Last Things – commentary

judgmentFulfillment. 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, 32 and all the nations will be assembled before him.” Matthew, writing to a largely Jewish Christian audience, has, from the beginning, relied heavily on OT imagery and scenes. This opening verse does no less. The most evident echo is from Daniel 7:13-14 and the wider setting found there. “The Son of Man,” “comes,” “glory” all directly echo those verses, as does the idea of enthronement. Matthew also echoes Daniel 7:9-10 from which we have the specific mention of “throne,” the gathering of angels, and the idea of judgment. There is one important difference. In Daniel’s scene it is God himself seated on the throne of judgment. In Matthew it is now the Son of Man, fulfilling what was depicted in Dan 7:14.

This fulfillment also points to something more. There is also an important translation that Matthew provides in v.34. There the Son of Man is described simply as “the king.” In this simple verse the promised kingdom of God (heaven) is identified and fulfilled in the kingship of the Son of Man (13:41; 16:28; 19:28; cf. 20:21).

The connection to Daniel is so strong, it is easy to pass over another echo in the phrase “all the angels with him.” One will find that same phrase in Zech 14:5 which depict the salvific coming of God. In this climactic vision, then, the OT expectation of the eschatological visitation of God in judgment and salvation finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Son of Man who sits on his glorious throne and pronounces judgment. (Note: the Book of Revelation also joins Daniel and Zechariah to provide a passage that speaks to both judgment and salvation).

As depicted in Joel 3:1–12, all the nations are gathered into judgment (see the earlier discussion on this phrase). Again, a passage, that depicts God himself as judge, is echoed in a description of judgment by the Son of Man. In Joel the judgment is specifically of the Gentiles in relation to their mistreatment of Israel, but there is no such restriction here, and in the light of the judgment on Jerusalem in ch. 24 it seems likely that Jews and Gentiles together are called to this final examination. As discussed above, the eschatological tone of the whole pericope indicates that this judgment is universal, including both professing disciples and other people without distinction.

All the Nations 32 And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. The distinction and division in the end times does not make its first appearance here at the end of Matthew. The image has recurred in many different contexts in this gospel; to note several instances: 7:13–27; 8:11–12; 10:32–33; 13:40–43, 49–50; 16:25–26 and the whole of 24:36–25:30. Now it is underlined by an image perhaps based on Ezek 34:17 where God, the shepherd, judges between different members of his flock. In the Middle East sheep and goats were (and are) often pastured in mixed flocks.

Joachim Jeremias, an eminent Scripture scholar of a previous generation and oft quoted spoke of the implied imagery within v.32, He held that sheep are the more valuable animals generally, but, moreover because of the their white color in contrast to the black of the goats. Further this makes them a symbol of the righteous in this judgment scene. However, the sheep, though generally lighter colored than goats, are not as predominantly white as the flocks familiar to us; some are brown and some have substantial dark patches (even when clean!), so that it can take a practiced eye to distinguish the two species – a divine eye perhaps.

It is at this point the narrative takes on the form of a simile. The imagery provides a memorable illustration of the final division of people who have up to that point lived together indistinguishably—cf. the imagery of the wheat and the weeds (13:29–30) or of the foolish and wise bridesmaids (25:1–12). To other people (and even to themselves, vv. 37–39, 44?) the saved and the lost may look very similar; it takes the expertise of the “king” to know which is which.

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