The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46 is a good test case for how New Testament eschatology works. It is usually read as an account of a final universal judgment, on the assumption that we are still waiting for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of heaven at the end of history.
It is a traditional perspective, deeply embedded in the iconography of Christendom. The judgment scene that forms the third part of the stunning Redemption Triptych (1455-59) by Vrancke van der Stockt, for example, has Christ seated above the clouds of heaven with a couple of angels. In the arch that frames him are scenes drawn from this passage.
The implication is that at the final judgment people will be judged according to how they treated other people—“the least of these my brothers”—when they were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or in need of hospitality. It is sometimes put forward as a biblical argument for a social justice gospel. I have some sympathy for the missional end, but not for the exegetical means.
The problem with this reading is that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel “the least of these my brothers” are clearly the disciples (cf. Matt. 10:16-42), who would face great hardship and persecution as they went about their mission in the period leading up to the Jewish War against Rome. So what is the criterion for judgment? Quite specifically, it is whether or not the nations took care of the disciples. I won’t go over the exegetical arguments again here. See the two posts listed below.
I suggest, therefore, that we need to interpret the scene not as a final judgment of all humanity but as a judgment of the pagan nations of the ancient world, in the limited historical setting of the preaching of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the age of second temple Judaism. I suspect its function is largely rhetorical, having more to do with asserting the eventual vindication of the disciples than with presenting a formal account of judgment.
I bring the subject up again here because I came across a similar notion in 2 Baruch—a late apocalyptic text, written probably in the early second century AD.
After the signs have come of which I have spoken to you before, when the nations are moved and the time of my Anointed One comes, he will call all nations, and some of them he will spare, and others he will kill. These things will befall the nations which will be spared by him. Every nation which has not known Israel and which has not trodden down the seed of Jacob will live…. All those, now, who have a ruled over you or have known you, will be delivered up to the sword. (2 Bar. 72:2–6)
When the Messiah comes, he will judge the nations not according to general ethical or religious standards but according to how they have treated Israel. Nations which have not known Israel, and more importantly have not oppressed Israel, will be spared. Those nations, however, which have ruled over Israel and trodden down the seed of Jacob—Rome at the forefront—will be given up to the sword.
It makes the point that Jewish apocalyptic thought at the time was not looking primarily for a final resolution in which all humanity is judged according to universal standards. That tends to be an afterthought—as I suggest it is also in the New Testament. The main concern is with a much more immediate resolution to a current or foreseeable historical crisis, typically leading to the rule of Israel’s God over the nations.