Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Blessed Sheep and the Cursed Goats

I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2-3)
There is something interesting I realized about this promise that God made to Abraham. It is eschatological. That is, it speaks of the judgment that is to come at the end of the age. When God says to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you,” that is judgment talk. And it will be based on how the world treats Abraham and his seed. God’s purpose in all this is that all the families of the earth should be blessed.

Understanding this as eschatology, now I can see how it will be fulfilled when King Jesus comes again. He told us about it in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”

Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”

Then He will also say to those on the left hand, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.”

Then they also will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?” Then He will answer them, saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
This is a passage that has often been misunderstood. With the very best of intentions, of course, but misunderstood nonetheless. It has been supposed that Jesus is teaching us to be kind to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned in general. As if they are the “brethren” of Jesus merely by virtue of the fact that they are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick or in prison.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for taking care of the poor, the needy and the stranger. And the Scriptures repeatedly teach us to do what we can for them. But that is not what this parable is about. It is talking specifically about the “brethren” of Jesus. So, who are these “brethren”? Well, Jesus has already identified them for us, as we can see in an earlier portion of Matthew’s Gospel:

While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.”
But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50)
Those Jesus identifies as his brothers (and sisters and mother) are those who do the will of God the Father. And what is that will? Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:29). All those who receive Jesus are his disciples. At a certain point in His ministry, Jesus sent out the Twelve to preach the good news about the kingdom of God.
He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward. (Matthew 10:40-42)
Receiving Jesus’ disciples and the message of the gospel was the same thing as receiving Jesus Himself. Rejecting His disciples and message of the gospel the same as rejecting Jesus Himself.

At the end of Matthew, Jesus commissioned the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything that Jesus Himself taught. This commission extends to all who have become His disciples ever since. These are the brothers and sisters of Jesus, the seed of Abraham. Those who bless them, who believe the good news, will be blessed, and they will inherit the kingdom of God and enter into eternal life. Those who reject them, who reject the gospel, will be subject to chastisement in the age to come.