The word "Then" connects the parable of the lamp-bearers and the parable of the talents in this chapter with the parable of the faithful servant at the end of the previous chapter. All three refer to readiness for the coming of the Messiah (24:42, 44; 25:13). In view of his coming in that generation to topple the temple (24:30) and decimate the Jewish religious establishment of that generation (23:36; 24:34), the three parables each illustrate a different aspect of the faithfulness that is needed.
As we also face the revolutions and catastrophic events of our day we need to be faithful in doing our regular duties (24:45-50), we should be ready to draw on the resources of the Spirit (25:4; see 10:20), and we must take the risks of using our talents instead of burying them in the ground (25:25).
25:1 This parable is connected by the word "then" with the parable of the faithful servant at the end of the previous chapter. It is wrongly called the parable of the bridesmaids (or the virgins). People had to work all day, so weddings were usually at night. And in the Middle East at that time there was no electricity, so these ten women friends of the bride had agreed to come each with their own oil lamp. Their task was to light up their oil lamps to welcome the bridegroom as he arrived, and then go in to station themselves around the banquet room to illuminate the wedding festivities.
25:2-4 The wise brought a supply of oil with them. The lamps of the foolish lamp-bearers spluttered out as soon as they tried to trim them. Since Matthew does not give us an explanation of the meaning of being ready with oil for our lamps, commentators offer various possibilities.
One suggestion is that the parable is about being lights in the world (5:14-16; John 8:12; Philippians 2:15). But the difference between the wise and the foolish is not that some are lights and others lack light. Both the wise and the foolish have lights at the beginning of the evening (25:8).
A common interpretation is that the parable is about the difference between the saved and the unsaved. True believers have the Spirit, and those without the Spirit are excluded from heaven (25:10). But in the parable both the wise and foolish are appointed to service, and again we note that the foolish did not lack oil at the beginning of the evening. It seems that the parable is addressed to servants of the Messiah. We might compare "Do not get drunk with wine for that is debauchery, but be continually (literal translation) filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-20)." The difference is between wise Christians who are continually filled with the Spirit and those who are not ready for their task.
Oil was used to anoint priests and kings for service (Exodus 28:41; 29:7; 30:30; 40:15; 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Kings 1:39; Psalm 89:20). Oil was also a symbol of the power of the Holy Spirit (Zechariah 4:2-6; quoted in Revelation 1:20 in connection with churches functioning as lights). Anointing was used as a sign of the Spirit needed for bringing good news (Isaiah 61:1; quoted by Jesus concerning his preaching in Luke 4:18). And Jesus told his disciples to rely on the Spirit for the right words (10:19, 20).
In this parable the difference between the wise and the foolish was whether they were ready with the resources to do their task of light-bearing. Certainly a total reliance on the power of the Spirit is required by other New Testament writers (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13; Acts 1:8; Romans 5:5; 8:1-28; 15:13; 1 Corinthians 2:4, 10; Galatians 3:2-5; 5:22-25; 6:17-18; James 3:15-17; 1 John 3:24; 4:13; Jude 19-20).
25:5 As opposed to being watchful (24:22, 43; 25:13; Mark 14:33; 1 Corinthians 16:13-14), spiritual sleepiness is a common hazard (Ephesians 5:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:6-7). But this does not mean doing without sleep (see comment on 25:13).
25:6-7 The bridegroom was certain to come some time that night, but he did not arrive till the midnight hour (24:36-37, 42, 50). In the previous chapter we saw that the meeting with the Messiah (24:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:17) is not at the end of time or a rising to be raptured followed by inactivity. Here meeting the bridegroom is followed by the duties of lamp-bearing throughout the celebration that followed his arrival.
25:8-9 Assuming that the oil is a picture of the power of the Holy Spirit that we need for service (24:4), this is not something we can borrow from others when we face a crisis.
25:10-12 Having undertaken to be among the lamp-bearers to illuminate the occasion, and failed to be ready for their work, the foolish have missed their opportunity. The shut door is not an exclusion from heaven to burn in hell, but a missed opportunity in the Messiah's service. Hopefully these women might be given a chance on another occasion. Peter failed to support the Messiah in the hour of need, but he was restored. Paul missed the events of the resurrection and Day of Pentecost, but he was eventually converted on the Damascus road.
25:13 The Greek word translated "keep awake" can also mean "to be on the alert" or "vigilant." The Messiah does not expect us to do without sleep, and in this story the wise lamp-bearers also "became drowsy and slept." What is needed is spiritual readiness by having learned to look to the power of the Holy Spirit (instead of trying to draw upon our own strength) for whatever crisis or opportunity we may suddenly have to face (Romans 8:5-6; 1 Thessalonians 5:4-8).
25:14 The instructions given to the servants or stewards (rather than slaves) before going on a journey correspond to the words at the beginning of the Book of Acts: "When he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen ... he spoke to them about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:2-3). The apostles were entrusted with the business of the kingdom in the period of forty years till the Messiah came to "settle the accounts" of Jerusalem in AD 70 (23:35-36; 25:19).
25:15 A talent was a bar of gold, the equivalent of half a million dollars in our currency, so that a five talent person like Paul would be given two and half million dollars' worth of responsibility in the business of the kingdom. Some are two talent people. Most of us are one talent people.
In a similar story there are ten servants who are each given a smaller amount of about $7,000 to trade with (Luke 18:11-26). The difference in emphasis may be similar to Paul explaining that each of us has the Holy Spirit given to us (1 Corinthians 12:7), but we are allotted different gifts "each one individually just as the Spirit chooses" (1 Corinthians 12:11).
25:16-18 In the business of the kingdom we are free to invest our spiritual gifts in any way we choose. The man with two and a half million dollars could have invested in building a sailing ship to bring spices from India, or a string of camels and a warehouse to trade with Damascus and Arabia. The two talent person could have bought a vineyard or opened a wine and olive business in Jerusalem.
Similarly in the business of the kingdom we can invest in any kind of loving that we choose. Paul invested in planting churches, Mother Theresa invested in caring for the dying in Calcutta, others have opened orphanages and leprosy asylums, taught Sunday school, trained for full time ministry, translated the Bible, etc. What we must not do is to be afraid of the Messiah (25:24-25), and so worried about making a mistake that we do nothing.
25:19 Between the ascension and his coming to destroy the temple the Messiah was away about forty years. And the settling of accounts is after some time in that generation (23:36; 24:34).
25:20-23 As a result of bold investing of our gifts in the business of the Messiah, we are given more responsibility. We are also granted great joy in his service (25:21, 23).
We might guess that if the first servant had invested in a sailing ship and lost it in a tornado, or had his camels taken off by raiding Bedouin, the Messiah would have commended his efforts. "You have learned a lot from your first attempt. Here is another three million to work with next time."
25:24-27 An unhealthy fear of God as a fierce judge, instead of a loving parent, paralyzes us and makes joyful service impossible. The servant could at least have made a safe investment in a savings account.
25:28-30 The strange fact is that the more we serve the Messiah the more we have to give. And for those who don't use the gifts they have been given there are serious consequences. These are pictured as being thrown out into the night over the south wall of Jerusalem to land on the Gehenna garbage dump (see comments on 5:22, 29, 30; 18:9; 23:22). But we should not imagine that every failure to take risks in Messianic service results in eternal damnation. Many Christians have for a time hidden their talent in the ground, experienced frustration and disaster, and later come to their senses to serve the Messiah with joy (see the word "joy" in 25:21 and 23).
The parable of the sheep and the goats seems to refer to the same time period before the fall of Jerusalem as the three previous ones (24:45- 25:30; see Hebrews 10:25).
It is often interpreted as the judgment of God on individuals who fail to care for the needs of others. In this model those who fail to meet God's standard are sent into eternal damnation (based on 25:46). But if that was the meaning of the parable, none of us would have any assurance that we have loved and cared sufficiently in this life to avoid burning in hell for ever (25:41).
The parable is about nations (25:32). And the Messiah uses typical Old Testament prophetic imagery concerning a nation which has behaved without compassion for the poor and needy (Isaiah 1:23-24; 3:13-15; 10:1-3; Amos 2:6-7; Zechariah 7:8-12).
The reign of the Lord among nations was pictured in eleven chapters of Isaiah (Isaiah 13 to 23). And in the previous chapter of this Gospel Jesus the Messiah is proved to be the Lord of the day of the Lord comings in the Old Testament (see comments on 24:28-30). Since the Messiah intervened among the nations in all the previous days of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6, 9; 16:5-7, 14; 19:1; 22:5-8; 23:8-9; see Zechariah 9:3-4; 14:1-3) we should expect him to continue intervening in days of the Lord throughout history.
The judging of nations (25:31-32) is also found in Daniel's picture of the opening of the books of various nations (Daniel 7:10). It is the court of heaven (Daniel 7:9, 26) that settles the fate of great empires (Daniel 7:3-17). And the fourth empire persecutes and seems to triumph over "the holy ones" (7:21) till dominion is given "to the people of the holy ones of the Most High" (Daniel 7:27).
In the Book of Acts in the period before the fall of Jerusalem the early Christians knew that the Messiah was already reigning (Acts 4:24-26; 7:56; Romans 15:12; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:8). After the fall of Jerusalem the reign of Christ as the "ruler of the kings of the earth" is pictured even more clearly (Revelation 1:5; 15:3-4; 16:15-16; 19:15-16; see his Messianic reign in Isaiah 11:1-4).
How does this teaching for the apostles about the period from the ascension to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 apply to us? Having seen how the Messiah intervened in Old Testament days of the Lord, and how he intervened the first forty years of the New Testament period, we can be sure that he continues to reign in our day among our churches (Ephesians 1:21-23; Colossians 1:18; 2:19; Revelation 1:16, 20; 2:5, 16), and also among the nations we are called to serve in (Revelation 2:26; 5:13; 11:15).
25:31-33 The coming of the Messiah, who is both Son of Man and Son of God, is the coming referred to in 24:27. The glory is the "great glory" of 24: 30. And the Messiah's kingdom and reign and throne of judgment among the nations is the same as in Daniel 7:13-14, 22, 26-27.
25:34 The nations that are blessed inherit (have a share in) the Messianic reign. As Paul explained, "He must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet." Nations either cooperate with the loving reign of the Messiah or they oppress and ignore the needs of the poor and needy.
25:35-36 Isaiah the prophet spoke of the blessing of freeing the oppressed, sharing food and drink, welcoming the homeless, and covering the naked (Isaiah 58:6-8). And the Messianic text that Jesus used in his own home town synagogue (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18) refers to concern for the oppressed, the broken hearted, and prisoners. Or as a later prophet said, "Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor" (Zechariah 8:9-10).
What Jesus adds in this parable by using the word "I" in each case is that he as King (25:40) identifies himself with the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. Our concern for others is counted as doing these very acts to the Messiah himself.
25:37-39 As in any nation where people take concern for the poor and handicapped for granted, those who show compassion are not conscious that they are doing anything out of the ordinary.
25:40 Some interpret "members of my family" (literally "brothers") as the disciples of the Messiah (as in 10:42). The Messiah said "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). But in view of the prophetic texts referred to (as quoted in 25:35- 36) it would be an insult to imagine he only felt injustices done to Christians. The reference to "members of Jesus family" (or brothers) therefore seems more likely to refer to our treatment of any members of the human race.
25:41 At first sight "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels" sounds like consigning those who are lacking in love to burn in eternal hell (as in 25:46). But the Greek word "eternal" is also used in the New Testament for a long period of time in this world (as in "long ages," Romans 16:25; "before the ages," 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament the word is often used of long periods of blessing or wrath in the life of a people (e.g. the occupation of the promised land in Genesis 17:8).
"Satan's angels" could be better translated as "Satan's messengers." "The lake of fire that burns with sulfur" is a picture of the Messiah's judgment on nations (as in Revelation 19:15, 19-20). After Satan has been thrown "into the pit" (Revelation 20:2-3), he is loosed again before being thrown into the same lake of fire to be tormented (Revelation 20:10). This is also the fate of "death and Hades" (Revelation 20:14), and also of individuals whose names are not "written in the book of life." These texts in the Book of Revelation are often interpreted as applying to individuals who are sent to burn in hell for ever. It is also possible to view this section as referring symbolically to the Messiah's intervention in judgment on the City of Rome (pictured as Babylon in Revelation 16:19; 17:5; 18:2). And the decline and fall of Rome was not the eternal end of that city.
25:42-43 On the assumption that Jesus is speaking of the way he will deal with nations, the basis for the Messiah's evaluation will be the way the poor and the needy are treated in that nation (see comment on 25:40). The prophets rebuked the national inhumanity for the poor and needy in that day (see Isaiah 1:17, 23; 3:15; 10:1-3; Amos 2:6-7). By using the first person Jesus suggests that the Messiah himself feels the hurts of the poor and needy.
25:44-45 Those who are unfeeling for the pain of others have no idea that they are wounding the very heart of God.
We have suggested that this verse refers to the treatment of humans of all nations everywhere (25:40). This is the basis of our assumption that all humans are equally loved and important in God's sight.
We could add that the new churches of the Holy Spirit functioned as a body with different functions to perform. The love and care of the needy was not the responsibility of individuals, but of the whole community (Romans 12:8, 1 Corinthians 12:28). There is no example of Paul personally being involved in caring for the poor (in Galatians 2:10 his remembering of the poor in the area of Jerusalem was done through the Christians in his churches (2 Corinthians 8:7-15). Whether we work as a church or as a community or a nation, it is our corporate responsibility to care for the poor and needy.
25:46 If we assumed that each of us is going to burn in hell for our insufficient love and concern, then this parable would be very bad news indeed. It would suggest that being sent to hell or to heaven depends on our performance, and we will not know the outcome till the day of judgment.
Certainly the Messiah knows how to assign very severe consequences for heartless behavior in any country. But wrath is always part of his loving concern for the ultimate good of the individuals involved. This is mirrored in the fact that the Messiah said we are to love our enemies and those who deserve to be imprisoned "so that you may be may be children of your Father in heaven" (5:45).
We can conclude that the "eternal punishment" of this verse refers to the long term consequences of inhumanity both among nations and by individuals. But humans are not instantly righteous or "accursed" (25:41). Some who have behaved abominably will suffer wrath consequences, turn to God, and be changed. And even if we have failed and behaved heartlessly at times in the past, the Messiah still loves us.