Last time we briefly looked at the stories Jesus told at the end of Matthew 24 and the beginning of Matthew 25. But, we left off the story in Matthew 25 that some call the “Final Judgment.” The question is, “Isn’t Jesus talking about his ‘Second Coming’ in this story?” I have wrestled with this passage over and over again. I think it can be tied with the rest of these stories as an illustration of Jesus’ return. Although, I admit, some scholars see this story as being tacked on to the others. That is, it may not have any reference to the other stories at all and might very well be a story about Jesus’ “final coming.” So, it could go either way. But, for the sake of argument, let’s see how it would fit into the stories of Jesus coming within his generation.
Matthew 25.31-46. “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
This story falls in line with the stories about the return of the “master,” “groom,” or “man.” It’s not so much about the time between the leaving and the return as it is about the handing out of decisions based on what the “servant,” “bridesmaids,” or “servants” did while the “master,” “groom,” or “man” was away. This scene, therefore, looks more like a courtroom. There are two groups of people—a “wise” group and a “foolish” group—and a “judge.” The judge looks at the lives of the two groups of people—how they acted—and hands down his verdict. The wise group is rewarded and the foolish group is condemned. That’s the same story as the previous stories. Except, like I stated, this is more about the verdict than the time between the “going” and “return.”
But what about the “nations?”
This might get a little dense but I’ll try to make it as simple as possible. All throughout the history of Israel, they were often referred to as “nations.” Yahweh told Abraham that he would be “the father of many nations” (Genesis 17). When Rebekah was pregnant with Esau and Jacob, Yahweh told her “Two nations are in your womb” (Genesis 25.23). Yahweh told Jacob his descendant would be “a large group of nations” (Genesis 35.11).
The Church was also seen as a nation. Peter claimed that the followers of Jesus, made up of Jews and Gentiles, were a “holy nation” (1Peter 2.9; cf. Exodus 19.6). And Jesus said that the “kingdom of G_d” would be taken from the Jews and “given to a nation that produces the proper fruit” (Matthew 21.43; NLT).
Next, notice that the verdict surprised the plaintiffs. Clearly the people who thought they were in the right were shocked to see that they were actually in the wrong. We see this again and again in the Gospels. The Jews of Jesus’ day thought they they and they alone were the people of G_d. And not just them as a whole, but only certain classes of Jews, i.e., the religious leaders, the zealots, the Essenes, etc. Since they were children of Abraham, they assumed that they would automatically be in the right. But they weren’t. In fact, John the Baptist told some of them, “And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, ‘Abraham is our father.’ I tell you that G_d is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones” (Matthew 3.9). Jesus agreed with John and told them, “If you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example” (John 8.39; NLT). Again and again in the New Testament, the writers stated that the followers of Jesus were really the “children of Abraham” and therefore, the true people of Yahweh. But the verdict was still out. In the first century we had different groups, different “nations,” who were saying that they were the real people of G_d. This story is about the “Human One” deciding. If we look at the fall of Jerusalem as the verdict then we will see that it was the Christians who were the “real” people of G_d. In keeping with the previous stories, the Jews were the “foolish” people and the followers of Jesus were the “wise” people.
Now, it should be noted here that most of the early followers of Jesus were Jews. The Gentiles didn’t come until later. This is something that we, in modern Western culture, just don’t get. The Bible refers to a judgment of the community and an individual judgment. The first-century Jews, as a whole, didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, the first-century Jews, as a whole, killed him and sought to destroy the whole movement. This is seen in the Gospels and the book of Acts. Saul, who became Paul, had written authority from the first-century Jewish leadership to imprison people of The Way (see Acts 8.1; Acts 9.1-2; Acts 22:5, Acts 26:10). This was one of the main reasons that Jerusalem was destroyed. But not every Jew followed along. Only the “foolish” Jews followed along. The “wise” Jews listened to Jesus, believed him, and fled the city when the signs of judgment loomed on the horizon. Eusebius wrote*:
But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.
This is why Jesus told his followers to not go back to the city or get their belongings; they would get caught in the judgement. They needed to be prepared ahead of time.
Finally, there is also the idea that these parables are not about the future (to them or us) but the “coming” of Jesus during his public ministry. All throughout his public ministry, Jesus was doing and being in ways that only Yahweh was supposed to do and be. Some see Jesus’ final coming into Jerusalem as the fulfillment of many Jewish Scriptures that refer to Yahweh’s coming (finally) to Jerusalem (e.g., Malachi 4). The parables, then, serve not as something coming in the future but a winnowing out of Yahweh’s people during the life of Jesus. In fact, John the Baptizer stated just that thing in Matthew 3, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon?...The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire” (emphasis added).
Well, that’s our brief look at Matthew 24 and 25. I maintain that this was the conversation that impacted the disciples understanding of the “time of the end.” Next time, we will address some questions I have received about the “coming” of Jesus. Click here for the next post in this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
* Church History, book 3, chapter 5, verse 3 (http://bit.ly/KWLJko).