Ian Paul has written a good piece on the sheep and goats passage in Matthew 25. He notes, rightly in my view, that the “least of these” are not the poor in general, and that it is not good Christians and bad non-Christians who are separated at the judgment. He stresses the relevance of Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man,” who is given authority to act as judge. He also has some interesting things to say about the reasons for separating sheep from goats. But I don’t think he takes the context seriously enough, and the reader is still left wondering what the passage is supposed to teach us about the criteria for judgment. “If my Muslim friend helps me out are they counted as sheep?”
The mission of the disciples
The passage comes at the end of a section of teaching about the responsibilities of the disciples in the period of time that will end with the parousia (Matt. 24:36-25:30). We should go back, in fact, to Jesus’ assertion that the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven and that all the tribes of the earth (or of the land) will see him coming on the clouds of heaven. This certainly associates Jesus with Daniel’s “one like a son of man” (Dan. 7:13-14), but I think that this figure is probably now coming from the throne of God, having some time back received glory, kingdom, and authority to act as judge in the manner depicted.
The purpose of the “coming” at this point is quite narrowly defined. It is to gather the elect from across the earth. The burden of the body of teaching that follows is 1) that the disciples must stay alert, because the thief breaks in when everyone is asleep, the master returns when no one is expecting him (Matt. 24:43-44); and 2) that they will be judged according to how well they have carried out their responsibilities in the meantime, either by inclusion in the kingdom of heaven or by exclusion from it: the foolish girls are refused entry to the marriage feast (Matt. 25:1-13); the unproductive servant is thrown out of the household (Matt. 25:14-30).
The other crucial point to note is that Jesus expected the climactic moment to arrive before the current generation of Israel passed away (Matt. 24:34). The parousia of the Son of Man and the gathering and assessment of the disciples cannot be separated from the calamity of the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
So Jesus has in mind a relatively short span of time—indeed, he makes the point that the period of tribulation caused by the war and siege of Jerusalem would be cut short for the sake of the “elect”—that is, those whom he has chosen to bear witness to him (Matt. 24:22). It would reach its devastating climax within the lifetime of at least some of his disciples (Matt. 16:28); and it is presented in the parables of Matthew 25 as the prelude to something bigger and more enduring.
It is like the period of waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, but a marriage feast is the beginning of something, not the end. The faithful servant who goes (poreutheis) and gets a good return on the small amount of money entrusted to him will be given much greater responsibilities in the age to come: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:21, 23).
The parousia is the end of a limited period of turmoil and the beginning of something much more substantial.
So what exactly did Jesus expect his disciples to be doing during this period of 30 to 40 years? They are given their commission in Galilee after the resurrection. The risen Jesus declares that he has now been given “all authority in heaven and on earth,” and he therefore tells them to “Go (poreuthentes) …and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20).
The object of the exercise, therefore, was that there would be people among the nations who would observe everything that Jesus had commanded his disciples. It is not made clear whether this would include Gentiles. In any case, what Jesus had commanded was really quite limited in scope. He had taught his followers how to live as a prophetic-missionary community of the coming intervention of God and renewal of Israel, under extremely difficult conditions.
Those who became disciples, therefore, as a result of this time-limited mission among the nations, were baptised in the name of the Father who would act in history in order that his name might be hallowed among the nations, of the Son who had been given authority to judge and rule, and of the Spirit by whom their witness in the face of severe opposition would be empowered (cf. Matt. 10:20). Here we have the basis, incidentally, for an apocalyptic trinitarianism.
Jesus concludes with the assurance that he will be with them, as they go about their mission, until the end of the age.
This gives us the solid narrative frame for making sense of the separation of the nations into two categories. The only post-resurrection future envisaged for the disciples by Jesus in Matthew’s account is the work of proclamation, baptism, and instruction among the nations as part of their eschatological witness to the coming intervention of God to put things right at the end of the age of second temple Judaism.
The judgment of the nations
We are now in a position to make good sense of the account of the judgment of the nations when the “Son of Man comes in his glory and all his angels with him” and sits on the “throne of his glory” (Matt. 25:31).
- This is the same coming as the “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” immediately (eutheōs) after the assault on Jerusalem (Matt. 24:29-31) for the purpose of gathering the envoys sent to proclaim the imminence of this divine intervention among the nations. It coincides, too, with the arrival of the bridegroom and the return of the master of the household.
- The poor and wretched in the account—“the least (elachistōn) of these my brothers”—as I have argued before, are specifically the disciples sent out among the nations to make more disciples who will themselves bear witness to the coming kingdom-of-heaven event. This is apparent from the narrative context that I have expounded, but it is also unequivocally confirmed by what Jesus says about his disciples earlier, at the end of his teaching about the opposition that they will face when he sends them out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10:5-39):
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)
- I disagree, however, with Ian Paul’s argument that focussing on “missionaries” is too narrow. Whether or not a distinction may be made between itinerant and non-itinerant disciples, this is a judgment of the nations, which strongly suggests that it is the experience of those disciples who were sent to the nations that is in view.
- The peoples are separated, therefore, in the way that a shepherd separates sheep from goats, according to how they responded to the suffering of the envoys of the kingdom sent among them. Those who, in various ways, attended to their needs “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”; they have a share in the life of the age to come (Matt. 25:34, 46). Those who did not are consigned to the “fire of the age to come prepared for the devil and his angels” and to the “punishment of the age to come” (Matt. 25:41, 46).
- There is a good parallel in 2 Baruch 72:2-6, a late 1st or early 2nd century AD text. The messiah will judge the nations on the basis of how they have treated Israel. Some he will spare, others he will kill. “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.” But the idea actually goes all the way back to Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).
- Nothing suggests that the righteous Gentiles have been baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They remain outside the community of disciples. Exactly what they believed is unclear, but we should probably assume that they showed compassion because they were in some way impressed by the disciples’ message about the coming kingdom-of-heaven event. For this reason they are “blessed of my Father.” But it comes as a surprise to them that the risen Lord identified himself so closely identified with his disciples. They do not receive the gift of the Spirit like Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48), but they are precursors of Cornelius.
- The good Gentiles inherit the kingdom, therefore, neither because of their humanitarian action nor because they have been included in the “commonwealth of Israel” (cf. Eph. 2:11-13) and have become sons (again I disagree here with Ian Paul), but because they have been sufficiently persuaded by the message to treat the messengers with respect.
- Conversely, the unrighteous did not attend to the needs of the disciples because they were unimpressed by their outlandish claims about the God of Israel and his crucified king. They will, therefore, have no part in the age to come.
The end of the age of second temple Judaism
What is described in Matthew 25:31-46, therefore, is not a “final” judgment. It belongs to the vindication of the persecuted envoys of Jesus at the conclusion to their mission to the nations. At the end of the age of second temple Judaism the God of Israel would establish a new political-religious order for his people under Jesus, who would rule with those disciples (cf. Matt. 19:28) who had faithfully proclaimed the coming kingdom-of-heaven event in Judea and among the nations.
Righteous Gentiles who were sufficiently impressed by the eschatological proclamation to care for the needs of the messengers would be included in this new political-religious order. Those in the Greek-Roman world who did not take the disciples seriously and were indifferent to their suffering would be excluded.
Finally, we have to accept, I think, that this passage is not directly relevant for the church today. It has to be read as an inseparable part of the story of what God was doing in the ancient world to ensure that his name was hallowed among the nations and that his will was done on earth (cf. Matt. 6:9-10). There are lessons to be learnt from it, no doubt, about mission and the relation of the church to wider society, but the question of whether or how the modern church will be vindicated—found to be in the right—belongs to a quite different narrative.