The three parables of Matthew 25 reveal what this new kingdom will be like (and not like) and how His followers can participate in its coming through their beliefs and behaviors.
These three parables not only show the two ways of living in this world as one of His followers, but they also correct the thinking of the disciples about what the kingdom of heaven will look like.
Jesus wants them to know that His rule and reign will not be like the Roman rule and reign. Jesus is not trying to simply replace Caesar. Though this is what most Jewish people wanted and expected, Jesus did not come to inaugurate a kingdom that looked and acted like the kingdom of Caesar.
The first and last parables, therefore, describe truths related to the kingdom of God, while the middle parable, the Parable of the Talents, describes truths related to the kingdom of Caesar.
The followers of Jesus must decide which kingdom they will serve.
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13)
Jesus first describes the kingdom of heaven with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13). The point of this parable is to encourage His followers to live in a constant state of readiness for the coming of the kingdom.
This passage is not about who is going to heaven and who is not. This story is about participating in the wedding celebration when the bridegroom arrives and the kingdom party begins.
People can have eternal life and still miss out on most of the party. Whether we watch or sleep, we will live together with Him (1 Thess 5:10).
The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
The next parable is the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
Most assume that it also is about the kingdom of heaven and how Jesus is the man who traveled to a far country and will return, at which point He blesses those who helped increase His wealth and punishes those who did not.
But Jesus does not say that He is describing the kingdom of heaven. While most Bible translations do include the words “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 25:14, these words have been added by the translators and do not exist in the Greek.
Instead, having just invited his followers to look eagerly for the coming of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus now goes on to warn them what life would be like for them if they tried to live in the kingdom of this world.
Numerous lines of evidence support this view. Chief among them is the fact that the actions of this man who travels to a far country would have been understood as quite evil in the first century Mediterranean world. They not only closely follow the actions and behaviors of King Herod and how he went to Rome to become the king of Israel, but the values of this man also reveal the opposite of what Jesus taught and encouraged.
The first century Mediterranean world was guided by the cultural values of honor and shame. Modern western culture is guided by materialism.
Today, we value any activity which gets more money and gains more possessions.
But in an honor-shame culture, such activities were great sins. They believed that money and possessions were zero-sum commodities, which meant that the only way for one person to gain more money and possessions was by taking it away from someone else.
This was very shameful behavior. The first two servants, like their master, were exploiters. They gained more for themselves at the expense of their brethren.
So Jesus is saying that if one of his disciples does not look with anticipation for the coming of the kingdom of heaven, their only other option is to participate with the kingdom of this world, by imitating it in its greedy ways.
If a person does not follow the way of Jesus, they will either behave very shamefully in stealing from their brethren, or will receive harsh judgment and punishment from the rulers of this world for not participating in their greedy game.
The rulers of this world expect and demand their subjects to follow their twisted, thieving ways to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Those who refuse to follow these marching orders will be punished by the rulers, and will be banished to the darkness outside the party of this world.
But when followers of Jesus experience such treatment at the hands of the rulers of this world, they should not despair, for the punishment of worldly rulers is not the end of the matter.
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)
Jesus now goes on in the final parable of Matthew 25 to show His disciples that even though they might be rejected by the kingdoms of men, they will not be rejected or despised by the kingdom of God.
Since the values and behaviors of the two kingdoms are diametrically opposed to one another, the consequences for actions are different as well. While a lack of greed brought punishment from the kingdoms of the world, this same behavior brings praise and honor in the kingdom of heaven.
With the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus shows the distinctive characteristics that separate the two kingdoms, and calls His disciples to choose which kingdom they will serve.
In this final parable, Jesus reveals that He, as the Son of Man Shepherd King, will be the one who decides which of His servants worked for the kingdom of heaven and which worked for the kingdom of earth.
While the Parable of the Talents showed that the kingdom of earth praises those who steal from the poor and give it to the rich, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats reveals that the kingdom of heaven works the opposite way.
Jesus, the Lord of the kingdom of heaven, values the poor and needy, and gives praise and honor to those who tend to their needs.
So this final parable of Jesus ties the preceding two parables together.
Jesus told two parables showing two different ways of living in this world. One can either live in in the light of the kingdom of God or live with the values of the kingdom of this world. This final parable shows the consequences of living in the two opposing kingdoms.
Most studies on this parable go to great lengths trying to discern who Jesus has in view when He speaks of “the nations” (Matt 25:32) and the “the least of these, My brethren” (Matt 25:40). The “nations” can be identified with Gentile nations, unbelieving Jews, or unbelievers from all nations. The “least of these, My brethren” can be identified religiously as the group of people who follow Jesus and do His will (Matt 12:50; Mark 3:35; Luke 8:21), ethnically, so that Jesus’ brethren are the Jewish people, and therefore, all nations (Matt 25:32) that help Israel will be blessed (Gen 12:3), or eschatologically, so that the brethren of Jesus are believers who live during the future Tribulation period.
All such proposals, however, allow readers to ignore the overall lesson of the parable: A defining characteristic of the kingdom of God is that it will take care of the poor and needy of this world, wherever they are found, whatever religion or nationality they are of.
Those who use this parable as justification to limit their care of the poor and needy to those of only one particular group of people or for people during one particular time period (e.g., the future Tribulation), self-identify themselves as a goat.
Those servants of Jesus who believe that Jesus is returning soon, and live wisely as members of the kingdom of God, will work to feed, clothe, and serve all the poor and needy, regardless of religion or race.
The kingdom of God breaks down all such barriers, so that those who work for the kingdom see all people as their brothers and sisters.
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