Scripture readings: Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24; Ps. 100 Eph.1:15-23; Matt.25:31-46 Sermon by Martin Manuel from Matthew 25:31-46
Responding to King Jesus
Today is Christ the King Sunday—the last Sunday during what the lectionary calls “ordinary time”—the time between Pentecost and Advent. Our readings today appropriately address the truth that God is the good shepherd, and his faithful sheep respond to his loving, protective care with worship. There is also a warning to those who don’t respond.
As our shepherd, Christ deals with predators who threaten his flock. It’s in that context that Matthew tells us of the time when Jesus returns and rewards the sheep who have followed him, separating out the goats who refuse his care. The context here reaches back to Matt. 24 where Jesus, sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple, tells his followers of events that will precede the Temple’s soon-coming destruction.
Jesus concludes his prophecy with statements pointing to his second coming, emphasizing that its date is known only to the Father. He then exhorts his disciples to be prepared for his eventual return by being faithful servants of their Master—obediently attending to their Master’s instructions. Then in chapter 25, Matthew gives two of Jesus’ parables that reinforce this admonition. Note also that Matthew is the only Gospel that contains this related warning:
Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers. (Matt. 7:21-23)
Before Jesus chose him to be an apostle, Matthew was a tax collector. As one who realized that the Jews considered tax collectors to be sinners, Matthew was keenly aware that an outer facade of religiosity can be covering up an inner corruption. Matthew seems to address this issue more than the other Gospel writers. Perhaps this is because Matthew wrote his Gospel primarily for Jewish Christians, though the Spirit intended his message for a much broader audience.
How are we to understand Jesus’ statements in today’s Gospel reading? Why does this passage follow parables about faithfulness and unfaithfulness and then speak in terms of the metaphor of sheep and goats? And why did Jesus, in the Olivet prophecy, speak using the apocalyptic language of Daniel 7? Note Daniel 7:13-14:
In my vision at night I looked, and before me was one like the son of man, coming in the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom one that will never be destroyed.
Apocalyptic is a literary genre (style) that used vivid imagery meant to be symbolic. It was not used to give a point-by-point account of what was going to occur. Instead, it painted a vivid picture—in this case of a huge gathering of people in worship around the King who is given all authority, including the authority to judge the nations.
Our passage in Matthew 25 is the subject of much controversy and dueling interpretations. Let’s see if we can put aside speculative ideas about Judgment Day, hell, and salvation, and focus instead on what this passage actually says about King Jesus and his reign.
King Jesus will reign
In the context of the destruction of the temple and the eventual return of Jesus, we read this:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. (Matt. 25:31)
Looking beyond the events quickly unfolding in Jerusalem—including Jesus death and resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem—Jesus foresees his eventual bodily return to earth in glory, accompanied by a throng of angels. He is returning to reign as King.
King Jesus will judge
By definition, a king’s reign includes the authority and responsibility he has to judge his subjects. It’s thus no surprise when Jesus refers to a coming judgment:
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matt. 25:32-33)
Is Jesus here referring to the great “day of judgment” mentioned in Matt. 12:36? There Jesus said, “I tell you men will have to give account in the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” In Matt. 12:41-42, Jesus goes on to describe a resurrection of people in that judgment: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation…. The Queen of the South will rise in the judgment with this generation…” If Jesus was talking about this same day of judgment here in Matthew 25, why is there no mention of the resurrection? Also, note that this judgment is binary—one group on the left, the other on the right, with nothing in between.
We also note that there is no mention of the tolerance Jesus advocated in Matt. 10:15, “I tell you the truth, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town,” or in Matt. 11:22, “It will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.”
Moreover, instead of referring to this gathering as including all people—both the living and the dead—Matthew quotes Jesus as referring to “all the nations.” The Greek word for nations here is ethnos, which can also be translated gentiles or heathen. In many cases, it excludes Israelites and Jews, but in some cases it seems to include all people. Are these “all nations” then to be understood as all the people who have ever lived, or are they the people alive when Jesus returns?
I do not believe that we have enough information here to answer these questions. It’s not clear that Jesus is referring to the judgment that will occur at the time of the general resurrection. Thus it is not advisable to build a doctrine about the Day of Judgment on this one passage.
King Jesus will reward
Though Jesus speaks here of a coming judgment (which may or may not be the coming final judgment), his next statement clearly mentions that there is a reward for being one of his faithful, responsive followers:
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matt. 25:34)
This is the invitation into the kingdom of heaven that Matthew mentions throughout his Gospel. In Matt. 4:17, we read, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” Matthew then groups several of Jesus’ kingdom parables in Chapter 13: parables of the sower, the wheat and tares, the mustard seed, and leaven. In view here is the inheritance planned and prepared for the children of God from creation. Thus reward is no afterthought, indeed the purpose of the creation revolved around it. Jesus used parables, metaphors and analogies to describe these various aspects of his kingdom, which is the dream of dreams for all humanity. Nothing that the human race has experienced and nothing that we can imagine compares to this fabulous inheritance.
Jesus explained that the reason the inheritance is granted has to do with the inheritors taking actions that reflect a welcoming response to Jesus, the King. Note our Lord’s words:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ (Matt. 25:35-39)
Sometimes people who read these words assume Jesus’ main concern is that we should do good deeds for the poor. From this assumption comes the idea of salvation by works. But that is not Jesus’ point.
Matthew goes out of his way to show that our works are not the basis for our salvation. In Matt. 1:21, he says that Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” The Greek verb translated save is sozo, from which comes Soter, meaning Savior, and from which is derived soteria, the Greek word for salvation. The Christian doctrine of salvation is about God’s gracious, unmerited and unearned forgiveness of all sin through Jesus Christ.
Those invited by Jesus to the inheritance of the children of God are thus those whose sins, by grace, were forgiven through Jesus. They then receive and welcome Jesus by receiving and welcoming his representatives who are proclaiming the gospel. Jesus makes that point clear in Matt. 10:40, where he said to his disciples as he sent them to preach the gospel, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.” In that same context, Jesus added, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will not lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42).
Did you catch that? Not only do these people receive the message, but they receive the person proclaiming the message. A relationship of love ensues so that when that person is in need, the people who receive or welcome them and their message respond with loving support and help. That is putting faith into practice.
Salvation is all about Jesus Christ, the Savior. Hearing and responding to the message of the gospel—the message about Jesus— is essential. Welcoming his representatives is part of receiving the message. That is why Matt. 25:40 concludes with, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
King Jesus will separate
After speaking to the “righteous” who inherit the kingdom, Jesus then speaks to those being denied an inheritance in the kingdom:
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt. 25:41)
Without Jesus, there is no salvation—no inheritance in the kingdom of God. At his return in glory, Jesus tells these people the worst thing anyone can hear: “Depart from me.” I will address the “eternal fire” mentioned here in a moment, but for now let’s ask, why are they ordered to depart? Jesus’ explanation is that in response to him, these people did the exact opposite of those he calls “blessed of my Father.” Let’s consider the nature of their response, or better said, their lack of response:
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (Matt. 25:42-44)
Those welcomed by Jesus into the kingdom of God are those who, by their actions, demonstrate a welcoming response to Jesus. Notably, they have received (welcomed) his disciples who have shared with them the message of the good news that Jesus was sent by the Father, as Matthew 1:21 says, to “save his people from their sins.” They received this good news by responding to it with repentance (a change of heart and mind) just as Jesus preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 4:17). They became followers of Jesus and of his representatives.
But some, instead of receiving the gospel, both reject the gospel and those who proclaim it. Note Jesus’ words in Matt. 10:14: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” In the remainder of Matt. 10, Jesus warned his disciples about those who reject him, because persecution of the representatives often becomes their response.
Although Jesus did not accuse those separated from him of being persecutors of his followers, he made clear their willingness to ignore the suffering and deprivation of his followers at the hands of people who could have helped. Jesus called these “least” of his followers his “brothers and sisters” (v. 40). His pointed, convicting words to those who reject the good news about Jesus and his loving forgiveness of their sins, acting coldly and abusively toward his representatives, are found in Matt. 25:45: “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” What they did not do for Jesus summarizes their response to him.
What does “eternal” mean?
This unresponsive, unrepentant group faces a radically different future than the responsive group that inherits the kingdom:
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matt. 25:46)
This “eternal punishment” is referred to in Matt. 25:41 as, “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” which is in stark contrast to the “eternal life” experienced by those who respond in a positive way to Jesus and his followers. A common explanation of these contrasting futures is that one group gets the everlasting fires of hell and the other gets never-ending life in heaven. An alternative theory, known as annihilationism, teaches that the recipients of eternal punishment cease to exist forever while the other group lives forever with God. A third explanation, considered by some to be universalism and by others to be a matter of hope, is that the punishment eventually rehabilitates the unrepentant and they become responsive to Christ. To which of these is Jesus referring? Well, we don’t know Jesus’ exact words. He probably spoke in Aramaic, and Matthew recorded his words in Greek. The Greek word translated eternal in vv. 41 and 46 is aionios. The same word applies to life and punishment. The New Bible Commentary says this:
Eternal can mean “everlasting” but more generally it means “of the age to come”; it is a statement of quality rather than duration. These verses, therefore, do not settle the dispute between those who understand hell as endless conscious torment and those who see it as annihilation or loss of existence.
We will avoid speculating on Matthew’s intent in his use of aionios. There is not enough explained here to develop a doctrine. However we can conclude that eternal punishment is not a good thing and that Jesus came to save people from such disastrous consequences. It is not God’s will that anyone miss out on the inheritance of the kingdom. That is why Jesus preached, then sent his representatives to preach, that people should repent and believe the gospel. For the same reason, it is why Jesus warned those who might be tempted to reject him, his representatives and the gospel that they are sent to proclaim.
Let’s consider how this passage in Matthew’s Gospel applies in our lives.
First, as readers of Jesus’ words, although we do not have a full picture of everything that occurs when he returns, we have assurance that he will return and in returning reign over all nations. His reign will be just, and his faithful followers will inherit the kingdom. To all who believe, this is fabulous good news about their future. To all who lament the woes of human rule in this present age, this is comforting and reassuring news about God’s final resolution of the problem. To all who are unsure about the role of religion in the future of humanity, this is insight about the substance of everything that pertains to Jesus Christ, his Father who sent him, and the Spirit of God in humans.
Although this passage does not teach salvation by works, it does teach that the substance of being a follower of Jesus differs dramatically from the form. Both groups call Jesus “Lord,” suggesting the possibility that even some who reject the gospel proclaimed by Jesus’ representatives could, being deceived, consider themselves Jesus’ followers. Their behavior, which is the antithesis of all that Jesus is about, tells the truth about the nature of their faith. Jesus frequently warned religious leaders in his day about the hypocrisy of having scrupulous religious practices while neglecting “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). To show mercy to those who are in need is Christ-like, even if the needy do not know Jesus.
Finally, it is best to not attempt to derive doctrinal conclusions about the Day of Judgment and hell from this passage. Instead, let the followers of Jesus rejoice knowing that Jesus will return; that the fullness of the kingdom and thus the reign of King Jesus is coming. Let everyone be aware of the importance of receiving Jesus’ gracious gift in faith, and of them expressing that gift by graciously receiving and caring for others in Jesus’ name. Amen.