[December 18, 2011] We come to the last of the parables of the Lord’s judgment when He comes, the well-known parable of separating the sheep from the goats. I cannot think of a more commonly misunderstood parable. In 24:29-31 Jesus speaks of the turning and gathering of the tribes of Israel from the four winds. After that, in 24:32—25:30, Jesus speaks to His own, His present disciples and all those who would believe into Him through the centuries. Then in 25:31-46 He speaks of “all the nations,” or to make the point clearer, “all the Gentiles” (both words translate the same Greek one: ethnē).
In the first case, “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven” and Israel will recognize Jesus as its Messiah, and then “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” In the second case, the Son of Man will be hidden before He judges the world and when no one expects, “one is taken and one is left,” the word “taken” (paralambanō) meaning to take to oneself, to take alongside, or to receive. Before that, unseen by the living, the dead believers will be awaken by the cry, “the Bridegroom is here.” Then both those who had fallen asleep in Christ and those believers who were still living and “caught up” (as in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17) will “all be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done through the body according to what he (or she) has practiced, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Only after this will the Lord appear in glory to those who remain, both the gathered of Israel and, as in the third case, the nations or Gentiles, to judge the world.
“In Christ all will be made alive,” but the resurrection of the dead takes place in stages, “each one in his own order: the first-fruits, Christ; then those who are Christ’s at His coming; then the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to His God and Father, once He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until God puts all His enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:22-25). Christ was the first to rise from the dead. Then “those who are Christ’s” will arise at His coming. Then, after His coming, for a long time (a symbolic “thousand years”), He will reign in His Kingdom as He subjects all things to His rule and abolishes all rule and authority and power. It will not take place all at once. Only then, when He delivers up the Kingdom to His Father, will the rest of the dead be resurrected for judgment (John 5:28-29; Revelation 20:11-13). The judgment of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 25:31-46 takes place long before this ending, for it takes place “at the time when the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him,” when “He will sit on the throne of His glory and all the nations are gathered before Him.” In other words, the Lord comes but remains hidden as He gathers all His believers to Him, first the dead and then the living, and then He appears in glory to establish His Kingdom and judge the nations. This is what the parable of the separation of the sheep and goats depict. It is not the judgment of believers, nor is it a judgment that distinguishes between believers and unbelievers, but it is the judgment of the nations who remain on the earth until the Lord’s coming, after the believers have been separated from among them. It takes place long before the final resurrection; those who are gathered before the throne of Christ’s glory have not been resurrected.
Acts 10:42 and 2 Timothy 4:1 speak of Christ judging the living and the dead. Matthew 25:31-46 concerns the living, not the dead, the living Gentiles, not Israel and not Christ’s believers.
This is a quite literal understanding of the Lord’s coming, and not all Christians can accept that. I think, however, before we can interpret what it all means (in terms of what actually happens), we need to understand the literal meaning of the words in the text and the function they play within their context. If it turns out that the literal meaning is not to be taken as a description of the actual, then that can be determined once the meaning of the whole is discerned. The first order of interpretation, however, is to make out what the literal meaning is. Sometimes Scriptures has layers of meaning. In the Song of Songs for example, there are many metaphors and figures of speech that describe on the literal level a love story between a man and a woman, the metaphors often disguising erotic images. The metaphors already take us past the exact meaning of the words themselves. They are part of the literary context of the story. Beyond this, however, is the meaning of the story itself in which the lover and beloved themselves signify more than the characters in their own literary story. They depict the spiritual story between Christ and the believer. Interpretations move from flowers (let’s say) to erotic imagery to spiritual meaning. The Lord’s coming is also depicted in parables of slaves and masters, bridegroom and bridesmaids, fishermen and fish, and sheep and goats. The meaning is usually clear enough (kind of), but then there remains a question: does this narrative describe the actual thing that will happen or is it still metaphorical of the actual? We imagine the actual will take place like the images in the books by the Jehovah Witnesses and Seven Day Adventists. But in actuality, in concrete terms, what can that possibly mean? Will Christ come to us from outer space? Is heaven “out there”? In terms of our new understanding of physics, there are all kinds of other possibilities. It may well be the case that this all falls into the realm of “things which eye has not seen and ear not heard and which have not come up in man’s heart,” something that we can know in our spirit through the Holy Spirit, intuitively, but that we cannot know with our minds, in words and images. Nevertheless, before we can arrive there, we have to begin by understanding the literal narrative that the Scriptures present to us. No sophistication on our part should simply brush that aside (which is exactly the broad stroke that I see many educated believers wave).
The Throne of Glory (Matthew 25:31-33)
This section of Matthew, chapters 21—25, began with Jesus riding into Jerusalem, the City of David, on a donkey (like David at the time of the rebellion of Absalom) in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, to the hails of “Hosanna (save now, we pray) to the Son of David.” He came as the Son of David to Zion, the City where David had his throne. It is to this City, the prophets tell us, that the Messiah would come and reign, sitting on the throne of David. Jesus, as the Messiah, had a right to the throne of David. But the stewards of the City (the chief priests and teaching establishment) would not recognize Him and in fact handed Him over to the Gentiles to be killed in order to keep themselves in power. So Jesus, the King, came in judgment, to establish their guilt and pronounce the verdict. At the end of this section, after the judgment has been exacted, Jesus “sits on the throne of His glory” in the City of Jerusalem, “the throne of David His father” from which “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 32-33). After He has sorted things out with His believers, after He has settled things with Israel, He will judge the nations to whom Israel “delivered Him up.” The stewards of the City delivered Him up to the Roman governor for crucifixion. The Jews delivered up the Gospel to the Gentiles, first through the preaching of the early church and secondly by Rabbinical Judaism leaving the Gospel to the Gentiles, disowning it for themselves. (That is not a judgment on my part, since I believe they had their reasons, but simply a statement of historical fact.)
When all the (living) nations are gathered before Him, when He separates them into two groups, He will be like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. Jesus is the believers’ Shepherd (John 10:11; Hebrews 13:20), the Shepherd of Israel (Psalm 80:1; Jeremiah 31:10), but also the Shepherd of “all the earth” (Psalm 100:1-3).
If this is the judgment of the living, we should keep in mind that it takes place following a time of “great tribulation, such as has not occurred from the beginning of the world until now” (Matthew 24:21-22, 29). During this time both the Jews and the believers will be persecuted. The judgment will have to do with how these Gentiles behaved during this period; in other words, this time of tribulation will have been a test to sift them out and see what they are made of. Historically, the Jews and (true) believers have often been persecuted, to the extent that Jesus repeatedly speaks of persecution as that which His followers can expect from the world. It has also been the case that since Jesus came the Jews have also been persecuted by the world (often at the hands of the church!). It is a scandal that the church should have been (and still is) often behind this persecution—for Jesus says that if we are the cause of the scandal, then it would be better for us (in terms of God’s judgment) if someone would have drowned us first! In reality, the church should be in solidarity with the Jews and should share all their persecutions. We are both the Messiah’s people, even if the Jews only wait for Him without knowing that He came. It is still for Him that they wait.
The Reward and Punishment (25:34, 41, 46)
This judgment of Gentiles who are neither Jews nor Gentile believers in the Jewish Messiah raises questions, does it not? For we are often taught that the judgment is an either/or type of affair. Either you believe in Jesus or you do not (or a worse misunderstanding, either you are a “good” person or a “bad” one). If the goats are cursed and sent away “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” “eternal punishment,” that is not surprising. This is hinted at in the prophets and Jesus and the apostles make it clear. But that “righteous Gentiles” who are not Christians should be told, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” “eternal life,” is surprising. It is surprising enough to throw into question the entire interpretation I am presenting here.
Is this “reward” the same as the believers’? It is assumed that it is. There might, however, be a difference between “prepared for you from the foundation of the world” and the believer, who is a transformed being in resurrection, who is “chosen in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.” The Kingdom to which the righteous Gentile is welcomed is earthly in aspect, not the earthly infused by the heavenly that is the experience of the believer. The believer already participates in something altogether spiritual (which does not exclude the earthly but transforms the experience of it, for spirit includes body as it gives it life). The “righteous Gentile” will experience the blessing of the creation, recovering under Christ’s rule, but the believer will experience the same creation in a much more “mysterious” way, that is, they will see and experience its heavenly aspect through its earthly. In other words, they will begin to know creation as it really is and not in the limited way that we know it now (through the eye of flesh).
The question then revolves around the word “inherit,” what it means, for when Jesus speaks (in the Gospel according to John and John’s epistles) of “having” eternal life, it is the present condition of every believer, but when Jesus speaks of “inheriting” eternal life, it is conditional for the believer, and apparently, as here, even for the “righteous Gentile.” Inheritance, first of all, refers to something in the future, and in particular it refers to the enjoyment of something in the future. For the believer, it is the enjoyment of what they have, and the question is whether they will get to enjoy what they have during the time of the Kingdom, before Christ hands the Kingdom over to the Father after He overcomes all that opposes and resists Him. Eventually they all will enjoy it, but during the time of the Kingdom or some portion of it, some unfaithful believers will be locked out, cast into the outer darkness. That may be a hard pill for some believers to swallow, but I have talked about it enough elsewhere.
The question here is what it means for “righteous Gentiles” to “inherit the Kingdom” and to “go … into eternal life.” Here too it is a question of enjoyment. They will live under the kingly rule of Christ and the believers who have overcome (see Revelation 2:26-27; 12:5; 20:4-6), and Israel will be their teachers (Zechariah 8:20-23). Eventually, when the Kingdom is handed over to the Father and Christ is at last all in all, then they (and their children) will join the nations on earth in Revelation 21:3-7 among whom God will tabernacle as the New Jerusalem, into the gates of which they can enter. According to the Gospel of life, the Gospel according to John, believers “have”—already—eternal life for it is in their spirits by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. According to the Gospel of the Kingdom of the Heavens, the Gospel according to Matthew, faithful believers will “inherit” eternal life in the age to come, the age of the Kingdom. Now Jesus tells us that righteous Gentiles will “go into” eternal life in the age of the Kingdom. This is not the same as having eternal life dwelling in them nor is it the same as “inheriting” eternal life, though, like the faithful believer they will inherit the Kingdom, even if it is not in the same capacity. These may seem like fine distinctions, and not everyone will accept that they are valid; they might say that I am making too much of details; perhaps they are right. Nevertheless, the distinctions are consistent with how they are used. Is the righteous Gentile ever “saved”? Perhaps Revelation 21:6-7 is suggestive that the believers’ option may not be eternally closed to them.
Do the cursed go into the eternal fire to suffer eternally? Verse 46 seems to suggest this and the tradition of the last millennium understands it this way. However, in verse 41 it is the fire itself that is eternal, for it is an expression of God’s own nature. The verse does not say that the cursed will suffer forever in it. The expression “eternal punishment” (kolasis aiōnios) in verse 46 may suggest that they will. According to Liddell and Scott, the word kolasis means “chastisement or correction” or even “retribution.” The first meaning of the adjective aiōnios, however, is “lasting for an age.” Thus Joseph Bryant Rotherham translates it as “age-abiding” and J. N. Young more awkwardly, “age-during.” The word also means “perpetual or eternal.” In other words, on the one hand, the expression could mean that the punishment might never end. The punishment, in the sense of retribution, does not necessarily mean suffering, however. It might indicate loss, in which case the sense is that the loss is for perpetuity. On the other hand, the expression could also mean that the punishment might last only for an age, namely the age of the Kingdom, and not for the “age of ages.” So, in either case, the expression does not necessarily mean that the cursed will suffer without end.
In the Old Testament the expression “eternal fire” is used in Isaiah 33:14. The word “eternal” is also ambiguous in the Hebrew. The word, ‘ôlām, has the sense of long duration, whether into the past or the future. Parallel expressions in the Old Testament describe God’s punishment of Israel. They have the sense of all-consuming, yet Israel is never totally extinguished; in fact, in the end Israel is redeemed. In other words, “eternal punishment” does not necessarily mean that the cursed will suffer forever and ever without there ever being an end to their torments.
That for Which They Are Rewarded or Punished (25:35-40, 42-45)
The righteous Gentiles are rewarded or punished according to the works, not their faith. That alone should alert us that this is not the “final judgment” of all human beings, those who will be saved and those who will be damned, for it is clear that ultimately salvation depends on faith, that is, fidelity to the Person of Christ, and believing into Him.
In Acts 9:4-5 (with parallels in 22:7-8; 26:14-15), Jesus says to Paul, “I am Jesus, whom you persecute.” Yet Paul was not persecuting Jesus but those who believe into Him. Jesus was saying to him that whatever he did to the believers, he was doing personally to Him. However he treated them was how he was treating Jesus. He was persecuting them; therefore he was persecuting Jesus. In other words, “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of these, the least of My siblings, you have done it to Me.”
In Matthew 10:40-42, at the end of the section of Matthew on the “Mission of the Kingdom,” Jesus says to His disciples whom He was sending out on the road, “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who has sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives to one of these little ones only a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, truly I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” Here Jesus is speaking of how unbelievers treat believers and says that they will be blessed according to how they treat His disciples, even how they treat “one of these little ones.” In other words, “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of these, the least of My siblings, you have done it to Me.”
Again, in Matthew 18:1-14 Jesus is speaking about His church. After saying that His disciples need to become like little children in relation to each other, He calls them “these little ones” and warns us against despising them or causing them to stumble. Here also He says, in verse 5, “whoever receives one such little child because of My name, receives Me.” It is important to understand the context, that He is not talking about actual children but about us, His disciples, as little children. In verse 15 the context remains the same but the terminology changes. “These little ones” become “your brother.” Again, “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of these, the least of My siblings, you have done it to Me.”
In the gospels Jesus nowhere considers the Gentiles His siblings unless they believe into Him. He considers the Jews His siblings and He considers His believers His siblings, even if they are Gentiles. Nowhere are all the Gentiles, who characteristically are unbelievers, His siblings (nor does He consider them the “children of God”!).
Who then, are those who hungry and thirsty and strangers and naked and sick and in prison? They are not all who are such but the believers who are such. Perhaps “the least of these My siblings” includes the Jews as well. Since Jesus is addressing the nations who are still alive “after the tribulation of those days,” He is referring to all the believers and Jews who suffer in those days, and in particular the persecuted believers and Jews. In Matthew 10:16-25 Jesus speaks about how those whom He is sending out will be persecuted. “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves … You will be hated by all because of My name.” They will suffer in the world because they are disciples of Jesus. The Jews will suffer also because of the name of God (let no one be deceived—anti-Semitism is rooted in hatred of God). The Gentiles who care for, visit, hide, and protect persecuted Jews and Christians are those whom Jesus calls “the righteous” and will be given the righteous one’s reward, the reward of the one whom they are helping.
Likewise, the Gentile who turns the other way and makes such persecution none of their business, the many people who were afraid to take the risk of solidarity, they are the cursed. I think this is what Jesus is saying. He is not just talking about helping the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked and sick, and those in prison. He is talking about helping those who are stigmatized in a time of persecution, when it is not socially, politically or religiously acceptable to help such, and when to side with such might mean risking bringing the wrath of others on one’s own head. Those who helped the Jews during the Nazi holocaust often found themselves in the concentration camps. These are “the blessed of My Father” for whom the Kingdom was prepared from the foundation of the world. Likewise those who did not want to become involved, these are the cursed, sent away into the eternal fire. Ouch!
The Jews call such people “righteous Gentiles.” Jesus, here in this parable, spoke likewise.
It is always a good thing to feed the hungry and thirsty, to take in the stranger and clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned. It is always a good thing to take care of the widow and the orphan. Both the Old and New Testament tell us this. Jesus tells us this. The prophets of the Old Testament have a deep and pervasive concern for social justice. Here, however, Jesus is talking about something more specific and more risky than acts of charity. He is speaking about our Gentile neighbors who may not believe as we do but who act in solidarity with us when we are persecuted for the name of Christ, or in the case of the Jews, because of the God with whom they identify (who is our God too).
Perhaps, the mercy extended to these Gentiles who survived into the days when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of His glory may one day be extended to all the Gentiles who risked and sometimes lost their lives acting in solidarity with the people of God when they were (and are) persecuted. Perhaps they will be among the “Gentiles” who inhabit the earth in Revelation 21:3-7, who will walk by the light of the City (the bride with her Bridegroom) and enter its gates, and for whom the leaves of the Tree of Life will be for healing (Revelation 21:24-26; 22:2). I hope so.
If I can make one further point it would be this: the Gentiles who helped or did not help “the least of these” did not know that they were doing what they did to Jesus. They may have had no idea what they were doing (or not doing). They may have acted simply out of love (or lack of love) for their neighbor. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews told the believers, “Do not forget hospitality, for through this some, without knowing it, have entertained angels” (13:2). It is also true, not only for unbelieving Gentiles but for all people, that when we help or do not help our fellow human being, no matter how “least” they are, we do not know who it is that we are treating that way. The stranger may be a Jew and we not know it. He or she may be a fellow believer whose need we are ignoring or whom we are helping. Let us all be diligent in doing good, therefore, for we do not know when Jesus may come to us in the guise of the poor, the oppressed, or the stranger.