The Parable of the Ten Virgins

25:1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 25:2 Five of the virgins were foolish, and five were wise. 25:3 When the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take extra olive oil with them. 25:4 But the wise ones took flasks of olive oil with their lamps. 25:5 When the bridegroom was delayed a long time, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 25:6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is here! Come out to meet him.’ 25:7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 25:8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ 25:9 ‘No,’ they replied. ‘There won’t be enough for you and for us. Go instead to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 25:10 But while they had gone to buy it, the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went inside with him to the wedding banquet. Then the door was shut. 25:11 Later, the other virgins came too, saying, ‘Lord, lord! Let us in!’ 25:12 But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I do not know you!’ 25:13 Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Virgins – Young women of marriageable age who were bridesmaids, or friends of the bridegroom.  They were to go out the meet the bridgroom and lead him and his bride home for the wedding festivities.

Lamps – Oil-soaked rags on sticks.  They would need to be dipped in oil every few minutes to keep them burning.

Oil – Although we can readily detect allegorical elements in this parable, we should not stretch these so far as to seek specific meaning for the oil (good works, faith, grace, the Holy Spirit, have all been canvassed).

The bridegroom was a long time in coming – Note the indication of delay, cf Mt 24:48.  Jesus will return, but we do not know when.

“The cry rang out” – Cf Mt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16.

‘There are some things you cannot borrow. You need to possess them for yourself. It simply is not possible to rely on anyone else for them. Holiness is one of those things. It cannot be traded. If you are not what you profess to be, nobody else can help you or stand in for you.’ (Green)The door was shut – Although the ten girls were similar in so many ways, a division is made between them.  Some went in with the bridegroom to join in the festivities, while the others were left outside.

At the point, the parable moves beyond realism (we would have expected the bridegroom to let the young girls enter, even though they were late) in order to accentuate its spiritual meaning.

‘There are some times when it is too late. ‘Too late’ is a terrible verdict. The job has been lost; it is too late now to say you will try harder. The divorce has come through; it is too late now to make amends. The examination starts today; it is too late now to prepare for it. And those terrible words are never more awesome than when applied to the parousia. Make sure you don’t miss the party!’ (Green)

You do not know the day or the hour – Harold Camping, 72-year-old president of Family Radio and a former member of the Christian Reformed Church, asserted in his books ‘1994?’ and ‘Are you Ready?’ that the world would end in September, 1994. His calculations were based on an elaborate system of dating, numerology, and allegory, and led him to believe that the world was created in 11,013 BC. A ‘spiritual tribulation’ began 13,000 years after creation, namely in May 1988. This happens to be the date when Camping was asked by his pastor to cease teaching an adult Bible class in the church in Alameda, California. Camping claims that it is possible to know the year and the month of Christ’s return, for Jesus only said that we could not know ‘the day or the hour.’ (Christianity Today, 20/6/94)

Blomberg summarises the meaning of this parable:-

  1. ‘Like the bridegroom, God may delay his coming longer than people expect.
  2. Like the wise bridesmaids, his followers must be prepared for such a delay—discipleship may be more arduous than the novice suspects.
  3. Like the foolish bridesmaids, those who do not prepare adequately may discover a point beyond which there is no return—when the end comes it will be too late to undo the damage of neglect.

The Parable of the Talents

25:14 “For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. 25:15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 25:16 The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. 25:17 In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. 25:18 But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. 25:19 After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. 25:20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 25:21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 25:22 The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 25:23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 25:24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25:25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 25:26 But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 25:27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! 25:28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. 25:29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 25:30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Mt 25:14–30 cf. Lk 19:12–27

“You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” – ‘Scripture contains many indications that the new heaven and the new earth will be for the believer a place not only privilege but of responsibility.  The “good and faithful servant”, who has been “faithful with a few things”, will be put “in charge of many things” and will “share in [his] master’s happiness.”  Similarly, to the good servant of the ten minas the nobleman says: because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities” (Lk 19:17).  And Paul adds to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Cor 6:2).  It seems fitting that it should be so.  Those who have learned to do Christ’s works in this life will continue to do them in the next.  Those who have come to rule their own passions on earth will rule over people in heaven.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 403f)

Come and share your master’s happiness!

‘Note, (1.) The state of the blessed is a state of joy, not only because all tears shall then be wiped away, but all the springs of comfort shall be opened to them, and the fountains of joy broken up. Where there are the vision and fruition of God, a perfection of holiness, and the society of the blessed, there cannot but be a fulness of joy. (2.) This joy is the joy of their Lord; the joy which he himself has purchased and provided for them; the joy of the redeemed, bought with the sorrow of the Redeemer. It is the joy which he himself is in the possession of, and which he had his eye upon when he endured the cross, and despised the shame, Heb. 12:2. It is the joy of which he himself is the fountain and centre. It is the joy of our Lord, for it is joy in the Lord, who is our exceeding joy. Abraham was not willing that the steward of his house, though faithful, should be his heir (Gen. 15:3); but Christ admits his faithful stewards into his own joy, to be joint-heirs with him. (3.) Glorified saints shall enter into this joy, shall have a full and complete possession of it, as the heir when he comes of age enters upon his estate, or as they that were ready, went in to the marriage feast. Here the joy of our Lord enters into the saints, in the earnest of the Spirit; shortly they shall enter into it, shall be in it to eternity, as in their element.’ (MHC)

The Judgment

25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
End of the age, or end of the exile?
Relying heavily on the ideas of N.T. Wright, Robin Phillips asserts that this parable (along with those that precede it) does not refer to Christ’s second coming at the end of the age.  It draws on the OT theme of the Lord returning to his people to end their captivity, their blessing in the land he had given to them, and the judgement of their (and his) enemies.  This theme is found in Deut 30, Dan 9 etc.  The present passage draws specifically on Dan 7:13 to describe this return.  The prophet Zechariah also picks up these theme (see, e.g., Zech 1:16).  Many Jews in Jesus’ day were looking forward to this return, and to the completion of the return from exile.  For them, ‘the people had returned to the land, but God had not returned to his people.’  But the prophets had also spoken of a separation, at the time of the Lord’s return, between the faithful and the unfaithful amongst his people (Zech 11; Isa 65).

According to this view, Jesus ‘invokes all of these themes: the return of God to His people after a long absence, judgment against those who thought they were the people of God but who had actually become unfaithful and the vindication of His people against their enemies.’  But in Jesus’ teaching, the Lord will return in the person of Jesus himself.  The separation will be between those who have accepted, and those who have rejected, his message.

But within this interpretation, Jesus taught that all this was happening at that time.  The judgement on unbelief was not reserved for the end of time.  This parable ‘has nothing to do with Christ’s second coming.’  The warning was about the much more imminent destruction that would take place in AD70.  It does, however bear a wider application for the entire present age: that the nations will be judgement according as they have helped or hindered the gospel.

It is asserted (within this interpretation) that Dan 13f (and the allusion to it in Mt 25:31) does not refer to the coming of the Son of Man from heaven to earth, but rather from earth to heaven.  (We might say that it refers, then, not to the second coming, but to the ascension; not to the consummation of the kingdom, but to its inauguration).

Similarly, ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal punishment’ are not to be conceived of in traditional eschatological terms, but being the life and the punishment that belong to the age that was about to be ushered in.  The warnings apply most naturally to the events of AD70.

Wright’s own views are summarised in his Matthew for Everyone: ‘According to the rest of the New Testament, not least St Paul, Jesus is already ruling the world as its rightful lord (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:25–28). Should we not say, then, that this scene of judgment, though in this picture it is spoken of as a one-off, future and final event, may actually refer to what is happening throughout human history, from the time of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the present? Could it be that the final judgment, in some sense, comes forward to meet us?’

This passage is the last teaching of Jesus to his disciples reported in this Gospel.

It is often described as a parable. Although there is a parabolic element in the simile of the shepherd separating the sheep from the goats, it is best thought of as a vision of the future (NBC).

‘Jesus began this discourse by focusing on the temporal judgment against Israel (Mt 23:1–24:20); he now ends with an emphasis on the eternal judgment of all the world.’ (Blomberg)

Osborne notes that this teaching ‘moves from the responsibility of the disciples (Mt 24:36–25:30) to the responsibility of all the world in light of the imminent appearing of the Son of Man and the final judgment he will bring.’

Wilkins, too, comments on the relationship between the present teaching and that which has preceded it: ‘Each of the following parables emphasizes different aspects of that preparedness: responsibility (Mt 24:45–51), readiness (Mt 25:1–13), productivity (Mt 25:14–30), and accountability (Mt 25:31–46).’

Morris cautions: ‘This picture of Judgment Day does not give us a full account of everything that has to do with salvation; it does not include, for example, the fact that from the beginning of his Gospel Matthew has been writing about one who will “save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21; cf. also Mt 11:25–30; 20:28). This passage deals with the evidence on which people will be judged, not the cause of salvation or damnation.’

‘The language about the Son of Man coming, glory, angels, throne and judging all derives from Dan 7:9-14. This is the ultimate outworking of the kingship and authority which that prophecy envisaged for the Son of Man, and which Jesus has already referred to in several connections. (Mt 10:23; 16:28; 19:28; 24:30) The gathering of all the nations for judgment recalls the vision in Joe 3:2; but there the judge is God himself. The whole passage calmly attributes to Jesus the authority and kingship which in the OT belong to God alone.’ (NBC)

Hagner notes that ‘the closest parallel to the present verse comes from Mt 16:27, which also refers to the coming of the Son of Man but ἐν τῇ δόξῃ τοῦ πατρός, “in the glory of his Father,” rather than ἐν τῇ δόξῃ αὐτοῦ, “in his glory,” as here. That Matthew can alter this language so naturally is an indicator of his high Christology. The remainder of Mt 16:27, “and then he will render to each according to his work,” is, of course, the point of the present parable concerning the sheep and the goats.’

“When” – Barnes notes: ‘That this refers to the last judgment, and not, as some have supposed, to the destruction of Jerusalem, appears—1st. From the fact that it was in answer to an express inquiry respecting the end of the world. 2d. All nations were to be assembled, which did not take place at the destruction of Jerusalem. 3d. A separation was to take place between the righteous and the wicked, which was not done at Jerusalem. 4th. The rewards and punishments are declared to be eternal. None of these things took place at the destruction of Jerusalem.’

“The Son of Man” – A title taken from Dan 7. It is our Lord’s favourite self-designation.  One remarkable feature of this passage is the pre-eminent place given to the Son of Man at the Last Judgement: in Jewish thinking, that place was reserved exclusively for God himself.  As France says: ‘the OT expectation of the eschatological visitation of God in judgment and salvation finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Son of Man who sits on his glorious throne and pronounces judgment.’

“Comes” – Although modern readers tend to assume that this is a ‘coming’ from heaven to earth, the reverse is probably the case.  France (TNTC) writes: ‘this fulfilment of the visions of Daniel 7 is something which Jesus expects progressively over the whole period from his resurrection to his parousia, as the ‘everlasting dominion’ predicted in Daniel 7:14 becomes increasingly a reality. Here we see the climax of the progressive fulfilment, for it seems clear from what follows that we are now transported to the ultimate manifestation of that authority in the final judgment associated with the parousia (which has been the focus of the whole discourse since Mt 24:36).’

“His glory” – ‘The picture is one of grandeur, majesty, authority, and judgment.’ (Blomberg)

“All the angels with him” – he will come with all the insignia of divine majesty.  ‘They must come to call the court (1 Th. 4:16), to gather the elect (Mt 24:31), to bundle the tares (Mt 13:40), to be witnesses of the saints’ glory (Lk 12:8), and of sinners’ misery, Rev 14:10.’ (MHC)

France notes that Jesus’ claim here ‘goes beyond the vision of Daniel 7, for whereas in that passage the throne was that of God the judge, now it is the Son of man himself who sits on it as King (v. 34); moreover all the angels with him probably echoes Zechariah 14:5, where they accompany ‘the LORD your God’ in his coming to judgment. And in v. 32 the language recalls the gathering of all the nations for judgment in Joel 3:1–12, where again it is God who sits in judgment.’

“He will sit on his throne” – ‘He is now set down with the Father upon his throne; and it is a throne of grace, to which we may come boldly; it is a throne of government, the throne of his father David; he is a priest upon that throne: but then he will sit upon the throne of glory, the throne of judgment.’ (MHC)

‘This is the reason why he says that he will then assume the title of King; for though he commenced his reign on the earth, and now sits at the right hand of the Father, so as to exercise the supreme government of heaven and earth; yet he has not yet erected before the eyes of men that throne, from which his divine majesty will be far more fully displayed than it now is at the last day; for that, of which we now obtain by faith nothing more than a taste, will then have its full effect. So then Christ now sits on his heavenly throne, as fir as it is necessary that he shall reign for restraining his enemies and protecting the Church; but then he will appear openly, to establish perfect order in heaven and earth, to crush his enemies under his feet, to assemble his believing people to partake of an everlasting and blessed life, to ascend his judgment-seat; and, in a word, there will be a visible manifestation of the reason why the kingdom was given to him by the Father.’ (Calvin)

Once a prisoner; now the judge

‘Christ, in the days of his flesh, was arraigned as a prisoner at the bar; but at his second coming, he will sit as a judge upon the bench.’ (MHC)

“In heavenly glory” – Jesus stresses that ‘when he returns at the end of this age he will come in majesty and splendor. His servants must not be misled by his readiness to take the lowly place and think that that is his only place. His second coming will be strikingly different. He will come in power and majesty to inaugurate the final state of affairs.’ (Morris)

France (NICNT) regards the ‘main thrust’ of this passage ‘as the climax of the discourse on judgment, its portrayal of the ultimate sovereignty of the Son of Man as the universal judge..

‘There is a judgment to come, in which every man shall be sentenced to a state of everlasting happiness, or misery, in the world of recompense or retribution, according to what he did in this world of trial and probation, which is to be judged of by the rule of the everlasting gospel.’ (MHC)

25:32 All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 25:33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“All the nations will be gathered before him” – ‘The nations’ – ta ethne – would include Jews and well as Gentiles.

Everyone will be there

Think of all the historical figures – good and evil – who will gather before him on that day. Think of all the ordinary people – ourselves included – who will also be there. Whether we realise it or not, we are all moving towards a final overwhelming encounter with our Maker. See 2 Cor 5:10.

It was to ‘the nations’ that the disciples were sent, Mt 24:14; 28:19, and it is response of ‘the nations’ to the disciples, as emissaries of Christ, that will be scrutinised on the last day.

The view of Calvin, that the judgement here is of the church as a mixed body of believers and unbelievers, is not supported by the text itself.

‘Note, The judgment of the great day will be a general judgment. All must be summoned before Christ’s tribunal; all of every age of the world, from the beginning to the end of time; all of every place on earth, even from the remotest corners of the world, most obscure, and distant from each other; all nations, all those nations of men that are made of one blood, to dwell on all the face of the earth.’ (MHC)

The basis of judgement

‘All the nations of the world – that is, every individual of those nations – are to be judged on the basis of their treatment of disciples of Jesus. This perhaps surprising statement points at once to the unique relation between Jesus and those who follow him and to the supreme importance of the mission and message of the church to the world. To treat the disciple, the bringer and representative of the gospel, with deeds of kindness is in effect to have so treated Jesus. Conversely, to fail to meet the needs of the Christian missionary is to fail to meet the needs of Jesus. There is thus a most remarkable bond of solidarity between Jesus and his disciples. Although disciples are naturally also called to do good to all people (cf. Mt 9:13; 12:7), deeds of kindness must begin with brothers and sisters of the faith, with the church.’ (cf. Gal 6:10) (WBC)

“He will separate the people one from another” – Although we tend to think of this scene as representing the Last Judgement, ‘it does not depict a trial but the passing of a sentence on those whose judgment has already taken place.’ (Mounce)

Although it is the nations that have been gathered, it is the individual people of the nations who are judged.

‘Even as in wintertime you cannot tell the healthy trees apart from the withered trees but in beautiful springtime you can tell the difference, so too each person according to his faith and his works will be exposed. The wicked will not have any leaves or show any fruit, but the righteous will be clothed with the leaves of eternal life and adorned with the fruit of glory.’ (Anon, ACCS)

An exact separation

‘He shall separate them one from another, as the tares and wheat are separated at the harvest, the good fish and the bad at the shore, the corn and chaff in the floor. Wicked and godly here dwell together in the same kingdoms, cities, churches, families, and are not certainly distinguishable one from another; such are the infirmities of saints, such the hypocrisies of sinners, and one event to both: but in that day they will be separated, and parted for ever…They cannot separate themselves one from another in this world, (1 Cor 5:10) nor can any one else separate them (Mt 13:29); but the Lord knows them that are his, and he can separate them. This separation will be so exact, that the most inconsiderable saints shall not be lost in the crowd of sinners, nor the most plausible sinner hid in the crowd of saints, (Ps 1:5) but every one shall go to his own place.’ (MHC)

“As a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” – ‘Although sheep and goats grazed together, it is said that Palestinian shepherds normally separated sheep and goats at night because goats need to be warm at night while sheep prefer open air. Sheep were more valuable than goats, and characteristics like this may have may have influenced how these terms would be heard figuratively; for instance, in a pagan dream handbook sheep were associated with good while goats were associated with trouble.’ (NT Background Commentary)

Alternatively, it may be that the the separation is based on the more rapid reproduction rate of the goats.  Ian Paul points out that the word for ‘goat’ here is eriphos, the male term for a baby goat.  The process would then be one of picking out and culling these kids, because a herd would need only one or two adult male goats.

The Hebrews made little distinction between sheep and goats, and they were regularly mixed in Palestinian flocks, so separation may be indicative of divine discernment.  ‘We too could probably not guess from superficial knowledge and external appearance who are truly God’s people, but he knows.’ (Blomberg)

The distinction is absolute: there is no middle ground. Right and left indicate here, as in many cultures, favour and disfavour respectively.

This striking imagery is illustrative of ‘the final division of people who have up to that point lived together indistinguishably—cf. the imagery of the wheat and the weeds (Mt 13:29–30) or of the silly and sensible girls (Mt 25:1–12). To other people (and even to themselves, vv. 37–39, 44?) the saved and the lost may look very similar; it takes the expertise of the “king” to know which is which.’ (France)

The criterion of division

‘It is not said that he shall put the rich on his right hand, and the poor on his left; the learned and noble on his right hand, and unlearned and despised on his left; but the godly on his right hand, and the wicked on his left. All other divisions and subdivisions will then be abolished; but the great distinction of men into saints and sinners, sanctified and unsanctified, will remain for ever, and men’s eternal state will be determined by it.’ (MHC)

25:34 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.

“The King will say to those on his right” – Morris observes that this appears to be the only passage in which Jesus explicitly refers to himself as ‘King’.  ‘At the time he was speaking he might well be “despised and rejected of men,” but in due course he will be sovereign over all.’

Jesus is King

Wilkins notes ways in which this Gospel presents Jesus as King: ‘Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage to King David (Mt 1:1–17), Jesus is sought by the Magi as the one born king of the Jews (Mt 2:2), he announces the arrival of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 4:17), his earthly ministry comes to a climactic point in his triumphal entry to Jerusalem where he fulfills the expectation of Israel’s king coming to her (Mt 21:5), the Sanhedrin accuses him of claiming to be king of the Jews (Mt 27:11), and he is mocked as king in his crucifixion (Mt 27:29, 37, 42).’

“Come” – ‘This come is, in effect, “Welcome, ten thousand welcomes, to the blessings of my father; come to me, come to be for ever with me; you that followed me bearing the cross, now come along with me wearing the crown. The blessed of my Father are the beloved of my soul, that have been too long at a distance from me; come, now, come into my bosom, come into my arms, come into my dearest embraces!”’ (MHC)

“You who are blessed…take your inheritance” – ‘By calling them blessed of the Father, he reminds them, that their salvation proceeded from the undeserved favor of God…There can be no doubt…that Christ, in describing the salvation of the godly, begins with the undeserved love of God, by which those who, under the guidance of the Spirit in this life, aim at righteousness, were predestined to life.’ (Calvin)

‘Though the life of the godly be nothing else than a sad and wretched banishment, so that the earth scarcely bears them; though they groan under hard poverty, and reproaches, and other afflictions; yet, that they may with fortitude and cheerfulness surmount these obstacles, the Lord declares that a kingdom is elsewhere prepared for them. It is no slight persuasive to patience, when men are fully convinced that they do not run in vain; and therefore, lest our minds should be east, down by the pride of the ungodly, in which they give themselves unrestrained indulgences-lest our hope should even be weakened by our own afflictions, let us always remember the inheritance which awaits us in heaven; for it depends on no uncertain event, but was prepared for us by God before we were born,-prepared, I say, for each of the elect, for the persons here addressed by Christ are the blessed of the Father.’ (Calvin)

“Blessed by my Father” – ‘reproached and cursed by the world, but blessed of God.’ (MHC)

‘He pronounces them blessed; and his saying they are blessed, makes them so.’ (MHC)

See Eph 1:3ff for Pauls accounts of ‘every spiritual blessing in Christ’.

France recalls ‘John 5:27 where the Father “has given authority to the Son to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.”’

‘The idea of the fatherhood of God goes hand-in-hand with inheritance language, for it is as part of God’s family that believers will have an inheritance (see Mt 5:5; Mt 19:29; Rom 8:17; 1 Cor 6:9, 10; Heb 1:4, 14; et al.).’ (Osborne)

“Inherit” – ‘He did not say “take” but “inherit” as one’s own, as your Father’s, as yours, as due to you from the first. “For before you were,” he says, “these things had been prepared and made ready for you, because I knew you would be such as you are.”’ (Chrysostom, ACCS)

“The kingdom prepared for you” – Their role is not merely to be subjects, but to exercise their own delegated kingship.

‘The happiness they shall be possessed of is very rich; we are told what it is by him who had reason to know it, having purchased it for them, and possessed it himself.’ (MHC)

‘Christ does not simply invite believers to possess the kingdom, as if they had obtained it by their merits, but expressly says that it is bestowed on them as heirs.’ (Calvin)

Inherit a kingdom!

‘Though the life of the godly be nothing else than a sad and wretched banishment, so that the earth scarcely bears them; though they groan under hard poverty, and reproaches, and other afflictions; yet, that they may with fortitude and cheerfulness surmount these obstacles, the Lord declares that a kingdom is elsewhere prepared for them. It is no slight persuasive to patience, when men are fully convinced that they do not run in vain; and therefore, lest our minds should be cast down by the pride of the ungodly, in which they give themselves unrestrained indulgences–lest our hope should even be weakened by our own afflictions, let us always remember the inheritance which awaits us in heaven; for it depends on no uncertain event, but was prepared for us by God before we were born,–prepared, I say, for each of the elect, for the persons here addressed by Christ are the blessed of the Father.’ (Calvin)

‘Those that inherit kingdoms, wear all the glories of the crown, enjoy all the pleasures of the court, and command the peculiar treasures of the provinces; yet this is but a faint resemblance of the felicities of the saints in heaven. They that here are beggars, prisoners, accounted as the off-scouring of all things, shall then inherit a kingdom, Ps. 113:7; Rev. 2:26, 27.’ (MHC)

Prepared for them

‘It is prepared on purpose for them; not only for such as you, but for you, you by name, you personally and particularly, who were chosen to salvation through sanctification.’ (MHC)

“Since the creation of the world” – It is ‘sure and unalterable’, and to know this ‘is solid assurance for persecuted disciples in a hostile world.’ (France)

‘The end, which is last in execution, is first in intention. Infinite Wisdom had an eye to the eternal glorification of the saints, from the first founding of the creation.’ (MHC)

Morris says that although some interpret this passage to teach salvation by works, here we see that the kingdom has been prepared by God ‘since the creation of the world’: i.e. long before any good deeds have been performed.  However, as France says, this passage is not conclusive in any discussion of the doctrine of election, because it could be understood to mean that ‘what is determined in advance is that those who prove at the time of judgment to be “sheep” will inherit the kingship, rather than that certain individuals have been “pre-selected” before their birth to be “sheep.”’

Milne says that a number of aspects of heaven are highlighted in this passage:-

  1. We enter heaven at the invitation of the King.
  2. The redeemed are ‘blessed by my Father’.
  3. Heaven is an inheritance.
  4. Heaven is an order of existence characterised by life – eternal life.
25:35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 25:36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

“I was a stranger and you invited me in” – ‘The stranger is always in a somewhat difficult position, and in first-century Palestine, with its lack of facilities like the hotels that in modern times we so easily take for granted, this was especially the case. Where would a stranger lodge when he came to an unfamiliar place? The Old Testament knows of a man who prepared to spend the night in the town square (Judg. 19:15; cf. Job 31:32); thus a stranger could not rely on facilities for temporary lodgings. If he was not to spend the night in the open air, someone would have to take him into a private home. This was done among the Christians (Acts 10:23; Heb. 13:2, etc.), who seem to have taken the duty of hospitality very seriously.’ (Morris)

‘The hardships listed recall those promised in ch. 10 to Jesus’ disciples in their mission, and are strikingly echoed in Paul’s description of his experiences as a Christian missionary in 2 Cor 11:23-27.’ (France)

‘Jesus is clear that to follow him means to be homeless; in reply to a teacher of the law who would follow him, Jesus replies: ‘Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’ (Matt 8.20 = Luke 9.58). In other words, if you follow Jesus you will be like him, and this is to be without home, a wandering stranger, reliant on the charity and provision of others.’ (Ian Paul)

The acts of kindness are listed no less than four times, ‘and is clearly meant to be remembered as a guide to practical discipleship. It is by such acts that one prepares for the judgement.’ (France)

As Hagner notes, ‘the catalogue is, of course, only representative. It covers the most basic needs of life in order to represent the meeting of human need of every kind.’

‘This parable describes acts of mercy we all can do every day. These acts do not depend on wealth, ability, or intelligence; they are simple acts freely given and freely received. We have no excuse to neglect those who have deep needs, and we cannot hand over this responsibility to the church or government. Jesus demands our personal involvement in caring for others’ needs (Isaiah 58:7).’ (HBA)

‘Faith working by love is all in all in Christianity.’ (MHC)

‘It is no new thing for those that are feasted with the dainties of heaven to be hungry and thirsty, and to want daily food; for those that are at home in God, to be strangers in a strange land; for those that have put on Christ, to want clothes to keep them warm; for those that have healthful souls, to have sickly bodies; and for those to be in prison, that Christ has made free.’ (MHC)

‘Works of charity and beneficence, according as our ability is, are necessary to salvation; and there will be more stress laid upon them in the judgment of the great day, than is commonly imagined; these must be the proofs of our love, and of our professed subjection to the gospel of Christ, 2 Co. 9:13.’ (MHC)

‘Does our Lord hunger and thirst? Is he who himself made everything in heaven and on earth, who feeds angels in heaven and every nation and race on earth, who needs nothing of an earthly character, as he is unfailing in his own nature, is this one naked? It is incredible to believe such a thing. Yet what must be confessed is easy to believe. For the Lord hungers not in his own nature but in his saints; the Lord thirsts not in his own nature but in his poor. The Lord who clothes everyone is not naked in his own nature but in his servants. The Lord who is able to heal all sicknesses and has already destroyed death itself is not diseased in his own nature but in his servants. Our Lord, the one who can liberate every person, is not in prison in his own nature but in his saints. Therefore, you see, my most beloved, that the saints are not alone. They suffer all these things because of the Lord. In the same way, because of the saints the Lord suffers all these things with them.’ (Epiphanius the Latin, in ACCS)

“I was naked and you gave me clothing” – ‘This can also be said of teachers who gave the food of learning to those hungry for righteousness, so they might be fed and grow healthy in good actions; who administered the drink of truth to those thirsty for the knowledge of God. Teaching in the Word, they certainly fed them and also gave to drink, baptizing in the Holy Spirit those who are strangers in the world. For all souls are truly strangers on this earth who can say, “For I am your passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers.” Preaching the word of faith, they welcome souls from the spreading of error and make them fellow citizens and family members of the saints. They welcome Christ himself and clothe, by teaching righteousness, those who are naked and even without a garment of righteousness. As is written: “Put on, then, compassion, faith, peace and kindness.” That is to say, they clothe Christ and baptize them in Christ, as is written: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”’ (Anon, in ACCS)

‘Does our Lord hunger and thirst? Is he who himself made everything in heaven and on earth, who feeds angels in heaven and every nation and race on earth, who needs nothing of an earthly character, as he is unfailing in his own nature, is this one naked? It is incredible to believe such a thing. Yet what must be confessed is easy to believe. For the Lord hungers not in his own nature but in his saints; the Lord thirsts not in his own nature but in his poor. The Lord who clothes everyone is not naked in his own nature but in his servants. The Lord who is able to heal all sicknesses and has already destroyed death itself is not diseased in his own nature but in his servants. Our Lord, the one who can liberate every person, is not in prison in his own nature but in his saints. Therefore, you see, my most beloved, that the saints are not alone. They suffer all these things because of the Lord. In the same way, because of the saints the Lord suffers all these things with them.’ (Epiphanius the Latin, in ACCS)

25:37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 25:38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? 25:39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

The righteous – Those on whom a favourable verdict has just been announced.

The criterion of judgement is not accepting the message of Jesus’ ‘brothers’ but ministering to their physical needs.

“When did we see you hungry and feed you…?” – ‘The surprise expressed is not at their being told that they acted from love to Christ, but that Christ Himself was the Personal Object of all their deeds: that they found Him hungry, and supplied Him with food: that they brought water to Him, and slaked His thirst; that seeing Him naked and shivering, they put warm clothing upon Him, paid Him visits when lying in prison for the truth, and sat by His bedside when laid down with sickness.’ (JFB)

‘Not as if they were loth to inherit the kingdom, or were ashamed of their good deeds, or had not the testimony of their own consciences concerning them: but, (1.) The expressions are parabolical, designed to introduce and impress these great truths, that Christ has a mighty regard to works of charity, and is especially pleased with kindnesses done to his people for his sake. Or, (2.) They bespeak the humble admiration which glorified saints will be filled with, to find such poor and worthless services, as theirs are, so highly celebrated, and richly rewarded: Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Note, Gracious souls are apt to think meanly of their own good deeds; especially as unworthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed.’ (MHC)

Anonymous Christians?

‘The striking feature of this judgment scene is that both sheep and goats claim that they did not know that their actions were directed toward Jesus. Each is as surprised as the other to find their actions interpreted in that light. They have helped, or failed to help, not a Jesus recognized in his representatives, but a Jesus incognito. As far as they were concerned, it was simply an act of kindness to a fellow human being in need, not an expression of their attitude to Jesus. They seem closer to what some modern theologians call “anonymous Christians” than to openly declared supporters of Jesus himself.’ (France, NICNT).  Blomberg, however, while noting that ‘many interpreters have seen this surprise as indicating that these people were ‘anonymous Christians’ – righteous heathen who did good works but never heard the gospel,’ rightly adds: ‘But the text never says they were surprised to be saved, merely that they did not understand how they had ministered so directly to Jesus.’

France insists that ‘it does not seem to be possible to read this passage as expressing a “Pauline” doctrine of salvation through explicit faith in Jesus. A systematic theologian can devise a scheme whereby justification by grace through faith and judgment according to works are together parts of a greater whole, but Matthew is not writing systematic theology, and the present passage brings to its fullest expression his conviction that when the Son of Man comes he will “repay every person according to what they have done.” (Mt 16:27).’  We think, however, that France, fine exegetical theologian that he is, needed to allow a little more room for the contribution of systematic theology.

‘Their surprise (and that later of those who were rejected) is not unimportant. It shows clearly that their salvation did not depend on their good works; for in doing those works they must have known that they were doing things that other people did not do. But clearly their kindness to the needy was not in order to gain a reward and merit salvation, but was part of the way they lived in response to what Christ had done in and for them.’ (Morris)

Simple acts of kindness

‘The things which Jesus picks out-giving a hungry man a meal, or a thirsty man a drink, welcoming a stranger, cheering the sick, visiting the prisoner-are things which anyone can do. It is not a question of giving away thousands of pounds, or of writing our names in the annals of history; it is a case of giving simple help to the people we meet every day. There never was a parable which so opened the way to glory to the simplest people.’ (DSB)

‘In the Two-Thirds World today…some estimates suggest that over two hundred million Christians suffer malnourishment daily.’ (Blomberg)

25:40 And the king will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’
Who are 'these brothers of mine'?

Matthew 25:40 – “Just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.”

Who are ‘these brothers of mine’?

Summary: it is often assumed that ‘these brothers of mine’ are the the poor, and therefore that our final destiny depends on acts of kindness exercised towards the poor.  In fact, Jesus only ever uses this expression to refer to his disciples (see esp. Mt 12:49), and thus the point of this teaching is that to receive kindly one of his disciples is to receive Christ himself.

Turning to consider in some details the various interpretations that have been offered:

1. Our Lord’s fellow-Jews?

Hagee espouses the Christian Zionist claim that a special debt of care is owed to the Jews.  The present saying, for him, refers to ‘the Jewish people’, adding that ‘Gentiles were never called his brethren.’  The problem with this interpretation is that Jesus never called either Gentiles nor the Jewish people ‘my brothers’.  See below.

2. Believing Jews?

The Scofield Reference Bible and the New Scofield Study Bible identify three classes within this parable: sheep (saved Gentiles), goats (unsaved Gentiles), and ‘brothers’ (the people of Israel).  The latter publication states: ‘The test of this judgement is the treatment of individual Gentiles of those whom Christ calls “brothers of mine” living in the preceding tribulation period when Israel is fearfully persecuted (cp. Gen 12:3).’  So also Wiersbe: ‘It seems likely that they are the believing Jews from the Tribulation period. These are people who will hear the message of the 144,000 and trust Jesus Christ. Since these believing Jews will not receive the “mark of the beast” (Rev. 13:16–17), they will be unable to buy or sell. How, then, can they survive? Through the loving care of the Gentiles who have trusted Christ and who care for His brethren’.  As Sizer (Zion’s Christian Soldiers, 45) says, this interpretation is undermined by the fact that Jesus’ ‘brothers’ have already been defined as his disciples, Mt 10:42 (and see Blomberg’s discussion, above).

3. Everyone who is in need?

It has often been assumed that this passage bases salvation on acts of kindness done to all in need. This would be consistent with Jesus’ concern for the poor and needy generally, and there can be no doubt that Scripture does teach the importance of doing good to all who are in need, (Ex 22:22-27; Prov 19:17; 21:13; Mt 5:16,44-48; Mk 10:21; Lk 16:19-25; Rom 13:8-10; Jas 2:14-26).

Pinnock takes ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ to refer to ‘the poor and suffering’. According to this view, Jesus ‘wishes to say…that deeds of love done to needy people will be regarded at the last judgement as having been done to Christ, even though the Gentiles did not and could not have know it under the circumstances.’

Bruner offers the following reasons for adopting this interpretation:-

  1. ‘the finality and universality of the setting of the text (Last Judgment, all nations, vv. 31–32);
  2. the surprise of the righteous (vv. 37–39, in contrast to the intentional service of Christians or special people in 10:40–42);
  3. the four lists of the needy, which provide the most accessible definitions of “the least” (vv. 35–36, 37–39, 42–43, 44); and
  4. the context of four concluding warning stories in Jesus’ Sermon on the End of the World, the theme in each of which is the seriousness of the Judgment for Christians, too (24:45–25:46; it would be unlike Matthew to end a discourse with a story that failed to complete and heighten the teaching of all his preceding stories; cf. the endings of each of Jesus’ other sermons).’

4. Believers (or more specifically, persecuted believers, or Christian missionaries)?

This appears to have been the majority view until about the middle of the 19th century.

‘The Lord hungers not in his own nature but in his saints; the Lord thirsts not in his own nature but in his poor. The Lord who clothes everyone is not naked in his own nature but in his servants. The Lord who is able to heal all sicknesses and has already destroyed death itself is not diseased in his own nature but in his servants. Our Lord, the one who can liberate every person, is not in prison in his own nature but in his saints. Therefore, you see, my most beloved, that the saints are not alone. They suffer all these things because of the Lord. In the same way, because of the saints the Lord suffers all these things with them.’ (Epiphanius the Latin, in ACCS)

According to JFB, the scene represents ‘a personal, public, final judgment on men, according to the treatment they have given to Christ—and consequently men within the Christian pale.’

‘It is common to make this the key to the entire section and to read Jesus’ challenge as directed to all humanity (Jeremias, Hill, Bonnard, Davies and Allison, France) or to the disciples (Witherington) in terms of social action; that is, Jesus will judge everyone on the basis of helping the poor and the needy. Yet this is not the best understanding, for “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (v. 40) must refer to believers, not to all humanity (see on v. 40 below), and Jesus is not teaching a works righteousness form of salvation here.’ (Osborne)

Carson (The Gagging of God, 301) insists that ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ ‘must refer to believers who are being opposed and persecuted for the gospel’s sake…One must remember that this Gospel has already established that Jesus’ true “brothers” are his disciples, Mt 12:48f; 28:10; cf Mt 23:8. Good deeds done to Jesus’ followers, even the least of them, are not only works of compassion and morality but reflect where people stand in relation to the kingdom and to Jesus himself. Jesus identifies himself with the fate of his followers and makes compassion for them equivalent to compassion for himself, cf. Mt 10:40-42; Mk 13:13; Jn 15:5,18,20; 17:10,23,26; Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14; 1 Cor 12:27; Heb 2:17.  This interpretation can be shown to fit the parable sequence at the end of the Olivet Discourse, Mt 24-25; the alternative is irrelevant to the flow. Moreover, this interpretation takes into account the surprise expressed by both the sheep and the goats when Jesus makes his final pronouncements. If the alternative interpretation were correct, it is difficult to imagine why the sheep in particular would be surprised by the outcome.’

It is vital to notice the references to Jesus’ ‘brothers’. ‘It is increasingly accepted that the criterion of judgement is not kindness to the needy in general, but the response of the nations to disciples in need…The criterion of judgement becomes not mere philanthropy, but men’s response to the kingdom of heaven as it is presented to them in the person of Jesus’ “brothers.” It is, therefore, as in Mt 7:21-23, ultimately a question of their relationship to Jesus himself.’ (France) See also Mt 10:40-42, which may be regarded as teaching a similar message.

A similar view is taken by Keener (IVP NT Commentary): ‘In the context of Jesus’ teachings, especially in the context of Matthew (as opposed to Luke), this parable addresses not serving all the poor but receiving the gospel’s messengers. Elsewhere in Matthew, disciples are Jesus’ brothers (Mt 12:50; 28:10; compare also the least – Mt 5:19; 11:11; 18:3-6, 10-14). Likewise, one treats Jesus as one treats his representatives (Mt 10:40-42), who should be received with hospitality, food and drink (Mt 10:8-13, 42). Imprisonment could refer to detention until trial before magistrates (Mt 10:18-19), and sickness to physical conditions brought on by the hardship of the mission (compare Php 2:27-30; perhaps Gal 4:13-14; 2 Tim 4:20). Being poorly clothed appears in Pauline lists of sufferings, (Rom 8:35) including specifically apostolic sufferings. (1 Cor 4:11) The King thus judges the nations based on how they have responded to the gospel of the kingdom already preached to them before the time of his kingdom. (Mt 24:14; 28:19-20) The passage thus also implies that true messengers of the gospel will successfully evangelize the world only if they can also embrace poverty and suffering for Christ’s name (compare Matthey 1980).’

Again, Carson (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church) writes as follows:- ‘In the hands of some writers, what distinguishes the sheep from the goats is social concern: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, visiting people in prison – along with the dramatic addition of Jesus’ words, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40, 45). But that misses the point here. Certainly the Bible lays considerable stress elsewhere on compassion, justice, acts of mercy, kindness, and much else – as shown by Isaiah and Amos and the parable of the good Samaritan. But it has often been shown that in Matthew’s gospel the expression “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” can only refer to the least of his followers. In other words, the sheep and the goats are exposed for what they are by the way they treat the downtrodden of Jesus’ followers. The situation is exactly like that found in the book of Acts: when people persecute the people of Jesus Christ, they are persecuting Jesus Christ himself; prompting him the challenge a Saul on the Damascus Road, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)’

Blomberg (NAC, but also see Neither poverty nor riches, p125f) writes, ‘Who are these brothers? The majority view throughout church history has taken them to be some or all of Christ’s disciples since the word “least” (elachistōn) is the superlative form of the adjective “little [ones]” (mikroi), which without exception in Matthew refers to the disciples (Mt 10:42; 18:6, 10,14; cf. also Mt 5:19; 11:11), while “brothers” in this Gospel (and usually in the New Testament more generally) when not referring to literal, biological siblings, always means spiritual kin (Mt 5:22–24, 47; 7:3–5; 12:48–50; 18:15 (2×), 21, 35; 23:8; 28:10). There may be a theological sense in which all humans are brothers and God’s children, though not all are redeemed, but nothing of that appears here or, with this terminology, elsewhere in Matthew. The minority view throughout church history, which is probably a majority view today, especially in churches with a healthy social ethic, is that these “brothers” are any needy people in the world…Yet while there is ample teaching in many parts of Scripture on the need to help all the poor of the world (most notably in Amos, Micah, Luke, and James), it is highly unlikely that this is Jesus’ point here. Rather, his thought will closely parallel that of Mt 10:42. The sheep are people whose works demonstrate that they have responded properly to Christ’s messengers and therefore to his message, however humble the situation or actions of those involved. That itinerant Christian missionaries regularly suffered in these ways and were in frequent need of such help is classically illustrated with the example of Paul (see esp. 2 Cor 11:23–27) and the teaching of the Didache (ca. a.d. 95).’

They are ‘Christ’s disciples (Mt 10:42; 12:48, 49; 18:14), not the poor and needy in general. The judgment of the nations depends on how they respond to Christians and to the gospel (Mt 10:40-42), not only because it is through the testimony of Christians that the Gentiles can hear and believe, (Rom 10:14) but also because Christ identifies with his people. Their suffering is his suffering, and compassion shown to them is compassion shown to him.’ (New Geneva)

Hagner: ‘The use of τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου, “my brothers,” makes it almost certain that the statement refers not to human beings in general but rather to brothers and sisters of the Christian community.’

‘This passage is often understood to teach that ultimate salvation is based on acts of kindness alone, so that there is nothing specifically Christian about the criteria of judgment. But that is to ignore the important description of the recipients of this kindness as the least of these brothers of mine (40; cf. v 45). This phrase suggests that it is not just anyone that the righteous have helped and the others have ignored: it is disciples in need. The phrase the least reminds us of the ‘little ones’ of Mt 10:42; 18:6,10,14, and we have seen above that this is a term for Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus says that in helping them you did it for me, this moving identification of Jesus with his ‘brothers’ recalls the principle of Mt 10:40-42, where to receive the disciples is to receive Jesus, and it is a cup of water given to ‘one of these little ones because he is my disciple’ which will be rewarded. In that case, the criterion of judgment is not mere philanthropy (good as that is), but people’s response to the kingdom of heaven as they have met it in the person of Jesus’ “brothers”.’ (NBC)

‘In some Jewish apocalyptic texts, the nations would be judged for how they treated Israel. In the Bible, God also judged people for how they treated the poor. But given the use of “brothers” or “sisters” (Mt 12:50; 28:10; the Greek term can include both genders) and perhaps “least” (Mt 5:19; 11:11; cf. Mt 18:4; 20:26; 23:11) elsewhere in Matthew, this passage probably refers to receiving messengers of Christ. Such missionaries needed shelter, food and help in imprisonment and other complications caused by persecution. Receiving them was like receiving Christ. The judgment of all nations thus had to be preceded by the proclamation of the kingdom among them (Mt 24:14).’ (NT Background Commentary)

This passage might also be regarded as ‘an extended dramatization’ of Mt 10:42′ (Green, cited by Hagner).  In fact, that earlier passage provides strong confirmation of the interpretation taken in these notes (and also by many scholars, but perhaps not by most preachers), according to which the key point is that our Lord regards the way in which his disciples are treated in a context of mission, as if he had himself been thus treated.

‘This story is most likely about how the nations treat God’s emissaries, the church.’ (Osborne)

‘Instead of the nations being judged on how they had treated Israel, as some Jewish writings envisage, Jesus, consistently with his whole redefinition of God’s people around himself, declares that he will himself judge the world on how it has treated his renewed Israel.’ (Wright)

The historical evidence, as gathered by Sherman Gray’s 1989 book titled ‘The Least of My Brothers: Matthew 25: 31-46 : A History of Interpretation’, and summarised here by Denny Burk.[/su_box]

Here, suggests Hagner, is ‘an astounding principle, central to the passage.’

“One of the least” – ‘Everything is referred to its class; nothing is committed to oblivion. Even a single instance often makes much in either direction. cf Mt 25.45.’ (Bengel)

“These brothers or sisters of mine” – Lit. ‘these brothers of mine’.  A ‘gender-neutral’ translation involves a premature assumption that Jesus is referring to his followers generally, rather than to his disciples specifically.  Either way, we must insist that our Lord is referring to his disciples, not to people in general (see note for discussion). Service to any of these – including ‘the least of these’ – is service to Jesus himself.

This is the nearest that Matthew comes to the concept of the church as the ‘body of Christ’ (France).  Consider the risen Lord’s words to Saul: “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)

‘It is important to note that, in each of the passages which refer to ‘these little ones’, the point is to declare the importance of such people because of their identification with Jesus (see esp. Mt 10:40, 42; 18:5).’ (Osborne)

‘The good works of the saints, when they are produced in the great day, (1.) Shall all be remembered; and not the least, not one of the least, overlooked, no not a cup of cold water. (2.) They shall be interpreted most to their advantage, and the best construction that can be put upon them. As Christ makes the best of their infirmities, so he makes the most of their services.’ (MHC)

‘The verdict is not based on whether or not men have lived a good moral life or even used their checkbooks compassionately. It is based on how men have stood with respect to the Kingdom of God.  Were they on the side of the kingdom or against it?’ (Oudersluys)

“You did it for me” – ‘Jesus as Son of Man not only pronounces the judgement but is himself the criterion by which people are evaluated…People cannot plead a total ignorance of Jesus, because they have already encountered him in the needy “brothers”.’ (Milne) This identification of Jesus with his ‘brothers’ is also found in Jn 20:23; see also Mt 10:42.

‘Note, Christ is more among us than we think he is; surely the Lord is in this place, by his word, his ordinances, his ministers, his Spirit, yea, and his poor, and we know it not.’ (MHC)

‘Christ espouses his people’s cause, and interests himself in their interests, and reckons himself received, and love, and owned in them. If Christ himself were among us in poverty, how readily would we relieve him? In prison, how frequently would we visit him? We are ready to envy the honour they had, who ministered to him of their substance, Lk 8:3. Wherever poor saints and poor ministers are, there Christ is ready to receive our kindnesses in them, and they shall be put to his account.’ (MHC)

‘In Matthew’s Gospel there is an emphasis on the solidarity between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus as Immanuel mediates the presence of God with his people (Mt 1:23), and he assures them that he will be with them to the end of the age (Mt 28:20). Jesus’ identification with his disciples is forcefully articulated in Mt 10:40-42: “He who receives you receives me.” It seems clear, therefore, that any act of kindness shown to even the most unassuming of Jesus’ disciples is service that is rendered to Jesus. It is most remarkable that at least one standard to which the nations will be held accountable involve the manner in which they respond to the plight of Jesus’ followers.’ (cf. Acts 22:7) (College Press)

‘How few saints would be exposed to daily wants and necessities, if [this] scripture were but fully understood and believed!’ (Flavel)

Our encounter with God as judge begins here and now

‘It is in this life that we first meet God, in the needy brothers and sisters of Jesus, and perhaps especially in the “least” of them…What we will hear on judgment day will be familiar, only too familiar…Every moment, as we respond to these claims to one degree or another, whether in affirmation and assent or in rebellion and dissent, we are meeting our Judge.  Judgment is the stuff of life.  The final judgment will simply bring it all together.’ (Milne, The Message of Heaven and Hell)

25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels!

“Depart from me” – It is the ultimate blessing to hear God’s gracious word, “Come”.  It is the ultimate misery to hear the word, “Depart”.

“You accursed” – ‘They that would not come to Christ, to inherit a blessing, must depart from him under the burden of a curse, that curse of the law on every one that breaks it, Gal. 3:10…But observe, The righteous are called the blessed of my Father; for their blessedness is owing purely to the grace of God and his blessing, but the wicked are called only ye cursed, for their damnation is of themselves. Hath God sold them? No, they have sold themselves, have laid themselves under the curse, Isa. 50:1.’ (MHC)

‘Fire, here, is used to denote punishment. The image is employed to express extreme suffering, as a death by burning is one of the most horrible that call be conceived. The image was taken probably from the fires burning in the valley of Hinnom. It has been asked, whether the wicked will be burned in literal fire- and the common impression has been that they will be. Respecting that, however, it is to be observed,

  1. that the main truth intended to be taught refers not to the manner of suffering, but to the certainty and intensity of it.
  2. that the design, therefore, was to present an image of terrific and appalling suffering-an image well represented by fire.
  3. that this image was well known to the Jews, Isa 66:24 and therefore expressed the idea in a very strong manner.
  4. that all the truth that Christ intended to convey appears to be expressed in the certainty, intensity, and eternity of future torment.
  5. that there is no distinct affirmation respecting the mode of that punishment, where the mode was the subject of discourse.
  6. that to us it is a subject of comparatively little consequence what will be the mode of punishment. The fact that the wicked will be eternally punished, cursed of God, should awe every spirit, and lead every man to secure his salvation. As, however, the body will be raised, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a mode of punishment will be adopted suited to the body, perhaps bearing some analogy to suffering here, in its various forms of flames, and racks, and cold, and heat, and war, and disease, and ungratified desire, and remorse-perhaps the concentration of all earthly woes, all that makes man miserable here, poured upon the naked body and spirit of the wicked in hell, for ever and ever.’ (Barnes)

“Eternal fire” – So translated in International Standard Version, RSV, GNB, TNIV, ESV, NASB, NRSV, NLT.  Translated as ‘the fire that burns for ever’ (New Century Version, NIrV), ‘everlasting fire’ (AV, NKJV, God’s Word Translation),

The word aionios strictly means ‘pertaining to the age to come’.  ‘It is clear therefore that the terminology of this verse and of verse 46 does not by itself settle the issue between those who believe that hell consists of endless conscious torment and those who see it as annihilation.’ (France)

“Prepared for the devil and his angels” – Whereas the kingdom, v34, was prepared for the blessed, the fire is not prepared for the accursed, but for the devil and his angels. ‘The cursed are going to a fate that was not meant to be theirs.’ (France)

Prepared…for whom?  ‘As the kingdom was prepared, so also the fire. But it is interesting that the fire was not prepared for the goats but for the rebellious angels. Neither is it prepared “from the creation of the world.” (Mt 25:34) These differences support a sublapsarian theology, in which God originally made no provision for lost people or hell in his creative purposes, but once humans and angels freely chose to rebel, then a place of punishment was prepared. No Scripture ever indicates that the fallen angels had any subsequent chance to repent. But people do. So no one need join the demons in this fire. Still, some will opt for hell by rejecting Christ. When they do, they have no one but themselves to blame.’ (Blomberg)

Milne says that this verse highlights a number of aspects of the meaning of hell:-

  1. Hell consists in separation from God.
  2. Hell is for the ‘cursed’.
  3. Hell is described as a place of fire.
  4. Hell was prepared, not for humans, for the devil and his angels.
  5. Hell is ‘eternal’.
25:42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. 25:43 I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

He only expected them to do what they could do.  ‘He doth not say, “I was sick, and you did not cure me; in prison, and you did not release me” (perhaps that was more than they could do); but, “You visited me not, which you might have done.”’ (MHC)

25:44 Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not give you whatever you needed?’ 25:45 Then he will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.’ 25:46 And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

There is a note of surprise here.

‘These wicked people still address Jesus as “Lord” (κύριε), but in forced subjugation rather than in worship.’ (Osborne)

What sin has done

  1. Made man a transgressor, Rom 5:14.
  2. Made Satan a tyrant, Heb 2:14.
  3. Made Christ a sufferer, 1 Pet 3:18.
  4. Made earth a wilderness, Rom 8:22.
  5. Made punishment a necessity, Mt 25:46.
  6. Made hell a reality, Lk 16:23.

(Pickering, Subjects for Speakers and Students, adapted)

Sins of omission

These were sins of ‘omission’, rather than sins of ‘commission’. They had left undone those things which they ought to have done. ‘It is sobering to note that these sins of omission alone are sufficient to earn for those so failing “eternal punishment”.’ (Milne)  Morris, similarly: ‘We should notice that their condemnation (like that of the foolish girls in the preceding parable) is expressed not in terms of their having done some awful crime, but in terms of their failure to do what is right.’

“Then they will go away” – and the verdict is not open to appeal. The consequences of the final judgement are unalterable.

Must eternal punishment be as unending as eternal life?
This text is thought be some to be decisive in the debate about whether Scriptures teaches everlasting punishment or annihilationism.

Some, such as Carson, assert that ‘pertaining to the life to come’ includes the notion of ‘everlasting’.  Mounce concurs: ‘although aiōnios (eternal) is primarily a qualitative word, its temporal aspect should not be overlooked. Verse 46 offers little support for those who would like to think of eternal life as endless and eternal punishment as restricted in some way. That the adjective modifies both nouns in the same context indicates that we understand it in the same way.’

Timothy Philips: ‘In Jesus’ mind, it appears, the extent of each future is identical. If the existence of the righteous is endless, so also is the existence of the wicked. Other statements suggest the same conclusion. Jesus teaches that “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). As long as God’s wrath abides on them, the damned must exist. Jesus’ picture of hell as a place where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48) indicates that this manifestation of God’s wrath is unending.’ (EDBT)

Lloyd-Jones: ‘The contrast between the unrighteous and the righteous is the contrast between everlasting punishment and everlasting life. And if everlasting as regards punishment means only for a while and then extinction, why should everlasting not mean the same when it describes the righteous and the life that they will inherit?’ (Great Doctrines of the Bible, Vol 3, p73)

Hendriksen: ‘What is perhaps the most telling argument against the notion that the wicked are simply annihilated but that the righteous continue to live forevermore is the fact that in Matt. 25:46 the same word describes the duration of both the punishment of the former and the blessedness of the latter: the wicked go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.’ (The Bible On The Life Hereafter, p198)

Grudem states: ‘In this text, the parallel between “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” indicates that both states will be without end.’ (Systematic Theology, p1149)

Blomberg similarly: ‘The parallel between eternal punishment and eternal life makes it difficult to see in the former any kind of annihilationism, even if the word “eternal” can refer to a qualitative rather than quantitative attribute of life and attractive as doctrines of conditional immortality ought to be to anyone with a sensitive heart.’

Mohler puts it more strongly, asking:- ‘Is it not folly to assume that eternal punishment signifies a fire lasting a long time, while believing that eternal life is without end? For Christ, in the very same passage, included both punishment and life in one and the same sentence when he said, “So those people will go into eternal punishment, while the righteous will go into eternal life.” [Matt. 25:46] If both are “eternal,” it follows necessarily that either both are to be taken as long-lasting but finite, or both as endless and perpetual.’  (In Morgan, Christopher W. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Kindle Locations 197-201). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)

Augustine expressed the same conviction in colourful terms: ‘“What a fond fancy it is to suppose that eternal punishment means long continued punishment, while eternal life means life without end!” Both destinies, he maintained, “are correlative— on the one hand punishment eternal, on the other hand life eternal”; consequently, to say that “life eternal shall be endless, punishment eternal shall come to an end, is the height of absurdity.”’ (Quoted by Hughes, in Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (pp. 191-192). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

Many others (including Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p736, Packer, The Problem of Eternal Punishment, and Gundry) also see the parallelism as decisive.

But the parallel may not be so exact as these scholars assert.  ‘Punishment’ and ‘life’ are not antonyms, after all.  So, as France notes, ‘whereas ‘fire’ and punishment might carry within them the idea of annihilation, life by its very nature excludes the possibility of termination.’

According to France, the imagery of fire suggests destruction, rather than everlasting punishment; cf. Mt 10:28; 13:42.  ‘An annihilationist theology (sometimes described as “conditional immortality”) does more justice to Matthew’s language in general, and if so the sense of “eternal punishment” here will not be “punishment which goes on for ever” but “punishment which has eternal consequences”, the loss of eternal life through being destroyed by fire.’

It is common to argue that since everlasting punishment is set against everlasting life in Matthew 25:46 and since the life lasts as long as God, so must the punishment. This was the position of Augustine, of which Hughes writes:

Augustine insisted . . . to say that ‘life eternal shall be endless, punishment eternal shall come to an end, is the height of absurdity’ (City of God 21:23) . . . But, as we have seen, the ultimate contrast is between everlasting life and everlasting death and this clearly shows that it is not simply synonyms but also antonyms with which we have to reckon. There is no more radical antithesis than that between life and death, for life is the absence of death and death is the absence of life. Confronted with this antithesis, the position of Augustine cannot avoid involvement in the use of contradictory concepts (p. 203)

To this we might add three further considerations: (1) It would be proper to translate ‘punishment of the age to come’ and ‘life of the age to come’ which would leave open the question of duration. The Matthean parallel to the aionios of Mk. 3:29 is indeed ‘age to come’ (Mt. 12:32). (2) We have other examples of once-for-all acts which have unending consequences: eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12), Sodom’s punishment of eternal fire (Jude 7). (3) Just as it is wrong to treat God and Satan as equal and opposite, so it is wrong to assume that heaven and hell, eternal life and eternal punishment, are equal and opposite. Both are real but who is to say that one is as enduring as the other? (‘The Case for Conditional Immortality’ in de S. Cameron (Ed.) Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, p177)

In fact, there are several texts which attach the word ‘eternal’ to a definite action that has everlasting consequences: Heb. 6:2, “eternal judgment”; Heb. 9:12, “eternal redemption”; Mark 3:29, “eternal sin”; 2 Thess. 1:9, “eternal destruction”; Jude 7, “eternal fire”.

Fudge concedes that in this text the word aionios has both qualitative and quantitative connotations.  But it is the destruction which is everlasting (i.e. permanent), and not the suffering.  ‘This “punishment” can encompass a broad spectrum of degrees of conscious suffering based on varying degrees of guilt, but the essence of this “punishment” is the total and everlasting dissolution and extinction of the person punished (Matt 10:28; 2 Thess 1:9).’ (The Fire That Consumes, Third Edition, p39.)

Many years ago, Atkinson argued on linguistic grounds: ‘Many have relied on this phrase to support the idea of everlasting conscious suffering of the wicked, reading it as if it said, “everlasting punishing.” This is not the meaning of the word. When the adjective aionios meaning “everlasting” is used in Greek with nouns of action it has reference to the result of the action, not the process. Thus the phrase “everlasting punishment” is comparable to “everlasting redemption” and “everlasting salvation,” both Scriptural phrases. No one supposes that we are being redeemed or being saved forever. We were redeemed and saved once and for all by Christ with eternal results. In the same way the lost will not be passing through a process of punishment forever but will be punished once and for all with eternal results. On the other hand, the noun “life” is not a noun of action, but a noun expressing a state. Thus the life itself is eternal.’ in Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (pp. 100-101). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

A ‘soft’ punishment?

The ‘annihilationist’ view has sometimes been regarded as being ‘too soft’ on the wicked.  A ‘punishment’ that consists in an individual simply becoming non-existent is no punishment at all (it is argued).  But this misconstrues the annihilationist position, which gives full weight to the scriptural teaching that physical death is not the end, either for the righteous or the unrighteous.  Just as the righteous will rise to blessedness, and varying degrees of reward, so the unrighteous will rise to condemnation, and varying degrees of punishment.  The point is, that this punishment is not everlasting.

Moreover, let it not be thought for one moment that if the punishment of the wicked is essentially a privative punishment (banishment from the presence of the Lord), that this in any way trivialises the seriousness of the end.  Nigel Wright argues: ‘Hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment in fire but an ultimate, final encounter with God. The lost do not simply cease to exist when they die physically; they are not quietly liquidated after the judgment when they have been restored to conscious and personal existence. The torment of hell consists in beholding God at the last, looking upon his beauty, majesty, and infinite love and knowing that through one’s own deliberate fault all of this has been made forfeit and lost. In short, hell is the infinite loss of God.’  This, says Wright, ‘is no soft option, no kinder, gentler damnation, but a destiny to avoid, for God’s sake and for our own.’  (Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (pp. 232-233). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

Hughes argues similarly: ‘There is altogether no room for doubting that, first, at the last judgment God will mete out condign punishment in accordance with the absolute holiness of his being, and, second, the Scriptures allow no place whatsoever to the wicked for complacency as they approach that dreadful day when they will stand before the tribunal of their righteous Creator. This ultimate day of the Lord is depicted as a day of indescribable terror for the ungodly, who will then be confronted with the truth of God’s being, which they had unrighteously suppressed and experience the divine wrath which previously they had derided. They will then learn at first hand that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10: 31). There is nothing light or laughable in the terrible scene witnessed by St. John in his apocalyptic vision: “Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong, and every one, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?’” (Rev 6: 15– 17).’  (In Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (pp. 196-197). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

“Eternal punishment…eternal life” – αἰώνιος is consistently translated ‘eternal’ in modern versions.  (In the AV, the word was translated ‘everlasting’, and so foreclosing the question of whether the meaning might be qualitative, rather than (or as well as) quantitative).  Universalists find support for their views in the idea that this word means ‘pertaining to the age to come’, rather than ‘everlasting’.  But, as France, says, the word can carry either meaning, and so this verse cannot be used to settle the question either way.

France observes that this is ‘the only time we meet the phrase “eternal punishment” in Matthew, or indeed in the whole NT.’

Remedial punishment?
It has been asserted that Kolasis, in Classical Greek meant Remedial Punishment, punishment with a purpose of bringing about a positive change in the one being punished. Another word, timoria, spoke of Vindictive Punishment, punishment meant as an outlet for vengeance. In Mt.25.46 Jesus warns of kolasis not timoria, remedial punishment not vengeful punishment, punishment as in chastisement!’  So, in the 1893 Emphasized Bible Joseph B. Rotherham translates: ‘And these shall go away into age-abiding correction, but the righteous into age-abiding life.’

Rob Bell reads this passage as not being about ‘eternal punishment’, but rather about ‘a period of pruning’: ‘The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo. Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is “age” or “period of time”; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish. An aion of kolazo. Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming,” or an intense experience of correction.’  (Love Wins, p. 91).  For Bell, this opens the way to his particular form of universalism, which is that after death, and after this period of correction, people could have a further opportunity to repent and be saved.

William Barclay noted the argument that ‘in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment … [kolasis] was not an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better.’ (A Spiritual Autobiography)

In The Apostle’s Creed, Barclay writes:

‘The word for punishment is kolasis. The word was originally a gardening word, and its original meaning was pruning trees. In Greek there are two words for punishment, timoria and kolasis, and there is a quite definite distinction between them. Aristotle defines the difference; kolasis is for the sake of the one who suffers it; timoria is for the sake of the one who inflicts it. Plato says that no one punishes (kolazei) simply because he has done wrong – that would be to take unreasonable vengeance (timoreitai). We punish (kolazei) a wrong-doer in order that he may not do wrong again (Protagoras 323 E). Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 4.24; 7.16) defines kolasis as pure discipline, and timoria as the return of evil for evil. Aulus Gellius says that kolasis is given that a man may be corrected; timoria is given that dignity and authority may be vindicated (The Attic Nights7.14). The difference is quite clear in Greek and it is always observed. Timoria is retributive punishment. Kolasis is always given to amend and to cure.’

Recently, a similar view has been taken by Steve Chalke in The Lost Message of Paul (ch. 23). Following Barclay, Chalke prefers to interpret kólasis aiōnios as ‘a time of pruning’.

The reference to ‘classical Greek’ is, more specifically, a reference to Aristotle.  But, as noted in an authoritative lexicon, ‘Aristotle’s limitation of the term . . . to [corrective] disciplinary action . . . is not reflected in gener[al] usage’ (BDAG).

It must be added that Aristotle dates from the 4th century BC.  There was plenty of time, then, for usage to change during the period leading up to the writing of the NT.

Stewart James Felker notes:

‘Not only is kolasis used in “secular Greek” to suggest clearly non-remedial punishment—a particular gruesome example comes from the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, describing the ancient Sicilian tyrant Phalaris torturing his enemies by putting them within a hollow bronze bull, underneath which a fire would be lit—but in Biblical Greek and other early Jewish and Christian Greek texts, too. In fact, in many cases—like in the Septuagint—it may even harder to find where it does suggest remedial punishment.’ [Detailed documentation here]

Furthermore, this interpretation is seriously undermined by the description of this punishment as being ‘eternal’ (i.e. pertaining to the life to come and therefore everlasting).  Even though we doubt that ‘eternal’ necessarily implies’ everlasting’ in both cases, the lexical objections appear to be decisive against this view.

Barclay’s view has been critiqued more fully by Barry Hofstetter, who writes:

‘One of Barclay’s failings is making secular Greek determinative of the meaning in the biblical context, even when the meaning that he wishes to impart does not fit that context. There are several problems:

  1. In general, Barclay is guilty of the genetic fallacy, assuming that the use of the word in later Greek must be the same as the use of it in earlier Greek.
  2. To a large extent, the theological use of terms in the NT is determined by the Greek OT. In LXX, the term kolasis is used in contexts which do not imply corrective punishment. Cf. Jer 18:20; Wis 16:24; 19:4. Barclay simply ignores the Septuagintal background, as though it did not exist or have any meaning for him
  3. The LSJ (Liddell & Scott), the standard classical lexicon, admits the meaning of “divine retribution” and cites Matt 25:46.
  4. Bauer (BAGD) simply defines the word as punishment, and cites a number of instances in Greek literature where it is used of divine retribution.
  5. In the structure of the sentence, “eternal punishment” lies in direct contrast to “eternal life.” The term aionios is particularly eschatological, and refers to the eternal state. The two are meant in parallel fashion, so that the contrast for eternal life is eternal punishment. I had meant to add also that these balanced, parallel clauses suggest an absolute contrast, not a limited one, so that eternal punishment and eternal life must be co-extensive of one another.’

Referring to Bell’s view, noted above, Andy Angel says: ‘neither aiōn nor kolasis mean the things Bell suggests anywhere else in the Bible or the Apocrypha. The Jewish biblical tradition on which Jesus draws never used these terms in this way, so it is wholly unlikely that Jesus was talking of “an intense period of correction”. He was talking of eternal punishment. If we fear judgment, I think the question we need to ask is not “how can I try to make these texts mean something different?” but “can I trust that the God of all justice can judge the world fairly?” – and I think God can.’

Punishment in the NT

‘Admittedly,’ (writes I.H. Marshall in Aspects of the Atonement) ‘the vocabulary of punishment does not figure all that prominently in the New Testament and those who would downplay the term “penal” understood in terms of punishment can point to this fact. A half-dozen is the sum total of references to divine punishment, and they are associated particularly with the day of judgment.  In the parabolic teaching of Jesus, wicked servants will be punished when the master returns (Matt. 24:43–51; Luke 12:45–48). The noun is applied once in the Gospels to the eternal punishment of the wicked (Matt. 25:46). Paul describes once how those who disobey and reject the gospel will pay the penalty of eternal destruction (2 Thess. 1:9). A person who rejects the Son of God and the blood of the covenant deserves a greater punishment than somebody who rejected the law of Moses and was put to death (Heb. 10:29). The Lord keeps the unrighteous for punishment at the day of judgment (2 Pet. 2:9).

‘One might well be tempted at this stage to ask whether the comparative rareness of this term should warn us against putting the term “penal” in a central position in our doctrine. But to do so would be premature.’

Our Lord adds no further explanation or application. The passage is left to speak for itself.  However, a number of reflections are prompted:-


Hendriksen identifies the following characteristics of hell from this and other passages:-

1. A place of separation. ‘The wicked will hear the terrible words, “Depart from me, you accursed,” which is the opposite of “Come, you blessed.” Besides 25:41 see also 7:23; Luke 13:27. They will “go away” into everlasting punishment (25:46). Their dwelling-place will be “outside” the banquet hall, the wedding feast, the shut door (8:11, 12; 22:13; 25:10–13). Within is the bridegroom. Within are also all who accepted the invitation before it was too late. Outside are the sons of the kingdom who, having spurned the gracious summons, are knocking at the door in vain (Luke 13:28). Outside are dogs (Rev. 22:15). The wicked are cast down—down—down—into the bottomless pit (Rev. 9:1, 2; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3). Thus they sink away endlessly from the presence of God and of the Lamb.

2. A place of association, ‘the most gruesome togetherness of all. The wicked will dwell forever with the devil and his angels, for whom the everlasting fire was prepared.’

3. A place of fire. ‘This is the language of Scripture throughout (Isa. 33:14; 66:24; Matt. 3:12; 5:22; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8, 9; Mark 9:43–48; Luke 3:17; 16:19–31; Jude 7; Rev. 14:10; 19:20, 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8). This fire is unquenchable. It devours forever and ever.

4. The abode of darkness (Mt 8:12; 22:13), ‘the place where evil spirits are kept “in everlasting chains under darkness” (Jude 6). For the impenitent the gloom of darkness has been preserved forever (Jude 13).’

Only two kinds of people

‘The upshot here, then, as with the culmination of all Scripture in Rev 20-22, is to assert that ultimately there will only be two kinds of people in the world. These will be distinguished on the basis of their response to the gospel and its emissaries, and their eternal destinies will be as distinct as is conceivable. True, everlasting reality is not to be found in this life but in the life to come. Hence, there remains no more pressing priority in this life than to respond properly to Jesus and his messengers by becoming disciples through faith in him. Then we must demonstrate Christ’s lordship in our lives through acts of service – to all the needy, yes, but especially to those of the household of faith. (cf. Gal 6:10) What is more, picturing Christian witnesses as needy and suffering reminds us of the lot true believers often face. This is graphically seen in the Two-Thirds World today where some estimates suggest that over two hundred million Christians suffer malnourishment daily.’ (Blomberg)

‘The emphasis is on the eternal nature of the two opposite destinies. “Eternal life” (19:16, 29) throughout the NT is the motivation for a life of sacrificial service to God, the church, and the very world that rejects and persecutes God’s people. It is clear here that there are no second chances after death. The decisions made by “the sheep and the goats” have eternal ramifications.’ (Osborne)

Union with Christ

There is a striking contrast between the greatness of Christ and the smallness of ‘the least of his brethren’.  And yet our glorious Saviour regard acts of kindness done (or not done) to them as if they were done (or not done) to himself.  See also Jn 15:4-7.

France remarks that this is the nearest we get in the Gospels to the Pauline doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ.  Note the words of Jesus to Saul/Paul on the Damascus Road: ‘Why do you persecute me?’

‘The union between Christ and his people is the most tender and endearing of all connexions. It is represented by the closest unions of which we have knowledge, Jn 15:4-6; Eph 5:23-32; 1 Cor 6:15. This is a union not physical, but moral; a union of feelings, interests, plans, destiny; or, in other words, he and his people have similar feelings, love the same objects, share the same trials, and inherit the same blessedness, Jn 14:19; Rev 3:5-21; Rom 8:17. Hence he considers favours shown to his people as shown to himself, and will reward them accordingly, Mt 10:40-42. They show attachment to him, and love to his cause. By showing kindness to the poor, and needy, and sick, they show that they possess his spirit-for he did it when on earth; they evince attachment to him, for he was poor and needy; and they show that they have the proper spirit to fit them for heaven, 1 Jn 3:14,17; Jas 2:1-5; Mk 9:41.’ (Barnes)

What this means for us

Ian Paul notes that, correctly understood, this passage has huge implications for us today:-

  1. To follow Jesus means (to risk?) being hungry, thirsty, naked, as stranger, sick and in prison…In fact, it is perhaps only in a rich West that Christians could have misread this teaching, by naturally reading themselves in the role of the powerful helper rather than the powerless in need of help.’
  2. ‘It raises big questions about the status of those who don’t appear to have named Christ as Lord (Romans 10.9), but have responded to Christ in being the ‘sheep’ who have assisted his disciples because they are his disciples…’
  3. ‘It suggests a rather different model for mission. We are not going as the strong with resources to help the weak, but we come as the weak ready to receive from those to whom we have been sent. And of course this is the idea behind the idea of finding the ‘person of peace’, taught by Mike Breen and others from the sending of the 12 and the 72 in Luke 9 and 10 and Matt 10.’  We might add that Jesus followers have already been urged to turn the other cheek when struck (Mt 5:39), to resist storing up treasure on earth (Mt 6:19), have been sent out “like sheep into the midst of wolves” (Mt 10:16), and, here, to be expect a life in which hunger, poverty, and imprisonment are likely.
The notes of grace

Milne demonstrates that grace, rather than merit, underlies the blessing the righteous receive: 1. Those on the King’s right hand are ‘blessed by my Father’, v34; their blessedness is not self-created but comes from the heart of the Father; 2. their ‘reward’ is an ‘inheritance’, and therefore based on the generosity of the giver, rather than the merit of the recipient; 3. their inheritance ‘has been prepared for them since the creation of the world’, v34, indicating the fact of divine election long before any meritorious deeds have been performed; 4. the acts of kindness done towards Christ’s needy ‘brothers’ are the natural fruits of those who have received the grace of Christ (cf. Mt 6:14); 5. the very surprise expressed by the recipients of this inheritance (vv37-39) indicates that their actions were in no way calculated to make God favourably-disposed towards them. (The Message of Heaven and Hell, p125)

Good deeds

R. S. Schellenberg notes that ‘throughout Matthew’s Gospel it is one’s deeds that constitute the criterion for judgment (Mt 12:33–37; 25:31–46; cf. Mt 11:19’ (DJG 2nd ed., art. ‘Eschatology’)

Acts of kindness are not the basis for acceptance with God, but they are the necessary response to, and evidence of, authentic faith in Christ.  Hagner: ‘Although sometimes understood as confirming a salvation by works, this passage need not be understood as incompatible with the gospel of the kingdom as a divine gift. The apostle Paul, the champion of grace, can also stress the significance of good works (see esp. Gal 6:7–10; 2 Cor 5:10). Matthew does stress the importance of righteousness as good deeds, but as a part of a larger context in which God acts graciously for the salvation of his people.’

Bruner cites Calvin as acknowledging the primacy of a judgement by works in this passage, while detecting a note of grace (‘blessed by my Father’) too.  For Calvin, who knew the totality of Matthew’s message, it was matter of salvation by grace, with good works as the necessary and inevitable outworking of that salvation.

Bruner adds: ‘Titus 2:11–14 is a good cross reference because it combines salvation (1) by grace and (2) unto good works. Cf. also Eph 2:8–10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith … unto good works.” The formula here is the evangelical one of “by grace unto good works,” not the works-righteousness one of “by good works unto grace.”’

Bruner further expands: ‘We recall that in the Parable of the Workers in the Field (Mt 20:1–16) the last were made first by sheer grace—salvation by grace. Now our Story of the Last Judgment seems at first to teach salvation not by grace but by good works. How do these two texts, Matt 20 and Matt 25, relate? We saw the double truth of Matt 20 and Matt 25 as early as in the two kinds of Beatitudes: (1) “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” with the other Need Beatitudes (Mt 5:3–6), taught salvation by divine grace; and (2) “Blessed are the merciful,” with the other Help Beatitudes (Mt 5:7–9), taught, or seemed to teach, salvation by human mercy. Yet it is the apostolic conviction that the one blessedness leads to the other: need met becomes help given. Divine grace faithfully received leads to human mercy faithfully given. Schweizer, 480 (emphasis added), concluded his comparison of the Grace Parable of the Workers in the Field (Mt 20:1–16) and this Works Story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31–46) this way: “These (Mt 20:1–16 and Mt 25:31–46) are the two limiting statements of the NT, which protect us [1] against righteousness through works [by means of the Grace Parable] … and [2] [against] righteousness through intellectualized theology [by means of the Judgment Story].”’

The fate of the wicked

Wilkins urges that ‘the fate of the wicked should…weigh heavily upon us, provoking the same kind of anguish that the apostle Paul experienced as he considered the eternal fate of his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus (Rom. 9:1–3; 10:1–2).