The Judgment No One Wants to Hear

“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’
Then shall they also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?’
Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.’
And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-46).

For modern readers this passage might come as a bit of a shock. People are not accustomed to a presentation of Jesus in which He consigns people to eternal punishment; they expect Him, as an embodiment of love, to find some way to let most people or perhaps even everyone into eternal life. Yet that is not the case, and Jesus provides reason for it. This is the judgment that no one wants to hear, but sadly, many will hear it (Matthew 7:13-14).

Jesus has already warned about the fate of the wicked servant who abuses others and lives for him or herself (Matthew 24:48-51), the foolish virgins who were not ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival (Matthew 25:1-13), and the “one talent servant,” the one who did not advance the cause of His Master (Matthew 25:14-30). And yet now, in this presentation of the judgment scene, a different aspect of the situation emerges.

Everything said in Matthew 25:41-46 contrasts with what was said in Matthew 25:34-40. There were those who fed Jesus when hungry, clothed Him when naked, and so on; these people did not do so. The first group wanted to know when they did such things; this group wants to know when they saw Jesus and did not do such things. Ultimately, they either did them, or did not do them, for Jesus when they did or did not do them for “one of these least” (Matthew 25:31-46).

As before, so now: the big picture of this judgment scene involves whether or not we helped people in their time of need. The negative portrayal of Matthew 25:41-46 illuminates and highlights the positive portrayal of Matthew 25:34-40.

We should first note that the people who hear this judgment are cursed and to be cast into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Notice that Jesus does not say that the fire was prepared for them– it was prepared for the spiritual powers of darkness, and there was no need for those hearing this sentence to join them in that fire. And yet they are going there because of the decisions they made in life (cf. Romans 1:18-32). They went down the path of the devil and his angels; they thus reap the same consequences as the devil and his angels!

A very surprising detail about this judgment scene is found in Matthew 25:44: those hearing this sentence ask when it was that they saw Jesus hungry, thirsty, sick, in prison, etc., and did not help Him. It seems to be presented as an honest question– we get the impression that at least some of these people, had they known that it was Jesus who was hungry, thirsty, sick, etc., that they would have provided what was necessary. This is doubtless not true for many of those who will be condemned on the final day, but it will be true for many who will be!

This is consistent with Jesus’ description of “sinners” in Matthew 5:46-47 and Luke 6:32-34. It is not as if Jesus thinks that sinners have no natural affections at all. No, He declares– even sinners love those who love them. Sinners do good to those who do good to them. Sinners will lend to sinners. Sinners greet and are friendly toward those who are friendly to them.

Therefore, there will be on that final day people who were benevolent toward some other people who will yet be condemned. Sure, those people did good things to those who were just like them, who liked them and appreciated them, and who gave back to them. These things are assumed to be true of almost everyone. Jesus raises the bar higher for those who seek eternal life.

These people are condemned in this presentation because they did not help the least of those amongst them– the outcasts, the dispossessed, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, those with a radically different view of things, those whom society or culture or (sadly enough) religious authorities taught them to despise. They, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), just walked on by. They may not have actively contributed to the destitution of the least among them, but they certainly did not do anything to make it any better. And for that they are condemned.

We imagine that many “heathens,” unbelievers, and others will be in this crowd, and they most likely will be (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). But what might be shocking is just how many “religious” people will comprise this crowd. Sure, they might have seemed pious enough. They probably did all they could to avoid certain sins, and might even have done some charitable work. Yet, like the Pharisees and scribes, they harbored a sense of superiority; in their pursuit of holiness, they forgot about love, mercy, justice, and faithfulness (Matthew 7:20-23, 23:23-24). They were more than ready to help their coreligionists and their middle- to upper-class neighbors; the cry of the truly needy amongst them, however, went unheeded. They heard the cries of those with whom Jesus associated, and did nothing.

Yes, there is more that will go into the sentence of condemnation than just one’s lack of charity– sin, disobedience, rebellion, lack of knowledge of God, and so forth (Romans 2:5-10, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). And yet, just as true charity exemplifies that one has been truly conformed to the image of Jesus the Son in thought, attitude, and deed (Matthew 25:34-40, Romans 8:29), the lack of true charity demonstrates a parallel lack of conformity to the image of Jesus the Son. As long as anyone does not show true charity toward the outcast and dispossessed, there remains conformity to the world and not to Christ.

No one wants to hear the judgment of Matthew 25:41, but it will be the eternal condemnation of far too many souls. It will come to all those who reject the reality that the image of God can be found in even the least among us, and for those who prove willing to harden their hearts toward their fellow man and carry on as they always have. It is a sentence for people in self-absorbed lives, content with avoiding the big sins without proper concern for practicing righteousness (cf. James 4:17). And it will be distressing declaration to many religious people who worried so much about so many religious things that they forgot about their fellow man, or who were too enamored with the view of religiosity to be bothered to get their hands dirty in the difficult and challenging work of true religiosity. Ultimately, it is a sentence representing the great humbling of many people who were too high on themselves and too dismissive of others. Dear friend, do not let this be the sentence you hear. Change your ways, follow after Jesus of Nazareth, humble yourself, and prove willing to serve the least among you, conforming to the image of Christ in holiness, faithfulness, love, and mercy, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sinners and Hypocrites

But when [Jesus] saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).

“Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall [the Pharisees and scribes] escape the judgment of hell?” (Matthew 23:33)

Much is made of how Jesus responds and reacts to people. It is interesting to see how people will go out and treat people in entirely different ways and base it all upon Jesus!

We have all seen the stereotypical “street preacher.” He has taken it upon himself to let everyone in his community know that they are sinning and sinful people. He is often found on street corners or in public places on university campuses and in similar places, and he does well at yelling at people about fornication, drunkenness, worldliness, perhaps consumerism and materialism, and so on and so forth. No one really listens, of course, but the street preacher goes home, justified in his own mind. He told those nasty sinners about their sin, just as Jesus condemned sin– or so he thinks.

There is also the universalist or the politically correct “tolerant” person of our day. If there is condemnation for anyone, it is because they are intolerant. Most everything and anything is acceptable, unless it harms another person, but then again, those who harm others were probably harmed somehow themselves, and so even then God will understand. This person also feels justified, for after all, Jesus Himself had compassion on people– or so he thinks.

These are both extreme positions– and they are extremely misguided. Nevertheless, we can discern from Jesus’ ministry a way forward when it comes to working with different people in our midst.

The first thing we should notice is that sinners sin. This statement should not be too terribly surprising or earth-shattering, since everyone is sinful (Romans 3:23), and sinners are known to sin, but it has been forgotten by many who profess Jesus. Too many have bought into the idea that America is somehow like a “new Israel,” and therefore we need to have “prophets” running around condemning the people for their sins. The New Testament teaches that the church is the new Israel (Galatians 6:16, Philippians 3:3, 1 Peter 2:4-9). There are times when someone does need to take up a “prophetic” style role and warn Christians about complacency and sin (2 Timothy 4:2), but we do not see Jesus or the Apostles out castigating worldly people for their sin in their faces. Quite the contrary– Jesus has compassion toward the multitude of people, those worldly, nasty sinners, even those among God’s chosen people, Israel (Matthew 9:36)! He was lectured by the religious authorities because of His association with the “sinful” of society (Matthew 9:9-13). Jesus our High Priest associated with the sinful!

While this might seem scandalous, we must understand what Jesus is attempting to do. He does not associate with the sinful to promote or justify sin. Even though He does not condemn the woman caught in adultery, He does send her off with the warning to “sin no more” (John 8:11). We never see Him participating in sin or approving of sin (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-9). Instead, Jesus knows that the sinners know that they have sinned and are sinning, and they know that they need redemption (Matthew 21:28-32). They follow Jesus en masse because He is willing to sympathize with them and point the way out of their sinful misery. This is the message of the gospel that leads to the redemption of sinners to this very day (Romans 1:16)!

Therefore, we should not be surprised when sinners sin. While Christians are to abhor sin (Romans 12:9), they are not to abhor sinners, for they themselves have sinned but have been redeemed (cf. Titus 3:3-8, etc.). Pointing fingers at sinners and declaring to them what they already know is counterproductive: it pushes the sinner away and leaves a very bad taste in his mouth. It makes it that much more difficult to show such a one the way of Christ.

The real challenge came less from those who knew that they were sinful and more from those who thought that they were not. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day thought that they were holy and blameless, and sought to be separate from the “sinners” of the land (cf. John 9:34). They would bring down pronouncements to the dirty masses, but refused to get dirty themselves (Matthew 23:1-4). For such people, Jesus’ message was completely offensive: all of their great pretenses of holiness and sanctity were in vain, their great knowledge and study was being debased, and their authority was being completely undermined. They already had everything figured out; since Jesus’ message did not fit what they already knew, He was the blasphemer (cf. John 7:45-52, 9:24-29). Jesus spoke of them rightly: they were already “healthy.” They had no need of a physician in their haughtiness (cf. Matthew 9:12-13). They were righteous– just ask them (Luke 18:9-14)!

Such people received little compassion from Jesus’ words. His strongest denunciations– even a declaration of condemnation– were poured out against these religious authorities (cf. Matthew 23:1-36). Jesus treated them this way not out of hate or envy but out of love and a desire for them to wake up regarding their true spiritual condition. Jesus did make prophetic denunciations, but it was not to the worldly sinners of His day, but to the religious professionals who had compromised God’s purposes in order to advance themselves and their own agendas!

While many such people exist in churches today, there are some in the world who justify themselves and their conduct. Notice how Jesus did not comfort such people in such delusions. Such attitudes must be rebuked out of loving concern for the soul of someone who thinks they are healthy when they are not, righteous when they are sinful, sanctimonious as opposed to humble (cf. Galatians 6:1-2, 1 Peter 3:15-16).

Jesus’ interaction with people in His own day should be our model for how we work with people today (cf. 1 John 2:6). Yet let us notice how Jesus treated sinners one way and hypocrites in quite a different way. Woe to us if we treat the “sinners” like the “hypocrites,” and the “hypocrites” like the “sinners”! Instead, let us recognize that sinners sin, and we need to help show them that the way of Christ is life and the way of sin is death with all compassion and mercy (Romans 6:23, Titus 3:3-8). Nevertheless, we must oppose those who would justify themselves in their sins or sanctimoniously declare their righteousness apart from the truth of the gospel of Christ. Let us strive to conform to the image of Jesus the Son and point people to Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Two Sons

“But what think ye? A man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go work to-day in the vineyard.’ And he answered and said, ‘I will not:’ but afterward he repented himself, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir:’ and went not. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They say, “The first.”
Jesus saith unto them, “Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not; but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye saw it, did not even repent yourselves afterward, that ye might believe him” (Matthew 21:28-32).

Jesus’ parable of the two sons is a rather uncomfortable parable. We find ourselves reflected in at least one of the sons.

The first son begins as the rebellious one. He dares to refuse to do the will of his father, but then realizes his mistake, and turns and does what his father desires. We can see that this son does, eventually, do the will of his father, as it is said in Matthew 21:31.

The first son demonstrates the importance of repentance and the hope that exists for those who have rebelled against God. He is very much like the “prodigal son” in Luke 15:11-32. At some point, each and every one of us refused the call of our Father and went our own way (Romans 3:23), but thanks to His love and grace, we can be reconciled back to God in Christ (Titus 3:3-7). And then we must get to work, just as the first son did (Titus 3:8)!

Yet it is the second son that is the focus of this parable. In context, it is a condemnation of the religious authorities who certainly professed belief in God and yet rejected John His prophet and Jesus His Son (Matthew 21:23-27, 21:33-46). They were willing, as the second son, to tell the Father “yes,” and yet they did not do what He told them to do!

Jesus’ conclusion is sharp and biting, just as it was intended. The people whom everyone recognized were great sinners were going to enter the Kingdom before the “holiest” and most respected religious authorities! Tax collectors and prostitutes were willing to humble themselves, listen to John and Jesus, and change their ways (cf. Luke 7:36-50, 19:1-9). The religious authorities refused!

It is better that we find ourselves to be like the first son. God is more concerned with our action than our profession– it does not do us any good to claim that we are followers of Jesus if we are not actually doing what Jesus says to do (Matthew 7:21-23, James 1:22-25)! We must never allow ourselves to become like the religious authorities and become self-righteous, for repentant sinners always get further than self-righteous hypocrites before God (Matthew 9:11-13, Luke 18:10-14)!

In the end, we cannot tell God “yes” and yet do nothing. If we tell God “yes,” that we believe in Him and that He is our Lord, and yet we do not preach the Gospel to our fellow man (Romans 1:16), or we do not show him mercy and kindness in his time of need (Galatians 6:10), or we do not encourage fellow Christians (Hebrews 10:24-25), or we do not show love and compassion as His Son did (Colossians 3:12-14), what do you think will happen to us (Matthew 7:21-23)? How can we expect to receive God’s blessings if we do not do what He tells us to do?

Who are we? Are we the first son who once refused God but have learned better and now do His will? Or are we as the second son, always willing to say yes, but in the end do nothing? Let us be as the first son, do the will of the Father, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Greatness of Jesus’ Accomplishments

For while we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some one would even dare to die. But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

Part of the greatness of what Jesus has accomplished involves the profound contrasts between who He is and what we are. He humbled Himself mightily by becoming a man, let alone a carpenter’s son in the backwoods of Galilee (Philippians 2:5-11). While we humans prize strength, power, glory, learning, and might, Jesus came in weakness, humility, and relative insignificance (Isaiah 53, 2 Corinthians 12:9, Matthew 11:28-29). When humans would expect the Son of God to conquer with the sword, Jesus conquered through dying and being raised again (1 Corinthians 15:57-58).

And even though we are sinners, and deserve nothing but death and condemnation for what we have done, Jesus died for us.

He by whom all things were created died so that we could live (John 1:1-3).

The Author of Life laid His down so that we could live in Him (Acts 3:15, John 10:17, 2 Corinthians 13:4).

He who has all strength took on weakness to deliver us from our own weaknesses (2 Corinthians 13:4).

He who loves beyond measure experienced mockery and derision so that we could be reconciled to God (Matthew 27, Romans 5:11).

The High Priest became the sacrifice so that we could minister to God (Hebrews 7).

And this was all accomplished not because we were holy, not because we were righteous, and not because we deserved it.

It was accomplished despite our sinfulness, despite our unrighteousness, and despite our own lack of love and mercy.

It was finished so that we could learn to love through Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered, and we are to suffer (Romans 8:17). The Word became flesh so that flesh could obey the Word (John 1:14).

Jesus died for sinful man so that man could be restored to His image (Romans 8:29).

When we ponder on these things, it is hard not to be humbled, astonished, and greatly thankful for all that was accomplished despite ourselves.

And it should provide sufficient motivation to go and reflect that love to all men (Matthew 5:13-16)!

Ethan R. Longhenry