Relevant Verses: Matthew 25:31-46
Leading Question: In Jesus’ judgment story of the sheep and the goats, the sheep are rewarded for doing good things. Why isn’t this salvation by works?
Comment: Of the 13 lessons in this quarter’s plan, two of them focus specifically on the life and teachings of Jesus as seen in the Gospels. But our study guide has given us an impossible task: this one lesson includes the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7), the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-27), the parable of the “Rich man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31), and the judgment parable of “The Sheep and the Goats” (Matthew 25:31-46). That’s like trying to eat a restaurant’s whole menu at one meal!
This study guide focuses on the last parable because of its enormous significance for the Adventist community and for Christians in General.
Context in Matthew 24-25. In Matthew, the parable of the judgment is the last word in two chapters that focus on the time of the end. Matthew 24 emphasizes two points: Signs and Surprises. The signs warn us that the end is near, but the chapter concludes with warnings that the end will come as a surprise. The chapter that follows includes three stories: the story of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) – even the wise ones slept while they waited; the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) – the servants were commended for staying on the job, even though the master’s return was delayed; and the parable of the judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), posing the question: what have you been doing while you waited? To over-simplify, we could say that an end-time agenda consists of three simple principles: sleeping nights, working days, and helping those in need. Sounds suspiciously like life as usual, doesn’t it?
But now let’s look at the last story and pose three questions:
Question #1: Is the story telling about what God’s people are doing at the end of time or about what everyone is doing?
Short Answer: It is addressed to every person on earth. Everyone.
Question #2: Does this story teach salvation by works?
Short Answer: No. Those who are rewarded are caught totally by surprise.
Question #3. Does this story move in the direction of a certain kind of universalism?
Short Answer: The story stops short of full universalism, but does open the door of salvation for those who have never heard of Jesus.
The article that concludes this lesson, “Living in the End Time,” seeks to interpret this story in the context of the Matthew 24-25.
Two significant Ellen White quotations, based on this story. Both quotations are drawn from chapter 70 in The Desire of Ages, “The Least of These My Brethren” (pp. 647 – 651). Key words are highlighted:
Christ on the Mount of Olives pictured to His disciples the scene of the great judgment day. And He represented its decision as turning upon one point. When the nations are gathered before Him, there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and suffering. (Desire of Ages, 637)
Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God. (Desire of Ages, 638)
Both these quotations help explain why Seventh-day Adventists insist that salvation is not directly linked with hearing the name of Jesus. In other words, there is room in the kingdom for those who do not follow him or even know of him.
That position differs sharply from the traditional evangelical argument that only those who confess the name of Jesus can be saved. And since Adventists do not believe in an eternally burning hell, their “motivation” for evangelism is not rooted in fear, but in hearing of the great blessings offered by the Gospel.
Question: Given the plain teaching of Jesus’ parable, how can one understand the intensity of the evangelical conviction that only “born-again” Christians can be saved?
Living in the End Time
By Alden Thompson
(Signs of the Times, June 1984, pp. 8-10)
[originally submitted to These Times]
Somewhere in our town lives a man with l50 guns tucked away at home. Is he a collector or a crook? Neither, actually. He simply believes the world is about to fall apart. And when it does, he intends to protect himself from the rabble.
Because our local gunman is not alone in his fear of hard times, survival stores are hot items right now in several parts of the country. Our local newspaper quoted the owner of one such store in southern Oregon as claiming that 90% of his business came from the sale of firearms and self-defense items.
Now if a man sees his home as his castle, fortified against the imminent collapse of civilization, he probably won’t wander very far afield. In fact, a friend told me recently of one man in our valley who is so gripped by the fear of the end that he refuses to travel any further from home than the distance he can cover with his car on a half tank of gas. The other half tank in reserve is his protection from being stranded when the crisis strikes.
This survival mania poses interesting questions for Christians. Would you, for example, expect the gunman, the survival store owner, and the man with the half tank of gas to worship together on the week-end? And if they sat beside you in your pew in your church, what you want them to hear?
Somewhere along the line the man with the guns probably should hear Jesus’ word about turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). The man with the half tank of gas probably should hear about going the second mile (Matt. 5:4l). All three would no doubt profit from a sermon based on the text, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:l8). But what about the underlying assumption that the world is on the verge of collapse? Does a Christian have something to say about that?
He should – for Scripture says a fair bit about the demise of civilization. But the New Testament hardly envisions a simple slide toward anarchy. Instead, Scripture tells of a clean sweep followed by a fresh new world – “a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 2l:1). In such a scenario, l50 guns or a half tank of gas won’t offer much comfort.
Because I grew up steeped in the fervent hope of the return of Christ and the end of the world, the reaction of some Christians to the biblical teaching puzzles me. In Scotland, for example, I had the privilege of becoming acquainted with a fine Christian gentleman, a Protestant and deeply committed to his faith. But when we talked about the end of the world, he simply confessed to being quite mystified.
On another occasion, a devout Roman Catholic woman attending classes on the campus of our Adventist college, exclaimed, “I have never lived with this sense of expectancy, destiny or urgency.”
Now living without a sense of expectancy has one great advantage – one never faces the specter of disappointment. And Adventists do know something about disappointment. Born out of the Millerite movement of the nineteenth century, Adventists are the spiritual heirs of those who unflinchingly expected their Lord to come and the world to end on October 22, l844. But they were disappointed – keenly disappointed. In the words of the Adventist pioneer Hiram Edson, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before….We wept, and wept, till the day dawn.”
In the agonizing days which followed, Adventists had to learn to live expectantly – but with disappointment. Fortunately, Jesus prepared his disciples for just such a situation and his counsel is recorded for us in Matthew 24 and 25.
The essence of the first of these chapters, Matthew 24, is a tantalizing paradox:signs will tell us the end is near, yet the end will catch us by surprise. Then from the three stories in Matthew 25, we discover an end-time agenda consisting of three simple principles: sleeping nights, working days, and helping those in need. Sounds suspiciously like life as usual, doesn’t it? Let’s take a closer look.
When the disciples asked about the signs of his coming and the end of the world, Jesus described the difficult times to come, but cautioned, “Don’t be alarmed; all this has to happen, but the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6). In fact, wars, famines, and earthquakes would be “but the beginning” of troubles (Matt. 24:8). Nevertheless, these signs would show the disciples that his coming was “near, at the very gates” (Matt. 24:33).
But then the surprise – in spite of warning signs, the end would come as a thief in the night, “at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:43-44).
Now if the Lord’s return is going to catch us by surprise, is it safe simply to continue to live life as usual? Jesus’ answer to that question is found in his final illustration of Matthew 24. There he tells of two servants, one “faithful and wise,” because he consistently fulfilled his responsibilities; the other “wicked,” because he said, “My master is delayed,” using that as an excuse to beat his fellow servants and to adopt a reckless, drunken lifestyle (Matt. 24:49).
The “wicked” servant apparently was counting on some kind of warning, something buying him time so he could shape up before his master returned. Surprise. The master returns “when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know” (Matt. 24:50). The moral of the story is clear enough – the one safe course is a faithful “life as usual.”
And does the text say anything about stashing away weapons? Not a peep. The wise servant knows that times will be difficult. Yet Jesus had counseled, “Don’t be alarmed” (Matt. 24:6). Thus the formula for end-time living is surprisingly simple: no fear, no special preparations, just a faithful life as usual.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “When times get tough my body begins pumping adrenaline. What’s the Christian’s antidote for that?” Good question and one to which we must return. But first a quick look at the other half of Jesus’ end-time counsel, Matthew 25.
Immediately following his discussion of signs and surprises (Matthew 24), Jesus tells three stories to conclude his “last days” discourse. Telling of high hopes, disappointment, and delay, these stories also raise the question of accountability – how have we lived in a time of expectancy and disappointment?
The first story tells of an oriental wedding party – ten virgins to be more precise – eagerly awaiting the bridegroom (Matt. 25:l-l3). But the hours slip by. No bridegroom appears. Disappointment.
The virgins not only slumber, they sleep – all ten of them. Now if we were telling the story, we would probably let the five foolish virgins sleep and keep the wise ones awake. But Jesus even put the wise ones to sleep. He wanted to show that a prepared person doesn’t need to panic when the Lord returns.
When the bridegroom actually came, the wise virgins had oil for their lamps and were ready to go. Only the foolish virgins panicked; the delay had burned up all their oil.
The second story, usually known as the parable of the talents, describes a businessman who entrusts his estate to his servants while he departs on a long journey (Matt. 25:l4-30). In contrast with the parable of the virgins, no dramatic sense of expectancy dominates the story. The focus is rather on accountability. Giving no clue as to how long he will be gone, the owner simply expects his servants to manage his estate during his absence.
He finally returns to settle accounts, but only “after a long time” (Matt. 25:l9). Two of the three servants had doubled their assigned capital, one converting five talents into ten, the other, two into four.
The master calls both of these servants “good and faithful” (Matt. 25:2l, 23). For them, his arrival had occasioned no panic, no frenzied burst of activity. From the day of his departure they had been prepared for his return.
But one servant did panic and right from day one. In his fear he did nothing with his one talent except bury it in the ground. Upon returning, his master called him “wicked and slothful,” chiding him for not making at least minimum effort by investing his one talent with the bankers. The master wasn’t asking for brilliant achievement or extraordinary effort; he would have been quite happy with “ordinary” faithfulness. But the man did nothing at all – except panic.
The final story in Matthew 25 is a judgment scene, the separation of the sheep from the goats. Jesus, represented by the king sitting in judgment, catches the “sheep” by surprise in quite a different sense. He welcomes them to his kingdom, commending them for all the acts of kindness which they have done to him personally: feeding him, slaking his thirst, welcoming him when he was a stranger, clothing him, and visiting him both when he was sick and when he was in prison (Matt. 25:35-36).
The saints are nonplussed, saying, in effect (politely), “We don’t know what you are talking about.” Then the surprise: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). By their faithful “life as usual,” caring for the needs of those close by, the saints had ministered to the king himself.
How could Jesus have outlined a clearer plan for living in the endtime? A follower of Christ must be prepared for delay. Prudent planning is therefore essential: we should always maintain an adequate supply of “oil” (for our “spiritual” lamps, not for our cars!). But then we should be able to sleep nights, to work days, and to continue ministering to those in need.
And in times of crisis, what is the antidote for our adrenaline? It is both simple and mysterious. Everyone burdened with the cares of this wild world is invited to come to Jesus for rest (Matt. ll:28). Knowledge of his love casts out fear (1 John 4:l8).
But wait. Let’s not be too hasty in choking off the adrenal glands. The troubles in the world are signs of the end. Such signs are God’s warning signals to those who are drowsy and unprepared. A shot of adrenaline could save their lives.