Jesus comes to the climax of his teaching about the coming of the Son of Man with this account of the final judgment of the nations. This is not really a parable, but it certainly does employ some metaphors and similes.
The Son of Man will return, accompanied by angels, and will sit on his throne on earth. The nations will be gathered before him. Like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, he will separate the righteous (v. 37) from the unrighteous.
There are several things we can learn from this account.
- Jesus is the judge on the day of judgment. In the Old Testament this role is filled by God himself. In the New Covenant, Jesus does this work and it really is about him
- The kingdom has been prepared for the righteous from the very beginning. The whole story of God in the two testaments is about how we spoiled it, but God continued to work to see it through. We must persevere.
- The nations will be judged based on how they responded to the messengers of the gospel. When we see “the least of these”, we can’t help but remember “the little ones” earlier in Matthew. There is more involved here than simply meeting the needs of the poor. Jesus’ brothers and sisters are those who represent him in the world.
- The result is eternal. Eternal punishment or eternal life. Although the fire was prepared (not from the foundations of the earth, but because it was needed) for Satan and his rebellious angels, the Son of Man will not hesitated to use it for the recalcitrant nations.
To read this as a general judgment based on works is not particularly Christian. One must look at the overall message of Matthew and discern that a relationship with Jesus is involved in eternal life.
As we leave the teaching of Jesus here, we enter the part of Matthew’s Gospel I have been dreading from the beginning of this study.