The message recorded in Matthew 24 and 25 is usually called the “Olivet Discourse” because it was given on the Mount of Olives, within sight of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish Temple was one of the more outstanding sights in the ancient world. It was built of white marble and parts of it were plated with gold. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Temple shone so brilliantly in the sunlight that a person could not look at it for a long time on a bright day. The Temple was a massive structure. Some of the stones in the Temple platform were huge rocks 40 feet long and weighed 100 tons each—and are still visible today.
Jesus and His disciples had just left the Temple area, and walked down into the Kidron Valley, and up the slopes of the Mount of Olives. The disciples called Jesus’ attention to the magnificence of the Temple structure (24:1-2), and then Jesus astounded them with the prediction that it would all be destroyed! Later, several of the disciples came to Jesus privately and asked several questions (24:3) — “When will the temple be destroyed?” and “What will be the sign of your second coming?”
The content of Matthew 24 and 25 (the Olivet Discourse) is the answer Jesus gave to those two questions. Sometimes what Jesus says in these chapters refers to the first question (the coming judgment on Jerusalem which occurred in 70 AD). Sometimes what Jesus says here refers to the second question (His return to earth, and the judgment at the end of the age). Some of what Jesus says can apply equally well to both periods of time, and it is difficult to know to which period He precisely refers.
The Olivet Discourse is partly concerned with the destruction of Jerusalem. In 24:2, Jesus was looking at the Temple and said, “There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down.” The building, which was so magnificent, was destroyed by the Roman armies in 70 AD, less than forty years after Jesus spoke the words. The Romans came and burned the City, and the flames melted the gold of the Temple until it ran into the crevices of the rocks. The soldiers pried the huge stones apart one by one in order to get the gold. And so indeed not one stone was left upon another!
But the Olivet Discourse also speaks of the coming of Christ and the end of the age. In Matthew 24, verses 29-30, we read, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven . . . and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven . . . and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Also, at the end of Matthew 25, we have the account of the judgment of the nations. And so the Olivet Discourse refers not only to the destruction of Jerusalem, but also to events that will take place at the end of the age.
In the early part of Matthew 24 Jesus gives some signs that point to the Second Coming of Christ. Many will come saying they are the Christ (24:5). There will be wars and rumors of wars (24:6). Many false prophets shall arise and iniquity shall abound (24:11-12). In the latter part of Matthew 24 and the early part of Matthew 25, Jesus turns from signs that will precede Christ’s coming, to illustrations which further clarify what it means to be ready for His return. He also reminds us how to actively live until He comes.
1. The illustration of the fig tree (24:32-35)
The fig tree has been used frequently in Scripture as a symbol of Israel (For example, Jeremiah 24:8). The purpose of the illustration is to confirm in our minds the fact that Israel as a nation will never cease to exist. Just as the inhabitants of Palestine knew when summer was coming by the appearance of leaves on the fig trees (they were the first to come out), so we can know that the Lord’s coming is near by the evidences of stirrings in the land of Israel.
For hundreds of years after 70 AD, Israel had been dormant, with no government, no land, no temple, and no sign of life. The people were scattered among many nations—but in 1948 Israel became a nation, with its own flag, its own capital city, and its own boundaries. The return of the Jews to Palestine and the building of the nation Israel, has happened exactly as it was prophesied to happen. This event alone should be enough to convince any unbeliever of the power of God and of the accuracy of the Bible. The survival of the Jewish people is one of the great miracles of all times. Jeremiah spoke God’s message to the people of Israel, when he said, “Though I make a full end of all nations wither I have scattered thee, yet will I not make a full end of thee” (Jeremiah 30:11).
2. The illustration of the days of Noah (24:36-44)
The illustration in these verses confirms the fact that Christ’s coming will be sudden, and thus should motivate us to always be prepared. The primary emphasis is upon the suddenness and unexpectedness of Christ’s coming. The people “knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (24:39). There won’t be any chance to bargain or to repent at the last minute when Jesus comes. “Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.”
3. The illustration of the faithful and unfaithful followers (24:45-51)
This illustration is intended to stimulate us to use the time between now and the Lord’s return, to help promote God’s work here on earth. We are not merely to wait eagerly for the Lord’s return, but we are to conduct ourselves as faithful followers of Christ. There are duties to be discharged and there is work for us to do until Jesus comes. We are not to sit back, and wait, and do nothing. We are not to carouse and seek after selfish worldly pleasures. We are not to sit around trying to discover exact calculations about when Jesus will come back. If we knew exactly when Jesus would come back, we would probably have a list of “Things to Do” as the time draws closer. The list would probably be something like this: write letters; pay back money owed; apologize for wrongs we’ve done; and pray for unsaved family members. The best way to prepare for Christ’s return is to do those very things—like the wise servant in 24:45.
4. The illustration of the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13)
The parable of the Ten Virgins is intended to clarify once again the importance of being ready for Christ’s return.
Jesus tells about ten girls who had hoped to participate in a parade—escorting the groom and his bride to a wedding feast at the groom’s home. Just when the wedding party would arrive, no one was quite sure. Finally, at midnight, the cry went out — “The bridegroom is coming,” and the march to the groom’s house was ready to begin. But five of the girls were unable to light their lamps—because at the last minute they discovered that they had no oil. The lesson of the parable is obvious. When Jesus returns, there will be two classes of people—those who are ready, and those who are not. Some will be wise and watchful, and some will be foolish and careless. Jesus hammers home the lesson of watchfulness again and again in these chapters of Matthew.
Three of the saddest sayings of the Bible are found in these verses. The first sad saying is, “Our lamps are gone out” (25:8b). The second sad expression is, “And the door was shut” (25:10). The final distressing sentence is, “I know you not” (25:12).
5. The illustration of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46)
The parable of the sheep and goats points out the importance of meeting human needs. We see the importance of doing good deeds—and note that such work is not contrary to the Bible’s teaching on salvation by grace. Jesus first mentions the Judge by saying that when the Son of man comes in His glory, all the nations will be gathered before Him—and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. The sheep will be on His right hand, and the goats on the left.
The coming of Jesus the second time will not be like it was the first time. The first time He was born as a lowly baby and laid in a manger. The second time He will appear in power and great glory. He came the first time to save sinners; He is coming the second time to judge the nations. The illustration found in Matthew 25 is at least a partial description of what will happen on the Judgment Day. It is a reminder that God will separate obedient followers from pretenders and unbelievers, and will assign appropriate rewards and punishment. The Son of man will come in His glory, accompanied by a multitude of angels; verse 32 says that all the nations shall be gathered before Him. This is not a judgment of national groups such as Germany, Russia, and the United States, but rather, a judgment of individuals from within those nations.
In 25:34-46, we are told that on the Judgment Day, individuals will be separated into two groups: When the multitude has been separated, and sent to their places on the one side (or the other), Jesus will announce His reward for those on the right. The group designated by the sheep (verses 34-40)—who had been kind to Christ’s “brethren”—will be placed on the right hand of the King, and will be richly rewarded. They will inherit the kingdom (verse 34).
In 25:41-46, we learn that the penalty for the wicked will be stunningly severe. They will be separated from the presence of the Lord—and cast into a fire that will burn for eternity. The group designated by the goats (verses 41-46) who had seen Christ’s “brethren” in various kinds of trouble, but failed to minister to them—will be placed on the left hand of the King, and will be punished. They will experience everlasting fire (verse 41).
There has been considerable discussion about what is meant by “my brethren” (verse 40). Who are “my brethren?” Some hold that the term “my brethren” refers to the Jews, and that the Gentile nations are being judged here on the basis of their treatment of God’s chosen people, Israel. According to this view, the Judgment will determine which nations go into the Millennium. One of the problems with the view is that the outcome of the Judgment described here, is to determine who goes into eternal life, and who goes into everlasting punishment (verse 46)—not who goes into the Millennium. Another problem with the view is that there has never been a nation composed totally of “sheep” (those who consistently and always do good).
A more obvious understanding of the phrase “my brethren” is that they represent suffering humanity in general. The sentence, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me”—certainly includes our attitudes and actions toward the needy, the hungry, the imprisoned, and the poor. Jesus demands personal involvement in caring for the desperate needs of others.
Isaiah 58:7 says that we are to share food with the hungry, bring the helpless into our homes, and clothe those who are cold. We must actively participate in ministries of relief, supplying food, clothing, medicine, agricultural development—if we really claim to be New Testament Christians. Have you ever visited someone in prison, or opened your home to someone in need?
We should aim, like the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, to serve any truly needy person we can. Such practical love for others glorifies God, because in doing it for them, we are really doing it for the Lord Jesus. When Paul persecuted the early Christians, Jesus said, “You are persecuting me” (Acts 9:4). And Jesus said, “Whoever receives a little child in my name, receives me” (Matthew 18:5). None of us can read these words of Jesus, and believe that a Christian may be unconcerned and inactive regarding the needs of our suffering fellow human beings.
Some believe that the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 is equivalent to the Great White Throne Judgment described in Revelation 20. Others view this Judgment as the Lord’s decision about the way Gentile nations have treated the people of Israel. We cannot be certain about the exact timetable of the events related to Judgment. Regardless of the extent or limitations of this judgment, there are certain principles and truths taught in these verses.
a. What we do for fellow human beings, the Lord feels too.
The Scriptures spell out this truth in a number of places. Isaiah 63:9 says, “In all their affliction, he was afflicted.” Zechariah 2:8 says, “He that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of his eye.” And Proverbs 19:17 says, “He that hath pity upon the poor, lendeth unto the Lord.”
b. Sins of omission are as deadly as sins of commission.
The “goats” in this account had not tortured or murdered anyone. They simply withheld the love and help they might have been able to give to the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, and the helpless. We seem to have the impression that a sin of doing is much worse than a sin of not doing. Yet, to do nothing may be even worse than doing wrong. To refuse to warn the occupants of a burning house may be as bad as setting fire to the house.
c. Judgment will be accompanied by great surprises.
The faithful ones will say, “When did we see you hungry, and feed you?” (verse 37). And “When did we see you a stranger and take you in?” (verse 38). The surprise of the sheep is a sure sign that they did not feed the hungry, and minister to strangers, in order to merit salvation. They did these things simply because they loved the Lord.
d. This picture is not the full account of everything that has to do with salvation.
These verses deal with the evidences by which people will be judged, not with the cause of salvation or damnation. Over and over again the Bible teaches that we are saved by the sheer grace of God—not by works. But the Bible also teaches that we will be judged by our works.
Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith . . . not of works, lest any man should boast.” The grace of God is the undeserved, unmerited, and unearned kindness of God. We are saved by the grace of God, but Jesus also explained that judgment will be based on works (Matthew 16:27), where Jesus says, “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father . . . and then he shall reward every man according to his works.”
Our names will be either in the Lamb’s Book of Life or in the Judge’s Book of Death. Matthew 25:46 speaks of everlasting punishment and also of eternal life. The word “eternal” and the word “everlasting” (in verse 46) are both exactly the same in the original Greek. If we believe in eternal bliss, we must also believe in eternal punishment. If Heaven lasts forever, then Hell also lasts forever.
No matter what view of Bible prophecy we take, we can be assured that Jesus is coming to earth again. We must constantly look for His coming; we must be alert and ready; we must not waste our opportunities; we must not become lazy and careless; we must warn people about everlasting punishment, and assure the saints of everlasting life. When Jesus comes, it may be at morn when the day is awaking; it may be at mid-day; it may be at twilight; or it may be during the blackness of midnight. One thing is certain—we will not know the hour of His coming.
One of the most dangerous attitudes in connection with our Lord’s return is the one which says that there is plenty of time. We should never say, “There is plenty of time to put things right; surely there is no need (some say) to think of His return for a long time yet.”
There is a fable which describes three apprentice demons, which were coming to earth to finish their apprenticeship. They talked to Satan, the chief of demons, about their plans to tempt and ruin human beings.
The first said, “I’ll tell them there is no God.”
But Satan said, “They seem to know that there is a God.”
The second said, “I’ll tell them there is no hell.”
But Satan said, “They know that sin ought to be punished.”
The third said, “I’ll tell them there is no hurry.”
“Oh yes,” Satan said, “that will work; go and deceive them by the thousands.”
Christ’s coming could happen far into the future, but it could also happen today. The question we must ask is this: Am I ready to stand before God’s throne and be judged? Those not found in the Book of Life will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). The good news is that our heavenly Father is willing to receive anyone who believes the Gospel, repents of sin, and makes a wholehearted commitment to follow the Lord Jesus Christ (John 6:37).