“How do I know I’m one of God’s people?” For those who believe in God, this is a question of utmost urgency. The answer places a framework for the Christian’s purpose in life. Ask this question to a randomly selected believer and you will likely get a wide variety of answers; some of these may be biblically sound, others perhaps not. “Do you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?” one might ask. “Do you keep the commandments?” or “Do you abstain from sin?” others may add.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus gives His look at a primary characteristic of those He calls the “sheep,” who “inherit the kingdom” (v. 34), and the “goats,” who “go away into everlasting punishment” (v. 46). While the outcomes for these groups differ greatly, one notable similarity is found in their replies (v. 37-39, 44). Neither has any idea that the small acts of service they did or did not do have an all-important, eternal impact!
“When did we do those things?” is the collective question of the sheep and goats. Of course, Jesus’ often quoted reply is, “As you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me” (v. 40).
Clearly, doing ‘these things’ to ‘the least of these’ is a matter of eternal life and death, but what are these things that hold such paramount significance?
Fortunately, Jesus was kind enough to name them clearly and specifically: “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,” (v. 35-36). Why did the Messiah choose these specific actions?
“I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink.”
The difference between hunger and appetite is that hunger is a need, while appetite is a want. You may control your appetite by eating at certain times and abstaining from certain foods. However, if you attempt to control your hunger by simply refusing to eat, you’ll die. Ignore your thirst and your life will be cut far shorter still. Jesus, the author and creator of life, is imploring His followers to share with anyone whom they are able to benefit through the simple gift of food or drink. Or is there more?
In Jesus’ ministry-commencing sermon (Sermon on the Mount) He opens with a peculiar list of blessings (Beatitudes). One of them is, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Jesus longs for us to fill the physical needs of those around us just as He did throughout His ministry, but in Matthew 25 as Jesus warns of the separation of the sheep and goats and the actions that define them, could He actually be delivering a power-packed, dual-meaning message on witnessing?
Just as Jesus filled both physical and spiritual needs, He commands His followers to do the same. When we encounter people who are spiritually hungry or thirsty, if we desire to be counted among the sheep, we must lead them to the bread of life (John 6:48) and welcome them to freely drink the water of life (Rev. 22:17).
“I was a stranger and you took Me in.”
The idea of opening the home to a stranger is extremely frightening for most people. Why? Perhaps the answer is found within the question. ‘Opening the home’ requires ‘opening’ aspects of life that may have previously been ‘closed.’ While Jesus is clearly stating that helping those needing shelter is important, what else is He saying?
The treatment of others, the activities enjoyed, and the walk with God are all most accurately depicted in the home. Take in a stranger, and the need to reform may suddenly arise. One possible reason Jesus includes taking in strangers as an imperative is that He realizes this will cause us to closely examine our lives and make beneficial changes that impact us presently and eternally. Additionally, Jesus calls His sheep to abandon living a merely quiet, private faith and instead let their belief in Him, and love for Him, be an example for all to see.
But is Jesus revealing even more than the need for personal reformation and setting an example?
Who is this stranger? God commanded through Moses, “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers….” (Exodus 22:21). Paul echoes that all were strangers, but adds, “You are no longer strangers…, but fellow citizens…of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). David refers to himself saying, “I am a stranger with You, a sojourner [traveler]….” (Psalm 39:12). All have been strangers on a spiritual journey, transitioning to citizenship.
Taking in a stranger means inviting spiritual seekers to take shelter in Christ the rock, and being used by Him to provide spiritual direction on the sojourner’s journey, “For You are my rock and my fortress; Therefore, …lead me and guide me” (Psalm 31:3). Jesus calls us to be like Him, inviting every stranger to become a citizen, and mentoring others as Jesus did the twelve.
But what about those who are not hungry or thirsty for righteousness, or strangers seeking spiritual direction; are they to be ‘respectfully’ left alone?
“I was naked and you clothed Me.”
Nakedness in the Bible typically refers to shame (Isaiah 47:3, Rev. 3:18). The naked one is not as likely to seek help as the hungry or thirsty. Similarly, while someone with a common need for spiritual sustenance (perhaps Bible studies or prayer requests) will often ask for help openly, an individual who is ashamed of his or her need (perhaps a secret sin) may hide in fear. Yet Jesus makes it clear that attending to the needs of the naked is just as important as attending to the hungry or thirsty.
Assisting each group also requires the helper to first have food or drink or clothing to give. Without a personal, ongoing experience with Christ and an understanding of who He is, we will have nothing to offer “the least of these.”
So how do we clothe the naked? “I counsel you to buy from Me…white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed” (Rev. 3:18). Jesus spoke these words to the church of Laodicea, which is noted for ignorance concerning spiritual need (Rev. 3:14-22). Christ’s sheep will understand the need for the naked to buy these white garments and be clothed, even if the naked don’t ask directly; even if the naked have no idea they are in fact naked. Jesus calls us to urge the naked to repent and join our joyful proclamation, “…He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness…” (Isaiah 61:10).
“I was sick and you visited Me.”
Jesus said it best, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Mark 2:17). This is more than a call to see your buddy in the hospital. Jesus pleads for His sheep to follow Him by desperately craving the salvation of every spiritually sick soul.
And though Jesus says, “you visited Me,” He doesn’t say, “you healed Me”. He does not imply we take the burden of being the Great Physician upon ourselves, but rather share in His longing for the salvation of souls.
This statement shows Jesus’ interest in the way we treat those who are sick (living in sin) and need a doctor (Himself). Do we disassociate, fearing contamination (1 John 4:7, 8)? Are we constantly around such individuals, willingly engaging in their sinful lifestyle (Romans 12:2)? Or, as Jesus simply puts it, do we visit them? Jesus gently highlights the importance of showing love for the spiritually sick, while still recognizing their (and our) need for healing that comes only from Himself.
“I was in prison and you came to Me.”
Jesus could have repeated the last three words of the previous statement with “you visited me”, but He chose not to. Is Jesus simply varying word usage, or is the Teacher subtly communicating far more than a casual observer would notice? A visit implies an expectation from both the visitor and the visited. It also implies briefness (as opposed to ‘extended visit’). With Jesus’ words ‘came to Me,’ no assumption of expectation or briefness exists.
Perhaps Jesus is reflecting on the criminal’s surprise that anyone would ‘come to’ him when he has done something that deserves locking him up. Perhaps Jesus is also alluding to the fact that His sheep must readily ‘go to’ others—no matter the cost, distance, or timeframe—rather than remaining in their comfort zones.
So if Jesus’ message is one of dual purpose and meaning, who is represented by this individual in prison?
Prison, chains, and bondage are all referred to in the Bible as symbols of the hold sin takes on a person’s life (Ezra 9:7-9, Psalms 107:14, 79:11). Sin is easy to get into, and without help from Jesus, impossible to get out of. If the sick are the spiritually struggling, than those in prison are the afflicted and addicted, those helplessly immersed in sin. Jesus beseeches His followers to go to these individuals.
The Savior knows that many who claim to follow Him (goats) will comfortably ignore the prisoners altogether, rather than go to them while they are still in their mess. After the prisoners’ release is not the time Christ’s sheep go to them, but while they are still in prison. “…God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This does not imply the prisoners’ innocence or desire for deliverance, only a desperate need of both.
As with Jesus’ comment about the sick, the faithful Christian does not break the bonds of the prison chains. “The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners” (Psalm 146:7b). Only Jesus can free an individual from the cold grasp of sin, but the believer’s action of lovingly stepping outside of his or her world and going to the helpless prisoner is what Jesus calls His sheep to do.
• The hungry and thirsty are people who desire spiritual knowledge and ask for it. We are to lead them to the bread of life and invite them to drink the water of life.
• Strangers are those who seek spiritual guidance. We are to invite them to shelter in the Rock of salvation, and set an example for them by living what we profess daily.
• The naked are those who are either too ashamed to ask for spiritual help, or have no clue they even need help. We are to urge them to buy God’s white garments and be clothed by His grace.
• The sick are those who are struggling and/or living in sin. We are to show them love and lead them to the Great Physician for the healing we all desperately need.
• Those in prison are enslaved by sin. We are to show care by going to these individuals and revealing true freedom in Christ.
The actions Jesus utilizes as examples of unknowing behavior by His sheep (who will “inherit the kingdom” prepared for them) not only give us examples of serving the physical needs of others, but also an interesting look at the broad impact God’s people are to have on a world in desperate spiritual need.