Monthly Archives: July 2013

The “Sheep and Goats” Passage of Matthew 25

One of Jesus’ more rhetorically powerful teachings is found in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus describes the final judgment of the world (25:31, 46) using the vivid imagery of sheep and goats being marked for either reward (the sheep) or punishment (the goats). The final verdict is based on how “the nations” have responded to the needy person identified as “one of the least of these brothers of mine” (25:40) or simply “one of the least of these” (25:45).

This passage presents a challenging interpretative choice: who exactly are the “least of these” that Jesus describes? The three most likely options are: 1) they are any and all needy people in this world (supported by commentators Davies and Allison, and Bruner); (2) they are needy followers of Jesus (Turner, Wilkins, France), 3) they are persecuted messengers for Jesus (Keener, Blomberg, Osborne). In addition, some commentators make the point that all disciples are expected to be messengers of Jesus, so there is little need to distinguish between needy Christians and persecuted messengers of the gospel (Carson, Hagner).

Let’s narrow the discussion to an examination of views #1 and #3 from above, with the understanding that view #2 could be included in view #3 after making minor modifications.

View #1: The sheep and goats (self-identified followers of Jesus) are people being judged based upon how actively they helped the poor and needy. Here are some arguments that support this view:

A. The sheep and goats express surprise in the passage. This is best understood as the surprise of those who thought they had been following Christ but discover that they are tragically mistaken.

B. Along these lines, the sheep and goat story reflects the teaching that a tree is known by its fruit. Matthew 7:15-23 (speaking of false prophets) says, “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . .  Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name? And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me.’”

C. Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus stresses the importance of showing mercy to those in need (Matt 6:2-3; Matt 23:23). Additionally, Jesus’ own life displays a concern for the overlooked and disregarded people of the world.

D. The preceding passages are addressed to Christ’s followers and emphasize the theme of being prepared for Christ’s return and judgment (Matt 24 and 25, with stories such as the parable of the 10 virgins and the parable of the talents).

E. Understanding this passage as a call to show mercy to anyone in need makes the teaching more directly applicable in any society and any time period.

View #3 (including view #2, for simplicity): The sheep and goats are people from the nations being judged based upon how they respond to the lowly believers who proclaim and demonstrate the good news of the kingdom of God in Christ. Here are some of the best arguments for this position:

A. Jesus’ disciples are called his “brothers” and “little ones” in Matthew (12:46-50; 28:10; see also 10:40-42), and these terms are very similar to “the least of these brothers of mine,” and “the least of these”  from Matthew 25.

B.  Matthew 25 :31-46 shows a strong parallel to the language of Matt 10:40-42: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes someone known to be a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes someone known to be righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded.”  The close association between Jesus and the little ones is the same in both passages, and the wording of Matthew 10:40-42 unambiguously refers to Jesus’ disciples in that instance.

C.  In Matthew, suffering and persecution is promised to disciples who are sent out on mission for Jesus (10:1-23; 24:9-14; 28:16-20). This also recalls the final Beatitude from Matt 5:10-13: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” Jesus always give assurances to his persecuted followers that he is standing with them and strengthening them. The ultimate vindication of persecuted believers is envisioned in Matt 25:31-46, according to view #3.

D. The “nations” in Matthew are consistently identified as the recipients of the disciples’ gospel outreach (12:18-21; 20:19; 24:9; 24:14; 28:19), which suggests that the “nations” (Matt 25:32) being judged in this teaching are similarly the people of the broader world into which Jesus’ disciples are being sent.

E. A passage that reveals Jesus’ similar perspective on his disciples and their treatment by the nations is Matthew 24:9-14: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. . . . And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

F. The sacrificial death of Christ (which is introduced immediately after this passage – see Matt 26:1-2)  is more centrally featured with this view.

As you can see, both of these positions have compelling evidence in their favor. That is why so many people disagree about which view is more likely. What is the resulting difference of interpretation? View #1 challenges people to help the poor and needy, while view #3 encourages believers to become poor and needy for the sake of the gospel (with the assurance that Jesus is standing with them and identifying himself with them).  Either way, this is a convicting passage that helps Christians evaluate their priorities in the light of eternity.

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Jesus Speaks . . . In Harmony with the Father and the Spirit

Gospel of LukeRed-letter Christianity – it’s a view of Christianity that gives preference to Jesus’ words in the Gospels. The thinking goes, “if I simply follow the teachings of Jesus – I can’t go wrong with my faith.” Red letter Christians don’t dismiss the rest of the Bible – they just really try to focus on Jesus.

Here is why red-letter Christianity makes some sense. Our faith is about Jesus. He is the center of the story of the Bible, and he is the one who perfectly reveals God to our world: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship to the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18, NIV; see also Hebrews 1:1-3). Red letter Christianity is also an important corrective for believers who only think about their forgiveness of sins through Christ but never get around to putting his teachings into action.

But here is my concern with red-letter Christianity: it isn’t Trinitarian enough. The Father, Son, and Spirit are always working as one in our world. And Jesus connects his words to the words of the Father and of the Spirit, which brings all of the Bible into play.

Jesus associates himself with his Father. Jesus states clearly “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the One who sent me” (John 7:16). Elsewhere, Jesus declares “I do nothing on my own, but speak just what the Father has taught me” (John 8:28). And again, “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken” (John 12:49). And finally, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:24).

Jesus speaks in perfect harmony with the Father, the God “who was and is and is to come” (Rev 1:8), who also spoke through the Law and the Prophets of the OT. Jesus treats his Father’s words from the past (the OT era) as authoritative. A famous example comes from Jesus’ wilderness temptations. Three times, Jesus rebukes Satan with the words, “It is written,” followed by God’s Word from the Old Testament (Matthew 4:1-11).  Jesus’ entire ministry is introduced by linking him to the OT in Matthew 1 (with a genealogy that runs from Abraham through David to Jesus) and in Mark 1 (where his ministry is connected to prophecies from the Old Testament). And, as mentioned in this blog post, Jesus’ most famous command, to love God with our entire being, directs us specifically to YHWH, the one true God confessed by the Israelites (Mark 12:29-31; Deut 6:4-5).

Jesus also links himself as closely as possible to the Spirit, who he promised would continue to bring Jesus’ teachings, through his apostles, to the world. Speaking to his disciples, Jesus says this: “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26). The focus of the Spirit’s teaching will be on Jesus: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 16:13). Sometimes the Spirit reiterates Jesus’ earthly teachings (for instance in James’ letter, which applies much of the Sermon on the Mount to James’ flock, or in 1 John, which reminds believers of Jesus’ command to love one another), and other times the Spirit points people to the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross and his glorious resurrection (which is exactly what the final chapters of each Gospel do, along with letters by the apostles Peter and Paul). The Spirit even inspired all of the writings of the Old Testament, which point to Jesus as well, as indicated by 2 Timothy 3:15-17 (“Scriptures” most likely refers to the Old Testament Scriptures in this passage).

Jesus’ teachings are to be honored, as are the Old Testament Scriptures he endorses and the New Testament Scriptures that testify to him. Each passage of the Bible, when properly interpreted according to its intended purpose, is God’s authoritative and profitable revelation to us. In a way, all of the Bible could be written in red letters.

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God’s Kingdom and Matthew 11:12

Jesus, Patmos

Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God throughout the Gospels using parables and other teachings. His message about the kingdom was that God’s reign was being implemented in Jesus’ ministry and that this kingdom would advance until Jesus brought it to completion one day when he returned. Perhaps the most difficult verse to interpret about the kingdom of heaven/God in the Gospels is Matthew 11:12. Note three different translations of the verse:

ESV: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and violent men take it by force.”

NIV (1984): “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”

NLT: “And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people attack it.”

As seen from the translations, the passage is typically understood in one of three ways, depending on the connotation of the Greek verb βιάζω and its cognate noun βιαστής in the two halves of the verse. Specifically, the words can carry the negative sense of violence or the positive sense of decisive action or momentum. This (along with an ambiguity related to the grammatical voice of the first verb) leads to three likely combinations:

1. A negative followed by negative sense (ESV, NET, NIV 2012, NKJV, NRSV, with commentators Hagner, Blomberg, Davies and Allison, Turner, Gundry, France, Osborne, Wilkins, and Bruner). The idea is that violent people are working against God’s kingdom purposes, and God’s servants will encounter suffering as a result. One strength for this position is found in the immediate context, in which John the Baptist has just been imprisoned by opponents of God’s kingdom (see also Matt 17:10-13). Furthermore, Jesus had previously taught the disciples to expect suffering when they serve him (Matt 10). This view also interprets βιαστής (“a violent person”) with its typical negative meaning.

2. A positive followed by positive sense (NIV 1984, commentators Keener and Ridderbos, and theologians Ladd, Schreiner, and even the 2nd century church father Irenaeus). Jesus’ meaning  to his audience would be to get on board the kingdom train while they can – the kingdom requires a wholehearted, urgent response. This view aligns well with the parables of the hidden treasure and pearl of great price (Matt 13:45-46), since those parables encourage decisive action in response to hearing about the kingdom. In addition, this second position fits well into a salvation-historical perspective, in which the era of the old covenant is giving way to the kingdom’s arrival and advance through Jesus. This salvation-historical mindset surfaces in the immediate context, with a delineation between the era of promise (the Law and the Prophets – Matt 11:13), and the era of kingdom fulfillment (“from the days of John the Baptist until now” – Matt 11:12). Moreover, in nearby passages the kingdom’s arrival is linked to healings and exorcisms (Matt 10:7-8), miracles (Matt 11:4-6), and the plundering of Satan (Matt 12:27-29), which are actions consistent with the forceful advance of God’s kingdom.

3. A positive followed by negative sense (NLT, commentators Carson and Nolland). This interpretation would discern a play on words – God’s kingdom is advancing against the powers of darkness, even though people with different agendas are trying to claim the kingdom by their own methods and for their own purposes. I prefer this interpretation, since it incorporates the strengths of the first two views (persecution in the midst of kingdom progress) and does so in a rhetorically effective way, though with a play on words that has no good English equivalent (“the kingdom of heaven is invading, and invaders are trying to seize it” creates a similar effect, but βιάζω does not translate as “invade”). The overall picture of contending kingdoms in this verse resembles the Old Testament backdrop for the kingdom of God (see especially Daniel 7, which portrays God’s kingdom rising up in the midst of earthly kingdoms that are hostile to it).

A final complicating factor arises with the similar wording of Luke 16:16: “The kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is pressing (or being pressed – also from βιάζω) into it.” Could this be the same teaching expressed in a different way? If so, then it could be inferred that the first part of Matt 11:12 carries a positive sense (corresponding to “the kingdom of God is being preached” in Luke 16:16). The second half of Luke 16:16 could convey either a positive or negative connotation (though most commentators detect a positive meaning in that context). But the first half of Luke 16:16 and, arguably, the first half of Matthew 11:12, depict the powerful inbreaking of God’s kingdom into our world, through the ministry of Jesus.

The bottom line: kingdoms are accompanied by agendas for the world. When Jesus arrived on the scene, he brought God’s kingdom agenda with him. Opponents of God’s kingdom reacted with their own plans and seemed to succeed, especially when they crucified Jesus. But when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was confirmation that God always has the final word.  Indeed, God’s kingdom will be the only kingdom left standing one day, and its presence will be enjoyed by citizens of his kingdom everywhere.

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