What is true religion? If your answer focuses only on what you say you believe, there is a serious problem with what you believe, no matter how orthodox you claim to be. Notice how James 1:27 answers the question. James is reflecting what Jesus taught in Matthew 25:31–46.
Be ready to meet your Judge. Indifference is ultimately directed against Christ. This passage is more narrative than parable. The scene is that of the final judgment. Jesus separates the sheep from the goats. Those on Christ’s left are condemned because they neglected to meet his needs. In response to their shock, Jesus tells them that their failure to meet the needs of the least of these was a failure to meet his needs. The neglect of meeting the needs of those around us is more serious than we often realize, 1 Timothy 5:8. “It is precisely the devout who with eager longing await the day in which God will glorify his name before the eyes of all creatures, and in their cause God brings about the triumph of his own over all opposition…. All of history cries out for world judgment. The whole creation longs for it. All people witness to it. The martyrs in heaven cry out for it with a loud voice. The believing community prays for the coming of Christ. And Christ himself, the Alpha and the Omega, says: ‘See I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work’ [Rev. 22:12].” (Herman Ridderbos, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 699)
Eternal punishment awaits the disobedient. In this case judgment comes because of sins of omission. One doesn’t have to be a mass murderer in order to reap God’s judgment. The punishment Christ describes is terrible. Do away with popular notions of a red demon with a forked tail. Punishment is described in terms of eternal fire, verse 41. It is a place of anguish, verse 30. Anihilationism does not do justice to Christ’s description. Notice that both the fire (verse 41) and the life which is the reward of the righteous (verse 46) are described as eternal. The heart of the judgment, however, is not whatever torments may be involved in the fire, but rather in the absence from the presence of the Lord. Imagine experiencing nothing of his favor and love, but only his wrath against sin. It was that holy anger that Jesus not only tasted, but drank to the full on the cross. It was that anger that wrenched from him the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But that condemnation is only part of the picture.
Enter the kingdom prepared for you. In serving Christians, you serve Christ. The sheep are placed at the right hand of the Son of Man. Jesus explains that the righteous had cared for him:
- When he was hungry, they fed him.
- He was thirsty, and they gave him something to drink
- He was a stranger and they provided hospitality
- He needed clothes, and they provided them
- He was sick, and they looked after him
- He was in prison, and they visited him.
This list is repeated four times in this account. Jesus (and Matthew) want you to remember it! Note that this passage marks the last of Jesus’ teaching recorded in this Gospel. The righteous protest that they have not seen Christ, hungry, thirsty, etc. Jesus responds that what they have done for the least of these, his brothers, they have done for him. The connection between Christ and his people is so close, that what is done to them is done to him, see Acts 9:4; Colossians 1:24. Jesus is apparently speaking specifically of aid given to his disciples (see Matthew 10:42). Love in action marks the life of the believer, 1 John 3:17,18. The life of the covenant is far more than simply expressing the words, “Lord, Lord,” Matthew 7:21. It involves an entire life of obedience. Jesus is not teaching salvation by works. “On the day of judgment the good works of the righteous will certainly enter into the judgment of God, as well as their inherent righteousness that has been given to them at their death — not, however, as the basis of their righteousness before God but as the marks of the genuineness of their faith. And that not so much for themselves, for besides the fact that they have already been completely justified in this life, they, for the greater part, will also have already tasted for a considerable time the blessedness of heaven. This justification on the day of judgment will thus be an open justification, a… public justification… before the eyes of the world.” (Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 171) Note his own centrality as the Son of Man. Note that the kingdom is something that the righteous inherit. But how you live your daily life is crucially important.
Enter your inheritance. Jesus is present in majesty and glory. He is the Son of Man from Daniel 7. Note an element that is additional to Daniel. The Son of Man here functions as the judge (a role carried out in Daniel by the Ancient of Days). He comes in glory with his angels. He sits on his throne in glory. “Christ is the Son of Man who already precipitated a crisis by his appearance, continues it in history, and completes it at the end of time. Their relationship to him decides the eternal weal or woe of human beings. In his judgment of the living and the dead, he celebrates his highest triumph and realizes the consummation of his kingdom and the total subjection of all his enemies. For that reason the main issue in the final judgment is that of faith or unbelief. For faith in Christ is the work of God par excellence (John 6:29; 1 John 3:23). Those who believe do not come into judgment (John 5:24); those who do not believe are already condemned and remain under God’s wrath (John 3:18, 36).” (Herman Ridderbos, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 700) He graciously bestows on you your inheritance. It may be free to you, but it was purchased at great cost by him! Your inheritance is the kingdom. This kingdom is not a last minute award. It was prepared for you since the creation of the world. Your inheritance is described in the closing words as “eternal life.” It is life in its richest, fullest sense. It is life, not just as Adam and Eve experienced it in the Garden, but life that is even richer, for you are confirmed in your inheritance by the Son of Man himself.
Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, concludes his account of Jesus’ teaching. He is going to go on to describe the suffering, death, and resurrection by which he purchased that kingdom for you to inherit. But as he closes the words of Jesus, he leaves the questions echoing in your ears: Did you feed him when he was hungry? Did you give him water, invite him in, cloth him, look after him, and visit him? As you’ve done it to the least of the disciples, you’ve done it to Christ.