There are many contradicting and conflicting views of Matthew 25:31-46 in Christendom. Some believe it to be a parable describing the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD or some other temporal judgment. Others view this text as describing the end of this physical existence and the general judgment. There are even sub views divided among those who believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation and those who believe in a works based salvation. In this short article, I would like to discuss a few of these views.
First, Matthew 25:31-46 is not a parable. Jesus does not call it a parable. Jesus also does not start this section of his sermon as he started the two similes in verses 1 and 14. He started the two similes with these statements; "be likened unto" and "is as." Verse 31 does not start as a simile, it start as a factual literal account.
Now, lets consider the verses at hand. Jesus started this dialog in Matt 24. It was started because his disciples asked three questions in Matthew 24:3.
1. Tell us, when shall these things be?
2. and what shall be the sign of thy coming,
3. and of the end of the world?
Mark 13 and Luke 21 also give a record of this account. But those two accounts do not record the third question. Nor do they give the account that is given in Matthew 25:31-46. So that leads me to believe that the last question primarily deals with Matthew 25:31-46. Not that the last question is not answered by the other parts of Matthew 24-25, but Matthew 25:31-46 deals ONLY with the end of the world. John Gill records that the Jews thought that all three things mentioned in the questions would happen simultaneously, hence why they asked them together. It is also very likely that is why Christ went into such details with his answers. He was clarifying the misconceptions brought about by their Jewish upbringing.
The Third question asked focus' on the end of this physical existence. Some have interpreted this word world to be in reference to the Jewish world, ie, the Jewish nation and way of life. That view is a nebulous over spiritualization. We should never let our imagination be mistaken for scriptural interpretation. Context and proper systematic theology trumps imagination. To find out what world is under consideration you have to examine the verses themselves. Now lets examine Matthew 25:31-46.
Verses 31-32 “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:”
Were all nations in the world gathered before him in AD 70. Most certainly not. Only Rome and Israel. No American Indians. No Chinese. No Australian. No Japanese. Ect. This description gives a full panoramic view of the world being gathered before God on the last day during the general judgment. This has never happened in history and will only happen at Christ's second coming. Furthermore, look at how he describes these two parties. HIS SHEEP and THE GOATS. The sheep are claimed as his possession while the goats are not.
Look at significance of where they are placed, verse 33, “And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.” Matthew 20:23 says; ” but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.” So we can gather that this is not something that people decide to do but it is something that God sovereignly prepares. Also, it's worth noting that Jesus doesn't say they were in his hand; like as He described the sheep in John 10:29. He said that the goats are on the left.
Lets look at verse 34 and 41. Verse 34 “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:” Notice that the inheritance they are getting was prepared before the foundation of the world. This can also be tied to Ephesians 1:4, “According as he hath chosen us before the foundation of the world,…”
Consider this, sheep are always called sheep. Goats are always called goats. Just as the Ethiopian cannot change his skin, or the leopard his spots, you never see either sheep or goats evolving into the other. The two cannot change what or who they are. Disobedient sheep are still sheep. Goats that put on the facade of righteousness are still goats. You cannot find anywhere in scriptures that says that the two ever change places. Furthermore, Jesus only died for the sheep (John 10:15). Only the sheep will hear his voice and can believe on Jesus (John 10:3,26-27). Even those that were not in that particular fold were still his sheep (John 10:16). Even before Christ's sacrifice was made, contractually speaking; we were still sheep and not goats (Isaiah 53:6, 1Peter 2:25).
Again, even disobedient sheep are considered sheep and not goats.
Below are verses that testify to that fact:
Isaiah 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
John 10:3 To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.
John 10:16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
John 10:15 As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.
John 10:26-27 But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
1 Peter 2:25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
The goats get something very different then that which is provided for the sheep. Verse 41 reads, “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:” They are cursed and put into everlasting fire. That certainly does not sound like something that would happen to a redeemed child of the King. Especially when we read that this everlasting fire was first made for the devil and his angels. No temporal judgment, including 70AD, was prepared for the devil and his angels. This is speaking of the lake of fire, the eternal resting place of the nonelect, and the place made to one day house the demons for all eternity.
Many sovereign grace believers stagger at the phrase in verses 35-36, “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” We have to remember that Jesus is not saying that people are being judged savingly according to their works. The elect are only saved by the body and blood of the Son of God. In these verses He is not judging but PROVING. The things they did were not making them children of God. The things they did manifested and proved that they were children of God. Notice that the righteous did not even know they were doing these things, verse 37, “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave [thee] drink?” They were not doing these things because the wanted eternal life they were doing them because they had eternal life. Scripture teaches that by their fruit you shall know them (Matt. 12:33). Does this mean that a child of God only does good deeds? Certainly not, a regenerate child of God is in a constant warfare between the spiritual and carnal, but nonetheless, a child of God is the only person that will do good things. When God regenerates a person the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in them and God's laws are written upon their heart and mind and they now have a new nature that is made in the image of God.
The goats themselves are told something very different then the sheep, verses 42-43, “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.” Their actions were not the same as those of the sheep. Why? They did not do good works because they aren’t children of God. They are still in there depraved state and are by nature the children of wrath (Romans 3:10-18, Eph2:1-3).
It is worth pointing out that it is not our duty and obligation to separate the sheep and the goats. This judgment lays solely upon God. He is who separates the wheat and the tares. We are to discern according to fruit and not throw our pearls before swine, but God is the final judge of all men. Though God can certainly view the fruit of the hearts of all men, this task is daunting and can be misleading to imperfect sinners. Dr. Tom Constable records in his bible study notes on Matthew 25:33, “sheep and goats in the Middle East look more alike than they do in some other parts of the world.” Sheep and goats may look very similar to our imperfect sinful eyes, but guarantee, God can separate.
Finally, contrast Matthew 25:31-46 with John 5:28-29, “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” Here Jesus was contrasting regeneration with the resurrection. His words in John 5 (in short) parallel those in Matthew 25.
There is coming a day in which every person that has ever lived will stand before God in judgment. God will take vengeance on those who know not God and obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those goats who have persecuted the church of God for centuries will have no choice but to kneel before the throne of Christ and then cast into everlasting fire. In contrast, those chosen unto of salvation, the elect children of God will be forever changed into the image of Christ! They will finally come to the full reality of salvation and have that for which their souls have waited, the Captain of their salvation.