J. DWIGHT PENTECOST’S VIEWS
OF MATTHEW 25:31-46
MAJOR ISSUES RAISED:
Pentecost gives his opinion on three major issues related to this chapter:
1. What is the Sheep and Goats Judgment? Who are those judged? What is the basis of their judgment?
2. When will the Sheep and Goats Judgment take place?
3. What is the nature of the Kingdom?
WHAT IS THE “SHEEP AND GOATS JUDGMENT”?
The first question that Pentecost addresses is whether the word “nations” (ethne) refers to nations as whole or to individuals within those nations. Pentecost concludes that, in this context, the term “nations” refers to individuals within the Gentile nations. He cites a number of other passages that uses the term to refer to individuals: Matthew 6:31-32; 12:21; 20:19; 28:19; Acts 11:18; 15:3; 26:20 (Pentecost, 421). Moreover, he, following Peters, concludes these are living, not resurrected, Gentiles—living at the time of the Second Coming (Pentecost, 417) and awaiting the return of Christ (Pentecost, 214).
What is the purpose of this judgment? It is to decide who among the Gentiles will enter the Millennial Kingdom (Pentecost, 422). These Gentiles are the living survivors of the Tribulation period. They are gathered before Christ after His Second Coming and are judged, as Jesus describes it in this passage, and are either accepted into the Millennium or condemned into the lake of fire (Pentecost, 315, 412).
The basis of the judgment is stated to be what the subjects have done to “the least of these my brothers.” (Matthew 25:40, English Standard Version—as are other Scripture quotations) This raises two questions:
· Who are “my brothers”?
· Is this a judgment of works?
Pentecost concludes that the “brothers” of Christ are the 144,000 Israelites described in Revelation 7:1-8 and 14:1-5. Pentecost describes them as a “believing remnant” and equates them with what he calls the “believing witnesses” that he understands to be described in Isaiah 66:19-21. Pentecost further identifies this group to be the ones who preach the “gospel of the kingdom” in all the world (Matthew 24:14). Those who “accepted their gospel accepted the messenger…” (Pentecost, 419). Thus, the description of the sympathetic care for the “brothers” is interpreted to be an acceptance of these messengers and their message.
This Scripture also gives rise to the question: is this a judgment of works. Pentecost rejects that conclusion by giving the following reasoning. First, the outcome of the judgment is the eternal destiny of the subjects; they are either received into the Millennial Kingdom or they are sent to the lake of fire. Second, it is the established doctrine of Scripture that eternal destiny is not by works but by acceptance of the saving work of Christ. Therefore, this, though it appears to be on the basis of works, is not a judgment of works. The works described are evidence of the born-again state of the “sheep.” (Pentecost, 418-419)
WHEN WILL THE “SHEEP AND GOATS JUDGMENT” TAKE PLACE?
Pentecost believes that this judgment that is described in Matthew 25:31-46 will take place following the Second Coming of Christ before the institution of the Millennial Kingdom. It follows the judgment of upon the living Israelites, which he believes is referred to in Matthew 25:1-30. (Pentecost, 415)
Pentecost is adamant that the “Sheep and Goats Judgment” (my term) is not the “Great White Judgment” (I capitalize the term, but it is a common designation for the judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15.). Pentecost devotes some space in distinguishing these two judgments. He begins by rejecting the idea of a “general judgment.” I cannot find his definition for this term, but I gather he means a judgment in which both righteous and unrighteous stand for judgment. “It would seem that even the casual observer,” he writes, “could see that the Word of God can not be made to support the idea of a general judgment, when there are no less than eight different judgments mentioned in the Scripture, each with a different time, place, subject, basis and result. Those who posit such a general judgment identify the judgment of the Gentiles (Matt.25:31-46) with the judgment of the great white throne (Rev. 20:11-15). There are a number of distinctions between these two judgments which makes it impossible to make them the same judgment.” (Pentecost, 425) The following table gives his distinctions between the two judgments:
BETWEEN THE “GREAT WHITE THRONE”
“SHEEP AND GOATS” JUDGMENTS
SHEEP AND GOATS
GREAT WHITE THRONE
· No resurrection
· Living nations
· On earth
· No books
· At the return of Christ
· Righteous & wicked
· Some go into Kingdom and some to punishment
· Judge on throne of His glory
· Basis is treatment of the brethren
· Coming of Christ precedes the judgment
· Sentence is announced and separation is made before the cause of judgment is known
· 5 classes of beings are mentioned: Son of man, sheep, goats, brothers, angels
· No nations
· Heaven & earth fled
· After 1000 years have expired
· Only wicked
· None to blessing, all to eternal punishment
· Judge on great white throne
· Basis is evil works
· No coming mentioned
· No judgment until after careful examination of the books
· Only God and one class of people are mentioned
WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE KINGDOM?
This is a huge theological question. It is not one to be considered in relation to the present passage. And yet, as I studied Pentecost’s viewpoint of the Sheep and Goats Judgment, a number of issues concerning the Kingdom of God arose. I shall consider a few of those. As I do so, I shall be omitting many issues. My intention is to give some insight into Pentecost’s interpretative perspective. In some cases, I believe that Pentecost develops a strong rationale and defense for his position, but that certain biases (especially the Pretribulation Rapture Theory and a strong defense of Premillennialism) are the ultimate motivating factors. Whether that is true does not necessarily detract from some of his arguments or conclusions.
I shall begin with a summary of the Dispensationalist prophecy time line, which is given below, as follows:
· Jesus’ ministry of about 3 ½ years
· Jesus death, burial, resurrection, and ascension
· The church begins at Jerusalem, most visibly, on the Day of Pentecost: the beginning of the church age
· Those saved during the church age and who have died are resurrected and those who are living at that time are raptured and both groups go into heaven
· The 70th Week/Tribulation begins and lasts for 7 years. During that time…
o A group of 144,000 Israelites become special witnesses to the coming Kingdom of God and evangelize many Jews, who receive Christ
o A group of Gentiles also receive this witness and also await the Kingdom
o The Antichrist/Beast arises and persecutes believers as well as all Israelites
· At the end of the Tribulation, Christ returns to earth, defeating the Antichrist/Beast
· The living Israelites are judged as to whether they are born again believers or not
· The living Gentiles are also judged
· Those who are born again are admitted into Christ’s Kingdom, which lasts 1000 years
· Those who are not born again are rejected from the Kingdom; at least the Gentiles are thrown into the Lake of Fire
· The Millennium continues for 1000 years
· There is a brief rebellion led by Satan; Satan is cast into the Lake of Fire
· The dead unbelievers are brought back to life and judged at the Great White Throne judgment
· The Eternal Kingdom ensues
There are several important principles that are intertwined with this time line, as follows:
· The Kingdom “program” (a favorite term of Pentecost) is separate from the church program of God. (Pentecost, 212 and elsewhere)
· The church destiny is a “heavenly destiny.” (Pentecost, 212)
· The Kingdom has an earthly destiny. (Pentecost, 212)
· The Kingdom is a “theocratic kingdom.” It began in Eden and was manifested in human government, the Hebrew patriarchs, the judges, the Hebrew monarchy—especially David, and the Hebrew prophets. (Pentecost, 433-444)
· The theocratic kingdom will be fully realized in the Millennial Kingdom under Christ. (Pentecost, 472)
As one reads Pentecost, one eventually becomes aware that this division of God’s work on earth runs throughout Pentecost’s thinking. As I read further and further into his book, I began to feel that the Millennium was, for Pentecost, the climax of God’s work and of all prophecy. The Millennial Kingdom overshadows every Scripture, it seems. The church is really just a parenthesis in God’s plans.
As he discusses Matthew 24-25, Pentecost understands the Olivet Discourse to be a statement of the destiny of the Hebrew nation. The church is simply not in view. As he comes to chapter 25, he understands the entire chapter to portray two judgments that take place after the Second Coming of Christ and before the start of the Millennium (his justification for this view is discussed in the previous article). The first two passages—the parables of the virgins and of the talents—depict the judgment of the living Israelites to determine who among them will enter the Millennial Kingdom. The last passage—the Sheep and Goats Judgment—depicts a judgment of the living Gentiles, as I have already described.
The living Gentiles who are accepted into the Kingdom have been born again, as demonstrated by their treatment of the messengers of Christ (also discussed above). Pentecost affirms that only those who are born again can enter the Kingdom, referring to John 3:3 as justification. (Pentecost, 420) When I first noted his reference to John 3:3 as referring to the Millennial Kingdom, I was a little shocked. It was one of those passages in Pentecost that alerted me to his perspective. Whereas thousands of preachers have used that passage to refer to being saved, not very many have given it the kind of spin that makes being born again a prerequisite to entering the Millennial Kingdom. Note that I am not disputing that conclusion. I am simply noting the very different emphasis that Pentecost makes. Most people just pass over the part about the Kingdom of God. For Pentecost, it is all important.
The living Gentiles who enter the Millennial Kingdom are really not entering a Kingdom planned for them. In fact, they will be subject to the Israelites, according to Pentecost. (Pentecost, 508) The fact that they will enter the Kingdom is a matter of prophecy and fulfills the “universal aspects of the Abrahamic covenant.” (Pentecost, 508) But the focus of God’s work in the Millennium is to establish His sovereignty over the earth through the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant and the exaltation of Israel (Pentecost, 432, 492, and 508), for “this is Israel’s kingdom” (Pentecost, 422).
In my view, Pentecost imposes an interpretation on chapter 25 that is questionable. First, he has a set of assumptions that guide his interpretation of chapter 24. These can certainly be argued with, but he does make some good arguments for his point of view. That point of view is that this chapter is directed toward the Hebrews and deals with their destiny—and that it is silent regarding the church. As he uses those assumptions, he is able to “see” various events that he believes are well-established from other Scripture. When he comes to chapter 25, he rationalizes much of what he says by noting that the chapter begins with the word “then.” This gives him warrant to consider that the chronology that paused at 24:31 is continuing. So, the three pericopes of the chapter depict events that take place immediately after the Second Coming. He decides that the first two both relate to the judgment of the Hebrews and the third to the judgment of the Gentiles.
I believe that the church is in view in these chapters. This gospel, though it has many Jewish elements, is a Christian document. The disciples would become apostles of the church. In the depiction of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:9ff, there are 12 gates in the walls that were named after the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 foundations that were named after the 12 apostles. It seems evident that this is depicting the amalgamation of the people of God. And in that amalgamation, the apostles are representative of the church—not Israel. So, as Jesus spoke the Olivet Discourse to four of the apostles, He was speaking to the representatives of the church.
Chapter 25 makes it clear that the coming of Christ will bring about distinctions and that there will be an accounting. The five foolish virgins were not spiritually prepared for the coming of Christ and were told, “I do not know you.” The three servants gave an account for their stewardship of what had been put in their trust, but also for their attitudes toward the Lord.
The Sheep and Goats Judgment is the one passage in chapter 25 that is not parabolic in character. Pentecost gives explicit reasons why one should not consider this as identical to the Great White Throne Judgment in Revelation 20. His reasoning is good, yet I am not fully convinced. Many Christians split up judgment in various ways. Pentecost counts 8 different judgments (Pentecost, 425). Many make much of what they call a “judgment of works” for the rewards of the Christian. Yet, in various mentions of judgment, there is not explicit teaching that would distinguish these various judgments as occurring in separate times and places and with different subjects. Rather, in some cases, a particular aspect of the concept of judgment is dealt with. For example, Paul states in II Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” A standard teaching that has long been accepted is that this refers to the “Bema” judgment of the Christian works, that it will take place in heaven after the (Pretribulation) Rapture of the church and before the Second Coming, and that it is entirely separate from the Great White Throne Judgment. There are good reasons to believe this. Yet, the passage itself does not demand all of this teaching. In fact, it does not necessarily preclude the judgment occurring at the Great White Throne.I do agree with Pentecost that the Sheep and Goats Judgment need not teach salvation by works. The kindness of the Sheep exhibits to the “brothers” of Christ gives evidence of a born-again life style. Just as the Philippian jailer showed kindness to Paul and Silas after his conversion (Acts 16), those who have received Christ will show kindness to those identified with Christ, especially those who are persecuted because of the Word. Pentecost declares that these are persons who have been born again, but he—because of his eschatological time chart—cannot identify them as part of the church. He also believes that the description of the judgment scene does not coincide with the judgment scene of the Great White Throne. However, I think one could just as easily see a parallel account. The following table is my version of a comparison of the two judgments:
COMPARISON OF THE
GREAT WHITE THRONE JUDGMENT TO THE
SHEEP AND GOATS JUDGMENT
SHEEP AND GOATS
GREAT WHITE THRONE
No resurrection stated but not ruled out
Resurrection implied because “dead”
Living nations are not specifically mentioned
The dead are mentioned
Nations (Gentiles) are mentioned, but Pentecost argues these are of individuals
Individuals are implied
On earth is not implied: simply says “when the
Son of Man comes…”
Heaven and earth flee away
No books are mentioned, but a record has obviously been kept
Books are mentioned
Does not state that this will occur immediately after Jesus returns; it only states that it will occur subsequent to His return
A 1000 year (of debatable meaning) period is mentioned before this judgment
Righteous and wicked are present
The “dead” may imply only wicked are present, but it could imply that all people will be judged; there are mentions of a judgment or separation of all people (John 5:28-29 and
Some go to punishment and some inherit the Kingdom
Those who are not found in the book of life go to punishment; nothing is stated explicitly of the destiny of those found in the book of life, except that the very next chapter describes the new heaven and new earth
Judge on the throne of His glory
Judge on the Great White Throne, which could very well be equivalent to the throne of glory
Basis is treatment of the brothers; however, Pentecost has made the case that this is
evidence of their born-again
status or lack of it
Basis is evil works, but it is also whether they are found in the Book of Life, which is determined (as Pentecost would surely agree) by the born-again status
Coming of Christ precedes the judgment
The coming of Christ is not mentioned in the immediate context, but the Book of Revelation evidences that the Second Coming has already occurred
Sentence is announced and separation is made before the cause of judgment is made known; however, it is obvious that the record of deeds has been carefully examined before the separation has been made.
No judgment until after careful examination of the books
5 classes of beings are mentioned
Only 2 classes are mentioned; this is a trivial contrast that only says that details are given in one account that are not given in the other
I think this table opens the possibility that the Sheep and Goats Judgment is the same as the Great White Throne Judgment.
UNDERSTANDING THE FUNCTION OF THE PASSAGE: I believe that it is important to step back from this chapter and ask what its function is in the Olivet Discourse. Pentecost leverages the idea that chapter 25 is a continuation of the chronology that ends in 24:31. However, I do not think that is warranted. First of all, the Lord uses parabolic language at the very beginning of the chapter: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like…” This language alerts us to Jesus continuing His commentary on the issues that His Second Coming raises. In chapter 24:32-51, He discusses…
· The evidence of coming events as the leafing of a fig tree evidences the coming of summer
· The spiritual obliviousness of many as in the days of Noah
· The separation of people that His coming will bring
· The watchfulness needed as a householder watches for a thief
· The necessity of servants to be about their duty
Now, in chapter 25, He continues His commentary on the certainty of His coming. The emphasis in the commentaries in chapter 24 was on preparedness for His coming. This theme continues in the parable of the virgins. The latter two passages give more of an emphasis on the kind of accountability that will be required. In the parable of the talents, the emphasis is on accountability for those opportunities and responsibilities that have been given to servants. In the final passage, the Sheep and Goats Judgment, the accountability is of how servants have responded to the needs of the “brothers.” In Matthew 10 Jesus discusses the whole issue of ministry. Toward the end of the chapter, He discusses the response to ministry. Note especially the following words:
“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)
Under the same principles, Jesus, on Mount Olives, is speaking to those who will be ordained to go to the “nations.” He is telling them that the people of all nations will have a great opportunity to experience the light of the Gospel through the “brothers” of Christ. Some will welcome them. Others will persecute them. They will be judged according to their reception of the message—according to their faith. But that faith will be evidenced by their treatment of the messengers.
THE NATURE OF THE KINGDOM: Pentecost has both a broad and a narrow view of the Kingdom of God. He acknowledges there is a “spiritual kingdom” that would include, for example, the church. However, he focuses on the “theocratic kingdom. He understands this to be God’s earthly rule, whether it be in Eden, through human government in the days following the flood, through the patriarchs, or through the Hebrew monarchy. This theocratic kingdom “program” has been, since Abraham, concentrated on the land of Israel and the Israelite nation. The Old Testament prophecies of eventual glory and worldwide domination of Israel is the promise of the theocratic kingdom.
When Jesus came and announced, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17), He was “offering” the kingdom to the Jews. However, the Jews rejected His Messianic claims and His offer of the Kingdom. He was crucified, bringing about salvation and then inaugurated the church “program.” The church, however, is a parenthesis in the plan of God. Eventually, in the 70th Week/Tribulation, the nation of Israel will again have the “gospel of the kingdom” preached to her. (The church will be absent, having been raptured.) Many (Hebrews and Gentiles) will accept that gospel and look forward to the coming of the King. This will take place at the Second Coming. When Jesus returns, He will establish the Kingdom of God on earth, which will last for 1000 years. At the end of that period, a series events will take place that eventually lead into the Eternal Kingdom.
My understanding of the Kingdom is a little different, as follows:
· The first 11 chapters of Genesis give a synopsis of the world in its fallen state. Three times evil is judged—by expelling Adam and Eve from the garden, through the flood, and at the Tower of Babel.
· With the call of Abraham, God begins His redemptive program. He calls a man. Through His grace, he allows this man to become a junior partner in the redemptive process, so that in Abraham “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)
· The land that Abraham is promised, I believe, represents a “beach head” in God’s great re-invasion of the earth.
· Throughout the Old Testament, we see the God at work. Children are born to barren women. A whole nation is rescued from slavery and the gods of Egypt are defeated. The Promised Land is invaded under the power of God. The judges, under the power of the Holy Spirit, rescue the people from the oppression of pagans and their gods. The kings, at first, continue this process of humans’ being the instruments of the power of God. Later, the prophets take over that role.
· We can discern then that the Kingdom of God is not so much a place or a system of government as it the rule of God to bring about God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
· In the book of Daniel, we observe that, even as pagan rulers dominate the defeated nation of Judah, God is still ruling. Moreover, there is a vision that someday the Kingdom of God would crush all human empires (Daniel 2:44).
· Moreover, also in Daniel, we learn that someday “one like a son of man” will come and be given authority over the whole earth (Daniel 7:13-14).
· Throughout the Old Testament, we learn that God’s rule is a beneficent rule. God demands absolute loyalty and obedience. But God is also vitally interested in the welfare of people—in widows and orphans and strangers, fair weights, in keeping family farms together and opposing huge estates, in resisting the sinful lusts that disintegrate society.
· When Jesus came and announced the Kingdom, He proceeded to demonstrate the nature of God’s rule—through ethical teaching and through healing and miracles. God’s Kingdom is powerful, able to cast out demonic power and overcome the effects of sin.
· When He died on the cross, Jesus was an instrument of the Kingdom of God. It was necessary that He die to bring about an end to sin. When He rose from the dead, the Kingdom was proclaimed as fully triumphant.
· On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered the people of God. The Kingdom of God was now fulfilling the promise of Abraham to bring about a people that would fill the whole earth. Satan would be defeated and God’s people would be “a kingdom, priests to his [Jesus’] God and Father” (Revelation 1:6, compare Exodus 19:6).
· Because the church is an instrument of the Kingdom of God, she participates in God’s plan to redeem the whole earth. Contrary to Pentecost, the church is not limited to a “heavenly destiny.” The church will live and reign with Christ on the earth.
Thus, I believe that the Dispensationalist teaching has distorted the message of the Bible. They have created barriers and chopped the Scripture up, calling this “Kingdom” and that “church.” It is true that revelation has been progressive. It is true that there have been “types and shadows.” Yet, it appears to me that God has had a plan to reconcile the world to Himself that has been active throughout human history. I recognize that prophetic interpretation gets pretty difficult when one goes in the direction I have gone. The Dispensationalists have put in countless hours and have had wonderful scholarship for many years. To try to overthrow that system is an enormous project. I am not sure I am up to it, but I believe that one must be faithful to the Scripture and one must prayerfully interpret with that faithfulness.
Obviously, my understanding of the Kingdom affects the interpretation of prophecy. Because I believe the church participates in the Kingdom, I am comfortable that the church will be present in 70th Week/Tribulation period. Moreover, the church will experience the Second Coming of Christ at the end of that period. For Gentiles to be welcomed into the Kingdom (Matthew 25:34), does not require the “judgment to determine which living Gentiles will enter the Millennial Kingdom,” a kingdom that belongs to Israel.
SUMMARY: I believe that the Sheep and Goats Judgment gives us one aspect of judgment. It states that people will be judged for their response to Christ’s messengers. I do not believe this passage can be dogmatically placed at the beginning of the Millennium as a judgment to determine which living Gentiles will be allowed into the Millennium. It cannot be ruled out that the passage refers to the same judgment that is called the Great White Throne Judgment. Moreover, all the passages in chapter 25 need to be understood as further commentary by Jesus on issues that His Second Coming give rise to. In this case, He is reminding the messengers that people will be judged for how they treat the messengers.
Rather than take a narrow view of the Kingdom as referring to Christ’s reign in the Millennium, I understand the Kingdom to be God’s powerful reign to bring about the redemption of the human race. In the Old Testament, the experience of the nation of Israel is the focus of the Kingdom. With the coming of Jesus, the cross is the ultimate act of God’s Kingdom. The church continues to be an instrument of the Kingdom as it is empowered by the Holy Spirit. This changes one’s understanding of the Millennium and the church’s relationship to it. It also has implications for the timing of the rapture and the presence or absence of the church in the 70th Week/Rapture.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 233188-233189). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publ. Co. 1958.
NEXT: SURVEY OF WALVOORD’S VIEWS ON CHAPTER 25 PLUS A SUMMARY OF THE OLIVET DISCOURSE