What Jesus and the apostles consistently taught is that love-in-action should be expressed first toward our fellow-Christians. It can (and should) overflow to our world-at-large, but it will only truly do so if we actually love one another. I realize that this is almost counter-cultural, at least to American Christians these days. But it is unquestionably what the New Testament teaches.
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Download Matthew Part 88
Matthew #88. Matthew 25:31-46
PLEASE BEGIN BY READING MATTHEW 25:31-46
Our passage for this time is a parable, and parables are usually intended only to make one or two main points. When we get down to it, the points Jesus is making are pretty broad and straightforward.
I do realize that other issues are raised by this story, but I want to start by taking the text for what it is. If we need to, I’ll address the other issues in the next sermon.
First, let’s remember our context. Jesus has been talking about the end of the world, and the fact that his followers need to be prepared for it. In verses 14-30, he tells a parable to illustrate what he means about being prepared: we should use our lives, and everything we have been given as managers. We don’t own what we call our “stuff,” and we don’t even own our lives; therefore we should invest what we have been given in the interests of the Master.
In the next parable – our text for this time – he is now giving us a specific example of what it means to invest ourselves in God’s kingdom. The example he gives is this: we should care for our fellow Jesus-followers.
I think many of us, when we read the passage today, have a certain picture of what this looks like. We think we are supposed to go out on the streets and find people who are hungry, or inadequately clothed, and give them food and clothing. We think we should go visit random people in jail or hospital. If we examine our thoughts carefully, we would find a disconnect between doing those things, and how we live our daily lives. Even at best, most of us probably picture dashing out and doing “homeless ministry” once a week, and then coming back to our “normal life.”
Those sorts of thoughts would have been strange to most Christians in New Testament times, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Some of you may be a little unfocused, and perhaps you didn’t notice something important about Jesus’ words. Let me say it again with emphasis: this parable teaches us that we should care for our fellow Christians.
Let’s look at the text:
40“And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’ (Matt 25:40, HCSB)
In the New Testament, the Greek word adelphon (“brothers”) can mean, obviously, “male siblings.” Far more often, throughout the New Testament, the word is used to mean, in general, “followers of Jesus, whether male or female.” Now, unless Jesus is talking specifically about James, and Jude (his half-brothers, each of whom wrote a book of the New Testament), he means “my followers.” The context shows us that he was obviously not talking about James and Jude. The “sheep” in this parable are commended for feeding, clothing, welcoming and visiting followers of Jesus, specifically.
One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity is that we have lost this understanding. We think we should do good “for the poor and needy.” Then, we fervently hope that the “poor and needy” are some remote group out there that we can keep separate from our own lives. We have no actual relationship with the poor and needy, and we typically skip over helping people with whom we do have relationships. Far too often people in churches throw money at a problem, or rush out and spend an evening serving food to the homeless, or spend two weeks on a mission trip, but we always go back to a kind of status quo of not really living in meaningful community with one another. We’ll serve food to the homeless, but ignore the lonely single person in our church who would enjoy coming over for dinner once in a while. We pay a pastor to go visit the sick and those in prison, and we thank the Lord that we, personally don’t have to do such things, because we just don’t have the time. We will give money to a homeless shelter, but balk at opening our home to a visiting missionary.
Don’t misunderstand me, I think it is good to give money to organizations that genuinely help to relieve poverty in the world (like Compassion International). I think it is worthwhile to go serve supper to strangers at a homeless shelter. Short term mission trips don’t usually give much real, long-term help to the people in the countries that are visited, but they do have some value in opening the eyes of Americans to different cultures and conditions around the world.
So those are OK. But did you know that virtually every example of charitable giving in the New Testament, and almost every single instruction about such giving, refers to either providing financial support to those who teach the Bible, or to helping other Christians?
What Jesus and the apostles consistently taught is that love-in-action should be expressed first toward our fellow-Christians. It can (and should) overflow to our world-at-large, but it will only truly do so if we actually love one another. I realize that this is almost counter-cultural, at least to American Christians these days. But it is unquestionably what the New Testament teaches. It is certainly what Jesus is teaching in this parable, as I have already pointed out, by saying “to the least of these, my brothers.”
Consider these other verses, which are only a few of many. Bear in mind that “brothers” in each of these verses means “fellow Christians.” I have italicized certain parts to make my point clear. The first is another one from Jesus, found earlier in the book of Matthew:
40 “The one who welcomes you welcomes Me, and the one who welcomes Me welcomes Him who sent Me. 41 Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. And anyone who welcomes a righteous person because he’s righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives just a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple — I assure you: He will never lose his reward! ”
Again, Jesus is teaching the value of love-in-action toward other people who follow Him. Next, John records these words of Jesus:
34“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)
This verse is frequently ignored. The world does not know we are His disciples because we do good deeds for the world, or show the world how much we love them. Instead, the world will see Christians loving and caring for each other, and the beauty of that testimony will show outsiders that we follow Jesus. Trust me, when the world sees Christians fighting, and gossiping and hurting one another, they are not seeing Jesus there. Who would want to become a Jesus follower, if it means joining a group that barely tolerates its members, but tries to show love only toward outsiders? Or who would want to join a “community” where you will hardly get to know each other? The first Christian church grew, in part, because people were attracted by the warm, loving, family-style relationships they found there.
Here are a few more passages:
6 The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. 7Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, 8because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. 10Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal 6:6-10, HCSB)
10Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. 12No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and His love is perfected in us. (1John 4:10-12, HCSB)
20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)
14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. (James 2:14-15)
Am I wrong about all this? Aren’t these all commands for Christians to love each other? Don’t you dare say, “Yes, sure, but we must also love the world.” Don’t you dismiss this lightly! You need to start where Jesus and the apostles start, which is this: love your fellow Christians. You cannot properly love those outside the faith if you don’t love your fellow-Christians.
In fact, the whole point of our text today is that if you don’t love your fellow Christians, there is probably something wrong with your faith, and with the relationship you have with God. Lack of love for fellow Christians may be a symptom of the fact that you are a goat, not a sheep.
The church in New Testament times became like a family for those who followed Jesus. Sometimes you fight and wrangle with those in your family. But in the end, you are committed to one another, and you take care of each other.
One reason we have such trouble loving each other is because, by and large, we don’t have these close, family-style relationships with other Christians. The way we engage in church is often a major obstacle to this. Worshipping together is one part of loving fellow believers. But it is only one small part. The first Christians understood this, and they not only worshipped together, but they shared their lives with each other.
8We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. (1Thess 2:8, HCSB)
42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. 43Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, HCSB)
Even Christians who were strangers to each other recognized that they were bound together in love and common faith. On one of their journeys, Paul and his companions arrived in a strange city, and sought out the Christians in that place. There they fellowshipped, and stayed with these strangers for a week. Luke describes it:
2Finding a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we boarded and set sail. 3After we sighted Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we sailed on to Syria and arrived at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. 4So we found some disciples and stayed there seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. 5When our days there were over, we left to continue our journey, while all of them, with their wives and children, escorted us out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach to pray, 6we said good-bye to one another. Then we boarded the ship, and they returned home. (Acts 21:2-6, HCSB)
These days, most of us just go to church on Sunday, and then go home. That is not Christian fellowship, and real Christian love doesn’t develop well in those circumstances. In contrast, the Christians of the New Testament walked through life together. They spent time in each other’s homes, they ate together, they laughed together, they fought with each other at times, they forgave each other, they grieved together and celebrated together. If one of them was in need, they helped each other. They lived in real Christian community, and developed real love for each other.
Notice that in the parable of Jesus, the sheep are surprised. “When did I do that?” they ask. This is because when you are in real, loving community with others, good works come naturally. Visiting sick people that you love comes naturally. Visiting prisoners that you love is easy. When someone you love is in need, the normal, natural thing to do is to help them.
Some folks might say, “OK, but in my circle of Christian community, everyone has enough food, clothing and a place to live. So how can I really practice this?”
That’s an excellent question, and I’m so glad you asked it. There are two answers that might be helpful. First, perhaps your Christian community needs to be open to welcoming some Christian brothers and sisters who don’t have it all together yet. In other words, maybe, as a group, you need to include some Christian people who aren’t like you.
Second, I believe that the needs listed in Jesus’ parable can also be understood spiritually. Perhaps there is a person in your group who is not literally a stranger, but who feels lonely. You can minister to them as “the stranger,” in this parable, and invite them to be more a part of your lives. Maybe there is someone else who is not literally in prison, but who suffers from the “imprisonment” of depression. You could make room in your schedule to spend more time with that person. There are all sorts of spiritual and emotional needs that we could minister to, even among those who are physically OK.
If we are to really live as this ministering Christian community, however, several things must happen. First, we must find a relatively small group of Christians with whom to be in community. You can’t have real community and fellowship with a hundred people at once. Second, within that community, we must commit to being vulnerable and open about our struggles. This is an emotional and psychological risk, but we can’t minister to one another if we don’t know what each person needs. Third, all of this takes time. Most people in America probably need to cut something else out of their schedule in order to have real Christian community, and thus to minister in the ways Jesus is talking about. We need to be available to each other outside of Sunday morning.
Now, you might consider all this and say: “Wow. I’m in trouble. I don’t much care for my fellow Christians, and I’m not really in true fellowship or community with other believers.” So what do you do about it?
Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. First, do not try and fake it. I mean seriously, do you think God won’t know whether or not your love for your fellow Christians is genuine? If your good works do not come from genuine trust in Jesus, and real love for fellow-believers, you aren’t going to fool God.
Second, admit that you have a problem. Confess it to God, and, if it seems appropriate, to others.
Third, ask God for help. Part of this means giving God permission to change your lifestyle. I remember a time when I realized I didn’t really love my Christian brothers and sisters. I also realized that if I was really going to learn to do it, I would have to change my lifestyle, so that I could be in real Christian community with others. I’m an introvert, and that thought was extremely scary. But I confessed my sin, I asked God for help, and I gave him permission to work in my life as He pleased. God responded to those prayers. My comfortable, introverted little life was changed, and to my great surprise, I have been consistently grateful that it did. I feel tremendously blessed by all the people I have come to know so well, and I can honestly say that I love them. I’ve never wanted to go back to the “faith in isolation” that I used to have.
Let the Lord speak to you about this right now.