The final discourse by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel began in chapter 24 and continues through all of chapter 25. The primary subject of that discourse is the final judgment. Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ discourse seems to be divided into two major sections, each responding to one of the questions in Matthew 24:3. After Jesus had prophesied the destruction of the temple his disciples asked, "When will these things be?" Matthew 24:4-35 seems to be devoted to answering that question. The other question in verse 3 was, "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" It appears that Matthew understood that Matthew 24:36-25:46 answered that question. It is quite possible that the disciples did not think of the questions as two separate questions, but as two ways of asking the same question. It is also possible that Jesus may have answered the disciples as if the two questions were in fact, one. However, from our perspective, and from Matthew’s perspective if he wrote after AD 70 when the temple was destroyed, the questions are two.
The answer to the second question began in Matthew 24:36-44 by not answering the question. Rather, Jesus warned that no one except God the Father knew the point in time when Christ would return and time would end. Rather than knowing that information, disciples are to live in a state of readiness. Jesus then presents four parables that speak of the importance of watchfulness and readiness for the coming of the Messiah. Matthew 24:45-51 describes a slave who is given responsibility to care for his master’s household in the master’s long absence. He may fulfill that responsibility well by obediently keeping the household in proper order. He may decide that the master will not return for a long time and become careless and disobedient in fulfilling his duties. The point is clear. For disciples who do not know when their Lord is returning it is best to live obediently and keep the household of God in proper order. Chapter 25 concludes the discourse with three more parables.
The Parable of the Virgins- Matthew 25:1-13
The parable of the five wise and the five foolish virgins continues the emphasis of being prepared for a sudden coming of the Messiah. The parable begins by stating that it is a comparison to the kingdom of God (heaven). The kingdom will be marked by a sudden appearing of the bridegroom and some who were waiting will be prepared and others will not be prepared. If this parable were the only teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God it would sound as if the kingdom were still future from the time when Jesus gave this teaching. However, other passages on the kingdom earlier in this gospel (Matthew 4:17; 13:24,31, 33, 44, 45, and 47) imply that the kingdom was already present in Jesus’ ministry.
There are several solutions that have been proposed to this apparent contradiction. Some scholars (such as the great organist and doctor, Albert Schweitzer) argued that Jesus always thought the kingdom was in the future and the passages in which it appears to be a present reality are either misunderstood or fabrications of the gospel writers. Others (such as C. H. Dodd, the lead translator of the New English Bible) believed that Jesus always believed the kingdom to be present. Passages in which the kingdom appears to be future are misunderstood or additions by early Christians.
A compromise view, now embraced by most New Testament scholars, is that Jesus believed the kingdom was present in and by means of his own ministry, but that a consummation of the kingdom would come in the future. The early church understood that that future consummation would take place when Christ returned. In this view we should understand the parable of the virgins as teaching about the consummation of the kingdom when Christ will return. However, it is possible that Jesus’ disciples listening while he taught these parables might have understood that consummation to be brought about soon by Jesus without his death, resurrection, ascension, and return.
Some modern translations use the word "bridesmaids" instead of the more literal translation "virgins." These are not "bridesmaids" in the modern sense of ladies who stand up with the bride in the wedding ceremony. Rather, this refers to a custom in ancient Palestine in which the young, unmarried girls of the village who were of marriageable age would escort the bride from his home to the place of the wedding in the village. The lamps are mentioned because this procession would take place in the evening. The Greek word often translated "lamps" might be better translated "torches." (It is a different word from that used of the lamps in Matthew 5:15 and 6:22.) Most likely the torches consisted of oil-soaked rags wrapped at the top end of the stick. Most of the details of the story reflect the wedding customs of ancient Palestinian villages. However, some details seem inconsistent with a parable story created about a typical wedding. Scholars debate which details were designed to provide specific allegorical meaning in the parable.
One interesting detail is that there is no mention of the bride, a strange omission in a story about a wedding! Apparently some copyists also felt that this was a strange omission and some manuscripts from the sixth century on add the words "and the bride" in verse 1. However, this manuscript evidence is so small that the only major English version to include these words was the 1609 Rheims-Douay Catholic translation.
More to the point is the question of whether the bridegroom was an allegorical detail designed to refer to Christ or was simple a necessary part of the story. The main evidence against understanding the bridegroom as directly and intentionally referring to Christ is the fact that the Old Testament never seems to refer to the Messiah as a bridegroom. On the other hand, God himself was frequently described as Israel’s bridegroom (with Israel being his bride). It may be that at this point the technical distinctions between parable and allegory are not helpful. In the parable the bridegroom was a necessary part of the story. However, Jesus chose a wedding context as the subject of the parable because it offered the best illustration of the truth he wanted to teach about his own coming [again]. There is no question in Matthew’s account that Jesus is represented by the bridegroom. Jesus has already been compared to a bridegroom in Matthew 9:15!
The detail that seems least realistic to ancient Palestinian weddings and yet most important for the parable’s teaching is the delay of the bridegroom. The suggestion by some commentaries that the delay was the result of last minute haggling over the bride price seems far-fetched. The normal expectation was that the bridegroom was most eager for everything to proceed according to schedule. While occasional incidents might occur that would cause a groom to be late, they were rare.
We may assume that this detail caught the attention of the original audience of disciples as Jesus told them this parable. However, this detail was much more important by the time Matthew wrote his gospel because Christ’s second coming had already been delayed longer than most first generation believers thought would happen. The delay in the coming of Christ had already been alluded to in the previous parable (Matthew 24:48) and it will appear again in the next parable (Matthew 25:19). The emphasis in these three parables on the delay of Christ’s return shows that it was an issue troubling Matthew’s church. The answer then, however, and the answer now is not the kind of skepticism voiced in 2 Peter 3:3-4 but being prepared at any time.
The point of the parable is clear. Those are prepared for the bridegroom’s coming will participate in the marriage supper of the Lamb. Those who are not prepared will be excluded. The only difference between the five wise and the five foolish virgins was their preparation. In all other details the two groups cannot be distinguished. But the wise had brought extra oil while the foolish had not. One should not over-allegorize the parable. The wise are not a different class or kind of believer. They are simply those who are prepared for Christ’s coming. Both the parable preceding (The Faithful Servant) and the two parables following (The Talents and the Sheep and the Goats) give some indication of what being prepared means. Here, the point is to be prepared.
Some interpreters have complained that the five wise virgins did not show a compassionate and sharing attitude in their refusal to share their oil. That is a true observation, but it misses the point of the parable. The parable’s point is the importance of preparation. "Readiness" for Christ’s return is not something that can be shared like a loaf of bread or even a quart of oil. Jesus could have told a parable about sharing, but then the point would have been sharing. Here, it would have destroyed the point of this parable for the wise virgins to share their oil.
Another detail that does not reflect village life in ancient Palestine is the shutting of the door. However, this detail is also necessary for the parable to accomplish its point. If there were no consequences for lack of preparation and one could prepare for Christ’s coming after he has come there would be no need for the exhortation of verse 13 to stay alert and awake. The comment at the end of verse 13, "For you know neither the day nor the hour," links this parable back to Matthew 24:36.
The Parable of the Talents - Matthew 25:14-30
The theme of being ready was the central point of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. It is also an important element in the parable of the talents. However, this parable begins to address more specifically the question of what readiness means. The weakness of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is that the young ladies waited passively, apparently doing nothing until the bridegroom arrived. Lest anyone think that to be the meaning of being ready for Christ’s coming, Matthew includes the parable of the talents at this point. There are a number of similarities between this parable and the parable of the pounds in Luke 19:12-27. There are also important differences and scholars are not sure whether Jesus originally told two different but similar parables or just one parable that appears in these two different forms in the gospels. In either case the general point is the same; it is important to be ready for the Master’s return.
Perhaps the English word "talent" has been the greatest deterrent to understanding this parable. Most English translations use the word "talent" throughout this parable. This tradition appears to derive straight from the Greek text that speaks of a talanton. However, the talanton was a monetary unit in biblical times. As noted in the lesson on Matthew 18:21-35 a talent is estimated to have been worth 6,000 to 10,000 denarii or six thousand to ten thousand days’ wages. It was the largest monetary unit referred to the New Testament. The parable has nothing directly to say about "talents" as the term is commonly used in English to refer to personal abilities or innate gifts. It is possible to refer to personal talents as one arena of application of this parable but that was not its original point.
To have given even one talent to a servant to invest was a significant act of trust. At only $5 per hour wage one talent today would be worth approximately one third of a million dollars. This shows that the "poor one talent person" was not the pitiful figure many sermons have made him out to be. The figures of five, two, and one talent(s) may have been exaggerated, but the custom to which the parable refers was common. When a landowner went away for an extended period of time he normally gave management responsibility for his property over to one or more slaves. The advantage of using several slaves is that the mutual accountability would make embezzlement more difficult. The expectation of the landowner was always that the slaves put in charge carry on in the same way that he would have carried on himself. Upon return the landowner would summon the managing slaves for an accounting of their stewardship. In all these details the parable is quite real to ancient eastern Mediterranean life.
While it is possible that Jesus did not exaggerate the amounts it is more likely that he inflated the figures to show the priceless nature of the privileges that are at stake in serving in God. The seven talents divided among the three servants would be something over two million dollars in contemporary currency (figuring wages at only $5 per hour). These huge amounts show that the stewardship given to us by God is no trivial matter. Further, the parable makes it clear that the delay of the master is not to be understood negatively. Rather it offers the opportunity to increase the investment left by the master. In the context of both Matthew’s church and our own time the delay of Christ’s second coming should not be cause for alarm, but gratefully appreciated for the increased opportunities of evangelism, worship, and service that it offers believers.
It should be noted that verse 15 states that the amount given to each servant corresponded to that servant’s ability. This means that master had different expectations of what the different servants could accomplish. This is reflected in the commendations given to the two "good and faithful" servants. One had gained five talents for his master while the other had gained two. However, their commendations are identical. The proportion of their increase was identical and the difference in the amount lay in their initial abilities of which the master was well aware.
The clear implication is that the servant with one talent would have gained an identical approval had he gained just one talent. That would have been the master’s expectation according to his ability. His condemnation was not even that he failed to gain one hundred percent increase, but that he had failed to invest it at all. The attitude of this third servant was to "play it safe." Schweizer (p. 473) compared it to a religion that is concerned only with not doing anything wrong. France (p. 354) states, "’Being ready’ consists not only in keeping your slate clean, but in active, responsible, faithful service which produces results."
Verses 28-29 state the beginning of the judgment that comes upon the wicked servant. What he had was taken from him and given to the servant with the ten talents. This repeats a principle that what first stated in Matthew 13:12. Faithfulness in service to Christ leads to more opportunities for service and blessing. Unfaithfulness leads to the loss of the blessings with which one had to start. This principle can be seen over and over in the actual practice of ministry in the life of the church.
Verse 30 gives a further word of judgment against the wicked slave who is called "useless." He is "cast into outer darkness" where "there will be weeping and grinding of teeth." These are common expressions in Matthew’s gospel for the final judgment of the wicked. The two phrases appear together in Matthew 8:13 and 22:13 as well as in this passage. The parable of the talents continues the theme of readiness for Christ’s coming, but it gives further definition to the meaning of that readiness. The believer who is ready for his Lord to return will be faithfully using the endowments given him or her to accomplish what the Master would be doing if he were present. Failure to demonstrate such readiness will lead to terrible judgment when Christ returns.
The Last Judgment - Matthew 25:31-46
The final teaching material of Jesus presented in Matthew’s gospel brings the discourse on last things to a powerful climax. The series of parables beginning in Matthew 24:46 has increasingly raised the question of what it means to be prepared for Christ’s coming. The parable of the talents gave significant insight into this subject, but the final unit in this discourse takes us even further in our understanding of being ready.
This section is sometimes called the parable of the sheep and the goats. Verses 32-33 contain a brief illustration of the separation process of the final judgment using the example of a shepherd separating sheep and goats. However, the literary form of this paragraph is the judgment scene similar to visions of the final judgment found in both the Old Testament and intertestamental Jewish literature. There are three significant differences between these verses and the typical judgment scene visions of Judaism.
First, the Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite title for himself) is at the center of the judicial process. He is judge but also the way people respond to him determines what the judgment about them will be. Second, the judgment involves all the nations. In the Jewish visions of judgment it was only the Gentiles who would be judged. Finally, the basis upon which the judgment proceeds is not faithfulness to the Torah or treatment of Israel, but rather the treatment of Jesus’ "little brothers."
For a number of years it has been popular to interpret this passage as if it were appealing to a general kind of humanitarian kindness to people in need. In such a line of interpretation there was no specific Christian or Christological content to salvation. Many thought the teaching simply promised salvation on the basis of kind treatment of needy people. In recent years a more careful reading of the passage has helped us see a more specifically Christian concern. The use of terms like "brothers" and "the least of these" in Matthew does not point to humanity in general but specifically to believers. Thus, the criterion of judgment is the treatment of disciples by the nations rather than treatment of human kind in general.
In this sense the passage provides an extension of the teaching in Matthew 10:40-42 that commends those who give a cup of cold water in Christ’s name. Though this section certainly does not condemn general humanitarian concern for the needy, that is not its point. The point is that all the peoples of the earth will be judged on the basis of their response to the message of the kingdom of God. That message is always brought to them by "brothers" or "little ones" or disciples. Readiness for Christ’s coming does not happen simply by being kind to everybody. Rather, readiness occurs when we join our lives and fortunes with those who carry the gospel message. When we feed one of Christ’s brothers who is about the work of the kingdom; when we visit one of Christ’s sisters who is proclaiming the gospel message; it is the same as if we had done that act of identification with Christ himself.
Throughout this section there has been no middle ground. Everything has been painted in terms of separation into one of two groups. The sheep or the goats; the saved or the lost; those on the right and those on the left. It should come as no surprise then that there are only two destinies: eternal punishment and eternal life. The section on end times had begun with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple. This took place in AD 70 apparently before Matthew’s gospel was in its final written form. However, this discourse has moved far beyond the questions of the future of the temple. The future of all human beings and the basis of their judgment provide the dramatic climax to this final section of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew.
Jesus’ Death and Resurrection - Matthew 26-28
The transition from Matthew 25 to 26 takes us from the final discourse of Jesus into the final evening of his earthly ministry. Chapters 26-27 are devoted to the final evening, the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. Chapter 28 will conclude the gospel the only way a gospel can conclude - with witness to Christ’s resurrection. Matthew introduces this final section with a brief statement of both Jesus prophesying his own death and the Jewish leaders plotting to have him killed.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 25:1-26:5. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer telling God of your desire to be ready for Christ’s coming. Ask him to help you be a faithful and good servant who identifies thoroughly with Christ and his "little brothers and sisters."
Second Day: Read Matthew 26:1-19. Now focus on Matthew 26:6-16.
1. Compare Matthew 26:6-13 with Mark 14:3-9. What details in Mark does Matthew omit? How do Mark’s details help you in understanding this event?
2. Reading only Matthew 26:6-13, what are the key points (or points of conflict) in the story? What is the climax or summary of the story? What is the significance of that climax/summary for us today?
3. What was Judas’ motivation for betraying Jesus according to these focus verses? If 30 pieces of silver equaled four months wages, was that sufficient motivation? What other motives may have influenced Judas?
Third Day: Read Matthew 26:6-30. Focus in on Matthew 26:17-25.
1. Read Exodus 12:3-13. Based on this passage what would the disciples have needed to do to make preparations for the Passover?
2. Compare verses 17-19 with Mark 14:12-16. How do you think Jesus knew who would allow him the use of the upper room for the Passover? What additional insights do the details of Mark provide?
3. How does Psalm 41:9 relate to verses 20-25? Does Jesus tell his disciples who will betray him in this passage? What is the point of verse 23?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 26:20-46. Focus your attention still on Matthew 26:26-35.
1. What are the four actions of Jesus mentioned in verse 26? Can you identify those same four actions being done by a minister in a communion service? Why do ministers often repeat this four-fold action?
2. If the cup is the blood of the covenant, what do Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:22-32 tell us about the nature of that covenant?
3. Verse 31 quotes from Zechariah 13:7. Read all of Zechariah 13 and list phrases that seem to be fulfilled in Jesus.
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 26:26-56. Now focus in on Matthew 26:36-46.
1. What do you think Jesus meant by "this cup?" Read Psalm 16:5; 116:13; Isaiah 51:17; and Jeremiah 25:15-31. What additional insights into the way Judaism spoke of the cup do these passages provide? How do they help you understand Jesus’ reference to the cup?
2. Why do you think the disciples could not stay awake while Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane? In what ways do similar problems in our lives show up?
3. What is the meaning for you of praying, "yet not what I want, but what you want, Lord?"
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 26:31-56. Now focus on Matthew 26:47-56.
1. Why do you think Judas chose a kiss as the sign by which he would identify Jesus to be arrested? Do you think that kiss was more difficult for Judas or for Jesus? Why?
2. Does Jesus’ response in verse 52 provide an adequate basis for pacifism? Why or why do you not think so?
3. Why did the chief priests and elders arrest Jesus by night with force in the garden when he had taught publicly and they did not arrest him? Write a brief prayer committing yourself to making your public and your private responses to Jesus the same.