[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
The disciples had asked in Matthew 24:3 what the signs would be for the end of the age and the coming of the Lord. This question was answered in the section Matthew 24:4-31. The principal sign was the great tribulation which would begin three and one-half years before the second coming of Christ to the earth. Following this prophetic passage, Jesus gave to His disciples a series of applications and interpretations. In Matthew 24:31—25:30 Jesus answered their questions and applied the truth. Jesus then gave the disciples more than they asked for in detailing, in Matthew 25:31-36, the judgment of the nations which will follow the second coming.
While conservative expositors have been in general agreement that the passage deals with a final judgment, considerable disagreement exists concerning the exact nature of the judgment and its relation to the total prophetic plan of the Scriptures. Generally speaking, amillenarians, who believe the second coming of Christ ushers in the eternal state, hold that this is the judgment of all men. Lenski for instance states, “The whole human race will be assembled for the final judgment.”1 R. V. G. Tasker likewise states, “The Son of Man is pictured enthroned in glory as King (34 ) in exercising His divine prerogative as Judge of all nations (32 ).”2 Postmillenarians likewise generally make this a final judgment of all men. Even Alford, a premillenarian, states, “We now come to the great and universal judgment at the end of this period, also prophesied distinctly in order in Rev. xx.11-15 —in which all the dead, small and great shall stand before God.”3 Liberal writers like A. H. M’Neile while raising questions on the genuineness of the passage usually do not dispute that it teaches a judgment which includes “all human beings, those placed on the right hand as well as those on the left.”4
As most commentaries point out, however, this passage in contrast to the preceding discussions in Matthew 25 is not a parable. M’Neile states, “This is not a parable, but a prophetic picture of the Judgment, the only parabolic features being the simile of the sheep and goats in v. 32 , and its metaphorical use in v. 33 .”5
Most interpretations of this passage, however, are built on presuppositions which to some extent require them to ignore what the passage states and what it does not state. A correct exegesis of this passage demands first of all strict adherence to the exact wording of this revelation. If this is done, the thesis that this is a general resurrection breaks down because there is no mention of resurrection or translation and there is no mention of heaven. If on other grounds the premillennial interpretation of Scripture is supportable, this judgment comes as a climax to the prophecies of Christ in Matthew 24 which describe the great tribulation leading up to the second coming of Christ. The nations then would be those who survived the terrible judgments of this period which will wipe out probably a majority of the earth’s population.
A further distinction must be observed in that the Scriptures clearly indicate that God has a separate judgment for the nation Israel (Ezek 20:34-38) and in this case the judgment would include Gentiles rather than the Jewish nation. As will be seen in the exposition this gives a reasonable interpretation of the term “brethren” as in contrast both to the sheep and the goats. Accordingly, on a strict exegesis of this passage, the judgment deals with those on earth among the Gentiles who have survived the tribulation and now await judgment in relation to entrance into the millennial kingdom. It is accordingly not a general judgment, not a judgment of the church which has been raptured earlier, nor is it a judgment of the dead as in Revelation 20:11-15. It is amazing how commentators read into the passage so many facts that are simply not here. Accordingly, the exegesis which follows will pay strict attention to the text itself.
The Judgment of the Nations Described
In describing this judgment Jesus uses the figure of a mingled group of sheep and goats as comprising “all nations” or better translated, “all Gentiles.” According to the passage they are all gathered before Him and the sheep are placed on His right hand and the goats on His left.
Jesus then addresses those on His right hand and invites them to inherit His kingdom. He states, “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (25:35-36 ). The sheep described as “the righteous” reply asking when they did this, and the King answers, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (25:40 ).
Then the King addresses Himself to those on the left hand described as goats and commands them, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41 ). He then charges them with not doing the deeds of kindness which he ascribed to the righteous. When they reply, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?” (25:44 ), Christ replies, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (25:45 ). The King then commands that the goats be cast “into everlasting punishment” in contrast to the righteous who go “into eternal life” (25:46 ).
Apart from its place in the prophetic program of God, this passage has created problems because of its emphasis on works and because of its silence concerning grace as a basis of salvation. A careful examination of the passage, however, resolves these difficulties.6 judgment should be distinguished from the judgments which will follow throughout the thousand year reign of Christ, it is preparatory and introductory to His reign, and inasmuch as His reign brings “judgment and justice in the earth,” as Jeremiah expresses it, so the throne will be on earth.
The Subjects of the Judgment
A crucial question is the interpretation of the expression, “all nations” (Gr. ethnē). This is defined by Arndt and Gingrich as meaning primarily “nation, people.” It is frequently used in a secondary sense “for foreigners” and for “Gentile Christians” in contrast to Jewish Christians.7 It is sometimes used of Jews (Luke 7:5; 23:2 ; John 11:48, 50, 51, 52; 18:35; Acts 10:22; etc.), but its more characteristic use is in reference to Gentiles as distinguished from Jews as appears particularly in theological passages, such as Romans 11:13; 15:27; 16:4; Galatians 2:12, and in some cases the Gentile character of the word is emphasized as in Romans 3:29; 9:24 . Accordingly it is not justified to dismiss dogmatically as many writers do the particular use of this word for non-Jews.
Here as in other details in this passage an appeal should be made to the particular context. Actually in addition to the sheep and the goats a third class is mentioned as “my brethren” (25:40 ) and referred to again as “one of the least of these” (25:45 ). These are obviously contemporaries of the sheep and the goats and yet are not a part of their number. The only scriptural justification for a third class would be to regard these as Jews in contrast to both saved and unsaved Gentiles. Inasmuch as there is another judgment for Israel in Ezekiel 20:34-38 in a different place and in different circumstances, the conclusion is supported that the sheep and the goats are Gentiles.
In the context of end-time events there have been some preceding judgments on the Gentile world. These are described in great detail in the book of Revelation under the seals, trumpets, and vials. In addition a great judgment takes place according to Revelation 19 on the armies of the world composed of Gentiles who are engaged in the great world struggle at the time of the second coming. These have already been put to death. The judgment here described in Matthew comes later in the sequence of events and deals with Gentiles all over the world on whom the preceding judgments have not fallen. It is obviously necessary to deal with the entire world scene in preparation for the world kingdom which Christ is introducing to the world at this time.
The Basis of the Judgment
One of the theological problems which this passage has introduced is that the separation of the sheep and goats seems to be entirely on a works basis. This has introduced the question as to whether there is more than one way of salvation. Further the works indicated are remarkably simple in their formulation, namely, feeding the sick, giving the thirsty drink, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison. How can such deeds provide a basis for entrance into the kingdom, and even more important, why does the absence of these justify the goats being cast into everlasting fire?
The general teaching of Scripture makes plain that works are never a ground for salvation. Even under the Law where works were so prominent, heaven was never among the promises for obedience and hell promised for disobedience. Passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9 make plain that salvation cannot be by works, “for by grace are ye saved through faith; that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”
The necessity of salvation by grace and by faith alone is evident in scriptural teaching concerning the universality of sin and the total inability of man to be good in the sight of God (Rom 3:10-12). It is for this reason that Paul argues in Romans 3:21-28 that justification by faith, by grace, and through the death of Christ is the only way a person can be saved. Works, accordingly, can never produce eternal life, can never cure depravity, can never remedy Adamic sin and other human failure.
With this as a background, how can this passage be interpreted? The answer is relatively simple. What is presented here is not the basis or ground of salvation but the evidence of it. It is always true as stated in James 2:26 that “faith without works is dead,” that is, it is not real faith if it does not produce works. Accordingly, while works are not the ground or justification for salvation, they can be the fruit or evidence of it.
A further question arises, however, on the precise nature of these works. Is it true ordinarily that those who feed the hungry or clothe the naked are necessarily saved and qualify for entrance into eternal life? In the present age, obviously this is not the case, as many who have no faith in Christ nevertheless manifest deeds of kindness. How then can these works be related as sure evidences of salvation?
The answer is found in the context of this chapter. These who are here being judged are those who have survived the great tribulation. According to many Scriptures, the great tribulation will be a time of persecution of the Jew referred to in Jeremiah 30:7 as “the time of Jacob’s trouble.” In fact, the persecution will be so great that according to Zechariah 13:8 two-thirds of the Jews in the land will die. There will be a death sentence on all faithful Jews who do not worship the world ruler in the end time.
There will be satanic hatred of the Jewish people at that time, and Satan will once again attempt to exterminate them as he has done in so many previous periods in history. In such a circumstance, for anyone to befriend a Jew to an extent indicated in this passage, that is feed him, clothe him, and even visit him in prison or when he is sick would be extraordinary evidence of works produced by the grace of God. Accordingly, these works of kindness take on tremendous significance as they would involve extreme danger on the part of the person performing them as well as being executed in a time of great deception and hatred of the Jew. Accordingly, for a person under these circumstances to befriend “my brethren,” it would indicate true faith in God and in Jesus Christ and the works, while not the ground of salvation, nevertheless become a clear evidence of it. By contrast anyone who puts faith in Jesus Christ and is looking for His second coming and is aware of His special purposes relating to Israel including the promises of Genesis 12:3 certainly would not ignore his duty and his privilege of ministering to these troubled people. Accordingly, absence of the works indicates lack of salvation just as clearly as presence of the works indicates faith in Jesus Christ.
The Nature of the Judgment
In the context if this judgment occurs at the beginning of the millennial kingdom, it obviously is preparatory. Many other Scriptures indicate that at the beginning of the millennium all adult unbelievers will be purged out and only those who are redeemed will be permitted to begin the millennial reign with Christ on earth. This is brought out in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50). It is likewise clearly taught in Revelation 14:11 and 19:15 . While children born in the millennium will be allowed to continue as long as they profess to follow Christ, only genuinely converted adults will be permitted to enter the millennium at its beginning, whether Jews or Gentiles.
From these facts brought out in the exegesis of this passage it becomes clear that the judgment of the nations is not a final judgment of the individuals who are concerned as they are still in their natural bodies and await either through translation or resurrection a heavenly body later in the program of God. Their eternal life, however, is assured at this point and their days of suffering as in the great tribulation are now over.
Those committed to the premillennial interpretation of this passage on other grounds will find confirmation of this point of view in this passage. It is clear for instance that the postmillennial view with the world gradually being brought to faith in Christ until all acknowledge Him as King is not justified on the basis of this passage. The dual line of development anticipated in Matthew 13 of the good and the bad, the wheat and the tares, the good and bad fish, is further illustrated here in the sheep and the goats. At the time of the second coming of Christ, He does not come to a converted world. As Matthew 24 makes plain He comes to a world that is preaching false doctrine and is persecuting the Jewish people. The postmillennial dream has no support whatever in Matthew 24—25 .
Premillenarians also find support for their view in the fact that this judgment takes place on earth in preparation for a kingdom which, according to the Old Testament, will be a kingdom on earth of righteousness and peace. There is no indication in the passage that the judgment deals with any others than those who are entering into the millennial kingdom and who anticipate a normal life there. While it would be too much to presume that this passage directly teaches the premillennial view, it certainly provides better support for this interpretation than any other.
The question whether the church is raptured before the tribulation (pretribulational view) or at the time of the second coming to Christ to the earth (posttribulational view) is also by implication dealt with in this passage. If a posttribulational rapture took place and the church met the Lord in the air while He was coming from heaven to the earth to set up His millennial kingdom, it is obvious that this judgment would be unnecessary as it would have already separated the sheep from the goats prior to the arrival of Christ to the earthly scene. The fact that Christ has come to the earth, has had time to set up His throne, and gather all nations before Him indicates plainly up to this time that there has been no posttribulational rapture. In the sequence of events relating to the second coming to the earth itself, if a rapture took place prior to the tribulation and a new generation of believers both Jews and Gentiles emerged as Scripture indicates they will, it would provide the people here described as sheep who would be distinct from those raptured. Posttribulationists tend to brush this aside and ignore the implications of this passage, but close attention to the details of this declaration by our Lord tend to support the pretribulation rapture as the only view that can be harmonized with the literal and detailed exegesis of this passage. Posttribulationists consistently avoid this passage in their discussion of eschatology.
The Olivet Discourse is one of the great prophetic utterances of Scripture dealing not only with the age as a whole in its progress and signs of the end but portraying the great truth of the second coming of Christ later to be expounded in greater detail in the Book of Revelation. The practical implications of the eschatological close of the age are clearly drawn in the various parables and in addition the judgment of the nations found only here in Matthew is a fitting climax for the series of events which usher in the kingdom. This prophetic picture also fits beautifully into Matthew’s purpose in writing this Gospel, that is, to explain why the kingdom was not brought in at the first coming of Christ, and how the kingdom will be brought in in connection with the second coming of Christ. His answer is complete and convincing and forms an important background for the discussion which follows later in Matthew concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, 1943), p. 988.
2 R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, Tyndale Bible Commentaries (Grand Rapids, 1961), p. 238.
3 Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament, rev. by Everett F. Harrison (4 vols.; Chicago, 1958), I, 254.
4 A. H. M’Neile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (London, 1915), p. 369.
5 M’Neile, p. 368.
6 Cf. another discussion of this passage by the author, The Nations in Prophecy (Grand Rapids, 1967), pp. 151-57.
7 W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, 1957), p. 217.