Jesus’ Olivet Discourse—so named because He delivered it on the Mt. of Olives while overlooking Jerusalem and the temple—included three parables that are often misinterpreted. They are the Parables of the Unfaithful Servant, Ten Virgins, and Talents. They are followed by Jesus’ foretelling of the judgment of the sheep and the goats which, although not a parable, is often misinterpreted just like the three parables that precede it.
Let’s start by taking a look at the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).
The big question facing everyone who reads it is the identity of the five foolish virgins. In the end, they are denied entrance to the wedding feast, and the Lord tells them, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you” (Matt. 25:12).
So, do they represent people who were never saved, or do they represent those who were once saved, but who forfeited their salvation? That is a hotly-debated question in Christian circles. Let’s consider the evidence.
First, note that all ten virgins were initially no different from one another. All were waiting for the bridegroom, their lamps lit with sufficient oil. Could people who are waiting for the Lord’s return represent unsaved people?
Second, had the bridegroom come sooner, all ten virgins would have gained entrance to the wedding feast. They were all ready for his return at one time, but five became unready because of his delay. Are unsaved people ever ready for the Lord’s return?
Third, and most significant, Jesus spoke the Parable of the Ten Virgins to four of His closest disciples—Peter, James, Andrew and John—during His Olivet Discourse (see Mark 13:3). Jesus told the parable, not to the multitudes, but to Peter, James, Andrew and John for their benefit. And He was not speaking to them as unsaved people who needed to be saved. He was speaking to them as saved people who needed to remain ready for His return. He ended the parable saying to them, “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13). That is, “Peter, James, Andrew and John, don’t be like the five foolish virgins who at one time were ready, but who became unready.”
Fourth, note that bridegroom said to the five foolish virgins, “I do not know you” rather than, “I never knew you” (as we find in Matthew 7:23). Those words do not preclude the possibility that He previously did know them. Again, they were initially waiting for him just as were the other five virgins, and had he come sooner, they would have gained entrance to the wedding feast. In that case, he would not have said to them, “I do not know you.”
Fifth, Jesus begins the Parable of the Virgins by saying, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins (Matt. 25:1, emphasis added). Jesus is not talking about the kingdom of the world or the kingdom of Satan. He’s talking about what God’s kingdom will look like. It looks like ten virgins, all waiting for the bridegroom. But some who began well don’t finish well.
All of this is to say, the evidence supports the view that the five foolish virgins represent those who were once saved but who forfeited their salvation.
Of course, like every metaphor, all parables reach a place where certain details contain no applicable meaning. For example, we would not want to conclude that five out of ten currently-ready believers will become unready for Jesus’ return, or that only women can be saved, or that the oil in the parable represents the Holy Spirit which we can “run out of.” No, the single message of the parable is found in Jesus’ conclusion: “Stay ready. Being unready can have dire consequences.”
How can Jesus’ servants stay ready? The Parable of the Ten Virgins is preceded by another short parable that makes that ever so clear. It is the Parable of the Unfaithful Servant, also spoken by Jesus to Peter, James, Andrew and John:
Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that evil slave says in his heart, “My master is not coming for a long time,” and begins to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 24:45-51).
The way to remain ready is to continue believing in Jesus, which means continuing to obey His commandments. If you are “beating your fellow slaves” (either physically or verbally), or enjoy spending time eating and drinking with drunkards, those aren’t good signs according to Jesus.
Here’s a fact that can’t be avoided: the Parables of the Unfaithful Servant and the Ten Virgins both share a similar moral: “Stay ready. If you don’t stay ready, in the end you could be denied entrance into God’s kingdom and be cast into hell.” Not surprisingly, the very next parable we will consider, the Parable of the Talents, teaches the same moral. And all three parables were originally spoken to people who, at the time, were ready. That means Jesus believed that saved people could forfeit their salvation.
That, of course, stands in direct contradiction to the idea of “once-saved-always saved,” also known as the doctrine of “unconditional eternal security.” It also stands in contrast to the popular message of false-grace and hyper-grace teachers who redefine biblical grace. So, we have a choice. We can believe what Jesus said, or we can believe what others say that contradicts what Jesus said. Personally, I’m sticking with Jesus!
Who is the One-Talent Slave?
Let’s now consider the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30). The challenge that is faced by everyone who reads it revolves around the slave who was entrusted with one talent. In the end, he is referred to by his master as a “worthless slave,” and he is cast into “the outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:29). That sure sounds like hell. Yet he was a servant of the master just as much as the other two were, and he was entrusted with some of the master’s money just as were the other two. So, a servant of the master was cast into hell.
In the strange world of “false-grace” and “hyper-grace,” fruitfulness and obedience are optional. Yet in this parable, not to mention the rest of the Bible, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Clearly, the one-talent slave was cast into hell because of what he didn’t do. Specifically, unlike the five-talent and two-talent slaves, he didn’t bring his master an increase on what the master had entrusted to him.
Some false- and hyper-grace preachers solve this dilemma by turning hell into heaven. They claim that the “outer darkness” is a place on the fringes of heaven where unfaithful believers will temporarily mourn their loss of rewards. They assure us, however, that Jesus will eventually “wipe away every tear,” and invite them into heaven, since salvation is all through an unconditional grace that has no expectations or requirements (that is, a license to sin). The outer darkness is sort of like a Protestant purgatory.
The trouble with that interpretation is that it is stupid with a capital C! Any honest person who takes ten minutes to study every instance in which Jesus referred to the “outer darkness” and the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” will conclude that Jesus was unmistakably speaking about hell.
For example, in Matthew 8:11-12, Jesus contrasts “the kingdom of heaven” with the “outer darkness” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is one fate or the other.
In Matthew 13:36-43, the “sons of the kingdom” inherit “the kingdom of their Father,” while the “sons of the evil one” are thrown “into the furnace of fire” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is one fate or the other.
In Matthew 13:47-50, the wicked are removed from among the righteous, and they are thrown “into the furnace of fire” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is one fate or the other.
In Matthew 22:11-13, Jesus contrasts a wonderful wedding feast given by a king for his son, with the “outer darkness” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is one fate or the other.
In Matthew 24:45-50, the obedient slaves are given more responsibility in their master’s household, while the wicked slave is “cut up in pieces” and “assigned a place with the hypocrites” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is one fate or the other.
After all those references in Matthew in which the outer darkness and the place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth are all clear references to hell, we come to the Parable of the Talents that speaks of the same. So, should we conclude that the other five references in Matthew’s gospel to “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” are references to hell, but on the sixth occasion, when Jesus used the identical terms, He was referring to a temporary holding place on the fringes of heaven? Hmmm.
By the way, there is no mention of the unfaithful slave in Matthew 25 being in the “outer darkness” temporarily, and to suggest so is to say what the Bible never says.
All of this is to say, anyone who claims that the “other darkness” and place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is not hell, but rather is a place on the fringes of heaven that is a temporary holding place for unfaithful believers, has not done his homework.
A Second Desperate Twist
If hell can’t be turned into heaven, false- and hyper-grace teachers have only one other option to twist the Parable of the Talents to fit their perverse theology. And that is to make the one-talent slave represent someone who was never saved. His one talent, they sometimes claim, represents the chances he had to hear the gospel, which he tragically “buried.”
One problem with that interpretation is that there is no hint of it in the parable itself. Again, the one-talent slave is just as much a slave of the master as are the two-talent and five-talent slaves. Where in the four Gospels can we find Jesus comparing unsaved people to slaves of a master who represents God? Nowhere.
Moreover, the master in the parable entrusts some of his money to the one-talent slave just as he does to the two-talent and five-talent slaves. Nothing in the parable leads honest readers to believe that the one-talent slave is any less a slave of the master than the other two slaves.
A second problem with that interpretation is that, as I have already mentioned, the Parable of the Talents is found within Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, which was a sermon not addressed to the multitudes, but to a handful of Jesus’ closest disciples, namely, Peter, James, Andrew and John (Mark 13:3). That is, Jesus’ Parable of the Talents was addressed to a few of His servants whom He was about to leave, and whom He would be entrusting with different gifts and opportunities. It was spoken to them because it was for them.
Jesus was obviously warning them that they should be careful that they not become like the one-talent servant who buried his talent. If you had asked Peter, James, Andrew or John an hour later what they thought Jesus’ Parable of the Talents meant, would they have said, “The only part that was applicable to us were the references to the five-talent and two-talent slaves, because it would be impossible for us to ever be like the one-talent slave”?
All of this is to say that to turn heaven into hell, or make a servant of the master into not a servant of the master, is devious scripture-twisting.
Some of the most heretical hyper-grace teachers claim that most all of Jesus’ words only had application to Jews under the old covenant—an idea not found in any of the New Testament epistles and an idea that stands in total contradiction to Matthew 28:18-20. Yet, according to those hyper-grace teachers, Peter, Andrew, James and John only had to worry about being unfaithful servants for a few more days…until Jesus died and rose again. After that, the Parable of the Talents had no further application to them! From then on it was all about “grace”! Yipee! No more need to be concerned about faithfulness or obedience!
The truth is, the Parable of the Talents is one more beautiful illustration of biblical grace, the grace that is offered in the gospel, that is, conditional grace. All three slaves in Jesus’ parable were entrusted with something that belonged to their master that they didn’t earn. That is grace—unearned and undeserved. But the master expected something from those servants who had received his grace, and that concept fits perfectly with the consistent message found in the New Testament epistles. Gospel grace is not a license to sin. Rather, it is a temporary opportunity to turn from sin, be forgiven, and live for God by the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit.
Ironically, the one-talent slave was very much like modern hyper-grace teachers. He believed in a grace that didn’t exist, a grace that was never offered by his master. He didn’t think that “works” were part of the “salvation equation.” He believed he was “unconditionally eternally secure” and had nothing to worry about. He believed in “once a slave, always a slave.” But he was wrong. Dead wrong.
The Future Judgment of the Sheep and Goats
Finally, let’s consider Jesus’ foretelling of the future judgment of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46) since we can now consider it within the context of the three parables that precede it. It is the conclusion to Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. Like His Parables of the Unfaithful Servant, Ten Virgins, and Talents, Jesus did not address it to the multitudes, but to four of His closest disciples (see Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:3). He spoke it just a few days before His crucifixion.
Keep in mind that twice already during His Olivet Discourse, Jesus foretold of those who would be “cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In each case, it was because of what those people did or didn’t do. This leads honest readers to think that holiness has something to do with gaining heaven and escaping hell.
False-grace and hyper-grace teachers, however, either ignore those inescapable facts, or relegate them exclusively to the old covenant. Only people under the old covenant, some of them claim, needed to be obedient to enter God’s kingdom. Yet the New Testament epistles, all written to Christians under the New Covenant, repeatedly underscore the necessity of holiness for salvation, harmonizing perfectly with Jesus’ teaching. Salvation is by grace, of course, as there is no other way for sinners to be forgiven. But the grace that God offers is conditional. It is not a license to sin. It calls us to repentance and obedience.
Jesus’ foretelling of the judgment of the sheep and goats, the capstone of His Olivet Discourse, also stands in contrast to what is proffered by false- and hyper-grace teachers, because once again, Jesus revealed that people will gain eternal life or suffer eternal punishment based on what they do and do not do. The sheep—those who truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ—love the brethren. In contrast, the goats, who do not truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, do not love the brethren.
Those who have faith demonstrate it by their love and obedience. Those who don’t demonstrate love and obedience don’t have faith. It is just that simple. But because of their rejection of these inescapable New Testament truths, false teachers have concocted some of the most bizarre interpretations imaginable regarding Jesus’ foretelling of the judgment of the sheep and goats. Let me tell you one.
Location, Location, Location…
Some try to persuade us that, because we read in Matthew 25:32 that “all the nations will be gathered before [Jesus]; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” that this is a judgment, not of people, but of nations. So, the United States, with all its citizens, will either be a “sheep nation” or a “goat nation.” That is also true for China, Kenya, Cuba, and so on. Between them, there will be about 200 “sheep nations” or “goat nations.”
And because the Olivet Discourse foretells end-times events when Israel will be attacked during the Tribulation period, when Jesus referred to “these brothers of Mine, even the least of them,” He was allegedly referring to His Jewish brothers living in Israel. And those nations that are kind to Israel during the Tribulation, sending relief in the form of food and clothing, will be permitted to enter the millennial reign of Christ, while those that persecute Israel will not be permitted to enter His millennial reign.
The only trouble with that interpretation is that it flatly contradicts what Jesus actually said, not to mention the fact that it is utterly ridiculous.
Jesus said nothing about the sheep being permitted to enjoy His millennial reign or the goats not being permitted to enjoy it. Rather, the sheep “inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 24:34) as well as “eternal life” (Matt. 25:46), while the goats are cast into the “eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41) to suffer “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46).
So, are we to think that our earthly citizenship, prior to the sheep and goats judgment, will determine if we gain eternal life or suffer eternal punishment? That is, if we are citizens of a “sheep nation,” yet we have no faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, no love for Him, and no obedience to Him, will that guarantee we will inherit eternal life? And if we live in a “goat nation,” yet we believe in the Lord Jesus, love Him and obey Him, will that guarantee that we will be cast into the eternal fire? The answer to those questions is obvious, and it exposes the absurdity of those who teach the “sheep and goat nation” theory.
By the way, Jesus’ brothers, including the “least of these,” are not all the people who live in Israel. They are those who hear God’s Word and obey it, as Jesus said in Luke 8:21. (And that, incidentally, is just one more New Testament proof that those who are truly born again show their faith by their obedience.)
Many teachers claim that Christians will not be a part of the judgment of the sheep and the goats. Really? How do they know that? And who then are the sheep who inherit eternal life? They aren’t Christians? And God has a standard to which He holds the sheep that He doesn’t have for me and you? Finally, did Peter, James, Andrew and John, who all heard Jesus foretell the judgment of the sheep and goats, believe that there was no chance that they would ever stand at that judgment? Hmmm.
The Simple, Plain Truth
So how should we interpret Jesus’ words about the future judgment of the sheep and goats? We should believe that Jesus simply meant what He said.
There is coming a day when Jesus is going to say to every person one of two things, either, “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat” (Matt. 25:35) or, “I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat” (Matt. 25:42). Either, “I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink” (Matt. 25:35) or, “I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink,” and so on.
The sheep—those who demonstrated their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ by their love and sacrifices for other suffering believers in whom Jesus lives—will inherit eternal life. The goats—those who demonstrated their unbelief in the Lord Jesus Christ by not caring about suffering believers in whom Jesus lives—will be cast into hell. It is just that simple.
Here’s an amazing thing: All of the sheep will be former goats who were saved by grace, as the only way goats can be saved is by grace! When those former goats believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s grace transformed them into sheep. They became “new creations,” indwelled by His Spirit who birthed in them the fruit of the Spirit, the first of which is love (see Gal. 5:22-23).
Believing what Jesus said about the future judgment of the sheep and goats is what completely changed the direction of my ministry several decades ago. That is when my wife and I launched Heaven’s Family, to facilitate a way for people like many of us, who live in “Disney World,” to use our God-given resources to care for the “least of these” around the world. Over the past 20 years, Heaven’s Family has been entrusted with tens of millions of dollars that has been used to meet pressing needs and touch the “least of these” in 80 nations. And we’re just getting started.
In light of what Jesus said about the future judgment of the sheep and goats, there should be thousands of other organizations doing the same thing that Heaven’s Family is doing. It is so important, for both time and eternity!
But tragically, caring for the “least of these” is not on the spiritual radar of many professing believers (including even pastors), and I’m fearful that they are one day going to be just as shocked as the goats whom Jesus talked about, because they, too, are goats. If you read Matthew 25:31-46, you will notice that the goats assumed they were sheep. They called Jesus “Lord,” saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?” (Matt. 25:44). Their implication was that, had they seen Jesus suffering in any of those conditions, they would have surely done something to offer some relief. But they were self-deceived. When someone ignores the suffering of those in whom Jesus lives, they ignore Jesus.
Here’s the question the Holy Spirit asked me 25 years ago, as a pastor, that radically altered the direction of my ministry: “If everyone in your church died today, and they stood at the judgment of the sheep and the goats, and they were judged by the same criteria that Jesus said would be used to judge the sheep and goats, how many would be sheep, and how many would be goats?” That is a good question for any and every pastor to ask himself, and a good question for any and every professing Christian to ask himself or herself. Unless Jesus was lying in Matthew 25:31-46, eternity depends on the answer to that question. — David