Matthew 24-25 Parables
There are several other parables that are often used to support the idea of endless retributive punishment in hell that must now be addressed. I believe that you will see through careful examination that they do not actually support the traditional doctrine. Let’s take a look.
The Faithful and Wise Servant vs. the Wicked Servant
This parable is used by many to support the traditional hell doctrine because the wicked servants are assigned “a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Contextually, the passage immediately follows Jesus’ warning that we should keep watch for His return. Let’s examine it carefully.
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
One critical thing to notice in the passage is that it is talking about servants of the master. They are in charge of other servants and appointed to take care of them, giving them “their food at the proper time.” For some reason, people tend to gloss over this very important fact: the people being referred to are servants of Christ, not unbelievers. One is a faithful servant, and the other is wicked, but both are servants. As Christians, we are called to be servants. As Jesus said, after washing his disciples’ feet, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:14-17).
He also says “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:26-27).
So you see, we are called to be his servants and to serve one another. This parable is for us who believe and seek to follow Christ. We cannot be content to have a superficial belief that has no impact on our lives. We must actually follow Christ, not just pretend to. This is why the wicked servant is assigned a place among the hypocrites, among the people who say one thing but act differently. Jesus is warning us to not be hypocritical believers or we will lose our place as rulers in his kingdom, suffering his chastisement and loss of position in His kingdom. This is why there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. We will deeply regret our wicked laziness and feel the pain of our loss.
But it is important to note that the duration of this punishment is never stated, and is certainly never said to be eternal. Rather, the scourging that we experience and the sense of loss is more likely meant to prompt repentance. As believers in Christ, would we not regret our failures and desire reconciliation if Christ showed us our hypocrisy and disciplined us? Of course we would. The judgment described here is therefore a wake up call, not a final hopeless destination.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
This parable immediately follows the parable of the wicked servant that we just examined. You should notice that the theme outlined above continues.
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Again, it must be noticed that all of the virgins were awaiting the bridegroom (Christ) with expectation, but some were foolish and some were wise. Clearly, the only people awaiting the bridegroom with expectation are believers. Just as in the previous parable, we are being called as Christians to have endurance as we faithfully await Christ’s return.
When the bridegroom says ‘truly I tell you, I don’t know you’ he is not consigning the virgins to endless torment. But they do miss out on the wedding banquet and this surely is a cause for regret. And, although not mentioned in this parable, weeping and gnashing of teeth might be an expected response.
The Parable of the Bags of Gold (Talents)
The parable of the talents immediately follows the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew. Here it is:
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
“The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
“‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Again we see the servant theme and the result of being a lazy servant described. We also see the rewards given to the faithful servants who were “faithful with a few things” and therefore “put in charge of many things.” This is showing, in a sense, that our earthly lives are proving grounds that determine how much responsibility we will be given in the age to come. As Christians, we must take our responsibilities on this earth seriously if we hope to be counted as “good and faithful” servants by Christ.
We have already discussed the weeping and gnashing of teeth as a sense of regret and loss, so I won’t discuss it again here. But there is one more point that ought to be made about this parable. Notice the attitude of the wicked servant. He views God as harsh and is afraid of Him. This is the very attitude that the doctrine of hell inspires. Yet, it is the motivating factor for the servant to hide his talent and be unproductive. As Christians, we should carefully consider whether the doctrine of hell might be skewing our own perceptions of God’s character, causing us to fear Him in an unhealthy way that prevents us from serving Him and bearing fruit for His kingdom.
The Sheep and the Goats
The final parable in this section of Matthew is the parable of the sheep and the goats. We have already referenced the last verse in this parable, but now we must take a look at the entire context.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal (aiōnion) punishment, but the righteous to eternal (aiōnion) life.”
We have already spent a great deal of time explaining that the term aiōnion does not necessarily mean endless and that Jesus used it in an entirely different sense when he described eternal (aiōnios) life as knowing God and Himself. We have also discussed the fact that the meaning of the adjective aiōnion is derived from what it is describing, which indicates that the eternal life described in the passage is in fact endless because it stems from knowing the eternal God. Conversely, the “eternal” punishment (better translated “correction”) is temporary because aiōnion is describing something that is inherently temporary and purposeful. If you need a reminder of these concepts, please feel free to jump back to the chapters entitled The Eternal Question and Why the “Eternal” Confusion?
Now that we’ve reviewed those key understandings, let’s consider some other aspects of the parable.
The first, and most striking, thing about this parable is that the sheep and goats are not separated from one another based on whether they were baptized or confessed allegiance to Christ, or said a sinner’s prayer. They are separated based on solely one criterion: whether they showed compassion toward others. That is it. The righteous are righteous because they loved their neighbors as themselves. And in following this commandment, we see that they also followed the greatest commandment and loved the LORD their God with all that they had in them. As Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The unrighteous, on the other hand, are unrighteous because they did not love their neighbors and therefore did not love God. As Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
This is a sobering reality that should impact how we choose to live. To truly follow Christ we must obey his commandments. As He said, “You are My friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14) and “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). The apostle John further clarifies what it means to keep the commands of Christ in 2 John 1:6. He says, “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.”
Another interesting aspect of the parable is that both sheep and goats are clean animals according to the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible that include the Jewish Law). Jesus did not separate the sheep from the pigs (unclean animals). You may be thinking that I’m going to argue that the sheep and goats are all Christians (because they are represented by clean animals), but this is not the case. From the context, it is apparent that this is a final judgment of the whole world, since we see that “all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another…”
Why then, you may be wondering, is everyone represented by a clean animal? I think the answer is to be found in Scripture.
2 Corinthians 5:19 (NLT)
For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people's sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.
1 John 2:2 (NIV)
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world .
Both of these verses clearly tell us that God is reconciling the world to himself through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. That means everyone is being reconciled. That means that everyone’s sin was paid for by Christ and nobody’s sin is counted against them. This is why we can all be represented by clean animals. But just because we are clean and paid for doesn’t mean we are sanctified and holy. Not yet. But God will complete the sanctification of all people, by saving them from their sinful ways, as we will discuss later.
Now, some may be arguing that this can’t be true, that it isn’t possible to be saved already but not completely sanctified. But this is in fact what we know to be true as Christians. Although we are forgiven already by God, we haven’t arrived yet at a state of sinless holiness and “if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). So, as believers, we know that we have been fully atoned for, even though we still behave as sinners. Why couldn’t this reality also be true of the rest of God’s children that haven’t yet understood His loving plan?
If you are still having trouble believing in the possibility that other people are cleansed by the blood of Christ, not just those belonging to your faith, you are not alone. The Jews in Jesus’ day felt the same way. They alone were the people of the covenant. They alone were the children of Abraham. Other races and peoples were considered to be dogs and unworthy to be associated with. The Jewish people were exclusivists to the point that the apostle Peter (a Jew) still refused to associate with unclean Gentiles well after the resurrection of Christ.
In a dramatic series of events, God taught Peter that he was wrong. In a dream, God spoke to him.
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
It is certainly worth consideration whether we as Christians are making the same error that Peter made, considering others as impure who God has made clean. Do we consider others to be unworthy sinners, forgetting that we share the same struggles? Didn’t Christ die for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8)? Shouldn’t we humbly acknowledge that we don’t deserve His grace any more than anyone else? Yet, he bestows it upon us freely and thereby shows us His amazing love, a love that He tells us is for the whole world.
This is clear from the Bible, but prejudices are hard to break. As we see later, even Peter, who was given a direct vision from God, had a difficult time overcoming his. Listen to what the apostle Paul says in Galatians:
When Cephas [another name for Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Although Peter had already personally received a message from God that Gentiles were clean, he fell back into old patterns because he was afraid of the opinions of other religious people. This was clear hypocrisy, as Paul rightly exposed. Let's not make the same mistake as Peter. We must not allow any prejudice toward people who do not yet believe taint the beautiful message of hope of the gospel. And we must not let the opinions of those who cling to religious tradition intimidate us. Falling into this trap, as we clearly see from the passage, leads people astray and adulterates our message.
Concluding Thoughts on Matthew 24-25:
It is highly noteworthy that all of these parables are in succession, immediately following Jesus’ warnings to be watchful for his return so that we can be counted as faithful servants. There is a clear theme being re-emphasized for us in each parable: we must actually serve and follow Christ, not just claim to. They are not about avoiding a future destination, but rather about becoming a type of person, transformed by Christ to serve Him and one another, “for we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
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