Sunday, January 20, 2019

Things Ovine and Caprine

Schindler’s List was a very successful 1990s movie about a German businessman and member of the Nazi party who saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish refugees during WWII. While the screenplay certainly received the Hollywood treatment and has been criticized for a taking a variety of storytelling liberties, one of which was being overly sentimental, the story upon which it is based is said to be substantially true.

So there is a real-world precedent for the scenario I am about to lay out for you.

The Passage in Question

First, consider the following familiar passage:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by 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 welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’

Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This is everything scripture has to say with respect to the judgment of the sheep and goats (for the sake of brevity, hereafter, “Sheep and Goats”). Joel 3 also describes the Lord entering into judgment with the nations, and is often thought to be the OT source of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. However, Joel 3 refers to a battlefield bloodbath, not a judicial proceeding such as the one Jesus describes in Matthew’s gospel. It is a rather different sort of “entering into judgment”. I believe Sheep and Goats fits nicely between verses 16 and 17 of Joel 3, but is not to be confused with the events described there.

Quoth the Expositor: “Er ... What?”

Now please consider this series of related quotes concerning the meaning of the same passage in Matthew 25:
“This passage directly addresses, in Jesus’s own words, one of the most vexed questions in Christian theology — who goes to Heaven, and why.”
— Wikipedia

“In a sense it asks the bigger question of whether it is possible to become a Muslim follower of Jesus rather than become a Christian.”
— Ian Paul

“This judgment of the nations by the Son of Man is another way of affirming not only that the disciples will be vindicated for having taken the narrow path of suffering leading to life but also that the pagan world would be transformed by virtue of their presence.”
— Andrew Perriman

“Jesus says that when ... we reach out to the hurting, the lost, the least of these, we are reaching out to Christ. That’s profound!”
— Dawn Livingston

“Jesus ... is not dealing first and foremost with poor people in general. Instead, He is referring primarily to our care for other Christians. Since Christ identifies His disciples as His brothers elsewhere in Matthew (12:46–50), the story of the sheep and the goats concerns our treatment of other believers (see 25:40).”
— Ligonier Ministries

“Purpose [of the ‘parable’]: To teach the children that serving others helps us be prepared for the time when Jesus Christ will judge us.”
— from Latter Day Saints’ Primary Sunday School Curriculum
What should be immediately apparent upon reading these interpretations is that they are mutually exclusive. If the king’s “brothers” are Christians, then they are self-evidently not the unsaved poor. If this judgment already took place in the past, then we do not have to be concerned that it will take place in the future. If the “kingdom” in question is heaven, then it is not on millennial earth. A thing cannot be “x” and “not-x” simultaneously.

I could go on. Of all the things the Lord taught his disciples, this passage is surely one of the most contentious. Which — if any — of these commentators is on the right track?

Breaking It Down

Let’s see if we can help reduce a little bit of the confusion, or at very least, not add to it. A few facts emerge from a careful reading of Matthew 25:
  1. Sheep and Goats is not a parable in the strictest sense. While the Lord uses animal metaphors to refer to human beings, there is plenty of plain language here that requires no convoluted interpretation, such as “eternal punishment” and “eternal life”. These terms stand in contrast to the parabolic language of Matthew 13, which speaks of a similar decision-making process figuratively, as the bundling of weeds to be burned. Further, all interpreters I have found to date recognize that hunger, thirst, sickness and imprisonment spoken of here are literal, not figurative.
  2. It is an individual judgment. “All the nations” will be gathered, but it is not a judgment of the leaders of nations or of nations as a whole, but rather a judgment of individual actions: “He will separate people one from another.” (Because “all” must be understood contextually, it is also legitimate to consider whether “all the nations” means every nation in the entire world, or simply every ethnic group represented among the enemies of Israel gathered in Palestine at the time of the judgment. I favor the latter.)
  3. The time of the judgment is clearly indicated. It is after “the Son of Man comes in his glory,” but prior to the invitation to “Come, inherit the kingdom.” The judgment throne is not in heaven but on earth. There is no mention of the dead being raised. Therefore it is not the great white throne judgment of Revelation 20 (hereafter, “Great White Throne”), which takes place after the thousand years in which Satan is bound. At that judgment, “earth and sky” have fled away.
  4. The subjects of the judgment are clearly indicated. Those being judged are men and women who, for good or ill, have interacted with people the Lord Jesus calls “brothers” of the king, who is very obviously Christ himself. (As is very often the case in the Greek New Testament, “brothers” here includes sisters. Again, for the sake of brevity I will not repeat this caveat every time I need to refer to this group.) Anyone the glorified Christ considers his “brother” is not subject to this particular judgment. Rather, he or she is the cause of it. This includes both Christians and saved Jews; in fact, anyone who “does the will of my Father in heaven”. These are the Son of Man’s self-identified family. This tells us that this judgment is not to be conflated with the evaluation of Christian service Paul refers to as the “judgment seat of Christ” (hereafter, “Judgment Seat”). No one at that judgment is in danger of “eternal punishment”, only loss of reward.
  5. The basis of the judgment is clearly indicated. It is “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers.” That means the subjects of the judgment are those who have had occasion to interact with the “brothers” of Christ, either for good or ill. Those who have not had such an opportunity are not judged at this time. This makes perfect sense. It would be odd and unlikely for Christ to judge the native of some obscure Pacific island, a Chinese peasant or an Aleut on the basis of his behavior toward people he could not possibly ever have interacted with.
  6. There is a limitation on the possible interpretations of “brothers”. The Bible never speaks of any legitimate “brotherhood” between the redeemed and the unregenerate. The notion of the “brotherhood of man” is modern and unbiblical and the idea that Christ himself is a “brother” to those who reject him quite appalling. Further, the dead are not raised in view of this particular judgment, in which case the Lord cannot be referring to his literal family members. Thus he is speaking figuratively of (i) saved Jews, (ii) Gentile followers of Christ, or (iii) both. He is not speaking of the unsaved poor in our present era.
  7. The prize is the “kingdom”, not heaven. As the Lord Jesus used them, the expressions “kingdom of heaven” and “heaven” are not identical. In Matthew 6, the disciples are taught to pray for the coming of the kingdom, which is the time when the will of God will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” The contrast is obvious. Therefore to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you” is not to be identified with “going to heaven”.
Commencing the Aforementioned Scenario

With these guidelines in mind, consider the following scenario:

At some indeterminate future time in earth’s history, the church has been caught up to be with the Lord as set out in 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians and Revelation, and the wrath of God has been unleashed on a hostile world. I believe the church is not represented in this Matthew passage at all, at least not as a party to the proceedings. Not as the “brothers” of the king who have been treated poorly or well, depending, and certainly not as either “sheep” or “goats”. Like Elvis, we have left the building.

The Bible teaches that during the seven-year Tribulation that follows the church’s “catching up” to be with the Lord, tremendous persecution will break out against Israel (see Jeremiah’s use of the phrase “the time of Jacob’s trouble” and the Lord’s own description in Matthew 24), and a significant number of Jews will turn to their rejected Messiah. There will also be innumerable Gentiles who come to Christ during this period. Both groups are described at length in Revelation 7, and it is clear they are of great importance to God.

Identifying the “Brothers”

I am personally convinced it is the first group, the “remnant” of Israel, the Jewish faithful, who are referred to here as “these my brothers” by the king. The judgment of the sheep and goats is unique to Matthew, a fact which to me argues that it has a specifically Jewish character. However, we cannot reasonably rule out the inclusion of the second group on such comparatively thin evidence. These Gentiles are among those who will “conquer the beast and its image and the number of its name.” The latter expression refers to a mark that indicates submission to the great enemies of God. If so, this suggests the Tribulation Gentile believers will also be subjected to intense persecution, being stripped of the right to buy or sell because they will not take the beast’s mark.

So, whether we consider Tribulation believers of Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, taking this teaching of the book of Revelation into consideration, we can see that the “king” described in Matthew 25 will have plenty of believing “brothers” to vindicate and defend from the hostile nations of the world, and the unsaved men and women of the Tribulation period will have ample opportunity to interact with them. There is no reason whatsoever to introduce the church of the present era into this picture, and many good reasons not to.

Sheep Go to Heaven, Goats Go to Hell?

The “sheep” and “goats”, then, are best understood as the various Gentiles who have interacted with these “brothers”, for better or for worse. Some will have terribly persecuted these Tribulation believers, rejected their pleas for safety or aid, or simply ignored the suffering they see around them. These are the “goats”. Others, acting in good conscience, will have behaved much as Oskar Schindler is believed to have acted in WWII. They will have welcomed and clothed the stranger, visited the prisoners, offered food and water to those in need at great risk to themselves. These are the “sheep”.

It is not necessary to think of the “sheep” as saved by works, as some claim, but simply to recognize that in such a climate of terror, to act for the benefit of the persecuted at the risk of one’s own life and security is an act of faith; perhaps not perfectly informed faith, but faith all the same. In any case, the Lord’s words make clear that many or all of both the “sheep” and the “goats” will be unaware that they have performed actions for, against or in any way related to Jesus Christ.

Those who have shown kindness of varying degrees during the Tribulation period to the brothers and sisters of the king (the “sheep”) will then be granted entrance not into heaven but into the “kingdom”, most consistently understood as the promised millennial reign of Christ on the earth lasting 1,000 years. As the last verse of the passage indicates, when they finally die, they will then enter into “eternal life” on the basis of the faith they demonstrated by their actions.

The “goats” will have their judgment executed in some manner not specifically described.

Two Difficult Phrases

It is not necessary to understand the phrase “go away into eternal punishment” as an instantaneous trip to Gehenna, nor is it necessary to understand “the righteous into eternal life” as meaning an instant translation into glorified bodies and/or the eternal state. In fact, the phrase “thrown into the eternal fire” is used elsewhere in Matthew to describe the ultimate fate of unsaved individuals listening to Christ at the time. Nearly two thousand years later, these people are not yet in Gehenna, the lake of fire, but they are certainly in Hades. Likewise, Christians are said to possess eternal life in the here-and-now, even though they must still at this period in history go through death and the grave.

From the perspective of the damned, Hades is probably no great improvement over the lake of fire, but it should be noted that chronologically Hades does not get cast into the lake of fire until Revelation 20, at the end of Christ’s millennial reign and after the rebellion that follows it.

In any case, then, as now, physical death makes one’s eternal fate a matter of finality, whether or not an intermediate period in Hades is in view.

Fussiness and Technicality

This last point may seem fussy and technical, but what I’m saying is this: the presence of these two phrases of finality at the end of the judgment of the Sheep and Goats passage in Matthew 25 does not argue for conflating this unique judgment with either the Great White Throne or the Judgment Seat of Christ. The language of terminal judgment and blessing here is general, not specific.

The point the Lord is making is not that the Sheep and Goats is some sort of final, all-encompassing judgment of every single believer and unbeliever on earth, living and dead, as some believe, but rather that the decisions made there are every bit as binding and determinative as those of God’s great final judgment.

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