Sheep on one side, goats on the other

Our church recently signed on to an initiative of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church, USA. As a “Matthew 25 Church,” we pledge to work on at least one of the following:

  • Building congregational vitality.
  • Dismantling structural racism.
  • Eradicating systemic poverty.

As a city-center church, we would have to try not to be involved in those things. In the center of the city, the hurts of the world press in on us.

Signing up to be a “Matthew 25 Church” is easy.

Or is it?

Matthew 25:31-46 is Jesus’ picture of final judgment, and it follows page after page of blood-chilling warnings of judgment. Jesus said that one day, the “Son of Man will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.” He will separate people, much like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

And what will separate the “sheep” from the “goats?”

Whether you fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner. Three more times in quick succession Jesus repeats this list.

Few things in scripture are clearer than Jesus’ own criteria for judgment day.

When you understand that Jesus saved you at infinite cost to himself; when you understand that he bore in his body the judgment you deserved, you will gladly care for the “least” in Jesus’ kingdom.

Jesus said, “Eternal punishment” awaits those who don’t. Few things in scripture are clearer than that too.

In its desire to care for hurting people and sign up more “Matthew 25 Churches,” the PCUSA often forgets that God is a God of judgment too. We all tend to follow the teachings of Jesus we like, and ignore the ones we don’t. Denominations do it too.

This week, a young man came before Pittsburgh Presbytery to be approved for ordination. In his statement of faith, he said Jesus’ “atoning sacrifice provides forgiveness of sins and satisfies the wrath the God.” It’s true; Presbyterians have said this for 500 years. Yet the young man was lectured for being insensitive for using the word “wrath.” Some even voted against his ordination because of it.

Being a Matthew 25 church cannot just mean living out the parts of scripture that are socially acceptable or politically correct. Without judgment, without God’s righteous indignation against sin, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is worse than meaningless. It means that God isn’t loving, but arbitrary and cruel.  

Judgment and love are inseparable parts of God’s character.

A Matthew 25 church will care for the ones Jesus loves.

And, with his help, a Matthew 25 church will proclaim his truth. All of it.


Matthew 25 is the climax of Jesus’ final speech. Jesus paints an incredible word picture of the throne room of God. Everyone who ever lived is standing before Jesus for final judgment. It’s an awesome, terrifying thing to imagine.

What standard will Jesus use to make the ultimate judgment?

Did you feed, clothe, care for, or visit hurting people?

The criteria are as down-to-earth as the vision is grand

Jesus says that in the end there will be just two categories. You’re either blessed or cursed, depending on whether you took part in simple ministries of food, shelter, and visitation.

That’s it. That’s Jesus’ basis for dividing up people for eternity.

Surprising? Yes, but not in the way you probably think. Jesus goes on to say that everyone will be surprised on judgment day. The ones who are blessed will be surprised because they know they’re not worthy to stand before a Holy God. They know that nothing they could ever do could make them worthy.

But the ones destined for eternal fire are surprised too. “What do you mean we didn’t serve the hurting people?” they demand to know. Instead of throwing themselves on the mercy of a Holy God, begging for forgiveness, they’re indignant.

Self-righteousness is so deadly because the first thing it kills is your self-awareness.  When you’re self-righteous, no one, not even God, can tell you that you’ve been justifying yourself.

On judgment day, the ones who know they should be out, are in. They ones who think they’re in, are out.