Last Things – the blessed

judgmentThe Blessed. 34 Then 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. As noted above, the “Son of Man” is now depicted as “king.” It the king himself who points out “my Father.” The Christological implications are clear – and even though it comes from the Gospel of John, one is hard pressed not to be reminded (John 5:27) where Jesus tells his disciples that all authority has been given to the Son to implement judgment.

“Blessed” (eulogeō) here is the same word as in the quotations of Ps 118:26 in Mt 21:9; 23:39. It denotes someone who enjoys God’s good favor; it is a more theologically loaded word than makarios, “happy” (traditionally translated “blessed”) as used in the Beatitudes.

The blessedness of those on the right hand is spelled out as inheriting a kingdom. As mentioned elsewhere “kingdom” would be better translated as “kingship” in order to indicate a ruling authority rather than a place. This kingdom/kingship which is sometimes taken to mean, as in the first and last Beatitudes in 5:3, 10, that they are confirmed as members of God’s kingdom, as his accepted subjects, who will therefore share its eternal blessings (summed up in v. 46 as “eternal life”). But this “kingship” is not here said to be “the kingdom of God/heaven”. Rather it is a kingship prepared “for you:” they themselves will become kings, sharing in the kingly authority of their Lord. This is what Jesus has promised to the Twelve in 19:28, and the same idea is found in Luke 12:32 where the kingship is given to the “little flock” of Jesus’ disciples. The theme of disciples sharing Jesus’ kingship will recur elsewhere in the NT: see 1 Cor 4:8; Eph 2:6; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6; 22:5. Thus the “righteous” will receive the status of “kings,” an even stronger statement of the principle we have seen in 24:47; 25:21, 23 that faithfulness is rewarded by additional authority.

This new status is not an afterthought but the culmination of God’s purpose for them “from the foundation of the world.” We have noted in 20:23 (““My cup you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left (, this) is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”) the idea that God has already “prepared” who is to sit at Jesus’ right and left in his kingship; here the idea is extended beyond those specific places of honor to all who will “inherit” that kingship, and that decision predates the creation of the world. As with other such apparently deterministic language in the NT, it is possible to read “for you” here in either a more general or a more personal sense. Traditional Calvinism has favored the more rigorous, personal interpretation that concludes that the identity of the individuals who will enjoy these blessings is already decreed before they are born. Others have understood the “you” to refer to the class of the saved as a whole: God has prepared this kingship for those who will prove to be worthy of it, but who those people will be remains to be discovered on the basis of their response to the gospel and to the will of God. On that reading what is determined in advance is that those who prove at the time of judgment to be “sheep” will inherit the kingship, rather than that certain individuals have been “pre-selected” before their birth to be “sheep.”

Why We Do What We Do. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

The list of hardships and the response to them is often considered only lightly as attention is given to the response of the righteous: “yes we did those things, but when did we do them for you?” Yet the list of hardships can be viewed several different ways. The list covers many of the most basic human needs – see the similar but shorter list in Isa 58:7,10. The hardships are not specific to any one group or one time. Consider the state of the developing world in our time, as contrasted to the western nations, the list of hardships may well represent common experience. Some have argued that The only items in the list which might be thought to indicate a particularly Christian element are being a foreigner and being in prison, if these are understood as some of the occupational hazards faced by those who traveled and incurred opposition as preachers of the gospel. But Christians have no monopoly on such experiences, and in the mobile and politically volatile world of the Roman Empire there would be many others who shared them.

The acts of kindness listed were expected on the basis of the duty of hospitality as it was and still is honored in Middle Eastern society, but no doubt performance did not always match up to expectation. The only act which might seem to go beyond the normal call of duty is the visiting of a prisoner, particularly if they were not a member of the family, and in Heb 10:34 this is mentioned as a mark of Christian love shown toward persecuted fellow-Christians (cf. Heb 13:3). But it is questionable whether that particular scenario is the only one to explain these words. Prisons, for whatever reason one was put in them, were places of misery, where survival often depended on someone visiting and supplying the basic needs to food, warm clothing, and medical supplies.

The “sheep” are now described as “righteous” in anticipation of the final verdict in v. 46. If “righteousness” in Matthew is doing the will of God the term is well applied to these people who have given practical expression to Jesus’ basic summary of the law, by treating others as they would wish to be treated themselves (7:12; cf. also 22:39–40). Their surprise when the king/Son of Man himself claims to have been the object of their action seems to be in contrast to their notion they were merely meeting human need.

Notes

Matthew 25:32 all the nations: before the end the gospel will have been preached throughout the world (Matthew 24:14); thus the Gentiles will be judged on their response to it. But the phrase all the nations includes the Jews also.

Matthew 25:34 kingdom: It is generally a serious mistake to translate the phrase basileia tou theou with “the kingdom of God” as referring to a particular area in which God rules. The meaning of this phrase in the NT involves not a particular place or special period of time but the fact of ruling. An expression such as “to enter the kingdom of God” thus does not refer to “going to heaven” but should be understood as “accepting God’s rule” or “welcoming God to rule over.”

as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats: Joachim Jeremias stated that at the end of the day the mixed flock must be separated, perhaps for milking, but also because the less hardy goats need to be taken indoors while the sheep prefer to stay in the open; this explanation has been repeated by subsequent commentators without further evidence. Others rightly point out that ἔριφος normally means a “kid” as opposed to a full-grown goat, and suggests that the young he-goats are being separated off for slaughter.

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