Jesus has been answering His disciples’ question about the fall of Jerusalem. After telling two parables about what the kingdom of heaven was and would be like, he begins teaching about the moment He will sit upon His throne. Matthew’s Gospel and all of Jesus’s teaching is about the coming kingdom of heaven. During His bodily ministry, Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (cf. Matthew 4:17). It was near. Jesus has already provided timing for the end of the age, the end of temple worship and the beginning of the church, within the generation present with Him (cf. Matthew 23:36; 24:34). Because the kingdom is at hand, the Old Testament system of sacrifices will be no more and, instead, the kingdom will be a kingdom of spirit filled living and anticipation for the return of the bridegroom (cf. Matthew 25:1-30). Now, Jesus changes His language. Instead of talking about the kingdom at hand and the destruction of Jerusalem, He talks explicitly about coming in His glory, a natural transition after He has talked about the return of the bridegroom and master in His parables.
But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation 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; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me’ (Matthew 25:31-36).
The virgins waiting for the bridegroom and the slaves working until the master returns represented the church age, the age that begins at the time the Temple is destroyed. Both parables are about the kingdom, which is at hand during Jesus’s earthly ministry. Jesus has used parables to described how the kingdom will be. Now, in natural flow, He teaches about the return of the master. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory” is language that Jesus has not previously used and is different from the “coming down” or “coming in the clouds” imagery that Jesus has appropriated from the Old Testament. In Matthew 24, He talked about coming in judgment against Jerusalem. Now, He is talking about returning to the earth in order to finally collect His people, like we saw in the two parables. Matthew has formatted His gospel to tell a particular story, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy that predicted the establishment of Christ’s kingdom.
At the time of Christ’s return, He will sit on His glorious throne. There is no intermediary time. Jesus does not describe a 1,000 year period. This part of the text doesn’t give us a rapture like many might expect. Jesus simply and explicitly says that when He returns, He will sit on His throne—period. Since the text is explicit about that, that’s all I care to be explicit about as I think about the glorious return of Christ. It’s not weird. There is no need to craft a story or try to figure out how such mystical things others teach can possibly happen. Simply put, Christ will return and sit on His throne.
All the nations will be gathered before Him. When Jesus returns to the earth in His glory, He will quite literally judge the nations. He will separate out His kingdom people from worldly people. We picture the scene that Jesus is setting up, here. He returns to earth where there are still both believers and unbelievers. He separates them on the earth. This isn’t a parable. It’s not apocalyptic symbolism like the Book of Revelation. It isn’t a subjective interpretation of signs mentioned in Scripture like we often hear from Matthew 24. This is explicit. Jesus is telling us what He will personally do upon His glorious return.
He will tell the sheep at His right hand, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation 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; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.” Jesus tells them to come inherit the kingdom. They inherit the kingdom because they, in some way, cared for Christ.
Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’ (Matthew 25:37-40).
Those who love Jesus treat other people well. One sign we have that we are citizens in the kingdom of heaven is our well, selfless treatment of others. I think too many preachers use this verse to guilt people into feeding the hungry. It’s about the heart. Notice, the sheep are completely surprised when they hear that Jesus considers their action toward other people as action toward Himself. They weren’t trying to earn an inheritance with Christ. They were just being Christians. Christ rewards them with an inheritance in His kingdom and distributes that inheritance upon His glorious return.
Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been 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; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matthew 25:41-46).
Jesus also reveals that He will exile the goats into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. Whether we interpret “angels” in this passage as human messengers or angelic beings, the message is the same. Those who are in Christ have an eternal inheritance with Him. Those who are not have an eternal inheritance in fire—a place we often refer to as Hell. Jesus is explicit, here. The fire and their punishment is eternal. The people who go there depart from Jesus, they are never spiritually annihilated. They are sent to the fire because they did not treat people well. They never denied themselves, took up their crosses, and followed in the way of Christ.
This passage is simple enough to follow. Most are, but we are very good at making simple things complicated. Jesus tells us that, upon His glorious return (His second bodily coming), He will:
- sit on his throne,
- give His sheep their inheritance, and
- send the goats to the eternal fire.
What do you find conspicuously missing that we hear in popular eschatology today? You find all those things missing that people find in less explicit or more symbolic places of Scripture and write books and books about. Often, when we interpret those sections of Scripture in order to expound on some eschatological premise, we wind up unnecessarily creating an eschatological narrative that actually contradicts the plain theology that Scripture presents in the more explicit passages. We should be careful and humble. I’m not claiming that there will or will not be certain events in the future, but I do know the promise of God. In Jesus’s explicit eschatology, He tells a story that only involves His return and then an exile of the damned to the fire that burns eternally. His people will immediately receive their inheritance, and His enemies will immediately go to the fire. I always want to be careful not to say or claim too much, especially not more than Jesus does when He talks about His glorious return.
If you are in Christ, and you are paying attention to Jesus’s words, you are probably really encouraged. One day, Jesus will return. When He returns, He will separate you with the rest of His people and give you an inheritance. That’s what I call good news! People get so caught up being pessimistic that they miss the good news. Jesus isn’t doom and gloom. He is positive. He is optimistic about the future. He is quick to tell His people about their reward, which He promises to distribute upon His glorious return. Let me take you on a quick tour through the Bible.
In Genesis 6, God observed the world and saw that the intentions of people’s hearts were only wicked all the time. In Genesis 7, He flooded the world–literally pouring His wrath out. In Genesis 8, God promised that He would never again curse the earth on account of people. As long as the earth endures, God will ensure that its seasons do not come to an end. The God I know keeps His promises. If He were to ever pour out His wrath on the earth again, He would break this particular promise. It’s not until Genesis 9 that God tells Noah He will never again flood the earth; that’s a separate promise. God formed the nation of Israel. Through Israel comes the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who teaches that God will not judge the world but save it through Him (John 3:17). When Jesus gives His life on Calvary, He declares that the work is finished (John 19:30). As Christians, we teach that the wrath of God due man because of sin was poured out on Jesus Christ. If it was not fully poured out on Christ, why the cross? I don’t think God is the bad guy who plans to destroy the earth. I don’t think He is out to steal, kill, or destroy like Satan is. I am sad that so many people eisegete so much of the Bible to insist God is what He promised not to be.
When it comes to the glorious return of Christ, we have a few explicit passages in the New Testament, passages that we don’t have to guess the meaning of. Jesus’s teaching, here, tells us He will simply return and reward. We also have 1 Corinthians 15:24-25, which explicitly tells us that Christ will return and immediately hand the kingdom over to the God and Father, after having abolished all rule and authority. In Hebrews 9:28, the preacher tells us that Jesus will return a second time without reference to sin for the purpose of salvation, not wrath. If 2 Peter 3 is about the Second Coming (debatable), it clarifies that the destruction is of ungodly men–not necessarily the whole world (2 Peter 3:7). In 1 John 2-3, John writes about how we will be changed to be like Christ when He appears. Such is the explicit eschatology we receive. Christ only needs to reign until all His enemies are put under His feet, prior to His second coming. It’s not complicated like so many make it.
Christ teaches a future that is optimistic for believers. I believe Him when He promises not to destroy the earth but save it. I trust that He will be faithful concerning our inheritance. May we be found ready when the bridegroom comes. May we be found faithful when the master returns. May Christ say of us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”