A Bible Lesson on Matthew 25

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This is a very long lesson covering two well-known parables and a straightforward teaching, all concerned with the last day and how we should live in light of it. It continues Christ’s teaching on the end times begun in Chapter 24.

First, the parable of the ten maidens.

Matthew 25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

To give the disciples some understanding of how it will be at that time, He tells a story set a familiar and wonderful context, a wedding.

The customs of the time seem to have been these. A wedding was an occasion for a whole village to celebrate. The Rabbis even taught that it was permissible to temporarily put aside the study of the Law to join in. A newlywed couple didn’t go away on a honeymoon, they stayed home and were congratulated by everyone in town and for a time were treated like a prince and princess. Following the ceremony itself there was a procession through the town, taking the longest possible route, so that all could offer their good wishes.

Here’s the especially interesting/relevant part. In that time and culture, no invitations were sent out, or at least if they were, there was no time printed on them. Instead the bride and her party waited at her parents’ home for the bridegroom to come and get her and take her to the wedding. Maybe that would be tonight, maybe tomorrow night, maybe next week. The bride didn’t know. In fact, part of the festivity of the whole scene was a playful attempt to catch the bride and her party unprepared. They had to be ready to go to the wedding at any hour of the day or night. Instead of playing games hiding the car so that it didn’t get decorated with shaving cream, part of the scene at this time was that all the warning that the bride’s party got was the sound of the groom’s man in the street shouting “Behold, the bridegroom is coming!”

The picture we have here is that in the bride’s party, especially invited to the wedding ceremony, especially honored to be part of the festivities, were ten bridesmaids.

2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.

Now a parable isn’t an allegory and we shouldn’t expect every particular detail of the story to match up one to one with a detail of reality. There’s no reason to worry about the fact that the church is called the “bride” of Christ while here we are concerned with “bridesmaids.” And we should not read anything into the detail that there were 5 and 5. What we MUST hear is that among those especially invited and honored to be included, were some that were foolish and some that were wise.

The foolish ones were foolish in a Biblical sense. They didn’t see things the way they really were. They were reckoning from the wrong point. “The fool says in his heart that there is no God.” The fool reckons from himself and what pleases him at the moment. The foolish maids were simple, slow, thinking like a child, in the sense that what they were concerned with was themselves.

The wise maidens were wise in a Biblical sense. This is not an endorsement of their abstract reasoning capability or even their facility with systematic theology. It’s the fear of the LORD that is the beginning of wisdom. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s seeing things the way they really are and reckoning from the right point. It’s being and doing what is in line with the will of God and what makes sense in the light of eternity. It’s being prudent and practical in light of what really is.

3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them,

4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.

There were no street lamps and nobody was allowed on streets without a light. And once the bridegroom came and got the bride and the ceremony began, latecomers were not allowed in. Everybody knew this including the bridesmaids. Some of them came fully prepared and some came at best only half prepared.

We should think hard about this. What’s the job of the bridesmaids?  The job here is to be ready, to be ready today, tomorrow, next week, whenever the announcement comes. Some are, but others are presuming upon the situation, thinking that half-ready is good enough. They want to be part of the scene, but really, it’s on their own terms and at their own convenience that they want to be part.

The maids here are not recruited because they had oil or could be counted on to produce it when needed. They are recruited by the couple because of what they mean to the couple. They are people with whom the couple wishes to share the joy of the wedding celebration. That’s the reason they’re in the group. But, given that recruitment, great privilege and honor, the job, the responsibility, is to be ready. Some take that seriously. Some do not.

Consider what the foolish bridesmaids have done. The bride has recruited them because of her desire to share this great occasion with them. They don’t take it seriously enough to show up ready to participate. What have you really said to a modern day bride if she asks you to take part in the wedding and you say “sure,” but then when the time comes your favorite team is playing ball or your favorite soap opera is on the tube and you decide that it’ll be OK if you show an hour late, after the game or the soap is over?

5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.

Jesus has already told His disciples that the time of His coming is not known and that they must be ready at all times.

Matthew 24:36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

Matthew 24:42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Matthew 24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

We laugh at folks that name times for the second coming and go gather on mountain tops in white sheets to wait or put up billboards on the highway promising the date. But on the other end of this waiting, do we take our Lord seriously when we hear Him say “Keep watch … you do not know”? Once invited, the job of the maids was to be ready.

6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’

The bridegroom is coming, not on the schedule of the maids, but on His own schedule. All the warning they get is the general understanding that He could come at any moment and this cry of the herald at midnight.

7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.

Here’s a pathetic picture. Everybody wakes up, the prepared and the unprepared. And even now, the unprepared are oblivious to the fact that they are unprepared. These “lamps” are almost surely torches, and they set about trimming the charred rag off the ends of them, just as if nothing is genuinely wrong.

8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’

A torch of this type is going to burn a large amount of olive oil. It has to be re-dipped in oil every 15 minutes or so. That’s a given. The foolish don’t have enough and now ask the others to bail them out. They are even now not taking responsibility for their lack of preparation. They’re thinking from their vantage point, for their personal benefit, figuring that somehow their dereliction can be covered over. They aren’t thinking about the impact of what they’ve done or not done on anyone but themselves.

9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’

This is no mean or selfish reply. There truly isn’t enough for the foolish. The responsibility of the wise is to the bride, not the foolish at this point. They are to provide light for the procession and celebration through the town. If they try to bail out the foolish, all are going to run out and leave the whole party in darkness half way through the parade. Essentially, what the foolish are asking them to do is impossible. The wise cannot transfer their own preparation to the foolish. All they can do is point the foolish to where oil can be obtained. It is available, but the foolish must buy it for themselves, just as the wise have done earlier.

10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.

The bridegroom Himself arrives on His schedule. Those who are ready, go to the wedding. And there is a sickening thud in the closing of the door. This should have been an occasion of great joy for the whole town, but the door is now shut and the foolish are on the outside.

11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’

12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

Our muddled hearts rebel at this. “Cut them a break!” we cry. But it can be no other way. There is no real relationship between the foolish and the wedding couple. The foolish didn’t even think enough of the couple to make preparation for their procession. And that wasn’t accidental, it was done in cold blood. It was in truth a flagrant, selfish choice to not consider the interests of the bridal couple. Of course they are strangers, of course the groom doesn’t know them. And the wedding, the celebration, the joyous occasion is to be shared with friends, not indifferent strangers. That only makes sense. The wonderful wedding celebration is for friends.

13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

So the advice of Jesus to His closest followers is “keep watch.” If we have any sense, we’ll hear that injunction for ourselves. You and I are waiting. We’re waiting for His return and the great wedding feast that St. John saw. Every one of us has been offered a place at the table. Every one of us has been invited to eternally enjoy all that is really good. This wedding feast we’ve been invited to isn’t just one that we can skip and pick up another some other time or place. It’s the only one that ever will be. Outside the door to the banquet hall there is nothing but darkness. There’s no good at all outside the banquet hall. And the invitation we’ve been given is to a banquet for friends. It’s based on relationship with the groom.

The rub for our fallen human hearts is that our invitation has implicit in it a job. The job isn’t the basis for the invitation, but it is implicit in the invitation. And as we wait, it is possible to by neglect fail to do the job, to fail to keep watch and in the end, be shut out as a stranger. We dare not take the edge off of this. Jesus is talking here to the 12, not somebody outside the fold. We dare not blunt the urgency of this warning. This is serious business. We’re being warned to not be laid back and lackadaisical.

What are we talking about? What is involved in the watching? What is it that the wise will have and the foolish will not bother to go and obtain while there is yet time? What is it that the wise can tell the foolish where to buy, but cannot give them when they have not come prepared themselves? I think we know if we’ll be honest with ourselves. It’s stuff like right living, like prayer, like attention to God’s Word and assembly with His saints. It’s stuff like demonstrations of real love and kindness, development of real Christian character traits like humility, patience, gentleness. It’s stuff like integrity, and Godly self-discipline. It’s stuff like real dependence upon and submission to Christ. In the end, it’s genuine salvation.  Those are things that can’t be had at the last moment. They are things that can’t be transferred.

The warning of Jesus, the message of this parable is that it’s possible to take the job of waiting and watching too lightly. It’s possible to presume upon the situation, to be lackadaisical and indifferent and in the end have no relationship to the groom. It’s possible to know the facts, to apparently be part of the bridal party and in the end miss the wedding.

“Therefore, keep watch.” Let us take the job seriously.

 

Next is the parable of the talents.

Matthew 25:14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.

Trusted family servants in ancient times were often given substantial responsibility. Of course, they were not independent free agents, but neither were they mindless automatons. Instead they were people who were authorized and expected to act intelligently on the behalf of their masters. They made investments on behalf of their masters and managed some of their property. That’s what we have here. The master has entrusted to these servants some of his property.

15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

The English usage of the word “talent” as a skill, ability or mental power actually derives from this parable. A talent was originally a unit of weight. When applied to a weight of a precious metal it came to also be a unit of coinage. We need to understand the magnitude of what has been entrusted to the servants here. It appears that a talent was as much as 6,000 days’ wages for a day laborer of the time. That’s 20 years’ worth of labor for a common man. These servants have been entrusted with fortunes amounting to from 20 to 100 man-years worth of labor. These are huge resources. But it’s the case that that God willing, we will live and work many years ourselves, either squandering those years or using them to God’s glory. Not only have we been entrusted with the precious treasure of the Gospel, but we each have a life’s worth of resources to invest for the Master.

The master does not give each servant the same number of talents. He does not give each the same resources and responsibility, but rather he judges the abilities and faithfulness of the servants according to what he knows they can handle. Notice that this may not sound so much in tune with our modern egalitarian ways of thinking. But the truth is that the servants are not equally capable, and the master doesn’t give them equal resources and responsibilities.

The master went on a journey. The disciples seem to have been expecting the end times to come immediately. This was not to be so. The master went away, for an indefinite, but finite period. And he left the servants with differing, but nevertheless precious resources to use on his behalf in his absence.

16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.

17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.

The 5 become 10 and the 2 become 4. These two servants are not equally capable, but they are equally faithful and end up being equally commended. They both make vigorous use of what has been entrusted to them. Notice, by the way, that by the time the master returns, the second servant has worked to the point that he has nearly the resources that the first servant had at the beginning.

18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.

The guy digs a hole. Burying a valuable was about the safest thing a person could do with it in ancient times. He has not lost his master’s resources, he’s simply failed to use them in the way the master intended. And the choice to sit on the master’s resources was not one that he had been authorized to make. He’d been given the talent to invest, to use on the master’s behalf.

19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.

The master returned after a long time. Exactly how long we don’t know. What’s clear, however, is that the master returns at his convenience, not at the convenience of the servants, and does so without warning.

When the master returns, the first thing he does is to settle accounts with the servants. In our thinking about the rapture or what happens after death, we typically buzz past this, thinking immediately about the welcome that awaits us. But before the master does anything else, he evaluates what has been done with his resources.

20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’

Listen to the properly humble view of this servant. He knows who owns the riches. He understands that he’s simply had temporary stewardship over them. He doesn’t say that he’s used his own resources to enrich the master, but rather, humbly says what profit the riches of the master have produced.

Notice also that it is for the profit of the master that he has labored and doubled his portion. He has no legal claim to anything that his investments have produced. He understands that although (through the generosity of the master) he will benefit, that is only the byproduct of his faithfulness, not its object. He’s had charge of the property of the master, for the benefit of the master. If we don’t have that view of what God has given us, then our view is sub-Christian. If we think that this whole business of life is primarily for our benefit or comfort, we are sadly wrong and fail to be Biblical people. By God’s grace there is great benefit for His children, but that is only a byproduct of Him getting the glory that is due Him.

21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

“Well done.”  This is what the master expected. What the first servant has done is neither surprising nor extraordinary. It is, instead, completely in line with the way things ought to be. The master has left the servants in charge of his resources and he has expected them to use them.

“good and faithful servant” he says.  This is the key phrase in the whole parable. The parable is about faithfulness. The master has commended the servant for over the long haul, in a consistent day by day fashion, using the master’s resources for the sake of the master. That is faithfulness. That is what brings the commendation of the master.

“faithful over a little” he says.  This is 100 man years of labor! This little is exceedingly precious. But the point is that in comparison to what is to come, 30,000 days’ wages amount to very little.

“I will set you over much.” The reward here is more responsibility and more work to do on behalf of the master. The master does not say “good work, now take some time off and indulge yourself.” Our whole self-centered modern concept of deserving to be catered to on the basis of our contributions or accomplishments is simply not Biblical. Instead, faithfulness brings with it more opportunity to be faithful. It also brings with it fellowship with our Lord Jesus and a sense of well-being, as we know that as far as it is in our control, all is as it should be.

Now the second servant comes.

22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’

23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

This should give us all great hope and confidence. This second servant, who is substantially less capable than the first, is nevertheless commended in exactly the same way as the first. The issue is not how much he had to work with, or the total amount of the return on his work, but rather how faithful he has been. The issue is what he did with what he had to work with. He was not expected to turn his 2 into 10. He was only expected to use his 2 to produce 2 more.

Again, we see here that the reward for faithfulness is not a trip to the Bahamas, the right to order the master around, or even a large mansion. Instead, it is increased responsibility and additional work to do for the master, and joy that comes when a true heart honestly serves the master. This is the kind of joy that was evident in the life of the Lord Jesus.

John 15:10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

 Now we hear from servant #3, the guy who has taken it upon himself to bury the master’s resources instead of using them in the master’s service.

 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,

25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

Let’s keep clearly in mind that this guy is in no way incapable of what he’d been commissioned to do. The master had given these guys responsibilities in line with their capabilities. They were being asked to do things they could handle.

What’s this guy been thinking? Was he perhaps jealous that the other two were given more responsibility than himself? Was he miffed and sulking that he only got one portion, thinking that in comparison to the others, his contribution wasn’t really needed anyhow? Or was he thinking to himself “I don’t want to put myself out for this guy anyway. If I gain anything, it’s going to be his. I might as well go to the beach or perhaps work on painting my own house.”

Whatever his excuse for disobeying, the servant seems willing to impugn the character of the master in order to justify his own laziness. The picture he gives is of the master somehow making out unjustly from the efforts of others. That’s simply not the situation. The talents belong to the master to begin with. The servant has just been asked to put them to work on behalf of the master.

26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?

The servant may well have considered himself to have been honorable. After all, he had preserved the master’s talent. It was all there, he’d lost none of it. But look what the master has to say. “wicked and slothful servant” To fail to use God’s gifts to bring Him glory is not some small matter. It is in fact to rob Him. The master pronounces the servant to wicked, evil, immoral, deserving of severe punishment.

Do we believe this? Or do we really think that our talents are really our own, to use or squander as we see fit?

27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.

Without at all agreeing that he was as the wicked servant made him out to be, the master condemns the servant with his own words. The wicked servant knew that the master deserved a profit/increase and should/could have seen one way or the other that he received such. But instead, for his own reasons, he chose to deny the master his rightful increase. Whether that was based on timidity, laziness, envy or whatever, that is wrong. It is evil.

The servant had been given the master’s resources but sat on them. We have been entrusted with the treasure of the Christian Gospel and with personal abilities and strength of life. To live any way other than to bring Glory and increase to the God of the Universe is, to us as well, a great evil. And we do so at our own great peril.

28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.

29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

Here are some universal, inexorable principles of life. For one, if you don’t use what God has entrusted to you, you lose it. If you do use it, you will be increasingly capable and valuable to your master. There’s no standing still in life. You are either progressing or degenerating. There’s nothing in between.

For another, it is the one who has been faithful with the 5 that is ready to handle the 10 plus 1. Would we be willing to do something great in the Kingdom of God? Would we be willing to turn the world upside down for Christ? Then what about the small things? The principle is that if we won’t do the small things, forget about the big ones. There’s no point in planning on turning the world upside down for Christ if we’re known as an irresponsible flaky people that no one can count on.

30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

He is a :worthless servant.” Indeed. It is the essence of being a servant that the master calls the shots. A servant who sees himself as in charge, willing to ignore the expressed will of the master is of no use to the master. He’s not a servant at all. He’s genuinely worthless.

How serious is this whole business? It’s the stuff of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Christian people are, in fact, servants of the God of the universe. If we don’t see ourselves as that, then we are not His at all. We dare not rob our God of his rightful increase by sitting on the wondrous treasures that He’s entrusted to us. If we do, we have no place with Him at all. That ought not put Christians into a frenzy to go out and make up for lost time. The faithful servants didn’t double the master’s funds overnight. What they did do was to consistently plug away for him over an extended period. That’s what we’re called to be and do. To plug away day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. That’s what produces the master’s approval. That’s what turns the 2 into 4 and the 5 into 10. We must plug away, growing in faithfulness, being increasingly consistent in His service, conscious that we are only using what is His to begin with and which ought therefore to be used to bring Him glory.

 

Now we come to the teaching on the sheep and the goats. It’s not really a parable so much as a straight and pointed description of Christ’s judgment and of what really matters in the end.

 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.

“When” says Jesus. There are various interpretations of “when” is when, which judgment this is etc., tied to various systems of eschatology. Let’s just focus on the fact that at some time in history the events described here are going to take place. That’s true, and enough for us to know.

Jesus refers to “the Son of Man.” This title plainly alludes to Daniel’s vision.

Daniel 7:13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

This is a title Jesus took for Himself that reveals Him as both fully human and fully divine. Verse 25 is meant to be an awe inspiring picture. Jesus is the King. Jesus meek and mild is not the whole story. This is Jesus in His majesty as rightful King and Judge. This is a picture of the Last Day, and the central figure, the one with whom we all must do is Jesus, the Son of Man.

32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

“all the nations” are gathered. Jesus is King over all peoples. Earlier Jesus had talked of letting the weeds grow together with the wheat, to be separated at the harvest. Here the whole flock is going to be separated. It is all people.

Apparently, the origin of the picture here is that during the day, the flock all ran together, but at night it was necessary to separate out the goats because they had less fat and fur and needed to huddle together in the night cold for warmth, where the sheep did not. It is a common, matter of fact thing, perfectly sensible and natural. It could not be otherwise. Of course the shepherd separates.

33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

The right hand is always the place of honor and favor. Note that there are only two groups here. Sheep are sheep and goats are goats. This image should not catch any listeners by surprise. This is completely consistent with the revelation of God in Ezekiel 34.

Ezekiel 34:17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.

18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet?

19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad,

22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.

 

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.

Again, Jesus is the King. He is not just like a king, but is The King. And it is He who judges and gives the inheritance prepared from the beginning, to exactly 2 groups: the sheep and the goats.

Ephesians. 1:4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him …

This thing has been planned from the foundation of the world. It is not something that might happen. It will happen.

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

We must each face this for our self. There are plenty of other people that we could point fingers at on this stuff, but we dare not give ourselves that luxury. We must ask: How big are these acts? How visible are they? How much of our resources do they require? Are they of such a nature that any of us is unable to participate? Are any of us then without excuse? … These are acts that common people do with their own time, capacities and compassion. These acts aren’t necessarily the ones our carnal selves think of as great acts of spirituality. But they are the ones that Jesus remembers. They tell Him and tell us who we really are. They are not the self-conscious things we do when we realize that others are watching. These are the actions of sheep being sheep.

It’s quite a thing that Jesus puts Himself into this picture as the one helped. It’s not “just” others we help, but Christ Himself. These acts voluntarily involve us in the suffering and need of others, particularly other believers. God could have short-circuited this and made it unnecessary for us to be involved. He didn’t. There is a point in us taking part in this. God voluntarily involved Himself in our desperate situation, and in turn we are given the chance to take on the character and work of Jesus, both to our good and as a continuing testimony to the nature of our God.

37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?

38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?

39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

This is a thing of real beauty and virtue. The good works of the sheep are completely unconscious, coming from the character of Christ in them. And it is the evidence of regeneration that these works provide, that is the basis of separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep cannot be depending upon the good works for their salvation. They don’t even recognize them! There is no attacking these works as done for legalistic purposes, they are not meant by the sheep to be a means of salvation, but are rather an expression of who the sheep are.

Luke 6:45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good …

40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

The fact that Jesus purposely mentions “the least” makes this universally applicable. It is also true that God promises special protection for the weak and downtrodden throughout the Scriptures. And there is also in the “my brothers” special emphasis on how Christian people are treated. There is a sense in which Christ is the elder brother of all people, but most fully and truly, He is the elder brother only of those who have bowed the knee and embraced God’s gracious offer of salvation. The issue here is not just philanthropy, but the reaction of people to the person of Christ in the “least significant” of His people.

Proverbs 19:17 Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

He says, “you cursed.” The OT usage of this word was “those who are irretrievably condemned and devoted to death.” There are only two groups and the judgment is final. There is eternal fire. Ryle said, “They would not hear Christ when He said ‘Come unto Me, and I will give you rest.’ And now they must hear Him say ‘Depart into everlasting fire.’ They would not carry His cross, and so they can have no place in His kingdom.”

42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,

43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

The goats are not charged with anything that we would recognize as “major/awful” sins. They are charged with negligence, sins not of commission, but of omission. They are charged with being goats instead of being sheep.

James 4:17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

The contrast is in failing to do the simple things that testify to the character of Christ and that the love of God is really part of our being. Earlier, Matthew records Jesus saying

Matthew 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’

23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Those condemned claim some pretty flashy “evidence” of their “spirituality.” But it isn’t the real thing. Jesus says that the real thing is seen in whether we do the “small” things, and in particular whether or not we extend the love of Christ to the least of His brethren. The real thing is seen in the absolutely unconscious nature, whether out lives reveal the genuinely self-giving character of Christ or whether they are really calculated to promote self.

44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’

There’s real surprise and a kind of horrible symmetry and irony here. These are almost exactly the same words as from the sheep. But they have radically different meaning and consequences. They come from a radically different heart. Instead of a real genuine humility that is unaware of its own goodness, these are words of arrogance that reveal a cold calculation about life. This group says with genuine surprise “But when did we miss you? If we had seen you we would have acted!” But think about what this says about their motivation for good works. They are essentially saying “Do good only if you’re being watched and get credit.” Think about what it says about their understanding of their relationship to other people. They really think “Other ordinary folks really don’t matter much.” Think about what it says about their real relationship to God. In the end, they really had none, they don’t share His self-giving nature. These are goats. Goats have the nature of goats and the concerns of goats, not those of sheep.

Ryle said, “The last judgment will be a judgment according to evidence. The works of men are the witnesses that will be brought forward, and above all their works of charity. The question to be ascertained will not merely be what we said, but what we did: not merely what we professed, but what we practiced. Our works unquestionably will not justify us: we are justified by faith without the deeds of the law; but the truth of our faith will be tested by our lives. Faith which hath not works is dead, being alone. James 2:11.”

The Apostle John put it this way.

1 John 3:17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

There are only two groups, and Jesus says that there are only two corresponding eternal destinies. One is in the presence of the gracious eternal God. The other is in the presence of all others whose only concern has been themselves.

Ryle’s point #4 on this passage is as follows.

“Let us mark, in the last place, what will be the final results of the judgment day. We are told this in words that ought never to be forgotten: ‘The wicked shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal.’

The state of things after the judgment is changeless and without end. The misery of the lost, and the blessedness of the saved, are both alike forever: let no man deceive us on this point. It is clearly revealed in Scripture: the eternity of God, and heaven, and hell, all stand on the same foundation. As surely as God is eternal, so surely is heaven an endless day without night, and hell an endless night without day. Who shall describe the blessedness of eternal life? It passes the power of man to conceive: it can only be measured by contrast and comparison. An eternal rest, after warfare and conflict; the eternal company of saints, after buffeting with an evil world; an eternally glorious and painless body, after struggling with weakness and infirmity; an eternal sight of Jesus face to face, after only hearing and believing,–all this is blessedness indeed. And yet the half of it remains untold.

Who shall describe the misery of eternal punishment? It is something utterly indescribable and inconceivable. The eternal pain of body; the eternal sting of an accusing conscience; the eternal society of none but the wicked, the devil and his angels; the eternal remembrance of opportunities neglected and Christ despised; the eternal prospect of a weary, hopeless future, –all this is misery indeed: it is enough to make our ears tingle, and our blood run cold. And yet this picture is nothing compared to the reality.

Let us close these verses with serious self-inquiry. Let us ask ourselves on which side of Christ we are likely to be at the last day. Shall we be on the right hand, or shall we be on the left? Happy is he who never rests till he can give a satisfactory answer to this question.”

This is truly sobering stuff, for us and for those we love. We ought to pray. We ought to live humbly in the light of these truths.

 Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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