Saturday, April 14, 2018

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

The time of the judgment 

We know that Christ’s “coming in glory” with “all the holy messengers with him” is the event that will bring this present eon to a close (Matt. 24:3). Thus, it is during the next eon – i.e., that which Christ referred to as the “coming eon” (Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30) - that Christ “shall be seated on the throne of his glory,” and will begin judging the nations. But what more can be said about when this judgment will be taking place?

In its commentary on Matthew 25:31-46, the NIV Study Bible (1995) provides a summary of what it calls “the two most widely accepted interpretations of this judgment.” According to the first interpretation, the judgment “will occur at the beginning of an earthly millennial kingdom (vv. 31, 34). Its purpose will be to determine who will be allowed to enter the kingdom (v. 34). The criterion for judgment will be the kind of treatment shown to the Jewish people (“these brothers of mine,” v. 40) during the great tribulation period (vv. 35-40, 42-45).” According to the other main interpretation, the judgment “occurs at the great white throne at the end of the age (Rev 20:11-15).”

I submit that it is the first interpretation summarized above which is most consistent with the scriptural data. It must be kept in mind that Christ’s words in Matthew 25:31-46 are part of an unbroken discourse (commonly referred to as the “Olivet Discourse”) that begins in the previous chapter. It is not until verse 1 of chapter 26 that we are told Christ “finished all these sayings.” And there is no indication that Christ ever departs from the subject he began in chapter 24. Consequently, we cannot understand or interpret Matthew 25:31-46 in isolation from what is said in chapter 24. And since the subject with which Jesus began this discourse concerns his return to earth at the end of this “age” or “eon” (and the signs that will precede this event), it is this future time which should be understood as the focus of the passage under consideration.

Now, in Revelation 19:11-16 (cf. Rev. 1:7), we find John’s description of the same coming of Christ that is referred to in Matthew 24:30 and 25:31. Since there is no good reason to understand the occurrence of the events described in Rev. 19-20 as being in anything other than chronological order, it’s reasonable to believe that the judgment at the “great white throne” (Rev. 20:11-15) will occur more than one thousand years after Christ’s return to earth (Rev. 20:1-7). This being the case, it’s reasonable to understand the judgment described in Matthew 25 as taking place (or at least as beginning) nearly one thousand years before the judgment described in Rev. 20:11-15.

Moreover – and in contrast with what is said in Matthew 25:31-46 - the judgment described in Rev. 20:11-15 is explicitly said to be one that will involve those who will have died at some point before the judgment begins. In Rev. 20:5-6, we’re provided with two categories of people who are to be resurrected after Christ returns to earth at the end of the eon: (1) those who take part in the “first (or “former”) resurrection” and who will “live and reign with Christ a thousand years,” and (2) “the rest of the dead,” who “do not live until the thousand years should be finished. It is those in the second category of people (“the rest of the dead”) who will be resurrected and judged at the “great white throne” of Rev. 20:11-15.

In contrast with what is revealed in Revelation 20, there is no indication from Matthew 24-25 that the judgment of the nations will involve anyone’s being resurrected. Rather, the implication is that the subjects of this particular judgment will be those who survived the tumultuous, calamity-filled final years that will precede the “coming of the Son of Mankind on the clouds of heaven” (i.e., the final seven-year “week” or heptad that we find prophesied in Daniel 9:24-27).[1] It is during these last seven years that God will be preparing the earth for the establishment of Christ’s kingdom.

The location of the judgment

It should go without saying that the location to which Christ will be “coming with power and much glory” is the earth. It is on the earth that the kingdom of God will be established when Christ returns (Matt. 6:10; 13:41, 43; Luke 21:31; cf. Daniel 2:34-35, 44). In fact, with the only exception being certain prophecies concerning the Messiah in which an ascension to heaven is implied (Psalm 16:10-11; 68:18; 110:1; Daniel 7:13), nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is heaven ever said to be the future home of any human being. It is on the earth - not in heaven - that believing Israelites expected to live and reign during the reign of the Messiah (Jer. 31:1-40; Isa. 61:1-62: 12; Isa. 65:17-24; Ezek. 36:24-38; Mic.2:12-13; Zech. 14:8-20). We further read that the reign of the Messiah and of the faithful within Israel will be characterized by peace and harmony on the earth (Isa. 2:1-4; 11:6-9; 14:3-7; Isa. 35:6-7, 32:15, 35:1; Isa. 51:3; Isa. 65:25; Amos 9:13).

Christ’s sitting on the “throne of his glory” will be the beginning of the fulfillment of the following prophecy from Jeremiah 23:5: Behold, the days are coming, declares Yahweh, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” In Rev. 20:4 we read that the resurrected saints will “live and reign with Christ a thousand years,” and in Rev. 5:10 we read that the saints “shall be reigning on the earth.” From these and other verses it can be reasonably inferred that the “throne of his glory” from which Christ will be judging the nations will be located on the earth. Specifically, the location of Christ’s throne will be in the city of Jerusalem, on mount Zion (which will be the “world capital” during the eon to come; see Jer. 3:17; Zech. 8:22; 14:4-21; cf. Rev. 14:1).

What about Joel 3?

Some believe that the judgment referred to in Matthew 25 is the same judgment as that described in Joel 3:1-16, and from this conclude that the judgment will be occurring in the “valley (or “vale”) of Jehoshaphat,” as referred to in Joel 3:12. On the surface, it’s understandable why some may see the judgments described in these passages as referring to the same judgment. However, there are a few considerations which have inclined me to view Joel 3 and Matthew 25 as referring to two separate events that will be occurring at two separate times.

First, the judgment described in Joel 3 is entirely negative; unlike what we read in Matthew 24, no one among “all the nations” involved in this judgment is said to be rewarded at this time for any good deeds performed. The reason the nations present at this judgment are being judged by God is because of their ill-treatment of Israel (vv. 1-7) - treatment which includes dispersing and selling them “among the nations” (as we’ll see later, this is not something of which the “goats” of Matthew 25 will be accused). This judgment will, evidently, be God’s response to the events described as taking place in Luke 21:24 (and which will begin approximately 3 ½ years before Christ’s return): “And they [the Jewish people] shall be falling by the edge of the sword and shall be led into captivity into all nations. And Jerusalem shall be trodden by the nations, until the eras of the nations may be fulfilled” (for the duration of the “eras” in view here, see Rev. 11:2). It is the nations into which God’s people will be led into captivity (and which will be “treading” Jerusalem at this time) that God will be mobilizing for battle and then judging on this day.

In Zechariah 14:1-2, we find another reference to the event described above (which will result in many of Jerusalem’s inhabitants being “led into captivity into all nations”): Behold, a day is coming for Yahweh, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city.” However, in the next verse, it is revealed that the same “all nations” into which the Jewish people will be led into captivity will subsequently be judged by God: “Then Yahweh will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.” I submit that the judgment in view here (in which Yahweh will “go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle”) is the same judgment as that referred to in Joel 3.

Second, we know from Joel 3:9-12 that the gathering of “all the nations” for judgment will be part of a military campaign. This gathering will involve armies that will consist of people from every nation being assembled for battle against what they’ll perceive to be a common enemy and threat. What these “united nations” won’t realize at this time is that God will have gathered them there for judgment, and that the battle for which they’ve prepared themselves is going to be entirely one-sided (for their battle is going to be with God himself, who will be fighting them through the agency of his returning Son).

Third, it is after “all the nations” have been mobilized and gathered for battle in the “valley of decision” that the “day of Yahweh” (or “day of the Lord”) is said to be “near,” and certain celestial events will be taking place (vv. 14-15). Thus, the chronological sequence of Joel’s prophecy is as follows: (1) “All the nations” gather in the “valley of Jehoshaphat” (or “valley of decision”), prepared for battle; (2) After they’ve been gathered to this location, we’re told that the “day of the Lord” is “near,” and the celestial event referred to in v. 15 takes place;[2] (3) God judges the nations gathered at this time, and begins to “reverse the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem” (v. 1).

The battle for which the nations in this passage are described as preparing is, I submit, none other than “the battle of the great day of God Almighty,” as referred to in Rev. 16:12-16. This battle is referred to again in Rev. 19:19, where we read that John “perceived the wild beast and the kings of the earth and their armies, gathered to do battle with Him Who is sitting on the horse and with His army” (Rev. 19:19). We can therefore infer from these verses that the “nations” which will be gathered for the battle referred to in Joel 3:9 will constitute the armies of “the kings of the whole inhabited earth” (we can also infer that these will be the same “all nations” which will be gathered against Jerusalem for battle just before the time of “great affliction” begins).[3]

In contrast with what we read in Joel 3, then, the judgment described in Matthew 25:31-46 will not involve the armies of the nations gathering in preparation for war. Rather, the judgment of Matt. 25 will be more formal in nature, taking place after Christ has already been enthroned. This will be after all military forces hostile to Christ’s rule have already been defeated.

Part three:

[1] A preliminary understanding of the “70 weeks” prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 would be helpful for those readers unfamiliar with this prophecy. Since an in-depth study of this prophecy would be outside of the scope of this article, the soundness of the interpretation of the prophecy that I think is correct will simply be presupposed (I hold to the view which sees a chronological gap between the 69th and 70th “week” of years). For an introduction to this important prophecy, see and For a more in-depth treatment of Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy, I highly recommend Sir Robert Anderson’s groundbreaking book on the subject, The Coming Prince. Another resource I’ve found helpful is the following online study by End-Time Pilgrim, which is based on Anderson’s work (scroll down just a little ways for the table of contents; it appears on the left side of the page and provides links to all 11 pages of the study).

[2] As I’ve argued elsewhere on my blog, I believe the expression “day of the Lord” is used in both a “broad” and a “narrow” sense in scripture, and thus does not always refer to the same exact time period. According to the broad sense in which this and similar expressions are used, the day of the Lord refers to both the coming time of indignation (which I believe encompasses the entirety of the final, 70th heptad prophesied in Daniel 9) as well as the entirety of the fourth eon (which embraces the entire millennial reign of Christ). According to the “narrow” sense, the expression refers only to the actual day of Christ’s return to earth (i.e., the literal day which concludes this present wicked eon and ushers in the next). In Joel 3:14 (cf. 2:31), I believe the expression “day of the Lord” is being used in the “narrow” sense, and refers to the day of Christ’s return to the earth.

[3] It may be objected that, in Joel 3:2, 12, the location of the battle is said to be “the valley of Jehoshaphat,” while in Rev. 16:16 it’s said to be “Armageddon.” However, these can be understood as two different ways of referring to the same place. Although there is a tradition (dating from around the fourth century AD on) which equates the valley of Jehoshaphat with the Kidron Valley, this is simply one of several views on what location, exactly, is being referred to in Joel 3. The Christian historian Eusebius, for example, identified this valley with the Valley of Hinnom (i.e., “Gehenna”). Others have suggested the Valley of Beracah, where King Jehoshaphat overthrew the enemies of Israel (2 Chr. 20:26). However, given the fact that Jehoshaphat simply means “Yahweh shall judge,” it’s possible that “valley of Jehoshaphat” is simply a figurative way of referring to the area in which judgment will occur, in accordance with Joel’s prophecy. In this sense, it’s no more the literal name of a valley than is the expression, “valley of decision” in Joel 3:14.

According to this view, the expression “valley of Jehoshaphat” (or “valley of decision”) could easily be applied to the Valley of Jezreel (also known as the plain of Esdraelon), which is an immense plain surrounded by hills and mountains. One of the hills that borders this plain (and from which one can overlook it) is the hill of Megiddo (“Armageddon” can be understood to mean either “Mount Megiddo” or “hill of Megiddo,” as the Hebrew word “har” can refer to either a mountain or a range of hills). For more information on this subject, see the article at the following link: See also the following map:

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