The Judgement of the Sheep and the Goats
Before the Lord Jesus Christ will establish the Messianic kingdom on earth in terms of the Davidic covenant, He will first preside over a judgement. Why is a judgement necessary? When will this take place? Who will be judged? And what will be the basis of this judgement? Matthew 25:31-46 provides the answers in the judgement of the sheep and the goats.
Why is a Judgement Necessary?
According to Scholtz (2015:5), when “a divine kingdom is established, it cannot be divided initially or ultimately, for a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Mat 12:25-26).” No unbelievers will enter the Messianic kingdom when it is initially established by the Son of David: no chaff will be allowed in the wheat barn, all tares will be uprooted when the Son of Man exercise his Davidic rule in “his field” and bad fish will be removed (cf. Matthew 3:12; 13:36-43, 47-50).
How Then is a Final Rebellion Possible?
If only believers can enter the Messianic kingdom when it is initially established, how can there be a rebellion at the end of Christ’s thousand year rule (cf. Revelation 20:7-9)? Believers physically alive when Christ returns to the earth will enter the kingdom with their mortal bodies. They will populate the kingdom but not all their children will become believers. The Great White Throne judgement will thus take place at the end of the millennium (Revelation 20:11-15), dealing with all unbelievers of all times. Having dealt with the last enemy, death, the Messianic kingdom will merge into God’s eternal kingdom (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:24-28).
The Day of the Lord
The Lord Jesus will return to the earth after the Tribulation Period (cf. Matthew 24:29a; 25:31). According to Fruchtenbaum (2004:173), when the Old Testament refers to the term the Day of Jehovah or the Day of the Lord, it always refers to the seven-year Tribulation Period immediately preceding the return of Jesus Christ to the earth. Blaising (2012:7-8) views the Day of the Lord as the time from the pre-tribulational rapture of the Church saints, through the Tribulation Period and until the end of the millennium. The judgment of the sheep and the goats will take place shortly after the tumultuous events of the Tribulation Period.
Who Will Be Judged?
Who will be judged? Only physical survivors of the Tribulation Period will appear before the King (Matthew 25:31, 34). Three groups are involved, namely the sheep, the goats and what the Lord Jesus calls “the least of these My brethren” (Matthew 25:32-33, 40, 45). The sheep represent believers who enter the kingdom with their mortal bodies (25:34-40), but the goats represent unbelievers who are not allowed to enter the Messianic kingdom (25:41-45). Since the basis of this judgment concerns the treatment of “the least of these My brethren” (25:40, 45), it is important to know who they are.
The Least of These My Brethren
The Lord equates the treatment of “one of the least of these” to how one threats Him (Matthew 25:40, 45). Matthew 10:40-42 also refers to the treatment of Christ and of God’s emissaries, even the “little ones” (Pond 2002:459). This does not mean one is saved by one’s works, but it shows one’s works are evidence of one’s faith. Still, who are the “the least of these My brethren”?
Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (12:50; cf. 7:21). All disciples of Jesus can be called “his brethren”. But not only do the “sheep and the goats” physically survive the Tribulation Period, they have one more thing in common: their treatment of the least of these little ones (or otherwise it can’t serve as the basis for their common judgment). What else do we know?
The Gospel of the Kingdom
The “gospel of the kingdom” is only preached when the establishment of the Messianic kingdom in terms of the Davidic covenant is near (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; Couch 2000:196). During Christ’s first advent, however, “this generation” in Israel rejected the Messiah-ship of Jesus and consequently the establishment of the Messianic kingdom in terms of the Davidic covenant was postponed (Scholtz 2015:2). According to Matthew 23:39, a future generation of Jews must accept the Messiah-ship of Jesus prior to his second coming to the earth. Indeed, Jews must in faith believe and accept the King of the Jews – only then will the Davidic kingdom be established and restored (cf. Deuteronomy 17:14-15; Hosea 5:15-6:3; Zechariah 12:10; Matthew 23:39).
The Messianic kingdom will be established in terms of unconditional promises that God made to Israel through their representatives, such as Abraham and David. Since these promises belong to Jews, during the Tribulation Period the gospel of the kingdom must be preached by Jewish messengers authorised by the coming King. According to Scholtz (2014:5), this “may explain the distinct Jewish flavour of Matthew 10 and also the view that the next time the gospel of the kingdom is preached, it will be during the Tribulation (Mt 24:14)”. Later revelation provides the identity of these messengers: 144 000 Jews will preach the gospel of the kingdom (Revelation 7:1-8; cf. Matthew 24:14). The little ones of Matthew 10:42 and “the least of these My brethren” of Matthew 25:40, 45 must include the 144 000 Jews who will preach the gospel of kingdom during the Tribulation Period.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom are Christian examples of how to treat persecuted Jews (Richardson 2015:236-256). As terrible and horrific as the Holocaust was, the Tribulation Period will be worse — in fact, Jesus says it will be the worst ever (cf. Matthew 24:22). Treating Christ’s disciples well during the Tribulation Period, especially during the Great Tribulation when the Antichrist will rule over the earth, will show one’s faith and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, even to the point of risking one’s life to give one of the least of these My brethren a cup of cold water (cf. Matthew 10:42). But it will be accounted to believers as if they gave it to the Lord Jesus himself (Matthew 10:40; 25:40). This shows that the sheep are true disciples of Christ, for their faith in the only Saviour, the Lord Jesus, are evidenced by their works. They will enter the kingdom.
Would you like to read more about this topic? We recommend the following:
Blaising, C.A., 2012, ‘The day of the Lord: Theme and pattern in Biblical theology’, Bibliotheca Sacra 169(673), 3-19.
Couch, M., 2000, An introduction to classical evangelical hermeneutics: A guide to the history and practice of biblical interpretation, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids.
Fruchtenbaum, A.G., 2004, The footsteps of the Messiah, Ariel Ministries, Tustin.
Pond, E.W., 2002, ‘Who are “the least” of Jesus’ brothers in Matthew 25:40?’, Bibliotheca Sacra 159(636), 436-448.
Richardson, J., 2015, When a Jew rules the world: What the Bible really says about Israel in the plan of God, WND Books, Washington DC.
Scholtz, J.J., 2014, ‘The kingdom of heaven and Matthew 10’, In die Skriflig 48(1), Art. #1782, 8 pages. Available at: www.inluceverbi.org.za/index.php/skriflig/article/viewFile/1782/2553
Scholtz, J.J., 2015, ‘Reading Matthew 13 as a prophetic discourse: The four parables presented in public’, In die Skriflig (49(1), Art. #1870, 7 pages. Available at:
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