During Passion Week, Jesus visited the temple repeatedly and taught the crowds. On his last day in the temple, Jesus surprisingly silenced his opponents. Now he could speak without restraint. Matthew includes a final section of Jesus’ sayings between his last appearance in the temple and his observance of the Passover. This section, chapters 23-25, focuses on judgment.
It was an important moment. Jesus stood at the prophetic high point of his ministry. In the past, God had sent prophets to challenge and confront his people. Jesus followed their prophetic pattern, but his visit to Jerusalem added the dimension of God’s personal appearance.
Luke 19:42-44 makes a salient point here. As Jesus approached Jerusalem for Passion Week, he prophesied a message of withering judgment, as had many prior prophets. Yet his reason for this message was different from the other prophets. By challenging Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, the people of Israel, so distant from God, had not recognized God’s visit to their city.
Now, days later, when his public opposition had ceased, Jesus again picked up the withering prophetic message. He declares woes against the religious leadership in Matthew 23. The next chapter delivers Jesus’ apocalyptic words of doom to a fruitless Israel that should have been proclaiming God’s greatness to the world. Chapter 25 continues the complaint against the errant nation. Jesus’ prophecy shifts focus from the nation as a whole to individuals. God looks for believers, that is, people who build action upon their commitment of faith in him. Thus we arrive at the lesson’s passage.
The key interpretive element is God will sort humanity on the basis of believing activity. When God’s salvation is at work in an individual, certain conduct will be present. This principle is most famously taught in James 2:14-26, especially verse 26 which asserts, “faith without works is dead.” God is on a fact-finding mission and proves living faith by its productivity.
Matthew 25:31 identifies verses 31-46 as a judgment scene. Verse 32 speaks of gathering, or summoning, people to the judgment. The judgment will follow the pattern of separating people into two groups labeled sheep and goats. The sheep are placed on the right signifying their acceptance by the Lord. The goats are placed on his left, signifying his displeasure.
The basis of acceptance into God’s kingdom is explained in verses 34-36. The word “King” in verse 34 replaces the Messianic title “Son of Man” from verse 31 to describe Jesus. He has the function of a judge and the absolute authority of a king. He gives those who please him an inheritance prepared since the “creation of the world.” God has not been idle in his preparations for his people.
Verses 35-36 graphically illustrate the reasoning used in judgment. God, though the absolute judge of the world, is a person of mercy. Through his mercy, God provided salvation for people (1 Peter 1:3). Therefore, he expects the practice of mercy among his people. God’s people must show the same characteristics as their Father in heaven.
The list of merciful actions in verses 35-36 is not meant to be exhaustive, but characteristic. We see responsiveness to hunger, thirst, illness, inadequate clothing and the need for lodging. God’s people cannot be idle in the face of genuine human need. God practices mercy and expects his people be characterized by mercy, not devotion to external religious acts of piety (see Hosea 6:6).
The twist in the passage has Jesus identifying the needy person as himself. He wants his people to respond to human need as if they were caring for the Lord himself. Of course, the righteous, those who are in a right relationship with the Lord and who “naturally” display the Lord’s character traits, are found fulfilling the Lord’s desire. God’s character has welled up in them and they have lived accordingly.
The Lord’s revelatory answer comes in verse 40. Their merciful service to human need was counted as service to the Lord himself. God was pleased thoroughly in this conduct, but surprisingly it had come as second nature to the believers. They not only had believed in the Lord, but had lived out their faith through activities that fit the characteristic of God’s ways among people. It was as if God was living through his people.
The group on the left is sent to the eternal fire in verse 41. The fire had been prepared for the devil and his angels. Such punishment was designed for the opponents of the Lord, clearly those who have not true faith. Thus lives demarked by the lack of merciful acts, and therefore the lack of faith, will be punished alongside the demonic powers who distinctly have opposed God’s rule. The quest to find productive faith is this serious to the Lord.
Verses 41-46 follow the pattern of verses 34-40. The terms have been reversed. The condemned are surprised to have been judged on a matter of which they were unaware. Actually the evidence points to the lack of God’s presence in their lives because his character has not rooted and produced fruit. Nevertheless, nonbelievers have been judged by the same standard as believers, thus the judgment is just. The distance of the nonbelievers from God is telling. They expected judgment based on some other standard of performance. But the true standard of God-impressing performance is that which derives from the indwelling Lord whose character catalyzes godly activity.