Paul gives the same warning to us that Jesus gave to the Jewish leaders in the parable of the tenants and the vineyard. To Gentile Christians, he says, “Don’t take your place for granted, either!” Romans 11:20 says, “[The branch of Israel was] broken off because of unbelief, but you stand [in their place] by faith. Do not be arrogant, but beware, because if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.” We wouldn’t be the first people in history that God had discarded and then started over with someone new.
What exactly is the difference between those who go to heaven and those who go to hell? According to the parable of the sheep and goats, it had little to do with how much they went to church or (more surprising) what they believed. There isn’t a single word about that. The only difference in the sheep and the goats is what they did or did not do: whether or not they were actively, tangibly engaged in the mission of God and generous toward the poor, particularly poor believers. Apart from that, all other religious activity is useless.
Sometimes when I look into the mirror now, I’ll see Lynn Greear, my dad, looking back at me. And as much that startles me (reminding me of the steady aging process), I am ultimately OK with that. I love my dad and have always wanted to become the man he is. The same thing happens to us, on a spiritual level, with God our Father. When we believe the gospel, no longer do we live under a Law that forces us to do what we don’t want to do. Christ’s Spirit comes into us and changes our desires so that obeying the Law is what we desire to do because we love our Father and want to be like him. The gospel frees us to obey God.
When Paul addresses the Galatians as “you dear idiots” in Galatians 3 (Phillips), it’s for good reason. Paul is saying, “You understood the gospel so clearly! It was like Jesus had died right in front of you. Like you were there and saw his wounds and heard him say, ‘It is finished.’ But now, you’ve gone away from that.” Then he asks a question: How did you first receive the Spirit?
When Jesus says in Matthew 25:40, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (CSB), who exactly is he talking about? Some want to equate “the least of these” with all poor everywhere, and certainly God wants us to care for all the poor. But here in this parable, he is specifically talking about poor Christians. Whenever Jesus uses the language of “little ones” in Matthew, he’s always talking about his followers. The term “least of these” is simply the superlative form of “little ones,” which is one of Jesus’ favorite phrases for his disciples (see Matthew 10:42; 12:50; 18:6, 10, 14).
Jesus’ message was that all of us—at our very best—fall far short, and need a Savior. We’re all alike wicked before God. Both oppressor and oppressed have the same sinful heart that needs to be redeemed. I thank God that he extends grace to outsiders, because that’s the only kind of people there are. This gospel message never changes. But your response to this message means everything.