Harry Whittaker
The Time Of The End

17) “All Nations Gathered Before Him”

Matthew 25

The Lord’s Olivet prophecy of the Last Things includes the most detailed picture of the Judgement, which Scripture presents. Yet one detail has served to confuse students of this chapter more than any other. Because Jesus said: “Before him shall be gathered all nations,” the conclusion has often been reached that Matthew 25: 31-46 is not the judgement of the Lord’s own servants to which, for example, Paul alluded when he wrote: “we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ.” Instead, it is assumed, this is a national judgement in which the nations are held accountable for their attitude to the Jews — “my brethren.” This Judgement is taken as a final outworking of the divine principle which Abraham learned: “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.”


There are serious difficulties in the way of this interpretation. For instance:

  1. If this view is correct, then the doctrine of a judgement on a national basis rests on this Bible passage only, and it a highly debatable one, as it is hoped to demonstrate by and by. The precarious nature of conclusions that have only one (sic!) Scripture to support them has been demonstrated over and over again. Every sect in Christendom sins against this canon of Bible interpretation. It is a habit, which Christadelphians must ever be vigilant against. Nowhere else in the Bible is such a “national” judgement described or even hinted at. So enthusiasts for this particular interpretation of Matthew 25 should hesitate before they achieve dogmatism regarding it. “A doctrine which is based on one text of Scripture will generally be found to rest on no text at all. It is our duty to expound the dark places of Scripture by the clear ones, and to interpret the single texts of Scripture by the whole proportion of Faith” (C. Wordsworth).
  2. The mind boggles at the idea of a national judgement. How can it be applied? And if it can, then will it not inevitably involve a tremendous element of unfairness—by God Himself who says: “Come, let us reason together?” If the basis of judgement is to be that mentioned earlier—a nation’s attitude to the Jews—then what of nations, which have had no contact worth mentioning with the Jews? — Fiji Islanders, Eskimos, Hottentots. And what of nations which have changed again and again in their treatment of God’s ancient people? In the reign of king John, England was outstanding in its persecution of the seed of Abraham; in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries she set the world a shining example of humanitarian treatment of them; in the period 1920-1950, the shameful thirty years, this country broke its promises to the Jews and indulged its administrators’ prejudices against them to an extent that made imperial downfall inevitable. Then if the coming of the Lord takes place, say, in 1980, what kind of assessment will be made of this country’s worth? Or must such judgement depend on what a particular nation does to the Jews in the last few years before the Lord returns?
  3. More than this, is it not obvious that nations are not morally all of one piece? Again, England in its year of grace 1969 is a striking illustration of the difficulty. In recent years no nation has thrown itself into moral decline and decay with the same dramatic thoroughness that this nation now exemplifies. Yet unquestionably it still has an unvocal core of wholesome good-living people (and the world’s biggest colony of Christadelphians) with a decent humane attitude to the Jews, and with reverence for the Bible. Then if the English are to receive judgement as a nation in the Last Day, either the godless are going to be wonderfully blessed for the sake of the Bible-loving minority or the wholesome section of the nation is going to be dragged down to undeserved degradation and punishment because of the rest. It is all very difficult.
  4. In the details cited in this Matthew 25 picture of judgement, the actions commented on are only too obviously those of individuals to individuals, not of nations: giving food and drink to the needy, helping the sick, giving hospitality, visiting the miserable in prison. Some of these beneficent acts may be possible on a national scale, but certainly not all are.
  5. A further difficulty is this. The ground for rejection is not hatred or persecution (of the Jews) but just lack of positive good-will towards those designated “my brethren.” As a basis for national reprobation this is somewhat difficult to understand.

Over against these unresolved problems there can be set a number of positive arguments which seem to favour or even require that the entire passage be read as describing the judgement of the saints in Christ, those who are “his brethren” and whose final destiny is declared when they “come forth ... unto the resurrection of life or ... to the resurrection of condemnation.”

  1. The passage itself seems to be decisive: “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.” These words can describe only one set of people—those who are the spiritual seed of Abraham, who have been chosen according to the gracious divine purpose in Christ before the world began (Ephesians 1: 4). To apply this passage to any but these is to debase the meaning of Bible words. The “national judgement” theory comes to grief here immediately.
  2. “When saw we thee hungry, thirsty, sick, in prison, and did not minister unto thee” are the words of people very conscious of having lived lives of “Christian service.” Ignorant nations of the world could not express themselves in such terms. These are the words of men intent on justifying themselves by amassing good works to their own credit!
  3. The phrase “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren...” only makes sense if “these my brethren” are present at the judgement. Indeed, by far the most natural interpretation is to take them as meaning the approved already set on his right hand.
  4. The accompanying parables — the faithful and unfaithful stewards, the wise and foolish virgins, the servants with the talents — all emphasize the theme of personal responsibility to “the Bridegroom,” “the lord of the servants.” Is it likely then that the last sixteen verses of this discourse switch suddenly to dealing with an altogether different principle — that of national responsibility?
  5. The Greek text of verse 32 strongly suggests the idea of individual responsibility. The grammatical point is somewhat technical and therefore not easy to explain without a lot of jargon. In Greek, as in nearly all languages, a plural noun takes a plural verb. But Greek has one marked exception to this rule. When the plural noun is neuter gender, the verb is singular. A good example of this is Revelation 1: 4: “the seven Spirits which is before his throne.” Here “Spirits,” being neuter plural in Greek, is correctly followed by the word “is” (singular). The translators have rightly turned it into the plural “are.”
Similarly in Matthew 25: 32, the phrase “before him shall be gathered all nations” should normally have the verb in the singular form because “nations” is neuter plural (in Greek). Yet the verb is actually plural. It would seem that the words include a grammatical solecism for the sake of emphasizing (by the plural verb) that this judgement is to be on an individual basis.

A further detail serves to corroborate this conclusion. “And he shall separate them one from another...” should normally have the word “them” in neuter form to agree with the neuter word “nations”; yet in fact the pronoun is masculine, as though yet again to bring out emphasis on individual people.

  1. The similarity between the Lord’s parabolic language about sheep and goats and the powerful prophecy of judgement in Ezekiel 34 is not to be missed (see especially verses 17, 20). This resemblance is not accidental. But Ezekiel 34 is about God’s judgement of unworthiness in Israel, not among the surrounding nations. It would seem evident from Matthew 25 that Jesus was declaring the extension of the same principle of judgement to his spiritual Israel also. This is reasonable. But to pick up a prophecy about Israel and apply it to Gentile nations in their friendship or hatred of Israel is surely a dislocation not so easy to accept.
  2. There are several examples in the Old Testament of the word “nations” being used in the sense of “people out of all nations”; e.g. Psalm 9: 17: “The wicked shall return (Hebrew) into Sheol, even all the nations that forget God.” The word “return” implies that there has been a resurrection. And the word “forget” strongly suggests that this verse pictures the fate of those responsible to the God of heaven and yet neglectful of His law.
A much more appropriate example is Isaiah 25: 7: “And he will destroy in this mountain (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 dearly shews that saints out of all nations are meant, for it is for them that the Lord “will swallow up death in victory.” There is Paul’s authority for this interpretation in 1 Corinthians 15: 54.

With such a case, both positive and negative, regarding this judgement passage in Matthew 25 should there not be considerable reluctance to promulgate the idea of a judgement of the nations? Or has some evidence the other way been overlooked? Are there other places in Scripture, which teach such a doctrine? It would be interesting to know.

Next Next Next