One of the many passages that are grossly misinterpreted by the emerging church is Matthew 25:31-46. According to the emergent interpretation, there will be a general judgment following Christ’s return and He will judge men according to how involved they were in social-justice issues (feeding the poor, caring for the sick, ministering to the imprisoned, etc.). Thus, non-Christians can be accepted by God on the basis of what they do to serve the poor and needy, and Christians should therefore have unity with social-justice minded non-Christians. They generally teach that by helping the poor and sick and imprisoned you are helping Christ.
For example, Tony Campolo says:
“When it comes to what is ultimately important, the Muslim community’s sense of commitment to the poor is exactly in tune with where Jesus is in the 25th chapter of Matthew. That is the description of judgment day. And if that is the description of judgment day what can I say to an Islamic brother who has fed the hungry, and clothed the naked? You say, ‘But he hasn't a personal relationship with Christ.’ I would argue with that. And I would say from a Christian perspective, in as much as you did it to the least of these you did it unto Christ. You did have a personal relationship with Christ, you just didn’t know it. And Jesus himself says: ‘On that day there will be many people who will say, when did we have this wonderful relationship with you, we don’t even know who you are ...’ ‘Well, you didn’t know it was me, but when you did it to the least of these it was doing it to me’” (“On Evangelicals and Interfaith Cooperation,” Crosscurrents, Spring 2005, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2096/is_1_55/ai_n13798048).
Observe how that Campolo brazenly adds to God’s Word, by putting something new into the mouths of those described in Matthew 25:37-39. He claims that they will say, “When did we have this wonderful relationship with you, we don’t even know who you are.” But Jesus says nothing about relationship, and He does not say that these are people that do not know Him.
THE EMERGENT INTERPRETATION OF MATTHEW 25:31-36 IGNORES THE CONTEXT OF THE PASSAGE.
The context of Matthew 25 is the judgment of the nations at the return of Christ at the end of the Great Tribulation and it pertains to how the nations treated Israel.
During the Tribulation, God will regenerate Israel and 144,000 Jewish evangelists will go throughout the world preaching the gospel of the kingdom and announcing the soon coming of Christ; as a result, multitudes will be saved out of every nation and tongue (Revelation 7). Further, the two Jewish witnesses will preach in Jerusalem for three and a half years and perform miracles on the earth (Revelation 11:1-6). This period was described by Jesus in Matthew 24:9-14:
“Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
Thus, the gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world during the Tribulation in the midst of great persecution and hatred.
The gospel of the kingdom is the gospel that Jesus preached when He presented Himself to Israel as the Messiah. Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat. 3:2; 4:17). This was the announcement of the kingdom promised to David’s Son (Isaiah 9:6-7). The Jews rejected their Messiah and His kingdom (John 1:11; 19:15), and He warned them that the kingdom would be taken from them because of their rebellion and given to another (Mat. 21:42-26). Thus John says, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:11-12). Jesus came unto His own people, Israel, and was rejected, and this was prophesied in Scripture (e.g., Isaiah 53:3). He then turned from Israel and said, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mat. 16:18). Christ stopped announcing the kingdom and prepared to die on the cross to make atonement for man’s sin, and after He rose from the dead He sent His disciples forth to preach the gospel to every nation (Acts 1:8). In this present church age Christ is calling out a people for His name from among the Gentiles while Israel is largely blinded, but when this dispensation is finished God will turn His attention back to Israel and will fulfill His covenants with her.
“For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (Rom. 11:25-27).
At the end of the first three and a half years of the Tribulation the antichrist will come to power and reign over the earth with cruelty (Rev. 13:15-18). He will overcome the Jewish evangelists in Jerusalem and they will die and after three and a half days be raised up and ascend to heaven (Rev. 11:7-12). After this the antichrist will overcome the ancient people Israel (Rev. 13:7-10) and the remnant will flee into the wilderness where they will be protected by God (Rev. 12:12-17). In Daniel the antichrist is called the little horn and a king of fierce countenance and a vile king, and we are told that he will overcome Israel (Dan. 7:21-25; 8:23-25; 11:32-34).
The people of the earth will see these things and will have a choice of whether to help the Jews or curse them, similar to the choice they had during World War II, and at the end of the Tribulation Jesus will judge the people of the nations on that basis. As God said to Abraham, “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).
Thus, the context of the judgment described in Matthew 25 is men’s treatment of Israel.
The previous chapter makes this clear. In Matthew 24 Jesus described the Great Tribulation and explained that Israel will be at the heart of His program for that time. See Matthew 24:9-20. It is immediately after the Tribulation that Jesus will return (Mat. 24:29-31).
Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40 also make this clear. “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these MY BRETHREN, ye have done it unto me.” Christ’s brethren don’t consist of all people indiscriminately. In this church age His brethren are those who are saved (Rom. 8:29). We become children of God through faith in Christ (John 1:12; Gal. 3:26). In the Great Tribulation Jesus’ people will be the converted Jews who receive Him as their Messiah and those who are converted through their preaching.
Thus, when Jesus says, “I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not” (Mat. 25:42-43), He is referring to the persecuted Jews and the Jewish proselytes of the Tribulation period.
James Gray rightly says, “As His own chosen nation, through whom He will reveal Himself to the nations, the Jews hold through all time an official position and have a sacred character, and in the day of their restoration and of the judgment of the nations, the great question will be, how far have the other nations regarded them as His people, and so treated them” (The Concise Bible Commentary, p. 416).
Allegorical interpretation of Bible prophecy and the principle of replacement (replacing Israel with the church) is something that the emergents have borrowed from Reformed theology, which in turn borrowed it from the Roman Catholic Church and its “doctors,” such as Augustine.
THE EMERGENT INTERPRETATION OF MATTHEW 25:31-36 IGNORES WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES ABOUT THE GOSPEL.
According to the gospel, men are not saved by doing good works. They are saved by God’s grace. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation is a free gift that was purchased at great price by Christ’s blood. Paul says, “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Rom. 11:6). Salvation is either a gift or it is works, but it cannot be both.
THE EMERGENT INTERPRETATION OF MATTHEW 25:31-36 CONFUSES THE EFFECT OF SALVATION WITH SALVATION ITSELF.
The Bible teaches us that good works are the effect and fruit of salvation. After Paul explained that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace in Ephesians 2:8-9, he showed that works follow after as the natural product thereof. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
Those who submit to the gospel and are saved are converted and live a new kind of life. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). This is what will happen during the Tribulation.
THE EMERGENT INTERPRETATION OF MATTHEW 25:31-36 IGNORES WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES ABOUT OTHER JUDGMENTS.
There is no general judgment described in the Bible. In fact, there are at least three judgments.
First, there is the judgment of church age believers at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:11-15). This is a judgment of those who have trusted Christ and built their lives upon that solid foundation. Their ministries for Christ will be examined to see if they will be rewarded or not. Regardless of whether they win or lose rewards, they will be saved. “If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).
Second, there is the judgment of the nations following the Great Tribulation. This is described in Matthew 25.
Third, there is the judgment of the unsaved at the end of the Millennium. This is described in Revelation 20:11-15. These are judged by their works according to God’s holy law and condemned and cast into the lake of fire.
To interpret Matthew 25:31-46 in the emergent way is to contradict massive amounts of clear Scripture.
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