The Final Show-Down
It was once said that a good sermon is marked by an excellent beginning, an even more superlative conclusion, and the bit in-between. No doubt someone spoke tongue-in-cheek; still, there is a certain truth that just as an introduction to a good sermon draws the listener in, so the way it ends brings home to the listener, and keeps with the listener, the meaning of that message. The end of Jonathan Edwards' most famous sermon, `Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,' shows the power of such a conclusion. It builds to an awesome crescendo all that he has said thus far and leaves his congregation in no doubt whatsoever that a terrible fate will be theirs if they don't belong to the Lord.
This is a pattern seen, though, long before Jonathan Edwards, and even before our Lord spoke the words of this sixth major discourse, the sermon called `The Olivet Discourse.' There are various examples of this in the Old Testament. One is the way that the last psalms lead up to the grand finale in the one hundred and fiftieth. Or consider the ending that is so decisive in Ecclesiastes, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (12:13f).”
Matthew himself has shown this device in the earlier discourses of the Lord. `The Sermon on the Mount' ends with the clear contrast of `The Wise and Foolish Builders' (7:24ff), where the ultimate challenge is put to his disciples, and through them to all who have ever, or who will ever, hear the gospel. The other discourses show the same drawing together of His teaching in them by the succinct and cutting conclusion.
In Matthew's case, these endings are to further prove the end to which the Lord is now working in His Kingdom - through His Church. He is arguing with a largely Jewish readership that Jesus of Nazareth, by prophecy and fulfilment, was the promised Kingly Messiah. They knew the Jewish leadership and people had largely rejected this Jesus Christ as King, and Matthew is carefully showing how this is because they failed to recognise the spiritual nature of His Kingdom. He brought out particularly the teaching of Jesus about where His Kingdom now did reside - in His Church, the Body whose parts were all those who recognised Jesus as their Head and so joined themselves to those believing the same. It was the rejection of their true King by the majority of the Jews which is more than once the focus in the conclusions of the Lord's discourses. This conclusion to the last of His major discourses refers to that again - and this time it shows in most vivid way what that means.
He's Coming Back!
All the images of the returning master/bridegroom so far now become quite inadequate, as our Lord Jesus portrays His actual return. In a symbolic picture which brings in so much of Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah's triumph, He stirs His Church to see Him as also the One who will judge, and so vindicate them. Through all which the church militant must first pass, here is the scene they must keep before them - the end of the church triumphant!
The title of the `Son of Man' would have brought this vividly to the disciples. They would have known Daniel's prophetic vision where `one like the son of man' comes victoriously in the last scene in the vision of the four beasts, which represented four different world powers - the last being that of the devil (chapter 7).
It is the first time in any of His sayings in Scripture that He refers to Himself explicitly as King. It was not until His trial before Pilate that Jesus publicly acknowledged Himself as the King. So speaking this privately with His disciples, and by its being recalled by Matthew, is to point out to them about the time which will be fulfilled.
The Sheep and the Goats
The use of different animals to describe different human characteristics or conditions is very common and very historical. With many depending on the land in times past, these descriptions of people, using animals, would have rung a bell with them, and so it comes down to us today.
Animals, however, can differ in different parts of the world. So what is attributed to them in one continent doesn't relate to that species in another. Even what is attributed to an animal from another continent can be wrong, too. Think about how many people have been described as `ostriches', because they are not prepared to face the reality of a particular situation - it is said “they have their heads in the sand just like ostriches'. The problem is that ostriches don't put their heads in the sand, they actually rest their heads on an angle upon the ground.
We find the same with the `sheep' and the `goats' Jesus pictures here. The background is essential. For during the day both the sheep and the goats were herded together, and at night they were separated - the goats usually into the shelter of a cave, as they both needed to be kept warm at night and be well fenced in because of their restlessness; and the sheep placed in a pen-fold in the open, as they preferred the fresh air and were more docile and gentle.
The Australasian image of sheep can be distracting, as our sheep are in large flocks and often exhibit `silly' behaviour. The Palestinian sheep, though, were in small flocks, and with a shepherd who usually knew each one of them by name. The difficulty for the shepherd, then, was that those sheep and goats looked so much alike. In shape and colour it was difficult to tell from a distance, and so closer scrutiny was often needed. In the same way that on the outside people in the church appear to be the same, so it's the Lord - the penultimate Shepherd - who can see the key distinguishing features.
The `Right' Kind
The first group the King deals with on His return are those on His right. `Right' here is a symbolic word meaning those receiving His favour. As Christ Jesus sits on the right hand side of the Father, as the most honoured guest in first century Palestine sat immediately on the right of the host, so these “sheep” are His chosen and precious saints.
It is a comforting word for the disciples and all Christians through the ages. They who have looked with the longing of faith for the coming of their Saviour and Lord, receive the reward of their inheritance. They know it is coming, but they don't think of themselves as having earned it in any way whatsoever. It is all by God's grace alone. Their destiny was settled and the kingdom prepared for them by the gracious decree of a sovereign God “since the creation of the world.” (v34.)
That's why they exclaim, in response to the King's elucidation of what they have done for Him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” (v37ff).
Their good actions have naturally flowed from believing hearts. They weren't thinking of credit for themselves at all. That's why they were surprised.
The now judging King shows what they had inside which couldn't help but show up on the outside, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (v40). Just a cup of water, if given in Jesus' name, as He said elsewhere, is rewarded. They have proven what is on their hearts. The fruits of faith have been shown. As James does in his letter, so the Lord points out here - faith is confirmed by actions.
Those `Left' Behind
Then the King turns to those on His left. This has sadly resulted in some stigma, such as the prejudice left-handed people have endured, occurring in previous generations. In the time of our Lord, all omens on the left meant bad luck. Yet the word itself could also mean “a good name” depending on the context, and “left” elsewhere is seen in a favoured connection (Matt.20:21,23).
In this passage, it is tied to the position of the goats. They are clearly different from the sheep, as Jesus shows by what they have not done, when He recites the same list of six. Naturally, they are surprised too, more so because they don't remember having actually failed to do any of these acts to the Lord Himself. Then Jesus exposes what is on their hearts too, though this time to the detriment of their position for all eternity.
There should be no doubt that this refers to a time that goes on and on - so as much those on the Lord's right enjoy eternal pleasure with Him, so much do those on His left go to eternal anguish and pain.
It is a grim line on which to end. Matthew, in compiling his gospel, would have been fully aware of how this fitted into his theme. But Calvary is about to take place. The suffering and death of their Master would soon overtake them. Later on, they would be brought through that, and become leaders of His Church. And as leaders in His Church, they would have to constantly remind those in the churches that they must always be ready. Any moment the Master might be back. Then they will be judged for all eternity. Will you be found on the right side? Have you been showing you're wide awake?