Matthew Week 9
Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Matthew 24:1–25:46
The end is near. Jesus’ authoritative denunciation of the Jewish leadership (Chapters 21–23) may have silenced their voices, but their secret plotting of his destruction continues unabated. After leaving the temple with his disciples, Jesus launches into the fifth and final sermon in Matthew, the sermon on the future (Chapters 24–25). It includes a description of what is to come (24:1–35), followed by an exhortation to vigilance (24:36–25:30) and a surprising depiction of the final judgment (25:31–46).
Predictions of What Is To Come: 24:1–35
As they left the temple the disciples must have commented on the magnificence of the buildings, for Jesus’ response counters whatever they said. Despite its impressiveness, the whole thing is about to come down. Shocked, the disciples ask, “When will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” (24:3). They link all of these things together, for wouldn’t the collapse of the temple, the very site of God’s presence in the world, inaugurate the end of that world? Jesus’ response separates the destruction of the temple from the end of the age, and warns the disciples, “Beware that no one leads you astray” (24:4).
Lots of people will come forward predicting the end of the world in response to this catastrophe or that, but such events are just the early signs of what’s coming (24:5–8). Before the end comes, Christians will be persecuted from all sides (24:9), many will lose their faith because of disloyalty and in-fighting (24:10), others will be led astray by false teachers (24:11), and still others will simply lose their ability to practice love, the centrally defining characteristic of the Christian (24:12; compare 22:36–40). “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (24:13). Indeed, the good news of the kingdom has to be proclaimed to the whole world before Jesus will return (24:14). The disciples must have been shocked to hear that the glory promised them (see 19:28) would not come within their foreseeable future.
Jesus then speaks of a “great tribulation” that is about to happen in Judea (24:15–22). The sayings that follow require background information to understand. “The abomination of desolation” referred to in verse 15 comes from the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11) and most scholars understand it in reference to the events of 167 B.C., when the Seleucid King Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” cracked down on rebellious Jerusalemites by outlawing Judaism and placing a statue of Zeus on the altar of the temple.
When the inhabitants refused to worship Zeus, Antiochus destroyed Jerusalem [see Author’s Note 1]. Jesus’ own prophecy came true a generation later (A.D. 66–74) when the population of Judea rose up in rebellion against the Romans, resulting in the destruction of both Jerusalem and the temple [see Author’s Note 2]. Matthew’s parenthetical “let the reader understand” is therefore best understood as a kind of “wink” to readers who know that “the abomination of desolation” refers symbolically to the destruction of Jerusalem by Gentiles.
Jesus instructs his followers that they must flee the city and not allow cultural allegiance to direct their decisions when this occurs. For the sake of the “elect” (probably “Christians,” given 24:24), God will restrict the length of this tribulation (24:22).
When such things happen, people will respond by proclaiming the arrival of new messiahs (24:23–28) who will lead people astray by producing “signs and wonders” (24:24). We’ve been told more than once to expect this (7:15; 24:5, 11; see also Deuteronomy 13:2–4).
Followers of Jesus should not be rattled by the presence of these folks; the fact that people will wonder whether or not they are the Messiah will make it plain that they are not the Messiah, for when Jesus returns it will be plain for all to see, like lightning flashing across the sky (24:27) [see Author’s Note 3]. His coming “with power and great glory” will bring about the end as predicted throughout the Old Testament (Isaiah 13:10; 24:23; Ezekiel 32:7; Daniel 7:13; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15–21; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zephaniah 1:15). Believers must pay attention to the signs just described and live in constant anticipation of Jesus’ arrival.
Call to Patient Vigilance: 24:36–25:30
But even though the very first generation of believers would experience everything that Jesus has been describing (24:35), no one should attempt to predict precisely when he will arrive (24:36). A series of illustrations follow to exhort readers to be prepared regardless of how long it takes.
Believers should be like Noah, building the ark when there was yet no cloud in the sky (24:38–39), or like a householder who sets up good defenses against thievery regardless of whether criminals are present (24:42–44). They should be like a responsible servant who keeps hard at work even if the master seems delayed in returning (24:45–51). If he fails in his task, the master will come with punishment and “put him with the hypocrites” (24:51). The use of “hypocrite” to describe those who claim to follow Jesus should weigh heavily on us after hearing it repeated so often in Chapter 23.
Two additional, longer parables are given to make sure readers get the point (25:1–30). Like the bridegroom in the first story (25:1–13), so also Jesus’ return will at first seem delayed (25:5) and then come with an unexpected shock of realization (25:6). The “virgins” symbolize “wise” and “foolish” followers of Jesus, and the repetition of “wise” should bring to mind Matthew’s prior uses of that term at 7:24 and 10:16; the Greek word describes someone who is not just “well informed” but conducts her life appropriately according to the knowledge possessed.
The image is striking: the foolish ones possessed a lamp, but did not carry enough fuel to keep it operating over the long haul. When they attempt a late entry into the wedding banquet (25:10–12), the bridegroom says precisely what Jesus said in 7:21–23: “You may say you know me, but I do not know you.”
Jesus then compares the situation to a man who goes away on a business trip and puts others in charge of his work while he’s away (25:14–30). The “good and trustworthy” workers get promoted because they took what the man gave and used it to produce more for the business (25:20–23).
But the “wicked and lazy slave” (25:26) makes the same mistake as one who hides a lamp under a bushel basket (5:15), covering over the work of the master instead of embracing it openly as his own. The point is clear: Jesus has equipped his followers with different talents to be used to continue the work of the kingdom in his absence, and he expects them to be faithful in using them to produce good fruit.
All of these parables end the same way, describing the punishment allotted to those who do not remain faithful to Jesus during his long absence (24:51; 25:12, 30). It is hard to avoid the fact that all of this material is a threat designed to keep believers mindful of God’s eventual judgment of our lives (cf. 16:27). Many of us will no doubt be uncomfortable with this.
Threats of judgment have been misused throughout church history, with Christians arrogantly piling judgmental abuse upon others in a way that has obscured the foundational reality of God’s love and merciful care for us. But some of us have over-corrected this distortion by emphasizing God’s love and mercy in a manner that obscures the reality of the expectation that is placed on God’s people.
Like Israel before, so also now the church is to exist as a kingdom of priests through which God would bless the whole world; it is to be a signpost in the world that points others to the reality of God’s kingdom. God’s salvation isn’t simply about “going to heaven”— it is a recruitment, a calling to the task of representing Jesus to the world now in this life.
The Judgment of the Nations: 25:31–46
The description of the last judgment that follows emphasizes this point as it describes what will happen when the Son of Man actually does come as King and Lord in glory. There is a good deal of debate over exactly who is represented by whom in this powerful vision: who are “the nations,” who are “the least of these,” and what exactly are the criteria of Jesus’ judgment?
On the surface it seems that the ultimate criterion is ethical: those who care for the needy will enter eternal life, and those who don’t, won’t. And yet are we to believe that there is no explicitly Christian content to the criteria of God’s judgment?
The difficulty involves connecting the words used here with their use elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel. Here’s how some scholars are inclined to read it. Elsewhere in Matthew “the nations” are those who have had the message of the kingdom preached to them (recall 24:9 and 14, and consider 28:19).
Given Jesus’ earlier identification of “little ones” as those who believe in him (18:5–6, 10, 14) and “brothers and sisters” as those who do the will of God (12:50), it would seem that “the least of these my brethren” would refer specifically to faithful followers who lived in imitation of Jesus, the one who became “least” for our sake: they preached and lived the good news, they walked humbly, practiced mercy, loved their enemies, and abhorred hypocrisy. Therefore they, like Jesus, suffered hatred from a world that worships power, practices vengeance, and rejoices in falsehood (10:22–23; 23:34; 24:9).
When two or three of these folks were gathered together in Jesus’ name, he was there among them (18:20). Thus, those who cared for these humble believers were unknowingly caring for Jesus, and those who held them in disdain were unknowingly dishonoring Jesus. If this approach is correct, the good deeds the “sheep” are rewarded for weren’t just works of justice for all needy people, but works of care for Jesus’ humble disciples that reflected their openness to the kingdom those disciples were proclaiming (recall again 10:40–42).
This description of the judgment, then, has primarily to do with the question of how non-Christians received the message of salvation in Christ: the judgment for these folks isn’t whether or not they verbally accepted particular truth claims about Jesus, but whether they embodied the virtues of the kingdom in their response to God’s messengers (see Romans 2:14–16, where Paul makes a somewhat similar point). Those who stand outside the church will be judged according to how they treated Jesus’ disciples.
This interpretation has a lot going for it, but it leaves me unsatisfied in a couple of ways. For one thing, the sermons in Matthew are directed toward disciples, and the content of this particular sermon has thus far been focusing on exhorting disciples to be ready at all times for Jesus’ surprising and unexpected arrival in their midst.
We might recall 7:21–23, where “Christians” who prophesied in Jesus’ name and did deeds of power in Jesus’ name were nevertheless surprised to find themselves rejected from the kingdom because they persisted in doing evil. So also here, the people under judgment call Jesus “Lord” and are surprised to hear how they were or weren’t serving him in their day-to-day actions. Is it possible that in this instance “the nations” aren’t just non-Christians, but all of humanity, Christian and non-Christian alike?
If this is so, the point would seem to be this: just as Jesus’ second coming will come as a surprise for everyone (Christian and non-Christian alike), so also disciples will be reminded at that time that Jesus never really left the world in the first place, for he was always present with “the least of these” whom he calls brother and sister.
But then who are “the least of these”? The evidence still points strongly to identifying these folks as disciples (10:40–42), but still questions linger. These called “least” suffer from sickness and hunger, they are “strangers” with no one to welcome them, they languish in prisons and no one visits them. Suffering servants of Jesus are not alone in dealing with these afflictions.
God’s people had been told again and again to care for the vulnerable in their midst, the orphan, the widow, the poor, and even the non-Israelite alien (e.g., Exodus 22:21–27; Leviticus 19:9–18, 33–34; Deuteronomy 24:20–22; Ezekiel 18:5–9), and the chief characteristic of the disciple is love and mercy expressed to all without qualification (Matthew 5:43–47; 22:36–40).
Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus would consider this the ultimate test of living rightly? Jesus also healed the sick, fed the hungry, and attended to people imprisoned by demons. Doesn’t it make sense that the call to “follow” him would be fleshed out in a similar fashion?
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” says the letter to the Hebrews, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:2–3). Perhaps Jesus is blurring the line between the needy of the world (“the least of these”) and his disciples (“the little ones who believe in me”) because he simply expects his disciples to be fully associated with the needy in their midst. In this they would simply be living in imitating him.
It is worth noting that this passage is not meant to be a full articulation of a theology of salvation. In context, the subject is Jesus’ surprising appearance in places where no one expects him to show up. In this sermon, then, Jesus provides his “coming” with a two-fold meaning: He will come again in glory at the end of time, but he also does come to us every day in the humble face of the people in need we meet every day. Will we be ready when Jesus comes to us?
Questions for Further Reflection:
- “It is hard to avoid the fact that much of this material is a threat designed to keep believers mindful of God’s eventual judgment of our lives.” How do you respond to the material in these chapters? Do you feel threatened, or challenged, or something else?
- “Threats of judgment have been misused throughout church history, with Christians arrogantly piling judgmental abuse upon others in a way that has obscured the foundational reality of God’s love and merciful care for us. But some of us have over-corrected this distortion by emphasizing God’s love and mercy in a manner that obscures the reality of the expectation that is placed on God’s people.” Are you more inclined to emphasize mercy or expectation in your relation with others? How might we live in balance with these two?
- Jesus’ description of the judgment in chapter 25 invests his “coming” with a two-fold meaning: He will come again in glory at the end of time, but he also does come to us in the humble face of the people in need we meet every day. Many of us confess to believing the former, but how do we live our lives in expectation of the latter?
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