts God has given to you. If you are uncertain what your gift is (an especially common situation for new believers), ask God in prayer to reveal what your gift is and how you can use it.
Those who receive few gifts should not envy those with greater gifts and those with many gifts should not in any way devalue those with fewer (or different) gifts of the Spirit. I Corinthians 12:3-11 teach that there are many different kinds of spiritual gifts given to believers, and it is God’s prerogative how to dispense those gifts (verse 11). I Corinthians 12:12-31 adds that all believers are important to the overall “body,” regardless of what kind of gift they receive. Romans 12 makes the same point, listing all kinds of “gifts” of the spirit which can be manifested, including such things as offering prayers for others, giving generously to others, etc. The bottom line is that Christ will judge you for how you used the portion of the Holy Spirit he gives to you, and he will judge others for how they used their respective gifts. Christ taught that the “two great commandments” were to love God with all one’s heart and to love others as one’s self (Matthew 23:37-40), so the “love” that God requires can either be directed toward God or toward the people around us who are in need.
I Corinthians 13:1-8 lists many gifts (understanding mysteries, speaking in tongues, having knowledge, etc), but states that “without love” all these other gifts mean “nothing” to God. This is sobering. Verse 3 reveals that it is possible to give all of one’s goods to the poor or sacrifice oneself and do it with a desire for vain recognition, not the selfless loving motivation God requires. Matthew 6:1-4 and Matthew 23:5 reveal that acts of giving must be given secretly and without fanfare to be pleasing to God. Gifts and donations announced at press conferences are the “pharisaical” manner of giving which God does not accept because the purpose of such giving is to be “seen of men.”
The scriptures above make it evident that Jesus Christ will judge everyone according to a wide range of criteria (their innate abilities, the circumstances of their life, the afflictions they had to overcome to bear fruit, the amount of the Spirit given to them, etc.). Also, many believers take for granted the circumstances of freedom we enjoy in the USA and the western world. However, many are not so fortunate. Recall the example of Jesus’ words to the afflicted church of “Smyrna” in the latter days. Revelation 2:8-11 indicates some believers will live in regions or circumstances where they are persecuted, afflicted or imprisoned for their faith. It is easy to see that such “afflicted” believers in our age can include those in China or Islamic nations where Christians are persecuted or even martyred for their faith. There have been recent media reports of Christians being killed by rampaging Hindu mobs in one province in India. In such cases, Jesus may “judge” that those who remained faithful to him in such trying circumstances have brought forth abundant “fruit” in his eyes simply by holding on to their faith at all!
There is a wide array of gifts, fruits and attributes which the Holy Spirit can produce in believers. We should all endeavor to produce an “increase” in the “earnest” of the Spirit which is given to us.. However, we should not judge or compare ourselves to fellow believers because there are so many variables in people’s lives that no one can possibly make an accurate judgment of others (or even one’s own self).
Also, it is vital to remember that we are “saved by grace” (Ephesians 2:5-8, Galatians 2:16), but Jesus Christ himself asserted that “every man [or woman]” will be “rewarded according to his [or her] works.” It is Jesus Christ’s sacrifice that earns salvation (eternal life with God’s Spirit) for all believers, but each person will be rewarded in the next life on a very individual basis according to Jesus Christ’s evaluation of how much they increased the measure of God’s Spirit given to them at conversion. Christ’s fourth warning in Matthew 25:14-30 conclusively shows that when he returns, Jesus demands some kind of spiritual growth and productive effort from each believer in order to enter to be rewarded in the kingdom of God.
In Matthew 25:24-30, Jesus Christ discusses those who received an “earnest” of his Holy Spirit, but did nothing to increase the Spirit of God in their lives. These are the superficial Christians who “confess Christ,” but pay little mind to Jesus’ teachings or expectations. Neither do they seek to develop attitudes which please their Lord and Master. They “lived for this life,” not the next one. One can sense the exasperation of Jesus in judging such servants in verse 27 when he tells them that at the very least they could have “given their gift” to the moneylenders so his gift would have gathered some increase via “interest.” Jesus seems to be truly disgusted that they didn’t do anything for which he could reward them.
Even as the imagery of an “earnest” of the Holy Spirit involves commerce, so does this parable in Matthew 25:27. Giving one’s money to moneylenders (bankers) involves at least making some indirect income by letting others use your money productively. Perhaps one could apply Christ’s analogy in a modern context as meaning: “If you weren’t willing to do anything yourself with my Spirit, you could at least have made donations to those who were doing something with my Spirit so you could at least have had some indirect credit for the fruit they bore.” Maybe you prefer some other explanation of Christ’s comments, but the central fact is clear; Jesus Christ expects some increase of his Holy Spirit in a person when he gives an “earnest” of it to a believer. Those who do nothing with that precious gift are excluded from receiving any reward from Jesus Christ at his return.
Why did Jesus Christ include this warning to latter-day believers in Matthew 25? Perhaps he knew that in the latter says, believers would have a widespread (and mistaken) view that “Jesus did it all,” and believers will have a false view that Jesus doesn’t expect anything from them in return. This parable shows that viewpoint is badly mistaken. This fourth warning to latter day believers is a reminder that Jesus Christ doesn’t just expect, he demands, some “increase” from those who receive a portion of the Holy Spirit.
Warning 5: Serve “the least” of Christ’s Brethren or risk Rejection by Christ
Christ’s fifth and final warning to latter day believers in Matthew 25:31-46 is his most sobering and important one. This parable about “the sheep and goats” illustrates a unique application of the principle stated in I Corinthians 13:1-8 that we must have love toward others or all other gifts will “profit us nothing” when we meet our Maker.
In this parable, Jesus foretells that believers will experience a time of real hardship in the latter days during which many will have unmet physical needs. This is a message that comfortable Christians in the western world do not want to hear. Many Christians (especially Americans) seem to think that if you just “name it and claim it,” all blessings will flow to you. While life can include such good times, we are also warned that “all that will live godly in Jesus Christ shall suffer persecution” (II Timothy 3:12). Acts 14:22 further wants “that we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God” (emphasis added). Job endured prolonged affliction, but he is named in Ezekiel 14:14-20 as one of the three most righteous men who ever lived up to that time.
Before the latter days are over, a time of persecution and even martyrdom will come upon the latter-day church (Revelation 7:9-14, 12:17), and Christians should not expect to be “given a pass” from the prophesied times of famine, pestilence and warfare which will occur in the latter days (Revelation 6:1-10). Christians in non-Christian nations already experience persecution and hardships. Christians in the western world may yet have their chance to see how they will endure under hardships to come upon them. No one can predict how universal such sufferings will become. The time of severe hardship for some believers may not come until the very end of this age. Revelation’s warning to churches in the latter days includes the message to Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-22. This church will largely be comfortable and “rich” in the latter days, but it will be “lukewarm” in its faith and attitudes. Christ eventually “spews them out of his mouth.” At some point, the “Laodiceans” are denied Divine protections extended to more-fervent Christians like those in a “Philadelphian” attitude (Revelation 3:10) who are promised safety during a time of global trial at the end of days.
As this article is being written in October, 2008, real hardships are increasingly being faced by Christians in the western world due to the economic/financial crisis which is engulfing nations all over the globe. Millions of homes in the USA are in foreclosure or nearing foreclosure. Many who thought they had secure jobs and fat 401(k) investments for retirement are now unemployed and feeling much poorer due to crashes in all investments. Demands at food shelves are reportedly way up as more are going hungry. A previous blog at my website, www.stevenmcollins.com, documented that tent cities are emerging in the USA as the numbers of homeless grow. The “experts” tell us that this time of financial hardship will continue for a lengthy period of time before economies turn around. Let us examine Christ’s fifth warning in Matthew 25:31-34’s parable in light of the hard times that are increasingly evident around us.
This parable’s time setting is on Judgment Day when all believers are judged by Christ. All believers are divided into “sheep” and “goats” (notice even the “goats” are believers). The “sheep” enter the kingdom of God while the “goats” do not. It is noteworthy that in this parable of the final Judgment, Jesus does not even mention (or consider) believers’ level of biblical knowledge, faith, prophetic knowledge, doctrinal understanding, or even miracles done by them. Christ’s “pass-fail” evaluation in Matthew 25’s parable of the sheep and goats is based solely on whether people had practiced a particular kind of love to others during their lives. This parable is consistent with I Corinthians 13:1-3 which states that many “spiritual gifts” sought by Christians are actually inferior in God’s eyes to the gift of showing love to others in need. Let’s look at Christ’s specific examples.
Christ tells us that he will judge his followers based on such deeds as (A) feeding the hungry, (B) giving water to the thirsty, (C) giving shelter to a stranger in need, (D) providing clothes to those in need, (E) visiting the sick and (F) visiting those in prison. These examples apply to believers in all societies and eras of mankind because food, water, clothing and shelter are always essential human needs and there will always be sick and imprisoned people in need of support and comfort. You might ask yourself a quick question: If you died tonight, how many of these things have you actually done? Christ is saying your record on such matters will determine if you are a sheep or goat.
There are many ways in which believers can do Christ’s will in serving others. You can give food (or money to buy food) to those who are hungry, or you can also give to or volunteer at a food shelf. Americans can’t imagine needing water as it is so readily available to us, but a Peace Corp volunteer or missionary who has dug a well for a thirsty tribe in Africa knows how badly water can be needed. Typically, the Salvation Army, Union Gospel Mission, and similar groups provide shelter to the homeless—have you ever donated to them? Have you given to agencies which collect clothing for the needy? You can visit people in hospitals or their homes when they are ill, and those in prison really need support from visitors. In our age, you do not need to do everything in person. You can correspond with prisoners via letters, and many afflicted people can be comforted by emails, phone calls and letters. Matthew 25’s parable of the sheep and goats certainly indicates that Christ is keeping a list beside every believer’s name to see if (and how many) such acts of love each believer has done.
Christ can also arrange “tests” for you at various times in your life to see if you will help strangers in need. Hebrews 13:2 even tells us that God will send angels disguised as needy humans to such arrange tests for his followers. If such angels ever visited you via a “chance encounter” you had with strangers in need, did those angels go back to Jesus Christ and relate that you helped them, did more than was expected of you or that you just ignored them and went on your way? We will all find out the answers to these questions in our life when we appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
Interestingly, both the “sheep” and “goats” tell Christ: “When did we ever see you [in such need?”]. Jesus responds that by doing good deeds to “the least of these my brethren (emphasis added),” it was the same as doing it to Christ himself. Conversely, when deeds of service were withheld from “the least” of Christ’s brethren, service was withheld from Christ himself! Notice that this parable indicates that all his followers will be tested in this manner, and they generally didn’t realize that such tests had even occurred. There are two ways to apply this scripture, and both are likely true. If you entertain “angels unawares,” Christ will likely send them to you as “strangers” in a guise that you are “least” likely to esteem as worthy of your help. However, there are so many people in legitimate need that Christ can simply arrange for you to encounter real, needy people to watch your reaction when such people are in a race, ethnic group or denomination that you are “least” likely to esteem.
Many of the “goats” in this parable will be shocked at Christ’s judgment because they thought they were sheep! Notice Christ’s criterion for giving very carefully, as it is easy to misunderstand the kind of service Jesus requires. This parable does not address all kinds of giving, but rather one special kind of loving service: those you have done to “strangers” in need or to people who are not part of your “in group” (your normal “comfort zone”).
Christ tells the “goats” that hey had refused to help those who they had thought were the “least” worthy of their attention. The “goats” may have been very generous to their family, friends and to esteemed fellow church-members in their own denomination or congregation. They may have given gifts or bequests to Universities, foundations, etc. But that is not the kind of giving Christ considers worthy to be regarded as a “sheep” in his sight.
The famous parable of the “good Samaritan” in Luke 10:28-37 contains an illustration of the kind of giving that “sheep” provide to others. In this parable, a Samaritan (a member of a community lowly esteemed in Jesus’ time) is willing to step outside his normal group of associates to help a wounded stranger in dire need. The parable notes that a priest and a Levite (esteemed members of the community) walked right on by without helping the stranger. However, the Samaritan helps the wounded stranger without knowing his religious affiliation, his doctrinal hierarchy, etc. He helped simply because he has compassion on a fellow human being in need. Jesus tells his followers in verse 37: “go and do you likewise.” The Samaritan almost surely had many doctrinal errors in his theology, but Jesus’ parable shows the Samaritan was a “sheep” in his eyes. The much more doctrinally-accurate priest and Levite were “goats” in Jesus’ eye because of their refusal to assist a needy stranger. This parable also is a warning to religious leaders that their status in a denomination or congregation is no guarantee of being invited into his kingdom. Christ is no “respecter of persons” so the same standard applies to Christian leaders as well as laity.
To be a “sheep,” Christ expects you to have a track record of doing deeds of loving service to people who are outside your normal group of friends and associates or to those who cannot return anything to you. Exclusivist churches who are uncomfortable with people outside their denomination (or worse—those who actually forbid such contacts) are at risk of being “goats” in the Judgment if they have served only those inside their own “in group.” Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46 reveals Jesus wants and demands a track record from his followers of having served and helped people who are outside their normal comfort zone (people who they think are the “least” deserving of help).
Jesus addressed this same point in Matthew 5:46-47. In this passage, Jesus told his followers that they shouldn’t expect heavenly rewards for acts of love or service done to their own family, friends and close associates. He said even the “publicans” (another despised group–the tax collectors) can live up to that minimal standard of fraternal, “in group” support. Jesus said “what reward have you?” if all you ever did was help your family, friends and the fellow church members in your comfort zone?
This should be a warning to all Christians. Many assume that Christ gives credit to all acts of giving, and that is true. But Matthew 5:46-47 illustrates that if our acts of service have only been toward those we highly esteem (family, friends and “brethren” in our
particular church group), we haven’t risen in Christ’s eyes to a standard higher than what publicans can achieve. If that is the only kind of giving you have done, Christ may see you as an “unprofitable servant” who has done only the minimum of what Christ expects of his followers (Luke 17:10).
The Bible does give us a hierarchy of responsibility when it comes to giving. First and foremost is providing for the needs of your family. Charity really does “begin at home.” I Timothy 5:8 declares that those who don’t take care of their own family members are “worse than infidels.” Galatians 6:10 adds that we also bear a duty not only to help those “of the household of faith,” but also to “all men as we have opportunity.” Certainly, helping “all men as you have opportunity”’ is a trait of the “sheep” that Christ wants to see in us, but it is so easy to misunderstand Galatians 6:10’s definition of “the household of faith.” It is human nature to read that verse and think that it only refers to those in “my church,” “my fellowship group” or “my denomination.” That is far too narrow an application.
Remember the letters to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3? It revealed that Christians came in “different flavors” even in the late 1st century AD. Christianity had already divided into proto-denominationalism by the time the Apostle John penned the book of Revelation. Those seven churches had very different doctrines, attitudes, socio-economic associations and organizational beliefs. The Laodiceans (the rich church) were likely thinking “Because we are blessed with such wealth, God must really be pleased with us!” They were dreadfully mistaken and modern Christians whose main credo is the “prosperity gospel” need to take warning from this message to the seven churches. Being wealthy is not a barometer of your spiritual condition. The church in Smyrna was poor and persecuted, but Christ regarded them as “rich” in the faith. However, I’ll bet the rich Laoediceans looked down on the poor church in Smryna as being “from the wrong side of the tracks.” The Thyatiran Church has good works of service and love, but they accepted the heretical teachings of a false prophetess. The Ephesians Church was doctrinally solid as a rock. This church knew its Bible and could see right through dceivers and false teachers. Christ had much good to say about them, but he was ready to “remove their candlestick” unless they recaptured some enthusiasm in serving God. The Ephesian Church sounds like one which had grown “weary in well-doing” and was incorrectly assuming that doctrinal understanding was a good barometer of their spiritual well-being. Christ’s evaluation of them showed that attitude was wrong.
The church in Pergamos lived in a location where idolatry and sin was rampant, and they had apparently grown too tolerant of such sins; Christ also says that they had embraced heresies. Philadelphia’s church apparently served God (and others) as much as they could with just the “little strength” that had been given them, and Christ’s most favorable comments are directed to that church. The fact that this church had a loving attitude and “did a lot with just a little” causes Christ to tell them that they will receive his Divine protection because their track-record indicates they need no more testing in the hard time to befall the earth. The Sardis church had all but died spiritually. It had little life in it and was mostly a hollow shell, but Christ notes that even in this church there were a few left which Christ accepted as his followers.
Do you see any of these traits in modern Christian denominations? In your own church? In yourself? All the messages to these diverse Christian churches invite the reader to take personally the warnings given to all these churches. While the members of these seven churches likely were happy to help members of their own groups, how receptive would the Ephesians have been to an appeal for help from “those heretics” in Thyatira and Pergamos? Would the rich Laoediceans have helped the poor brethren in Smyrna or concluded that “God was punishing them because he had withheld his blessings from them?” Would any of the other churches have even noticed the major effort of the Philadelphian Church to bear much fruit with just a little strength? I think you get my point.
Even though some in those seven, early, Christian churches would have had a tendency to look with disdain at some of the other churches, Jesus Christ still regarded them ALL as his followers. This is a critical point in understanding Galatians 6:10’s definition of helping those in the “household of faith.” Jesus’ acceptance of a diverse group of churches in Revelation 2-3 show that the “household of faith,” as defined by Jesus, is a lot broader than our usual concept of “the household of faith.” If we reject an opportunity to serve or help a fellow Christian who is from a different denomination or a different doctrinal system, we run the risk of “rejecting Christ” by turning such people away.
Let’s conclude this article with a theoretical example of the principle of serving others who are outside your Church group or “comfort zone” even though such other people still accept Jesus Christ as their savior. This following example ought to pull on your heartstrings if you are a “sheep” in Christ’s eyes
Let’s assume that a frightened Hispanic family from Mexico left their nation because of poverty or fear of drug lords and illegally crossed the border into the USA to search for work to feed themselves. Let’s say this family consists of a Dad, a Mom and two children—a ten year-old boy and his three-year old sister. They are devout Catholics. The parents eventually ran out of employment as a deep recession hit the USA. They speak very little English. It is growing deeper into autumn and they are homeless. They have inadequately warm coats and they are out of food and water. They have cried in each others arms and the parents reluctantly decide they have no choice but to beg for help from others in order to survive. They are honest and do not steal what they need. They huddle together in the shelter of a few trees and they pray tearfully to God to send them to some people who “love Jesus” and who will help them. God hears their prayers (Psalm 102:17) and sends an angel to direct them to a nearby Christian family.
Let’s say that you are having an important family meeting in your house as this occurs. You are going over the cuts you are going to have to make as a family to endure the recession that has hit the nation. You are patriotic, law-abiding and furious at the politicians and corporate tycoons who have ruined the nation’s economy. You still have your job, but your wife lost her employment and hasn’t found anything to replace it. You have three children of your own to support, and you are a dedicated member of your (non-Catholic) Christian Church. Your family meeting is interrupted by a knock on the door. You wonder who it is and as you look out the peephole in your door, you see an obviously Hispanic family of a Dad, a Mom and two children—an older boy and his little sister. You notice that they are thinly-dressed for the season and you see no threats in them (indeed, they look bedraggled) so you open the door. When you do, the Hispanic Dad holds up a Spanish-language Catechism book to show you he is a Christian. You don’t understand Spanish, but you can see a picture of Jesus and Mary on the cover. The Mom holds up a crucifix to also show you her faith. All of them make the sign of the cross on their chests and say in broken English: “Hungry…cold…prayed to Jesus…need mucho help senor.” You don’t give it a thought, but your own Savior’s eyes are riveted on your reaction and your words at this moment.
What do you do?
Reaction A: You think “These unwanted illegals shouldn’t even be in the country! They should have stayed in Mexico where it was warmer. I’ve got enough challenges now and don’t have much extra to help even the needy in my own church. They made their own problems when the came across the Rio Grande. They should be held responsible for their own bad decisions.” You shake your head “no” to them, shut your door and go back to your own very important family meeting. Your family asks who was at the door. You say; “Oh, just some beggars. I think they were illegals the way they talked. They should consider themselves lucky I didn’t call the immigration officers on them.”
If this is your reaction, Jesus looks at you and weeps. You were Jesus’ first choice to help this family that believed in him and he agonizes at your blown opportunity. Jesus brought them to your home because you were one of his faithful followers, and because you had prayed “for opportunities to serve the Lord” just the previous night. That shivering family at your door was Jesus’ answer to your prayer. Jesus reluctantly tells the angel that directed that needy family to your house to mark you down as a “goat.” Jesus looks to see who in that neighborhood will be his “second choice” through whom he can serve this needy family that has cried out in prayer to him. You do not realize it, but you have just rejected part of Jesus that was “hungry, thirsty and in need of shelter and clothing” in that shivering family whose concept of Christianity was quite different from your own even though they trusted the same Savior you do. Perhaps Jesus decides to give you a second chance by having you laid off your own job in order to teach you more compassion for others so you can be tested again in the future.
Reaction B: You look through your door’s peephole and you realize they might be illegals, but you can see they are trying to tell you that they are needy Christians. You think “what if it was me and my family in their position” so you motion for them to come inside. Your family comes to see what is going on and the immigrant family holds up their Christian symbols for your other family members to see. Your wife says they look awfully hungry and she quickly prepares a simple meal for them: two cans of family-size chicken-noodle soup and some crackers taken from your pantry and some finger vegetables from your refrigerator along with warm tea for the parents and glasses of milk for the children. They devour it with many gestures of appreciation. Compassion gets contagious. Your children realize that the needy children could fit into some of the old overcoats deep in their closets and you have the needy children try them on for size. They don’t fit perfectly but they are gladly accepted by the recipient family. Your youngest daughter gets an old doll she no longer values and gives it to the three-year old Hispanic girl (who clutches it like a new treasure).
You next recall that there is a Catholic church in your city which has Spanish-language services. You weren’t thrilled when you heard of that happening since it would be better if everyone “spoke English,” but now you realize that church could offer some help. You phone them and you are connected quickly to a bi-lingual interpreter. You explain the situation and they inform you that they can provide shelter and obtain more permanent help for them if you can drive them to the church (which you agree to do). The interpreter asks if you can hand the phone to one of the needy parents. You hand the phone to the Hispanic Dad and you see his eyes light up as he speaks with someone who understands them. His eyes grow wider as the interpreter tells them that help is available and that you will drive them to the church to receive it. The Dad tells his family in Spanish of the good news and the joy and gratitude in their eyes needs no translation. You also give them a blanket, a surplus flashlight and a box of granola bars and some bottles of drinking water in an old shoulder-bag that you were going to sell at your rummage sale next week. You do understand what “Si! Si! Mucho gracias!” means.
When you return from driving them to the church, your family has a new discussion. Everyone feels so good about what they have just done and have a family prayer thanking God for how much you still actually have.
Jesus sees what your family did and he leaps off his throne and cheers! You are marked down as a sheep by the joyful angel that directed the needy family to your home. Jesus also decides to send a job to your unemployed wife next week simply because you had mercy on some fellow believers that didn’t understand the Savior the same way you do.
The above example is theoretical, but it could happen in modern America. The opportunities to help others in diverse “flavors” of Christianity in the future may become numerous. Who knows what situations God will send to you to test your “goat” or “sheep” response? Which of his followers will Jesus see willing to help other believers who are outside their normal comfort zone?
Will Catholics help Protestants and vice versa? Will Mennonites and Mormons help each other in need? Will 7th Day Sabbatarian Christians and Pentecostals help each other in need? Will Messianic believers and Jehovah Witnesses help each other in need? Jesus will find out in the years ahead of us. Remember Christ’s parable in Matthew 25:31-46 that he expects his followers to come before him with deeds proving that they were willing to reach out and help others even though it meant serving people who were outside their own “in group” or comfort zone. Remember that it is always “more blessed” to be the one doing the giving than to be the ones in need (Acts 20:35).
You do not know when you will be the one asked to give help and when you may be the one seeking help. Remember that Jesus expects you to help anyone who is his follower, not just those in your “flavor” of Christianity. Jesus’ definition of “his brethren” is a lot broader than denominational boundaries, as the parables of the Good Samaritan and the “sheep and the goats” makes evident. Obviously, every situation needs discretion. If you see a group of thugs through your security peep-hole with knives in their belts, you need to all the police, not invite them inside. Christ is talking about helping other Christians in groups you normally don’t associate with in Matthew 25’s parable.
Determine to be ready to help others as you are able when opportunities to serve others come your way in the future. Especially help “the household of faith,” and remember that Jesus has a much broader definition of “the household of faith” than the members of any one church denomination or group. Determine that you will be a sheep, not a goat at the Judgment seat of Christ.
1 Young/s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, October, 1978 Edition, see “world,” subhead 6, p. 1073
2 Ibid, see “Earnest,” p. 280
Copyright 2008 Steven M. Collins