This is no doubt one of the scariest passages in the whole Bible, and from the lips of Jesus. It does though first need to be correctly understood before its full weight can be appropriately felt and applied. The critical text to notice is the repeated, first positively and then negatively, statement of Jesus’. “As you did to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (25:40). “As you did not do to one of the least of these my brothers, you did not do it to me” (25:45).
Behind this is the theology of the church, so well understood by the apostle Paul, that the church is Jesus’ body, and that when we persecute the church we are persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:4—“why are you persecuting me,” when Saul was persecuting the church). In other words, when we take care of one of these brothers or sisters of Jesus, one of his people, one of the church, we are taking care of Jesus himself. There is a true spiritual union between the church and Christ, the church as Christ’s body. So the right application of this text in Matthew 25 is specifically and particularly to taking care of suffering, imprisoned, persecuted, fellow Christians.
Of course, the Bible does also talk about taking care of non-Christians. We are to be like the Good Samaritan and love our neighbor as ourselves, whatever it is that they believe or don’t believe. Do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We are to take care of those who are persecuted and suffering who do not share faith in Jesus with us.
But Matthew 25 is talking about a particular responsibility, necessity in actual fact, that a real Christian will care for other Christians. Only when this text is interpreted in this light can it avoid becoming legalistic. After all, who has ever done enough caring for the poor or the disadvantaged? How could we ever gain peace before God by doing enough good deeds? But if this text is saying that a real Christian (a sheep, not a goat) has a characteristic concern for other Christians, then the text makes sense, and it can be rightly applied.
That said, that this passage is talking about care for other Christians, the brothers and sisters of Christ, his body, it still in no way prevents us from feeling the force of its necessary application. We are to take care of those Christians who are being persecuted. How are we doing as individuals and as a church in this regard? When our fellow Christians are thrown in jail, do we do what we can to help them, visit them, clothe them, feed them? Or do we just ignore them—if we might on occasion pray for them a little bit?
Perhaps one of the most powerful modern renditions of this passage is Keith Green’s version of the story. He sings the words and lets the words have their full impact.
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