Saturday, April 14, 2018

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

The Abrahamic covenant

It’s significant that, in verses 34 and 41, the righteous among the nations (the “sheep”) are referred to as “blessed,” while the unrighteous among the nations (the “goats” or “kids”) are referred to as “cursed”:

34 "Then shall the King be declaring to those at His right, 'Hither, blessed of My Father! Enjoy the allotment of the kingdom made ready for you from the disruption of the world.

41 "Then shall He be declaring to those also at His left, 'Go from Me, you cursed, into the fire eonian, made ready for the Adversary and his messengers.

This terminology is probably not a coincidence. For the Jewish readers of Matthew’s Gospel account, it would’ve likely brought to mind the covenant that God made with Abraham, as recorded in Genesis 12:1-3: “Yahweh said to Abram: Go by yourself from your land, from your kindred and from your father’s house to the land that I shall show you.  I shall make you into a great nation, and I shall bless you; I shall indeed make your name great, and you will indeed be a blessing; I shall indeed BLESS those blessing you, and I shall CURSE the one maledicting you.” See also Gen. 27:29 and Numbers 24:9.

It would appear that the nations who will be present at the judgment described in Matthew 25 are being blessed and cursed in accord with this covenant. Those among the nations who, during the time of Israel’s great affliction, bless the Jewish descendents of Abraham will be blessed, while those who “maledict” them will be cursed. It should be noted that the Hebrew word translated “maledicting” in Gen. 12:3 means to speak or think of someone with contempt, as if they were of little or no significance or account. In some places, the Concordant Literal Old Testament translates the same word as, “to be lightly esteemed” (see, for example, Isaiah 65:20). Although the actions of the “goats” that will bring a “curse” upon them seem to be passive in nature (vv. 42-44), their failure to help Christ’s brethren during the time of their affliction will, evidently, manifest an inward attitude of contempt or indifference toward them.

Those among the nations who bless Christ’s brethren, on the other hand (by providing then with food, drink and shelter, and visiting them while they were sick or in prison), are said to be “righteous” or “just,” and are rewarded for their kind actions. Notice, again, that there is no indication that the righteousness of the “sheep” is based on anything other than how they treated Christ’s brethren (it certainly isn’t said to be based on their faith in Christ, or on what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection). At this future time, a gentile’s compassionate treatment of God’s covenant people (who, as noted earlier, will become the targets of severe persecution under the regime of the “wild beast”) will merit great reward after Christ returns. In his commentary on this passage, A.E. Knoch remarks as follows, “When God is judging the earth no greater act of righteousness can be done than to feed and shelter His oppressed people. Each faithful Israelite stands in the place of Christ toward the nations. Those who help them do so at the greatest risk, for they may be called to account by the powers that oppose them” (Concordant Commentary on the New Testament, page 49).

Geopolitical communities or individual gentiles?

Some have argued that each nation (i.e., geopolitical community/country) of the world will be represented by a single “sheep” or “goat.” According to this view, one “sheep” or “goat” will represent China, another Honduras, another Romania, another Botswana (etc.). Some proponents of this view have suggested that the individuals who will actually be present at this judgment will be the leaders/designated representatives of the nations to which they belong. This view also holds that the judgment will determine how close or distant a nation will be in proximity to Israel (with the “sheep” nations being closer to Israel, and the “goat” nations being more distant).

Although I am sympathetic toward this position, I’m not convinced that it’s true, and don’t see it as being required by what’s said in the text. Rather than understanding each “sheep” or “goat” as representing a single nation, I believe it is individual gentiles – i.e., the individual members of all the nations at this future time - who are being represented as “sheep” and “goats,” and that the judgment will determine the eonian destiny of individuals and families during the millennium (I added “families” only because a “sheep” or “goat” could, in many cases, be the head of a household, and thus have the potential to affect the eonian destiny of some or all of the other members of the household). There are a few considerations which have led me to accept this view over the alternative.

First, it’s simply not the case that Christ’s use of the expression “all the nations” means that the individuals who will comprise all the nations at this future time aren’t in view. The next time that the expression “all the nations” is found in scripture is in Matt. 28:19-20, where Christ instructed his twelve apostles to disciple all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to be keeping all, whatever I direct you.” Is it the case that “all the nations” will be discipled, baptized and taught as nations (i.e., as collective, geopolitical entities)? Was Christ expecting his apostles to disciple, baptize and teach Egypt, Spain and China as nations? Or, was Christ instead expecting his apostles to disciple, baptize and teach the individuals of which these and other nations are comprised? Clearly, it is the latter. It is the individuals of which nations are comprised – and not the nations as such – which can be discipled, baptized and taught. In this verse, then, the expression “all the nations” must be understood as referring to the people who comprise all of the nations of the world.

The same expression is found in Rev. 20:7-9 as well: ”And whenever the thousand years should be finished, Satan will be loosed out of his jail. And he will be coming out to deceive all the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to be mobilizing them for battle, their number being as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth, and surround the citadel of the saints and the beloved city. And fire descended from God out of heaven and devoured them.” Here we’re told that the number of “all the nations” which will be mobilized by Satan after the thousand years are finished will be “as the sand of the sea.” Is this referring to the number of separate, geopolitical communities that will exist at this future time, or to the number of people who will comprise these geopolitical communities? Clearly, it’s the latter. And if the expression “all the nations” can be understood as a reference to the people who comprise all the nations in Matt. 28:19 and Rev. 20:8, it can (and, I believe, should) be understood in the same way in Matt. 25:32. [1]

Second, the criteria by which the “sheep” and “goats” will be judged seems to point to the judgment’s being based on the actions of individuals rather than the “public policy” of entire countries. Consider verses 35-40 (where we read of Christ explaining why the “sheep” will be blessed):

For I hunger and you give Me to eat; I thirst and you give Me drink; a stranger was I and you took Me in; naked and you clothed Me; infirm am I and you visit Me; in jail was I and you come to Me.' Then the just will be answering Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we perceive Thee hungering and nourish Thee, or thirsting and we give Thee drink? Now when did we perceive Thee a stranger and took Thee in, or naked and we clothed Thee? Now when did we perceive Thee infirm, or in jail, and we came to Thee?' And, answering, the King shall be declaring to them, 'Verily, I am saying to you, In as much as you do it to one of these, the least of My brethren, you do it to Me.'

Based on this above, I find it unlikely that entire countries (such as China, Honduras or Romania) will be commended by Christ for visiting sick and imprisoned Israelites, or providing them with sustenance and shelter during the time of great affliction. It seems far more plausible to me that the actions described in this passage will be the actions of individual gentiles who will belong to these and other nations. This scenario seems all the more likely when we consider that the sort of actions described above will most likely be illegal, and against the sanction of the governments of the countries to which people will belong during the time of Israel’s “great affliction.” The reason for this is that, during the final 3½ years of this eon, the entire world will be under the authority of the “wild beast” (Rev. 13:7-8). We also read that “all nations” and the “kings of the earth” will be deceived by, and under the influence of, the saint-persecuting city of Babylon (Rev. 14:8; 17:2, 18; 18:3, 9, 23). If any of God’s covenant people are to be aided during this time of worldwide deception, it will have to be by individuals, and not by the deceived and hostile countries of the world.

Moreover, in Matthew 24:9 we’re told that the saints will be “hated by all nations.” If this refers to the saints being hated by entire countries – and if the same “all nations” are in view in Matthew 25 – then there would be no “sheep” to be rewarded! All would be “goats,” since we’re told that all nations will hate the saints. Since it’s not true that every individual member of every nation will hate the saints (otherwise there would be no “sheep” to be rewarded), these words most likely express the fact that individuals from every nation will hate the saints (perhaps under the influence and pressure of the governments). In any case, there will be at least some individuals from among “all nations” who don’t hate the saints, and who will risk their lives or freedom to help the saints during their time of persecution. It is these individual gentiles who I believe will be blessed after Christ returns.

Given these and other considerations (see the next installment for more), I think it’s reasonable to understand the judgment described in Matthew 25 as one in which the eonian allotment of the people comprising every nation of the world will be determined.

Part five:

[1] Although the words translated “nation” and “nations” in scripture (ethnos and ethne, respectively) can refer to entire geopolitical communities to which individuals belong, the plural form ethne (“nations”) is often times used in scripture to refer to individual non-Jews, or “gentiles” (with the expression “the nations” likely expressing the fact that the individual gentiles in view are representative of this particular category of people). That is, the word “nations” does not always refer directly to specific countries (e.g., Egypt, Turkey, Libya, etc.), but rather was used to refer to individual gentiles themselves. Consider the following examples where the same word translated “nations” in Matthew 25:32 is used to refer to individual gentiles, as opposed to directly denoting the entire geopolitical communities to which the individuals belonged:

Acts 10:45-46
And amazed were the believers of the Circumcision, whoever come together with Peter, seeing that on the nations also the gratuity of the holy spirit has been poured out. For they heard them [the nations] speaking in languages and magnifying God….Now the apostles and the brethren who are of Judea hear that the nations also receive the word of God.

Here, “the nations” who received the word of God (and on whom the “gratuity of the holy spirit” was poured out) refers exclusively to the centurion, Cornelius, along with “his relatives and intimate friends” (Acts 10:24). See also Acts 15:7, where Peter refers to himself as being the one chosen by God to herald the evangel entrusted to him “to the nations” (where, again, the expression “the nations” refers to individual gentiles rather than to the geopolitical communities to which these gentiles belonged).

Acts 14:47-48
For thus the Lord has directed us: I have appointed Thee for a light of the nations; for Thee to be for salvation as far as the limits of the earth.'" Now on hearing this, the nations rejoiced and glorified the word of the Lord, and they believe, whoever were set for life eonian.

Here, again, “the nations” refers to individual gentiles. They’re referred to as “the nations” because they were seen as examples of this category of people.

Romans 9:30
What, then, shall we be declaring? That the nations who are not pursuing righteousness overtook righteousness, yet a righteousness which is out of faith.

Obviously, there weren’t entire geopolitical communities who were being justified by faith; rather those being justified were individual gentiles. Other examples could be given, but these should suffice.

No comments:

Post a Comment