NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 31: “The Son of Man will come again with divine greatness, and all His angels will come with Him. He will sit as king on His great and glorious throne.”
Now Jesus ties His own return to the parables He just gave. The event He mentions does not appear to be related to what is called the Rapture when He comes back to awaken those sleeping and transform those still living to meet Him in the air. At first, this may seem to be a reference to what is referred to as the setting up of His “Millennial Reign.”1 However, as He goes on we see that it will be what is known as “Judgment Day.”2
Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man in Verse 31. He does this to reflect His descent from heaven; taking upon Himself the form of mankind; fulfilling His assignment as a suffering servant; being obedient to His Father, and even dying and enduring the curse of the cross. However, in this verse the Son of Man returns, changed from the ridiculed, beaten, suffering Savior, into the triumphant KING of Kings and LORD of Lords.
What Jesus shares here sounds very familiar to what Daniel saw: “In my vision at night I looked, and there in front of me was someone who looked like a human being. He was coming on the clouds in the sky. He came up to the Ancient King, and the King’s servants brought him before the King. The one who looked like a human being was given authority, glory, and complete ruling power. People from every nation and language group will serve Him. His rule will last forever. His kingdom will continue forever. It will never be destroyed.”3
Since Matthew chose the parable of the servants and their money and placed the apologue of Christ’s second coming right after it in the text, one might wonder what one has to do with the other. In other words, could the investment of money in the first story be representative of our giving to those in need in this second story? At the same time, could it also be that the money in the first parable is analogous of our tithes and offerings to the church while helping the hungry and thirsty in the second story be indicative of our ministry to the world? In any case, let us never become like the Pharisees who tithed to the very last penny and tiny sprig of mint, but forget the weightier matters of justice and mercy (See Matthew 23:23).
As we have seen before, the early church fathers were not as keen on interpreting these parables as a reference to the return of Christ to catch away the believers, both those asleep in the grave and those living. For instance, Jerome says: “Jesus rightly promises that the glory of the triumphant one [would follow] after two days in which He would celebrate the Passover and be consigned to the cross, mocked by humanity and given wine and gall to drink. Thus He will offset with the promised reward the blameworthy actions to follow. Clearly, He who is to be seen in majesty is the Son of man.”4
At the same time, Chrysostom offers this explanation: “He does not say that the coming kingdom is compared to this or that, as He has been speaking previously, but now openly shows Himself to be the Son of man, who ‘shall come in His glory.’ If He has up to now appeared in a condition of dishonor, now He appears in a different role. He reproaches. He confronts. He sits upon His throne of glory. And He continually mentions glory. For His cross was drawing near, a thing that seemed to be a matter of reproach. So He lifts His hearers up and brings before their sight the judgment seat, with all the world gathered around Him.”5
What Chrysostom is saying may mean that after our Lord’s death and resurrection, then everyone who will hear this story accompanied by the message of salvation, will be judged immediately on whether or not they receive what they have heard and believe in Him as the Messiah. In other words, the judgment will be that if they believe they will be saved and have eternal life, and if they don’t believe they will be condemned to eternal punishment. Then later, when they stand before the judgment seat of Christ, their guilty status will be promulgated and their punishment will follow. The key to this is that there will not be a trial and any possibility that they may still be acquitted after they die. That determination must be made before death.
Verses 32-33: “All the people of the world will be gathered before Him. Then He will separate everyone into two groups. It will be like a shepherd separating his sheep from his goats. He puts the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”
This clearly is speaking of the period at the end of the great tribulation. It will be the day of judgment. And what we find in Scripture says: “When the time for judgment comes, the wicked will be found guilty. Sinners have no place among those who do what is right.”6 This bears witness with what our Lord describes here. This separation on the right and left was only illustrated by Jesus in the story of how the shepherd segregates his sheep from his goats. In this case, the “right” and “left” were given no spiritual meaning such as “right” and “wrong.”
However, one famed Jewish commentator states that when God said let us make man in our image: “From here we learn the humility of the Holy One, blessed be He. Since man was created in the likeness of the angels, and they would envy him, He consulted them. And when He judges kings, He consults with His Heavenly household, for so we find regarding Ahab, that Micah said to him:7 ‘I saw the Lord seated on His throne, and all the host of heaven were standing by Him, on His right, and on His left.’ Now do “left” or “right” apply to the Lord? No! The passage means that angels were standing on the right to defend, and angels were standing on the left to prosecute.”8
From this came the tradition that being on the right hand or the left hand of the Lord is important. They that are on the right hand, are such as have done well, and are scheduled for “acquittal;” and they that are on the left hand are criminals and bound for “condemnation.” To go along with this idea of the significance of the “right” from the “left,” we find in Jewish writings the following scene: “The Sanhedrin courts were always seated in the form of a semicircular on the threshing floor, so that they could see one another, because a full circle would necessitate that the litigants would have their backs to some of the judges; two judicial scribes stood before them, one to the right, the other to the left, writing down the arguments of those who would acquit and those who would convict.”9 One Rabbi in his commentary concurs, “Whenever a Sanhedrin functions, two legal scribes should stand before them: one at the right and one at the left. One writes the arguments of those who seek to hold the defendant liable, and one writes the arguments of those who seek to exonerate him.” It would seem that the disciples already had this image in their minds so they could apply it to the sheep and goats. In fact, it does conform to the picture that Jesus now paints about what will happen at the judgment seat.
Early church fathers expressed their understanding on the judgment. Epiphanius made this point: “How can He be the Son of man when He is God and will come to judge all nations? He is the Son of man because He appeared on earth as a man and was persecuted as a man. Therefore this person who they said was a man will raise all nations from the dead and judge every person according to their works. Every race on earth will see Him, both those who rejected Him and those who despised Him as a man. They will see Him then, but not everyone in the same way: some will see Him in punishment and others in heavenly bliss.10 All nations will be gathered together by the angels from the foundation of the world, beginning first with Adam and Eve down to the last person on earth—whoever experienced human birth.”11
Also, we have the anonymous work of one early church layman who gives his view: “So then, people on earth are intermingled, and not only intermingled in that the righteous live side by side with the wicked, but they are also indistinguishable. Between the righteous and the wicked, there is no apparent difference. Even as in wintertime you cannot tell the healthy trees apart from the withered trees but in beautiful springtime, you can tell the difference, so too each person according to his faith and his works will be exposed. The wicked will not have any leaves or show any fruit, but the righteous will be clothed with the leaves of eternal life and adorned with the fruit of glory. In this way, they will be separated by the heavenly shepherd and Lord. The earthly shepherd separates animals by their type of body, whereas Christ separates people by their type of soul. The sheep signify righteous people by reason of their gentleness, because they harm no one, and by reason of their patience, because when they are harmed by others, they bear it without resistance. He refers to sinners as goats, however, because these vices characterize goats: unpredictability toward other animals, pride, and hostility.”12
I would beg to differ with this scholar on his premise that before judgment day no one will be able to tell the difference here on earth between the righteous and the wicked. In fact, there must be a difference between those who live freely in the light and those still bound in darkness. A new creature in Christ Jesus must certainly stand out when compared to those bearing the image of the fallen Adam. It would go against everything Jesus said about how His followers can be distinguished from those who are still part of the unconverted world. And one of the major identifiers that Jesus announce was that they would know them because of the way they love God and love one another.
1 See Revelation 20:2-7
2 Ibid., 7:9-14; 19:11-16
3 Daniel 7:13-14
4 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 4, 25.33
5 Chrysostom: Gospel of Matthew Homily 79.1
6 Psalm 1:5
7 I Kings 22:19
8 Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi’s Commentary, Genesis 1:26
9 Jewish Mishnah, Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 4:3
10 Daniel 12:2
11 Epiphanius the Latin: Interpretation of the Gospels 38
12 Incomplete Work on Matthew Homily 54