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.
Hello, Andrew. I’ve been reading your blog over the past couple of years and have learned much from your narrative-historical perspective and found it very compelling. I just wanted to offer a little push back on the interpretation of the passage and see if you had any comments.
For the sheep and the goats it does seem clear that Jesus’ disciples are in view. However, the language of separating “sheep from goats” and the subsequent scene described seems to be drawing heavily on Ezekiel 34: an indictment of the shepherds of Israel followed by the placement of David as shepherd of God’s people.
Oops, looks like I didn’t finish writing before I pressed save. I think it may have been mentioned in the comments before, but I think a closer look at Ezekiel 34 is warranted, where God not only judges the shepherds of Israel that have failed the flock…
“You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” Ezekiel 34:3-5, …
but also between the “fat” sheep and the “lean” sheep…
“As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Ezekiel 34:17-22
While this seems to be an internal judgement of Israel based on how each person treated their neighbors (Ezekiel’s treatment of “individual” sins as well as the sins of a nation), Jesus expands this to nations, and I feel like some of the internal dynamic (ie, treatment of weak, poor, and hungry neighbors) gets ported to Matthew 25 while simultaneously referring to the disciples and their acceptance/rejection by the nations… or if the acceptance/rejection of disciples is solely in view, then it is a much more politically charged kind of acceptance/rejection. Thoughts?
… also, I should have enabled “rich-text”… apologies
Thanks, Davis. A good observation—well worth considering.
While this seems to be an internal judgement of Israel based on how each person treated their neighbors (Ezekiel’s treatment of “individual” sins as well as the sins of a nation), Jesus expands this to nations, and I feel like some of the internal dynamic (ie, treatment of weak, poor, and hungry neighbors) gets ported to Matthew 25 while simultaneously referring to the disciples and their acceptance/rejection by the nations… or if the acceptance/rejection of disciples is solely in view, then it is a much more politically charged kind of acceptance/rejection.
The judgment between shepherds and sheep and between “fat sheep” and “lean sheep” and between “rams” and “male goats” in Ezekiel 34, as you note, is certainly internal to Israel. The nations are not in view.
There is a judgment of the nations, following the judgment and restoration of Jerusalem and Judah, that is a good antecedent to Jesus’ teaching—they are judged according to how they have treated Israel:
I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land. (Joel 3:2)
It’s possible, I suppose, that the “nations” in Matthew 25:32 could include Israel, which would be a merging of Ezekiel 34 and Joel 3:2. This is France’s argument:
In Joel the judgment is specifically of the Gentiles in relation to their mistreatment of Israel, but there is no such restriction here, and in the light of the judgment on Jerusalem in ch. 24 it seems likely that Jews and Gentiles together are called to this final assize (see on 28:19 for “all the nations,” and cf. 24:9, 14).84 The eschatological tone of the whole pericope indicates that this judgment is universal, including both professing disciples and other people without distinction. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (2007), 961.
It would reflect the conjunction of Jewish and Gentile hostility in Matthew 10:17-18:
Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.
Against this, however, is i) the unlikelihood—it seems to me—that Israel would be lumped together with the nations in this way; and ii) the fact that the phrase “all the nations” appears generally to refer to the nations apart from Israel. We would have to assume that when Jesus says that his disciples will be “hated by all nations”, and will go into all the world to proclaim the gospel to “all nations” and “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 24:9, 14; 28:19), he includes diaspora Israel. Would there be any precedent for that? Luke 24:47 perhaps? But in Acts 14:6 “all the nations” are specifically pagan (cf. Acts 15:17); and for Paul “all the nations” does not include Israel (eg. Rom. 1:5; 15:11; 16:26; Gal. 3:8).
So I’m left thinking that the allusion to Ezekiel 34 is not so strong that we must suppose that Jesus includes Israel in this judgment. It has in view “all the nations” to which Jesus will send his disciples.
But here is the key distinction. What the disciples will proclaim to all the nations has to do with what YHWH is about to do to his nation, his people Israel, for the sake of his rule and reputation in the ancient world. It is precisely the mission of the disciples, therefore, highlighted in the apocalyptic discourse, that argues most strongly for a differentiation between Israel and “all the nations” in the judgment of the sheep and the goats.
Actually separation into goats and sheep may already be happening even as we speak — see http://judgmentday.info