Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 33: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 25:31-46; LUKE 21:37-38
31. Now when the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: 32. And all the nations shall be assembled before him; and he shall separate them from one another, as a shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats. 33. And he shall place the sheep on his right hand, and the goats on the left. 34. Then will the King say to those who shall be on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you received me kindly; 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 shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38. And when did e see thee a stranger, and received thee kindly? or naked, and clothed thee? 39. Or when did we see thee sick, or in prison, and came to thee? 40. And the King answering will say to them, Verily I tell you, So far as you did it to one of these my brethren, you did it to me. 41. Then will he say also to those who shall be on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which is 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 receive me kindly; I was naked, and you did not clothe me; I was sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me. 44. Then will they also answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not assist thee? 45. Then will he answer them, saying, Verily I tell you, So far as you did it not to any of the least of these, you did it not to me. 46. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, and the righteous into everlasting life. 171
37. And he taught in the temple by day; but at night he went out, and lodged in the mountain, which is called the mountain of Olives. 38. And early in the morning all the people came to him, to hear him in the temple.
Matthew 25:31. Now when the Son of man shall come in his glory. Christ follows out the same doctrine, and what he formerly described under parables, he now explains clearly and without figures. The sum of what is said is, that believers, in order to encourage themselves to a holy and upright conduct, ought to contemplate with the eyes of faith the heavenly life, which, though it is now concealed, will at length be manifested at the last coming of Christ. For, when he declares that, when he shall come with the angels, then will he sit on the throne of his glory, he contrasts this last revelation with the disorders and agitations of earthly warfare; as if he had said, that he did not appear for the purpose of immediately setting up his kingdom, and therefore that there was need of hope and patience, lest the disciples might be discouraged by long delay. Hence we infer that this was again added, in order that the disciples, being freed from mistake about immediate and sudden happiness, might keep their minds in warfare till Christ’s second coming, and might not give way, or be discouraged, on account of his absence.
This is the reason why he says that he will then assume the title of King; for though he commenced his reign on the earth, and now sits at the right hand of the Father, so as to exercise the supreme government of heaven and earth; yet he has not yet erected before the eyes of men that throne, from which his divine majesty will be far more fully displayed than it now is at the last day; for that, of which we now obtain by faith nothing more than a taste, will then have its full effect. So then Christ now sits on his heavenly throne, as fir as it is necessary that he shall reign for restraining his enemies and protecting the Church; but then he will appear openly, to establish perfect order in heaven and earth, to crush his enemies under his feet, to assemble his believing people to partake of an everlasting and blessed life, to ascend his judgment-seat; and, in a word, there will be a visible manifestation of the reason why the kingdom was given to him by the Father. He says that he will come in his glory; because, while he dwelt in this world as a mortal man, he appeared in the despised form of a servant. And he calls it his glory, though he elsewhere ascribes it to his Father, but the meaning is the same; for he means simply the divine glory, which at that time shone in the Father only, for in himself it was concealed. 172
32. And all nations shall be assembled before him. He employs large and splendid titles for extolling his kingdom, that the disciples may learn to expect a different kind of happiness from what they had imagined. For they were satisfied with this single consideration, that their nation was delivered from the miseries with which it was then oppressed, so that it would be manifest that God had not in vain established his covenant with Abraham and his posterity. But Christ extends much farther the benefit of the redemption brought by him, for he will be the Judge of the whole world. Again, in order to persuade believers to holiness of life, he assures them that the good and the bad will not share alike; because he will bring with him the reward which is laid up for both. In short, he declares that his kingdom will be fully established, when the righteous shall have obtained a crown of glory, and when the wicked shall have received the reward which they deserved.
As a shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats. When our Lord says that the separation of the sheep from the goats is delayed till that day, he means that the wicked are now mixed with the good and holy, so that they live together in the same flock of God. The comparison appears to be borrowed from Eze 34:18, where the Lord complains of the fierceness of the goats, which attack with their horns the poor sheep, and destroy the pastures, and pollute the water; and where the Lord expressly declares that he will take vengeance. And therefore Christ’s discourse amounts to this, that believers ought not to think their condition too hard, if they are now compelled to live with the goats, and even to sustain many serious attacks and annoyances from them; secondly, that they ought to beware of being themselves infected by the contagion of their vices; and, thirdly, to inform them that in a holy and innocent life their labor is not thrown away, for the difference will one day appear.
34. Come, you blessed of my Father. We must remember Christ’s design; for he bids his disciples rest satisfied now with hope, that they may with patience and tranquillity of mind look for the enjoyment of the heavenly kingdom; and next, he bids them strive earnestly, and not become wearied in the right course. To this latter clause he refers, when he promises the inheritance of the heavens to none but those who by good works aim at the prize of the heavenly calling. But before speaking of the reward of good works, he points out, in passing, that the commencement of salvation flows from a higher source; for by calling them blessed of the Father, he reminds them, that their salvation proceeded from the undeserved favor of God. Among the Hebrews the phrase blessed of God means one who is dear to God, or beloved by God. Besides, this form of expression was not only employed by believers to extol the grace of God towards men, but those who had degenerated from true godliness still held this principle. Enter, thou blessed of God, said Laban to Abraham’s servant, (Ge 24:31.) We see that nature suggested to them this expression, by which they ascribed to God the praise of all that they possessed. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Christ, in describing the salvation of the godly, begins with the undeserved love of God, by which those who, under the guidance of the Spirit in this life, aim at righteousness, were predestined to life.
To this also relates what he says shortly afterwards, that the kingdom, to the possession of which they will be appointed at the last day, had been prepared for them from the beginning of the world. For though it may be easy to object, that the reward was laid up with a view to their future merits, any person who will candidly examine the words must acknowledge that there is an implied commendation of the grace of God. Nay more, Christ does not simply invite believers to possess the kingdom, as if they had obtained it by their merits, but expressly says that it is bestowed on them as heirs.
Yet we must observe another object which our Lord had in view. For though the life of the godly be nothing else than a sad and wretched banishment, so that the earth scarcely bears them; though they groan under hard poverty, and reproaches, and other afflictions; yet, that they may with fortitude and cheerfulness surmount these obstacles, the Lord declares that a kingdom is elsewhere prepared for them. It is no slight persuasive to patience, when men are fully convinced that they do not run in vain; and therefore, lest our minds should be east, down by the pride of the ungodly, in which they give themselves unrestrained indulgences—lest our hope should even be weakened by our own afflictions, let us always remember the inheritance which awaits us in heaven; for it depends on no uncertain event, but was prepared for us by God before we were born,—prepared, I say, for each of the elect, for the persons here addressed by Christ are the blessed of the Father.
When it is here said only that the kingdom was prepared from the beginning of the world, while it is said, in another passage, that it was prepared before the creation of heaven and of earth, (Eph 1:4) this involves no inconsistency. For Christ does not here fix the precise time when the inheritance of eternal life was appointed for the sons of God, but only reminds us of God’s fatherly care, with which he embraced us before we were born; and confirms the certainty of our hope by this consideration, that our life can sustain no injury from the commotions and agitations of the world.
35. For I was hungry. If Christ were now speaking of the cause of our salvation, the Papists could not be blamed for inferring that we merit eternal life by good works; but as Christ had no other design than to exhort his people to holy and upright conduct, it is improper to conclude from his words what is the value of the merits of works. With regard to the stress which they lay on the word for, as if it pointed out the cause, it is a weak argument; for we know that, when eternal life is promised to the righteous, the word for does not always denote a cause, but rather the order of procedure. 173 But we have another reply to offer, which is still more clear; for we do not deny that a reward is promised to good works, but maintain that it is a reward of grace, because it depends on adoption. Paul boasts (2Ti 4:8) that a crown of righteousness is laid up for him; but whence did he derive that confidence but because he was a member of Christ, who alone is heir of the heavenly kingdom? He openly avows that the righteous Judge will give to him that crown; but whence did he obtain that prize but because by grace he was adopted, and received that justification of which we are all destitute? We must therefore hold these two principles, first, that believers are called to the possession of the kingdom of heaven, so far as relates to good works, not because they deserved them through the righteousness of works, or because their own minds prompted them to obtain that righteousness, but because God justifies those whom he previously elected, (Ro 8:30.) Secondly, although by the guidance of the Spirit they aim at the practice of righteousness, yet as they never fulfill the law of God, no reward is due to them, but the term reward is applied to that which is bestowed by grace.
Christ does not here specify every thing that belongs to a pious and holy life, but only, by way of example, refers to some of the duties of charity, by which we give evidence that we fear God. For though the worship of God is more important than charity towards men, and though, in like manner, faith and supplication are more valuable than alms, yet Christ had good reasons for bringing forward those evidences of true righteousness which are more obvious. If a man were to take no thought about God, and were only to be beneficent towards men, such compassion would be of no avail to him for appeasing God, who had all the while been defrauded of his right. Accordingly, Christ does not make the chief part of righteousness to consist in alms, but, by means of what may be called more evident signs, shows what it is to live a holy and righteous life; as unquestionably believers not only profess with the mouth, but prove by actual performances, that they serve God.
Most improperly, therefore, do fanatics, under the pretext of this passage, withdraw from hearing the word, and from observing the Holy Supper, and from other spiritual exercises; for with equal plausibility might they set aside faith, and bearing the cross, and prayer, and chastity. But nothing was farther from the design of Christ than to confine to a portion of the second table of the Law that rule of life which is contained in the two tables. The monks and other noisy talkers had as little reason to imagine that there are only six works of mercy, because Christ does not mention any more; as if it were not obvious, even to children, that he commends, by means of a synacdoche, all the duties of charity. For to comfort mourners, to relieve those who are unjustly oppressed, to aid simple-minded men by advice, to deliver wretched persons from the jaws of wolves, are deeds of mercy not less worthy of commendation than to clothe the naked or to feed the hungry.
But while Christ, in recommending to us the exercise of charity, does not exclude those duties which belong to the worship of God, he reminds his disciples that it will be an authentic evidence of a holy life, if they practice charity, agreeably to those words of the prophet,
I choose mercy, and not sacrifice, (Ho 6:6;)
the import of which is, that hypocrites, while they are avaricious, and cruel, and deceitful, and extortioners, and haughty, still counterfeit holiness by an imposing array of ceremonies. Hence also we infer, that if we desire to have our life approved by the Supreme Judge, we must not go astray after our own inventions, but must rather consider what it is that He chiefly requires from us. For all who shall depart from his commandments, though they toil and wear themselves out in works of their own contrivance, will hear it said to them at the last day, Who
hath required those things at your hands? (Isa 1:12.)
37. Then wilt the righteous answer him. Christ represents the righteous as doubting—what they know well—his willingness to form a just estimate of what is done to men. 174 But as this was not so deeply impressed on their minds as it ought to have been, he holds out to them this lively representation. 175 For how comes it that we are so slow and reluctant to acts of beneficence, but because that promise is not truly engraven on our hearts, that God will one day repay with usury what we bestow on the poor? The admiration which Christ here expresses is intended to instruct us to rise above the apprehension of our flesh, whenever afflicted brethren ask our confidence and aid, that the aspect of a despised man may not hinder us from treating him with kindness.
40. Verily I tell you. As Christ has just now told us, by a figure, that our senses do not yet comprehend how highly he values deeds of charity, so now he openly declares, that he will reckon as done to himself whatever we have bestowed on his people. We must be prodigiously sluggish, if compassion be not drawn from our bowels by this statement, that Christ is either neglected or honored in the person of those who need our assistance. So then, whenever we are reluctant to assist the poor, let us place before our eyes the Son of God, to whom it would be base sacrilege to refuse any thing. By these words he likewise shows, that he acknowledges those acts of kindness which have been performed gratuitously, and without any expectation of a reward. And certainly, when he enjoins us to do good to the hungry and naked, to strangers and prisoners, from whom nothing can be expected in return, we must look to him, who freely lays himself under obligation to us, and allows us to place to his account what might otherwise appear to have been lost.
So far as you have done it to one of the least of my brethren. Believers only are expressly recommended to our notice; not that he bids us altogether despise others, but because the more nearly a man approaches to God, he ought to be the more highly esteemed by us; for though there is a common tie that binds all the children of Adam, there is a still more sacred union among the children of God. So then, as those, who belong to the household of faith ought to be preferred to strangers, Christ makes special mention of them. And though his design was, to encourage those whose wealth and resources are abundant to relieve the poverty of brethren, yet it affords no ordinary consolation to the poor and distressed, that, though shame and contempt follow them in the eyes of the world, yet the Son of God holds them as dear as his own members. And certainly, by calling them brethren, he confers on them inestimable honor.
41. Depart from me, you cursed. He now comes to the reprobate, who are so intoxicated by their fading prosperity, that they imagine they will always be happy. He threatens, therefore, that he will come as their Judge, and that he will make them forget those luxurious enjoyments to which they are now so entirely devoted; not that the coming of Christ will strike them with terror—for they think that they
have made a covenant with death, (Isa 28:15,)
and harden themselves in wicked indifference—but that believers, warned of their dreadful ruin, may not envy their present lot. For as promises are necessary for us, to excite and encourage us to holiness of life, so threatenings are likewise necessary to restrain us by anxiety and fear. We are therefore taught how desirable it is to be united to the Son of God; because everlasting destruction and the torment of the flesh await all those whom he will drive from his presence at the last day. He will then order the wicked to depart from him, because many hypocrites are now mixed with the righteous, as if they were closely allied to Christ.
Into everlasting fire. We have stated formerly, that the term fire represents metaphorically that dreadful punishment which our senses are unable to comprehend. It is therefore unnecessary to enter into subtle inquiries, as the sophists do, into the materials or form of this fire; for there would be equally good reason to inquire about the worm, which Isaiah connects with the
fire for their worm shall not die,
either shall their fire be quenched, (Isa 66:24.)
Besides, the same prophet shows plainly enough in another passage that the expression is metaphorical; for he compares the Spirit of God to a blast by which the fire is kindled, and adds a mixture of brimstone, (Isa 30:33.) Under these words, therefore, we ought to represent to our minds the future vengeance of God against the wicked, which, being more grievous than all earthly torments, ought rather to excite horror than a desire to know it. But we must observe the eternity of this fire, as well as of the glory which, a little before, was promised to believers.
Which is prepared for the devil. Christ contrasts with himself the devil, as the head of all the reprobate. For though all the devils are apostate angels, yet many passages of Scripture assign thee highest authority to one who assembles under him, as in one body, all the wicked to perdition; in the same manner as believers assemble to life under Christ, and grow under him, till, having reached perfection, they are entirely united by him to God, (Eph 4:13; Col 2:19.) But now Christ says, that hell is prepared for the devil, that wicked men may not entertain the belief that they will be able to escape it, when they hear that they are involved in the same punishment with the devil, who, it is certain, was long ago sentenced and condemned to hell, without any hope of deliverance.
And his angels. By the devil's angels some understand wicked men, but it is more probable that Christ speaks only of devils. And so these words convey an indirect reproach, that men, who had been called to the hope of salvation through the Gospel, chose to perish with Satan, and, rejecting the Author of salvation, voluntarily threw themselves into this wretched condition; not that they were not appointed to destruction as well as the devil, but because in their crime is plainly seen the cause of their destruction, when they reject the grace of their calling. And thus, though the reprobate were devoted to death, by a secret judgment of God, before they were born, yet, so long as life is offered to them, they are not reckoned heirs of death or companions of Satan, but their perdition, which had been formerly concealed, is discovered and made evident by their unbelief.
44. Then shall they also answer him. The same kind of striking delineation which Christ had formerly employed is now repeated, in order to inform the reprobate, that their vain excuses, by which they now deceive themselves, will be of no avail to them at the last day. For whence comes the great cruelty of their pride towards the poor, but because they think that they will not be punished for despising them? To destroy this self-complacency, our Lord gives them warning, that they will one day feel—but when it will be too late—what they do not now deign to consider, that those who are now so greatly despised are not less esteemed by Christ than his own members.
“Mais les justes iront;” — “but the righteous will go.”
“Pource qu’en Christ elle estoit cachee et ne se monstroit;” — “because in Christ it was concealed, and was not exhibited.”
“Elle ne touche pas tousjours la cause et le fondement de salut, mais plustost l’ordre et la procedure que Dieu y tient;” — “it does not always refer to the cause and foundation of salvation, but rather to the order and procedure which God observes in regard to it.”
“La charit, qu’on exerce envers les hommes;” — “the charity which is exercised towards men.”
“Il leur represente au vif, tout ainsi que si la chose se faisoit devant lcurs yeux;” — “he represents it to them in a lively manner, quite as if the thing were done before their eyes.”