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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Matthew 24

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-51

Chapter 18

The Prophecy on the Mount - Matthew 24:1-51 & Matthew 25:1-46

WE have seen that though the Saviour’s public ministry is now closed, He still has a private ministry to discharge-a ministry of counsel and comfort to His beloved disciples, whom He soon must leave in a world where tribulation awaits them on every side. Of this private ministry the chief remains are the beautiful words of consolation left on record by St. John (13-17), and the valuable words of prophetic warning recorded by the other Evangelists, occupying in this Gospel two long chapters (Matthew 24:1-51; Matthew 25:1-46.).

This remarkable discourse, nearly equal in length to the Sermon on the Mount, may be called the Prophecy on the Mount; for it is prophetic throughout, and it was delivered on the Mount of Olives. From the way in which it is introduced (Matthew 24:1-3) we see that it is closely connected with the abandonment of the Temple, and that it was suggested by the disciples calling His attention to the buildings of the Temple, which were in full view of the little group as they sat on the Mount of Olives that memorable day - buildings which seemed stately and stable enough in their eyes, but which were already tottering to their fall before

"that eye which watches guilt And goodness; and hath power to see Within the green the mouldered tree, And towers fallen as soon as built."

Thus everything leads us to expect a discourse about the fate of the Temple. The minds of the whole group are full of the subject; and out of the fulness of their hearts the question comes, "Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the world?" From the latter part of the question it is evident that the coming of Christ and the end of the world were closely connected in the disciples’ minds with the judgment that was about to come upon the Temple and the chosen people-a connection which was right in point of fact, though wrong in point of time. We shall not be surprised, therefore, to discover that the burden of the first part of the prophecy is that great event to which the attention of all was at that moment so pointedly directed. But since the near as well as the distant event is viewed as the coming of the Son of man, we may give to what may be called the prophecy proper as distinguished from the pictures of judgment that follow, a title which embodies this unifying thought.

I - THE COMING OF THE SON OF MAN (Matthew 24:3-44).

In secular history the destruction of Jerusalem is nothing more than the destruction of any other city of equal size and importance. It is indeed marked out from similar events in history by the peculiarly terrible sufferings to which the inhabitants were subjected before the final overthrow. But apart from this, it is to the general historian an event precisely similar to the destruction of Babylon, of Tyre, of Carthage, or of any other ancient city once the seat of a dominion which now has passed away. In sacred history it stands alone. It was not merely the destruction of a city, but the close of a dispensation-the end of that great age which began with the call of Abraham to come out from Ur of the Chaldees, and be the father of a people chosen of the Lord. It was "the end of the world" (comp. R.V, Matthew 24:3, margin) to the Jews, the end of the world which then was, the passing away of the old to give place to the new. It was the event which bore the same relation to the Jews as the Flood did to the antediluvians, which was emphatically the end of the world to them. If we bear this in mind it will enable us to appreciate the tremendous importance assigned to this event wherever it is referred to in the sacred Scriptures, and especially in this momentous chapter.

But though the destruction of Jerusalem is the primary subject of the prophecy, in its full sweep it takes a far wider range. The Saviour sees before Him with prophetic eye, not only that great event which was to be the end of the world which then was-the close of the dispensation of grace Which had lasted two thousand years: but also the end of all things, when the last dispensation of grace-not for Israel alone, but for the whole world-shall have come to a close. Though these two events were to be separated from each other by a long interval of time, yet were they so closely related in their nature and issues that our Lord, having in view the needs of those who were to live in the new dispensation, could not speak of the one without also speaking of the other. What He was then saying was intended for the guidance, not only of the disciples then around Him, and of any other Jews who might from them receive the message, but also for the guidance of the whole Christian Church throughout the world to the end of time, -another marvellous illustration of that sublime consciousness of life and power, infinitely beyond the limits of His mere manhood, which is ever betraying itself throughout this wondrous history. Had He confined Himself to the destruction of Jerusalem, His words would have had no special interest for us, any more, for example, than the burden of Babylon or of Tyre or of Dumah in the Old Testament Scriptures; but when He carries us on to that Last Great Day, of which the day of Jerusalem’s destruction (as closing the Old Testament dispensation) was a type, we recognise at once our own personal interest in the prophecy; for we ourselves are individually concerned with that Day-we shall then either be overwhelmed in the ruins of the old, or shall rejoice in the glories of the new; therefore we should feel that this prophecy has an interest for us as personal as it had for those who first heard it on the Mount of Olives.

As might be expected from the nature of its subject, the interpretation of the prophecy in matters of detail is beset with difficulties. The sources of difficulty are sufficiently obvious. One is in the elimination of time. The time of both events is studiously concealed, according to the principle distinctly announced by our Saviour just before His ascension: "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power." There are in each case signs given, by which the approach of the event may be recognised by those who will give heed to them; but anything in the shape of a date is studiously avoided. It is perhaps not too much to say that nine-tenths of the difficulties which have been encountered in the interpretation of this passage have arisen from the unwarrantable attempts to introduce dates into it.

Another difficulty arises from the similarity of the two events referred to, and the consequent applicability of the same language to both of them. This leads to different opinions as to which of the two is referred to in certain places. To show the source of these difficulties is to suggest their solution; for when we consider that one event is the type of the other, that one is as it were the miniature of the other, the same on a much smaller scale, we need not hesitate to apply the same language to both, - it may be literally in the one case and figuratively in the other; or it may be in a subordinate sense in the one ease, and in the fullest sense in the other; or it may be in precisely the same sense in both cases. In general, however, it will be observed that the lesser event-the destruction of Jerusalem stands out in full prominence in the beginning of the prophecy, and the greater event-the Great Day of our Saviour’s appearing-in the latter part of it.

Still another source of difficulty is that, while our Saviour’s object in giving the prophecy was practical, the object of many who study the prophecy is merely speculative. They come to it to satisfy curiosity, and as a matter of course they are disappointed, for our Lord did not intend when He spoke these words to satisfy so unworthy a desire; and, though His word never returns to Him void, it accomplishes that which He pleases, and nothing else; it prospers in the thing to which He has sent it, but not in the thing to which He has not sent it. He has sent us this, not to satisfy our curiosity, but to influence our conduct; and if we use it not for speculative but for practical purposes-not to find support for any favourite theory, which parcels out the future, giving days and hours, which neither the angels in heaven nor the Son of man Himself could tell [Mark 13:32] -but to find food for our souls, then we shall not be troubled with so many difficulties, and we shall certainly not be disappointed.

Before we pass from the difficulties of this. prophecy, observe how strong an argument they furnish for its genuineness. Those who deny the divinity of Christ are greatly troubled with this prophecy, so much so that the only way in which they can get rid of its witness to Him is by suggesting that it was really composed after the destruction of Jerusalem, and therefore never spoken by Christ at all. There are difficulties enough of other kinds in the way of such a disposal of the prophecy; but there is one consideration which absolutely forbids it-viz., that any one writing after the event would have avoided all that vagueness of language which gives trouble to expositors. To those who can judge of internal evidence, its obscurity is clear proof that this discourse could not have been produced in the full light of the subsequent history, but must have been what it professes to be, a foreshadowing of coming events.

We may not, with the limits imposed by the plan of these expositions, attempt a detailed explanation of this difficult prophecy, but must content ourselves with giving only a general view. Our Lord first warns His disciples against expecting the crisis too early (Matthew 24:4-14). In this passage He prepares the minds of His disciples for the times of trouble and trial through which they must pass before the coming of "the great and notable day of the Lord" which was at hand: there shall be false Christs and false prophets-there shall be wars and rumours of wars, and shaking of the nations, and famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places; yet will all these be only "the beginning of sorrows." He also prepares their minds for the gigantic work which must be done by them and by their brother-disciples before that great day: "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come." Thus are the: disciples taught the very important and thoroughly practical truth, that they must pass. through a great trial and do a great work before the Day shall come.

He then gives them a certain sign by which they shall know that the event is imminent, when. it does approach. This is not equivalent to fixing a date. He gives them no idea how long the period of trial shall last, no idea how long time’ they shall have for the great work before them-He simply gives them a sign, by observing which they shall not be taken completely by surprise, but have at least a brief space to make their escape from the condemned city. And so very little time will elapse between the sign and the event to which it points, that He warns them against any delay, and tells them, as soon as it shall appear, to flee at once to the mountains and escape for their lives. It is sufficiently evident, by comparing this passage with the corresponding place in Luke, where our Lord speaks of Jerusalem being compassed with armies, that the "abomination of desolation standing in the holy place" refers to some particular act of sacrilegious impiety committed in the Temple just at the time the Romans were beginning to invest the city. Attempts have been made historically to identify this profanation, but it is doubtful if these have been successful. It is sufficient to know that whether or not the fact has found a place in history, it served its purpose as a sign to the Christians in the city who had treasured up in their hearts their Saviour’s warning words.

Having told them what the sign would be, and counselled His disciples to lose no time in making their escape as soon as they should see it, He further warns them, in a few impressive words, of the terrors of those days of tribulation (Matthew 24:19-22), and then concludes this portion of the prophecy by warning them against the sup-position-a very natural one in the circumstances-that even then the Son of man should come.

So far we have found the leading ideas to be simple and practical, and all connected with the destruction of Jerusalem.

(1) Do not expect that event too early; for you must pass through many trials and do much work before it.

(2) As soon as you shall see the sign I give you, expect it immediately, and lose no time in making your escape from the horrors of these awful days.

(3) Even then, however, do not expect the personal advent of the Son of man; for though it is a day of judgment, it is only one of those partial judgments which are necessary on the principle that "wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together." The personal advent of Christ and the day of final judgment are only foreshadowed by, not realised in, the destruction of Jerusalem and the close of the old dispensation.

The three closing verses of this portion of the prophecy refer pre-eminently to the great Day of the coming of the Son of man (Matthew 24:29-31). The word "immediately" has given rise to much difficulty, on account of the hasty conclusion to which some have come that "immediately after the tribulation of those days" must mean immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem; according to Which all this must have taken place long ago. It is, indeed, sufficiently obvious that the tribulation of those days began with the destruction, or rather with the besieging, of Jerusalem. But when did it end? As soon as the city was destroyed? Nay. If we wish to get some idea of the duration of those days of tribulation, let us turn to the same place in the same prophecy as given by St. Luke, [Luke 21:23-24] where it clearly appears that it embraces the whole period of the Jewish dispersion and of the standing of the Gentile Church. "The tribulation of those days" is going on still, and therefore the events of these verses are still future. We look forward to the Day of the Lord of which that terrible day of judgment, to which their thoughts were first turned, was only a dim foreshadowing-a Day far more august in its nature, far more awful in its accompaniments, far more terrible in its aspect to those who are unprepared for it, yet full of glory and of joy to those who "love His appearing."

Appended to the main prophecy are some additional warnings as to time (Matthew 24:32-44) setting forth in the most impressive manner the certainty, the suddenness, and, to those who are not looking for it, the unexpectedness of the coming of the Day of the Lord. Here again, in the first portion the destruction of Jerusalem, and in the latter portion the Day of the Son of man, is prominent. If we bear this in mind it will remove a difficulty many have found in Matthew 24:34, which seems to say that the events specially referred to in Matthew 24:29-31 would be fulfilled before that generation passed away. But when we remember that the prophecy proper closes with the thirty-first verse (Matthew 24:31), and that the warning as to the imminency of the events referred to commences with Matthew 24:32; the difficulty vanishes; for it is most natural that the practical warning should follow the course of the prophecy itself, referring first to the destruction of Jerusalem, and passing from it to that grand event of which it was the precursor. On this principle Matthew 24:32-35 are quite simple and natural, as well as most impressive, and the statement of Matthew 24:34 is seen to be literally accurate.

The passage from Matthew 24:36 onwards is still quite applicable to the near event, the destruction of Jerusalem; but the language used is evidently such as to carry the mind onward to the more distant event which had been brought prominently forward in the latter part of the prophecy {Matthew 24:36-44). In these verses, again, not only is no date given, but we are expressly told that it is deliberately withheld. What then? Are we to dismiss the subject from our minds? Quite the reverse; for though the time is uncertain, the event itself is most certain, and it will come suddenly and unexpectedly. No time will be given for preparation to those who are not already prepared. True, there will be the sign of the Son of man in heaven, whatever that may be; but, like the other sign which was the precursor of Jerusalem’s destruction, it will appear immediately before the event, barely giving time for those who have their lamps trimmed and oil in their vessels with their lamps to arise and meet the Bridegroom; but for those who are not watching, it will be too late-it will be with them as with those who lived at the close of the very first dispensation, who were "eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh."

II - PARABLES AND PICTURES OF JUDGMENT - [Matthew 24:25-45]

The remainder of this great prophecy is taken up with four pictures of judgment, very striking and impressive, having for their special object the enforcement of the great practical lesson with which the first part has closed: "Watch therefore" (Matthew 24:42-43); "Be ye also ready" (Matthew 24:44). In the former portion of the prophecy the destruction of Jerusalem was in the foreground, and in the background the coming of the Son of man to judgment in the end of the world. In this portion the Great Day of the Son of man is prominent throughout.

The four pictures, though similar in their scope and object, are different in their subjects. The first represents those who occupy positions of trust in the kingdom; the second and third, all professing Christians, -the one setting forth inward grace, the other outward activity; the fourth is a picture of judgment on the whole world.

1. The Servant Set over the Household - [Matthew 24:45-51]

As in the case of the man without the wedding garment, a single servant is taken as representing a class; and who constitute this class is made quite clear, not only by the fact that the servant is set over the household, but also by the nature of the service: "to give them their food in due season" (R.V). The application was evidently first to the apostles themselves, and then to all who in the future should be engaged in the same work of providing spiritual nourishment for those under their charge. The very pointed way in which the parable is introduced, together with the fact that only one servant is spoken of, suggests to each one engaged in the work the most careful self-examination. "Who, then, is a faithful and wise servant?" The underlying thought seems to be that such a one is not very easily to be found; and that therefore there is a special benediction for those who through the trying years are found both "faithful and wise," faithful to their high trust, wise in relation to the momentous issues depending on the manner in which they fulfil it. The benediction on the wise and faithful servant is evidently easy to miss and a great thing to gain.

But there is more to be thought of than the missing of the blessing. There is a fearful doom awaiting the unfaithful servant, of which the picture following gives a terrible presentation. Both offence and punishment are painted in the very darkest colours. As to the former, the servant not only neglects his duty, but beats his fellow-servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken. Here a question arises, What was there to suggest such a representation to the Saviour’s mind? Surely it could not be intended specially for those who were sitting with Him on the mount that day. If Judas was among the rest, his sin was not of the nature that would have suggested the parable in this particular form, and certainly there is no reason to suppose that any of the rest were in the slightest danger of being guilty of such cruelties and excesses as are here spoken of. Is it not plain then, that the Judge of all had in His view the dark days to come, when the clergy of a degenerate Church would be actually guilty of cruelties and excesses such as could not be more fitly set forth in parable than by the disgraceful conduct of "that wicked servant"?

This is still further confirmed by the reason given for such recklessness, -the evil servant saying in his heart, "My Lord delayeth His coming." There is reason to suppose that the early Christians expected the return of the Lord almost immediately. In so far as they made this mistake, it cannot be charged against their Master; for, as we have seen, He warns them against this error throughout the whole of the prophecy. It is plain, however, that those who made this mistake were in no danger of saying in their hearts, "My Lord delayeth His coming." But as time passed on, and the expectation of the Lord’s speedy return grew fainter, then there would come in all its force the temptation to those who did not watch against it of counting on the Lord’s delay. When we think of this, we see how necessary it was that the danger should be set forth in language which may have seemed unnecessarily strong at the time, but which the future history of the Church only too sadly justified.

The punishment is correspondingly severe. The word used to picture it ("shall cut him asunder") is one to make us shudder; and some have felt surprised that our Lord did not shrink from the horror of the word. Ah! but it was the horror of the thing which He dreaded, and wished to avert. It was the infinite pity of His heart that led Him to use a word which might prove the very strongest deterrent. Besides, how significant it is! Think, again, of whom He is speaking, -servants set over His household to give food in due season, who instead of doing this maltreat their fellow-servants and ruin themselves with excess. Think of the duplicity of such conduct. By office in the church "exalted unto heaven," by practice "brought down to hell"! That unnatural combination cannot last. These monsters with two faces and one black heart cannot be tolerated in the universe of God. They shall be cut asunder; and then it will appear which of the two faces really belongs to the man: cut asunder, his place shall be appointed with the hypocrites, Where shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 24:51).

2 and 3. The Virgins; The Talents. [Matthew 25:1-30]

The second and third pictures presented in the form of two parables of the kingdom of heaven, set before us the judgment of Christ at His coming on His professed disciples, distinguishing between real and merely nominal Christians, between the pretended and the true members of the kingdom of heaven. In the former parable this distinction is set before us in the contrast between the wise and the foolish virgins; in the latter it appears in the form of the one faithful and the two unfaithful servants. No special significance need be attached to the respective numbers, which are evidently chosen with a view to the consistency of the parables, not to set forth anything in regard to the actual proportion between hypocrites and true disciples in the visible Church.

The relation between the two parables has been already indicated. The first represents the Church as waiting, the second as working, for her Lord; the first shows the necessity of a constant supply of inward grace, the second the need of unremitting outward activity; the teaching of the first is, "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life"; of the second, "Do good as ye have opportunity," "Be faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." The parable of the Virgins comes appropriately before that of the Talents, inasmuch as a Christian’s inner life should be his first care, the outer life being wholly dependent on it. "Keep thy heart with all diligence," is the first command; "Do thy work with all diligence," the second. The first parable calls aloud to every member of the Church, "Be wise"; the second follows it with another call, as urgent as the first, "Be faithful."

The Parable of the Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), with its marriage feast, recalls the parable of the marriage of the King’s Son, so recently spoken in the Temple. The difference between the two is very clearly indicated by the way in which each parable is introduced: there, "the kingdom of heaven is likened"; here, "then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened." The gospel feast which was the subject of the parable spoken in the Temple was already spread; it was a thing of the present; its word was, "All things are ready: come to the marriage": its preparation had been the object of the heavenly Bridegroom’s first coming. The wedding feast of this parable is yet to be prepared; it is "the marriage supper of the Lamb" to which the Lord will call His people at His second coming.

An interval, therefore, of unknown length must pass meantime; and herein, as the sequel will unfold, lies the test which distinguishes the wise from the foolish virgins. This interval is represented by a night, with great appropriateness, seeing that the heavenly Bridegroom is the Sun of the soul. It being night, all alike grow drowsy and fall asleep. To make this a fault, as some do, is to spoil the parable. Had it been wrong to sleep, the wise virgins would certainly have been represented as keeping awake. If, then, we give a meaning to the sleep, it is not that of spiritual torpor, but rather such occupation with the concerns of the present life as is natural and necessary. As the whole of "the life that now is," up till the coming of the Lord, is represented in the parable by the night, and as sleep is the business of night, we may fairly consider that the sleep of the parable represents the business of the life that now is, in which Christians, however anxious to be ready for the coming of the Lord, must engage, and not only so, but must give themselves to it with an engrossment which for the time may amount to as entire abstraction from distinctively spiritual duties as sleep is an abstraction from the duties of the day. In this point of view we see how reasonable is our Lord’s requirement. He does not expect us to be always equally wide awake to spiritual and eternal things. The wise as well as the foolish slumber and sleep.

It is not, then, by the temptation to sleep that the interval tests the virgins, but by bringing out a difference which has existed all the while, though at the first it did not appear. All seemed alike at the beginning of the night. Had not every one of them a lamp, with oil in it, and were not the lights of all the ten brightly burning? Yes; and if the Bridegroom had come at that hour, all would have seemed equally ready. But the Bridegroom tarries, and while He tarries the business of the night must go on. In this way time passes, till at an unexpected moment in the very middle of the night as it were, the cry is heard "Behold the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet Him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps." Still no difference: each of the ten lamps is trimmed and lighted. But see, five of them are going out almost as soon as they are kindled! What is the reason? There is no store of oil. Here, then, is the difference between the wise and the foolish, and here lies, therefore, the main point of the parable.

What, then, are we to understand in the spiritual sphere by this distinction? That the wise and the foolish represent the watchful and the unwatchful is plain enough; but is there not something here to let us deeper into the secret of the great difference between the one and the other? In order to get this, it is not at all necessary to ask for the significance of each separate detail-the lamp, the wick, the oil, the oil vessel. The details belong to the drapery of the parable; the essentials are manifestly the light and the source whence it comes. The light is the very familiar symbol of the Christian life; the source whence it comes is Divine grace, abiding unseen in the heart. Now, there is a certain superficial goodness which shines for the moment much as the true light of grace shines, but is connected with no perennial supply; there is no oil vessel from which the lamp can be constantly replenished. There may be a flaring up for a moment; but there is no steady enduring light.

All which points to the conclusion that the foolish virgins represent those professing Christians who have religious emotion enough to kindle their lamp of life and make it glow with a flame which looks marvellously like true devotion, but which is little else than the blazing up of natural feeling; while the wise virgins represent those whose constant habit is devotion, whose grace is something they carry with them always, so that at any moment the light of it may shine, the flame glow, pure, bright, steady, inextinguishable. They may be as much engaged in the business of life as the others, so that no flame of devotion may be seen; but deep down, hidden out of sight, like the oil in the vessel, there is abiding grace, which is only waiting the occasion to burst into a flame, of prayer or praise or joyful welcome of the Bridegroom at whatever moment He may come. The distinction, therefore, is between those worldly Christians, whose devotion is a thing of now and then, and those thorough Christians whose devotion is habitual, not always to be recognised on the surface of their life, not always to be seen of men, not so as to hinder their engrossment in business hours with the ordinary duties of life, but so as to be always there, the deep abiding habit of their souls. There is the secret of watchfulness; there the secret of readiness for the coming of the Lord.

This explains why the wise virgins cannot help the foolish. It is not that they are selfish, and will not do it; but that it cannot be done. Some commentators, men of the letter, have puzzled themselves as to the advice to go to them that sell and buy. That, again, belongs to the framework of the parable. The thought conveyed is plain enough to those who think not of the letter but of the spirit. It is simply this, that grace is not transferable. A man may belong to the warmest, devoutest, most gracious community. of disciples in all Christendom; but if he himself has been foolish, if he has not lived in communion with Christ, if he has not kept himself in communication with the Fountain of grace, not all the saints in whose company he has passed the night of the Lord’s personal absence, however willing they may be, will be able to lend him as much as one drop of the sacred oil.

The same principles are applicable to the solemn close of the parable. The question has been asked, Why did not the Bridegroom open the door? Late though the foolish virgins were, they wished to enter, and why should they not be allowed? Again let us look beyond the letter of the parable to the spirit of it-to the great spiritual facts it pictures for us. If it were the mere opening of a door that would remedy the lateness, assuredly it would be done; but the real fact is, that the lateness is now beyond remedy. The door cannot be opened. Ponder the solemn words: "I know you not." It is a question of the union of the life with Christ. The wise virgins had lived a life that was always, even in sleep, hid with Christ in God; the foolish virgins had not: they had lived a life which had transient shows of devotion in it, but no reality-a mistake too fatal to be in any wise remedied by the spasms of a few minutes at the close. It is the old familiar lesson, that cannot be taught too often or taken to heart too earnestly: that the only way to die the death of the righteous is to live the life of the righteous.

The Parable of the Talents deals with the same subjects-viz., the professed disciples of Christ; only instead of searching the reality of their inner life, it tests the faithfulness of their service. As in the former parable so in this, stress is laid on the time that must elapse before the Lord’s return. The employer of the servants travels "into a far country"; and it is "after a long time" (Matthew 25:19) that "He cometh, and reckoneth with them." Similarly, in the cognate parable of "the pounds," reported by St. Luke, we. are told that it was spoken, "because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear". [Luke 19:11] It would seem, therefore, that both these parables were intended to guard against the temptation to make the anticipation of the Lord’s return an excuse for neglect of present duty.

There is evidence that within a short time some Christians in Thessalonica fell into this very temptation, -so much so as to render it necessary that the apostle Paul should write them a letter, his second epistle, for the express purpose of reproving them and setting them right. His first Epistle to the Thessalonians had laid stress on the suddenness of the Lord’s coming, as Christ Himself does again and again throughout this discourse; but the result was that some of them, confounding suddenness with imminence, gave themselves up to idle waiting or feverish expectancy, to the neglect even of the most ordinary duties. To meet this he had to call attention to the Divine ordinance, that "if any would not work, neither should he eat," and to enforce it with all the authority of Christ Himself: "Now them that are such" (viz., those excited "busybodies working not at all") "we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread"; [2 Thessalonians 3:10-12] following it up with a caution, on the other hand, against allowing the Lord’s delay to discourage them in their activity in His service: "But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing."

All this helps us to see how necessary it was that the parable of waiting should be followed by a summons to work, and to admire the marvellous insight of our Lord into human nature in recognising beforehand where hidden dangers would lurk in His people’s path. Unhappily, it is not necessary to go back to the case of the Thessalonians to see how needful it is that the parable of work should go along with the parable of waiting; we have painful illustration of it in our own day. Thanks to the clearness and strength of our Lord’s teaching, the great majority of those who in our day look for His almost immediate return are not only diligent in work, but an example and a rebuke to many who do not share their expectations; but on the other hand, there are not a few who have been so far led astray as to give up positions of great usefulness, and discontinue work in which they had been signally blessed, with the idea that the great event being now so near, the sole duty of the believer is to wait for it.

The parable assumes that all disciples are servants of Christ, and that all of them have work for Christ to do. There is no reason, however, for narrowing the field of service to what is in current phrase distinctively spoken of as "Christian work." All the work of Christian people should be Christian work, and is Christian work, if it be done as it ought to be done, "as to the Lord." There must evidently, however, be the desire and purpose to "serve the Lord Christ," whatever the nature of the service be.

The talents signify ability and opportunity. We must beware of using the word in any limited or conventional sense. In ordinary conversation the word is generally applied to abilities above the average, as, for example, when a man of more than ordinary ability is spoken of as "a man of talent," or "a talented man." The word ability, indeed, is used in the same way. "A man of ability," "an able man," means a man able to do more than most people can; whereas, properly speaking, and in the sense of the parable, a man who is able to do anything-to break stones, to write his name, to speak a sentence of sense-is an able man. He is not generally so called, but he really is a talented man, for God has given him, as He has given to every one, certain ability, and according to that ability is the talent for service with which Christ entrusts him. At first sight this phrase "according to his several ability" seems invidious, as if suggesting that Christ was a respecter of persons, and dealt more liberally with the strong than with the weak. But the talents are not merely gifts, -they are trusts involving responsibility; and therefore it is simple justice to graduate them according to ability. As we shall see, there is no respect of persons in appointing the awards. But as respects the talents, involving as they do the burden of responsibility, it is very evident that it would be no kindness to the man of less ability that he should be made responsible for more than he can easily undertake.

The gradations of five, two, one, appropriately correspond to what we speak of as superior, ordinary, and inferior ability. At this point occurs the main distinction between this parable and the similar one of the pounds, spoken at a different time and with a different purpose. Here the servants all differ at first, but the faithful ones are alike in the end, inasmuch as they have done equally well in proportion to their ability. There the servants are all alike at the beginning, out the faithful ones receive different awards, inasmuch as they have differed in the degree of their diligence and faithfulness. The two together bring out with striking clearness and force the great thought that not success, but faithfulness is what the Lord insists on. The weakest is at no disadvantage; he may not only do as well as the strongest, but if the measure of his diligence and faithfulness is higher, he may even excel him.

It is in keeping with the difference in the scope of the two parables that in the one the sums entrusted should be large (talents), in the other, small (pounds). In the parable which has for its main lesson, "Make the most of the little you have," the amounts entrusted are small; while the large sums are fitly found in the parable which emphasises what may be called the other side of the great lesson, "To whom much is given, of them much shall be required."

Confining our attention now to the parable before us, we have first the encouraging side in the cases of two of the servants. The number is evidently chosen as the very smallest that would bring out the truth that where abilities differ the reward will be the same, if only the diligence and faithfulness be equal. It is quite probable, indeed, that the number of servants thought of was more than three, perhaps ten, to correspond with the number of the virgins, and that only as many cases are taken as were necessary to bring out the truth to be taught.

These two faithful servants lost no time in setting to work. This appears in the Revised Version, where the word "straightway" is restored to its right place, indicating that immediately on receiving the five talents the servant began diligently to use them (Matthew 25:16, R.V). The servant with the two talents acted "in like manner" (Matthew 25:17). The result was that each doubled his capital, and each received the same gracious welcome and high promotion when their lord returned (Matthew 25:20-23). They had been unequally successful; but inasmuch as this was not due to any difference in diligence, but only to difference in ability, they were equal in welcome and reward. It is, however, worthy of remark that while the language is precisely the same in the one case as in the other, it is not such as to determine that their position would be precisely equal in the life to come. There will be differences of ability and of range of service there as well as here. In both cases the verdict on the past was "faithful over a few things," though the few things of the one were more than double the few things of the other; and in the same way, though the promise for the future was for the one as well as for the other, "I will set thee over many things," it might well be that the many things of the future might vary as the few things of the past had done. But all will be alike satisfied, a thought which is beautifully put by Dante in the third canto of his "Paradise," where the sainted Piccarda, in answer to the question whether those who, like her, have the lower places have no envy of those above them, gives an explanation of which this is the concluding passage:

"So that as we, from step to step, Are placed throughout this kingdom, pleases all, Even as our King, Who in us plants His will; And in His will is our tranquillity; It is the mighty ocean, whither tends Whatever it creates and nature makes."

Whereupon Dante himself says:

"Then saw I clearly how each spot in heaven Is Paradise, though with like gracious dew The supreme virtue shower not over all."-Canto III 82-90 (Carey).

It is not suggested, however, in the parable that there is not the same gracious dew showering over all. "The joy of the Lord" would appear to be the same for all; but it is significant that the leading thought of heavenly reward is not joy, but rather promotion, promotion in service, a higher sphere and a wider range of work, the "few things" which have been our glad service here exchanged for "many things," of which we shall be masters there-no more failures, no more bungling, no more mortifications as we look back upon work half done or ill done or much of it undone: "I will set thee over many things (R.V)." That is the great reward; the other follows as of course: "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."

As in the parable of the virgins, so here, the force increases as we pass from encouragement to warning. The closing scene is solemn and fearful. That the man with one talent should be selected as an illustration of unfaithfulness is very significant-not certainly in the way of suggesting that unfaithfulness is more likely to be found among those whose abilities are slender and opportunities small; but so as to make it plain that, though all due allowance is made for this, it can in no case be accepted as an excuse for want of faithfulness. It is just as imperative on the man with one talent, as on him with five, to do what he can. Had the illustration been taken from one with higher endowments, it might have been thought that the greatness of the loss had something to do with the severity of the sentence: but, as the parable is constructed, no such thought is admissible: it is perfectly clear that it is no question of gain or loss, but simply of faithfulness or unfaithfulness: "Hast thou done what thou couldst?"

The offence here is not, as in the first of the four pictures of judgment, painted in dark colours. There was no beating of fellow-servants or drinking with the drunken, no conduct like that of the unjust steward or the unmerciful creditor who took his fellow-servant by the throat-it was simple neglect: "I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth." The servant had such a modest estimate of his own abilities that he was even afraid he might do mischief in trying to use the talent he had, so he laid it away and let it alone. The excuse he makes (Matthew 25:24-25) is very true to nature. It is not modesty after all that is at the root of the idleness of those who hide their talent in the earth; it is unbelief. They do not believe in God as revealed in the Son of His love; they think of Him as a hard Master; they shrink from having anything to do with religion, rather wonder at those who have the assurance to think of their serving God, or doing anything for the advancement of His kingdom. They know not the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore it is that they hold aloof from Him, refusing to confess Him, declining to employ in His service the talents entrusted to their care.

At this point there is an instructive contrast between the parable of the virgins and the one before us. There the foolish virgins failed because they took their duties too easily; here the servant fails because he thinks his duties too hard. Bearing this in mind, we recognise the appropriateness of the Lord’s answer. He might have found fault with his excuse, showing him how easily he might have known that his ideas of his Master were entirely wrong, and how if he had only addressed himself to the work to which he was called, his difficulties would have disappeared and he would have found the service easily within his powers; but the Master waives all this, accepts the hard verdict on Himself, admits the difficulties in the way, and then points out that even at the worst, even though he "was afraid," even though he had not courage enough, like the other servants, to go straightway to the work to which he was first called, he might have found some other and less trying form of service, something that would have avoided the risks he had not courage to face, and yet at the same time have secured some return for his Lord (Matthew 25:26-27). The Master is ready to make all allowance for the weakness of His servants, so long as it does not amount to absolute unfaithfulness; so long as by any stretch of charity it is possible to call the servant "good and faithful." In this case it was not possible. Not faithful, but slothful, was the word: therefore good it cannot be, but-the only other alternative-wicked: "thou wicked and slothful servant."

Then follows doom. Instead of promotion, degradation: "take the talent from him." And in this there is no arbitrary punishment, no penalty needing to be inflicted-it comes as the result of a great law of the universe, according to which unused powers fall into atrophy, paralysis, and death; while on the other hand, faithful and diligent use of power enlarges it more and more: "Take therefore the talent from ‘him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." As the necessary and natural sequel to promotion in service was the joy of the Lord, so the natural and necessary sequel of degradation is the "outer darkness," where "there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

4. The Final Separation. [Matthew 25:31-46]

As in the Sermon on the Mount, and again in the last discourse in the Temple, so here, the language rises into a strain of great majesty and sublimity as the prophecy draws to a close. No one can fail to recognise it. This vision of judgment is the climax of the teaching of the Lord Christ. Alike for magnificence and for pathos it is unsurpassed in literature. There is no departure from His wonted simplicity of style. As little here as everywhere else do we recognise even a trace of effort or of elaboration; yet as we read there is not a word that could be changed, not a clause that could be spared, not a thought that could be added with advantage. It bears the mark of perfection, whether we look at it from the point of view of the Speaker’s divinity or from the point of view of His humanity. Divine in its sublimity, it is most human in its tenderness. "Truly this was the Son of God." Truly this was the Son of man.

The grandeur of the passage is all the more impressive by contrast with what immediately follows: "And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, He said unto His disciples, Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified."

Into such an abyss was the Son of man looking when in language so calm, so confident, so majestic, so sublime, He spoke of sitting on the throne of His glory as the Judge of all mankind. Did ever man speak like this Man?

It is significant that even when speaking of the coming glory He still retains His favourite designation, "the Son of man." In this we see one of the many minute coincidences which show the inner harmony of the discourses recorded in this Gospel with those of a different style of thought preserved by St. John; for it is in one of these we read that "He the Father hath given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of man." Thus the judgment of humanity proceeds out of humanity itself, and constitutes as it were the final offering up of man to God. This on the God-ward side; and, on the other side, there is for those who stand before the Judge, the certainty that as Son of man He knows by experience all the weaknesses of those He judges and the force of the temptations by which they have been beset.

Nothing could be more impressive than the picture set before us of the throne of glory, on which is seated the Son of man with all the angels around Him and all nations gathered before Him. It is undoubtedly the great assize, the general judgment of mankind. No partial judgment can it be, nothing less than the great event referred to in that passage already quoted from St. John’s Gospel, where after speaking of judgment being committed to the Son of Man, it is added: "Marvel not at this: for the hour cometh, in which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth: they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation." This view of the passage is supported not only by the universality implied throughout and expressed in the term "all the nations"; but by every reference to the same subject throughout this Gospel, notably the parables of the Tares and the Net, {see Matthew 13:39-43; Matthew 13:47-50} the general declaration at Caesarea Philippi; "The Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father, with His angels; and then shall He reward every man according to his works"; [Matthew 16:27] and especially the earlier reference to the same event in this discourse, in that portion of it which we have spoken of as the prophecy proper, where the mourning of all the tribes of earth, and the gathering together of the elect from the one end of heaven to the other, are connected with one another and witch the coming of the Son of man. [Matthew 24:30-31]

It seems quite certain, then, that whatever subsequent unfoldings there may be in the later books of the New Testament as to the order in which judgment shall proceed, there is no intention here of anticipating them. It is true that the preceding parables have each given a partial view of the judgment, -the first as affecting those in office in the Church, the second and third as applied to the members of the Church; but just as those specially contemplated in the first parable are included in the wider scope of the second and third, so these contemplated in the second and third are included in the universal scope of the great judgment scene with which the whole discourse is fitly and grandly concluded.

In this great picture of the final judgment the prominent thought is separation: "He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left." How easily and with what unerring certainty the separation is made-as easily and as surely as the shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats! Nothing eludes the glance of that all-searching Eye. No need of pleading or counter-pleading, of prosecutor or prisoner’s counsel, no hope from legal quibble or insufficient proof. All, all is "naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do." He sees all at a glance; and as He sees, He divides by a single dividing line. There is no middle position: each one is either on the right or on the left.

The dividing line is one entirely new. All nations are there; but not as nations are they divided now. This is strikingly suggested in the original by the change from the neuter (nations, εθνη) to the masculine (them, αυτους), indicating as by a sudden flash of unexpected light that not as nations, but as individuals, must all be judged. The line is one which crosses all other lines that have divided men from one another, so that of all ranks and conditions of men there will be some on the right and some on the left. Even the family line will be crossed, so that husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, may be found on opposite sides of it. What, then, is this new and final line of separation? The sentence of the King will mark it out for us.

It is the first and only time that Jesus calls Himself the King. He has displayed His royalty in His acts; He has suggested it in His discourses and His parables; He has claimed it by the manner of His entry into His capital and His Temple; He will afterwards assent when Pilate shall ask Him the plain question; but this is the only place where He uses the title in speaking of Himself. How significant and impressive is this! It is as if He would once for all before He suffered disclose the fulness of His majesty. His royalty, indeed, was suggested at the very beginning by the reference to the throne of His glory; but inasmuch as judgment was the work which lay immediately before Him, He still spoke of Himself as the Son of man; but now that the separation is made, now that the books have been opened and closed, He rises above the Judge and styles Himself THE KING.

We must think of Him now as all radiant with His royal glory-that visage which, was "so marred more than any man" now shining with celestial light-that Form which was distorted "more than the sons of men," now seen to be the very "form of God," "the chiefest among ten thousand" of the highest angels round Him, "altogether lovely," the personal embodiment of that glorious kingdom He has been preparing through all the centuries from the foundation of the world-disclosed at last as the answer to every longing soul, the satisfaction of every pure desire, -THE KING.

All this we must realise before we can imagine the awful gulf which lies between these simple words, "Depart" and "Come." That sweet word "Come"-how He has repeated and repeated it through all these ages, in every possible way, with endless variations! Spoken so tenderly with His own human lips, it has been taken up and given forth by those whom He. has sent in His name: the Spirit has said "Come"; the Bride has said "Come"; the hearers have said "Come"; whosoever would, has been invited to come. The music of the word has never died away. But now its course is nearly run. Once more it will ring out; but with a difference. No longer now to all. The line of separation has been drawn, and across "the great gulf fixed" the old sweet word of grace can reach no longer. It is to those on the right, and these alone, that now the King says "Come." To those on the left there remains the word, a stranger to His lips before, the awful word, "Depart from Me."

In the contrast between these two words, there already is involved all that follows: all the joy of the welcome-"Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world"; all the horror of the doom-"Depart from Me, ye cursed. into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels."

Still the great question remains unanswered, What is the dividing liner Inasmuch as this belongs to the hidden man of the heart, to the secrecy of consciousness and conscience, the only way in which it could be made to appear in a picture parable of judgment such as this, is by the introduction of such a conversation as that which follows the sentence in each case. The general distinction between the two classes had been suggested by the simile of the sheep and the goats-the one white, the other black, the one obedient, the other unruly; but it is made much more definite by this dramatic conversation. We call it dramatic, because we regard it as extreme bondage to the letter to suppose this to be a prediction of the words that will actually be used, and therefore look upon it simply as intended to represent, as nothing else could, the new light which both the righteous and the wicked will then see suddenly flashed upon their life on earth, a light so full and clear and self-interpreting that there cannot but be unquestioning acquiescence in the justice of the final award.

There are those who, looking at this conversation in the most superficial way, find in it the doctrine of salvation by works, and imagine that they are warranted on the strength of this passage to set aside all that is written in other parts of Scripture as to the necessity of change of heart, to dismiss from their minds all concern about creed or worship, about doctrine or sacraments or church membership. Be kind to the poor-that will do instead of everything else.

In answer to such a perversion of our Lord’s language it should surely be enough to call attention to the fact that all is made to turn upon the treatment of Christ by the one class and by the other. Kindness to the poor comes in, not as in itself the ground of the division, but as furnishing the evidence or manifestation of that devotion to God as revealed in Christ which forms the real ground of acceptance, and the want of which is the sole ground of condemnation. True it is that Christ identifies Himself with His people, and accepts the kindness done to the poorest of them as done to Himself; but there is obviously implied, what is elsewhere in a similar connection clearly expressed, that the kindness must be done "in the name of a disciple." In other words, love to Christ must be the motive of the deed of charity, else it is worthless as a test of true discipleship. The more carefully the whole passage is read, the more manifest will it be that the great question which determines the separation is this: "How have you treated Christ?" It is only to bring out more clearly the real answer to this question that the other is added: How have you treated Christ’s poor? For according to each man’s treatment of these will have been his treatment of Christ Himself. It is the same principle applied to the unseen Christ as the apostle applies to the invisible God: "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God Whom he hath not seen?"

While there is no encouragement here for those who hope to make up for the rejection of Christ by deeds of kindness to poor people, there is abundant room left for the acceptance at the last of those who had no means of knowing Christ, . but who showed by their treatment of their fellow-men in distress that the spirit of Christ was in them. To such the King will be no stranger when they shall see Him on the throne; nor will they be strangers to Him. He will recognise them as His own; and they will recognise Him as the very King of Love for Whom their souls were longing, but Who not till now has been revealed to their delighted gaze. To all such will the gracious words be spoken "Come, ye blessed of My Father"; but they too, as well as all the rest, will be received not on the ground of works as distinguished from faith, but on the ground of a real though implicit faith which worked by love and which was only waiting for the revelation of their King and Lord to make it explicit, to bring it out to light.

Philanthropy can never take the place of faith; and yet no words ever spoken or written on this earth have done so much for philanthropy as these. It were vain to attempt, in so brief a sketch, to bring out even in the way of suggestion the mingled majesty and pathos of the words of the King to the righteous, culminating in that great utterance which touches the very deepest springs of feeling and thrills every fibre of the pure and loving heart: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me." Besides the pathos of the words, what depth of suggestion is there in the thought, as shedding light upon His claim to be the Son of man! As Son of God He is the King, seated on the throne of His glory: as Son of man He is identified with all His brethren, even with the least of them, and with each one of them all over all the world and through all the ages: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me." How the divinity shines, how the humanity thrills, through these great words of the King!

The scroll of this grand prophecy is finished with the awful words: "These shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into eternal life" (R.V). Eternal punishment, eternal life-such are the issues which hang upon the coming of the Son of man to judgment; such are the issues which hang upon the treatment of the Son of man in these years of our mortal life that are passing over us now. There are those who flatter themselves with the idea that, because the question has been raised by honest and candid interpreters of Scripture whether absolute endlessness is necessarily involved in the word eternal, therefore these words of doom are shorn of much of their terror; but surely this is a pitiful delusion. There is no possible way of reducing the force of the word "eternal" which will bring the awfulness of the doom within the bounds of any finite imagination; and whatever may be said as to what the word necessarily implies, whatever vague surmise there may be that absolute endlessness is not in it, this much is perfectly certain: that there is not the slightest suggestion of hope in the words; no straining of the eyes can discern even the straitest gate out of that eternal punishment into eternal life. Between the one and the other there is "a great gulf fixed." It is the final judgment; it is the final separation; and scarcely with more distinctness could the awful letters have been traced, "Leave every hope behind, all ye who enter here." "These shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous"-none but the righteous-"into eternal life."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Matthew 24:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/matthew-24.html.

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