Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats: A Study on Matthew 25:31-46 (Part Three)

The basis of the judgment

According to most Christians, the “sheep” represent those who will have met the necessary requirement (or requirements) for salvation, while the “goats” represent those who failed to meet this requirement. That which is necessary for salvation is expressed in different ways by Christians. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll generalize this necessary requirement for salvation as the requirement that one become a “born-again Christian” (for regardless of the differences in how the necessary requirement for salvation may be presented, most  Christians would agree that it is only “true” Christians who will be saved, and the words “born again” are intended to reflect this fact).

Now, let’s assume that this view is correct. That is, let’s assume that the “sheep” are those who will not “receive eternal punishment,” and that becoming a “sheep” requires that one become a “born-again” (or “true”) Christian. This would necessarily exclude not only those who have made an “informed decision” to not become a born-again Christian, but also infants/young children, many mentally disabled people, and every person throughout history who has lived and died without having ever heard the “true gospel” to which the “necessary requirements” for salvation are attached.

Thus, if the expression commonly translated “eternal life” in Matthew 25:46 and elsewhere refers to one’s final salvation - and if only those who become born-again Christians before they die will avoid “eternal punishment” - then all who die as infants/young children, many mentally disabled people, and every person throughout history who has died without becoming a “born again Christian” will be lost forever (and to attempt to make any category of persons an exception to this requirement is to completely undermine the position that becoming a “born again Christian” is absolutely necessary to being finally saved). Fortunately, this passage has nothing at all to do with the “eternal destiny” of those who become (or fail to become) born again Christians before they die.

In fact, the “buzzwords” that Christians normally use and associate with being “saved” (such as “gospel,” “faith,” “believe,” “grace,” “repentance,” “born again,” “conversion,” “confess,” etc.) are conspicuously missing from this passage. The view of many Christians notwithstanding, the judgment described in this passage seems to be very much based on people’s actions toward others rather than on meeting the conditions that most Christians believe must be met in order to receive “eternal life” (and, it should be noted, this remains the case irrespective of whether or not one thinks the salvation of the “sheep” was ultimately predestined by God). Given the popular view concerning what this passage is about, the emphasis we find on people’s acts (rather than on, say, their faith or unbelief) should be a matter of great puzzlement to those Christians who believe a person’s “eternal destiny” hinges on whether or not they become a “born again” (or “true”) Christian before they die.

As if the emphasis on works in this passage wasn’t problematic enough, the problem that this passage creates for the popular Christian view on judgment is exacerbated by the fact that the works on which the judgment is based are not even said to be good and bad works in general. The “sheep” are not said to be rewarded based on all the good things they did prior to this judgment, and the “goats” are not said to be punished for all the bad things they did prior to the judgment. Christ was very specific concerning the actions that determine the destiny of those who fall into the two categories of people being judged. Whether those among the nations are categorized as “sheep” or “goats” is based on how these people treated a third category of persons – i.e., those whom Christ referred to as his “brethren” and “the least of these” (v. 40). But who are these “brethren” of Christ?

The least of Christ’s brethren

I don't think it would be an overstatement to say that one's interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46 hinges on the identity of that category of people referred to in this passage as "the least of [Christ's] brethren." To determine their identity, let’s consider an earlier passage from Matthew’s Account. In Matt. 12:46-50, we read the following:

At His still speaking to the throngs, lo! His mother and brothers stood outside seeking to speak to Him. Now someone of His disciples said, “Lo! Thy mother and Thy brothers stand outside. They are seeking to speak to Thee.” Yet He, answering, said to the one saying it to Him, “Who is My mother, and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand over His disciples, He said, “Lo! My mother and My brothers! For anyone whoever should be doing the will of My Father Who is in the heavens, he is My brother and sister and mother!

Notice that Christ understood the disciples over whom he stretched out his hand to be representative of his “mother” and “brothers” (i.e., his relatives). He further clarified the identity of these relatives of his as “anyone whoever should be doing the will of My Father Who is in the heavens.” But what did Christ mean by “doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens?” Upon the start of Jesus' ministry, it became the case that an Israelite’s faith in God could not be separated from faith in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus – i.e., believing that he was and is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:13-17) – became just as important as faith in Yahweh, the one God of Israel. This is made especially evident in John’s Gospel account, where one of the central themes of the book is that faith in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God is essential to having eonian life (John 20:30-31). So it's clear that one of the ways in which Christ believed his disciples did the will of his Father was by believing the truth concerning his Messianic identity (cf. 1 John 3:23).

However, despite the emphasis in this book on believing that Jesus is the Messiah/Son of God, it would be a mistake to think that “faith without works” was sufficient for an Israelite’s doing the will of God and being worthy of an allotment in the kingdom during the eon to come. "Doing the will of God" was, for Christ's disciples, inseparable from their conduct. According to Christ, if an Israelite wanted to be saved and enter into the kingdom of God, their righteousness had to “super-abound” more than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), and it’s clear from the immediate context that this involved keeping the precepts of the law given by God to Israel (vv. 17-19). Although the righteousness that made an Israelite worthy of entering into life in the eon to come undoubtedly involved the heart rather than the external conduct only (we find this point emphasized throughout Christ’s teaching), it’s also clear that an Israelite’s conduct (i.e., keeping God's commandments) was inseparable from his being righteous. According to Christ, it was not “workers of lawlessness” but rather those who were “doing the will of [his Father] in the heavens” who would “be entering into the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 7:16-23; cf. vv. 24-27). Notice that Christ contrasts doing the will of God with “lawlessness” (see 1 John 3:4). “Lawlessness” is, of course, the opposite of keeping God's law/commandments.

When asked by a young man what one needed to be doing in order to have life eonian in the kingdom of God, Christ replied, “If you are wanting to be entering into life, keep the precepts” (Matt. 19:16-17). Christ went on to list five of the “Ten Commandments,” as well as what he considered the second of the two “greatest commandments” given to Israel: “You shall be loving your associate as yourself” (vv. 18-19; cf. Mark 12:29-34). Rather than being an entirely separate precept for Israel, this “greatest precept” (like the other "greatest precept") encompassed all of the precepts which Israel is under obligation to keep, for we're told that "on these two precepts is hanging the whole law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:36-40). Paul even considered the precepts of the law to be "summed up" in the precept to "love your associate as yourself" (Rom. 13:8-10). It is impossible for an Israelite to keep what Christ referred to as the “greatest precepts” while violating God’s law, as expressed in the very precepts which God himself inscribed in stone and, through Moses, delivered to Israel (Ex. 24:12; 31:18). It should also be noted that the law God gave to Israel (and which is encompassed by what Christ referred to as the greatest precept) includes the fourth commandment, which involves keeping the seventh-day Sabbath holy.

In addition to affirming the essential involvement of the heart in keeping God's precepts (Matt. 5:27-28), Christ also warned his disciples against being “snared” by the temptation to break one of God's precepts with the following exhortation: “Now, if your right eye is snaring you, wrench it out and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body be cast into Gehenna [i.e., the Valley of Hinnom]. And if your hand should ever be snaring you, strike it off and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body pass away into Gehenna…It is ideal for you to be entering life maimed, rather than having two hands, to be cast into Gehenna…” (Matt. 5:27-30; Mark 9:42-48). Clearly, Christ did not understand the keeping of God's precepts as a mere option for his disciples, or "brethren." Again, a failure to keep God's precepts constituted "lawlessness," and it was the "workers of lawlessness" whom Christ declared would not enter the kingdom of God (Matt. 7:22-23).

According to Christ in his Olivet Discourse, all believing Israelites who will be alive during the time of “great affliction” must remain “vigilant” (Luke 21:36), “watchful” (Matt. 24:42; 25:13), and “faithful” (25:21-23). They must avoid being “snared” and “deceived” (Matt. 24:4), and must “endure to the consummation” in order to be “saved” (Matt. 24:13). We know that the “consummation” Christ had in view in this verse refers to his coming in power and glory at the end of the eon, and that being “saved” means being worthy to stand before Christ at this time and to enter into life in the kingdom (Luke 21:28-31). And based on John’s words in Rev. 14:12, it can also be reasonably inferred that the “enduring” which Christ had in mind entailed keeping the precepts of God and the faith of Jesus.”

Thus, from the larger context we can reasonably conclude that the “brethren” and “least of these” that Christ had in mind in Matthew 25:31-46 are the faithful Jewish saints (those who are doing the will of the Father) who will be alive on the earth during the time of “great affliction,” and who will be hated by “all of the nations” (Matt. 24:9). At some future time, God is going to begin to remove the “hardness” or “callousness” which is presently on “Israel, in part” (Rom. 11:7-8, 25-26). And sometime following (or coinciding with) this removal of callousness from Israel, intense persecution will break out against the Jewish people. We know that the second 3½ years of the 70th "week" or heptad (the time of “great affliction”) will involve “great necessity in the land and indignation” on the Jewish people (Luke 21:23; cf. Jer. 30:4-7). For more information on this time period (and the scriptural support for it), see part four of my study on the timing of the snatching away.

This time of “great affliction” is not something that will involve only a relatively small number of believing Israelites undergoing persecution, while an unbelieving Jewish majority is spared. Rather, we're told that, at this time, two thirds of all the Israelites in Judea will “be cut off and perish,” with only one third being left alive (Zech. 13:1, 8-9). And the spared remnant will clearly consist of believers with whom God will be in a newly-established covenant relationship (as is evident from the final part of Zech. 13:9). Thus, from the midpoint of the 70th "week" on, the Jewish people in general - beginning with those living in the land of Judea - will be severely persecuted by the nations (and this persecution will, it seems, be directly instigated and authorized by the “wild beast” - along with his associate, the “false prophet” - as referred to in Revelation 13).  

Shortly after the “abomination of desolation” has been set up in the future temple (which will take place toward the end of the first 3½ years of the 70th "week"), it will be necessary for Israelites living in Judea to flee into the mountains in order to escape the tribulation that is to come (Luke 21:20-23). Those who do not escape will either be killed or “led into captivity into all nations” (v.24; cf. Zech. 14:1-2). Even before this time of “great affliction” begins, we read that Jewish believers (whom Christ’s disciples can be understood as representing) will be given up to affliction, killed, and “hated by all of the nations” because of Christ’s name (Matt. 24:9). It is also these believers who will be heralding the “evangel of the kingdom in the whole inhabited earth for a testimony to all the nations” before the consummation of the eon arrives (v. 14). 

I have placed the words “all nations” and “all of the nations” in bold for a reason, for it is within this broad category of humanity that I believe the “sheep” and “goats” of Matthew 25:31-46 will be found. The “nations” of Matt. 25:32 are, in other words, constituted by the same individuals who constituted the “nations” referred to throughout chapter 24 (or, at least, those among this category of people who will still be alive after the time of “great affliction” ends, when Christ returns). It is these individuals who will be separated by Christ when, after taking his seat on “the throne of his glory” (cf. Matt. 19:28), he begins judging the inhabitants of the earth.

To summarize this section, the three categories of people who are in view in Matthew 25:31-46 can be understood as follows: (1) those among “all the nations” who, having aided Christ’s brethren in their time of need, will be deemed righteous (2) those among “all the nations” who, having failed to assist Christ’s brethren in their time of need, will be deemed unrighteous, and (3) Christ’s brethren (i.e., Jewish believers/disciples of Christ who will have gone through a time of “great affliction” prior to the return of Christ to the earth, and will have been “hated by all of the nations”).

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