Union with Christ in the New Testament: A Provocative Exegesis of Matthew 25:31-46
[Caveat lector: Necessarily, this post will be an overly brief and superficial treatment of the immense subjects under discussion. As always, questions and comments are not only welcome, but strongly encouraged.]
The Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide) has been a matter for drawing swords and shedding ink (at least) ever since the days of the Reformation. Witness a Baptist preacher and an Anglican bishop crossing quills over the matter just a few years ago (helpful summary here). My two cents: Piper had the loudest volume and Wright the largest volume – pick which volume you prefer.
The unfortunate fallout from these centuries of justification debates is that sola fide has become the functional center of certain streams of thought within the broadly Reformed tradition, leading some to see it as the central point of Pauline theology as well. It is not. Union with Christ is. Fortunately, this error of emphasis is being corrected in many recent volumes and conferences. Justification is grounded in union with Christ.
In contrast, the Kingdom of God is central to the theology of Christ in the Gospels. So Paul’s theology centers on Union with Christ and Christ’s theology centers on the Kingdom of God. I would like to suggest that these two theological centers converge in Matthew 25:31-46, “The Final Judgment.” Jesus’ doctrine of the Kingdom culminates most clearly in this passage, while Paul’s doctrine of Union with Christ is clearly present in seed form, as we shall see.
If I am correct in my interpretation, then there will be relevant implications from my exegesis for discussions regarding the relationship between Pauline and Jacobean doctrines of justification, the relationship between justification and sanctification, and the role of love in the judgment of God (among many others).
Here is the text in Greek and English:
31Οταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ δόξῃ αὐτοῦ καὶ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι μετ’ αὐτοῦ, τότε καθίσειἐπὶ θρόνου δόξης αὐτοῦ: 32καὶ συναχθήσονται ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, καὶ ἀφορίσει αὐτοὺςἀπ’ ἀλλήλων, ὥσπερ ὁ ποιμὴν ἀφορίζει τὰ πρόβατα ἀπὸ τῶν ἐρίφων, 33καὶ στήσει τὰ μὲν πρόβατα ἐκδεξιῶν αὐτοῦ τὰ δὲ ἐρίφια ἐξ εὐωνύμων. 34τότε ἐρεῖ ὁ βασιλεὺς τοῖς ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ, Δεῦτε, οἱεὐλογημένοι τοῦ πατρός μου, κληρονομήσατε τὴν ἡτοιμασμένην ὑμῖν βασιλείαν ἀπὸ καταβολῆςκόσμου: 35ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ ἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν, ἐδίψησα καὶ ἐποτίσατέ με, ξένος ἤμην καὶσυνηγάγετέ με, 36γυμνὸς καὶ περιεβάλετέ με, ἠσθένησα καὶ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με, ἐν φυλακῇ ἤμην καὶἤλθατε πρός με. 37τότε ἀποκριθήσονται αὐτῷ οἱ δίκαιοι λέγοντες, Κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντακαὶ ἐθρέψαμεν, ἢ διψῶντα καὶ ἐποτίσαμεν; 38πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ξένον καὶ συνηγάγομεν, ἢ γυμνὸν καὶπεριεβάλομεν; 39πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ἀσθενοῦντα ἢ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν πρός σε; 40καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁβασιλεὺς ἐρεῖ αὐτοῖς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐφ’ ὅσον ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶνἐλαχίστων, ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε. 41Τότε ἐρεῖ καὶ τοῖς ἐξ εὐωνύμων, Πορεύεσθε ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ [οἱ] κατηραμένοιεἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον τὸ ἡτοιμασμένον τῷ διαβόλῳ καὶ τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ: 42ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ οὐκἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν, ἐδίψησα καὶ οὐκ ἐποτίσατέ με, 43ξένος ἤμην καὶ οὐ συνηγάγετέ με, γυμνὸς καὶοὐ περιεβάλετέ με, ἀσθενὴς καὶ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ οὐκ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με. 44τότε ἀποκριθήσονται καὶ αὐτοὶλέγοντες, Κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντα ἢ διψῶντα ἢ ξένον ἢ γυμνὸν ἢ ἀσθενῆ ἢ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ οὐδιηκονήσαμέν σοι; 45τότε ἀποκριθήσεται αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐφ’ ὅσον οὐκ ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶτούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων, οὐδὲ ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε. 46καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲδίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Now, I am far from an expert in the history of the interpretation of this passage; however, it might be useful to think of modern commentators as tending to fall into one of two broad categories when interpreting the passage: liberal and conservative. Oversimplifying the matter somewhat for brevity’s sake, we can say that liberal theologians have tended to emphasize the social justice matters which Christ emphasizes in the passage: good works of love are what will matter at the final judgment. Care for the poor is at the heart of the gospel (cf. liberation theology). This has some similarities with some Roman Catholic interpretations of the passage as implying that meritorious works can earn salvation, (cf. Robert Bellarmine). Further, many would point out that there is nothing at all mentioned about justification by faith.
Oversimplifying again, conservatives have responded to this passage by limiting its scope to those within the church, because Jesus refers to “the least” as his “brothers” in vs. 40 – meaning that good works performed for those in the household of faith will be what matters at the final judgment, not broader social justice issues. Protestants have responded that these good works are the product of faith and not the basis for salvation. Love is the fruit of faith, so while the final judgment will be according to works, those works must be grounded in faith in Christ or they are just self-righteousness (cf. John Calvin in response to Bellarmine).
I tend to agree with both sides when they disagree with each other and disagree with both when they agree with themselves. In other words, I think they’re both wrong.
These are the final words of the final pericope in the final discourse of Matthew’s Gospel. It is fitting that its subject should be the final judgment. This passage is the poetic and dramatic climax of the teachings of Christ in the first Gospel.
The setting and events depicted in the passage are conventional of judgment scenes in Jewish literature, strongly echoing Daniel 7 (among others). The King sits upon a judgment throne; angels are present; people are gathered, separated into two groups and the righteous are rewarded while the wicked are punished. There are twin conversations which correspond with the two groups and their respective judgments.
The structural significance of the sentence conjunctions in this passage have been entirely overlooked by commentators. (For more on this matter generally, see Stephanie Black, Sentence Conjunctions in the Gospel of Matthew.) There is an introductory Οταν (“When”) followed by the twin conversations, which use three τότε (“then”) and a concluding καὶ (“and”) sentence. The paragraph structure is (1) introductory paragraph, (2) dialogue with the righteous, (3) dialogue with the wicked, and (4) conclusion. It looks like this:
(1) Οταν (“when”)…
(2) τότε (“then”)…
(3) τότε (“then”)…
(4) καὶ (“and”)…
The conjunctions above first serve the obvious grammatical purpose of conjoining two clauses. There is also an obvious parallelism in the structuring of the two dialogues. However, once we consider the structure of the discourse from above the sentence level (in a discourse analysis) we can see beyond the twin mistakes made in the stereotypical liberal/conservative, Catholic/Protestant interpretations mentioned above.
Filling in the text further:
(1) When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him…
(2) Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
(3) Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’
Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
(4) And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Structurally and poetically, the climactic central point of the text is found in the shocking identification of the King with “the least” in vs. 40: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” It is the identification of the King with “the least” which is central to this passage, not the good works or lack of good works among those being judged. Both the liberal/conservative and Catholic/Protestant readings hang on two different sides of the same error by reading the text as though the distinguishing characteristics are in those being judged, rather than in the Judge’s shocking self-identification with “the least.”
As mentioned above, these are the final words of Christ in the final discourse of Matthew’s Gospel and shortly after proclaiming them, the King will be hungry and no one will feed him, thirsty and he will have only vinegar to drink, a stranger unwelcome among his own people, stripped naked to be beaten, sickened by blood loss and infection, and he will be alone in prison until his crucifixion, at which time he will even be forsaken by the Father so that “the least” would never be forsaken by Him. The shadow of the cross looms large upon this final discourse before the crucifixion, just as the love displayed there will be magnified at the final judgment.
Paul’s doctrine of Union with Christ simply makes explicit the subtle doctrinal realities already woven into the the narrative-discourse fabric of the Gospels. The final judgment will be based upon the love we show to the King, who identifies himself with us, becoming “the least” in order to save “the least.” For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:5)
(For a sermon I preached recently on this text, click here.)