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.