In Matthew 25 Jesus employs the prophetic image of ‘unquenchable fire’, here rendered as ‘eternal fire’. This comes in an extended set of parables in ch.24-25, which portray God’s judgement using a variety of images:
A wicked steward who abuses the servants is cut in pieces. (24:51)
Nine virgins who get locked out of the wedding feast find the door shut, and the groom says, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ (25:12)
A slave who did nothing with his master’s wealth is thrown into outer darkness. (25:30)
And finally the ‘goats’ who never welcomed Messiah’s brothers:Then the Son of Man will say to those at his left hand,‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 25:41,46
These are parallel parables. (Jewish literature loves saying things in parallel!) Only the last of them mentions fire. The eternal fire is parallel with:the cutting in pieces the shut door and disowning the outer darkness eternal punishment
These parallel images all speak of rejection and punishment. They are confronting, designed to provoke a strong reaction. But what reality are they pointing to?
It is important to notice that this set of parables forms the conclusion and climax of Jesus’ teaching ministry in Jerusalem. Here he is summing up his message, in symbolic, story form. This context strongly suggests that the parables are about the same thing his previous teaching was about, especially his teaching in ch.23-24.
Chapter 23 was about the approaching judgement and desolation of Jerusalem. Chapter 24 is on the same theme:
“You see all these temple buildings, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 24:1
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 24:34
This has really been Jesus’ theme since he arrived in the temple back in ch.21. And this is the teaching which these parables in ch.25 are here to illustrate. If we pay attention to what Jesus is interested in talking about here in Jerusalem, we will be skeptical of readings of these concluding parables which have them drifting off and losing focus on his central message.
If this context-directed way of reading is correct, then we expect then that each of these concluding parables will describe the coming judgement on Jerusalem from a different angle, using a variety of imagery. And this includes the ‘sheep and the goats’ story – the one with the ‘eternal fire’ in it. Let’s take a closer look at that parable:
In this particular parable, the focus is on welcome or neglect toward Messiah’s brothers. In Matthew, the ‘brothers’ are Jesus’ disciples, who are sent out and who will suffer on mission. How the brothers are received is the definitive measure for where people stand in the judgement (cf. Matthew 10). Now we get to see that judgement enacted.
Who are those who are implicated in this warning? Who, in Matthew’s gospel, have neglected and abused Messiah and his brothers – and are therefore likely to miss out on the kingdom of God? Jesus has already made this painfully clear:
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way…Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” The chief priests and the Pharisees…knew he was talking about them. 21:35-45
“The rest of the invitees seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.” 22:6
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.” 23:37
The violent and negligent behaviour of the house of Israel and especially of Jerusalem has been Jesus’ constant theme over the past five chapters. The can be no doubt who is in the cross hairs in this final ‘sheep and goats’ parable: Jerusalem is deeply implicated.
What will happen to Jerusalem? In punishment the goats are sent into ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’. In contrast, the sheep ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for them’ (Mat 25:34).
This contrast between the sheep and goats seems quite close to the story in Daniel 7 in which the beast is judged before the fiery throne of the Ancient of Days:
…the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. Dan. 7:11
But this is also “the time when holy people of the Most High gain possession of the kingdom.” (Dan. 7:22). The fiery judgement of the beast is contrasted with God’s people ‘inheriting the kingdom’.
It’s worth noticing that Daniel 7 is telling a salvation historical story. These scary images represent large-scale realities about God’s people, his enemies, and their ultimate futures.
Jesus’ sheep and goats parable has pretty strong echoes of that scene. But interestingly, in Daniel 7 it seemed that the saints who inherit stood for Israel while the beasts who abused them and were judged for it represented the other nations. Now Jesus turns things on their head: in his parable the abusers of God’s people are found within Israel, and have their headquarters in Jerusalem.
By sending Jerusalem into Daniel’s fire, Jesus is saying that they do not inherit God’s kingdom. When the hour comes for the saints to possess it, that city will be found on the wrong side of the conflict. As Jesus said earlier, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you” (21:43). Being the elect will not excuse them: they have proved themselves enemies of Messiah and will be treated as such. They are not standing with God’s people: they are in the fire with the beast.
Like Daniel, Jesus also is telling a salvation-historical story. Everything here points to the fact that we are in the realm of redemptive history and God’s purposes for the nation. This is big picture stuff, presented using a powerful OT symbol of fiery destruction: “the fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. What will it actually look like in history when Jerusalem is judged and punished? The parable does not break into realist description. Each of these parables maintains the integrity of its symbolic world, as a good parable should! Slaves cut in pieces, and banished into outer darkness, virgins disowned and shut outside. Each in its own way points to the same reality: the end of Jerusalem.
The story no doubt has implications for the other nations. But is about Jerusalem, told in Jerusalem and for Jerusalem, as an warning regarding the many indictments Jesus has just brought against that city.
Those in the habit of reading this parable as a literal description of an individualised afterlife cosmology – I’m afraid they are ignoring both genre and context, and need to pay more attention!
In conclusion: in Matthew Jesus uses the fire imagery of the prophets in much the same way as the prophets did – flexibly, to speak of different aspects of the judgement of Israel. His main innovation is to centre the imagery around himself as Messiah.