The Judgement and Return Matthew 25:31–46
As the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west (Mt. 24:27), the Lord Jesus will return to Earth “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (v. 30). What will happen to the living nations when Christ returns to Earth to have victory at Armageddon and set up His Kingdom? This is the issue our Lord addresses in the last section of the Olivet Discourse as He puts the last piece of the end-times mosaic into place.
Some Wrong Turns
Even a casual reading of Matthew 25:31–46 makes it clear that the judgment of the living nations is not the same as the believers’ appearance at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10) or the Great White Throne Judgment of the unbelieving dead (Rev. 20:11–15). The idea of a general judgment for all has been widespread in the history of biblical interpretation. To do justice to the complexity of the data, dispensationalists have posited five separate judgments. The Scripture does speak of “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5), but this refers to the epoch of judgment and is not a day of 24 hours anymore than is “the day of the Lord” as described in both the Old and New Testaments.
The liberal establishment has used Matthew 25:31–46 as the basis for asserting that social good deeds will make us acceptable to God and ensure felicity in the life to come:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me” (vv. 34–36).
The liberal interpretation, of course, denies everything the Bible teaches about our innate sinfulness and supernatural redemption.
Obviously, some are adjudged saved at this judgment of the living nations, and some are adjudged lost. Because we hold to the noncontradictory nature of Holy Scripture, we must reject any interpretation that is inconsistent with what the Bible teaches about salvation being by grace alone (Eph. 2:8–9). Further, identifying all people in material need as the brothers of Jesus is more out of Count Leo Tolstoy than the Bible.
Holding to a general day of final judgment, as many evangelicals do, only blurs and confuses what our Lord taught about “the end [consummation] of the age” (Mt. 28:18–20). How can believers, who “shall not come into judgment” (Jn. 5:24), and the living nations and unrighteous dead all be accommodated in one conflated judicial event? Believers will never be examined in an adjudicatory way as to whether or not they are saved. The final verdict has already been pronounced: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). The event before us is far more constricted than a general judgment allows.
An Awesome Tribunal
The returned and reigning Son of man will take His place on the “throne of His glory” (Mt. 25:31) and summon the living nations to come before Him. The Great Commission is directed to “all the nations” (28:19), so accountability involves all living persons.
There are two categories, and only two: (1) those who respond positively to the Lord and (2) those who reject Him. The former are called “sheep” and are invited to enter the Millennial Kingdom, the long-promised, long-awaited theocratic Kingdom that our Savior will rule and administer with justice for a thousand years. These persons are labeled “righteous,” which means they have been saved from the penalty of sin and clothed in Christ’s righteousness, as are the saved in any age. They responded to a witness during the Tribulation.
God always has His witnesses who proclaim the truth about Him. In the first half of the seven-year Tribulation, God empowers two witnesses (Rev. 11:1–13) who faithfully bear testimony. Then, at the midpoint of the seven years, I believe, 144,000 Jewish men will come to faith. They will be the vanguard of the Jewish people who will come to Messiah in the last half of the Tribulation and be His evangelists throughout the world.
Indeed, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Mt. 24:14). The gospel will go forth in the face of great difficulty and duress, and the witnesses will be exposed to physical privation and great persecution. Yet they will be joined by Gentiles who will become converted through the witnesses’ testimony, as depicted in the Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Christ’s brethren (His “family,” Mk. 3:31–35) will be severely persecuted. These are primarily Jews but will include saved Gentiles also.
Despite this intense oppression, some people will extend sympathy, kindness, and love to the saints. Who will those be who will so minister to the Lord Jesus by supporting His despised messengers? The people who believe the message and express their faith by their deeds (Jas. 2:14–26). Although clothing the needy, for example, cannot earn one salvation, it will demonstrate genuine faith in the face of the Antichrist’s fierce hatred of the Jewish remnant and those who receive its witness. Indeed, the “righteous [will go] into eternal life” (Mt. 25:46).
Two Contrasting Destinies
Individuals who go along with the Beast (Antichrist) and receive his mark, opposing the faithful remnant and its witness to Jesus and salvation, are labeled “goats.” They will go into “everlasting punishment [fire]” (v. 46). No notion here of the annihilation of the wicked dead; their agony is coextensive with the believers’ eternal life (Mt. 25:46).
Thus will the Savior’s prediction be fulfilled that, at the end of the age, “the angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire” (13:49–50). The criterion for salvation is always response to the gracious message of salvation, which results in a changed life.
Three days after the Olivet Discourse, our blessed Lord laid down His life for us sinners. But He did not die before putting the last piece of the mosaic in place. Not only in our age is the door of salvation open, but even in the most convulsive epoch of human history, the Tribulation, there will be the opportunity for sinners to be saved.
“Sheep” from among the nations will join Christ’s brethren and enter the enjoyments and employments of the Messianic Kingdom on Earth. These people will populate the millennium as mortals and will procreate. Some of their children will embrace Christ, and others will not. At the end of the 1000-year reign, the unsaved will rebel against the Lord and His anointed (Rev. 20:3, 7–10).
Only the dispensational system of theology provides any explanation for the origin of the final revolt against the Lord at the end of Christ’s Millennial reign. How, in terms of one universal judgment, is there any solution to this burning question? Again, the drama of the two eternal destinies is underscored; and the perfection of the divine mosaic of end-times events is reinforced with compelling clarity.
All praise and glory be to our gracious and merciful God.