Matthew 25:31-46, The Judgment of the Gentiles

[November 23, 2014] Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church’s calendar year before Advent begins. The text is another parable about Christ coming in judgment and follows the two parables from the two previous Sundays. Only there is a marked difference.

In the previous two parables, actually from Matthew 24:36 on, Jesus was speaking about his disciples about the time of his Second Advent. In the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids they are attendants of the bride for her wedding, waiting for the coming of the bridegroom; in the Parable of the Talents they are slaves who have been allotted a portion of their master’s property and who need to make their portion profitable until he comes to receive it back. This theme follows Jesus’ description of the desecration of the Temple and of the coming of the Son of Man afterwards, who will come in the clouds of heaven and send out his angels to gather the elect of Israel from one end of the sky to the other. When the Messiah thus comes to gather the elect of Israel from one end of heaven to the other—Israel is his bride—he will also be gathering his church, the congregation of his disciples—for judgment. Those not still living, he will raise from the dead. If they pass muster, they will enter the joy of their Master: they will enter the wedding hall where they will be no longer the bride’s attendants but the bride as well. Those who don’t, well, they will be locked outside in the darkness.

Only then does “the Son of Man come in his glory, escorted by all the angels,” and “take his seat on his throne of glory” (in an exalted Jerusalem). This is when “all the gentiles will be assembled before him and he will separate them from one another” for judgment. This is the judgment of everyone who has not been judged in the previous two judgments: the judgment of Israel (by the gathering of his elect), and the judgment of his followers. Each of these judgments was preceded by a gathering; so also is the judgment of the gentiles. The angels gather the elect of Israel to the Land of Israel while his disciples will meet the Lord in the air, who is still in the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:17). My impression, since Jesus’ disciples will be overtaken by surprise, their judgment—that is, the judgment of his bridesmaids—will precede the gathering of Israel (the bride) to the land of Israel, which seems like an event that will be pretty obvious to everyone. The gathering of the disciples to their Lord will take place before the Lord is manifested to all.

The Son of Man will come, unseen, in the clouds of heaven. “The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are living, who are left remaining, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” There they will be judged to see if they qualify for what follows. While the Lord is still in the clouds, Israel will repent (like the fulfillment of Yom Kippur) and he, their Messiah, will send his angels to gather all Israel to the Land. “Thus all Israel will be saved,” Paul says. Then—and only then, unless the gathering of Israel takes place at the same time—will he come “in glory,” “in flaming fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:7), escorted by all the angels and visible to all, to judge the nations. We will have already been judged, for we—those of us who have not been expelled—“will be manifested with him in glory,” for he will come “with all his saints” (Colossians 3:4; 1 Thessalonians 3:13). For the first time since he descended, he will sit on “his throne of glory” (in Zion), the throne he is entitled to not only as the Son of David but as the King of the kingdom of God. He will sit for judgment—the judgment of the peoples—the “nations”—of the world.

At this point he will have smashed all the kingdoms of the world (Daniel 2:34-35) for he is about to establish his own kingdom in their place. The nation-states will no longer exist. The judgment of the people of the world follows the demolition of their kingdoms and precedes the entering of some of them into his kingdom.

At this point, I want to clarify some issues. I have described the Second Advent in quite literal terms, giving an outline of what will take place. This may delight some people who have that bent of mind and alarm others who do not. Personally, I also do not. Certainly the Christian faith requires that we believe the Lord’s Second Advent is an actual event, no less than the incarnation and resurrection. I also take seriously all these Scriptures that describe it. The picture I have laid out above does so, and is, as far as I am able to give, an accurate synopsis of what Scripture teaches. I do not believe the Scriptures are full of contradictions on this matter but that what it teaches is consistent, however multifaceted. However, I also recognize that the language is metaphorical. Some of it needs to be taken at face value but the “picture” of these events, whether we are considering the prophecies of Daniel or any of the other apocalyptic passages, are metaphorical, sometimes obviously so. I have described the picture in the form of a narrative. What will actually happen, however, is inconceivable. For example, when Jesus ascended into heaven, he did not go to any particular place. He entered—in his human nature—into the place where God is, that is, every place, ubiquity, for his human nature now shares the perfections of his divine nature. It is no less human and no less concrete, but it is not limited in space or time. When we imagine the ascension, we are imagining the unimaginable. So when Jesus comes in glory, it is foolish to imagine him coming from a particular place in the stratosphere as in an artist’s depiction and think that this is what is meant. He will be revealed—that is, who he is—and be manifested in glory, universally to human consciousness. This will be as much an inward event as something outward. What the outside event will be is something no one can imagine except with metaphors.

The creation narratives in the Bible are similar, although apparently far less complex. There are several stories, which as historical narratives cannot be made to correspond, yet as metaphorical accounts of what is deeply mysterious but true are all consistent.

Likewise, I have described three different “gatherings,” each with their own judgment. Each is different and unique with their own characteristics. We can work with the narrative that the Scriptures give us but we have to be careful to say that we have no idea how this will actually look: what we are describing is metaphorical. I would even go so far as to say that we do not even know if it will take place in history as we understand history. We assume that our perception of history captures what humanity is actually going through. I am sure it does not. Our perception is a mental construct based on very few components of the whole experience. If we could see the whole picture, including the interior experience of all humanity (including not only those whom history has ignored but also those whom history has made extinct), we would be seeing something entirely different than what we imagine now. The reality of the Second Advent will take place on this level of things. It will not be something that can be chronicled or reported by the news. It will be an interior event at least as much as an exterior one.

Another issue is that some of you may be questioning my theology at this point. Granted, all Israel will be saved, you say (you might not accept that, finding a way to dismiss what the apostle Paul clearly teaches)—let us assume that at the last minute they all come to believe in Jesus as their Savior (after all, something like that will happen, you say, when they acknowledge the Messiah)—but how can the pagans, that is, the gentiles or nations, who are not Christian, enter into the kingdom of God? For in this third judgment Jesus divides the sheep from the goats and says to the sheep, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.” If these sheep are not believers, how can Jesus be saying this to them? After all, “no one comes to the Father except through me” and “there no other Name under heaven given among human beings by which we must be saved.”

So this is surprising. For the Jews are saved by the mercy (ḥesed, loving kindness or faithful love) of God when they genuinely love God and are faithful to God. Their salvation does not depend on their recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, though their genuine rejection of Jesus comes under condemnation: a rejection which we see in the opposition he received, not in the crowds that simply did not “get it.” But now, am I really saying that there is salvation for the pagans who never heard of Jesus, or who heard of him but chose not to believe? Yes. Not only does this include those gentiles in the Old Testament who believed in God (like Melchizedek and Job), but people in our own day.

Consider the picture given in the 21st and 22nd chapters of Book of the Revelation. The holy city, the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. This graphic depiction is a metaphor for Israel and the church. They are the tabernacle of God in 21:3. It then says of the people on earth that this ‘tabernacle of God’ “is with human beings, and he will [thus] tabernacle with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. And he will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death will be no more, nor will there be sorrow or crying or pain anymore.” Then he who sits on the throne says, “I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life freely. The one who [thus] overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be God to this one, and this one will be a son (or daughter) to me. But the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and fornicators and sorcerers and idolaters and all the false, their part will be in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

Notice that the people on earth are not the same as the bride. The bride comes to be among them as the tabernacle of God. These people do have God’s presence with them; God is their God; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes for there will be no more sorrow or crying or pain, and they will not ever die. Most people assume that this description refers to the same people who are the bride, but clearly they are distinct. Moreover, these people are given an invitation to overcome by drinking from the spring of the water of life and thereby become a son or daughter of God (they are not this yet). Perhaps—I would say, probably—this is an invitation to become part of the bride. For in verse 24 it says that “the gentiles will walk by its light [the light of the city, or bride]; and the kings of the earth bring their glory into it. And its gates shall by no means be shut by day, for there will be no night there. And they will bring the glory and the honor of the gentiles into it.” It seems to me that the kings will bring not merely wealth but their people into the city (remember, the city is the bride, not a physical city). Then in 22:1, two verses down, it says, “he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb in the middle of its street. And on this side and on that side of the river was the tree of life, producing twelve fruits, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the gentiles.” It seems to me that the gentile nations, the people on the earth, will be able to enter the city (the bride) and perhaps become a part of her, to join those who already are the bride, for while people can enter the gates of the city, it never speaks of them leaving but rather of there being a river of water of life (which they are invited to drink from in 21:6) and of their being healed by the leaves of the tree of life. By drinking the water of life they overcome and are healed, and are able to inherit “these things,” that is, the city, thus becoming “sons of God” (those who inherit) and part of the bride. It is a very rich assembly of mismatched metaphors all working together.

There is also a third group of people. Those whose part will be in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. After centuries of digesting graphic depictions of hell, we assume that this judgment is permanent, that people will suffer there forever and ever. What is permanent, however, is the fire, not the residency of the people in the fire. The fire is actually the holiness of God. The holiness of God’s nature is a consuming fire. It is necessarily eternal. That anyone will suffer in its flames for eternity is stating something altogether different, and not something that can be substantiated by Scriptures. Even in Matthew 25:46 being cast away into “eternal punishment” does not necessarily mean that they endure it forever but rather that the fire endures forever. The word translated “eternal” also does not always mean timelessness without beginning or end (as it does when it describes God), but can simply mean an exhaustive period of time of indefinite duration (that is, however long it takes to completely burned up whatever was consumable—it is in fact used this way in the Hebrew Scriptures), or something “age-enduring,” which in this case would mean during the entire duration of the kingdom.

Let us return to Matthew 25. The sheep who are separated out and put on the King’s right hand are gentiles who are not yet part of the bride but who in some indefinite future may become so. They inherit the kingdom prepared for them since the foundation of the world, and Jesus says that they go into eternal life. Jesus does not say that they are given eternal life or that God brings eternal life into them that they may life by God’s uncreated life (as he says of believers in the Gospel according to John), but rather that they get to live in the sphere of God’s life. They get to enjoy living in this sphere but the life of God does not yet live in them. This is actually how the expression “eternal life” is used in the Gospel according to Matthew, where Jesus speaks to people of the enjoyment (or inheritance) of eternal life (see Matthew 18:8; 19:16, 29; and here) rather than about regeneration by which eternal life becomes one’s inner possession, that is, the life of our spirit (by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling), as spoken about in the Gospel according to John.

Their reward is thus to enter into the sphere of eternal life. It is also to inherit the kingdom. Besides this, what else is meant by “the kingdom”? Jesus used this expression throughout this gospel. What exactly is it? It is neither the church nor eternal life as an inner possession. Jesus’ coming is the drawing near of the kingdom and his disciples by entering into a personal relationship with him of fidelity come under its government (its constraint and future recompense). The kingdom is also active outside the church, among all the peoples of the world. It constrains them too and there is a future recompense). The difference is that our entering into the relationship that Jesus has with his Father changes not only how we are related to the kingdom but how it relates to us.

Moreover, in time, the kingdom will judge the world. What then is it? God rules over all—people and things—and always has and will. This can be called the kingdom of God for it describes the extent of it. However, in the New Testament the kingdom refers to something more specific. It describes God’s overcoming humanity’s resistance to the divine. The kingdom conquers and overcomes. It has this martial sense. There is a realm that resists God, the realm of sin, also called the world, which is ruled over by the evil one. Jesus comes in grace and overcomes our resistance, winning us in the depths of our sin over to himself and thus to God. This is the drawing near of the kingdom. His baptism, his taking on the cloak of a penitent and his going to the cross, these things are not only the drawing near of the kingdom but the clashing of the kingdom with the world. By this God overcomes the world, by the lifelong passion of Jesus. Now in the church, whenever the Triune God overcomes us, this is the kingdom, but always we are living under the rule and discipline of the kingdom as God’s grace constantly breaks down our resistance. However, though the church is under the foot of the kingdom, it is not itself the kingdom, for often we are rebels against God. When grace overcomes our resistance, however, then the kingdom is present and draws near to the world (when it can peek through our sinful ways).

A day will come, the event of the Second Advent, when the kingdom will become manifest and Christ will rule the world. The kingdoms of the world will fall apart and a process will begin—without the same old opposition—by which all things will be headed up in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth (Ephesians 1:10). This will be the time when Christ, by his own rule, will abolish all rule and authority and power and put all God’s enemies under his feet (or rather God will do this). This is the time of the kingdom. One day, “when all things have been subjected to him, then the Son himself also”—“when he delivers up the kingdom to his God and Father”—“will be subjected to him who has subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). Time will then be enfolded back into eternity.

Some people refer to this as the “millennial reign of Christ,” but the idea that it is a millennium (see Revelation 20:4) is merely a metaphor for a very long time. Remember that people thought the earth was only four thousand years old. (I hope my readers have outgrown such notions. Science is our friend.) A thousand years would seem like forever—well, an eon—to them.

Having cleared this up (I hope), let us return to the parable again. What is the basis for the judgment of these gentiles? Remember that in the first century, gentiles, unless they were the “god-fearers” who attended synagogue worship, were considered universally to be idolaters (and therefore under the reign of false gods). They were all pagans and heathens (though not all was dark and inhumane). Times have changed, but gentiles still “walk in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance which is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” This sounds terrible, and it is, but Christians are all far closer to this description than we would like to believe. We are only just beginning to “learn Christ” and to be “taught in him as the reality is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:17-21). Hence Paul’s exhortation to the believers (to us) in these and the following verse.

So, what is the basis for the judgment of these people (all people in fact)? It is not on the basis of the object of their worship, for they are ignorant of God, but rather on the basis of how they treated “the least of these siblings of mine.” Who are these people? Judging from Jesus’ earlier statements in chapter 10, the “little ones” are his disciples. For he says, “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will have a prophet’s reward; and anyone who welcomes an upright person because he is upright will have the reward of an upright person. If anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple, then in truth I tell you, he will most certainly not go without his reward” (10:40-42). He returns to this idea in chapter 18. After saying that his disciples must become like little children, he says that whoever of his disciples will humble himself like a little child … whoever receives one such little child because of my Name, receives me” (18:3-5). The hungry and thirsty, the strangers and those lacking clothes, the sick and imprisoned are Jesus’ disciples. However a person treats them is how they treat Jesus. On this basis, not on the basis of their false worship, they are judged. This seems pretty clear, even though it may contradict our traditional notions.

However, this passage—I think—goes even further than that. He says, “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these siblings of mine …” (literally, “to one of these, the least of my siblings”) and “in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these …” Why does he use the word “these”? Jesus seems to be saying that the hungry and thirsty, the strangers and those lacking clothes, the sick and imprisoned, in other words, the poor and unfortunate, that these are the least of his siblings, rather than that they are his siblings only when they are his disciples. In other words, Jesus calls a number of people his siblings: the brothers and sisters he grew up with are his siblings, of course; his disciples are his siblings in a special sense, for by their relationship to Jesus their relationship to God becomes his own: God becomes their Father too. Jesus also considers every fellow Israelite a sibling for they are kin, the descendants of Israel. Now Jesus extends this family to include all the poor and unfortunate, and probably all the marginalized and outcast whom he reached out to during his ministry. This then maintains the theme that pressed itself upon the reader throughout the gospel account. Jesus identifies deeply with the poor and unfortunate and all the marginalized and outcast. Here he calls them “the least of my siblings,” “least” because of their humiliation, not because they are less his sibling than others are. This is the first time, I think, that Jesus calls them his siblings. Up to this point, however, he has not yet called his disciples his siblings either. He has only implied this by speaking of “my” Father and “your” Father and speaking of them as each other’s siblings (he only says “our” Father in the Lord’s Prayer). The first time he calls them, “my sibling,” is in a resurrection scene in John 20:17. He calls these others “my siblings” at the coming judgment, implying that they were his “secret” or “hidden” siblings.

This is how those who are neither Jewish nor Christians will be judged. Will Jews and Christians be judged by the same standard? Of course. It has been commonly taught that we will be judged on the basis of our faith alone. Actually, not even this. Our faith is the gift of God given with our regeneration, which has come to us by the Spirit of God awakening us through the Gospel. It is the fruit of our election. It is all of God: the Father’s election, the Son’s intercession, the Spirit’s inner work. Yet we are all judged none the less, though not for but always on the premise of the relationship that we have with God. A believer knows reconciliation with God on the basis of which they are the Father’s children, though we probably know this less than we think we do. They will, nevertheless, be judged by a stricter standard than the unbeliever because they will be judged according to the Son’s relationship to the Father, and not merely the human creature’s relationship to the Creator.

That judgment will include that for which the unbeliever (the gentile) is judged: how we have treated our neighbor, and in particular, the unfortunate: the hungry and thirsty, strangers, the naked and sick and imprisoned. These are examples. They describe the poor, indigent and destitute. These are people whom Jesus made it a point to reach out to. We recall the poor and the sick and the hunger of the crowds. These were also the demon harassed and inhabited, the unclean, the sinners and the ostracized and outcast: in other words, all the marginalized. If we bring in the other gospels to bear their testimony, it is the same. Whether we are rich or poor, popular or outcast, fit or unhealthy and sick, how do we treat the unloved and marginalized, the ignored, picked upon and despised? This is how all will be judged. Those who call themselves Christians will certainly be judged by this standard, only for them it may be worse. A Christian is a follower of Jesus and cannot be so ignorant of his example.

Let us conclude then: the judgment of the world will be more complicated than some Christians have presented it. In the final picture in the Bible, there are three concentric circles: those burning in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, the gentiles who inhabit the earth, and the bride of Christ who will be the tabernacle of God in their midst. It is clear that the gentiles will slowly make their way into the inner circle. Perhaps those burning in the lake will too, eventually. Or perhaps not. It is doubtful that they will suffer forever, for when time resolves into eternity God will be all in all. Perhaps, this allows that after an indeterminate amount of time they may simply dissipate (“for whom the gloom of darkness is kept for eternity,” Jude 13) though the fire continues to burn, but I tend not to think so.

In any case, this parable concerns the middle circle—the gentiles who enter the kingdom where they enjoy the sphere of the life of God, where grace is free. They are the unbelievers who treated the least of their neighbors well. In the afterlife, they will have a chance, as they do now, to drink freely from the spring of the water of life and so overcome the rupture of their relationship to God. Christ is the vine of which we are the branches, hopefully yielding fruit. “The leaves of the tree” of life growing beside the river of the water of life “are for the healing of the gentiles.” Think on these things. Amazing grace.

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