“Whenever the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory and all the nations will be gathered together before Him and He will separate them from each other as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will stand the sheep on His right and the goats on His left” (31-33).
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come blessed by My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, naked and you clothed Me, sick and you visited Me, in prison and you came to me” (34-36).
“Then the righteous will answer Him saying, ‘Lord when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? When did we see You sick or in prison and come to You?’” (37-39)
“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I tell you, in that you did it to one of these, the least of My brothers, you did it to Me!’” (40)
“Then He will say to those on the left, ‘Go away from Me, cursed ones into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you didn’t give Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you didn’t give Me a drink, I was a stranger and you didn’t take Me in, naked and you didn’t clothe Me, sick and in prison and you didn’t visit Me’” (41-43).
“Then they also will answer saying, ‘Lord when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or in prison and we didn’t serve You?’” (44)
“Then He will answer them saying, ‘Truly I tell you, in that you didn’t do it to one of these, the least ones, you didn’t do it to Me!’ And these will go away to eternal torment, but the righteous to eternal life” (45, 46).
I’ve checked out many commentaries on this passage and find that it is always interpreted within the theological framework of the interpreter.
I must admit that for years I have done the same, buying the standard dispensational line, which essentially relieves me of any personal responsibility. (We dispensationalists like interpretations like that. 8^) ) This line says that Jesus is speaking of His return at the end of the great tribulation and that this is His judgment of individuals and how they treated the saved of the tribulation, especially Israel and the 144,000. It has nothing to do with me (of course, I’ll have been raptured) or with the “nation” of America.
Another common interpretation is that this is the general judgment (or “judgment day” in popular usage). In this view, all judgments spoken of throughout the New Testament are the same. So this is the same judgment that is spoken of in Romans 2:1-16, (see especially verses 5 and 6). It is the same as the judgment at the Great White Throne in Revelation 20:11-15. This is a universal judgment at which all people are going to be gathered and the saved and lost are to be separated, some to eternal life and some to eternal destruction. The criteria given in these and other passages, though they seem to be pointing to a salvation by works, are not what they seem. They are simply works as pointing to faith. Only those of faith will do these works and only those who do these works have genuine faith, a sort of James 2:18 situation. Seeing as how I have placed my faith in Christ for my salvation, I shouldn’t worry – right? But somehow this passage can throw doubt on my position and that of most of us (Mother Theresa and a few others excepted).
There are, of course, other interpretations, but most seem to be variations of the above two.
However, I have for a long time felt uncomfortable with all the interpretations and so have been pondering a possible alternative understanding.
I’ll start by looking at the Greek word ETHNE in verse 32. Every translation I have consulted translates it “nations” in this passage, even though every commentary I’ve consulted tells me it speaks of individuals. I think we have a problem here.
ETHNOS (plural ETHNE) can have two different meanings. One meaning and translation, whether used in the singular or plural, is “nation” or “people” (Acts 8:9; 10:21; 13:19). The second meaning (plural only) is of non-Jews, and is usually translated “gentiles” or “heathen,” or sometimes, “pagan.”
So what meaning does Jesus have in mind in verse 22? Is He speaking of His judgment of individual persons – gentiles, or is He speaking of nations as nations?
Whenever we read eschatological passages (those having to do with future end time events) we are drawn back to the Hebrew prophets. Jesus was, among other things, a prophet and He used the language of His predecessors. At least two ancient passages are alluded to here by Jesus.
The first is in Daniel chapter 7, where Jesus’ title for Himself – the Son of Man – is found.
“I kept looking in the night visions,
And look, with clouds of heaven, One like a Son of Man was coming.
And He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented to Him.
And to Him was given dominion, glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations and tongues should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away,
and His kingship one that will not be destroyed.”
Daniel 7:13, 14
It seems that Jesus is speaking in Matthew 25:31 of that same future event, when He will return to reign. The whole context of Daniel 7 is that of a vision of future kingdoms of the world, portrayed as rapacious beasts, each crushing the previous one, to be finally overcome by the Son of Man and the “People of the Most High,” and His and their rule established for eternity.
A second passage is in Joel chapter 3 (chapter 4 in Hebrew):
“For look, in those days and in that time,
When I return the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem,
I will gather all the nations,
And bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat
And I will enter into judgment with them there
On behalf of My people and My inheritance, Israel
Whom they scattered among the nations
And they divided My land
And they cast lots for My people
And they traded a boy for a whore
And sold a girl for wine – and they drank” (Joel 3:1-3).
In the Septuagint, the expression “all the nations” (PANTA TA ETHNE) is the same as that in Matthew 25:32. The word “gather” is the same except for a different form.
It seems clear that both of these passages relate to the same future event that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 25:31ff. And if in these two passages, it is not individual persons who are being spoken of, but nations as nations – politically organized units of people – can’t we deduce that Jesus is also speaking of the same?
In the Old Testament context, they are being judged at a particular moment of time for their treatment of God’s people. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is expanding on this theme, giving greater detail as to the particular criteria for judgment and placing this judgment clearly at His return in glory and the beginning of His eternal earthly reign. Of course, God’s people in the Old Testament is the Covenant nation of Israel, while in Matthew, Jesus speaks of the nations’ treatment of His “brothers” (Matthew 25:40). Are they the same group?
The Greek word ADELPHOS is usually translated “brother” or plural, “brothers” throughout the New Testament, though we should note that the plural form can include the sisters as well. However, when it is not used of physical siblings it can refer to fellow Israelites, or fellow believers in Christ. Context, of course, determines, though the distinction is not always clear, especially in the Gospels. Jesus’ disciples and other listeners are often instructed as to their behavior toward their “brothers” (Matthew 5:22-24, 47; 7:3-5; etc.) without it being clear as to who these people are.
Besides the reference in Matthew 25:40, there are only two other places where Jesus speaks of His “brothers.” The first is, “’Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ And extending His hand toward His disciples, He said, ‘See My mother and My brothers. For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, this one is My brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:48-50; Mark 3:33-35; Luke 8:21). The second time is when He tells the women and Mary to give His “brothers” instructions after the resurrection (Matthew 28:10; John 20:17). This is clearly a reference to His disciples as the contexts show. Nowhere do we read of His referring to His fellow Israelites as His brothers.
So we are left to conjecture. Are they Israelites? Disciples? Some other group?
So here are some thoughts, for what they’re worth.
It is difficult to imagine that this same Jesus, the One who was a Friend of sinners, who taught us to love our neighbors and even our enemies, would be concerned only about the treatment of a particular group, whether Jews or Christians. Would the One whose Father cares for birds not also be concerned about all mankind? Would He not hold the nations accountable for their treatment of the “least” among them?
So I’ll assume that by “these, the least of My brothers,” Jesus is referring to all those in need of care.
And if my interpretation of “nations” is correct, then He is going to judge the nations of the world as nations, not individuals, when He returns. This has to do with whether they will enter His eternal Kingdom – to continue to exist on earth during the Millennium and beyond – or to suffer eternal destruction.
This would also include a judgment of the rulers of these nations. And it should be noticed, it is not simply the great evil despots and their nations that will be condemned – not just those like Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. The nations are not to be judged only for their oppression and despotism, not just their sins of commission, but for their sins of omission. They will be judged for their care for those in need, or for their failure to care.
In this passage, it is not what the nations have done for which they are to be condemned, but for what they have failed to do.
And I believe we as Americans must ask whether our nation is going to be placed on Jesus’ right or left hand (verse 33) at this judgment.
I would greatly appreciate any feedback on these matters.