Have you ever heard someone say, “I like Christ. I just don’t like Christians.” Jesus says that if you don’t like his disciples—if you reject them—you are rejecting Him. There is no version of Christianity that allows you to follow Christ while mistreating His body. And it won’t matter how much you profess your love for Christ if you reject and mistreat his body.
Yesterday during the panel discussion at the Poverty Summit, I noticed a repeated biblical allusion to the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40, 46). I think every speaker on the panel—including President Obama—used the phrase “least of these” to refer to our fellow citizens who live in poverty and who need help. This is how the phrase is commonly understood, and so it wasn’t a surprise to hear the panelists speak this way. The phrase stood out to me because I recently delivered a sermon to my church on this very text from Matthew’s Gospel (download here).
It turns out that the panelists’ use of this phrase is a classic case of right doctrine, wrong text. Yes, the Bible teaches about our obligation to care for the poor (e.g., Prov. 19:17). But contrary to popular belief, “the least of these” in Matthew 25:40 is not talking generically about our obligation to care for the poor and needy. We know this because the terms “least of these” and “my brothers” appear elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, and in each case the terms specifically refer to Jesus’ disciples who have been sent out into the world to preach the gospel.
For example, do you remember what Jesus said when his mother and brothers came to visit him?
“Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).
In this text, “brothers” is not a generic description of people created in the image of God. Jesus reserves the term “brothers” for those who are his disciples—those who believe and obey his word. And what are these”brothers” doing? They are preaching Jesus’ message.
In Matthew 10:7, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel of “the kingdom of heaven.” They are supposed to preach from house to house. They are supposed to give a greeting of peace to anyone who receives them. They are to shake the dust off their feet when someone does not receive them. Why? Because when people receive Jesus’ messengers, it’s a sign that they are receiving Jesus’ message. When people reject Jesus’ messengers, it’s a sign that they are rejecting Jesus’ message. Jesus says it this way:
He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me… And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones [same term as‘the least of these’ in 25:40, 45] even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you he shall not lose his reward (Matthew 10:40-42).
Likewise, in Matthew 18, Jesus refers to his disciples three times as “little ones” (vv. 6, 10, 14), and he uses the same term as “the least of these” in Matthew 25:40, 46. So when Jesus talks about feeding, clothing, and caring for the “least of these” inMatthew 25:40, he’s talking about his disciples. And he’s saying that if you mistreat them, it’s like mistreating him–which should be no surprise to us because we are his body. Anyone who rejects Jesus’ disciples by mistreating them is rejecting Jesus. In short, how you treat Jesus’ disciples reveals how you treat Jesus. How you have received Jesus’ messengers shows how you have received Jesus’ message. Your works will reveal whether you have believed the gospel or not. And your works will bear witness either for you or against you at the judgment.
In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says,
21 Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
As far as Jesus is concerned, it is your works, not your words, that reveal who you really are. And that is why at the final judgment, your works will be brought in. And they will either bear witness that you have experienced the grace of God. Or they will not. And God will assign your place in eternity based on whether or not you have received the grace of Christ.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I like Christ. I just don’t like Christians.” Jesus says that if you don’t like his disciples—if you reject them—you are rejecting Him. There is no version of Christianity that allows you to follow Christ while mistreating His body. And it won’t matter how much you profess your love for Christ if you reject andmistreat his body. What you do with Christ’s people will tell everything that needs to be told about you at the judgment.
This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus. This text shows us that Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers.
In the last day, all the people who thought they could get away with mistreating Jesus’ brothers and sisters are going to come face to face with reality. They are going to come face to face with their judge. And they are going to find out what justice is. And they won’t be taunting or mocking. They are going to be crying out for the mountains to fall on them to shield them from the Lamb of God come in judgment (Rev. 6:16-17). But there won’t be a mountain big enough or a hole deep enough for them to hide in. Jesus will arise as a dread champion for his people. And he will close the mouths of the scoffers and the persecutors once and for all.
These are the cosmic realities indicated by the “least of these.” I doubt that many of the people at the Poverty Summit were thinking in these terms. But these are the terms that we all need to reckon with because they are the terms of scripture. In the last day, the world will see that the wrong side of history will be to the left of Jesus. And what side you stand on will be determined by how you treated “the least of these.”
The good news is that Jesus offers mercy even to his enemies. If you have been at odds with the “least of these,” there is time to get this right. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, and he has been raised from the dead to offer us eternal life. We receive this gift of salvation simply by repenting from sin and trusting in Christ. That invitation of mercy is open to everyone reading this—including those who have mistreated the least of these.
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
–1 Timothy 1:13-16
Denny Burk is Associate Professor of New Testament and Dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.