Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

179. Sheep and Goats (Matt. 25:31-46)*

Jesus brought his long Olivet prophecy to an appropriate conclusion with what is certainly the most detailed picture of the Last Judgment to be found in the Bible. He introduced it with a striking allusion to a vigorous Old Testament prophecy of the Last Days: "When the Son of man shall come in his glory (24 :30), and all the (holy) angels with him ..." This is very much like Zechariah 14 :5. Some manuscripts have actually assimilated the word "holy" from Zechariah ("saints, holy ones").

"Then shall he sit on the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations." This last phrase has been the subject of much misunderstanding. Not infrequently the conclusion has been drawn from this that the ensuing picture is not a judgment of those in Christ, but a tribunal at which the nations of the world are judged on their past treatment of "these my brethren" (often taken to mean the Jews). There are so many difficulties in the way of this interpretation, and so many arguments in support of the obvious alternative—that this is The Judgment at which Christ will call his own servants to account—that no room is left for the idea of a judgment of nations. The pros and cons are worth tabulating.

  1. Where else does the Bible speak of nations being judged in the Last Day? Is there a single verse? It looks as though this doctrine is left supported by this solitary text. Does the point need to be emphasized that any teaching based on only one text is probably not taught even by that? An idea which appears to be propounded in one place only in the volumes of Holy Scripture is best left alone. It is almost certainly mistaken. (There are, of course, lots of prophecies about nations being judged in the sense of "punished," but that is a very different matter.)
  2. Judgment on a national footing is humanly incomprehensible. Not a few nations of the world have had practically no contact at all with Jews. How do they come into this? And how can judgment be meted out fairly to nations in the lump, since all kinds of disposition towards Jews (or saints), from one extreme to the other, have been known in the same generation of the same people; e.g. England has known Fascist anti-Semites and Christadelphians in about equal numbers! Then is England to be blessed or cursed for its attitude to the Jews? Or is the decisive factor to be national policy? In that case a nation may find itself wonderfully blessed (or cursed) because of decisions taken round a table by a handful of politicians for the usual political motives and not at all for humanitarian or spiritual reasons. Very strange!
  3. The basis of acceptance in this judgment is the kind of life only possible in individuals -food and drink to the needy, helping the sick, giving hospitality, visiting those in prison.
  4. The rejection intimated here (v.41-45) has no element of anti-Jewish feeling behind it (or anti-anything). The reason given is sheer neglect of simple duty to others.
  5. "Then shall the King say to them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (v.34). Is it possible to apply such language to any unregenerate nation in the world? It belongs only to those chosen in Christ before the world began (Eph.l :4). This consideration, by itself, would appear to settle the question. But there are plenty more reasons.
  6. "When saw we thee hungry, thirsty, sick, in prison, and did not minister unto thee?" These are the words of people conscious of having lived lives of "Christian service." Godless, or even godly, nations of the world could hardly speak of themselves in this fashion.
  7. "These my brethren" requires that those alluded to be actually present. The most obvious reference is to those already approved and set at the Lord's right hand. And gospel usage is emphatic that "his brethren" (Jn.l :11; 7:3), and "my brethren" are his disciples (Mt.l2:49,50; 28 :10;Jn.20:17).
  8. All the associated parables-the faithful and unfaithful stewards, the wise and foolish virgins, the talents—have a strong emphasis on personal responsibility to Christ. Is it possible that Jesus switched suddenly to a very different theme? Is it not much more likely that this Last Judgment is an extension of the parables just mentioned?
  9. The Greek text of verse 32 pointedly indicates emphasis on individuals rather than nations. (Details in "The Time of the End," chapter 17). The grammatical technicalities, hardly suitable for inclusion here, are obvious enough to any reader of the Greek New Testament.
  10. This parable of sheep and goats is very clearly borrowed from Ez.34 :17,20, a prophecy which is about unworthy treatment of Israelites by Israelites. It is easy to see how Jesus has adapted this for a similar picture of attitudes in the New Israel of God. But it is not at all easy to see why it should suddenly refer to the treatment of Jews by Gentiles.
  11. The expression: "all nations" (or "all the Gentiles"-same phrase) is not infrequently used in the Bible for "those who are called out of all nations." A specially good example is ls.25 :7: "And he will destroy in this mountain (mount Zion, where Christ sits on the throne of his glory) the face of the covering that is cast over all people,, and the vail that is spread over all nations." The next verse shows very clearly that saints out of all nations are meant, for it is for them that the Lord "will swallow up death in victory." In 1 Corinthians 15 :54 there is Paul's authority for this interpretation. Other examples: Gal.3 :8; Rom.4 :17,18; 15 :11; Acts 15 :17; Ps.9 :17 (Heb.) and especially Mt.28 :19, where the phrasing in the Greek text follows exactly the same pattern as in 25 :32.
With such reasons in its favour, the reference of this concluding section of the Olivet prophecy to the day when Christ judges his saints appears to be well founded.

A Gospel of Judgment

Teaching concerning Judgment is much more strongly emphasized in Matthew's gospel than in any of the others. There is the separation of wheat from chaff, and of the sincere from the hypocrites, of wise and foolish builders, wheat and tares, good fish and bad, profitable and unprofitable servants (3:12; 6:2,5,16; 7 :24-27; 13 :30,48,49; 25:14-30), and now sheep and goats. There are also parables of this character—the unmerciful servant, the labourers, in the vineyard, the wicked husbandmen, the wedding garment, the faithful and unfaithful servants, and the wise and foolish virgins (18:23-34; 20:1-16; 21:33-41; 22:1-14; 24:45-51; 25:1-13).

When the judgment takes place, Christ sits "on the throne of his glory." This looks back to Ezekiel's description of the glorious throne of God (1 :26-28). Christ's coming is "in the glory of his Father"(Mt.l6:27).

This throne of glory will be, unquestionably, in Jerusalem (Lk.l :32). In the parable of the pounds, it is when the nobleman has "received the kingdom" that he calls together his servants so that they may give account of their service. And since a large number of Scriptures indicate that the saints will receive their blessing of immortality in Jerusalem (see Notes), there is good reason for believing that they will be judged there.

The process of judgment

The figure of a shepherd separating sheep and goats tells all that it is necessary to know about the actual process of judgment. A good shepherd can distinguish sheep from goats at a glance. No need for prolonged scrutiny. The shepherd knows at once and without any possibility of a mistake which is a sheep and which is a goat. Indeed, as the passage under consideration goes on to suggest, both sheep and goats are readily recognizable by their voices! In the face of these considerations all the surmises about a Judgment lasting 40 (or 75) years are shown to be mere guesses.

Those on the right hand are greeted as "ye blessed of my Father," because now they experience the supreme blessing of knowing sin put away for ever. This specialised meaning of the word "bless" is not uncommon in the Bible. In this way it is specially associated with God's promises to Abraham (Gen.22:18; Acts 3:25,26; Gal.3:8,9).

The invitation to "inherit the kingdom” contrasts splendidly with the rich young ruler who thought to "inherit eternal life" through the keeping of commandments. These inherit because they are "children of God . . . heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ" (Rom.8 :16,17); "suffering with him, they are glorified together with him."

Acts of kindness?

The simply phrased but telling examples of Christian piety in action can easily be read mistakenly as a declaration that humanitarianism is the highest virtue and that this in itself qualifies for everlasting blessedness. "An eternal kingdom in return for such insignificant acts of kindness!" is the comment of one misguided writer. Such a point of view exalts the second commandment above the first. It can only be sustained by setting aside the massive teaching of both Old and New testaments regarding justification by faith. The examples given here are necessarily practical because it is practical expressions of faith such as these which are capable of being appreciated by those who are rejected. That there is here no justification by works is readily seen from the fact that these who are praised for their acts of sympathy and unselfishness are apparently unaware of having done anything of any consequence: "When saw we thee. . .?" -a remarkable contrast with the contributor to Parity who signs himself: "Inasmuch."

Christ and his brethren

In many a place the gospels emphasize the way in which the suffering or difficulties of others moved the deep compassion of Jesus, but amongst them all is there any more telling than this? When any humble disciple suffers from longer or thirst or nakedness or hardship, Jesus himself hungers and is thirsty and shares the pangs of suffering. When the disciple is sick, so also is Jesus. When persecution and imprisonment fall on the faithful, Jesus also is afflicted and behind bars.

Scripture has many examples of this identification which is true fellowship. "God had mercy on him," wrote Paul about Epaphroditus, "and on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon arrow." When Samson prayed: "Let me die with the Philistines" (Jud.16 :30), he was at last perfectly identifying himself with the cause of his oppressed people, and not at all with the Philistine foes. "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord" sums up the highest happiness of the faithful servant (Mt.25 :23).

There are also examples in plenty of the spirit which proudly holds itself aloof. "I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as other men." The same self-righteous Pharisees (Lk.18 :11) "sit in Moses' seat. . . they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers" (Mt.23 :2-4).

But Jesus, the Lord of glory, not only shares the burden and yoke of his humble followers (Mt. 11:28-30), but also in the day of his kingdom he delights to acknowledge them as his brethren: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." "For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one (one Father? or one nature?): for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren" (Heb.2 :11). "Go tell my brethren," he said, "I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God" (Jn.20 :17). And in the "great congregation" at the Last Judgment "I will declare thy name unto my brethren" (Ps.22 :22).

It is specially noteworthy that in these words of approbation at the Judgment, the Lord will not say: "Ye did it to me also." But absolutely: "Ye did it unto me." And especially when "the least of these my brethren" are seen to be not socially but spiritually the least, faith becomes the motive power in such a manifestation of true Christian spirit. Accordingly, good fellowship with humble unattractive fellow-disciples is called faith by the apostle James: "My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the lord of glory with respect of persons ..."(2:1).

The contrasting picture of the rejected is all the more stark because of point for point correspondence with the blessed:

Then shall the King say unto them
Then shall he say also to them
on his right hand ...
on the left hand...
Come, ye blessed of my Father,
Depart from me, ye cursed,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you
(depart) unto fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
from the foundation of the world.
(fire) which is eternal.

The devil and his angels

The "everlasting fire" spoken of here presents no difficulty to those who have already recognized the idiom of Gehenna destruction which Jesus not infrequently made use of. This is total destruction, and for ever (cp. Mt.13 :42; Mk.9:43-49).

But who are "the devil and his angels"? Two possible meanings present themselves. The very closeness of the parallelism just tabulated suggests that just as the blessing of the kingdom is "prepared for you", i.e. the worthy, so also the eternal retribution is "prepared for the devil and his angels", i.e. the unworthy. They are called this because although nominally Christ's, they have been dedicated to an ecclesia of evil.

Alternatively, this may be read as an anticipation of the vigorous symbolism of the Book of Revelation-the Beast and the False Prophet are both cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone! (19 :20); "the dragon fought, and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven" (that is, within the scope of God's purpose, the heavenly tabernacle). This opens up the possibility that the Lord's condemnation of the unworthy will sentence them to share the fate of the ungodly world in the same way that Lot's wife was involved in the fate of Sodom. There is something inherently fitting about this-that those who, though in Christ, have been worldly in spirit, should share the holocaust of tribulation which the world will experience at that time. The destiny of the foolish virgins, shut out of the wedding feast (Mt.25 :10), and of the man without a wedding garment consigned to weeping and gnashing of teeth in outer darkness, both suggest the same idea.

What punishment?

Perhaps there is the same implication behind the final censure: "these shall go away into everlasting punishment." It is doubtful whether the word here translated "punishment" is appropriate to describe the nothingness of eternal oblivion, which indeed many of the godless today deem to be no punishment at all. It may be that the "punishment of the (millennial) age" will actually consist of further mortal existence which not only experiences the dire troubles of the chaos which begets a new world but also involves living on for a while into the blessed peace and loveliness of Messiah's kingdom. What better punishment to fit the crime of doing despite to the gospel of the kingdom of God? Then, truly, "a sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursed" (Is.65 :20) and positively pitied instead of being congratulated on his longevity.

The self-vindication of the rejected is a concentrated essence of self-righteousness: "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?" It has been well said that "the righteous in their answer dwell on each particular, in each respect finding themselves wanting, whereas the unrighteous in their reply, pass over all these neglected duties in a more summary, self-confident way." This is king Saul's self-justification when he was discarded: "I have performed the commandment of the Lord" (1 Sam. 15 :13). And in Christ's earlier picture of the Last Judgment: "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?" Assuredly in that day there will be small encouragement for any who would depend on their own achievements.

Jesus turned abruptly from this sad prospect to the happiness of others: "the righteous shall go into life eternal." What a conclusion for his great prophecy!

Notes: Mt. 25:31-46.

Immortality at Jerusalem: ls.25 :7,8; 4:2,3; Ps.133; 87:5,6; 102:18-21; Joel 2 :28,32;Mt.27:52,53.
Set the sheep; s.w. Lk.21 :36.
Ye have done it unto me. For further emphatic development of this theme, consider: Mt.10 :40-42; 18 :5; Jn.13 :20; Acts 9:4; Heb.6 :6,10; Pr.19 :17; 1 Cor.8 :12.

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