Perhaps every Christian has puzzled over how we would have responded to Jesus in the flesh. Would I have welcomed him or shunned him? Would I be a disciple, a Pharisee, or part of the faceless crowd? Yet when Jesus teaches about the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), he hits closer to home than we expect—and gives us the answer.
Jesus in Need
The Son of Man sits on his throne of glory and separates all people. To the sheep he declares that they may inherit the kingdom “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” while the goats may not “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink”(Matt 25:35, 42). In confusion and desperation, both groups ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty?”(Matt 25:37, 44). These people know how they would treat Jesus; they just didn’t know they had been given opportunities to serve him. After all, who would leave Jesus in need?
“Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”(Matt 25:40). I was all around you, in every need you encountered, in every hurt heart, in every downcast face. What you did—and what you didn’t do—you did to me. The natural desire we have to serve and take care of him he expects us to transfer to helping others. It gives new meaning to “serving Jesus.” Suddenly we turn our eyes to the world around us and see that Jesus is suffering, weak, grieving, poor, tired, and neglected all around us. Do we care? Do we react? Do we serve? What we do—and do not do—for those in need around us, we do to him.
Jesus in the Pulpit
What if we had a chance to hear Jesus preach? How would we respond? Would we argue with him? Critique his clothes or sermon organization? Jesus tells the seventy as he sends them out to preach, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me”(Luke 10:16). Our reception of one who speaks for Jesus is equivalent to our reception of him. It is his message. To be sure, we must carefully consider whether the message is authentically from Jesus (1 John 4:1), yet we must beware rejecting Jesus simply because we can find fault with the man through whom he is working. “The one who rejects you rejects me.”
Paul tells the Ephesians that Jesus “came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near”(Eph 2:17). When did this happen? Jesus never traveled to Ephesus during his time on earth, yet he preached peace to the Ephesians. How? When Paul preached there, Christ preached there. In how many places in our world does Jesus regularly sit down at kitchen tables, stand behind lecterns, and give sound advice in conversation, only to be ignored? How often do we hear his voice and turn away simply because he works representatively through people? “The one who rejects you rejects me.”
Jesus in His People
When Jesus appears to Saul on the Damascus road, he asks a penetrating question: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”(Acts 9:4). Saul had not persecuted Jesus directly, yet in persecuting his people, Saul had attacked Jesus personally. Jesus is in his people.
Later than same man declares that Jesus is in him. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”(Gal 2:20). Paul is a different man, but it is not due to a series of self-help techniques and incredible self-will. It is Jesus’ work. Jesus is alive in him. At times we attempt to de-spiritualize the process of life transformation and make it into a set of rules and standards that emphasize our responsibility. Truly we must choose to “live by faith in the Son of God,” yet it is Christ in us who has the power to forgive us, make us new, and empower us to do good again. When we fail to recognize Jesus in his people, it leads to self-glory.
If Jesus were with us physically, how would we live? Would we struggle with the temptations and sins that currently vex us? “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body”(1 Cor 6:19-20). Only when we feel ourselves distant from Jesus do such sins make sense. Somehow we convince ourselves that Jesus’ bodily absence means spiritual distance. Yet if Jesus is in his people—if his Spirit is in us—if the Father is in us—then he deserves the same focused, diligent obedience that I would give him if he lived in my house!
And if Jesus is in his people, then I long to honor and further his work in others. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”(Phil 1:6). As others bear his image more fully, mature in perspective, and grow past former weaknesses, I long to praise God with them! I’ve seen Jesus!
How would we have responded to Jesus in the flesh? These passages suggest that our response would be quite similar to how we treat him now. Jesus is all around us—in deep need, in teaching, in his people. Are we ignoring him, shunning him, or welcoming him?
by Jacob Hudgins