Summary: The Great Assize
ACCOUNTABILITY BEFORE JESUS
This passage speaks to us of our final accountability before Jesus. Many people will acknowledge our accountability before God, whatever that may mean to them: but there is no reckoning with God without Jesus (John 14:9). This is not just for those who believe in Him: “all peoples” shall be gathered before Him (Matthew 25:32).
As is usual in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus refers to Himself as “the Son of man” (Matthew 25:31). The name means ‘human being’ - and may well cause us to wonder at the amazing grace of God in sending forth His own only begotten Son ‘that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16). God became man in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ with the express purpose of drawing unworthy sinners into the family and kingdom of God (Matthew 25:34).
The Old Testament vision of the enthronement of the “Son of man” by the ‘Ancient of days’ (Daniel 7:13-14) is replicated here (Matthew 25:31-32). God’s judgment does not take place without reference to our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus first identifies Himself as a shepherd (Matthew 25:32-33), then as the King (Matthew 25:34; cf. Matthew 2:2; Matthew 21:5; Matthew 27:37) - and, incidentally, as the unique Son of God (Matthew 25:34).
Jesus elsewhere refers to Himself as the good Shepherd, who gives His life for the sheep (John 10:11; John 10:14). I thank my God that Jesus is the One who seeks out the one who has gone astray (Matthew 18:12-14). I would not be here today if that were not true.
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between sheep and goats, but those who run their flocks together know the difference, and separate the one from the other at the end of the day. In today’s passage, Jesus shows Himself separating the “sheep” from the “goats” at the Great Assize (Matthew 25:32). The one He sets on His right hand, the other on the left (Matthew 25:33).
What makes the difference? How we treat “one of the least of these my brethren,” says Jesus (Matthew 25:40; Matthew 25:45). Jesus has referred to this before: we must not ‘offend one of these little ones which believe’ in Him (Matthew 18:6).
This is not justification by works, as a superficial reading might suggest. According to Paul, we are ‘saved by grace through faith… not of works, so that no one can boast.’ Those who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ are seen as God’s workmanship, ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works’ (Ephesians 2:8-10).
James agrees. Faith is only really evidenced where there are works following (James 2:17-18). Ultimately the difference between the “sheep” and the “goats” lies in the way that we receive the ‘little ones’ - i.e. the disciples and their message (Matthew 10:40-42).
There is still a place for works of mercy in our style of life. We are called to ‘do good to all’ - but ‘especially to those who are of the household of faith’ (Galatians 6:10). We share Jesus’ compassion for the multitudes (Matthew 9:36-38), but it is love of the brethren that more thoroughly characterises Christians (1 John 3:14; Hebrews 13:1).
Remember that Jesus was speaking to His disciples (Matthew 24:1-2). However, the inclusion of this passage in Matthew’s Gospel universalises the message. It stands as an encouragement to those who have done right by Jesus and His disciples, and a warning to those who have done them wrong.
We must judge ourselves. Are our good works based upon humanitarian considerations? That would make us a philanthropist, a ‘do-gooder’, not a Christian.
Are our good works an attempt to manipulate God, to earn ‘brownie points’ for heaven? ‘Oh, I do harm to no man, and help when I can.’ That is justification by works, not the faith of Abraham.
‘We must examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith’ (2 Corinthians 13:5). On this depends our eternal salvation; nothing else will suffice. Our good works will then naturally and instinctively arise out of our faith.