By John Claeys
The description of the judgment begins with this statement in Matt 25:31: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.” Thus, this judgment occurs immediately after Jesus’ glorious return to the earth at the end of the Tribulation.
As Jesus sits on His throne as Judge, the nations will be brought to Him and separated into two groups, the “sheep” on His right and the “goats” on his left (Matt 25:32). The word for nations is the same word for Gentiles, which shows us that this judgment concerns Gentiles, not Jews.
It is also important to understand that the nations always refers, in the Bible, to people who are alive on the earth. This means that the judgment of the nations is a judgment of those Gentiles who survive the Tribulation period.
Group #1: The Blessed
(Surviving Gentile Followers of Christ)
Jesus says to the sheep set to his right, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34).
The blessing given to the sheep is that they will inherit the Kingdom, because they attended to Jesus’ needs by aiding Him in various ways. Jesus explains this enigmatic saying by indicating that “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”
Clarifying the Reward:
Inheritance vs. Entrance
Many understand Jesus to be promising this group entrance into the kingdom. However, note that He does not say, “Enter the kingdom.” Instead, He proclaims: ” Inherit the kingdom.”
Entering the kingdom no more means the same as inheriting the kingdom as entering a house means the same as inheriting a house. Anyone who carefully reads Matt 25:34-40 sees that inheriting the kingdom is obtained as a result of good works, not as a result of faith in Christ. Putting this information together, it is clear that inheriting the kingdom is a reward for faithfulness to Christ—specifically, it refers to ruling in the kingdom (cf. Lev 25:46; Ps 2:8).
Verses 34-40 surface those good works that lead the “sheep” to inheriting the kingdom.
“The Least of These My Brethren”
The demonstrative pronoun these, in the expression “these My brethren,” indicates there is another (a third) group present at this judgment.
Since all surviving Gentiles will be among the two groups to be judged, the final group present during this judgment—the group not being judged at this judgment—must consist of believing Jews who survive the Tribulation.
These are Jews who believe in Jesus Christ for eternal life during the final seven years before His return and who follow Him in obedience; thus, they are Jesus’ brethren in a physical and spiritual sense. This comports with Jesus’ announcement earlier in Matthew that Jewish believers who are obedient to God are His brethren (Matt 12:49-50).
“Run for Your Lives!”
In order for Jewish believers in Christ to survive the Tribulation, they will need to flee for their lives immediately upon the occurrence of the abomination of desolation. To complicate matters, they will not be able to take anything with them—no possessions, money, extra clothing, etc. These Jewish believers will not be able to buy or sell anything because they will have refused to take the mark of the beast (Rev 13:16-18).
The Needs of “the Least of These My Brethren”
Certainly they will have needs that will have to be met throughout the final three and a half years before Jesus returns. These needs are addressed in verses 35 and 36 of Jesus’ declaration in Matthew 25: They will be hungry, thirsty, away from home (strangers), and in need of clothing. Also, some will become sick and some will end up in prison as a result of being captured by the troops sent out by Satan’s world ruler. Thus they will have much need for help.
To sum it up, when they obey Christ’s command, they will flee without any possessions other than the clothes on their backs (Matt 24:17-18). And since, during this time, they will not be able to buy or sell anything, they will need others to help them. While Gentile believers may well receive aid from unbelieving family members and friends, Jewish believers who have fled will not have any support network. They will need help from Gentiles.
The Reward for Helping Jesus’ Brethren
The risk involved for helping these Jewish believers will be tantamount to risking one’s life. This is because the world ruler at that time will be driven by Satan to wipe out God’s chosen people, particularly those who faithfully follow Christ (Rev 12:1-6, 13-17).
Thus, Gentile believers who help Jesus’ brethren will be risking their lives. For that, Jesus will reward them (cf. Matt 16:25, 27; see also Matt 10:16-42) by granting them the reward of inheriting the kingdom (i.e., ruling with Him).
A Missing Group:
So far, we have seen three groups of people who will physically survive the seven-year tribulation period—faithful Gentile followers of Christ, faithful Jewish followers of Christ, and unbelieving Gentiles. The reason there will not be any unfaithful believers present is that they will not survive the Tribulation period.
Earlier in the Olivet Discourse Jesus revealed, “He who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matt 24:13). The Greek word for endure is often used in the NT of believers in Christ remaining faithful to Him through difficult times (cf. 1 Cor 4:12; Rom 12:12; 2 Tim 2:10, 12; Heb 12:7; Jas 1:12; 5:11; 1 Pet 2:20), especially persecution. Thus, in Matt 24:13, Jesus is describing possessors of eternal life who will remain faithful to Christ through the ultimate of difficult times, the Great Tribulation (cf. Matt 24:21).
The expression to the end (in Matt 24:13) does not refer to the end of one’s life (as some teach), but to the end of the age, the end of the Tribulation (cf. Matt 24:3, 6, 14).
Finally, the Greek word for saved here refers to deliverance from physical death. Just nine verses after His declaration in 24:13, Jesus announced: “And unless those days [the Tribulation] were shortened, no flesh would be saved” (emphasis added). Clearly, Jesus is declaring in verse 22 that if this seven-year era was much longer, no one would physically survive it.
The only believers who will physically survive the Tribulation are those who remain faithful through the extreme difficulties of that era. This does not mean that all faithful believers will physically survive the Tribulation. Some will be martyred. However, the statement does communicate that no unfaithful believer will survive the Tribulation. This is why no unfaithful believers are represented among the Gentile survivors of the Tribulation in the judgment of Matt 25:31-46.
Group #2: The Cursed
Understanding this prepares us for the next declaration in this judgment:
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'”
Jesus explains that the goats will receive this judgment because of their failure to help Him. They will respond by asking: “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?” His answer to them shows the basis of this judgment: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” As a result, “these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Judged for Treatment of Jewish Believers
It is critical to remember that this judgment will be based on how Tribulation survivors treated Jewish believers in Christ during the last three and a half years before Christ returns to the earth. Those on Jesus’ right hand will be rewarded for risking their lives to meet the needs of Jewish believers, while those on Jesus’ left hand will be cast “into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Eternal Experience Based on Works?
Clearly, Jesus does not say in these verses that they will go into everlasting fire because of their refusal to help His Jewish brethren; for that would indicate eternal condemnation based on works. That is the quagmire into which Lordship Salvationists fall. To see His reply in that way is to buy into a works-based salvation. Jesus clearly announces in the Gospel of John1 that eternal condemnation is experienced only by those who have not believed in Him for eternal life (see John 3:16-18; 5:24; 11:25-26). One’s works do not affect where one spends eternity.
However, one’s works do affect one’s experience in eternity (cf. Ps 62:12; Prov 24:12; Eccl 12:14; Matt 16:27; 2 Cor 5:9-10; Rev 20:11-13). This includes the experience unbelievers will have in relation to their punishment.2 While all unbelievers will go into the everlasting fire (which includes separation from God for eternity), their experience throughout eternity will vary from one another. In fact, the Bible indicates that unbelievers could have very different eternal experiences from one another. The unbelievers appearing at the judgment of Matt 25:31-46 will experience a special everlasting punishment (v 46), which will be so significant, it is pictured as the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels (v 41).
Wrapping It Up
Jesus will make all things right as He wraps up the Tribulation period by this judgment. There will be varying experiences for all people in eternity based on their varying responses to God’s Word.
But Matt 25:31-46 especially teaches how important Abraham’s descendants are to the Lord. In application, we should regularly pray for their salvation (cf. Rom 10:1). In addition, we should extend mercy by defending them to others. Finally, we can teach in our churches the importance of Jews to God and His plan; (for Christians are subject to the growing deception of replacement theology). As our hearts align with God’s, by the extension of mercy toward His chosen people, we are preparing for the possibility of inheriting the Kingdom.
1. The Gospel of John is the only book in the Bible with the stated purpose of being written so that individuals will receive eternal life by believing in Jesus Christ for it. That makes the Gospel of John the place in the Bible to look to find out how to receive eternal life and, conversely, how to avoid eternal condemnation.
2. Jesus announces that the unbelieving religious leaders will experience a greater condemnation than that of other unbelievers because of their behavior in positions of power and influence (Matt 23:14; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:46-47). In addition, note that unbelievers will be judged according to their works in Rev 20:12-13.