OK, the part about hell is a little ways into the message. But here’s a teaser: The essence of love is choice. For love to be real there must be an alternative to it, some other choice that could be made. It is that choice, choosing a person when you don’t have to, that is the essence of love.So what is the alternative to loving God? What would it be like to be completely separate from the loving Creator of the universe, to be apart from every good, loving, holy thing that exists in the universe? That alternative is what we call “hell.” Hell exists precisely because God is truly loving. If there was no hell, there would be no true love.
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Download Matthew Part 89
Matthew #89 Matthew 25:31-46
We considered the parable of the sheep and the goats last time. There are still a few things about the text that I would like to talk about. I realize that when we read this parable, it will naturally raise a number of questions about things that are really outside the scope of the text alone. The two that stand out to me are these: “Do good works get us into heaven?” And, “Is hell real?” Since those related questions are pretty important to the Christian faith, I want to look at them before we move on from this text.
At first reading, the passage makes it sound like people will get into heaven based entirely upon how they treat the poor and needy. As we learned last time, we need to refine that to “poor and needy fellow Christians.” Even so, that still leaves us with the problem that it looks like we get into heaven based upon our own good works. Is it true? Did Jesus really teach that we enter heaven based upon what we do?
Now, I did refer to the answer to this question when we talked about the parable of the talents. But even if you already know the answer, I think it is helpful to go through the process, so that as you do, you “practice” interpreting the Bible.
First, let’s look at a possible answer from the text itself. Consider verse 34:
34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matt 25:34, ESV2011)
We tend to read over such things quickly, but there is something startling here. The sheep are invited to enter “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” This makes it sound like these people were chosen for the kingdom long before they did any good works; in fact, before they were born.
When we study difficult things in scripture, it is helpful to look at other verses that address the same subject. With that in mind, let’s consider what Paul writes in Ephesians (I’ll italicize parts, for emphasis):
4For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4-6 HCSB)
Now, this brings up another difficult subject, that of predestination. I don’t intend to get into that just now, but my point is, Jesus said that the kingdom was prepared for his own people (the sheep) from the foundation of the world. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and passing on to us and explaining the teaching of Jesus, says the same thing. So the sheep could not be chosen, or saved, by anything they did. Their salvation was given to them first, long before they did anything. Their actions simply reflected the fact that they belonged to that kingdom.
So the kingdom was given to them by grace, not by any works they had done. But they did their good works because they already belonged to the kingdom. This reminds me of another verse from Ephesians:
8For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — 9not from works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:8-10, HCSB)
The good works that the sheep did were prepared ahead of time for them by God, just like the Kingdom they were invited to enter.
Let’s make sure we have all of this very clear. The New Testament teaches that we cannot earn our salvation. We are forgiven for our sins, restored to a healthy, joyous relationship with God, and given eternal life, only because of the work Jesus has already done for us. We receive those gifts only by God’s grace, through trusting Jesus Christ, not through any works that we do. Here are some of the verses which teach this clearly. I’ve italicized parts of them, for emphasis:
We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:3-9, HCSB)
Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom 3:27-28, HCSB)
He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2Tim 1:9-10, HCSB)
He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7, HCSB)
Yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:16-17, ESV)
So we have these many, clear verses telling us that salvation is a gracious gift, not a reward for good works. But then we have this passage here in Matthew, and several other passages in the New Testament, that seem very concerned with how we behave:
I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Gal 5:16-26, 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. 18But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe — and they shudder.
20Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? 21Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?
22You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. (Jas 2:14-22, HCSB)
Forgiveness and salvation are offered to us as God’s free gift in Jesus Christ. We don’t earn it in any way. But we also need to understand this: a true, living faith will result in good works. A true living faith will express itself in love for fellow-Christians. A true and living faith will fight against sin in your life.
If you continue to live in an ongoing pattern of sin, or if you do not love your fellow Jesus-followers, it may be because you do not have true faith in Jesus Christ. As James says: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Faith without works is not real faith.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that when you are a Christian, you just can’t help yourself from doing good works, and you should sit on your hands until the impulse to do good overtakes you. Good works often require self-discipline. They aren’t always enjoyable. Sometimes you must make yourself do them even when you don’t feel like it. But the point is, you do them because you love and trust Jesus, not because you think they will earn you special points with God. You do them because it is in you to do them (even if that “in you” looks like self-discipline). And it is in you to do them because your faith is real. Again, particularly in this passage of Matthew, the good works we are talking about is to love, and do good to other Christians.
Now, there is an important contrast between the fate of the sheep and that of the goats. The place of the sheep was prepared for them from the foundation of the world. But the place to which the goats were sent was not originally intended for them. Listen to what Jesus says:
41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt 25:41, ESV2011)
There is the contrast. The kingdom of God’s people has been prepared “for you” from the foundation of the world. The eternal fire was prepared “for the devil and his angels.” In other words, though people will be sent there, God intended it originally for the devil and demons, not for human beings. I want to tread lightly here, since we are touching on some very profound subjects. But I think we should understand this: God’s desire is for all people to be saved.
3This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 7For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle ( I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1Tim 2:3-7, ESV2011)
Although this is God’s desire, many, many people thwart God’s desire, and he allows them to do so. Clearly, in this parable, as well as many other points throughout the gospels, Jesus thinks of hell as a real place into which some human beings will go. Just in case you aren’t sure, consider these other verses, just from the book of Matthew alone (there are more in the other gospels, also):
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matt 7:13-14, ESV2011)
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell! (Matt 5:29-30, HCSB)
Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28, HCSB)
The rest of the New Testament also affirms the teachings of Jesus about hell. Even so, recently it has become unfashionable to believe in hell. The endlessly repeated question is this: “If God is so loving, why does he send some people to hell?”
That question reveals our huge cultural misunderstanding of love. Love is not something you “fall into.” Love is not something you “can’t help.” The essence of love is choice. If you know someone has no choice but to “love” you, you do not feel loved at all. You feel loved when you know the other person has the alternative not to love you, but does anyway. Think about it: Forcing someone to love you is technically impossible. The very idea of forcing is antithetical to love. For love to be real there must be an alternative to it, some other choice that could be made. It is that choice, choosing a person when you don’t have to, that is the essence of love.
So, God doesn’t have to love us. We don’t have to love God. But what is the alternative choice to God’s love, and loving him back? What does rejecting God mean? What would it be like to be completely separate from the loving Creator of the universe, to be apart from every good, loving, holy thing that exists in the universe? That alternative is what we call “hell.”
Hell exists precisely because God is truly loving.
If there was no hell, there would be no true love.
And now we are back to the parable of the sheep and the goats. The exact difference between them is that the sheep exhibited the love of God in action to fellow Jesus-followers, and the goats did not do so. Their actions revealed their inner choices about God’s love.
Let’s make sure we have this all straight:
- Salvation is a free, unearned gift of God, offered in the context of love.
- Those who reject that gift, who choose not to love God, will go to hell, which the New Testament teaches is a real place, or state of being, that is utterly separated from God and all goodness.
- Those who receive God’s salvation in faith will express it by loving their fellow Christians.
- Those who do not love their fellow-Christians are shown, by that lack of love, to not have true faith.
I think we have plenty to chew on for this time!