The Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 25:31-46 (Matthew 25:31-46)

The final judgment on all the nations. (Peculiar to St. Matthew.) Before entering upon the exposition of this majestic section, which is a prophecy, not a parable, we have to settle the preliminary question as to who are the subjects of the judgment here so graphically and fearfully delineated. Are they only the heathen, or Christians, or all mankind without exception? The Lord's present utterance is plainly the development of the account of the parousia in Matthew 24:30 , Matthew 24:3 . There those that are gathered are "the elect," nothing being said concerning the rest of mankind; here we have the forecast completed, both righteous and unrighteous receiving their sentence. "All the nations" usually represent all Gentiles distinguished from the Jews. But there is nothing to indicate separate judgment for the Jew and Gentile. Equally unlikely is the notion that the transaction is confined to the heathen, whether the opinion is grounded on a supposed extension of the mercies of Christ to those ignorant of him, but having lived according to the laws of natural religion; or whether it assumes as certain that believers will not be judged at all (an erroneous deduction from John 5:24 ). It seems, on the one hand, incongruous that persons who have never heard of Christ should be addressed as "blessed of my Father," etc., Matthew 24:34 : and it seems, on the other hand, monstrous that such, having failed through ignorance and lack of teaching, should be condemned to awful punishment. That Christians alone are the persons who are thus assembled for judgment is not likely. Is there, then, to be no inquisition held on the life and Character of non-Christians? Are they wholly to escape the great assize? If not, where else does Christ refer to their case? What reason can be given for the exclusion of this great majority from the account of the proceedings at the last day? It appears, on the whole, to be safest to consider "all the nations" as meaning the whole race of men, who, dead and living, small and great, Jew and Gentile, shall stand before God to be judged according to their works ( Revelation 20:11-13 ). This is not a parable, but a statement of future proceedings by him who himself shall conduct them. It is not a full account of details, but an indication of the kind of criteria which shall govern the verdicts given.

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Matthew 25:32 (Matthew 25:32)

Shall be gathered ( Matthew 24:31 ). The angels shall gather them, the dead being first raised to life. All ( τα Ì , the ) nations . Not the heathen only, but all mankind (see preliminary note). The criteria upon which the judgment proceeds, in the following verses, seem to imply that all men have the opportunity of receiving or rejecting the gospel. How this can apply to those who died before the incarnation of Christ and the consequent evangelization of the world, we know not, though we may believe that, ere the end comes, Christ will have been preached in every quarter of the globe. That some process of enlightenment goes on in the unseen world we learn from the mysterious passage, 1 Peter 3:18-20 ; but we have no reason to suppose that probation is extended to the other life, or that souls will there have the offer of accepting or repelling the claims of Jesus (but see Philippians 2:10 ; 1 Peter 4:6 ). By describing mankind as "all the nations," Christ shows the minute particularity of the judgment, which will enter into distinctions of country, race, etc., and while it is universal will be strictly impartial. He is the Shepherd of all mankind, whether considered as sheep or goats, and can therefore distinguish and class them perfectly. Those who have never heard of Christ (if such there shall be) can be tried only by the standard of natural religion ( Romans 1:20 ). Shall separate them ( αὐτου Ì ς ). Individuals of all the nations. Hitherto good and bad had been mingled together, often indistinguishable by man's eye or judgment; now an eternal distinction is made by an unerring hand ( Matthew 13:49 ). The ideals already found in Ezekiel 34:17 , "Behold, I judge between cattle and cattle, between the rams and the he goats." As a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. The flocks of sheep and goats generally keep together during the day ( Genesis 30:33 ), but are separated at night or when being driven. The Syrian goat is usually black. The Lord delights in employing simple pastoral illustrations in his teaching.

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Matthew 25:31-46 (Matthew 25:31-46)

The last judgment.

I. THE JUDGE .

1 . His glory. The Lord was sitting on the Mount of Olives, looking sadly back upon the holy city and the temple which he had finally left. He had been rejected by the hierarchy of the chosen nation; the shadow of the cross was falling on him; in three days would come the awful agony and the tremendous sacrifice. He knew all this with the clear calm knowledge of Divine omniscience; but his thoughts dwelt, that Tuesday afternoon, not on his own sufferings now so near, but on the great results of his incarnation and atonement which were to be manifested in the far-distant future, the salvation of his chosen, and, alas! the condemnation of the impenitent. With the cross in near prospect, he speaks of himself as the King—the king of all nations; the Son of man indeed, still in our human nature, for the two whole and perfect natures, the Godhead and the manhood, once joined together in the one Person of Christ, were never thenceforth to be divided; but coming in his glory, himself in that body of glory of which a passing glimpse had been vouchsafed to the three most favoured apostles on the Mount of the Transfiguration, surrounded by the holy angels, his attendants and ministers. Then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory, that great white throne which St. John saw in that awful vision of the great day which was revealed to him for our instruction and warning. No human words could describe the glory of the Judge. St. John could only say that from his face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.

2 . The gathering of all nations before him. The parables of the virgins and the talents are parables of judgment; but they deal with a portion only of the tremendous subject. Judgment, St. Peter says, "must begin at the house of God." These two parables embrace in their range only Christian people, those who have gone forth to meet the heavenly Bridegroom, and the immediate servants of the Lord. The first parable represents the judgment of the inner life of the soul; the second, the judgment of the outward life of obedience or idleness. Each parable reveals to us one of the many aspects of that tremendous assize. Now parable passes into prophecy. A wider scene is opened out—the judgment of the whole world. Our thoughts are no longer to be concentrated on a portion only of the vast multitude. All nations are gathered together before the Son of man; quick and dead alike; all the countless millions that have been born unto the world from the Creation to the great day; every one from Adam the first man to the new-born babe all, summoned by the voice of the archangel and the trump of God, gathered together by the attendant angels, all shall stand before the Judge. His eye will range over those countless hosts. He knows the whole history of each individual. The books of which we read in the Revelation represent the infinite knowledge of God. "The dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." The Judge will divide the thronging crowds with unerring accuracy, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. The division will be as easy to the Almighty Judge; the differences, often almost invisible to us, as clearly marked in his sight. "He shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left."

II. THE BLESSED .

1 . The welcome. The Lord describes himself as the heavenly King. He knew that in three days the mocking title, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews," would be set above his head as he hung dying on the cross. But he knew also, in his inmost consciousness, that he was indeed King of kings and Lord of lords. The kingdom of heaven was his by right. It was he who should hereafter open that kingdom to the blessed: "Come, ye blessed of my Father," he will say. Come; for it is his will that his chosen should be with him to behold his glory, and to share his glory. Come; for their salvation is his joy, the joy for which he endured the cross. He bringeth home rejoicing the sheep that once was lost. He saith unto his friends, "Rejoice with me." Come; for he loveth them with an everlasting love, a love stronger than death. He calls them blessed, "Ye blessed of my Father;" for the Father had pronounced them blessed. He had chosen them by his electing grace; he had given them to the only begotten Son; they were "elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ." He bids them take possession of the kingdom—the kingdom of glory, that glory which passeth all that eye hath seen, or ear hath heard, or that hath entered into the heart of man. That kingdom had been prepared for them from the foundation of the world; even before the world was ( Ephesians 1:4 ), God knew, in the fulness of his Divine omniscience, each elected spirit, and predestinated each to be conformed to the image of his Son. The kingdom had long been theirs in the purpose of God; now it was to be theirs in possession.

2 . The ground of the welcome. They had loved the Lord; they had tended him (he said) in distress and sorrow; they had laid him, the Lord God Almighty, under obligations by their love and tenderness. He would reward them now. The righteous are bewildered with that wondrous welcome. It is a joy almost too great for them to bear—a sweetness so penetrating that the heart well nigh faints in the intensity of its rapture. They knew that nothing they had done could deserve that unutterable blessedness now opened to their view. They can see, as they look back on their past lives, no deeds so good and holy as the Lord had said. They had learned of him the grace of humility, those of them who were Christians; those who had not heard the gospel (for surely many heathen men will be among the number of the blessed) had shown the law of love written in their hearts, and were a law unto themselves, doing by nature things contained in the Law ( Romans 2:14 , Romans 2:15 ). None of them fully understood the preciousness of acts of unselfish love. They felt their own shortcomings; in their self-abasement they had ever thought themselves the chief of sinners. But the King now shows to them the meaning of their deeds of love. Charity, that chiefest of graces, springs out of faith. It looks to Christ, and rests in Christ as its ultimate centre. It is so, in some sense, even with the good deeds of heathen men; for Christ is the Saviour of all men. Christ died for all men; and all who in truth and earnestness seek after God, consciously or unconsciously, follow Christ. "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body." The judgment will be, as Holy Scripture says in many places, according unto works; but those works spring out of faith, and derive their whole spiritual value from the faith and love which prompted them. The Lord, in this place, speaks of one class only of holy deeds. He does not exclude other Christian graces, other forms of obedience. All will, we may be sure, be taken into account in the judgment. But in this prophecy, as in many of his parables, the Lord takes one aspect of God's dealings with mankind. He insists on that one aspect, and impresses it forcibly upon his hearers. One important truth is best driven home by being presented alone; other balancing truths can be taught on other occasions. We must study the Scriptures as a whole. One part explains another; one part suggests the necessary qualifications for the interpretation of another.

III. THE LOST .

1 . The condemnation. "Depart from me, ye cursed." Very awful and tremendous words. All the more so as coming from his mouth who bade all men, "Come unto me;" who came not into the world "to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved." He had loved those lost souls; he had called them again and again; he had wept over their hardness and unbelief. But they would not come unto him that they might have life. They resisted the Holy Ghost; they closed their eyes in wilful blindness; they persevered in disobedience till their heart was hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, and there was no more hope of amendment. Now they must depart from him whom in life they would not hear; they must depart, and that into the eternal fire prepared (not for them; it was not the will of God that any should perish; he willeth that all men should be saved) "for the devil and his angels." They had loved darkness rather than light; they must dwell in the great outer darkness away from the light of God's presence. They had listened to the tempting voice of Satan; they must share his doom.

2 . The ground of condemnation. They had done no good; they had lived only for themselves. They had seen sorrow and distress and poverty all around them; they had shown no love, no pity, no sympathy. And in neglecting the poor, the afflicted, they had neglected Christ the Lord. For the poor are his representatives. "He that hath pity on the poor lendeth to the Lord;" and he that careth not for the poor careth not for Christ, who is present in his poor, who bids us love one another as he hath loved us. They who have no pity on the poor would not have ministered to the Lord if they had lived when he had not where to lay his head, when holy women ministered to him of their substance. And these shall go away into eternal punishment. They are not accused of any crime—of theft, or murder, or impurity; but they were without love, and he that loveth not knoweth not God who is love, and cannot enter into heaven which is the home of love. It is a most solemn thought that this tremendous condemnation was incurred, not by crime, not by actual sin, but by neglect of duty, by selfishness and want of love. Let us rouse ourselves to a sense of the danger of selfishness; let us covet earnestly the best gifts, especially that highest gift of love. "The righteous shall go into life eternal." It is love, the Lord saith, which is the mark of the blessed; "charity never faileth."

LESSONS .

1 . The Lord is at hand. He shall sit on the throne of his glory. On which side shall we be set—on the right hand or on the left?

2 . "Come, ye blessed." There is no joy so intense, so rapturous; may it be ours!

3 . Then follow after charity.

4 . "Depart from me, ye cursed." There is no misery so awful; God in his mercy save us from it!

5 . Then follow Christ the Lord; love the brethren; imitate the example of the King.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 25:31-46 (Matthew 25:31-46)

The judgment of the nations.

The two earlier parables of judgment refer to those who are in confessed relationship with God. The parable of the ten virgins represents the relationship of friendship,—that of people who would share in the joys of God's home, as friends at a wedding feast; the parable of the talents represents a less intimate relationship,—that of service; the talents are committed to their proprietor's "own servants." Now the scene changes, and we are brought out to the larger world of the nations; the judgment of those who do not know Christ as their Friend or consciously serve him as their Master is here typified. To Jews this would mean the judgment of the Gentiles; to Christians it represents the judgment of the heathen, with those, also, who live in Christendom, but who do not give their adherence to any of the Churches.

I. CHRIST WILL JUDGE THE WORLD .

1 . There will be a judgment of the world. This is not to be confined to the Church; it will not be only for those who acknowledge Christ. We cannot escape from it by ignoring the rule of Christ. The most heedless and careless, the most worldly and unspiritual, the most sceptical and materialistic, will be brought before the bar of the universal judgment.

2 . This judgment will be in the hands of Christ. It will be conducted by the "Son of man," who, even when acting as a Judge, is to be regarded as a Shepherd dividing his flocks. Therefore the judgment will be conducted with humanity and with sympathy, with the discrimination of knowledge gained in experience.

II. THE JUDGMENT OF CHRIST WILL RESULT IN A TWOFOLD DIVISION .

1 . There will be two classes. All are not condemned; but all are not approved. Even Jesus with all his graciousness must reprobate what is wrong. His gospel is not a security of salvation for the sinful impenitent.

2 . There will be but two. These are the main divisions. All characters tend either downward or upward. We are all either in the narrow way or in the broad way—either sheep or goats.

3 . These classes will be separated. At present they are united. There will be a revelation and a division, and each man will then go to his own place.

III. THE GROUND OF JUDGMENT WILL BE MEN 'S CONDUCT TOWARDS OTHER PEOPLE . It will not be a profession of religion, nor a creed, nor a performance of acts of worship. Christ looks chiefly to conduct in the world. He takes what is done to one of his brethren as the test. This is just the same as if it were done to him, because he is so perfectly sympathetic, that he feels what is done to his brother exactly as though it were done to himself. The rule is for the judgment of the heathen and those outside the Church of Christ. More is expected of Christ's own confessed followers—lamps well supplied with oil of grace, and faithful use of entrusted talents. But such people cannot be excused from what is expected even of the heathen. We can all best serve Christ by ministering to his brethren. This is what he most cares for.

IV. THE JUDGMENT WILL RESULT IN BLESSEDNESS AND PUNISHMENT .

1 . There is the joy of the kingdom for the sheep on the right hand. It is remarkable to see that the kingdom was prepared for such from the foundation of the world. From the first its blessings were for many who are not in any visible Church, for many who do not know themselves to be Christians.

2 . There is punishment for the goats on the left hand. The hard and selfish are those who receive this punishment. They will not escape it because of their ignorance or their refusal to recognize Christ. It will be unbearably awful.—W.F.A.

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Matthew 25:31-46 (Matthew 25:31-46)

The judgment,

No human imagination avails to grasp the conception of the judgment of a world—the great white throne, the voice of the archangel, the generations of all time gathering from all quarters. There is one feature of the judgment which is here and elsewhere made prominent—that Christ himself is to be Judge. The Father hath given him authority to execute judgment also, "because he is the Son of man." Jesus Christ is that Person through whom God has seen fit to transact with men from the first, and it will be so to the end. It is in the Person of Christ that God has been accepted or rejected of men; and it is fit that in this Person also men be accepted or rejected of God. We shall be judged by One who can read our soul with his own human knowledge of men and their ways. There are only two points in this great subject which will now be taken up:

I. Round these words of our Lord a sea of controversy has continually raged. In every generation there are numbers who explicitly declare that they cannot believe in the everlasting punishment of any of their fellow creatures. And although many do so from mere thoughtlessness, in others it arises from the feeling that it would be inconsistent with their own expectation of happiness, and with their best ideas of God. Men of feeble imagination, to whom the doctrine is little more than a form of words, have little temptation to rebel against it. But there are others to whom it makes life an intolerable misery; and rather than resign all mental comfort and happiness, they resign their belief in eternal punishment. But belief is not to be determined by our wish, but by Scripture and reason. If we turn to our Lord's teaching, and try to make out whether he taught universal restoration, the distinct conclusion seems to be that he did not. His words here are a fair sample of his teaching on this point, and apparently he meant by them to convey the impression which every simple-minded, unbiassed reader receives from them, that the duration of the punishment of the lost equalled the duration of the blessedness of the saved. The word translated "everlasting" in the one clause and "eternal" in the other is the same in both clauses. And though this is scarcely the place to discuss the meaning of a Greek word, so much has been said of the proper translation of the word being "age long," that it is necessary to guard against the accepting of such an account as sufficient. Even in its first original sense there is prominent the idea of enduring to the end, of permanence. So that in the course of time it became the commonest term to express that which lasts, in opposition to that which passes away. It occurs everywhere in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the purpose of which Epistle is to bring out the enduring, permanent, absolute, final, eternal nature of the Christian religion in opposition to the temporary, transient nature of the Old Testament dispensation. Plato falls into almost the very language of Paul, and says of the heavens and the earth that these visible things are temporal, but the unseen is eternal, abides; and in saying this he uses the word used here. But no doubt besides its application to what is absolutely eternal, as to God himself, the word may legitimately be applied to epochs long but not eternal. But unquestionably it conveys the idea that what is spoken of will last so long as its subject lasts unless something is said to the contrary. The bliss promised and the punishment threatened would be understood to last so tong as the subject of them lasts unless an explicit intimation were given that it would not be so. But so far from this, the New Testament everywhere implies that the state of things introduced by Christ and his work is a final and permanent stare, suitably described by the word that is applied to God himself when he is called Eternal. It is to be noted also that the Jews of our Lord's time certainly believed in a final judgment and irreversible doom; and it is not to be believed that our Lord should have used the very figures and language used by them if he had had any new doctrine to publish regarding the future.

II. The grounds on which the final separation proceeds must commend themselves to the most blunted conscience. The friends of mankind are to share the destiny of the great Friend of our race, the haters of mankind are to partake with the great enemy. At first sight the duties taken account of seem the easiest. But the spirit of Christ is that which induced him to pity us and come down for our help, and it is this spirit of love which is fundamental. The man who is like him in this will one day be like him in all else. "Love is of God," and will still be recognized by God as belonging to him. It is worthy of observation that those who were rewarded for these deeds of charity were not aware that in doing them they had been serving Christ. His explanation of this to them reminds us of the device of Eastern princes of wandering through their dominions in disguise, that they may learn the feeling of their subjects. So does Christ even now dwell incognito among his own, in the habit of the poor and sick and oppressed; and, asking help from one and another, he finds who they are who have listened to his commandment that we should love one another, and who they are who are fulfilling his work of mercy upon earth. And this identification of himself with all that is base and wretched has its basis in the substantial facts of his earthly life. His life was spent for the relief of men, but it was merely part of the fulfilment of an eternal purpose. He is no less desirous of relieving the miseries of this present age than he was of relieving those who were around him upon earth. And as we would think gratefully and lovingly of one who in our absence cared for some brother or parent, wife or child, who stood in need of help, so does Christ think highly of him who considers and cares for any weak brother of his for whom he died, and whom when he comes he will claim for his own. Are you prepared for this judgment? We are not asked what we have felt, or thought, or believed, but what we have done. It is conduct which shows if you are of the spirit of Christ, capable of enjoying what he counts a blessed life. His aim was the only right aim, the only aim which in the judgment will be taken account of. Every one who tries this finds it is radical, that it involves regeneration, that he cannot adopt it as his real aim in life without giving himself up to God..—D.

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Matthew 25:31-46 (Matthew 25:31-46)

The great assize.

It has been well observed by Dr. Doddridge that our Lord here proceeds to speak of the great day of retribution, in a description which is one of the noblest instances of the true sublime anywhere to be found. Portions of the description are undoubtedly parabolic, the intention evidently being to give prominence to certain important principles; but otherwise it is a solemn anticipation of what will one day become history. We may consider—

I. THE ARRANGEMENT OF THE COURT . And conspicuous here is:

1 . The appearance of the Judge.

2 . The vast assembly.

3 . The solemn discrimination.

II. THE AWARD OF THE RIGHTEOUS .

1 . They are commended.

2 . They are promoted.

III. THE DOOM OF THE WICKED .

1 . They are convicted.

2 . They are degraded.

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