How the context makes sense of the separation of the “sheep” and “goats” at the parousia

Ian Paul has written a good piece on the sheep and goats passage in Matthew 25. He notes, rightly in my view, that the “least of these” are not the poor in general, and that it is not good Christians and bad non-Christians who are separated at the judgment. He stresses the relevance of Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man,” who is given authority to act as judge. He also has some interesting things to say about the reasons for separating sheep from goats. But I don’t think he takes the context seriously enough, and the reader is still left wondering what the passage is supposed to teach us about the criteria for judgment. “If my Muslim friend helps me out are they counted as sheep?”

The mission of the disciples

The passage comes at the end of a section of teaching about the responsibilities of the disciples in the period of time that will end with the parousia (Matt. 24:36-25:30). We should go back, in fact, to Jesus’ assertion that the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven and that all the tribes of the earth (or of the land) will see him coming on the clouds of heaven. This certainly associates Jesus with Daniel’s “one like a son of man” (Dan. 7:13-14), but I think that this figure is probably now coming from the throne of God, having some time back received glory, kingdom, and authority to act as judge in the manner depicted.

The purpose of the “coming” at this point is quite narrowly defined. It is to gather the elect from across the earth. The burden of the body of teaching that follows is 1) that the disciples must stay alert, because the thief breaks in when everyone is asleep, the master returns when no one is expecting him (Matt. 24:43-44); and 2) that they will be judged according to how well they have carried out their responsibilities in the meantime, either by inclusion in the kingdom of heaven or by exclusion from it: the foolish girls are refused entry to the marriage feast (Matt. 25:1-13); the unproductive servant is thrown out of the household (Matt. 25:14-30).

The other crucial point to note is that Jesus expected the climactic moment to arrive before the current generation of Israel passed away (Matt. 24:34). The parousia of the Son of Man and the gathering and assessment of the disciples cannot be separated from the calamity of the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

The good Gentiles inherit the kingdom neither because of their humanitarian action nor because they have been included in the “commonwealth of Israel,” but because they have been sufficiently persuaded by the message to treat the messengers with respect.

So Jesus has in mind a relatively short span of time—indeed, he makes the point that the period of tribulation caused by the war and siege of Jerusalem would be cut short for the sake of the “elect”—that is, those whom he has chosen to bear witness to him (Matt. 24:22). It would reach its devastating climax within the lifetime of at least some of his disciples (Matt. 16:28); and it is presented in the parables of Matthew 25 as the prelude to something bigger and more enduring.

It is like the period of waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, but a marriage feast is the beginning of something, not the end. The faithful servant who goes (poreutheis) and gets a good return on the small amount of money entrusted to him will be given much greater responsibilities in the age to come: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:21, 23).

The parousia is the end of a limited period of turmoil and the beginning of something much more substantial.

So what exactly did Jesus expect his disciples to be doing during this period of 30 to 40 years? They are given their commission in Galilee after the resurrection. The risen Jesus declares that he has now been given “all authority in heaven and on earth,” and he therefore tells them to “Go (poreuthentes) …and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20).

The object of the exercise, therefore, was that there would be people among the nations who would observe everything that Jesus had commanded his disciples. It is not made clear whether this would include Gentiles. In any case, what Jesus had commanded was really quite limited in scope. He had taught his followers how to live as a prophetic-missionary community of the coming intervention of God and renewal of Israel, under extremely difficult conditions.

Those who became disciples, therefore, as a result of this time-limited mission among the nations, were baptised in the name of the Father who would act in history in order that his name might be hallowed among the nations, of the Son who had been given authority to judge and rule, and of the Spirit by whom their witness in the face of severe opposition would be empowered (cf. Matt. 10:20). Here we have the basis, incidentally, for an apocalyptic trinitarianism.

Jesus concludes with the assurance that he will be with them, as they go about their mission, until the end of the age.

This gives us the solid narrative frame for making sense of the separation of the nations into two categories. The only post-resurrection future envisaged for the disciples by Jesus in Matthew’s account is the work of proclamation, baptism, and instruction among the nations as part of their eschatological witness to the coming intervention of God to put things right at the end of the age of second temple Judaism.

The judgment of the nations

We are now in a position to make good sense of the account of the judgment of the nations when the “Son of Man comes in his glory and all his angels with him” and sits on the “throne of his glory” (Matt. 25:31).

  • This is the same coming as the “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” immediately (eutheōs) after the assault on Jerusalem (Matt. 24:29-31) for the purpose of gathering the envoys sent to proclaim the imminence of this divine intervention among the nations. It coincides, too, with the arrival of the bridegroom and the return of the master of the household.
  • The poor and wretched in the account—“the least (elachistōn) of these my brothers”—as I have argued before, are specifically the disciples sent out among the nations to make more disciples who will themselves bear witness to the coming kingdom-of-heaven event. This is apparent from the narrative context that I have expounded, but it is also unequivocally confirmed by what Jesus says about his disciples earlier, at the end of his teaching about the opposition that they will face when he sends them out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10:5-39):

Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. … And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matt. 10:40, 42)

  • I disagree, however, with Ian Paul’s argument that focussing on “missionaries” is too narrow. Whether or not a distinction may be made between itinerant and non-itinerant disciples, this is a judgment of the nations, which strongly suggests that it is the experience of those disciples who were sent to the nations that is in view.
  • The peoples are separated, therefore, in the way that a shepherd separates sheep from goats, according to how they responded to the suffering of the envoys of the kingdom sent among them. Those who, in various ways, attended to their needs “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”; they have a share in the life of the age to come (Matt. 25:34, 46). Those who did not are consigned to the “fire of the age to come prepared for the devil and his angels” and to the “punishment of the age to come” (Matt. 25:41, 46).
  • There is a good parallel in 2 Baruch 72:2-6, a late 1st or early 2nd century AD text. The messiah will judge the nations on the basis of how they have treated Israel. Some he will spare, others he will kill. “Every nation which has not known Israel and which has not trodden down the seed of Jacob will live…. All those, now, who have a ruled over you or have known you, will be delivered up to the sword.” But the idea actually goes all the way back to Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).
  • Nothing suggests that the righteous Gentiles have been baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They remain outside the community of disciples. Exactly what they believed is unclear, but we should probably assume that they showed compassion because they were in some way impressed by the disciples’ message about the coming kingdom-of-heaven event. For this reason they are “blessed of my Father.” But it comes as a surprise to them that the risen Lord identified himself so closely identified with his disciples. They do not receive the gift of the Spirit like Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48), but they are precursors of Cornelius.
  • The good Gentiles inherit the kingdom, therefore, neither because of their humanitarian action nor because they have been included in the “commonwealth of Israel” (cf. Eph. 2:11-13) and have become sons (again I disagree here with Ian Paul), but because they have been sufficiently persuaded by the message to treat the messengers with respect.
  • Conversely, the unrighteous did not attend to the needs of the disciples because they were unimpressed by their outlandish claims about the God of Israel and his crucified king. They will, therefore, have no part in the age to come.

The end of the age of second temple Judaism

What is described in Matthew 25:31-46, therefore, is not a “final” judgment. It belongs to the vindication of the persecuted envoys of Jesus at the conclusion to their mission to the nations. At the end of the age of second temple Judaism the God of Israel would establish a new political-religious order for his people under Jesus, who would rule with those disciples (cf. Matt. 19:28) who had faithfully proclaimed the coming kingdom-of-heaven event in Judea and among the nations.

Righteous Gentiles who were sufficiently impressed by the eschatological proclamation to care for the needs of the messengers would be included in this new political-religious order. Those in the Greek-Roman world who did not take the disciples seriously and were indifferent to their suffering would be excluded.

Finally, we have to accept, I think, that this passage is not directly relevant for the church today. It has to be read as an inseparable part of the story of what God was doing in the ancient world to ensure that his name was hallowed among the nations and that his will was done on earth (cf. Matt. 6:9-10). There are lessons to be learnt from it, no doubt, about mission and the relation of the church to wider society, but the question of whether or how the modern church will be vindicated—found to be in the right—belongs to a quite different narrative.

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Really good article Andrew!

I couldn’t help but notice the multiple references to Baptism and how it’s related functionally to the time period prior to Jesus’ “coming”.  Have you ever considered the idea that after Jesus’ coming baptism no longer has a function?  I know this might shock you at first, but give it some pause and think about it prior to jumping to a rejection.  I know baptism is a big deal in Christendom, and to say it no longer has a place in the Church will certainly get one labeled a heretic faster than you can even say the words.  Of course saying that Jesus has already returned isn’t too save either. :)

If you ask the standard Christian who holds to the standard position that Jesus’ second coming is still future etc., if after Jesus returns will people still be baptized they’ll insist with an emphatic no, because once Christ returns that’s it.  There will be no need to baptized people anymore.  Funny thing is when you ask most Preterist (not all), or those like you, that hold to Jesus having returned already, the same question, they immediately fall to the standard position of the Church.  But the only reason the Church still holds to it is because it still lives in a world where Jesus hasn’t come yet. Go figure.

Anyway, just thought I’d throw that out there to you.

“But the only reason the Church still holds to it is because it still lives in a world where Jesus hasn’t come yet. Go figure.”

Out of all the theology I have heard around the practice of baptism, I have never a single time heard or read someone argue that we should still be baptized because Jesus hasn’t come yet.  I definitely don’t think that’s the “only reason” and, seeing as this is the first I’ve ever heard of this, I’m not sure that it’s hardly anybody’s reason.

Phil,

come on!  you know very well I wasn’t trying to argue that is the reason and that is the argument it uses.  don’t try twisting my thought into something that isn’t there to deflect from the point at hand.  That statement was inside a thought.  This thing called context. Quote the entire statement.

If you ask the standard Christian who holds to the standard position that Jesus’ second coming is still future etc., if after Jesus returns will people still be baptized they’ll insist with an emphatic no, because once Christ returns that’s it.  There will be no need to baptized people anymore.  Funny thing is when you ask most Preterist (not all), or those like you, that hold to Jesus having returned already, the same question, they immediately fall to the standard position of the Church.  But the only reason the Church still holds to it is because it still lives in a world where Jesus hasn’t come yet. Go figure.”

you know very well that because the church still thinks Jesus’ return is still future they interpret all passages related to baptism from within that frame of reference.  So, in the end they DO only to baptism because they still live in a world where Jesus hasn’t come yet.

man I can’t stand it when people like you pull twist jobs like that.  Please don’t reply or comment to anything I post.  It will be ignored.

Rich,

I was not intentionally trying to twist your words.  I apologize if I misunderstood what you were saying, and I appreciate your clarification.

I genuinely believed you were making the argument that a belief that Jesus has not returned undergirds the theology of baptism.  You opened your argument by saying: “I couldn’t help but notice the multiple references to Baptism and how it’s related functionally to the time period prior to Jesus’ “coming”. ”  I interpreted that as a thematically controlling statement, so when you said it was the only reason the Church practiced baptism, that seemed like a massive overstatement to me.

Based on your clarification, I see what you’re trying to say is that, even though there are plenty of reasons why people will argue for baptism, none of them believe those reasons hold after Jesus’ return.  Again, I apologize for misunderstanding you and, again, I assure you I was not intentionally being deceptive trying to make you look foolish.  I have nothing to gain from such a thing.

Now that I understand you, I still have a critical observation if you’re interested in interacting with it.

There are countless things your average Christian would say will no longer be applicable after Jesus’ return, including marriage, Sunday worship services, working at your day job, needing a fire department, etc. because of the association of the return of Christ with a history-ending event.  I don’t think people who believe the return of Christ has already happened would argue that those things are no longer relevant.  You’d have to see if the reasons those things exist would continue to apply in a world where the return of Christ was not a history-ending event.  The same can be said of baptism.

The only reason baptism would not continue is if there were something about the return of Christ that by nature of the case invalidated its reason for existence, which is another reason I perhaps read more extremity into your view than you intended.

That’s bit over the top, isn’t it? Whether or not Phil misunderstood you, his comment just needed clarification. There’s quite enough anger in the world these days.

I agree. The debate over whether infants should be baptised or only adults, which has dominated theological reflection on baptism, misses the point of the New Testament practice. Individuals or households (perhaps) were baptised into Christlikeness and into the narrative of suffering and vindication that would end in the parousia, when patient Christlike witness to the coming kingdom was no longer necessary.

Baptism was less about membership of a community than identification with a movement, a process of historical transformation.

Still, it’s not really surprising that baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit became the token of membership of the church in the Christendom era, analogous to circumcision. A natural extension of the eschatological practice, I would have thought.

Wait, so, you agree Baptism has no function for the Church today?  If it merely become a token, then that implies theologically it has no place or function for the Church post parousia (AD 70 and on).  It just became some tradition.  If it’s just some tradition it seems to me it should be done away with.  It’s just something that muddles up the waters and causes more confusion and arguments in the Church.  You can see all the various positions concerning it among the various denominations.  Splits, countless books and arguments all over the place.  If we got rid of it (with a bunch of other “traditions”), seems like that would be one step in the direction of there actually being just one Church.  I know, that’s a crazy idea.

Anyway, that is my position, which I came to about 8 years ago.

Wait, so, you agree Baptism has no function for the Church today?

No. I would say that it has had a different meaning in the Christendom period—as a sign of a social Christian identity. We can’t go back and change that. But that meaning has largely dissolved in the West, so perhaps the task now is to recover baptism as an overt and radical sign of intentional and sacrificial engagement in the eschatological renewal of the church at the end of an age.

Andrew,

a different meaning?  I would say the Church overall, uses it in the same meaning (of course with the many different interpretations) as it was in the 1st century, because they believe the parousia is in the future.  The problem is the parousia has come and gone so its purpose is gone. Why continue with a practice under a false meaning?

If it did come to have a different meaning in the Christendom period, then it’s a new thing.  Completely devoid of any biblical support or direction.  In that case, why continue with it?  Just another man made practice that does nothing but create arguments and division.  Today’s reality testifies to that.

“in the eschatological renewal of the church at the end of an age.”

There is no eschatological renewal of the Church today.  It was completed in the 1st century.  Confused by this statement.

“end of an age”

What age?  The “end of the age” referenced in the NT came to fruition in the 1st century with the parousia.  Again, confused by your statement.

I would say the Church overall, uses it in the same meaning… as it was in the 1st century, because they believe the parousia is in the future.

I disagree. Belief in a parousia still to come had very little if any theoretical bearing on the church’s understanding or practice of baptism. There has been no sense that people, whether adults or children, are baptised into an apocalyptic movement that would require them, in all likelihood, to suffer as Christ suffered, either personally or as part of a community, in the hope of vindication. 

There is no eschatological renewal of the Church today. It was completed in the 1st century. Confused by this statement.

That’s why I’m not a preterist. Eschatology, in my view, is the heightened prophetic expectation of impending crisis, of one age ending and a new one beginning. The collapse of Christendom was the end of an age, in biblical terms. The rise of the Anthropocene is the beginning of an age. The prophetic narration and interpretation of history is still alive and essential for the life and mission of the church, I suggest.

I disagree. Belief in a parousia still to come had very little if any theoretical bearing on the church’s understanding or practice of baptism

Andrew, you just demonstrated, convincingly too, in this article the connection between Baptism and the Parousia, and its bearing on the 1st century Church its function.  Now if you’re referring to the Church post parousia, then I mean that indirectly.  The Church (post parousia) interprets the baptism passages from the perspective of being in the 1st century, pre-parousia, when in reality it is not, so its perspective is skewed because of its eschatology and failure to see the parousia as past tense.  It’s no different than Jews today continuing to teach circumcision.  They live as if the events fulfilled by Jesus and his function did not happen.  They just continue to march on with it.

About the end of the age.  The NT makes reference to only two ages.  The “current age” (the one they were in) and they recognized they were in its last days, and the age to come.  The post parousia age.  I fail to see where you come up with additional ones.

The prophetic narration and interpretation of history is still alive and essential for the life and mission of the church, I suggest.

Based on what?  This has been pointed out before to you, which you agreed I believe, that in your position there is nothing in the Bible to provide any guidance and or teaching post parousia.  In your view it merely states there will someday be an end.  No details, no signs, no prophecy, nothing.  Just an end is coming.

First, as you know, I don’t think we need to confine the parousia to the first century. There are historical outcomes in view that took much longer to be fulfilled.

After the conversion of the pagan nations lots of things changed. The relation between the church and political power, for example. Among these adaptations to a very different social reality was the shift in the significance of baptism, so that it became more like circumcision, I guess. I haven’t read patristic discussion of baptism. Perhaps this adaptation was largely unconscious, but insofar as this is how history always works, I don’t see that we need object to it.

But by the same token, we also need to acknowledge the significance of further changes that are taking place in the post-christendom era—the alienation of the church in Europe from political power, for example; the marginalisation of theology as an intellectual discipline; the emergence of a very different understanding of “nature; and not least the prioritisation of critical historical enquiry.

So it seems extremely blinkered to me to insist that everything must always be determined dogmatically on narrowly biblical terms. The biblical narrative always has a rolling “end” in view: settlement of the land, exile from the land, return to the land, defeat of Hellenism, the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of classical paganism, liberation from Rome, the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations….

In my view, we remain a prophetic people with the capacity faithfully to keep updating that narrative. Based on what? Based on the gift of knowing the mind of God.

But as I say, I am not a preterist. I think that we serve the living God of history.

Andrew,

Very interesting and enlightening.  Kind of left me a little bewildered to tell you the truth.

Anyway, I do want to comment on one thing you said.

But as I say, I am not a preterist. I think that we serve the living God of history.

wow.  So you’re implying that Preterist do not serve the living God of history.  Maybe you didn’t quite word that as you meant it?

Rich

I guess my point was that the preterist paradigm seems to confine God’s eschatological action in history to the first century, whereas the traditional theological paradigm pushes it into the future. Neither approach allows us to speak about an “eschatological” intervention of the God of history in “the now time,” as Paul might put it, at our moment of global crisis.

Andrew,

I’m a little let down by your understanding of Preterism.  You seem so hostile to it [although you’re 95% a preterist :) ] I figured you had a solid understanding what it proposes.  Yes, while it confines God’s eschatological action to the first century, that doesn’t mean we think God has just checked out and has disappeared, and we all become Deists.  After all “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations”.