Questions: Gospels

In exploring incarnational, Trinitarian theology, questions arise about specific passages of Scripture. This page addresses questions related to passages in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Matthew 5:17–19 
17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

People have frequently appealed to these scriptures as proof that "the law" continues to be binding on Christians today. This is usually in response to the claim that Jesus did away with the law by his death on the cross. For them, the meaning is that Jesus came to show what the law really means; or that Jesus fulfilled the law by obeying it perfectly, thus setting the perfect example for Christians to follow as they, too, fulfill the law.

There are problems with interpreting Matthew 5:17–19 in these ways. Note, first, that in verse 17 Jesus was speaking of the Law and the Prophets, not of the law only. Jesus did not restrict what he had come to fulfill to the Mosaic Law code. He said he also came to fulfill the prophetic writings.

Second, Jesus said that "not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (verse 18). If Jesus meant by "the Law" the Mosaic Law code, then even the most minor law of the old covenant has ongoing validity. This would mean that every ceremonial and sacrificial law continues to be binding on Christians. Few, if any, Christians believe that they must obey all the laws of the old covenant that God gave to the nation of Israel 3,500 years ago.

Therefore, what did Jesus mean when he said that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them, and that nothing would disappear from the Law until all is accomplished?

Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets by bringing them to their intended eschatological climax in himself. He fulfilled and continues to fulfill in himself all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament that pointed to him. Jesus made this clear after his resurrection. On the road to Emmaus with two of the disciples, Jesus revealed that everything that had recently happened in Jerusalem was spoken of by the prophets. "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27).

Shortly afterwards Jesus appeared to the assembled group of apostles and disciples in Jerusalem. He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." (verse 44) Luke here records Jesus as saying he fulfilled all three parts of the Old Testament — the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. (Psalms are representative of the Writings, as they are the first book of the third section of the Old Testament.) Thus, it appears that "the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 5:17), "Moses and all the Prophets" (Luke 24:27), and "the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44) are synonymous terms for "all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27).

In verse 18 of Matthew 5, Jesus makes the point that nothing will disappear from the Law until all is accomplished. What did he mean by "the Law" here? It is unlikely Jesus meant the Mosaic Law code. That is because verse 18 builds on what Jesus said in verse 17. To repeat the full phrase "the Law and the Prophets" was unnecessary. "The Law" here represents all the Old Testament writings. (In John 10:34 John quotes Jesus as using the term Law in this way. Jesus asked the Jews, "Is it not written in your Law?" and then quotes Psalm 82:6. In this instance Jesus clearly referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole, not just the Pentateuch. See also John 12:34; 15:25.)

The fulfillment ("until everything is accomplished") takes place in the ministry, passion, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, as well as his subsequent reign culminating in the age to come. We can then take Jesus’ words literally, rather than having to make artificial distinctions about what laws Jesus may have had in mind that would not disappear. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus was emphasizing that nothing in the Old Testament that pointed to him could fail to occur.

Then Jesus proceeded to say that: "Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (verse 19)

What specific commandments was Jesus referring to here? Did he mean all the commands of the Old Testament, from the least to the greatest? If so, then the early church was wrong in concluding that physical circumcision was unnecessary to become a Christian. The answer is found in the context of the preceding verses, and in those that follow — the Sermon on the Mount. The commandments of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ (Romans 10:4), and as such are redefined and magnified according to his teaching.

Some laws of the old covenant, through their fulfillment in Christ, are not binding on Christians today. They include the ceremonial and sacrificial laws that foreshadowed Christ (Hebrews 10:1). However, other laws clearly do have application in the life of the Christian. In Matthew 5:21–48, Jesus illustrated how certain old covenant commandments now applied through their fulfillment in him. He did not make Old Testament laws more binding so that Christians now obey according to both the letter and the Spirit, thereby enabling them to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees (verse 20). Rather, he redefined the law of God and showed its full spiritual intent. He established the spirit of the law as the norm for Christian behavior instead of the letter of the law (Romans 7:6).

Sometimes the letter of the law and the spirit of the law complement one another, as in Jesus’ teaching about murder and adultery (Matthew 5:21–30). With other laws, Jesus’ spiritual teaching overrides the letter of the law, as in divorce (verses 31–33). Elsewhere in the Gospels we read of Jesus’ application and defining of the law of God as fulfilled in him.

Thus, we should not see in Matthew 5:17–19 Jesus’ confirmation of the law of the old covenant as the law of God for Christians. Rather, Jesus explained that he fulfills in himself everything to which the Old Testament Scriptures point. He illustrated how the law of God given to Israel is transformed through its fulfillment in him. Scot McKnight captures the essence of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

In using his own teachings as the basis for righteousness, Jesus revealed that the OT Law and Prophets (Mt 5:17) were being fulfilled in his own teachings and that he is the Messiah. Jesus fulfilled the Law and so revealed a new standard of conduct (Mt 5:20). From the cross onward, the righteousness of God’s people is determined by conformity to the teachings of Jesus, which in turn fulfill the OT revelation of God’s will. Jesus expects his followers to be righteous in their conduct (Mt 5:6, 10), to do God’s will (Mt 7:12, 13–27) and to pursue justice (Mt 23:23 [krisis]; 25:37; Jn 7:24). 

According to Jesus, only those who are righteous are finally acceptable to God (Mt 10:41; 12:37; 13:43, 49; 25:46; Lk 14:14; Jn 5:30). Again, this righteousness is not an outward conformity to the Law or an appeal to ritual observances, but the necessary fruit of commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Jesus illustrated the link between commitment and obedience at the end of his Sermon on the Mount: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them... (Mt 7:21–27). (See "Justice, Righteousness," Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels [InterVarsity Press, 1992], 413.)

Matthew 6:14-15
14 "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

Does this statement from Jesus contradict the key teaching of Trinitarian, incarnational theology that God, in Christ, has forgiven all people?

The answer is no. This statement is part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (which spans Matthew chapters 5-7). In this sermon, Jesus is telling his disciples about the nature of life in his kingdom, which means life with him under God's rule. Because Jesus is here, the kingdom is now present. And what Jesus describes in this sermon is what his followers will experience in his presence - how he thinks about all things, and how he relates both to God and to people. This experience of Jesus' life and love occurs now,  in this world, but comes to fullness in the age yet to come.

In the Matthew 6:14-15 part of his sermon, Jesus mentions the subject of forgiveness in the midst of teaching about prayer. A superficial reading of this statement might lead one to conclude that what we do (or do not do) conditions the Father’s desire to forgive us. However, what we learn in the totality of this sermon, and indeed from Jesus' entire ministry, is that the Father's forgiveness toward us is NOT conditioned upon us (our behavior or our attitude).

Note that Jesus' statement is given in the form of a warning. He warns his followers against succumbing to the temptation to resist God's unconditional forgiveness. If they do so, they will fail to experience the benefits of that forgiveness in their hearts and lives. Jesus point is that if we cling to a heart of unforgiveness - harboring ill will toward others, rather than seeking reconciliation through forgiveness - the fact of our unforgiveness will block our own reception (experiencing) of God's forgiveness. In short, hearts closed toward one's neighbor are also closed toward God.

However (and this is a vital point derived from the whole of Scripture), our unwillingness (or inability) to forgive others does not change the Father's mind about us. His mind toward us is set, conditioned only by the finished work of Jesus on our behalf. God, in Christ, has made up his mind once and for all about us. In Christ, he has forgiven us all.

In the light of this larger faith context, Jesus' statement cannot be interpreted to mean that God doles out forgiveness toward us in some sort of 'tit for tat' manner as though he is looking for an excuse to not forgive us. Jesus' warning must be understood to be descriptive rather than proscriptive. The consequence contained in the warning (not being forgiven), is not related to God's action but to our own. Jesus is giving a warning description of what happens within the heart of an unforgiving person - they do not receive (personally experience) the forgiveness that God has extended to all people in Christ. But whether we receive that forgiveness or somehow manage to refuse it, God remains toward us our "heavenly Father" because Jesus remains our heavenly Brother.

Matthew 7:13-14; 21-23
13 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23 Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" 

Is Jesus saying in this passage that most people are doomed to destruction? How can all be included, yet Jesus say of some that he never knew them?

In vv13-14, Jesus is speaking of this life now—on this side of the general resurrection. In this day, most are living on the “broad road” of destruction. Though they are included in Christ, they live as if they were not. Only the “few” have in this time embraced the truth that is in Jesus—and it is he who is “the narrow gate.”

In vv21-23, Jesus is addressing those who have done miracles, and in doing so have deceived many. They claim to know Jesus, and though Jesus obviously knows them (in his divinity, he is omniscient!), he does not see himself in them with regard to their actual faith or behavior, and so he proclaims, “I never knew you.”

Matthew 10:23 
"'When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.'"

Note: this post is an edited version of an article by Wayne Jackson (at

There are several ways to understand what Jesus is saying here. To decide on which is most likely, we need to take into account the historical, geographical and cultural hints given in the text. We also need to understand whether the text is using literal or figurative language, and we need to see if there are parallel texts that shed light upon this passage. With those criterial in mind, let's look at the most prevalent ways this verse is explained.

The “Catch-Up” Concept

This view states that, in effect, Christ was saying this to his disciples, “You will not have finished your preaching in the cities of Israel until I come, that is, until I catch up with you.” In a word: “Hold on, men, I’m coming.” D.A. Carson suggests that this view grows out of the notion that Matthew 10:23 is tied to Luke 10:1 by the “Q” document. However, the case can be made for the idea that Matthew and Luke wrote independently. Besides, the reference in Luke 10:1 does not indicate that Jesus eventually “overtook” them [the seventy ]; rather, they “returned” to him (10:17).

The Preterist Theory

The “radical preterist” view contends that Jesus’ promise to “come,” as indicated in Matthew 10:23, is a reference to the parousia (a Greek term commonly used for the second or final return of the Lord). Max King, for example, cites the passage repeatedly in his defense of the notion that Christ “never taught or intimated a parousia beyond the coming of the kingdom of God within the generation of lifetime of His disciples.” This has led to the bizarre notion that Christ literally “came” in A.D. 70, at which point occurred the resurrection of the dead, the judgment day, and the end of the world. 

The notion that this text alluded to the Second Coming is negated by the fact that the passage clearly implies that Christ knew when the “coming” of 10:23 would transpire. This is evidenced in that the Lord declared that the disciples would not be finished with evangelizing the cities of Israel before he “came.” On the other hand, he did not know when the event of his final coming would occur (Mt. 24:36).This coming, therefore, was not the Second Coming.

The Dispensational Notion

The dispensational presupposition argues that Matthew 10:23 relates to the end of time, particularly the so-called “Great Tribulation and the Second Coming.” Such a view completely divorces the passage from its immediate and localized context, such as the fact that this was an admonition to the apostles
—and not directed to a generation several millennia removed from the first century. Ultimately, this theory results from a theological structure (dispensationalism) that is void of scriptural support.

The Resurrection Hypothesis

Some respected scholars have supposed that when Christ said “until the Son of man comes,” he referred to his appearances to the disciples following his resurrection from the dead. The problem with this idea is that no such language (e.g., “the Son of man is come”) is employed of post-resurrection appearances, as important as those incidents were. Carson says this would be a most “odd use of the expression.” He likewise points out that this theory, or even a slight modification of it, does not explain the “note of urgency” that is characteristic of the Savior’s admonition that the disciples are to hurry from city to city in view of the projected “coming.” 

The Kingdom Supposition

Another view  is that the “coming” of 10:23 has to do with the inauguration of the kingdom of Christ on the day of Pentecost. In favor of this position is the fact that there is a sense in which the arrival of the kingdom was a “coming” of the Lord, that is, he came representatively, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn. 14:18), and in the manifestation of his regime. Listen to Matthew’s affirmation elsewhere: “Verily I say unto you, There are some of them that stand here, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the Son of man *coming in his kingdom”* (Mt. 16:28).As intriguing as this may be, it still does not explain the “urgency” factor, and the context of perilous times that is so apparent in the Matthew text.

The Destruction of Jerusalem Case

The view seems to most likely. It states that the “coming” event of Matthew 10:23 is the Roman invasion of Palestine, which occurred in A.D. 66-70.The following factors lend their weight to this view:

1. Divine punishments are commonly referred to in the Bible as a “coming”:
  • When Jehovah providentially sent the Babylonians to ravage the southern kingdom of Judah, Isaiah depicted the event as an invasion of the Lord himself (Isa. 13:2-5).
  • Christ warned the erring churches of Ephesus and Pergamum that if they did not mend their rebellious ways, he would “come” and bring punishment upon them (Rev. 2:5, 16).
  • God warned the Jews that he would send “his armies” to destroy those who murdered his Son, and cause their city to be burned (Mt. 22:7); this was to be accomplished by the Roman invasion. 
  • It was represented as a “coming” of the Son of man in power and great glory (Mt. 24:30, 34; cf. Lk. 21:27, 32).
2. This event fits the “urgency” factor. When the disciples were rejected by the Jews as they proclaimed the gospel, they were to flee from city to city in view of the coming destruction upon this dreadfully hateful nation. Even at that, they would not reach every city in Israel before the Roman “judgment” descended.

3. There is the parallel evidence supporting this view. When one compares material from Matthew 10, with that found in Luke 21, it becomes apparent that, while the occasions are different, the same general theme is strikingly similar; there are unmistakably common elements in the Savior’s two warnings. Let us first take a broader look at Matthew 10.

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to councils, and in their synagogues they will scourge you; yea and before governors and kings shall ye be brought for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, be not anxious how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you. And brother shall deliver up brother to death, and the father his child: and children shall rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved. But when they persecute you in this city, flee into the next: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come” (vv. 16-23, ASV).

Now consider the material from Luke’s pen, chapter 21.

“But before all these things, they shall lay their hands on you, and shall persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for my name’s sake. It shall turn out unto you for a testimony. Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate beforehand how to answer: for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to withstand or to gainsay. But ye shall be delivered up even by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake. And not a hair of your head shall perish. In your patience ye shall win your souls. But when ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at hand. Then let them that are in Judaea flee unto the mountains; and let them that are in the midst of her depart out; and let not them that are in the country enter therein. For these are days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. Woe unto them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days! for there shall be great distress upon the land, and wrath unto this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led captive into all the nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. And there shall be signs in sun and moon and stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows; men fainting for fear, and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world: for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads; because your redemption draweth nigh” (vv. 12-28).

Here are significant points of comparison between these two texts:

(1) Both warn of an impending time of terrible persecution for the Lord’s disciples (Mt. 10:16; Lk. 21:12).

(2) Both affirm that persecution will come from the Jewish leaders, who will beat the Lord’s followers, even in their synagogues (Mt. 10:17; Lk. 21:12).

(3) Both declare that the disciples would be brought before governors and kings for the Savior’s sake (Mt. 10:18;Lk. 21:12).

(4) Both affirm that the disciples’ courage under persecution would turn out to be a compelling “testimony” in the interests of others (Mt. 10:18; Lk. 21:13).

(5) The contexts of both indicate that when the disciples are called upon to defend their case, they are not to be anxious about responding. Indeed, they are not to even think about preparation, for the appropriate words will be given to them by the Holy Spirit at the needed hour (Mt. 10:19-20; Lk. 21:14-15).

(6) Both warn that the coming crisis will be so great that even family members will yield to the temptation of delivering their loved ones over to the persecuting authorities (Mt. 10:21; Lk. 21:16).

(7) Both segments announce that the disciples will be hated by all men on account of Jesus’ sake (Mt. 10:22; Lk.21:17).

(8) Both encourage endurance or patience, for deliverance will come eventually; there will be a “saving” or “redemption” for the Lord’s faithful (Mt. 10:22; Lk. 21:19).

(9) Both encourage the disciples that when the danger becomes life-threatening, they are to take flight (Mt.10:23; Lk. 21:21f).

Given the direct parallels between the Matthew and Luke texts, we conclude that Jesus' statement in Matthew 10:23 is in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in A.D.70, and that the "coming" to which Jesus refers is a “judgment” coming of the Savior upon the nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem.

Matthew 12:30-32
30 "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

What is the unforgivable sin?
(The following answer is provided by Peter Hiett)

This passage is a challenge for anyone, but especially those that hold to an unlimited atonement. Didn’t Jesus die for the sins of the world? “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Even for those who don’t think Jesus died for the sins of the “whole world,” what is so special about the “blasphemy against the Spirit.”?

It’s interesting that Jesus begins by saying, “Every sin… will be forgiven people…except blasphemy against the Spirit.” Blasphemy against the Spirit isn’t listed as one of the sins in Jesus’ story of the Sheep and Goats in Matt. 25, nor is it in the list in Rev. 22:15 where John describes those outside of the New Jerusalem. That would clearly imply that all those sins are forgiven. That’s amazing… but how is this one different?

It occurred to me that there is one other “unforgiveable sin” or maybe it’s the same sin? “…but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That’s what Jesus says in Mathew 6:15. All of us have refused forgiveness to others at some point. We weren’t forgiven until we also forgave. Perhaps Jesus meant the same thing in Mathew 12: “You’re not forgiven until you stop blaspheming the Spirit.” Just like, “You’re not forgiven until you forgive.”
The word translated “forgive” is the Greek word aphiemi. It means to “let go” or “release.” In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” When you forgive a debt, you release that debt – you tell the debtor that they don’t have to pay. Even if you don’t forgive a debt, it can be canceled through payment. In Christ, we don’t have to pay the debt for our sins . . . but maybe, in some way, we have to pay for this one.

Every commentator that I’ve read on this verse seems to argue that “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” is rejecting the testimony and work of the Spirit. In the context of Matt. 12, Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees who argue that Jesus casts out Satan with Satan rather than the Holy Spirit. You’ll remember that the Spirit is sent to testify to the work of Christ (John 16:7-15). If we reject the testimony of the Spirit, we also reject the work of the cross; we reject God’s forgiveness; we reject God’s Grace. This was the sin of the Pharisees and the religious leaders.

I don’t think that means that they could never be redeemed, for indeed Scripture is pretty clear that “all Israel will be saved” (Ezekiel 37:11-14, Romans 11:26, etc.). Actually, Paul was one of these Pharisees, or at least one like them, and it seems to me that he blasphemed the Spirit. The Lord said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). What would those goads be but the promptings of the Holy Spirit? If that’s the case, Saul wasn’t “forgiven” or “released” of his unbelief until he paid with belief.

Commentators will say that it’s “persistent unbelief,” the idea being that at a certain point God’s patience runs out or reaches it’s limit. That doesn’t make sense to me. How could we come to the end of God’s patience, when Scripture is clear that His Mercy NEVER comes to an end?

In Scripture there are prescribed penalties for all sorts of sins and Jesus pays the penalty for them all. But I can think of no prescribed penalty for a “lack of faith in Grace” other than having “faith in Grace.” In other words, “lack of faith in Grace” will not be “forgiven;” you cannot enter the Kingdom, without “Faith in Grace.” Indeed, “Faith in God’s Grace, in Christ,” is the Kingdom. The Spirit is the one who gives us that faith. I think Jesus is saying, “You can only be saved by faith through Grace in Grace.” Jesus is that Grace come to us, and the Spirit testifies to His Truth in our hearts. So when the Pharisees looked at Jesus and attributed His work in the Spirit to Satan, perhaps Jesus was saying: “That will have to change; that cannot be released.”

In the same way, I can’t enter the Kingdom of Forgiveness unless I also forgive – unless I have faith in Grace. Lack of faith in forgiveness is unforgivable. I think that’s what it means. We have all lacked faith in forgiveness.

Lack of faith in Grace is the old man; it is the flesh and the works of the flesh. The old man must die and is not “forgiven.”

The degree to which we lack faith in forgiveness is the degree to which we’re stuck in Hell. This all fits with what Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 20:1-15, when He tells the parable of the vineyard. The ones that end up outside are the ones that “begrudge” the master’s generosity; the one’s that don’t like Grace; the ones that aren’t “forgiven” are the ones that hate the master’s “forgiveness.”

That’s the amazing irony in Christ’s words. It’s the people that hang on to the idea of others in Hell that are most likely to spend some time there. “…many will come from east and west and recline at table…while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt. 8:12-13). But did you notice, they’re still called “sons of the kingdom?” It seems that God uses the “outer darkness” to help people receive the testimony of the Spirit, call out for Grace, have faith in Grace, and forgive as they are forgiven.

In 1 Timothy 1:20, Paul talks about two men that he has “delivered” (paradidomai) to Satan that they may “learn not to blaspheme (same word).” In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul talks about “delivering” a man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit might be saved on the day of the Lord.

Maybe this “blasphemy” is the “blasphemy against the spirit.” It is not “released,” that is forgiven, it is destroyed and the person guilty of this blasphemy must “learn not to blaspheme.” That is: You can’t pay for blasphemy with something else, the guilty must “learn not to blaspheme.” As Karl Barth puts it, God “burns them right down to faith.” This happens at the “day of the Lord,” the Judgment, the end of the age.

So you cannot be forgiven “blasphemy against the Spirit.” You must “learn not to blaspheme,” and perhaps this is what “delivering” a person to Satan is all about. I think the verses in 1 Corinthians 5 and in 1 Timothy 1:20 are thoroughly fascinating, for Paul is saying that God uses Satan to destroy the flesh. That’s why Paul gives these guys over. Perhaps that’s the only reason that anyone is given over to Satan.

Some argue that there is a time after “this age and the age to come”… so these folks (“not forgiven in this age or the age to come”) will be forgiven this blasphemy then (at the end of this age and the next). Technically, they have a point about the ages, since Jesus is the “end of the ages,” however this misses the point in my opinion. Well, that’s a long answer. I hope it helps. I’m not arguing it’s all right, but it’s my best shot at understanding a really challenging chunk of Scripture.

(To explore more of Peter's responses to frequently asked questions click here). 

Matthew 12:36-37
36 "But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

If all are accepted, why a "day of judgment"? Note that the Greek word for “judgment” used in such New Testament passages is krisis, from which we get our English word “crisis.” Krisis refers to a time or situation when a decision is executed for or against someone. In that sense, it is a crisis point in the life of an individual or of the world. Most specifically, krisis refers to the activity of God or the Messiah as judge of the world on what is called the Last Day or Day of Judgment, or we might say the beginning of “eternal judgment.”

Jesus summarized the Judgment to come in terms of the fate of the righteous and the wicked: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-20).

Jesus also described the essence of the Last Judgment in symbolic form—as sheep being separated from goats: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left (Matthew 25:31-33).

The sheep on his right hand are told of their blessedness and told to “take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (verse 34). The goats on the left are informed of their fate as well: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41).

This two-group scenario gives confidence to the righteous and thrusts the wicked into a time of singular crisis: “The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9).

Paul also speaks of this two-fold day of Judgment, referring to it as “the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). He says, “God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (verses 6-8).

Such biblical passages define in stark terms the doctrine of eternal or last Judgment. It’s an either-or situation; there are the saved in Christ and the unregenerate wicked who are lost. A number of other passages in the New Testament speak of the “last Judgment” as a time and situation that no person can escape. Perhaps the best way to get the flavor of this future time is to quote some of the passages that mention it.

Hebrews speaks of the Judgment as a crisis situation that every human will face. Those who are in Christ, saved by his redemptive work, will find their reward: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27).

The saved people, made righteous by his redemptive work, do not need to fear the Last Judgment. John assures his readers: “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17). Those who belong to Christ will receive their eternal reward. The ungodly will go to their fearful fate: “The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7).

The GCI Statement of Beliefs says that “in Christ the Lord makes gracious and just provision for all, even for those who at death appear not to have believed the gospel.” We do not say how God makes such provision, except that whatever it is, such provision is made possible through Christ’s redemptive work, as it is for those now in a saved condition.

Jesus himself indicated in several places during his earthly ministry that provision is made for the unevangelized dead to receive the opportunity to be saved. He did this by explaining that the people of a number of ancient cities would find favor in the Judgment, especially in relationship to cities of Judea, where he preached: "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!... it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you" (Luke 10:13-14). "The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it… The Queen of the South [who came to listen to Solomon] will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it" (Matthew 12:41-42).

Here are people of ancient cities—Tyre, Sidon, Nineveh—who obviously did not have opportunity to hear the gospel or know of Christ’s redemptive work. But they find the Judgment bearable, and simply by standing in front of their Savior, they send a condemnatory message to those who rejected him in this life.

Jesus also makes the shocking statement that the ancient towns of Sodom and Gomorrah—bywords for every gross immorality—would find the Judgment more bearable than certain towns of Judea in which Jesus taught.

To put into context just how startling Jesus’ statement is, let’s see how Jude pictures the sin of these two towns and the consequences they received in this life for their actions:  "And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 6).

But Jesus says of the towns in the future Judgment: “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town [that is, the town that didn’t welcome the disciples]” (Matthew 10:15).

Perhaps, then, this suggests that the events of the last or eternal Judgment are not quite what many Christians have assumed them to be. The late Reformed theologian, Shirley C. Guthrie, suggested we perhaps would do well to reorient our thinking about this crisis event:

The first thought that comes to Christians when they think about the end of history ought not be anxious or vindictive speculation about who will be “in” and go “up,” and who will be “out” and go “down.” It ought to be the thankful and joyful thought that we may confidently look forward to the time when the will of the world’s Creator, Reconciler, Savior, and Renewer will prevail once and for all—when justice will triumph over injustice, love over hatred and greed, peace over hostility, humanity over inhumanity, the kingdom of God over the powers of darkness. The last judgment will come not against but for the good of the world…

That is good news not just for Christians but for everyone! Indeed, that is what the last things—including the last or eternal Judgment—are all about: the triumph of the God of love over all that stands in the way of his eternal grace. So the apostle Paul says: “Then the end will come, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24-26).

The One who is to be the Judge in the last Judgment of those made righteous by Christ and those who are yet sinners is none other than Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a ransom for everyone. “The Father judges no one,” said Jesus, “but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22).

The One who judges the righteous, the unevangelized and even the wicked is he who gave his life so that others might live eternally. Jesus Christ has already taken the judgment of sin and sinfulness upon himself. That is not to say that those who reject Christ avoid suffering the fate that their own decision brings on them. What the picture of the merciful Judge, Jesus Christ, does tell us is that he wishes that all would receive eternal life—and he will provide it for those who put their faith in him.

Those who are the called-in-Christ—made the “elect” through Christ’s election—can look to the Judgment with confidence and joy, knowing that their salvation is sure in him. The unevangelized—those who have not had opportunity to hear the gospel and put their faith in Christ—will also find that the Lord has made provision for them. The Judgment should be a time of joy for everyone as it will usher in the glory of the everlasting kingdom of God where nothing but goodness will exist throughout eternity.

Matthew 20:12-15
12 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.' 13 "But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'

Jesus' parable of the laborers in the vineyard reminds us that no matter how hard we work, we do not deserve the gift of salvation.  It is, for everyone, a free gift. That being the case, why struggle to live the Christian life and to participate in Christian mission?

In Scripture we learn that our participation now in Jesus’ love and life bears good fruit and personal joy that stretch into eternity. Conversely, living in ungodly ways results in pain, anguish and misery for oneself and others. That is why God doesn’t want us to live that way (see 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 and Galatians 6:7-8).

It is Jesus’ union with each of us that provides the basis and foundation for every aspect of our life, including our participation in mission and ministry with Jesus. The love of Christ compels us to take part in what Jesus is doing in the world through the Spirit. We declare the gospel and invite all people to receive and embrace it. In doing so, we hope what is true of them already (in an objective sense), will be experienced by them personally (in a subjective sense). And that changes everything.

Matthew 22:14
"For many are invited, but few are chosen."

Doesn't this statement from Jesus disprove the idea of universal reconciliation? Note that the immediate context of Jesus' statement is the parable of the wedding banquet (Mat 22:1-13). We learn in verses 9-10 that the invitation to the banquet goes out to “anyone,” whether "good" or "bad.”  This stage in the parable speaks to the unmerited inclusion of all humanity in God's love and life through the person and work of Jesus. All are included (invited) based on Jesus' merit, not our own.

But then there is our personal/subjective response. Some who are “in” (the wedding banquet), are found not properly clothed. As a result, they are cast out (v 13).  Note that they are cast out because they are already in (reconciled to God). Why now cast out? Because they refuse their inclusion, and thus are said not to be "chosen” (v 14). God has received them, but they remain, in their own minds, alienated from God (Col 1:21).

Note that it is not our personal response to God that creates our reconciliation with him (our invitation to and free entrance into the banquet in the parable). However, our response does effect whether or not we receive (enjoy/participate in) what we have been freely given. All are included, however, some refuse that inclusion and thus, in the end, are not "chosen."  In that sense, they "un-choose" themselves, and God will never override our freedom to reject his gift of grace to us.

Matthew 23:23  "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-- mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former."

Does Jesus here confirm the Law of Moses for Christians?  This verse is sometimes misconstrued to say so. This misunderstanding arises from putting a focus on the last sentence of the verse, "You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." These words of Jesus are them misinterpreted to mean that Christians should practice the more important matters of the law without neglecting other lesser laws, such as the old covenant laws of tithing.

While tithing is a valid biblical model for voluntary giving to the church to support the preaching of the gospel, this verse does not support the view that Jesus here confirmed the ongoing validity of old covenant law. Those who hold this interpretation overlook the context in which Jesus said these words. Jesus was speaking to an audience who were under the old covenant. This covenant applied to them, and God required them to live by its terms. Verse 23 records part of Jesus’ condemnation of Pharisaic legalism (see the entire chapter). Among other things, the Pharisees were meticulous about fulfilling the letter of the law in their tithing, but ignored the weightier matters of the law. Yes, they should have been tithing as commanded in the Mosaic covenant, but they should have also been showing such things as love, justice and mercy.

Another illustration of Jesus commanding a person to fulfill the requirements of the Law of Moses is found in Mark 1:40–43. In this instance, Jesus healed a leper and said to him: "See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them." Just because Jesus instructed this man to offer sacrifices according to the requirements of the Mosaic Law does not mean that his words have universal applicability for Christians. The context determines the application. Jesus was speaking to a Jew under the old covenant. God does not require a Christian healed of leprosy to offer sacrifices as Jesus instructed this man. The Christian is under the new covenant, and different conditions apply. Matthew 23:23 was spoken to Jews under the old covenant; we cannot assume that its instructions apply to Christians today.

Matthew 24 and 25 -- Jesus' Olivet Discourse

Matthew 25:1-13 The Parable of the Ten Virgins

1 At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 At midnight the cry rang out: "Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!" 7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out." 9 “No," they replied, "there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves." 10 But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 Later the others also came. "Lord, Lord," they said, "open the door for us!" 12 But he replied, "Truly I tell you, I don’t know you." 13 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.


Jesus tells several parables in the Gospel of Matthew. The Greek word, parabole, literally means to throw or place alongside. It is a story making a comparison to something in order to make a point. In some ways it is similar to a lengthy simile or metaphor. It is also similar in nature to an allegory, an apologue, and a fable, though with a number of differences.

In general, the parables of Jesus focus on one main point. This is not to say there may not be more than one point that may be discerned from the parable but rather that the focus is on one. In general, the parables of Jesus are not allegories. In an allegory every element of the story is figurative and symbolic. This is not to say that there is no allegory in any of the parables of Jesus but rather that they are stories in which every element is not necessarily figurative or symbolic.

Bottom line, the parables of Jesus are stories to make a moral/spiritual point. They are not carefully coded messages in which every element must be analyzed and interpreted to find all the possible multiple meanings in the parable. I would argue that serious exegetical errors are made when over-interpreting a parable.

We also note that usually the parables of Jesus have three characters. In the parable of the ten virgins these are: 1. the bridegroom; 2. the foolish virgins; and 3. the wise virgins. The point of the parable is to be found in the relationship among these three characters.

In the parable of ten virgins, some readers have seen a teaching that only half of the church will be truly saved at the time of Christ’s return. Some readers have seen a teaching of a rapture of the Church with non-believers or slack Christians “left behind.” Some have seen fervent Christians being taken to heaven when Christ returns, while nominal Christians are left to eternal life on the earth. Some have seen the parable describing the final two “eras” of the Church just prior to the return of Christ with the era that is zealous being spared from the Great Tribulation by being taken to heaven or to a “place of safety” on the earth while the “lukewarm” Christians must endure the Great Tribulation. Some readers have seen the bridegroom’s relationship with the ten virgins as Jesus’ endorsement of polygamy. And there are many more interpretations readers have made.

As we will see as we go through this pericope (text) in Matthew, Jesus’ interpretation is found in verse 13. He says, “Therefore…” In other words, this is what I’m getting at in this story. He continues, “…keep watch (remain alert) because you don’t know the day or the hour.” To Jesus, this appears to be the one point of focus of the parable and the reason why he told it. Are there other minor points we can learn from the parable? Probably, but we must be cautious not to over-interpret the parable and read our own ideas or beliefs into the story.


In Matthew 25 we have three parables and they are parables of Judgment. We should remember the key to understanding a parable of judgment is “inclusion before exclusion.” No one is “kicked out” of the Kingdom who was not already in. The difference is that the blessed accept their acceptance and the “cursed” do not accept their acceptance. We should also remember the “warning genre.” This is a warning given in hyperbole to “wake up” the listener (and reader) with the desire that they will avoid the dire consequences that occur in the story. The parable of judgment is not a prediction of what must happen. It is not a prophecy that must be fulfilled. It is a warning to help the listener/reader in hope the dire consequences described in the parable will not happen to them. If they do not heed the warning, the consequences will occur.


Once again we have the motif and imagery of a wedding as a backdrop to the story. While the Messiah/Jesus is often pictured as a bridegroom and the Church as the Bride of Christ we cannot press the imagery of the Jewish wedding in the time of Jesus too far. Not a great deal is known about the customs of the Jewish wedding in the time of Jesus and there is very much the possibility that the customs varied at least somewhat from region to region, among differing sects, and among various socioeconomic groups. Thus, we are left to some general observations and some questions as to the exact ceremonies described.


Vs. 1 “at that time” = in context of preceding chapter, the time of the coming of the Son of Man – the consummation of the age
“the kingdom of heaven” = the rule, reign of God (and by context including the realm) – same as the Kingdom of God
“ten” = a round, complete number easily divisible in half (not to be over interpreted)
“virgins” = Gk. parthenos = literally virgin, but also unmarried woman. Note: in Jewish society of the day, it was assumed that all young unmarried women were literally virgins. Some translations have “bridesmaids” or “wedding attendants” which may be an accurate description of their function in the story but misses the point that these young women had the potential to become brides themselves.
“lamps” = most likely torches. Note: unlike lamps which may have room to hold oil, torches had to be doused with oil from a carried container. Otherwise, only whatever oil remained in the wick would be able to light and would quickly go out.
“went out to meet the bridegroom” Note: according to this verse all ten virgins went out to meet the bridegroom. Where did they go? Were they waiting at the bride’s (father’s) house and went out to meet the groom when he arrived to pick up his bride-to-be only to find he was not there? Was there a time they expected the bridegroom and he did not show up when they expected? (Is this a summary statement of what happened and is not told in sequence?)

Vs. 2-5 Did five of them go out at this time with only the residue of oil in their wicks and five went out with containers of oil? After not finding the bridegroom did they return to the bride’s home and there fall asleep? Why didn’t the “foolish” (Gk. moria from which we get the English term “moron”) realize at this time they needed more oil and go get some while there was time? Answer: information not necessary to the point of the story; don’t over interpret. What is in the story is for a reason and so is what is not in the story.
“the bridegroom took a long time in coming” = why? Evidently the reason is not necessary to the story. The point is that is was a LONG time.

Vs. 6 “at midnight the cry rang out” = the time was very unexpected and the bridegroom appeared to be very late in coming. (How inconsiderate of the bridegroom! J)

Vs. 7 “all woke up” = arose = from same word group as “resurrection”
“trimmed” = adorned, put oil on the wicks of their torches

Vs. 8 “give us some of your oil” – perhaps the first time out to meet the bridegroom their torches had consumed all the oil in their wicks; perhaps they didn’t consider that and go and get some more oil before taking a nap.

Vs. 9 “there may not be enough for both us and you” = better to go out with 5 lighted torches than possibly have all the torches go out if we shared our oil.
“go to those who sell oil and by some” = wait! It’s midnight! Were there all night oil stores where they were? (Again, don’t over interpret. It’s a story and what is said is for effect not necessarily accuracy.)

Vs. 10 “while they were on their way” = so they actually went out around midnight to buy oil for torches. Note: how did they find their way in the dark without burning torches? No matter. It’s a story – go with it!
“went in with him to the wedding banquet” – but wait, the wedding banquet was usually at the bridegroom’s (father’s) house. Did they all travel there? Did they have the banquet at the bride’s (father’s) house? Again, details not necessary to the point of the story. Moral: don’t over interpret parables.
So, the virgins who were ready went into the wedding banquet with the bridegroom (Where’s the bride? Oh, never mind. It’s not necessary to the point of the story.)
“the door was shut” - Often the entire village where the wedding took place was invited - but that was usually at the bridegroom’s (father’s house). At least all the relatives and friends were invited. So, the door was shut and the only folks left out were the five foolish virgins. Wow, what a bad break! That doesn’t seem fair. Weren’t they the best friends of the bride? Oh wait, there’s no bride in the story.

Vs. 11 “open the door for us” – seems like a fair request

Vs. 12 the bridegroom responds, “I don’t know you.” Wow, what a put down. Totally rejected because they were late. Surely the bride knew them. Oh wait, there’s no bride in the story.

Vs. 13 So, what is this confusing story all about? According to the context of Matthew 24 this parable is given to the disciples of Jesus. His interpretation for them is straightforward. Therefore, keep awake, keep watch, remain alert. You don’t know the time when the Son of Man will come. The message echoes that of Matthew 24: 46 “blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” So, at no time in history should the disciples of Jesus ever relinquish the intimate relationship they have with the Son of Man because you don’t know when he will show up and you want to insure that when he does, he knows you.


Let’s talk about over-interpretation. In this parable we have the following things folks like to interpret: ten, virgins, lamps, bridegroom, oil, sleep, midnight, cry, wedding banquet, shut door, and probably a few more. I hope we have seen that by over interpreting elements that are simply a part of the story we can come to some faulty conclusions. I’ll take an easy one as an example. We all know that in the Bible “oil” is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. OK, sometimes it is. Just as wind, breath, fire, can be symbols of the Holy Spirit. But, does that mean every time we read “oil” in Scripture we are to think it refers to the Holy Spirit? Some readers have viewed the “oil” in the parable of the ten virgins as representing the Holy Spirit and then go on to reason from there a number of interpretations. So, we’ve got oil in torches (lamps) and jars. Now, we have to interpret torches (lamps) and jars as vessels of the Holy Spirit. Two different types of vessels, so, two different types of people with the Holy Spirit. What are the two types? Have fun with your imagination.

All the virgins originally had oil. Some ran out. That must mean that some people can run out or use up all of their supply of the Holy Spirit. According to the parable, if you run out, you can get some from another person. If that doesn’t work you have to go out and purchase some Holy Spirit from those who sell it. Are you having fun with your imagination yet? Guess what. In this parable, oil means oil. It’s just a necessary element in the story with no allegorical (symbolic) meaning. However, there are a few necessary symbols to interpret.

The bridegroom represents the Messiah (Jesus). This can be rightly interpreted from all the parables in context. Again, by context from this parable being directed to the disciples of Jesus, and all the preceding and following parables, the virgins appear to represent the followers (or those who think of themselves as followers) of Jesus. In the context of all the parables, the wedding banquet appears to represent being in the Kingdom of God.

Context is critical in interpretation. The interpretation of the bridegroom, the wedding feast, and the virgins is sufficient to understand the focal point of the parable and they can all be established by the context and in the context of all the other parables.

So, the point of the parable is straightforward and plain. It is “keep watch, be alert, so that you are always ready for the coming of the Son of Man.” So how are we to do this? The parable offers insight in what it means to keep watch, be alert. Earlier in this sermon message I mentioned that a key to understanding the parable is to understand the relationship among the three “characters” – the bridegroom, the wise virgins, and the foolish virgins. The foolish virgins are distracted, fatigued, and thus, ill prepared to meet the bridegroom. The bridegroom is late, he’s not there when he should be, this whole problem is his fault. In other words, God is absent, invisible, not here when I need him. I’ve lost touch with him because he’s not around and I’ve got other things to do rather than be prepared to respond to him in trust and faith.

Rather than ask to go along with the wise virgins and see by their torches, the unwise sought to fix the matter themselves by whatever means necessary. In doing their own thing, they lost touch with the wise virgins and certainly lost touch with the bridegroom. They did not trust that the bridegroom would accept them without their torches if they just showed up in response to his invitation.

The bridegroom’s seemingly harsh judgment is not based on their practical good works, their moral behavior, nor their spiritual achievement. The problem is they do not trust him, do not have faith in him to accept them so they did not accept his invitation when it was offered and, instead, tried to work things out on their own. They did not have faith in the grace of the bridegroom. The parable also indicates that there is a limit and that one day there will be a point at which Christ will say that the relationship does or does not exist. He will say, “I never knew you – because you didn’t respond to know me when you had the chance."


This is a parable of warning. It is not meant to condemn but to save. Whatever time, and in whatever age the followers of Jesus live, they are to keep watch, be alert, and respond to the invitation he gives us to be in eternal relationship with him. In trust, faith, and in the relationship that involves, we can know that when Jesus comes (at the end of all time or at the end of our time) he will know us and welcome us into the wedding feast forever.

Matthew 25:31-46 The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”


This parable concludes a series of three parables of judgment. The two preceding parables have had some main points in common. The “lead” characters of the bridegroom and the rich man represent Jesus the Messiah. Some characters are rewarded and some miss out. Both parables contain a “warning genre.” The readers are warned to follow the examples of the rewarded and to avoid the behavior and attitudes of those who miss out. We note that the key emphasis in the parables of judgment hinges on relationship. The relationship of the characters with the other characters and, especially, their relationship with the “lead” character (Jesus). Did the characters accept, trust, and have faith in the lead character? Did they accept the love of the lead character and love him in response? In context, we would expect that the “parable” of the sheep and the goats would follow this same pattern of emphasis.


The “parable” of the sheep and goats is not really (strictly speaking) a parable. It has some, but not all, the usual features of a parable. What is it then?

It is part poetry using simile, metaphor, and imagery to make a point vivid to the reader (like a parable). It is also a prophetic warning of what is to come at the “time of the end” when the Son of Man (Jesus the Messiah) will come in glory.

The “parable” uses imagery familiar to first century CE inhabitants of the Middle East and especially to those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. The imagery is shepherds, sheep, and goats probably drawn from Ezekiel 34: 11-33 and Isaiah 58:7. In the Hebrew Scriptures, this imagery is used to describe the relationship between God and his people.


Vs. 31 In Matthew 24: 3, 30-31 the Son of Man is Jesus; when he comes it will be the “end of the age;” he will come from heaven to earth accompanied by angels and will be the King. Heaven and earth come together.

Vs. 32 ALL the peoples (Gk. ethne) = all people are included.
The people will then be separated as (thus a simile) “the sheep from the goats” = Judean sheep and goats looked a lot alike but a shepherd could tell the difference easily. The sheep and the goats in the story are people represented by the metaphors “sheep” and “goats.” This story is not about animals. It is about the separation of people in the Day of Judgment which can be compared to (a simile) a shepherd separating his flock. The point seems to me to be Jesus, the good shepherd, knows the difference in people that may not be outwardly apparent to others. Thus, I would caution the over interpretation of all the ways God’s people are like sheep and bad people are like goats. Sheep are good and goats are bad. Really? Didn’t God create them both? Were not both sheep and goats offered as sacrifices. If you did not have a lamb, using a goat for Passover was permissible. Could a goat represent Jesus?! How about the Day of Atonement where goats represent Jesus. Could a goat represent Jesus??!! Whoa! Then slow down on all the over imaginative interpretations of the sheep and goats in this story!

Vs. 33 the sheep and the goats (all people) all belong to the shepherd, they are in his flock and in his care; right = favorable; left = unfavorable. The biblical imagery for “left handed” is interesting. You can read about it in the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery published by Inter-varsity Press. The Latin word sinistra for left (handed) is the word from which we get the English word “sinister.” And of course “right” means right (correct, factual, truthful). Again, no extra charge for the trivia.

Vs. 34 The Son of Man is now referred to as the King
“blessed” (Gk. eulogemenoi) by my Father; now blessed with their inheritance which presupposes a relationship with the Father. God’s purpose from Creation was to share his kingdom - reign, rule, and realm – with humanity. The Father, Son, and Spirit for all eternity have been in relationship and intend to share that relationship with humanity. Humanity is also supposed to respond by sharing a relationship with their fellow humans as family – brothers and sisters.

Vss. 35-36 sharing possessions and hospitality is a common sign in both the Old and New Testaments (especially in Luke-Acts) of being in a relationship with God.
Those on his right (favorable) have shared with Jesus. This is clearly a sign of being in relationship with Jesus, the Son of Man, the King, the Good Shepherd.

Vss. 37-39 Surprise! They didn’t even know they were sharing with Jesus. They were doing what was right and good in relationship with the whole family in heaven and on earth. They evidently did not know they had to do these good works to qualify for the Kingdom (sarcasm).

Vs. 40 The King explains that sharing in a loving relationship with any of the “least of these brothers and sisters of mine” is sharing and being in a loving relationship with him because they are all one family. It would seem the emphasis is on sharing with Jesus’ disciples (cf. Acts 2: 43-47; Acts 6:1) but Jesus also taught to love your neighbor, whoever that might be (even a Samaritan).

Vs. 41 Those on his left (unfavorable) are told to “depart from me.” Actually, as we see in the next few verses, these had already departed from Jesus.

While those on the right are blessed with an eternal relationship with God through Jesus, those on the left are cursed. The verses following (42-45) explain why those on the left are cursed.

Eternal fire. Eternal = Gk. aionion = age, age lasting, pertaining to the age to come

The Greek term aionion, often used in the NT, has a variety of possible meanings which only the context can help interpret. For example, when referring to God or divinity it connotes eternal. Other contexts are not quite so absolute. It can be used of a limited period of time (cf. Romans 16:25 and also Jude 7 where the fire of Sodom burned for anionion but is not still burning). As some scholars believe, it may be better to consider it more of a qualitative term than a quantitative term. That would mean that “eternal life” i.e. “the life of the age to come” (aionion) would be the ultimate in life, which would include lasting for a long time even forever. Thus, “eternal fire” could be understood as the “fire of the age to come” or the ultimate in fire. Fire is often used in the Bible as a symbol for judgment. If that is the symbolism in this verse, it would mean the “ultimate in judgment” which some humans, along with the Devil and his angels, will have to face.

To know more about fire as a symbol in reference to “hell” (Gehenna) and how hell can burn with “fire” and have “utter darkness,” check the reference to “hell” in the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. The Bible describes hell with a variety of metaphors that are frequently taken much too literally.

Vss. 42-43 The problem is a lack of relationship, a lack of love. As 1 John 4: 19-21 tells us, we love because God first loved us. We respond to that love by loving God and our neighbors who are in God’s image. If we do not love our neighbor, we do not love God. The love of God is about family relationship. Those “on the left” do not love God and do not have a relationship with him even though God loves them and has invited them into a loving relationship with him. Those on the left have not accepted God’s love and that relationship. It’s their decision.

Vss. 44-45 Once again, there is surprise (even on the left) that works are required for salvation (sarcasm again). The way they have reacted to their fellow humans by not showing any love or concern for their needs is an accurate representation of their attitude toward God and lack of relationship with him and failure to respond to God’s love. Their failure to respond in love to their fellow humans is their judgment on and about Jesus.

Vs. 46 They “go away” (not cast) to eternal (aionion) punishment.
The righteous (through Jesus, in response, trust, and faith) go to eternal (aionion) life. Those on the left depart to the ultimate in punishment (alienation from God and their fellow humans with the company of the Devil and his angels) vs. the ultimate in life (loving relationship with God and their fellow humans forever).


This (“parable”) story is not about animals. Sheep and goats are good. Humans – well, sometimes not so much, and that’s what this story is about.

The point of the parables of judgment we have looked at is about relationship. It’s about having faith, trust, and love. It is not about works – though that is the commonest way the parable of the sheep and goats is interpreted. Both the “right” and the “left” were surprised that anything they did or didn’t do had anything to do with their entrance into the Kingdom. However, what they did or didn’t do was very important. Their “works” or lack of them, was evidential not causative. In other words: “I do good works because I am saved not to get saved.” The good works of loving their fellow humans was a responsive outflow of the love of God that was in them through their relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

God has existed forever in relationship. That is the beautiful truth of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. God desires to extend that relationship with humans. Some respond to being included in God’s love, in the family. Some, though included, fail to respond and miss out on God’s love and the family. All are included before anyone gets kicked out. So, anyone who does not love God or fellow humans (though God has invited them and made the way for this to happen) and doesn’t care if others suffer, will end up suffering.

Alienation from God and the refusal of his love is the ultimate in suffering. You like to see suffering so much? Well you can go to hell and see plenty of suffering. You will suffer too. Guess what? Nobody there cares. Hope that makes you happy. The rest of us? Well, we respond in faith and trust to God’s love and share that love with others – ‘cause that’s just what we do. Jesus has made us righteous and we accept his righteousness and experience eternal life (the ultimate life) now and forever with our loving God and our loving human family. You know I am right. (Right – get it? Not left.)

Matthew 25:41, 46
25 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'"  46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

If all are reconciled, how then can Jesus say that the fate of some is "eternal fire?" 

Many commentators approach this issue by appealing to verse 46, noting that since "eternal life" refers to unending life, then "eternal punishment" must refer to unending punishment. However, this reasoning is fallacious in that it misunderstands the meaning of the Greek word aionios which is here used as an adjective, which varies depending on the nature of the noun it qualifies. For example, consider how the English adjective “everlasting” is modified depending on the noun it qualifies. An everlasting struggle would no doubt be a struggle without end---an unending temporal process that never comes to a point of resolution and never gets completed. But an everlasting change, or an everlasting correction, or an everlasting transformation would hardly be an unending temporal process that never gets completed; instead, it would be a temporal process of limited duration, or perhaps simply an instantaneous event, that terminates in an irreversible state. So the argument that aionios must have exactly the same force regardless of which noun it qualifies in Matthew 25:46 is fallacious.

Accordingly, even if we should translate aionios with the English word “eternal” (or "everlasting" in some other translations), a lot would still depend upon how we understand the relevant nouns in our text: the nouns “life” (zoe) and “punishment” (kolasis). Now the kind of life in question, being rightly related to God, is clearly an end in itself, even as the kind of punishment in question seems just as clearly to be a means to an end. For as one New Testament scholar, William Barclay, has pointed out, kolasis “was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better.” Barclay also claimed that “in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment”---which is probably a bit of a stretch, since the language of correction and the language of retribution often get mixed together in ordinary language. But in any event, if kolasis does signify punishment of a remedial or a corrective kind, as it seems to do in Matthew 25:46, then we can reasonably think of such punishment as everlasting in the sense that its corrective effects literally endure forever. Or, to put it another way, an everlasting correction, whenever successfully completed, would be a temporal process of limited duration that terminates in the irreversible state of being rightly related to God. Certainly nothing in the context of Matthew 25 excludes such an interpretation.

On a few occasions in the New Testament---as when Paul spoke of a "mystery that was kept secret for long ages (chronios aioniois) but is now disclosed" (Romans 16:25-26)---the adjective does imply a lengthy period of time. But on these occasions, it could not possibly mean "eternal" or "everlasting." On other occasions, its use seems roughly Platonic in this sense: Whether God is eternal (that is, timeless, outside of time) in a purely Platonic sense or everlasting in the sense that he endures throughout all of the ages, nothing other than God is eternal in the primary sense (see the reference to "the eternal God" in Romans 16:26). The judgements, gifts, and actions of God are eternal in the secondary sense that their causal source lies in the eternal character and purpose God. One common function of an adjective is to refer back to the causal source of some action or condition. A selfish act, for example, is one that springs from, or has its causal source in, selfish motives. When Jude thus cited the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of eternal fire, he was not making a statement about temporal duration at all; in no way was he implying that the fire continues burning today, or even that it continued burning for an age. He was instead giving a theological interpretation in which the fire represented God’s judgement upon the two cities. So the fire was eternal not in the sense that it would burn forever without consuming the cities, but in the sense that, precisely because it was God’s judgement upon these cities and did consume them, it expressed God’s eternal character and eternal purpose in a special way.

So, even as the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah was eternal in the sense that it expressed God’s eternal character and purpose in a special way, the same is true of the fire to which Matthew 25:41 alludes. That fire is eternal in the sense that, despite the harsh sounding language, it expresses God’s eternal love for us in a special, albeit especially severe, way. For as we read in Hebrews 12:29, the eternal God is also a consuming fire, one that will eventually consume all that is false within us. In no other way could God perfect all of us and express his eternal love for all of us. And similarly for eternal punishment: Like any of God’s eternal actions in time, it should be interpreted theologically as a process or event that has its causal source in the eternal God himself. Or, as William Barclay put it, “Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give” (A Spiritual Biography, p66).

In closing here, we should note that Jesus' statement recorded by Matthew pertains to rebels who have lived selfishly. But so have we all. The issue being addressed is not perfection of  behavior, but the attitude of the heart. Some turn to Jesus in repentance but others remain obstinately rebellious. But note this: All who stand before Jesus in the final judgment belong to him. All of them have been included in his life and love. However, some reject that love and repudiate that life. And in doing so, they separate themselves in their own hearts and minds from their Savior. In this passage, Jesus acknowledges this fact and the consequences that follow, referring to it as "eternal fire." This "fire," like "outer darkness," is a metaphor for the self-imposed misery that will be experienced by those who, in the final judgment, refuse the goodness and love of God that is theirs.

Mark 11:12-26
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it. 15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: "'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'" 18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. 19 When evening came, they went out of the city. 20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!" 22 "Have faith in God," Jesus answered. 23 "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your sins."

If Jesus forgives all, why does he curse the fig tree and then state that some are not forgiven? Note that w
hen we interpret this passage considering Mark’s overall goal of declaring the identity and authority of Jesus, and also the significance of the fig tree in Jewish and Roman culture, we come to understand that the purpose of this incident is to clarify Jesus’ identity and authority, as well as the fate that awaits Jerusalem at that moment in history.

The account of the cursing of the fig tree is interrupted by the description of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (vv15-19), making evident the connection between the fig tree and the temple. Furthermore, in the first part of this chapter, we have Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he is declared the one who comes in the name of the Lord (vv1-11). Then in the latter part of the chapter, we have the questioning of Jesus' authority by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (vv27-33). The entire chapter, then, is carefully constructed to lead the reader to a greater understanding of Mark’s central issue: the identity and authority of Jesus. With that structure in mind, we can now analyze the cursing of the fig tree, beginning in verse 12.

As Mark sets up the story, he points out several facts. It was the day after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (12). Jesus and his disciples were walking from Bethany (12), where they had spent the night (11), toward Jerusalem (15). Jesus was hungry (12). He saw a fig tree in leaf in the distance. He went to it to see if it might have any fruit, but found only leaves (13). Then Mark adds the confounding clause, “for it was not the season for figs” (13d). This is the troubling element for many who find this passage difficult. If Jesus’ purpose in approaching the fig tree were simply because he was hungry, as Mark intimates, and it was not even the season for figs, which Jesus must have known before he even approached the tree, then how can he be justified in saying to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (14)? Before we consider the answer to that question, we need to take note of additional facts provided by Mark.

When Jesus made the statement to the tree, Mark notes that “his disciples heard it” (14c). Picking up the story in verse 20, after the cleansing of the temple, we find that the fig tree had not only withered away, but had withered away to its roots (20). We are also told that Peter “remembered,” and that he called Jesus’ attention to the withered tree, saying Jesus had “cursed” it (21), even though the word “curse” was not used in verse 14. Then, without apparent transition, Mark says Jesus “answered” them (though no question is posed) by giving instruction about faith that can remove mountains (22-26)—another enigmatic passage for many Christians, which we shall comment about later.

Let us now consider how the facts provided by Mark serve to clarify the meaning of what would otherwise be a troubling passage. First, we need to note that “his disciples heard it” (14c). The presence of this statement indicates that Jesus’ pronouncement on the tree was a teaching situation. Jesus’ words were intended to instruct his disciples, and the incident, therefore, was intended to provide the opportunity to teach them and the reader. In contrast, we find Jesus again teaching immediately after he cleansed the temple (17), and Mark tells the reader that “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they were looking for a way to kill him” (18). Mark often provides a reaction to Jesus’ actions and instruction —astonishment (10:51), grief (10:22), inability to understand (9:32), etc. In this case, the response from those who “heard it,” unlike his disciples in 14c, is to reject Jesus and look for ways to kill him.

Once we recognize that the fig tree incident is recorded as a teaching situation, the lesson of which is given in the events and sayings of Jesus in the following verses, the reasons for Mark’s letting the reader know that Jesus was hungry (12), that he knew the distant fig tree was in leaf (13), and that it was not the season for figs (14), begin to come into focus. The fact that Jesus was hungry provides not only the immediate reason to approach the tree (a fact essential to the narrative — approaching a fruitless tree only to be disappointed would be meaningless unless someone was hungry), it is also vital to the prophetic declaration Jesus was to make. Many scholars agree that Jesus would have had in mind such passages as Jeremiah 8:13: “When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” The fact that Jesus was hungry and approached the fig tree looking for fruit illustrates his identity and authority as the Judge of Israel who finds that the nation, despite its “leafy” appearance, has not produced the fruit God desired.

The fact that “it was not the season for figs” (13d) becomes essential to the sense of the passage. Jesus was not out to condemn a non-bearing tree; he was pronouncing judgment against the religious barrenness of the nation. The tree is not in trouble, the nation is. The tree has not rejected its Messiah, the nation has. The tree is being used as a symbol, not the object itself, of the judgment. If it had been the season for figs, then the tree would have itself borne certain responsibility, and its judgment would have applied as much to itself as to the nation, watering down the force of the symbolism. But Jesus is not interested in judging fig trees. The focus is, rather, on the nation, the temple, the Jewish leadership. Therefore, Mark makes plain that it was not the season for figs.  That fact does not make Jesus unreasonable, but underscores the point of the passage: the nation has not borne fruit — its spiritual leaders are incapable of recognizing the Messiah, the temple is a den of robbers and not a house of prayer for the nations — and the Judge has arrived to pass sentence. The fig tree symbolizes Israel in Jesus’ day, and what happens to the tree the terrible fate that awaits Jerusalem.

The cursing of the fig tree, then, is not a strange and unexplainable aberration in Jesus’ character, nor in Mark’s Gospel, but a powerful and culturally meaningful pronouncement of judgment against the people who should have borne fruit by accepting their Messiah, but instead had rejected him.

[For a longer explanation of this passage see the GCI article, The Fig Tree and the Temple.]

Luke 13:1-9
1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them-- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." 6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' 8 "'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'"

Does this parable of the barren fig tree conflict with the idea that all people are reconciled to God?

The Jews hated Pilate (the Roman governor of Judea) because of his insensitivity to their religious convictions. The atrocity mentioned in v1 probably took place when Pilate “appropriated” money from the temple treasury to help finance an aqueduct. A crowd of angry Jews gathered in protest and Pilate had his soldiers murder a number of them, adding to the Jews’ hatred for their governor.

Since Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, anything he said about Pilate was sure to get there before him. If he ignored the issue, the crowd would accuse him of being pro-Roman. If he defended the Jews and accused Pilate, he would be in trouble with the Romans, and the Jewish leaders would have an excuse to get him arrested.

Jesus’ reply to their question explains that human tragedies are not always divine punishments and that it is wrong to “play God” and pass judgment.

“How would you explain the deaths of the people on whom the tower in Siloam fell?” he asks them. “That was not Pilate’s fault. Was it therefore God’s fault? Shall we blame God? The eighteen who were killed in Siloam were just doing their job, yet they died. They were not protesting or creating trouble.”

Jesus thus exposes the logical conclusion of their argument: if God does punish sinners in this way, then they themselves had better repent because all people are sinners!

The real question is thus not, “Why did these people die?” but, “What right do you have to live?” The answer is that we live only because God is a God of grace. Jesus then illustrates this lavish grace with a parable about a barren fig tree (v6ff). The owner of a vineyard (representing God the Father) planted a fig tree in his vineyard (not an uncommon practice of that day). But after three years of caring for it, he should have found figs, but did not, so he instructs the vineyard’s caretaker (representing Jesus) to cut down the barren tree. But Jesus' response is to call for more grace. And that’s where the story ends.

Clearly this parable has both personal and national application. On the personal side, God, who has created all people by grace, remains gracious and long-suffering toward all people in their sin (2Peter 3:9) - forgiving them and encouraging them to turn to him and thus bear fruit. God has every right to “cut us down,” but in grace, through his Son, spares us. However, we must not presume upon God’s patience - eventually we must embrace or reject God’s grace in Jesus. We must repent of any idea that God is not gracious toward us all.

On the national side (and this addresses the sense of urgency in the parable), God waited several years during the ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus for the Jews to repent, but they would not - the Jewish nation produced no fruit. God then waited another forty years more before allowing the Romans to destroy Jerusalem with its temple. During those intervening years, the apostles gave the Jews a powerful witness of the Gospel of God's grace. Finally, the “tree” (the nation) was cut down, but God's plan to be gracious to all humanity through Jesus was not cut down - in fact it continues.

The parable is “open-ended,” requiring the listeners to supply their own conclusions. Did the tree bear fruit? Did the special care accomplish anything? Was the tree spared or was it cut down? We are not told. However, we are invited to examine our own lives. Thus, the question is not “What happened to the tree?” but “What will happen to me?” The answer depends NOT on our own goodness or fruitfulness - but on whether or not we embrace the grace that God has given us in Jesus, thus sharing in Jesus' own fruitfulness.

In the end, it’s all about Jesus and how he has included us all in God's grace, which includes his personal, human fruitfulness as our representative and substitute.

John 1:12
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God...

Does this conflict with the idea that all people are (already) God's children? No. Note that the gospel proclaims that God has included everyone in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. When he died, we all died; when he rose; we all were born again in him. Therefore all humans are, from God’s perspective, already his children. He gives people that “right” long before they accept it.

Those who believe and accept Jesus enter into and begin to experience the new life that has been theirs all along, the new life that has been “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). In other words, what has been objectively true for them all along becomes subjectively and personally experienced when they become believers.

John 3:16-19
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil."

Does John's statement in v16 "that whoever believes" mean that we save ourselves by our belief? No. Note in John 3:1-15 that Jesus explains to Nicodemus that entering the Kingdom is like being born and seeing the wind blow. We don’t get ourselves born, nor cause the wind to blow, we simply observe its effects. In v17, the John says that  Jesus’ mission is to save the world, not merely create the potential for salvation, which the world actualizes through its own belief. Jesus accomplished the world’s salvation in his own person and work.

Thus John 3:16 is not to be understood as a formula that tells us how to get saved. Rather, it is a statement about how the Triune Life has been given to the cosmos (the world). Salvation is not something we earn by a contract in which we exchange our belief for participation in the Son’s relationship with the Father. The Triune Life is given to us, freely and without any contractual obligation, through the Son—the Father’s
gift to the cosmos.

So what does our belief do? When we believe that the Son is the Father’s gift to the world, and that through him the universe is saved and participating in the Triune Life, we are then able to stop experiencing the perishing death of doubt and fully experience eternal life. And what is eternal life? To know God and his Son (John 17:3). Eternal life is far more than just existence. It is the life of the Trinity. This life has been given to the whole universe through the Son, and all who believe this truth about reality will experience the fullness of
all that the Triune Life really is.

But, we might ask, doesn't John's statement that "whoever does not believe stands condemned" (v18b), conflict with the idea that God has already forgiven and accepted all people? Again, no. The fact of the condemnation of all humanity is the reason Christ came. But he did come, and he forgave all sin and reconciled all things to God. Those who reject that forgiveness and reconciliation remain in their state of condemnation – not because God hasn’t forgiven them and reconciled them to himself, but because they refuse his love and reject him.

John 3:36
"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him."

Doesn't this verse indicate that non-believers will not see life, and that God's wrath is still on them?

From a perspective of a theology of separation, this verse would be interpreted as saying that God stands separate from and in wrath toward all people until the moment they believe in his Son, at which point in time, God enters their lives (for the first time), stops being wrathful toward them, and grants them eternal life.

But is this interpretation justified?  Trinitarian theology says no. Why? Because it is not consistent with what Scripture says about who God is - as revealed in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. According to that revelation, rather than being separate from sinners, God is "a friend of sinners" - he is "Immanuel" (God with us and for us, as one of us), who in love died for us and has forgiven us, accepting us and including us in his life in union with Jesus, who himself, is the union of God and humanity.

It is to this God that John bears witness in his Gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (3:16-18).

"But," one might reply, "doesn't John 3:36 imply that a person remains condemned by God until they believe?  Here we must be careful that we don't misunderstand the point John is making. Throughout his gospel, John makes it clear that God's action on our behalf precedes our personal belief. We don't cause salvation to occur by believing. Rather, what John is telling us is that we receive (and John uses the word "see" as a metaphor for this receiving) what is already true when we believe. John likens this believing to illumination - having one's eyes opened to the light (John 3:20-21).  A person who does not believe cannot see the light that is already present, and thus they remain in darkness (in their personal experience).

In believing, their eyes are opened - they now see what was already there. To not believe is to deny what is there and thus to cut oneself off from its benefits. Though God has forgiven, accepted and included me in his life in Jesus, because I don't believe it, I don't experience these benefits.

Of course, the "light" that is present with all humans is Jesus himself (John 1:4, 9). Unfortunately, not all "see" and thus embrace and benefit from this light. But to say that some do not benefit, is not the same as saying that God condemns those people and remains separate from them, in a state of continuing wrath toward them.

Quite the contrary, in love, God sent his Son to die for all in order to forgive and accept all. From God's perspective, all people are his dearly loved children. Of course, not all know this, and some who know reject this truth. But all are invited to reciprocate - to live as who they truly are - God's dearly loved children (see John 1:12).

In all this, we are seeking to do what the Apostles were careful to do in their writings (including John in his Gospel) - establish all aspects of salvation in Jesus - not in our action (including our believing). Following their example, we seek to uphold the truth of the gospel that Jesus, the Lamb of God, has, indeed, "taken away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).  And the gospel invitation is to believe ("see" in John's terminology) this good news - not to obtain forgiveness by believing, but to experience our forgiveness through now opened eyes.

Indeed, as Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).  Here "to have" is not to receive what one did not have before, but to possess/experience - grab hold of what was there all along. And in that experiencing, one is "born again."

And thus John summarizes the purpose for his gospel: "That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). To "have life" is not to be given something new, but to possess/see/experience/lay hold of, what was granted to all humanity 2,000 years ago through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

John 5:28-29 
28 "Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out - those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned."

How can some be "condemned" if all are now reconciled to God? Note that the Greek word here translated "condemned" is krisis, which means "judgment" (as krisis is translated in v. 22). Note the translation of verse 29 in The Word Biblical Commentary: They will "come forth; those who have done what is good will rise for life, those who practiced what is wicked will rise for judgment." Judgment may result in condemnation, but judgment itself is not condemnation but a process of sorting things out.

We must remember that the judge at this "rising again," usually referred to as the general resurrection, is Jesus, the Savior of all humanity. Notice John 5:22: "…the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment [krisis] to the Son."

On Judgment Day, Jesus, the Judge who died for all of us in our ignorance, will reveal fully who he is—and in the light of that truth, all are called to decision—to "judgment" (krisis)—a point of crisis. Those who accept Jesus enter into the fullness of the joy of the life they have with God in Christ. Those who reject him continue in their alienation and the misery that goes with it. The crisis of this judgment has the effect of sorting out who, in the end, will receive the salvation that is offered them, and who will not.

John 6:44
"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day."

What does Jesus mean by saying that no one can come to him unless the Father draws him?

The Jewish religious leaders were seeking to deflect Jesus’ seemingly outrageous claim: “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven” (John 6:41). This statement was tantamount to claiming divine status.

Jesus’ reply to the Jewish leaders’ complaint concerning this claim was that they “stop grumbling” (v. 43) and realize that “no one can come to me [the bread of heaven] unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (v. 44). Jesus’ point is that the people would not be responding, except that God was making it possible for them to do so.

In this passage, Jesus is not limiting the number of people who are drawn to him; he is showing that he is doing the Father’s work. Elsewhere he says: “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). And since Jesus does only what his Father wants, John 12:32 shows that the Father indeed draws all people to Jesus.

John 6:53; 8:24; 8:47
6:53 Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."
8:24 "I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins."
8:47 "He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."

Don't these verses disprove the idea that God has accepted and forgiven all people?

All humanity exists only in Jesus (there is no other way to exist), and all have had their sins forgiven and have been, in Christ, reconciled to God. These verses show that only by trusting in Christ can anyone enter into that fellowship with God and participate in their true identity as a child of God.

Those who "belong" to God in the sense of trusting him and being in fellowship with him do hear what God says, and those who don’t trust him and are not in fellowship with him do not belong to him in that sense. Those who reject God stand under condemnation, because salvation is to be in fellowship with God, and the only way to be in fellowship with God is to trust him.

John 8:42
Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me."

If all are children of God, how can Jesus call some children of the Devil?

Those living in the darkness of unbelief, even though they are objectively God’s children in union with Jesus, they are subjectively in their personal experience still in darkness.

Paul writes to believers of this deception and darkness in Ephesians 2:2: "In which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient." These believers were once unbelievers walking in darkness, and they still belonged to God because of Jesus, but only when they became believers did they begin to know God and experience life in him.

John 9:41
Jesus said, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains."

How can anyone's guilt remain if God has forgiven everyone?

Note what Paul says in 2Cor 5:19 - "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them..." The point is that God has freely done in Christ everything necessary for human salvation. But to reject that gift is to remain in one’s sins and live under a shroud of guilt.  That guilt is not necessary, and can be shed if the person receives the forgiveness they already have with the Father because of Jesus.

John 12:32
"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."

Does this prove universal salvation?

No. Love, by its very nature, is voluntary. It must be freely given and freely received, or it is not love at all. Jesus’ statement illustrates the universality of his atoning and reconciling work, but it does not prove that every person will ultimately accept it.

John 17:2, 20
17:2  "For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him."
17:20 "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message..."

If all are reconciled, forgiven and included, why the distinction between believers and non-believers?

There are passages in Scripture that refer specifically to those who are currently believers, and there are passages that refer to all people, and there are passages that refer to all those who will ultimately believe.

In John 17:2, Jesus is referring to all people (Jesus has authority over all, and the Father has given all to him). Then in verse 20, he refers to all who will ultimately believe. But in most of this chapter, Jesus is referring to his disciples. In verse 2, Jesus has authority to give eternal life to all, and he has done so, but we must remember that eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ, which involves trust. This means that those who reject Christ do not know God nor him, and do not participate with him in his relationship with the Father. God has, in Christ, done everything necessary for human salvation, but those who reject him, by definition, are not in fellowship with him, and therefore remain in their sins and stand under condemnation.

John 17:9 
"I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours."

If all are reconciled to God, why does Jesus say, "I pray for them [his disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours"?

Just because Jesus said in one instance that he was not praying for the world, but instead for his disciples, does not imply that he never prayed for the world. It is just that right then, his emphasis was on his disciples.
It is also important to understand how John uses the word “world” (kosmos in Greek) in the flow of his Gospel. At times the word can refer to all people (who are all loved by God; see John 3:16) while at other times it can refer to the worldly “system” that is hostile toward God.

It is apparently this system that Jesus has in mind in John 17. Since this system resists God, Jesus’ prayer does not include it. He is not praying for the world in its current form, rather, he is praying for a group of people whom he can use to declare his love for the world.

Later on in his prayer, Jesus does have the whole world in mind. He prays that all of his followers “may be one, Father…so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Just as John 3:16 said, God loves the whole world and wants to save everyone.

John 20:21-23
21 Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

If all people are forgiven (already) through Jesus' vicarious death, resurrection and ascension, why does Jesus here tell his disciples that they will forgive sins (or withhold forgiveness)?

The exegetical key here, as is often the case, is distinguishing between what we might call "God's reality" and "our reality."  God's reality is the truth of the human condition given the reality of who Jesus is for us.  In Jesus (God's reality) all people are forgiven, accepted, loved and included in God's life.

But then there is "our reality" - our personal, subjective reality which may or may not align with God's reality. It is to this personal reality that Jesus here refers. And, indeed, the calling of these apostles (and all the church after them) is to proclaim God's reality to people who are living in darkness. To proclaim that reality is to proclaim to people that, in Christ, they are forgiven.  If they, in turn, believe this proclamation, they will live in that reality (and thus personally experience this forgiveness). But to fail to proclaim it, or to fail to believe it, is to leave people in the darkness of their sense of unforgiveness.  Jesus has set the captives free. Our calling is to not open the door of the prison (Jesus has done that), but to call them into the freedom that is already theirs.

It is in the flow of this calling that John wrote his Gospel, and declares that it is "written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31).  It is not belief that creates this life (with its forgiveness). Rather, this belief aligns our reality with God's reality - it gives us personal awareness and thus experience of the forgiveness/life that is already ours in Jesus.