The judgment of the sheep and the goats

Wed, 09/02/2011 - 03:49

I have been teaching this week on eschatology (and empire), and a question put to me about the setting of the judgment of the nations described in Matthew 25:31-46 has made me look again at the passage. The scene is set with a dramatic account of the Son of Man coming in his glory, with all his angels in attendance, to take his seat on his “glorious throne”. Surely this transcendent language suggests some sort of final, end-of-the-world judgment? Well, we are certainly predisposed to hear the statement in this way, but is it really what Jesus is talking about? We begin with some exegetical observations.

1. In the first place, this is presumably the same coming of the Son of Man that is described in Matthew 24:30-31 in a way which is, frankly, very difficult to disentangle from an account of judgment on Israel in the form of military invasion that is expected to take place within a generation (24:34).

2. If this coming of the Son of Man in his glory is intended to evoke Daniel 7, what is brought into view is not a final judgment of all humanity but a historical judgment of a powerful nation that made war against Israel. Jesus has reconstructed the argument of Daniel 7 in order to take into account the continuing historical experience of his disciples. But it is the same type of story about the salvation of oppressed Israel that is being told. He takes his seat at the right hand of God, having received the authority to judge the nations.

3. The judgment of the sheep and the goats is expressly a judgment of “all the nations”. Jesus’ language echoes Joel 3:1-3 at a number of points: at a time when God will repair the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem, he will gather “all the nations” for judgment “on account of my people and my heritage Israel, who were dispersed among the nations”. In this context, clearly, “all the nations” does not mean all the nations of the world or all humanity. It refers specifically to those nations which violently opposed Israel: “they have divided my land and have cast lots for my people, and they gave the boys to whores and would sell the girls for wine and would drink”.

4. It is, therefore, these nations (autous) that are separated out, one group from another, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:32), though presumably the thought is of the people that make up the nations. If we were to translate panta ta ethnē as “all the Gentiles” rather than as “all the nations”, the difference would not be great.

5. The criterion for judgment is the manner in which the nations treated the disciples of Jesus. The phrase “the least of these my brothers” is a reference to the disciples, who will inevitably find themselves hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned in the course of proclaiming the gospel to Israel and to the nations. Jesus takes it personally: in reacting to the disciples the nations are reacting to him. The specific point has been made earlier in the Gospel with respect to how the Jews respond to the preaching of the disciples:

Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me…. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matt. 10:40, 42)

A judgment of the nations according to works

This is a judgment, therefore, according to works. The righteous amongst the nations, who unwittingly encountered Jesus when they attended to the needs of his disciples, are to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”; they will receive “everlasting life” (25:34, 46). Those who unwittingly rejected Jesus by not attending to the practical needs of his disciples are consigned to the “fire of the age prepared for the devil and his angels”; they are sent away into an “everlasting punishment” (25:41, 46).

How are we to make sense of this? It seems to me that here, as in Romans 2, we have to reckon with a historical judgment on the ancient world on the basis of works. Paul addresses the problem on a broad basis, as part of his analysis of the consequences of idolatry. Jesus restricts the rhetorical scope of the argument in order to emphasise the role that the disciples will play in this difficult process. But the only way to account for the seeming conflict between “faith” and “works” in judgment is to tell the story historically.

The disciples live and fulfil their mission by faith or by faithfulness—including the Gentiles who have been incorporated into these communities of the gospel. That mission, however, will set the conditions for, will bring about, an eventual overturning of the ancient pagan world, a transformation of the nations which had been put in the position of having to respond to the preaching of the disciples. What the apocalyptic language of “everlasting life” or “everlasting punishment” describes is, in effect, social outcomes. Righteous Gentiles will be brought under the sovereignty of Israel’s God; unrighteous Gentiles will remain part of an obsolescent pagan culture, that will be destroyed by the fire of divine judgment.

The image of punishment by fire may have its origins in the stream of fire that issued from the throne of the Ancient of Days and by which the carcass of the fourth beast was destroyed (Dan. 7:10-11). The following passage from Ben Sirach also indicates the “political” character of the language:

Lift up your hand against foreign nations, and let them see your dominance. Just as in their presence you have been made holy in us, so in our presence may you be magnified in them. And let them know you, just as also we have known that there is no god except you, O Lord. Renew signs, and change wonders; glorify hand and right arm. Raise up anger, and pour out wrath; destroy an adversary, and crush an enemy. Hasten the time, and remember your determination, and let them recount your mighty acts. In wrath of fire let him who survives be consumed, and may those who harm your people find destruction. Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, “There is no one except us!” (Sir. 36:3-12 NETS)

The nature of Christ’s kingship radically changes the means by which the people of God will be restored and its enemies defeated, but it does not take us outside the arena of political existence, it does not render social outcomes irrelevant, it does not relocate judgment and salvation in some post-mortem or post-historical end-zone. This judgment of the nations by the Son of Man is another way of affirming not only that the disciples will be vindicated for having taken the narrow path of suffering leading to life but also that the pagan world would be transformed by virtue of their presence.


Andrew - this thought-provoking post, which I appreciated reading, also makes me look again at Matthew 25:31-46, which, as you say, we have been predisposed to look at as a final, end-of-the-world judgment, not least because the language encourages such an understanding. Your post then raises some of the very issues which, I think, bring your interpretation into question.

1. Matthew 24:30-31 may be difficult to disentangle from the account of judgement within a generation, but that is exactly what the language encourages us to do. Did "all the nations of the earth" mourn, at the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70? (It might certainly have been the case that "all the tribes of the land" did). At that time, did he, the Son of Man, send his angels to gather his elect "from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other"? The universal scope of the language seems very emphatic, and encourages the worldwide vision of "all peoples of the earth will mourn".

2. In Daniel 7, we move from the account of the four beasts, and what seems to be an account of the judgement on Antiochus IV, to the son of man being given authority over "all peoples, nations, and men of every language", with "an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." - Daniel 7:14. There are various echoes of Daniel 7 in Matthew 24:30-41 which do reinforce the view that we are looking at Daniel 7 here (eg "the four winds" - Daniel 7:2, Matthew 24:31). As you say, Jesus has reconctructed the story, and this reconstruction suggests a time beyond AD 70, in which the followers of Jesus are scattered throughout the world, to be gathered "from the four winds, form one end of the heavens to the other". Call this what you will, it provides imperfect picture of AD 70, and the "coming of the Son of Man" in Matthew 24:30 does not seem to clearly coincide with the destruction of Jerusalem.

3. The association of judgement on the nations with Joel 3:1-3 seems telling, but in what way does Jesus's language echo the Joel passage? It might be argued that Joel is to be read exclusively in the light of judgement on Israel's enemies in his time, but how does the language of Joel encourage us to read the passage? It seems to me that Joel is looking through some of the details of historic oppression of Israel (such as trading boys for prostitutes and selling girls for wine), to something much wider and more distant. When did God restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, as Joel describes? Not at any particular historic time before the coming of Jesus, and then through Jesus in a way that was quite unlike the periods of prosperity Judah and Jerusalem had known in the past.

Arguably, this prophecy was only fulfilled through the bringing into being of the reconstituted people of God, who enjoyed the blessing of the eschatological Spirit amongst them, but who may not have had political favour or a national or geographical home. Joel is here looking far ahead to a time beyond his immediate circumstances, and to a distant judgement, in which "all nations" means exactly that, and judgement is on behalf of a people scattered even more widely than in the ancient near eastern world.

In this sense, the language of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 does echo Joel 3:1-3, also by pointing to a final worldwide day of reckoning for all nations yet to come.

5. Your account of Matthew 10:40, 42 and Matthew 25:35-40 seems unobjectionable, except that Matthew 25 now takes us beyond AD 70, which is where your interpretation of Matthew 24 wants to keep us. I don't quite get your distinction between faith and works in judgement though -

 But the only way to account for the seeming conflict between “faith” and “works” in judgment is to tell the story historically.

I don't see the conflict here, either in judgement in history or final judgement. Those who attended to the physical needs of the followers of Jesus proved by their actions that they were in effect followers of Jesus, even though they may not have seen their actions in that light. The passage doesn't say, incidentally, that this group of people became Jesus's followers by serving the needs of his followers, but they were certainly identified as identified as “righteous” (Matthew 25:37), which means the same thing, by these actions. The surprise to this group of people is that Jesus says they were ministering to him by ministering to his followers, and this seems to be the main point of the passage.

I also don't see the logic of defining "apocalyptic language of “everlasting life” or “everlasting punishment”  as "social outcomes". There may well have been social outcomes to the actions of those who gave help to Jesus's supporters during times of distress, but the language seems emphatic: Jesus is talking about eternal consequences of actions in history, at a day of worldwide judgement, even if these consequences may have been prefigured at times of distress and judgement in history.

In Romans 1 & 2, the historical context is the Jewish and Roman world (in Romans 1 Paul has his eye on Jewish as well as Roman idolatry). The language of judgement in Romans 1 & 2 makes just as good if not better sense if it is taken to be associated with a final judgement which is coming on all people of all times. Romans 1:18-32 implies this broader sweep, as the turn from worshipping the one true God to worship of idols reaches back further into history even than Judaism and the Roman empire, and covers the whole of human history. (Turning from God to idols is what mankind has been doing from the beginning).

Romans 2:5-16 takes in the immediate context of Jew and Gentile, but the language suggests applicabilty to people of all times and places, and Paul seems to encourage such a breadth of vision, having sketched his panorama of history in Romans 1.

The problem with talking of the fulfilment of Jesus's mission (through his disciples) as the overturning of the pagan world in history is that the pagan world is very much with us still. Its character continued  within 'Christendom' as well as outside it, and is certainly still with us today, when the hallmark of idolatry on the one side is matched by inhumanity and bestial savagery on the other in many nations of the world. Perhaps one could say in all nations of the world, not least here in the UK and the western world, and insofar as Islam presents a distorted view of God, in the Muslim world also.

This is why the extract from Ben Sirach shows a radical missing of the point in how history was and is fulfilled through Jesus and his followers. Sirach obviously expected a situation in history which would match and exceed the political dominance of Israel over pagan nations which had been glimpsed in its history. The dominance of Jesus and his followers was and is very different, where instead of there being the kind of conflict and national supremacy which Sirach envisages, there is the resurrection life of the church which proves its supremacy by being inextinguishable in the face of violence, persecution and death. Life overcomes death, not simply in the life to come, but in life as it is lived in the present, as it has been in history.

I agree with most of your final paragraph, Andrew, though we may be looking at different things, except for the final sentence. Jesus's disciples have not always been vindicated in history by judgement on the nations, then or now, and the pagan world has not always been transformed, then or now, nor will it necessarily be, certainly not completely, until the return of Jesus bringing to dramatic completion the new creation.


Peter, you make a lot of good points. I think Jesus echoed the prophets yearning for a day when there would be what we would think of as a final judgement in which Israel would rule the world with justice and peace. I think he thought the judgement day was imminent, as he told his listeners they would see the day.

As I've said before, I don't think it makes sense to try and filter the words of Jesus through the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

On one small point I disagree, although it has a big impact on interpretation. You said, "The problem with talking of the fulfilment of Jesus’s mission (through his disciples) as the overturning of the pagan world in history is that the pagan world is very much with us still."

That is exactly the problem, but what does it mean? It could mean that the overthrow of the pagan world happened, just not in a way that anybody would have thought. In other words, the kingdom is inside us rather than a real kingdom.

While that is possible, I tend to doubt that Jesus would have thought that way. And if he did, he certainly didn't make it clear, since his followers, including and especially Paul, seemed to think the end was near.

Maybe -- as Thom Stark discusses in his new book "The Many Faces of God" -- Jesus was just wrong about the timing.

1. I would go for “all the tribes of the land”, as in Zechariah 12:10-14 LXX, where the tribes of Israel, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, mourn over the one whom they have pierced. Zechariah 12 is an interesting passage: there appears to be judgment on Jerusalem, but God will also destroy the nations that come against Jerusalem; then a spirit of compassion and supplication is poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that they mourn for the one whom they have pierced. Jesus, however, seems not to be interested in the judgment on the nations part of the story except insofar as it has a bearing on the treatment of the disciples.

We should recall, too, that Jesus tells Caiaphas that he “will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). The point here, surely, is that the war and the destruction of the temple will be evidence to the temple hierarchy that authority has been transferred from them to Jesus. In conjunction with this, vindication will be the restoration of scattered Israel—that is, of his disciples—symbolized by the sending out of the angels. The point here is that it is Jesus’ “elect”, rather than say diaspora Judaism, that is in this way reconstituted as Israel.

2. OK, yes, the giving of kingdom to the Son of Man obviously implies an ongoing state of affairs beyond the destruction of Jerusalem and the decisive reconstitution of this new Israel. But this new state of affairs is decisively connected to the vindication of the Son of Man represented by the destruction of the temple.

3. Joel’s prophecy refers specifically to the nations that opposed Israel, not to the whole world throughout time. I don’t see anything either in Joel or in Jesus’ re-use of Joel’s language to suggest that either of them looked beyond the narrative context of Israel punished by means of foreign invasion.

5. Beyond AD 70, yes, but nevertheless directly contingent upon it. It is part of the same symbolic nexus.

Those who attended to the physical needs of the followers of Jesus proved by their actions that they were in effect followers of Jesus, even though they may not have seen their actions in that light.

This is a difficult area and cannot be adequately addressed here. But I don’t really see any basis for thinking that these “righteous” were followers of Jesus. They are presented simply people from the nations—and perhaps even the “nations”—who encountered the hard-pressed disciples as they went about their preaching of the gospel. If we assume they are Christians, we then have the problem that the followers of Jesus are judged worthy of “eternal” life or punishment on the basis of their works.

The language of judgement in Romans 1 & 2 makes just as good if not better sense if it is taken to be associated with a final judgement which is coming on all people of all times.

So why is it wrath against the Jew and the Greek?

The problem with talking of the fulfilment of Jesus’s mission (through his disciples) as the overturning of the pagan world in history is that the pagan world is very much with us still.

That’s simply our perspective—Scripture doesn’t think in the same way. Scripture—including the New Testament—sees a succession of hostile pagan powers that are defeated by YHWH: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome… I am not arguing that paganism per se was defeated. Rather pagan, imperial Rome was defeated—Babylon the Great.

Again, it all really comes down to some basic hermeneutical differences. It is a choice whether we take prophetic language in absolute terms or in contingent historical terms. My argument is simply that given the Old Testament background to the language, given the pressing demands of historical context, given a moral and spiritual bias towards realism rather than idealism, given Jesus’ patent concern for the real-life destinies of Israel and of his followers, the non-absolute approach makes more sense.

I'm really not sure it's quite so simple in Joel 3. Agreed, there are specific references to Israel's enemies in history in Joel 3:1-8 and later in the prophecy (Joel 3:19), and the retribution to be meted upon them, but what is happening from verse 9 onwards, through the apocalyptic language of 12-16, and into the promise of perpetual blessing for Israel in 17-18, 20-21?

At the very least, we are way outside events which took place in post-exilic Israel in Joel 3:17-18, 20-21. Can this foretelling of distant history be shoe-horned into an AD 70 terminus? To do that, from Andrew's point of view there would still be the problems of less distant history in the prophecy, with the judgment on Tyre/Sidon and Philistia at one end of the section, and Egypt and Edom at the other. Unless the book-ended parallelism and balanced pairs of Israel's enemies have more of a literary function - to indicate final judgement on the enemies of God's people in the distant times to which the prophecy is alluding in 17-18, 20-21.

A similar kind of issue comes up in Joel 2:28-32. The outpouring of the Spirit is obviously fulfilled in Acts 2:17-18. Andrew then takes the major theme of the Joel 2 prophecy to be the second part - Joel 2:30-32/Acts 2:14-17, the metaphoric signs which reflect the calamitous distant (to Joel) destruction of Jerusalem, with the actual giving of the Spirit merely a confirmatory anticipation of this. The other view, of course, and the one that I hold, with most other commentators I think, is that Joel 2:30-32 is the final day of reckoning, with further overtones of this in Joel 3, especially in Joel 3:12-16 and onwards, where the language echoes that of Joel 2:31.

In the light of Joel 2 and 3 as a whole, it can be argued that the historically limited interpretation of all of Joel 3 begins to unravel. There is a more distant focus to all the prophecy, anticipating a future which goes beyond anything that was fulfilled in historic national and geographic Israel. Significantly, the more distant prophecy, wherever you may want to say it begins in Joel 3, has nothing to say of events which could be compared to the AD 70 happenings.

My suggestion is that the literary structure, the parallelism of balancing pairs of judgement on Israel's enemies, and the repetition of judgement language outside a strictly historic context ('valley of Jehoshaphat', 3:2/'valley of decision', 3:14), takes us beyond historic judgement, so that even in Joel 3:1-3 we are anticipating the more distant final judgement to come. I think this interpretation makes good literary sense of the whole passage (Joel 3:1-21), and avoids contradictory prophecy if it is confined to the context of Joel's time, or even the time of 1st century Israel.

Peter, I really think this misses the point. The argument is not about the interpretation of Joel. It is about the interpretation of Matthew 25:32. I’m not even suggesting that Jesus’ is alluding specifically to Joel 3:1-3, merely that there is a precedent for the language of gathering the nations for judgment in the Old Testament and that this background points in the direction of some sort of historical episode interpreted as the judgment and restoration of the people of God.

How Joel 2-3 is to be understood as describing a “final day of reckoning” is beyond me. I have set out how I read both Joel and Peter’s sermon in a separate post.

My anger is kindled against the shepherds, And I will punish the goatherds. For the LORD of hosts will visit His flock, The house of Judah, And will make them as His royal horse in the battle. (Zechariah 10:3)

Notice how God calls the leaders of Judah the “goats.” The word for leaders is the same word for goat in the Hebrew. Note then the judgment scene of Matthew 25 and the division of the sheep from the goats. The goats refused to tend to the poor, and to follow Christ.

In chapter 11 God continued His condemnation of the shepherds who refused to feed the flock, who abused them, and caused them to follow after wickedness. Now, he holds the flock responsible for following the wicked shepherds and assigns the flock to destruction, along with the shepherds:

The translation is difficult. The Hebrew reads (I think):

Against the shepherds my anger burned, against the goats I visited in punishment, for YHWH of armies visited his flock in punishment, the house of Judah…

We also have Ezekiel 34:17-19:

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

These texts are certainly suggestive for the interpretation of the sheep and goats passage, though Jesus has expanded the judgment to encompass the nations.

What is the impact of this texts meaning on current religious adherents?

That’s a very good question. I’m a bit surprised how widespread the assumption is that every part of scripture must have something directly to say to the modern reader, to every reader. Why in principle should we not allow that the New Testament had something to say to first century Jews or Gentiles that was directly relevant only for that time and place?

Having said that, I would stress that the events of the first centuries, as they are narrated or prefigured in the New Testament, had a profound and lasting impact on the status and condition of God’s people. We still have to reckon with that historical effect. For example, there would now be no church at all if the early communities of believers had not taken to heart Jesus’ assurance that they would overcome death and be vindicated for their suffering.

On top of that, of course, there is much moral and religious teaching in the New Testament that is always relevant to God’s Spirit-filled, new creation people under Christ.

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