At first glance, it looks like Jesus is changing His mind about how you get into heaven. He tells His disciples that He’ll be coming back to lay the final smack down on “all of the nations” (v. 32); He’ll divide them up and give them His final assessment, which, in short, looks something like this:
“You guys on the right. You were fed me, showed hospitality, clothed me, and helped me out when I was sick and in prison. Not literally; I’m talking about the poor and destitute. You’re good to go.
“But you guys, on the left. All that stuff I just mentioned? You didn’t do any of that. Eternal punishment for you. See you later. Actually, I won’t.”
Did God’s grace run out? Did Jesus lose His patience and finally decide to give the ungrateful mercy-mongers the shaft? Is the road to heaven marked by good works rather than by the love of the Father?
The Bible is very clear that there is only one way to heaven: it is through Jesus Christ. We must acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. That means recognizing that we don’t have what it takes to get to heaven, and that Jesus does; He holds the keys.
At face value, however, the passage in question tells us that Christianity is no different than any other religion, that it’s only a matter of being really nice to people and doing good stuff. Most other religions acknowledge this same brownie-point system. But what’s the specific standard, if this is the case? Can I just be a really good person and get into heaven?
We can’t take this lightly at all, and we cannot afford to be wrong on the matter, because, if the Bible is true, the consequences are permanent (v. 46); you’re either eternally with God or eternally without Him. There’s no going back.
Why would God punish anyone? In this scenario, He is sending people to “eternal fire” for not performing the works described earlier. But it’s important to recognize that this is WILLFUL IGNORANCE; the people Jesus is addressing have noticed that poor, hungry, naked, and imprisoned people exist, yet nothing is done. It is clear that they do not embody the love of God. Jesus said people will know whether we’re part of His crew or not by our love.
In contrast, those who get to go are philanthropic, loving people. They give it all away. Jesus acknowledges it and rewards them with an inheritance that He has prepared for these people “before the creation of the world.” (v. 34)
An inheritance? That’s a funny word to use, because an inheritance requires two things:
1) Someone’s death.
2) The acknowledgement of someone’s death by another party.
So, Jesus is saying that the good-deeds folk get an inheritance; but the strangest part of the deal is that the reward is no reward at all. It can’t be earned; someone else triggers the reward through a death.
The person’s death is obvious: it is Jesus Himself. He already mentioned He’d be handed over to the authorities to be killed (Matthew 20:17-19). In order to receive the inheritance, the good deeds people have to (and, in this case, already did) acknowledge this death.
So, if the inheritance — a.k.a. “Heaven” — is automatic based on Jesus’ death, why did Jesus go on and on about the good works?
Let’s move backward one more step: before Jesus addresses the groups, He separates them — He labels one group “sheep” and the other “goats”. And if you know about Jewish culture, the sheep are considered “clean” animals, and the goats are very much “unclean.” How can people become either sheep or goats? You can’t BECOME one or the other — you either are or you aren’t. This can only mean there is justification beyond your own efforts.
If you’re stuck believing that there are multiple ways to heaven, that all religions are basically the same, and that you can find salvation through your own efforts, these are delusions and distortions of what Jesus is saying.
1) There is only one way to heaven.
2) It is impossible to earn it.
3) The alternative to heaven is hell.
4) The decision is final.
5) You only need to call Jesus Lord to make it happen, captain.
So, when the judgment comes, which side will you be standing on? Will you receive the inheritance, or will you be cast aside? The choice is yours.