Matthew 25:31–46 (LEB, Lexham English Bible)
31Now when the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them from one another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right and the goats on the left. 34Then 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! 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me as a guest, 36I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you as a guest, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ 40And the king will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, in as much as you did it to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will also say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed ones, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels! 42For I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat, I was thirsty and you did not give me anything to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not care for me.’ 44Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and not serve you?’ 45Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly I say to you, in as much as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
(emphasis mine, see explanation below)
As I was reading these verses last night on my tablet at work, something leapt out of the text at me that stunned me. You have probably had the same experience through the years as you have read the Scriptures. You’ve read the same text a thousand times, if you’ve read it once, and for the most part have seen the same thing. I think our traditions help cement this in our minds and cause us to not see things that are patently obvious. Take this text for instance.
I have read this countless times and have focused on those two separate groups doing, or not doing, something for Christ through the proxy of normal human beings. And this is certainly in the text. The main focus has always been on the “eternal” aspect though. If you do things for Christ you will be rewarded with heaven. If you don’t do things for Christ, you will go to eternal hell. Eternal life or eternal punishment in hell.
Now, I have written so much on how I have come to understand that most Christian translators have mistranslated the Greek term aion as eternal, rather than age, age-enduring, but certainly a time period of limited duration. Let me turn your focus here to what stunned me though. There are two types of people talked about here; the righteous and the accursed ones (unrighteous). They are rewarded or condemned based on what they DID or DID NOT do. They were judged for their actions, their deeds, their WORKS. The subject of these verses CANNOT be referring to an eternal or immortal world. What I am saying is one cannot EARN heaven by their works NOR earn punishment in eternal hell by their works, either! This passage, therefore, must be talking about a judgment that does not endure, but has an end, or at least, culminates in the beginning of another age.
Let me explain also, that there is a parallel here that Jesus is speaking about; good works earn eternal life and equally, bad works earn eternal punishment. If bad works earn “eternal” punishment, meaning forever and ever, but good works DO NOT earn eternal life, the parallel is rendered illogical. So, if one earns eternal punishment one HAS to be able to “earn” eternal life through good works. Therefore, if bad works earn eternal punishment good works MUST earn eternal life. Since this contradicts other Scripture, that cannot be the real meaning. Therefore, my contention is that Jesus is speaking not about our existence after this life, but about our life during this aion, this age. If we translate the Greek term aion properly, it is much easier to come to an understanding of this text that does not contradict other Scriptures.
Though I do not have time at this moment to launch into a full exposition of Matthew 24-25, let me say this. I, as well as many scholars today, believe that Matthew 24-25 is referring to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. The kingdom of God referred to in Matthew’s gospel refers to the kingdom here and now, the kingdom during the life of the hearers of Jesus. The kingdom of God refers to the system of religion Christ came to establish, in opposition to the religion that the Jewish religious leaders had established. And that kingdom was fully implemented when the Jewish religion and its system was finally laid waste in AD 70. Over the last 150 years we have been fed a steady diet of end times scenarios that have not been known in Christianity before then. So, in our lifetimes we have only known and heard taught as truth that Matthew 24-25 are to be taken literally, though Jesus himself said that “from now on I will speak in parables,” and that the chapters leading up to chapters 24-25 are rife with parabolic talk (meaning His words were pictures of things to come, not actual events and happenings) as are these two chapters!
I have gone off into deeper things and gotten away from my main point. My main point being, Christians do not believe in works-based salvation (Eph 2 – salvation is a gift of God, not of works, lest anyone boast…that they saved themselves!). So Jesus cannot be meaning that our works dictate whether or not we ETERNALLY, forever and ever, are relegated to heaven or hell. Works are for this age alone, therefore whatever judgment Jesus is talking about is either for this age alone (which has an end) or a future age that will also have an end. I say this because the Scriptures say the end is here when God becomes all in all, and the second death is done away with as well. So in my estimation we have at least two more ages (this age and the age to come) to finish before the end of all things and God restores all to Himself. I will blog more about this in the future, as well.
I look forward to your thoughts on this text. What can you add to help round out this understanding? What can you add to help straighten me out, if I have gone astray? What clarification do I need to provide for you to more fully understand why I was so surprised by this understanding? What do you believe Jesus is talking about and why? I look forward to engaging you in further discussion on this passage. Thanks in advance for your sharpening of me, and hopefully I can help sharpen you as well.
Blessings in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!