The Judgment of the Nations Mt. 25:31-46
As a teacher of Scripture in a college classroom, I sometimes am asked “what if” questions. Each year, when I teach Genesis, someone inevitably raises a hand and asks, “What would have happened if Eve had not eaten the forbidden fruit?” My lighthearted answer is, “We would not be in this class right now!” My serious answer, however, is, “The question does have relevance.”
The Old Testament prophets described a future that looks very much like a reversal of sin’s curse. These godly sages foresaw a world without war, poverty, or natural disasters. They looked forward to ecological balance characterized by an animal kingdom in harmony with human beings. They envisaged all the nations of Earth worshiping God and living in fellowship with one another. Israel will be regathered and restored to her land, said the prophets, and will lead the Gentile nations in worship of God, who will reign from Jerusalem. Thus the coming Kingdom of God on Earth will be “like the garden of Eden” (Ezek. 36:35).
Is this how you might envision the world to come? Most people, in fact, desire a better world for themselves and their children. Yet the Bible places all those benefits after one great event—the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Before Jesus returns to Earth in glory, an evil leader will direct humanity into a massive rebellion against God and persecution of the Jewish people. This time of Tribulation will conclude when Jesus Himself visibly breaks into human history and returns “with power and great glory” (Mt. 24:30). As the undisputed King of kings, Jesus Christ will assemble all living men and women from all the Gentile nations on Earth at that time. Then He will pronounce judgment. Genuine believers will gain His approval and enter the Kingdom. Unbelievers will be condemned and will not. It is this encounter that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:31–46.
It is important to distinguish between this judgment and the Great White Throne judgment of Revelation 20:11–15. That judgment will encompass all unbelievers who have ever lived; and it will occur later, at the end of the 1000-year, earthly Millennial Kingdom. In that judgment, every human being who died as an unrepentant sinner will be judged and consigned for eternity to the lake of fire.
The judgment that Jesus describes in Matthew 25, however, is for those who are alive at His Second Coming. These individuals, from all the nations of the earth, will consist of both unbelievers and believers. The believers will become the first people to populate the earthly Kingdom. They will consist of righteous Gentiles living with righteous Israel in its restored Kingdom.
The Time of this Judgment
Jesus declared, “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, . . . then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory” (Mt. 25:31). This verse clearly describes our Lord’s Second Advent at the end of the seven-year Tribulation period. This climactic event will display His powerful reign over the earth. For centuries believers have longed for this visible manifestation of their Savior’s glory; and they still cry, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
This New Testament truth finds roots in Old Testament prophecy. For generations the people of Israel longed for a godly king who would reign on Earth and reverse the curse of the serpent (Gen. 3:15; 49:10). David received God’s promise that, through David’s own line, God would raise up such a ruler (2 Sam. 7). This Davidic Covenant became the bedrock of faith for the future:
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the earth (Jer. 23:5).
Although Jesus came once, His reign of justice on this earth has not yet begun. He spoke of His return when that reign will commence. Then all the prophets’ prophecies will find fulfillment when the Messiah, the son of David, reigns in Jerusalem (Isa. 9:6–7; Hos. 3:4–5; Dan. 7:13–14; Zech. 9:9–10).
The People of this Judgment
Most people imagine that God will judge them only after they die. For the vast majority, that will be true. However, the judgment of the nations is a judgment of the living. Jesus said that “before him shall be gathered all the nations” (v. 32). This event has been called the judgment of the nations to distinguish it from God’s other judgments. The dreadful events of the Tribulation will cause the deaths of many who live on the earth. In addition, a large number of armed forces will die in the final campaign of Armageddon when the Lord Jesus Christ conquers His enemies. However, there will be those from around the world who did not participate in the conflict and will survive.
Although this judgment is called the judgment of the nations, it is not a judgment of national groups of people. The Greek word translated “nations” implies Gentiles; and the context indicates that individuals, not groups, will be evaluated (“He shall separate them one from another,” [v. 32]). Jesus “shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left” (v. 33). Both sheep and goats graze together during the day; but when night falls, the shepherd separates the two groups. This illustration from the natural world finds application in the spiritual world. Those who will survive the horrible years of God’s Tribulation wrath will meet the Son of God face to face. He will determine who enters His earthly, Millennial Kingdom.
The Basis of this Judgment
Once the Gentiles who survive the Tribulation are gathered to the throne of King Jesus, their guilt or innocence will be revealed. No attorney will be able to intercede. Jesus will be the Prosecutor, the Judge, and the Jury. Only this One, with infallible knowledge of both actions and motives, is able to disclose the truth. And He will reveal His decision by separating these people as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats.
After the separation, Jesus will provide the reason for the division. It will be their treatment of Jesus Himself. When both groups hear this explanation, they will question Him. The righteous will ask,
Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee; or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in; or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? (vv. 37–39).
How could Jesus evaluate these Gentiles when they never personally met Him on Earth? His response is a shock: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (v. 40).
Who are the people whom Jesus calls “my brethren”? Since the context indicates the time immediately following the Tribulation, they apparently constitute a third group in addition to the Gentile sheep and goats. These “brethren” of Jesus will be the Jewish people. Only Gentile believers in Jesus will dare to provide for their physical needs (food, clothing, and housing) and even visit them in prison.
The true faith of Gentiles who survive the Tribulation will be evidenced by their treatment of Jewish people during the Tribulation period. This mark of true salvation shows the spiritual union of Jesus Christ with His people, their union with Him, and their union with one another. That is why, when the Lord confronted Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road, He described Saul’s attack on Christians by saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4, emphasis added).
Salvation, however, is not contingent upon good works. Nowhere does Scripture uphold such a teaching. People are “justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Since the faith that brings salvation comes by God’s free grace, it is no surprise that believers actually are destined and created to do good works (Eph. 2:8–10). Believers are admonished to be concerned for the physical welfare of other Christians:
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding, ye give them not those things which are needful to the body, what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone (Jas. 2:15–17).
Anti-Semitism will run rampant during the Tribulation. Apart from genuine faith in the Jewish Messiah, no Gentile will dare to befriend a Jew. Yet the bond between believers in Christ runs deeper than race. True Christianity and anti-Semitism are as opposite as righteousness and sin. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death” (1 Jn. 3:14). Selfless love for fellow Christians and Jewish people is an act of love for our Savior and Lord.
The Results of this Judgment
Jesus said that the righteous will “inherit the kingdom” (v. 34) as well as enjoy “life eternal” (v. 46). These righteous Gentile believers who survive the Tribulation will enter the initial phase of God’s Kingdom, the Millennium, with natural, unresurrected bodies. This generation of believing Gentiles also will begin to populate the earthly Kingdom. They will form the Gentile nations that will worship God in Jerusalem, as prophesied by Isaiah:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, . . . and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob (2:2–3).
At the conclusion of Christ’s 1000-year earthly reign, these believing Gentiles will live for eternity with glorified bodies in the new heavens and Earth.
The goats, whose lack of true faith in Christ will have been evidenced in their persecution of His “brethren,” will be condemned to “everlasting fire,” the same eternal punishment “prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). This time of punishment will have no end. Ironically, the same word, eternal, describes both the bliss of the believers and the condemnation of the accursed.
Long ago God promised Abram, “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee” (Gen. 12:3). These words find their fulfillment in the judgment of the nations. Gentiles who bless the Jewish people during the coming Tribulation will themselves be blessed. And those who do not will regret it forever.