Matt. 24:4-35 is about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, while 24:36-25:46 is about the Second Coming or parousia, the close-out of the age, final judgment, and finally the New Messianic Age.
This long section of Scripture is called the Olivet Discourse because Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem proper, overlooking the temple (Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:3).
Don’t separate Matt. 24 and 25 with a high wall. They are related; they are all about the end of the temple system, which happened in Jesus’s generation (Matt. 24:4-35), and then the Second Coming and the close of the age, which has not yet happened (Matt. 24:36-25:48). But it’s the same discourse.
This post has a companion piece:
All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
Let’s review with the verses showing Jesus introducing his very long discourse on eschatology (study of the end times).
Jesus Begins His Prophetic Discourse (Matt. 24:1-3)
1 And Jesus, leaving the temple, was departing, and his disciples came up to him, to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But in reply, he said to them, “You see all these things, don’t you? I tell you the truth: a stone will in no way be left here on another stone which will not be thrown down!
3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came up to him privately, saying, “Tell us. When will these things be? And what will be the sign of your visitation [parousia] and the close [synteleia] of the age?”
In v. 3, the disciples ask two question, as follows.
(1). “When will these things be?” The context indicates that this question pertains to the destruction of the temple, which they had just admired. But he predicts its destruction.
I have already worked through a long exegesis of vv. 4-35 at the companion post, here:
That linked post clarifies the difficult v. 34: “I tell you the truth: this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Jesus’s prediction did indeed happen before his generation passed away (though he died young): the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Not one stone was left on top of another stone. He answered the first question in vv. 4-35, with specific time markers that the disciples can observe with their own eyes and experience (24:6, 9, 15, 20, 23, 25, 26, 33). It happened in their lifetime, before this (or their) generation passed away.
Now in v. 36 all the way to 25:46, he answers the second question, as follows:
(2). “And what will be the sign of your visitation [parousia] and the close [synteleia] of the age?”
Here is the beginning of his answer v. 36:
But concerning that Day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, except the Father alone. (Matt. 24:36)
No, we are not going to answer the thorny theological issue of the Son’s prophetic “ignorance”; that’s for another post. Rather, let’s focus on the first phrase: “But concerning that Day and hour.”
Here is a post on the topic:
The Greek preposition translated concerning is peri (pronounced pair-ee), and it is often used to introduce a new topic, when peri begins the sentence or clause (Matt. 22:31; Mark 12:26; 13:32; John 16:9, 10, 11; 17:20; Acts 21:25; 25:18, 26; 1 Cor. 7:25; 8:1, 4; 12:1; 16:1, 12; 2 Cor. 9:1; 1 Thess. 4:9; 5:1; Heb. 5:11; 1 Pet. 1:10). This use of peri is also reinforced with the tiny connector de (pronounced deh). It is an elusive particle, but in this case, “but” is used to contrast this topic with the previously long one.
Here’s Paul using peri de in 1 Cor. 8:1, in his change of subject from marriage in 1 Cor. 7 to food sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor. 8: “Now about [peri de] food sacrificed to idols … (NIV). Similarly, using peri de, Jesus is shifting topics from the destruction of Jerusalem to his Second Coming–two distinct events at widely different times.
Clearly in v. 36 Matthew is changing the topic from the coming-in-judgment on the temple to the parousia or Second Coming or visitation to judge the world and put things right (Matt. 24:36-25:46). In vv. 4-35 the temporal connections were clear: “then,” “in those days,” “immediately after,” and “it is near” (and so on). In contrast, in the second eschatological section stretching all the way to 25:46, there is no such temporal connections. Therefore, the “telos end” of vv. 4-35 can be predicted, but not the “synteleia end,” as the brief illustration about Noah and the next three parables will demonstrate. It will come when people don’t expect it.
“that day”: it is often used in both the OT and NT of the final day leading to judgment: you can look up the verses online but here are some references: Is. 10:20; Joel 1:15; 3:18; Amos 8:9; 9:11; Zeph. 1:10, 14; Zech. 14:4; Mal. 3:17-18. This is the first mention of a singular day or hour, in contrast to “those days” (vv. 19, 22, and 29) or the timeframe of the Roman war. The singular “day” will recur 24:42 in the final judgment pericope, and both “day” and “hour” in 24:50 and 25:13, so we are tracking the same answer to the second question.
Further, “that day” and “the day of judgment” has already been brought up (Matt. 10:15; 11:22, 24; 12:36). Indeed, that day refers to the final judgment without any need to spell out that it is the final day of judgment. And on the final day, the son of Man will sit on his glorious throne and judge all the nations (25:31-46).
Definition of Key Terms
The Greek noun which I translate as “close” is sunteleia (pronounced soon-teh-lay-ah) or synteleia (pronounced sin-teh-lay-ah), and it is used throughout the entire NT six times, five times in Matthew’s Gospel (13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20) and once in the epistle to the Hebrews (9:26). It seems to have taken on a specialized sense in Matthew’s Gospel to close out our age, though it is also used in Heb. 9:26 as the end of the age. This word will play a key role in my interpretation of the Olivet Discourse in Matt. 24 and 25. It is different than the Greek noun telos (pronounced teh-loss) in vv. 6, 13, and 14. And synteleia makes a fitting ending of his Gospel: “And remember this: I am with you every day, until the end [synteleia] of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). But we are not there yet. I decided, following France, to translate it as “visitation.”
Parousia means, basically, “to be there” or “to arrive” (para + ousia). The best imagery of it says that an emperor arrives in a capital or province and the dignitaries go out to meet him and escort him back into their city. They don’t board his ship and sail away. Instead, he has arrived. He is present with them and reached his goal—their capital city. In the biblical context, Jesus comes to earth; we are snatched up (the rapture) to “meet and greet” him, and then we descend with him back to earth. He reaches his goal. We don’t shoot back up into heaven and disappear with him until he comes back a “second, second” time (!). It’s the first coming (advent) (Matt. 1-2) and the Second Coming (24:36-25:46). That’s it. Simplicity.
See my posts:
Outline of 24:4-25:46
For clarity and the overall picture, here is an outline. I borrow from Garland, but with modifications.
(I). First Section: When Will These Things Be? (24:4-35)
A.. The prelude to the catastrophe (24:4-14)
1.. These predictions do not herald the end
B.. Warnings to flee before the eruption of hostilities (24:15-22)
1.. Christians are warned to stay away from Messianism (false Messianic movements)
2.. Flee and pray
C.. The destruction of the city (24:23-31)
1.. This section uses Hebrew idiom of a stereotypical, apocalyptic, cosmic cataclysm
2.. It is not the end of the world, but the end of Jerusalem and the temple
D.. The assurance of the certainty to this prophecy (24:32-35)
1.. The fig tree in foliage predicts summer is near
2.. All these things spell the end
3.. This generation will not pass away until all these things take place
4.. My words are so reliable that heaven and earth would pass away before my words do
5.. Matthew’s Christian community should see the ending of the localized temple age and the beginning of the universal Church Age
(II). Second Section: Six Illustrations or Parables and Interlocking Themes (24:36-25:46)
A.. Six Illustrations or Parables
1.. Days of Noah (24:38-43)
2.. Householder and Thief (24:43-44)
3.. Parable of the Servant (24:45-51)
4.. Parable of the Ten Maidens (25:1-13)
5.. Parable of the Talents (25:14-30)
6.. Parable of the Sheep and Goats and Final Judgment (25:31-46)
B.. Interlocking Themes in Illustrations and Parables
1.. Sudden arrival of someone or something that creates crisis in five parables (24:37, 39, 43. 44. 46; 25:6, 19)
2.. A key figure is delayed in three parables (24:48; 25:5; 25:10)
3.. The exhortation to watch and be ready for unknown time of arrival (24:42, 43; 25:13)
4.. Division of characters into two separate categories in four parables (wise, faithful, good versus wicked, foolish, hesitant, 24:45, 48; 25:2, 21, 23, 26)
5.. Judgment scene in four parables (24:46; 25:10-11, 21, 23)
6.. The sixth and last parable shifts the scene to the final judgment day (25:31-46)
a.. The closing of the age or synteleia
For the record, some interpreters see the final judgment of the nations (25:31-46) not as a parable, except it does contain the metaphors of the sheep and goats. Either way, the themes still stand.
From Matt. 24:36 to 25:46
Are you ready for long passages and exegesis? Here we go!
The Unknown Time of the Parousia (Matt. 24:36-44)
36 But concerning that Day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, except the Father alone. 37 For just as the days of Noah were, in this way the visitation [parousia] of the son of Man will be. 38 For as just as they were in the days before the flood, munching and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 they also did not know until the flood came and took everyone away, and in this way shall the visitation [parousia] of the son of Man be.
40 Then two men will be in the field, and one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding grain at the mill, and one will be taken and one left. 42 Watch therefore because you do not know which day your Lord comes. 43 But this you do know: that if the head of household knew at which watch the thief was coming, he would have watched and not permitted his house to be broken into. 44 For this reason, you also be prepared because at the hour you do not expect, the son of Man is coming.
In 24:4-35, Jesus spoke of many time markers (“then,” [many times] “immediately after,” “in those days” and so on), but here he says no one knows the day or the hour. (See the companion post for many more time markers.) He has clearly shifted topics to the parousia or Second Coming. And v. 44 here says the son of Man is coming at an hour no one expects. So the time markers are irrelevant.
In the disciples’ second question, which Jesus is now answering, they asked for the sign. However, Jesus is not giving them the sign or any specific sign. Instead, he is now telling them about a spiritual and moral climate: as it was in the days of Noah, so will the days be, leading up to the parousia. But a climate like that is not a specific sign (and some interpreters would not like to use the term sign here at all to refer to a moral climate).
So, what will the hearts and behavior of the people be like, just before his Second Coming? They will live like they did in the days of Noah (Gen. 6-9). They conducted regular business. These transactions were not sinful, but the implication, based on Jesus’s audience’s knowledge of the story, is that they were also living riotously. But the text is silent probably because Jesus assumed their knowledge of the original story. He was talking to his disciples, after all. In any case, the people’s obliviousness did them in. They were not ready. The flood came and wiped them out. The main point is clear: the Second Coming will take the oblivious by surprise. The next parables will expand on their lack of expectation and being caught off guard and their misconduct while they are waiting. The son of Man can come at any time.
In v. 39, Matthew reintroduces the actual word parousia. See above (Definition of Terms) for its meaning.
In vv. 43-44, the truism is stated. If the master of the house or head of household knew when the thief planned to burgle, then the head or master of the household would not have allowed his house to be broken into. He would have been on guard. Lesson: People must be prepared. We don’t know the hour of his arrival or parousia.
What about the people being “taken away”? Does it refer to s secret rapture? No.
See my post:
Luke 17:22-37: Taken Away = Secret Rapture? (it also covers the parallel passage in Matthew, here)
Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants (Matt. 24:45-51)
45 “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent servant whom the master appointed over his household servants, and he gives food at the right time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom, when the master comes, he shall find him acting in that way. 47 I tell you the truth: he will appoint him over all his possessions. 48 But if that bad servant were to say in his heart, ‘My master delays,’ 49 and he began to beat his fellow servants, and he ate and drank with alcoholics, 50 then the master of that servant will come on a day which he did not expect and at an hour which he did not realize; 51 and he will cut him in two and will place his share with the hypocrites. In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This is the first of three parables illustrating readiness before the parousia. Jesus is still answering the disciples’ second question: What will be the sign of Jesus’s parousia and close out of the age? Hint: there is no sign. So be expectant always!
The basic meaning of this parable is that the good servant is blessed because the master finds him giving food or taking care of business at the right time. But the bad servant abused his authority, and the master came and found him misbehaving. The master came when the bad servant did not expect it, so he got punished severely.
In vv. 46-47, Jesus call this household servant blessed. Why? When the master returns and find his servant feeding his servants or taking care of the household business, then that servant is blessed.
In v. 48 Jesus says “delays.” It is the verb chronizō (pronounced khro-nee-zoh), and it means, depending on the context: (1) “take time, linger, fail to come (or stay away), for a long time … (2) delay, take a long time in doing something; (3) stay (somewhere for a long time)” (Shorter Lexicon). The best definition here is the second one. It appears in 25:5, the Parable of the Ten Maidens, so the two parables are connected by the same themes and wording. The main point is to be alert because you don’t know the day or the hour of the parousia. Further, the delay indicates that Jesus did not expect to return during this generation; in contrast, the judgment on Jerusalem happened within a timeframe with time markers to indicate it was soon. The parousia, however, is open-ended.
In vv. 48-49, what actions does the bad manager-servant do? He “eats and drinks” and hangs out with drunkards (a possible translation of the term). This is more than just eating and drinking for daily sustenance. It refers to Is. 22:13, which says that some people say they should eat and drink, for tomorrow they will die (see 1 Cor. 15:32). More precisely it refers to Is. 56:12 which shows some people getting strong, intoxicating wine, because tomorrow will be just like any other day. And that’s why Jesus finished his three-fold description of a deficient manager-servant as getting drunk. However, not every day will be like the last day. One day will be unlike any other—the return of the Lord. The added wrongdoing is that this misguided leader used the resources of the kingdom for his own selfish benefit. Worst of all, he has lost the ability to provide the allowance or allotment of food for the various citizens of the kingdom at the proper time.
In v. 50, along with 46, the main point of the clear parable is taught. Jesus again says “day” or “hour.” Therefore, he is still answering the second question, which he began in 24:36. We don’t know that day or hour. The bad servant did not expect or recognize when his master was coming back, so he was caught flatfooted—worse than that—he was misbehaving and acting unrighteously. In contrast, the good servant was rewarded with more oversight of all the master’s possessions.
Parable of the Ten Maidens (Matt. 25:1-13)
1 “At that time, the kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens who took their own torches and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five prudent. 3 For the foolish ones, taking their torches, did not take oil with them. 4 But the prudent ones took oil in their flasks along with their own torches. 5 When the bridegroom delayed, all of them got drowsy and fell asleep. 6 But in the middle of the night, a shout happened: ‘Look! the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 Then all of those maidens got up and prepared their own torches. 8 But the foolish ones said to the prudent ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our torches are going out.’ 9 But the prudent ones replied, saying, ‘In case there is in no way enough (oil) for us and you, go instead to the sellers and buy it for yourselves.’ 10 After they departed to buy it, the bridegroom came, and the prepared ones went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was closed. 11 Later on, the remaining maidens also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up to us!’ 12 But in reply, he said, ‘I tell you the truth: I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore because you do not know the day nor the hour.”
“But the point is simply that readiness, whatever form it takes, is not something that can be achieved by last-minute adjustments” (France p. 947). Perfect.
In v. 2, Jesus describes these ten maidens or girls straightforwardly: foolish and prudent. The Greek for maiden is parthenos (pronounced par-theh-noss), and it means virgin. The bride is not mentioned, but virginity even in the bridesmaids was sacrosanct. In this culture, the girl lived with her family, the marriage was arranged, and she did not stray far, under the watchful eye of her father and mother. It is a sure thing that girls back then were indeed virgins. Even pagan Greek novels at the time went to great lengths to protect the heroine’s virginity, even when she had been kidnapped by pirates, for example. She remained pure up to the time she was reunited with the bridegroom at the end of the story. Remain morally pure all the way to the Second Coming.
In v. 5, the bridegroom again delayed. See 24:48 for the Greek word. This idea means that the Second Coming could happen at any time. We don’t know that day or hour.
In v. 6, the bridegroom returned, at long last. A shout went out (literally “happened” or “took place”) in the middle of the night. The maidens got up and trimmed or prepared their torches, but the foolish ones realized their fire was going out. They had lit their torches, but they burned only fifteen minutes, so they had no oil to replenish their fuel for the flame. They asked the wise ones for a share of their oil, but they prudently said no. There is not enough for the both of them.
In vv. 7-9, the wise girls (= prepared girls) told the foolish ones (= unprepared girls) to go to the market place and buy the oil. It is not clear if a seller would be open in the middle of the night, so the foolish ones must have waited until early morning for the vendor to open. This proves once again how foolish they were. This refusal to share is not a negative portrayal from Matthew. Rather, the wise girls did not want to ruin their friends’ wedding when all the torches went out after they shared (Keener, p. 598).
In vv. 10-12, while the foolish ones departed to buy the oil, the bridegroom came more visibly and with full manifestation and entered the place of the wedding feast—his own house. When the girls came back, they asked to be allowed in. The door was closed shut. Too late. Closing the door symbolizes the final division at the last judgment (Matt. 13:30, 48, 41; 22:8-13; and Luke 13:25). Yes, the bridegroom knew the girls, so his words “I don’t know you” are a judicial sentence, echoed in Matt. 7:22.
In v. 13, here’s the main point. Watch does not mean staying up 24/7, but to be prepared so that one can be ready to welcome the Lord at any time. After all, the ten girls fell asleep. No problem with it, because it illustrates living your daily routine as you wait for the parousia (Keener, pp. 596-97). Also, when the shout went forth, the prepared girls and the unprepared girls woke up at the same time. So what’s the big difference? Their preparations were different. Watching does not only mean posting a guard, but to be observant and expectant throughout your daily life. We simply don’t know the day or the hour of his parousia, two terms (“day” and “hour”) he brought up in v. 36.
In the context of Matt. 24:36 to all of Chapter 25, this parable does not allow for a secret rapture that happens before the Second Coming. No. This is about Jesus answering the disciples’ second question: no one knows the day or the hour of his Return, which will usher in the Messianic Age (the wedding feast) and shut out the unprepared in darkness (judgment). Jesus will expand on this theme of a positive or negative judgment in the other parables, but especially in vv. 31-46.
Keener sums up this parable well:
To participate in their friends’ wedding was a great honor; as virgins, these young women were in a sense practicing for their own impending wedding around the age of twelve or sixteen. But to have spoiled the wedding for her by failing to do their appropriate part was a great insult to their friend and to the groom and guests. That they would be shut out of the fest in punishment suits their case, but the language used to depict this nightmare points beyond itself to more severe, eternal judgment, probably echoing the sayings in 7:21-23. … Wedding feasts involved great joy; thus the transgressors will mourn because they have been shut out from it (p. 599)
See my post:
Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30)
14 “For it is like a man, who, before going on a journey, has called his own servants and entrusted to them his possessions. 15 And to one he gave five talents, to one servant two, and to one servant one, to each one according to his own ability. And he went on his journey. 16 Immediately the one who received five talents went and did business with them and earned five others. 17 Likewise, the one with two earned two others. 18 But the one receiving one went out and dug up the ground and buried his master’s money.
19 After a long time, the master of those servants settled accounts with them. 20 And the one receiving five talents approached and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted me with five talents. Look! I have earned five other talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Excellent, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over little; I will set you over many things. Go into the joy of your master. 22 The one having two talents also approached and said, ‘Master, you entrusted me with two talents. Look! I earned two other talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Excellent, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over little; I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 But the one who had received one talent approached and said, ‘Master, I know you: that you were a harsh man, harvesting where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter. 25 And because I was fearful, I went out and buried your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours.’ 26 But in reply, his master said to him, ‘Wicked and lazy servant! Did you know that I harvest where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Therefore, you should have placed my money with the bankers, and after returning I might recover what is mine with interest!
28 ‘Therefore, take from him the talent and give to the one who has ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has it will be given and he will abound, but from the one who does not have, even what he ‘has’ will be taken from him. 30 Further, throw the useless servant into outer darkness. In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
In v. 14, the clause says “it is like”: The grammatical subject is not clear, so I wrote “it.” However, the setting is similar to the one in 24:45-51, the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants, about servants in the household. So the context is the time just before the parousia, just as we saw in the Parable of the Ten Maidens. The implied subject is the kingdom of God, but near the close (synteleia) of the age. The language speaks of final judgment (vv. 21, 22, 30).
In v. 15, Jesus furthers the story along, and we learn there are three servants: the one with the most ability or capacity gets five talents. The one with medium capacity or ability gets two. Now what about the third servant? Did the Lord see that he should get at least one talent, in hopes that the servant would not be fearful and hide it? Did the master / lord put his faith in him, so that he would respond and be productive? If so, the servant disappointed him. It’s sad, because the master / lord sized up each servant and gave him the money according to his own ability or capacity.
Entrusting these talents means that we are to go about the kingdom business. This element in the story teaches that we are not called to calculate the sign when he would return in his full glory, but to be productive, not distracted
In v. 19, Jesus says the phrase “after a long time.” This indicates that the parousia will not have clear signs or time markers; this stands in contrast to the end of the temple in 4:4-35, which had all sorts of time markers and was completed in this (Jesus’s) generation. In contrast, the parousia will take a long time to come, and it did not happen in Jesus’s generation; it is open-ended.
The master / lord (really the son of Man, King Jesus) went away and entrusted the three servants with his own talents, and now he expects to settle the account books. This speaks of final judgment, right after his parousia or return or visitation that will last forever. They are about to welcome into the Messianic age and enjoy his presence forever. Remember, the entire context 24:36 to 25:46 is about the parousia. This long passage should not be complicated by imposing on it and inserted into it foreign ideas about a rapture. Just take this parable as written and in its textual context of Matt. 24:36 to 25:46, and then it will be clear and can be interpreted simply. Streamlined.
In vv. 20-23, the first two servants render their account, and they place down on the table (so to speak) a total of ten talents. The word excellent can be translated also as well done. Faithful can also be translated as trustworthy. The master / lord welcomes this servant into his joy, another indication that we are observing the final judgment of all of us, right after the parousia or the master / lord’s return. He also receives the commission to be placed over or set over or appointed over many things. This appointment is a hint that we will have other things to do when we are in the Messianic Age. The second servant places four talents on the table, and he too receives the “well done” or “excellent” commendation. He too is welcomed into the joy of his master lord and is given responsibilities over many things. We will have much to do in the Messianic Age, but we don’t know the details.
In vv. 24-27, the lord / master called the third servant out accurately. The servant really was wicked and lazy. The master asked him a question: Did you know I harvested where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? In other words, you don’t have the right perspective. I’m the landowner who can hire people to do the daily work. I was in charge of the whole operation. I have the ultimate responsibility. I am demanding, but the work is serious and eternal. You should have at least placed the one talent with the bankers, so I can receive the money back with interest. Maybe the money-lenders who would have taken your money might have lost it—or not. But risk is at the heart of discipleship. Burying your one talent is not a risk.
I like Keener’s expanded paraphrase of the master’s words: “On the assumption that I am hard and merciless, you should have been all the more diligent!” (p. 601).
The Final Judgment of the Nations (Matt. 25:31-46)
31 “When the son of Man comes in his glory with all his angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 And all the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate them from the others, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right and the goats on the left.
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; and I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will reply to him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungering and feed you or thirsting and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ 40 And in reply the king will say to them, ‘I tell you the truth: to the degree that you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.’
41 “Then he will also say to those on the left, ‘Go away from me, cursed of my Father, into the everlasting flames which was prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you did not give me food to eat; I was thirsty and you did not give me something to drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take me in, naked and did not clothe me, sick and in prison and did not visit me.’ 44 Then they will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungering or thirsting or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not attend to you?’ 45 Then he will reply to them, saying, ‘I tell you the truth: to the degree that you did not do it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, neither did you do it for me.’ 46 And they will go to everlasting punishment, and the righteous to everlasting life.”
I don’t go into the doctrine of final punishment, which I cover in other posts (but see links to a three-part series, below). Instead, here are four main points of this long and sobering and majestic passage.
First, commentator R. T. France seems to connect this entire pericope or section with the son of Man “coming” in glory at his enthronement, referring to Daniel 7:13-14 (see Matt. 24:30 for the verses in Daniel), yet France titles the pericope as the “final judgment.” Incidentally, Garland seems to agree with France (p. 247)
However, I disagree with them because the son of Man’s enthronement and final judgment are far apart. We have not even reached the realized synteleia (closing) in Matt. 28:20b, where the Greek noun significantly appears in the final verse of Matthew’s Gospel. And we learned that the destruction of the Jerusalem did not close out the global age when the church was still going strong, but we still have an open-ended parousia (Second Coming), and no one knows the day or the hour. This open-endedness is particularly true if Matthew lived to see the destruction of the temple. It must have crystallized for him that the end (telos) of the temple was different from the closing (synteleia) of the age, which will happen at an unknown time. Jesus next uses the word synteleia in 28:20, the very last words in the Gospel. And three parables in the synteleia context says that there would be a delay of the parousia. We have not closed out this age yet.
Therefore, I believe that vv. 31-46 are about the final judgment and synteleia of the entire age, when Jesus will visibly judge the nations as he sits on his throne. In this long passage we now see proleptically (by a prophetic foresight) with our own eyes the day and hour of his parousia. It’s an awesome and full-of-awe passage.
See the companion piece:
Second, do the brothers and sisters represent everyone who suffers, or just Christian disciples, particularly missionaries? Keener and Garland build a strong case for the latter group—disciples and missionaries. In Matthew’s Gospel, “all the nations” (v. 32) is never used for members of the church, but to the nations where Christians are called to evangelize (Garland, p. 247). So Israel will stand before the son of Man, just as all other nations do. “Brothers” refers to Jesus’s disciples (12:49-50; 23:8; 28:10). As one example, here’s what 28:10 says, spoken by the resurrected Jesus: “Go, announce to my brothers and sisters that they should depart for Galilee, where they will also see me.” “Little ones” are those who believe in Jesus (10:42; 18:6, 12, 14). And “least” is used here for emphasis (see 5:19) (Garland p. 247). They refer to Jesus’s followers. The disciples should be received with food, drink and hospitality (10:18-19). The hardship of the mission can cause sickness (Phil. 2:27-30; perhaps Gal. 4:13-14; 2 Tim. 4:20). Being poorly clothed makes the list of suffering (Rom. 8:35). See Paul’s catalogue of mistreatment and deprivation in 1 Cor. 4:11. When Saul / Paul was persecuting the church, Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). He identified with his brothers and sisters by virtue of their belonging to him, not by virtue of their being Jewish. He also identifies with the least of these brothers and sisters of his in vv. 31-46.
40 Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will receive the reward of a prophet. And he who welcomes a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive the reward of a righteous person. 42 And whoever gives just a cold drink to one of these little ones because they are disciples—I tell you the truth: he will in no way lose his reward. (Matt. 10:40-42)
For Matthew, it is all about the mission and the church and the gospel. He sees that Jerusalem and the temple are about to be taken down (24:4-35), while the gospel mission will go on (28:18-20).
Therefore, the brothers and sisters do not refer to Israel (though Jewish texts naturally write from the perspective of how the nations treated Israel; Keener, p. 603, but see long quotation from him, below), because the disciples were called to evangelize all nations; and even Israel, both then and now, must accept or reject their Messiah and be judged on how they treat Christian missionaries. And many did accept him (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 21:20). Today, Israel does not seem particularly to be “hungering or thirsting or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison.” The opposite is true. The nation is prosperous. The old dispensational view, still popularly circulating on Christian TV, which says that these brothers and sisters refer to Israel, must be dropped. When Israel also stands before the son of Man, treatment of this nation will not be the criterion by which he judges Malaysia or Tibet or a tiny south sea island nation, for example. But if Christian missionaries go to those three nations and are mistreated, then these nations’ judgment will be negative (or the other way around, if they are treated positively).
Objection, someone says: “This is replacement theology! The church does not replace Israel!” No, the church does not replace Israel. God still has a plan for this nation. Israelis can now hear the gospel in modern Hebrew and convert to the Messiah. All Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:25-32), if they do not continue in their unbelief and hardness of heart (Rom. 11:23). I wish the nation of Israel well. But for the past 2000 years God’s heart has always been on his church; his church is the focal point of his mission, for the church is the only living organism that can carry the gospel around the world, and the gospel is the answer to humanity’s deepest needs. So the church does not replace Israel as much as the church moves past this tiny nation.
Keener is right:
The older dispensational scheme viewed this as the judgment of the nations based on their treatment of Israel, a view that could fit Jewish perceptions of the judgment … But this hardly fits Jesus’ own designation of his ‘brothers’ elsewhere (12:50; 28:10 …), and perhaps not the shift from the neuter “nations” to the masculine pronoun, suggesting individual judgment of nations …. But because the passage explicitly declares that this judgment determines people’s eternal destinies (25:46), it cannot refer to a judgment concerning who would enter the millennium, as in some older dispensational schemes … (p. 604).
Third, the main point is that this entire passage is about the final judgment and welcoming the sheep or true disciples into the son of Man’s Messianic Age, just like the five wise maidens were brought into the wedding feast. Everything is now made right. This point leads to the next one. “In Jewish texts, God judges the nations after raising them from the dead … The same time frame is in view here: as in both the context and the Daniel passage that initially supplied the ‘Son of Man’ title, Jesus here returns after the tribulation (25:31; 24:29-30; Dan. 7:13-14), ‘in glory’ (cf. 16:27; 24:31; 2 Thess. 1:10; 2:8), ‘in kingdom’ (16:28), enthroned (cf. 20:23; 22:44). The parable’s ‘throne of glory’ (cf. 25:31) appears frequently in Jewish texts (most frequently of God’s throne), those addressing the final judgment being of special significance (e.g. 1 Enoch 45:3; 47:3; 60:2; 62:2)” (Keener, p. 603).
Fourth, the adjective “everlasting” is the translation of the Greek adjective aiōnios (used 71 times). BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the NT, says that it means (1) “pertaining to a long period of time, long ago”; (2) pertaining to a period of time without beginning or end, eternal of God”; (3) pertaining to a period of unending duration, without end.” So, yes, it can be translated as “everlasting,” but the other definitions fit too. It could just as easily be translated as “punishment of the new age” or “new-age punishment” or “punishment that lasts an age” (“age-long punishment”); and positively “life of the new age” or “new-age life.” We get our eternal existence from God, not by virtue of being a soul. Those outside of God may not last forever, so “age-long punishment” is an appropriate translation for them, while “everlasting life” is the right translation for those who belong to Christ.
And thus some are disputing the everlastingness of fire and punishment. It could be punishment that lasts an age. Sincere and devout and Bible-believing Evangelicals of equal intelligence are shifting their interpretation away from the eternal, conscious torment, because the eternality of conscious torment does not carry as much weight in Scripture as they had once believed. But the reader is certainly entitled to translate the adjective and noun as “everlasting punishment” or “everlasting flames.”
As noted I don’t discuss here in detail the afterlife and punishment. Instead, here is a three-part series on the options:
Each theory has Scriptural support, and the first theory does not dominate the others (much to my personal surprise, after my research). I go over the key Scripture that the first option uses and offer the standard interpretations but also add alternative (and legitimate) interpretations. Whichever theory you land on, please don’t call the other interpreter names, like “fire-breathing fundamentalist” or “heretic.” For me, punishment in the afterlife is a secondary issue, or less than secondary. Therefore, this statement is right:
“In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things, charity (love).”
The best view of all is that we must be ready to be welcomed into everlasting life, the New Messianic Age.
Summary and Conclusion
It is clear that Jesus wants us to be ready morally and spiritually for his return. He intends that we practice whatever gifts and calling he has for us–to do good works of ministry, to help the last, the lost, and the least. We don’t know that day or the hour of his Return, so let’s wait expectantly for it while we are doing his assignment or mission.
Those parables spoke of delays. Therefore, Jesus did not believe that he would return in this (his) generation (24:34). That prediction was for the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Instead, his parousia is delayed and will arrive after a “long time”; it is open-ended. Not even he, while he was on earth, knew the day or the hour of his own Return (!). But he knew (approximately) when the city would be sacked–his generation.
And the ultimate solution or best teaching of 24:36-25:46 is that when we carry out our assignment or mission, he will invite us into his New Kingdom or Messianic Age. Everything will be put right.
From here on, I pretty much repeat, with minor adjustments, what I wrote in the companion piece:
Recall that Jesus’s disciples asked two questions at the very beginning of this very long discourse:
3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came up to him privately, saying, “Tell us. When will these things be? And what will be the sign of your visitation [parousia] and the close [synteleia] of the age?” (Matt. 24:3)
(1). “When will these things be?” The context indicates that this question pertains to the destruction of the temple, which they had just admired. But he predicts its destruction.
(2). “And what will be the sign of your visitation [parousia] and the close [synteleia] of the age?”
He answered the first question in Matt. 24:4-35 and his second answer has now gone from 24:36 all the way to Matt. 25:46, when the age will be closed out or wrapped up. There is no sign of his parousia, and no one–not even the son of Man–knows the day or hour.
Here’s a short diagram to illustrate the first question and answer in Matt. 24:4-35:
First Coming → Resurrection → Coming to His Throne and then Judgment →Telos (End) of the Old Temple
The “telos end” happened in A.D. 70, the generation that was living when Jesus taught those verses. His prediction came true.
Here’s a diagram of the second question and answer.
________________← This Age ⸻→ Synteleia of This Age
First Coming ⸻⸻⸻⸻→ Parousia → New Messianic Age
In the second diagram, the First Coming begins the movement towards the parousia or Second Coming; the synteleia (closing) of This Age occurs, and subsequently the New Messianic or Kingdom Age begins in full manifestation. After the synteleia, a New Messianic Age begins, and you can certainly insert the judgment on the temple in This Age. But that is not the synteleia end; it is the telos end of an Old Regime (see the companion piece). In Matt. 28:20b, Jesus promises the synteleia, the closing out of the age, which is a fitting capstone on Matthew’s Gospel. “And remember this: I am with you every day, until the end [synteleia] of the age” (Matt. 28:20b).
Objection: “You’re making too much of the telos and synteleia ends!” Reply: Read both posts carefully. Look up those words in Matthew’s Gospel. Those differences exist. But let’s say that the nuances in those two terms don’t exist. My overall thesis doesn’t stand or fall on them. Contextually, 24:4-35 really is about the destruction, and 24:36-25:46 is about the Second Coming and its aftermath. Check out my exegesis of 24:34, which says that all things will happen before this generation passes away. What are all things? Everything Jesus talked about before v. 34. There’s no getting around that stubborn verse. I believe that my (and others’) exegesis clarifies the verse, if we understand apocalyptic language and imagery, which Jesus was using, in the context of overthrowing the Old Regime or the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple.
See this post for at least fourteen OT passages about apocalyptic, cosmic disasters that indicate judgment on a nation:
Objection: how does this post deal with the Great Commission (28:18-20)? Here is a theological reply. During his ascension, when he commissioned his original disciples (and now us), it is a sure thing that he knew about Australia and North America and elsewhere. His omniscience was full and no longer hidden behind his humanity. So now his commission really is global.
As to the sign of his parousia, there is no one major warning sign; rather it could happen at any time, when we least expect it. So we really have to be on our guard and watch. The one possible “sign,” which is really not a sign, is the moral degradation before the parousia, as it was in the days of Noah and Lot.
In any case, this interpretation enjoys the beauty of simplicity by eliminating all (or nearly all) the complications that popular Bible prophecy teachers have been imposing on Matt. 24 and 25 for decades—over a century. Since this tradition has deep roots—not to say entrenched—in the conservative sectors of American Evangelicalism (broadly defined to incorporate the Renewal Movements), these teachers won’t give up their complicated interpretations. So I hope to reach and teach the younger generations in the church. They need to prepare for tough times ahead. I’m not a pastor, but I can still have a teacher’s pastoral heart.
The Second Coming can happen at any time! Be ready!
One additional point: There is simply no verse in Matt. 24-25 that supports the rapture of the church, distinct from the Second Coming. That added complication has to be imported into those two chapters, which are remarkably clear in most elements.
Again see my post:
Matthew’s eschatology: First Coming or advent (Matt. 1-2); Second Coming (24:36-25:46). That’s it. Streamlined simplicity.
Matthew 24:4-35 Predicts Destruction of Jerusalem and Temple (companion piece to this present post)
Luke 21:5-33 Predicts Destruction of Jerusalem and Temple (Luke is by far the clearest on this topic)
Three Options for Interpreting Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21 (I discuss two other interpretations)
Luke 17:22-37: Taken Away = Secret Rapture? (I also briefly look at Matthew’s version)