What is Matthew 25:31-46 all about? The long established tradition has been to see this quasi-parabolic passage as speaking quite literally of the last judgment at Christ’s second coming. Such a reading of Matthew 25 comes naturally on the heels of the futurist reading of Matthew 24, which still holds sway in popular opinion despite Jesus’ insistence that all the events of that passage, including the “coming of the son of man”, would assuredly come about in that generation (24:34, see this post).
The popular reading of this passage has held such sway over our culture partially because of its appeal to the literal sense of the text; but this appeal has usually functioned as a Trojan horse, carrying inside itself an assumption about the literary style of the Gospels which has more affinities with modern discourse than to anything a first century Jew like Jesus would have actually said. If we’re really going to understand the “coming of the son of man” literally, then it should be acknowledged that in its original Biblical context the “son of man” comes up on the clouds into the presence of the Ancient of Days, not down on the clouds to the earth. The real point of the son of man’s exaltation in Daniel is not metaphysical, however, but sociological: the point is that this human figure is vindicated over his enemies, the “beasts”, and given the kingdoms of the world which previously belonged to them (for a more complete explanation of the meaning of Daniel 7, see this post).
From every other “son of man” saying in Matthew’s Gospel, it appears that he retains the original Danielic sense of vindication and exaltation. This is most obvious in 10:23, 16:27-28, and 26:64, which all speak of the son of man receiving his kingdom and executing judgment within the lifetime of those listening. The disciple’s won’t even finish carrying the gospel throughout all the cities of Israel, Jesus says in 10:23, “before the son of man comes”. Or, very close to the first line of the passage in question, he declares in 16:27 that “the son of man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” — and, believe it or not, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.” Finally, in the often-overlooked trial scene in 26:64, Jesus says to the high priest that “from now on you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
The key phrase in that last passage is “from now on”, which is about as close as Matthew comes to the outright investment of glory which John gives to the cross when he attests Jesus as saying things like “Now the son of man is glorified”, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out”, and “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31, 32; 13:31). The conviction which both Matthew and John unambiguously express is that the exaltation of the “son of man” would be seen not merely at the end of history but also in the matrix of events unfolding from his messianic work in the middle of history.
The Jesus we see in the Gospels, and especially in Matthew’s own account, regularly envisaged events of judgment and vindication which were to come about in the generation to which he was sent. The cross, the resurrection and ascension, and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 were all such events. Jesus invested these events with a cosmic and theological significance beyond what would have been readily obvious to a casual bystander — indeed, a significance beyond the grasp of many of his later would-be interpreters. But what all of the above examples reveal, especially the ones most closely resembling Matt 25:31-46, is that Jesus regularly anticipated those nearly unfolding and closely related events in the traditional prophetic terms of a “last judgment”, i.e. the time when the righteous would be gathered and vindicated and the wicked decisively judged.
As G. B. Caird puts it, Jesus “was expecting a single great crisis, which would mean death for himself, a searching test for his disciples, and judgment for Israel; and this event, contrary to all appearances of defeat and failure, was to be the great triumph prophesied by Daniel (7:13), in which God would bestow world dominion on the Son of man, the symbolic representative of the people of God” (The Gospel of St Luke, 165-66).
The point is that Jesus is to be exalted as the ruler of the world, vindicated after his suffering, and what we are invited to witness in Matt 25:31-46 is the way in which this just rule will be exercised. As N.T. Wright puts it in his Matthew for Everyone, “The scene is the climax of a long discourse in which Jesus has denounced his own people, especially their would-be leaders, for their failure to live as God’s people should, and has spoken of his own coming exaltation in accordance with the biblical picture of the vindication of the son of man. In that context, what we have here is a refocusing of one regular Jewish way of talking about God’s judgment of the world” (142). In other words, with the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus after suffering, the final judgment has, in some sense, come forward to meet us.
But how is this judgment to be exercised? Wright comes to our aid once more: “Instead of the nations being judged on how they had treated Israel, as some Jewish writings envisage, Jesus, consistently with his whole redefinition of God’s people around himself, declares that he will himself judge the world on how it has treated his renewed Israel. Judging the nations is, of course, regularly thought of as part of the Messiah’s task (e.g. Psalm 2:8-12); and the king or Messiah is often pictured as a shepherd (e.g. Ezekiel 34:23-24). That, perhaps, is why the image of sheep and goats is inserted into this scene of judgment” (Matthew For Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28, 142-43).
A final point worth making in support of all of the above concerns the larger context in which this pericope appears. The parable of the sheep and the goats concludes with Jesus speaking of the coming Passover in Jerusalem and of his own Messianic mission, as the Son of Man, to be delivered up to be crucified:
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”
Masterful storyteller that he is, Matthew often places a particular narrative right after a thematically related saying in order to draw out the intended meaning of the saying and invest the narrative with greater significance. Consider, for example, how the story about the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath relates to the preceding saying about Jesus’ “easy yoke” (Matt 11:25-12:8). The same literary device is evident here. Matthew is very intentional in placing the apocalyptic sayings of chapter 25 right before the climactic narrative of chapter 26. Reading the two chapters together, with the cross interpreting the exaltation of the son of man and the exaltation of the son of man interpreting the cross — the point is that New Exodus has come, and all those found on the side of the crucified Messiah will be redeemed and vindicated together with him while all those standing against him will be judged according to his just rule.
Of course, despite the contextual and historical strength of this reading, I know many simply won’t be able to receive it. “Clearly,” someone will surely protest, “the nations have not been judged.” Giving a full response to this objection would take up much more space than a post like this should bear. To briefly comment, however, it must be clarified that no one is saying all wickedness has already been eradicated or that there is now nothing left to be done; of course Jesus’ present enthronement as lord of the earth must be seen within an “already but not yet” framework. But the “not yet” dimension of the kingdom (which must always be held strongly for a holistic view of the Christian story) doesn’t change the fact that the NT writers often speak of the “already” dimension in quite absolute terms. Read the passages cited above once more, especially the one from John about “this world” being judged “now”, and try to fit that within a wholly futurist scheme. But if we really take the “already” language of the NT for what it’s worth, then there is no reason — exegetical, experiential, or otherwise — to say that Matthew 25:31-46 shouldn’t be read in the same way as the rest of Matthew’s “son of man” passages, i.e. as speaking of a great judgment and vindication that was to come about within that generation.