IS MATTHEW 25:31-46 A PARABLE?

PMW 2020-022 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

A reader recently responded to an aside comment that I made in an article on the Olivet Discourse. Though the issue is not a major one, it is an interesting one nevertheless. And it is at least potentially helpful for better understanding the matter before us.

THE INTERPRETIVE CONCERN

The reader writes:

“I can’t imagine why you would think that Mt 25: 31 & 32 is not a parable. Sheep and goats are metaphors which is exactly what makes a parable a parable.”

My response:

Thanks for reading my posts, and taking the time to interact. Much appreciated!

However, I believe you are mistaken in assuming that because “sheep and goats are metaphors” that this is what “makes a parable a parable.” Just a quick observation regarding your statement about metaphors and parables: we speak in metaphors all the time today without anyone claiming we are speaking in parables. You are apparently working with an inadequate definition of a parable.

Your comment indicates that you have not done any extensive work in dealing with parables. Defining a “parable” is a lot more complex than you suppose. I have a dozen books on the parables of Jesus in my library. They invariably have to wrestle with the definition of a “parable.” Defining “parable” is a widely debated issue in New Testament interpretation.

But now regarding your basic concern, which is found in your statement: “I can’t imagine why you would think that Mt 25:31 32 is not a parable.”

I would admit that there are, in fact, many scholars who believe that the Sheep and Goats Discourse is a parable. However, I do not believe they are correct; and I am not alone in this. I will be presenting numerous observations on Matthew 25:31–46 by leading scholars that deny that the passage is a parable. No one should respond to these men by complaining: “I can’t imagine why you would think that Mt 25: 31 & 32 is not a parable.”

Of course, counting noses does not establish the matter. But at least it should discourage any hasty dismissal of the view. Consider the following scholarly comments. (Be aware that these men sometimes refer to the Olivet Discourse” by its more scholarly designation: “Eschatological Discourse.” This designation highlights its thematic content rather than its geographical origin.)

THE OLDER COMMENTATORS

John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, (1:313):
“What is before signified in the two preceding parables, is here clearly and distinctly represented without a parable.”

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary (5:378):
“We have hear a description of the process of the last judgment in the great day. There are some passages in it that are parabolical; as the separating between the sheep and the goats, and the dialogues between the judge and the persons judged: but there is no thread of similitude carried through the discourse, and therefore it is rather to be called a draught [draft] or delineation of the final judgment, than a parable.”

Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament (v. 1; p. 255):
This description is not a parable, though there are in it parabolic passages, e.g., [“as a shepherd’]; and for that very reason, that which is illustrated by those likenesses is not itself parabolic.”

Charles J. Ellicott, Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (6:156):
“We commonly speak of the concluding portion of this chapter as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, but it is obvious from its very beginning that it passes beyond the region of parable into that of divine realities.”

Heinrich A. W. Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Hand-book on the Gospel of Matthew (p. 443):
He never calls it a parable, and does not discuss its literary form. Rather, he speaks of “this discourse about the judgment.”

A. Lukyn Williams, St. Matthew in The Pulpit Commentary (15: 480):
“Before entering upon the exposition of this majestic section, which is a prophecy, not a parable, we have to settle the preliminary question as to who are the subjects of the judgment here so graphically and fearfully delineated.”

MORE RECENT COMMENTATORS

W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., Matthew (International Critical Commentary) (3:418):
“Although reminiscent of the earlier parables of separation (13.24–30, 36–43, 47–50), this is not a parable but a ‘word-picture of the Last Judgement.’” They note the numerous future tense verbs which are “uncharacteristic of parables.”

Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 21:1–28:20 (3:1343):
“One hears 25:31–46 referred to as ‘the parable of the Sheep and the Goats.’ It is not, however, a parable under any normal understanding of that term. The unit reports a direct teaching from Jesus about what will happen at ‘the consummation of the age’ (24:3)…. Jesus ends the Eschatological Discourse with direct teaching, not a parable.”


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This book presents a strong, succinct case for both optimistic postmillennialism and for orthodox preterism. An early proponent in the late Twentieth-century revival of postmillennialism. One of the better non-technical studies of Matt. 24. It even includes a strong argument for a division between AD 70 and the Second Advent beginning at Matt. 24:36.

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Grant R. Osborne, Matthew (Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (1:932):
“This picture of judgment is often called a parable but technically is not. Instead, it is an extended metaphor using the analogy of separating the sheep and goats for the judgment of the nations.”

Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (p. 633):
“This passage is often described as a parable, but Jesus does not use this term for it. … This concluding part of the discourse reads like a description of what will happen on Judgment Day rather than like another parable.”

R. T. France, Matthew (Tyndale New Testament Commentary) (p. 354):
“This powerful description of the final judgment is sometimes misleadingly described as a ‘parable.’ In fact, while vv. 32–33 do contain the simile of a shepherd, otherwise this is a straight-forward judgment scene similar in its conception to the prophetic and apocalyptic visions of the ‘day of the Lord’ found in the Old Testament.”

Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (Word Biblical Commentary) (p. 746):
“Unlike the preceding parables, however, this narrative is based not on a fictitious story but on the description of a very real, though future, event. Despite some clear parabolic elements, the passage with its future tense forms is more properly categorized as an apocalyptic revelation discourse.”

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David L. Turner, Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (p. 604):
“Although some scholars call 25:31–46 a parable . . . its metaphorical elements (25:32b–33) do not extend throughout the discourse. It begins and concludes as a prose narrative of the judgment of the nations.”

John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary) (p. 1023):
“The Eschatological Discourse now comes to a climactic end with this account of the final judgment. The three preceding parables about being ready to meet the master have all defined readiness in terms of an abstractly expressed principle… In this final scene the basis of judgment is concrete acts of compassion to those in particular need.”

Notice that he speaks of preceding parables, but then refers to the Sheep and Goats as an “account,” not another parable. He repeatedly refers to it as “an account” in his following paragraphs. Then he adds (p. 1024): “What was probably originally a parable by Jesus about a king who entered into judgment with his people has been progressively allegorised (to a considerable degree already before Matthew) to the point where it has become an account of the final judgment and no longer a parable.” Thus, his Redaction Criticism has him supposing that this may have been a parable originally. But he clearly states that in the form we have it (which is the divinely-inspired revelation of God) it is “no longer a parable.”

Stu Weber and Max Anders, Matthew (Holman New Testament Commentary):
“While this passage has parabolic elements (the shepherd, the sheep, the goats, and the process of sorting), it is not a parable but an apocalyptic glimpse into the day of judgment—a real event in future history. The simile of 25:32–33 serves to help us understand how the judgment will be carried out.”

Ulrich Luz, Matthew (Hermeneia Commentary) (p. 264):
“Many people still refer to the text as the “parable of the judgment of the world.” However, in the usual sense of the term it is not a parable.”

Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew (New American Commentary) (p. 375):
“The use of a simile in v. 32 (“as a shepherd separates”) and a metaphor in v. 33 (“the sheep and goats”) has led many to classify this passage as a parable, but from v. 34 on nothing else appears that cannot be taken literally, so it is better not to use this label.”

E. Michael Green, The Message of Matthew (p. 338):
“This parable (actually, it is not really a parable) has been endlessly discussed.”

William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (New Testament Commentary) (p. 885):
“What follows is not really a parable, though it does contain parabolic elements. It is a very dramatic, frequently symbolic, description of the last judgment.”

Ed Glasscock, Moody Gospel Matthew Commentary (p. 494):
“This account is not a parable for teaching a lesson but a prophetic declaration closing the Lord’s teaching.”

John Barton and John Muddiman, The Oxford Bible Commentary (p. 878):
“Although reminiscent of earlier parables of separation (13:24–30, 36–43, 47–50), this, the poetic and dramatic climax of the final major discourse, is not a parable but a ‘word-picture of the Last Judgement.’”

G. J. Wenham, J. A. Motyer, et al,, New Bible Commentary (p. 938):
“Though often described as a parable, it is not an illustrative story, but a vision of the future. The only ‘parable’ element in it is the simile as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats in vs 32–33).

E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Matthew (New Century Bible Commentary) (p. 330):
“Although the story is often referred to as a parable, it cannot really be classified as such. The only parabolic features it contains are the shepherd, the sheep and the goats (verse 33) and these, in fact, are just passing illustrations. . . . The story seems to be a picture of the Last Judgment.”

D. A. Carson, Matthew (Expositor’s Bible Commentary) (8:518):
“Strictly speaking, this passage is not a parable. Its only parabolic elements are the shepherd, the sheep, the goats, and the actual separation.”

HELPFUL PARABLE STUDIES

Robert H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (p. 131):
“Is the above properly called ‘a parable’? Strictly speaking the only pure parabolic element in the passage is found in vs. 32–33 where we have the similitude of the shepherd separating the sheep from the goats.”

Richard Longenecker, The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables (pp. 189–190):
“The final section of Jesus’ discourse about the future in Matthew 25 has only a limited place in a discussion of parables. Its language is vivid and visionary. It is not, however, at least in any normal sense of the word, a parable.”

Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (p. 310):
“This unit is not truly a parable. It is actually an apocalyptic discourse with a parabolic element in 25:32b–33 — the simile of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. Yet it is often called (even if miscalled) ‘The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.’”

CONCLUSION

I hope this is helpful for understanding why I deny that Matthew 25:31-46 is a parable. I stand with a great many noteworthy scholars on this matter. Jesus is speaking directly to what will occur at his Second Coming: the Final Judgment.

Though the Disciples’ assumed that Jesus’ Second Coming and the end of the age would occur when the temple was destroyed (see my studies on Matt. 24:3), they were confusing two separate, though related, issues. They thought the day of the Lord against Jerusalem in AD 70 was the final Day of the Lord at the end of history. But Jesus relates the two events theologically, while distinguishing them historically. The local AD 70 event is a pointer to, a harbinger of, a foreshadowing of, a distant adumbration of the universal Final Judgment event.

Rather than a parable, Matthew 25:31-46 may better be described as a “delineation of the final judgment” (Henry), “a discourse about the judgment” (Meyer), “a word-picture of the Last Judgement” (Davies and Allison), “a direct teaching” (Gibbs), “a description of what will happen on Judgment Day” (Morris), “a straight-forward judgment scene” (France), “an apocalyptic revelation discourse” (Hagner), “a prose narrative of the judgment” (Turner), “an account of the final judgment” (Nolland), an “apocalyptic glimpse into the day of judgment” (Weber and Anders), “a very dramatic, frequently symbolic, description of the last judgment” (Hendriksen), “a prophetic declaration” (Glasscock), “a vision of the future” (Wenham), “a picture of the Last Judgment” (Ellis), “a prophecy” (Williams), or “an apocalyptic discourse” (Hultgren).

Thus, properly understanding Matthew 25:31-46 is helpful for understanding the larger biblical eschatological picture. And understanding it as an apocalyptic judgment passage rather than a parable is important for making that distinction

Getting the Message


Getting the Message
(by Daniel Doriani)
Presents solid principles and clear examples of biblical interpretation.

See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com


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