A few weeks ago we sat in a restaurant in Shanghai with three Christians who worship in a house church. One of the Christians we’ll call Hank. Hank teaches mathematics. We asked him to tell us about his conversion to Christ. He said that it was one thing to believe in God. But it was an entirely different thing to believe in Jesus. To believe that God could become a man. To believe that God could be present on the earth in human form. He said he had to think for a very long time about it that. Because, for him, as a mathematician, he had to work through the logic of it all.
For many of us, we are so familiar with the idea of Jesus, that this issue doesn’t perplex us. But it is one which the Gospels are very interested in. How is God present through Jesus? How is Jesus present on earth? What does it mean for God to be present in Jesus on the earth?
When Matthew portrays the beginning of Jesus’ public presence and ministry on earth, he uses two summary statements:
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matthew 4:23 ESV)
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. (Matthew 9:35 ESV)
Matthew wants us to know that as Jesus began his public presence on earth, he went teaching and proclaiming good news about how God was going to rule in new ways through Jesus. And Jesus went healing every disease and every affliction. This is what it looked like for Jesus to be present on earth. And for 5 chapters, Matthew chapters 5,6,7,8, and 9, Jesus is present on earth in this way. He teaches and proclaims good news. He heals every disease and affliction.
Then, in chapter 10, a change comes in the way Jesus is going to be present on the earth:
And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. (Matthew 10:1 ESV)
Jesus selects twelve disciples and empowers them to do what he has been doing. Notice how part of their calling is described in exactly the same wording as Jesus’ calling. In Matt. 4 and Matt. 9 Jesus is described as “healing every disease and affliction.” In Matt. 10 Jesus calls these twelve disciples to “heal every disease and every affliction.” They are to do what he has been doing.
Then Jesus sends them out to do this very thing:
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. (Matthew 10:5-8 ESV)
Just as Jesus had been present on earth through teaching and proclaiming and healing, so he was sending these disciples to teach and proclaim and heal.
And, they would encounter all types of circumstances as they went and did this. Jesus goes on in this text to describe how they would be persecuted and imprisoned. They would be welcomed and fed. They would be rejected.
In all of this, these disciples would be, in essence, his presence–an extension of him on earth. In fact, Jesus says that when others received them as the disciples taught and proclaimed and healed, those people would actually be receiving Jesus himself.
“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me…And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:40, 42 ESV)
So, here’s the summary: God was present on the earth through Jesus. Jesus went about teaching and proclaiming good news about the way God was ruling in compassionate ways through the ministry of Jesus. Jesus also went about healing others. Then, Jesus called twelve disciples and sent them out to also teach and proclaim and heal. They were an extension of his presence on earth. When people received these these disciples, they were actually receiving Jesus. In fact, however people treated these disciples, they were actually treating Jesus in the same way.
In a small way, it’s like the way parents feel when their children are treated badly. The parents feel like those bad things are being done directly to them. When our daughter Jordan was pledging a social club at college. She was treated horribly during pledging. We’d FaceTime and text. And we’d hear stories of her being yelled at and mistreated. And we felt her pain. She’s our daughter. And we are so close that what’s done to her is almost like it’s done to us.
Jesus returns to this theme during his final week of public ministry. In the days before his death on the cross, Jesus speaks at length about the way in which he will be present upon the earth after his death. These words have the gravity of the cross behind them. Jesus knows the end is near. His own life is soon to finish. His ability to be present in flesh and blood is coming to a close. Yes, those of us who have read ahead know that he will be raised from the dead. Death has no hold on Jesus. But, we also know he is not just raised from the dead. He ascends to the Father. He physically leaves us. He is removed from us and takes up his place on his throne in heaven. And yes, those of us who have read ahead know that Jesus will be present among us by coming to live within us by his Spirit. This is the great gift of the Christian faith. No other faith teaches that God takes up permanent residence within each of his followers in the way that Christianity does. Still, this final week is it. Jesus’ flesh and blood presence will be cut short. It makes sense then that he would devote time to discussing how he plans to be present on earth after his death and resurrection and ascension.
A judgment scene in Matthew 25 is one of the ways in which Jesus addresses this:
31″When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
There is a lot going on in this scene. We won’t cover all of its ground. Let’s focus primarily on the theme of presence.
At the end of human history, Jesus will return. The return of Jesus is the final marker, the final milestone, which closes out what we call history. There are several scenes in the Gospels and elsewhere which note what will be important to Jesus when he returns. Here, Jesus draws attention to the way in which he has been present even though it may seem he has been absent.
First, Jesus describes times when he was present on the earth and he had the basic needs of someone who might be traveling: food, drink, clothing and fellowship. And in those times, some people welcomed him into their homes and fed him and clothed him and fellowshipped with him. Others did not. But at the time, neither group understood that the person whom they were sharing their table with or denying their table to, sharing their home with or denying their home to was actually Jesus.
Second, Jesus describes times when he was present on the earth and was sick and in prison. Prison in the ancient world was a filthy and uncomfortable place. So much so that being in prison was basically synonymous with being sick. And in those times when the hatred of some local, provincial or national group had led him to become imprisoned and to suffer, some had come to visit Jesus and do what they could to relieve his suffering. Others had ignored him. But at the time, neither group understood that the person they were visiting or ignoring was actually Jesus.
Just who was this Jesus in disguise?
It is widely thought that Jesus is describing the poor in general and that he was present on the earth in the poor. In any person who was hungry, in any person who was naked, in any person who was imprisoned, Jesus was present. Mother Teresa famously made use of this passage for her work among the poorest of the poor. She spoke of them as Jesus in “distressing disguise:”
We are taught from the very first moment to discover Christ under the distressing disguise of the poor, the sick, the outcasts. Christ presents Himself to us under every disguise: the dying, the paralytic, the leper, the invalid, the orphan. [Mother Teresa No Greater Love, 166]
While there is great sentimentality that might lead us to interpret these words in this way, taking into account all that we’ve seen in Matthew to this point makes it clear that this is not what Jesus is saying. Matthew 25 is Jesus returning to his statement in Matthew 10. There he said that anyone who received the disciples would be receiving him. Here Jesus says exactly the same thing.
The person traveling in Matt. 25 who is in need of food and water and some new clothes and some fellowship is not a poor person–it’s one of Jesus’ disciples from Matt. 10 whom he has sent out to teach and proclaim and to heal. And Jesus is saying that he is so present in those Christian workers, those Christian missionaries, those Christian servants, that when people invite one of those disciples in for a meal, provide them some new clothes for their travel worn clothes, and extend a hand of fellowship in a new city, those people are actually doing these things to Jesus himself.
The person in Matt. 25 who has been detained and who is now struggling behind bars is not a poor person–it’s one of Jesus’ disciples from Matt. 10 whom Jesus has sent out to teach and proclaim and to heal. And because of their association with the Christian faith, they have been imprisoned. And Jesus is saying that he is so present in those Christian workers, those Christian missionaries, those Christian servants, that when people come and visit those disciples in prison, or send care packages, or care for their loved ones while those disciples are behind bars, those people are actually doing this to Jesus himself.
What Jesus is teaching is this simple yet profound truth: Jesus is present in the world through his people. At one time he was incarnated in his own flesh and blood. Today he is incarnated through your flesh and blood. In this season of human history between his ascension and his return, he is present in the world through his people. We, his servants, his people, those whom he has sent out to proclaim, and teach, and heal, are his presence in the world today.
This is why, according to Acts 11:26, the disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch. That term “Christians” was a “slur.” It meant “little Christ’s.” The early disciples talked so much like Christ, thought so much like Christ, and acted so much like Christ, that the critics of Christ called the disciples “Christians”–little Christ’s. To be a Christian is to be a little Christ. It is to be his presence in the world.
This is why Jesus, in John 14-16, teaches in his final week, that he means to fill us with his Holy Spirit, he means to come and live within us by his Spirit, he means to incarnate himself within our flesh and blood by his Spirit. We are to become his hands and feet in the world as he dwells within us by his Holy Spirit. We are the way in which Jesus is present in today’s world.
And here’s the stunning truth–even the least of us is the presence of Christ. Notice that twice Jesus identifies “the least” as his presence in the world:]
40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (Matt. 25:40, 45 ESV)
The word “least” here means “smallest” or “most unimportant” or “youngest” or “lowliest.” Jesus is saying that even the least, even the lowliest, even the youngest, even the smallest, even the most unimportant Christian is his presence in the world today. Jesus is present in the world even through the plainest of his people.
James Bryan Smith writes about John of Kronstadt. John was a nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox priest at a time when alcohol abuse was rampant. None of the priests ventured out of their churches to help the people. They waited for the people to come to them. John, compelled by love, went out into the streets. He would lift the hungover, foul-smelling people from the gutter, cradle them in his arms, and say to them, “This is beneath your dignity. You were meant to house the fullness of God.”
In a way, Jesus, through this text, is coming to each and every one of of us. Each of us in our brokenness. Each one of us who follows him but who also knows our immense limitations, our sinfulness, our weaknesses, our lowliness, our plainness. And he is saying, “You are meant to house the fulness of Christ. You are my presence on this earth.” Jesus is present in the world even through the plainest of his people.
In his book Leaving Home, Garrison Keillor tells a fictional story about a family from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Grace Tollefson married Alex Campbell in the 1930s, a man who turned out to be a scoundrel. They had three kids—Earl, Marlys, and Walter. One day Alex left Grace. Penniless, she was forced to move back home to live off the kindness of others. But one day they got a letter from a man in Philadelphia doing research on Scottish nobility. He asked who their ancestors were so he could look it up. Grace wrote the man back, and a few days later another letter came in the mail. Though the envelope was addressed to Mrs. Grace Campbell, the letter was addressed to “Your Royal Highness.” In the letter the man wrote: “Today is the happiest day of my life as I greet my one true Sovereign Queen.” He went on to say that their branch of the Campbell family was first in the line of succession of the House of Steward, the Royal Family of Scotland. Keillor writes:
[The line on the chart led] right straight to them: Earl, Marlys, and Walter. The Royal Family of Scotland living in Lake Wobegon in a green mobile home, furniture donated by the Lutheran church. They were astounded beyond words. Disbelieving at first, afraid to put their weight on something so beautiful, afraid it was too good to be true, and then it took hold…Here they were in their same dismal place but everything had changed. They were different people. Their surroundings were the same, but they were different.
A single mother living in a mobile home turns out to be a queen.
Here is the truth of the gospel–no matter who you are, no matter how lowly you may feel, no matter how insignificant the culture around you may label you, if you are a follower of Christ, no matter how plain, you are his presence on earth. You are the presence of the King on this earth. And while this text focuses largely on the responsibility of others to treat you well because in treating you well they are treating Jesus well; and on your responsibility to treat Christians servants well because in treating them well you are treating Jesus well; the strong implication of this text is also that because we are his presence on this earth, we are called to represent him well. We are called to live out his identity in our lives. We are called at school, at work, at home, on the phone and on the computer and on the field and on the court to so live and love like Jesus, that people would mistake us for him. For it is Jesus’ intent to be present on this earth through us his people.