Each of these pictures mentioned in Matthew 24:36-51 has been alike in stressing the sudden nature and unpredictability of Christ’s return. But each has also added its own unique elements. The picture of the flood has reminded us that many persons will be lost. The picture of the two men working in the fields and the two women grinding at the mill points to a radical separation and reminds us that we are not saved by knowing or being close to a believer. The picture of the thief reminds us that our souls are valuable and that it is simple prudence for us to be ready.
What about this next picture, the contrast between two servants? This is an explanation of what being ready means. Being ready means loving, trusting, and waiting for Jesus Christ, of course. The faithful servant is faithful because he is expecting his Lord’s return. But it also has to do with faithful service, that is, continuing to carry out what Jesus has left us in this world to do. We find the same idea in two of the three parables in chapter 25. In one parable faithfulness is demonstrated by the wise use of the talents Christ has given (Matthew 25:14-30) In the other it is seen in selfless service to those who are hungry or thirsty or have other pressing needs (Matthew 25:31-46).
How are we to evaluate the service of these two men? Not much is said about the good servant, only that he gave the other servants their food at the proper time. Jesus may be thinking of spiritual food and of the service of ministers in teaching the Bible. On the other hand, a great deal is said about the bad servant. His service is marked by three vices.
1. Carelessness. He neglects his work because, he says, “My master is staying away a long time” (v. 48). This reminds us of 2 Peter 3:4 which I referred to earlier: “They will say, ‘Where is this coming he promised?’ Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” It always seems like that to unbelievers. Jesus has not returned yet; so they are careless. But, says Peter, they “deliberately forget” that God did judge the world in ancient times by water and that he has promised to do so again by fire at the final day (vv.5-7). Besides, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (v. 8). What seems delayed to us is not delayed with him. Therefore, says Peter, “Be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (v. 17).
2. Cruelty. The second vice of the wicked servant is cruelty to his fellow servants, because he began “to beat” them (v.49). This is like the Pharisees whom Jesus said would pursue, flog, kill, and crucify his servants (Matthew 23:34). Only here it is not merely the apostles and missionaries who are beaten. It is the underservants, and the one who is doing the beating is a person who claims to be a servant of the Lord.
3. Carousing. Finally, the Lord denounces the wicked servant for his carousing since he has begun to “eat and drink with drunkards” (v.49). This is like those living “in the days of Noah, who were eating and drinking” and “knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away” (vv. 38-39).
The passage says of the good servant only that it will be good for him when his master returns. But of the bad servant it says, “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vv. 50-51). We have already seen that this is a vivid description of the suffering of the soul in hell, the destiny of all who will not be ready when Christ comes.
There is an old fable in which three apprentice devils were coming to earth and were talking to Satan. The first one said, “I will tell people there is no God.” Satan replied, “That will not fool many, because they know there is a God.” The second devil said, “I will tell them there is no hell.” Satan said, “You will never fool many that way, because they know there is a hell.” The third said, “I will tell people there is no hurry.” Satan said, “Go, and you will ruin millions.”
Lord Shaftesbury, the great English social reformer of the 19th century (1801-1885), is reported to have said on one occasion: “I do not think that in the last forty years I have ever lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.” The anticipation of Jesus’ return was one of the strongest influences behind his efforts to assist the poor and on behalf of foreign missions. He was expecting to meet Jesus face to face, and he was watching for him. Shaftesbury was ready for his Master to come.
So I ask again: Are you ready? Are you watching? This is an extremely sober matter. To be ready is salvation. Not to be ready is to perish.
1 I have borrowed these three points from William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 873.
2 The story is in William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2, Chapters 11 to 28 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), pp. 350,351.