When working on a media project a few years ago, I decided to use the familiar picture from the parable of the sheep and goats to describe Christians helping those less fortunate in an “outreach” setting. Most of the people were presumably lost. I decided to read the passage carefully to make sure the wording was correct. As I read it, a sudden clarity came to me that the passage was referring to helping believers specifically, not just anyone who needed it. I immediately started praying about this, and dug into Scripture to find if there was anything else that might point to the same truth. Below are some notes from that journey.
Toward the end of Matthew, Jesus describes one of the judgments to occur, in which He pictures Himself separating “sheep and goats”. The basis for separation has to do with the individual’s actions.
“’For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; …
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You?’ …
“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.‘ (Matthew 25:35-40 NASB, abbreviated)
Jesus Identifies Himself With His Disciples
In this passage, Jesus brings together terms and images that He had earlier used to described His relationship to believers. For example, on two earlier occasions, He associated His followers with Himself. First when He was sending out His twelve disciples:
“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” (Matthew 10:40 NASB)
Then He made the same point when describing who would be great in Heaven; Jesus linked Himself to believers, the “little ones” who enter the Kingdom as children.
“Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:4-6 NASB)
Jesus also used this picture later when he confronted Paul on the road to Damascus, where He asks why Paul had been persecuting Him. Paul had been persecuting the disciples.
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4b NASB)
Jesus identifies Believers as His Brothers
Another image Jesus had used was describing believers as His brothers. This occurred earlier, while He was speaking to the crowds, but also after His resurrection when He encountered the women leaving His tomb.
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 12:49-50 NASB)
Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.” (Matthew 28:10 NASB)
1 John Compared to the Parable
Jesus used these images to answer the “righteous” in His description of the judgment. The righteous were questioning when they had encountered the King Himself. Jesus answered that whenever they had helped a believer, they had helped Him. This association between believers and our Lord works two ways. When we minister to the needs of another brother or sister, we minister to Christ. When we minister to the needs of a lost person we minister as Christ.
Using this picture, Jesus is effectively saying that the King will distinguish people by how they treated His followers. John’s first letter also makes this point; he describes the same truth in a series of statements. Note how closely John’s description parallels Matthew’s account: love of the brethren is how we show that we have been saved, it is shown by helping the brethren with worldly means, and it gives us confidence at judgment.
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:14-17 NASB)
By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. (1 John 4:17 NASB)
Evidence of Salvation
It’s important to note, though, that these actions are a sign of the righteous’ relationship with Jesus, not the thing that gives them that relationship. The writer of Hebrews makes this clear by pointing out that love (“ministering to the saints”) is evidence of salvation, not the cause.
But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. (Hebrews 6:9-10 NASB)
And Peter also makes this clear, in that we are to love one another for (because) we have been born again, not in order to be born again.
Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:22-23 NASB)
Further Evidence of Salvation and Priorities
Although love of the brethren is the King’s evidence of salvation, the righteous are not to stop there. Throughout Scripture we are exhorted to help all people. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul points this out, and states that the love of the brethren is only a priority, not a place to stop.
Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Galatians 6:9-10 NASB)
And in 1 Thessalonians he also states that we are to love everyone.
Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. (1Thessalonians 3:11-13 NASB)
But in his first letter, Peter also echoes the clear priority, differentiating between honoring all, and loving the brethren.
Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17 NASB)
Identification with Faith
Paul associates faith specifically with love of the Brethren in several of his letters.
We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; (Colossians 1:3-4 NASB)
For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; (Ephesians 1:15-16 NASB)
Seen by the World
Lastly, Jesus points out that it is not just the King who will distinguish His disciples by how they love one another, but also the world itself.
“A new commandmentI give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NASB)
The relative importance of believers in God’s plan to redeem the lost makes sense if we remember that everything must always start with God Himself, and move out from there. Just as Jesus came first for the lost sheep of Israel, and sent His disciples first there, so His disciples must be honored first. The focus is not on the lost, to bring them to Christ, but on Christ, bringing God to the lost. This is why, when the world looks at the Brethren having love for one another, they see the Presence of God.
In changing the priority, we orient ourselves to the world’s priorities. The world cares nothing special for the disciples of Christ, but does recognize the need to help the unfortunate. By placing the priority on physical distress over spiritual distress, we effectively agree with the world. We do not see Christ when we look at a lost person, no matter how hungry, thirsty, homeless, bare, sick, or imprisoned they are. And that’s the point. They literally need Christ more than their next breath. For no matter how bad off they are, no matter how pitiful their condition, no matter how bad we feel for them, they are not as bad off as they will be in hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.