How Do We Care for Christ?

How Do We Care for Christ?

This morning will be the final sermon in a months-long series that has considered Matthew’s recording of key teachings and events in Jesus Christ’s life. And one of those key teachings has focused upon the Kingdom of heaven or the Kingdom of God. For Christ, along with the Father and Holy Spirit, has created and ever ruled over the entire cosmos, over all heaven and all earth. So when Christ came in human form, in human flesh in the person of Jesus, he came as King and was worshipped as God even while just a babe in a manger[1]—and next week we’ll transition to this season of Advent as we look forward to celebrating his first coming to earth.

But as we’ve noted before, though the initial arrival of God’s Kingdom coincided with God in Christ’s Incarnation, with his taking on human flesh and form, this was but the inauguration or the beginning of his Kingdom’s arrival for when he finally returns it will mean that his work of redemption, of bringing all who are his to repentance and salvation; along with his final judgment and destruction of all evil once and for all, of making right all that has ailed this world since the time of the Fall, will be complete. And it is this final return and judgment of Christ as Judge and King that is the focus of our passage this morning.

Having just told his disciples last week’s parable about two good and faithful servants whose service resulted in their Master inviting them to come and share his happiness,[2] and one wicked servant whose Master threw out into a darkness full of weeping and gnashing of teeth,[3] Jesus then transitioned to addressing head-on the judgment that would take place when he returned to complete his Kingdom work. So he began as recorded in verse 31, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.” We know that this title, “Son of Man,” was Jesus’ favorite self-designation. It’s used 81 times in the Gospels and only by Jesus to refer to himself.[4] “Son of Man” is a messianic title taken from the book of Daniel[5] and Jesus’ use of it here underscores his complete dominion over the entire creation when he returns in all his glory, with his angels in train, to be seated on his glorious throne as one who is not only fully human but also fully God. As stated in Daniel, the Son of Man “was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him.” And then highlighting the finality of the Son of Man’s return, Daniel declares, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”[6] So with the fulfillment of both Daniel and Matthew, all nations and peoples will meet the Son of Man who is their Maker, Judge, and King—whether they acknowledged him as such before his return or not.

Verse 32 in Matthew similarly echoes Daniel in making clear that Jesus will come not only as King over heaven but also as King and Judge over earth as “All the nations will be gathered before him,….” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that only Israel or Egypt or Syria will be gathered before him but all nations. So it is all nations he will return to judge as King. And when these nations are brought before him, “he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Jesus doesn’t state that he will separate the Christian from the non-Christian nations, but he will separate the people within these nations from one another. This is a sobering—and encouraging—reminder that God’s standard of judgment isn’t which nation we belong to or live in—or which political party we align with—or which company we work for—or which institutions we serve. No, what we’re going to see in what follows is that the people on earth from all nations will be separated from one another and the basis of this separation has one criterion and one criterion alone: whether or not they acknowledged and belonged to Christ the King.

So Jesus the Christ, the Messianic Son of Man, the King, the Judge, the Shepherd, “will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (verse 33). And in what follows it is clear that he who also revealed himself as the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him,[7] is indeed a Shepherd of sheep, not a goatherd. And beginning with the sheep on his right, he will say upon his return while seated on his glorious judgment throne, verse 34: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” As those who are blessed by the King’s Father, these sheep will now be given their inheritance—namely the kingdom that has been prepared for them since the creation of the world. So even before these sheep existed, the King knew both who they were and the lavish gift they would receive. This inheritance, in other words, is by grace not merit for its distribution has been foreordained since the world’s creation.

And the reason given for such blessing focuses upon how they have treated the King, verse 35–36:

First, when he was hungry, they gave him food;

Second, when he was thirsty, they gave him drink;

Third, when he was a stranger, they invited him in;

Fourth, when he needed clothes, they provided him some;

Fifth, when he was sick, they looked after him;

And last, when he was in prison, they came to visit him.

This all makes perfect sense. For taking such good care of the King when he was in various stages of need, these sheep are being lavishly rewarded by him with their inheritance, with the kingdom he’s prepared for them since the time this world was created.

But then there’s an unexpected twist—namely, the righteous sheep have no recollection of ever having done any of these things for the King. This is odd, when you think about it, because surely if you had taken care of a King you would have remembered doing so for to be in the presence of such a powerful person would be unforgettable. Yet as we read starting in verse 37, “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’” It’s evident that the righteous sheep simply cannot recall when they did even one of these acts of kindness to the King, much less all of them.

But in verse 40 the twist is explained: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” So the mystery is explained. The Messianic Son of Man, the King, is a good King and Shepherd. In fact he loves his sheep so much; he identifies with his sheep so much that whatever someone has done for one of his sheep—for one of even the least of the King’s brothers and sisters—they have done also to him.

My sisters and brothers, do you realize that we are also sisters and brothers to Jesus Christ, our Shepherd and King? This is a point made elsewhere in Scripture. As the author of Hebrews notes: “10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.[8]” Because of the work of our loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you and I are not only each other’s brothers and sisters but also Jesus’ brothers and sisters. This is also Paul’s testimony in stating, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”[9] Christ, the eternal Son of our loving and heavenly Father, lived, suffered, died and rose for us that we, too, might become a part of his eternal family by his Holy Spirit. And even before Jesus’ crucifixion, he, too, referred to those who did God’s will as his brothers and sisters.[10]

So, again, isn’t it amazing that Jesus identifies with his sheep so much that whatever kindness or goodness someone has done for one of them—for one of even the least of his brothers and sisters—they have done also to him? And isn’t this the nature of relationships? I have yet to meet the parent who doesn’t beam with pleasure upon hearing someone praise one of their children. Or don’t we rejoice when we hear that someone we love has received a good medical report? And don’t we jump up and down with joy—or clap our hands—or exclaim “Yay!”—when we learn about something good that has happened to someone we care about? In other words, we, too, identify with those we love. And because our Lord and King loves us, he similarly identifies with us. So much so that if someone cares for us, it is as if they were caring for Christ, our Shepherd and King, himself. For this is the outcome; this is the result; this is what takes place when we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ and seek to live for him: He unites us to himself by sending us his Holy Spirit that we might be joined with him and the Father—and by extension with each other—not only now but forevermore. So from the point at which we respond to Christ’s invitation to follow him, whatever kindness someone does to us is received as a kindness done to him. And conversely, to know and love King Jesus is to know and love those who are his.

However, this is only half the story. Jesus’ teaching on the Son of Man’s return doesn’t end here for there’s more to be said. Beginning in verse 41 we read how, having welcomed the sheep on his right, then the King “will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” And the rejection of the goats is as unequivocal as was the reception of the sheep. For:

rather than being invited to “Come,” the goats are told to “Depart” from the King;

rather than being called blessed, they are called cursed;

rather than receiving an inheritance and kingdom, they are sent to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Rather than being sent away to eternal life, they are sent away to eternal punishment (verse 25).

So the goats are given the same fate as God’s enemies, the devil and his minions who have been the source of all evil for humanity and this world since the time of the Fall.

And the reason for this tragic fate for the goats is the converse of the reason for the blessing of the righteous. As stated in verses 42 and 43, the King was

First, hungry—and they gave him nothing to eat;

Second, thirsty—and they gave him nothing to drink;

Third, a stranger—and they didn’t invite him in;

Fourth, in need of clothing—and they didn’t provide him with clothes;

Fifth, sick—and they didn’t look after him;

And in prison—and they didn’t go to him.

And there’s a twist here just as there was with the sheep for these goats similarly have no recollection of ever having seen the King in any of these needy circumstances and having thus snubbed and ignored him. And, again, surely they would have remembered having met the King in the first place.

But the response to them is the same as that to the sheep, verse 45. The King “will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

No matter how many times I read this portion of Matthew 25, I’m always amazed at the simplicity—and profundity—and beauty of its message. Because what we have stated here yet again is the practical outworking for the reason for which God in Christ has given us life on earth: He has given us life that we might know, love, and serve him. But, given that he is Spirit, how, oh how,

Can we know a God we cannot see?

How can we love a God we cannot embrace?

How can we serve a God we cannot touch?

And the partial answer provided in Jesus’ teaching here about the day of his final return is that

We know God by knowing those who belong to him;

And we love God by loving those who belong to him;

And we serve God by serving those who belong to him—by caring for their needs whether these be for food, drink, companionship, clothing, sickness, or imprisonment.

And isn’t it extraordinary that Christ Jesus, the Son of Man who will one day return to establish his Kingdom once and for all, ridding it of all evil and suffering and corruption, has chosen in the meantime to identify with those of his on earth who are most in need? Isn’t it extraordinary that in so identifying with the most needy, he has bestowed upon the most needy the highest honor, dignity, and respect. For though we may view the needy as the “least of these,” King Jesus, the Son of Man’s focus is on the least of these brothers and sisters of mine. So as we’ve treated the most needy of his brothers and sisters, so have we treated him.

How very different this is from the way we tend to think. For whom does our society tend to adulate and esteem? Don’t we tend to look up to those who are powerful whether politicians, actors, or those in business? Isn’t this part of what lies behind the parlor game or ice-breaker that asks: if you could meet and have a meal with anyone who is now living, who would that person be? Wouldn’t the answer of many be, for instance, the current or a past President—or perhaps Oprah Winfrey—or Bill and Melinda Gates—or Stephen Hawking—or JK Rowling—or some other person who has excelled in his or her field of expertise? In other words isn’t there something in us that seeks to be around those who are powerful and prominent and wealthy? Isn’t there a part of us that would rather be around those who are successful than those who are ordinary? Yet in this passage, Jesus is pointing out that he identifies with those who probably would never come to mind for us: those who are in need of food—and drink—and companionship—and clothes; those who are sick or in prison; or, to use language from the Old Testament, Jesus, the Son of Man, identifies with the fatherless, the widow, and the foreigner—that is he identifies with those who are unable to care for themselves.

God is no respecter of persons. His ways, his priorities, aren’t always like our own. As Peter came to confess before Cornelius, a Gentile, a person who, by Peter’s own testimony, he, a faithful Jew had believed he was not allowed to associate with until Christ showed him otherwise,[11] “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”[12] And as a result of Peter’s sharing the Gospel with Cornelius, he and all who were with him came to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ.[13] So, too, Paul similarly testifies, “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.”[14] And what we see in our passage in Matthew is that God’s not showing favoritism means that he notices those whom you and I too often overlook—God notices those who are most in need.

Brothers and sisters, we are called to open our eyes to these needy ones for to ignore them is to treat them as though we hated them and it is impossible for us to hate our neighbors and claim to love God. This isn’t simply my conclusion but it’s the teaching of the apostle John who declares, “19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”[15] And we must be honest—it isn’t always easy to love our brothers and sisters for our brothers and sisters—for all of us who are not yet fully sanctified—can be difficult to love. We can be thoughtless—and unkind—and cynical—and uncaring—and rude—and selfish—and proud—and greedy. In fact, the main thing that distinguishes Christ-followers from those who don’t yet know him isn’t that we are better people, no. It’s that, because of our relationship with God in Christ, we desire and seek to live according to his teaching and example. We desire, in short, that Christ by his Spirit remove the fruit of the flesh from our lives and replace these with the fruit of his Holy Spirit; that instead of our lives being characterized by the fruit of the flesh list provided in Galatians: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like”[16]—that our lives be characterized instead by the fruit of the Holy Spirit provided in the very same chapter in Galatians, namely, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.” For “Against such things there is no law.” And “24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”[17] And so should we live.

This teaching by Jesus about the day of his return should encourage us even if we realize we’ve been living more akin to goats than to sheep for God can turn any life around. Recall that when Paul was yet called Saul and “was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” and seeking to take as prisoners followers of Christ, “whether men or women,” the risen Christ appeared to him and asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”[18] Again, the risen Christ appeared to Paul to let him know that in persecuting Christians he had been persecuting the King, the Shepherd who loved these sheep. And Paul’s life was never the same.

So do you want to know how we can care for Christ? Do you want to know how we can please Jesus? The answer is easy.

We can care for Christ—we can please Jesus by serving each other in good times and bad.

We can care for Christ—we can please Jesus by doing the simplest of things:

Sharing our food when someone is hungry;

Sharing our drink when someone is thirsty;

Opening up our homes when someone is lonely;

Providing clothes when someone is in need;

Caring for one another when we are sick;

Visiting each other when in prison.

For when we express love to each other we are also expressing love for Christ. So whatever we do to or for other believers, we are also doing to or for him.

This is what we who are living between the first and final arrival of the Son of Man, Christ Jesus our Savior, King, Judge, and Shepherd are called to do. For as Paul also reminds us, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”[19] So let us care for and seek to please Christ.

Let us pray.

[1] Matthew 2:11: On coming to the house, [the Magi] saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.; Luke 2 records similar responses from the shepherds in the field (vv. 8–20), Simeon (vv. 25–35), and Anna the prophet (vv. 36–38).

[2] Verses 21, 23 provide the same response by the Master to the first two servants: “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”

[3] Verse 30: And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

[4] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Mark 8:31. Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 8:20 states that the only three non-Gospel NT occurrences of “Son of Man” are: Acts 7:56 [“Look,” [Stephen] said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”], Revelation 1:13 [and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.], Revelation 14:14 [I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand.]

[5] Daniel 7:13–14: 13 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

[6] Daniel 7:14.

[7] John 10:11, 14: 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. 14 I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—“

[8] Hebrews 2:10–11.

[9] Romans 8:29.

[10] Mark 3:33–35: 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

[11] Acts 10:27–29: 27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”

[12] Acts 10:34.

[13] Acts 10:44–48: 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

[14] Romans 2:9–11.

[15] I John 4:19–21.

[16] Galatians 5:19–21.

[17] Galatians 5:22–24.

[18] This account is found initially in Acts 9:1–5: 1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.; Paul later recounts this encounter with the risen Christ in Acts 22:4–9: I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.

[19] Ephesians 2:10.

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