by Alan Summers, Scotland
The return of the Lord to earth is one of the key events of Bible prophecy. His return is anticipated in a great number of passages and sets in motion a wide variety of future events. One of the key events to occur at His return is His judgment of the earth. This judgment is usually described as “the Judgment of the Living Nations”. This description is derived from the Lord’s prophecy in Matt 25:31-46.1 Although the expression ‘living nations’ is nowhere used by the Lord, many Bible expositors have added the word ‘living’ to the Lord’s word ‘nations’ to draw attention to the fact that the nations are composed of living people.2 This is a distinctive feature of the judgments at His return since the other two judgments of Scripture involve the judgment of those whose earthly existence has ceased either because they have died or because they have been “caught up” 1Thess.4.17, and their bodies glorified.
- 1 Matthew is the only Gospel writer to record the Lord’s teaching about the judgment enacted on His return; cf. Matt.16.27; 19.28.
2 The first use of the expression appears to be in an article by J.N. Darby entitled “An Examination of the Statements made in the ‘Thoughts on the Apocalypse,’ by B. W. Newton; and an enquiry how far they accord with Scripture”.
In order to distinguish the various judgments, we will call the Judgment of the Church, dealt with in the preceding chapter, “the Judgment Seat of Christ” and the “Great White Throne Judgment”, dealt with in the final chapter, the “Final Judgment”. We will also notice the judgment of Israel at the Lord’s return and will call it “the Judgment of Israel” although it might have been called “the judgment of the living nation” (singular). In this chapter the word judgment is given its judicial meaning. In other words, we will look at the Lord as judge in His court and His adjudication on those who appear before Him. This type of judgment is to be distinguished from self-judgment, the judgment of Christ by God for sin, the judgment of the devil and his angels and the temporal judgments which God visits on His people and on the earth e.g. plagues, sickness, crop failure and the like.
THE FOUR GREAT JUDGMENTS
It may be helpful, before examining the Judgment of the Living Nations in detail, to point out some basic differences between the main judgments of Scripture.
Location of Judgment
The Judgment Seat of Christ and the Final Judgment both take place in heaven;3 whereas the Judgment of the Living Nations takes place on earth in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and the Judgment of Israel in the wilderness.
- 3 Some able teachers believe that the Great White Throne occurs in outer space. According to Rev.20.11, however, the appearance of the Great White Throne causes the old heavens and earth to flee away. It follows that the Final Judgment must take place in heaven, the uncreated and eternal abode of God. Revelation chapter 21 indicates that the new heavens and new earth emerge after the Final Judgment has concluded. If it be objected that no person who has rejected God could appear in heaven, the appearance of the devil in heaven in Job 1. and Rev.12.7,8 would suggest the objection is misplaced.
Issues for Judgment
The Judgment Seat of Christ does not deal with the judgment of sin but the judgment of service. The Final Judgment is concerned exclusively with sin and involves punishment. The Judgment of the Living Nations and of Israel relates to both the judgment of sin and service.
Subjects of Judgment
The Judgment Seat of Christ involves the Church. The Final Judgment deals with all unsaved who have died. The Judgment of the Living Nations includes the Gentiles who are alive when Christ returns in glory. The Judgment of Israel concerns the Jews living on earth at His return.
Timing of Judgment
The Judgment Seat of Christ happens after the resurrection and rapture of the saints of the Church age. The Judgment of the Living Nations and of Israel occurs after the Lord’s return to earth and occurs at the commencement of the Millennium. The Final Judgment takes place after the resurrection of the dead at the end of the Millennium and at the commencement of the eternal state.
The Judgment of Israel is dealt with separately below.
THE JUDGMENTS IN THEIR DISPENSATIONAL CONTEXT
There are many who do not accept that there are a number of separate judgments and understand this judgment to be the Final Judgment. They consider that there is one great universal judgment at the end of time. Hence they regard the Judgment of the Living Nations as coinciding with the Judgment Seat of Christ and the Final Judgment. While there are some Scriptures that speak of judgment generally, e.g. Jn.5.28,29; Acts 10.42; Rev.22.12, and while the judgments have common features, e.g. a judge and a verdict, the passages that describe the judgments require them to be separated if they are not to conflict with one another. This chapter presupposes that human history is divided into separate phases, sometimes called dispensations, and that the Church and Israel are distinct from one another. Only this approach makes sense of the fact that the Judgment of the Living Nations takes place at the Lord’s return, Matt.25.31, whereas the Final Judgment takes place one thousand years after His return, Rev.20.7,11. The dispensational approach also explains why the passages that mention the Judgment Seat of Christ focus on reward for the believer and never mention punishment for the sinner, 1Cor.4.5.
THE NATURE OF THE JUDGMENT
The judges of Bible days were very different from the judges with whom we are acquainted today. Modern day judges interpret and apply the law. They do not rule provinces or govern peoples. In the Bible, however, judges are often governors or rulers. In the Old Testament there is a book entitled “Judges”. The people who are so described are largely known for their military prowess and leadership qualities. Their judicial functions, as we would describe them, are of secondary importance. In general the judges of the Old Testament are kings, elders of tribes or cities and sometimes are priests or prophets. In the New Testament, Pilate was a governor on behalf of Rome and had military and political functions, but he was also a judge. His decision in the trial of the Lord Jesus is a sharp reminder of what can happen when political or military considerations intrude into the function of a judge in the conduct of a trial. There are a number of similar judges in the New Testament e.g. Gallio, Felix and Festus.
It is in this sense that the Lord is the Judge of the Nations and Israel at His return. He is the leader of the armies of heaven, Rev.19.14; He is the new administrator of earth, Ps.96.13; He has religious functions, Zech.6.13: He is omnicompetent. However, in the Judgment of the Living Nations the office that is prominent is His judicial office. He determines a spiritual issue, namely whether the person before Him is a ‘sheep’ or a ‘goat’. He does not hear evidence from witnesses since He already knows the relevant facts. He is free of error, Gen.18.25, and there is accordingly no right of appeal. The issue is not compliance with man-made law, but compliance with Divine law. Human justice is slow because it takes time to assemble a case and present the evidence, but here it is summary. The purpose of gathering the people before His throne is not to enable judgment to take place, but to demonstrate the justice of His judgment. The judgment is exemplary rather than investigative. Unlike the other judgments of Scripture there are two possible verdicts. Some are adjudged to be ‘sheep’ and enter into the kingdom, which is equiparated with eternal life, Matt.25.46. Some are ‘goats’ and are immediately punished. They are sent straight to “everlasting fire”.
We know from Scripture that the souls of those who die go to either heaven or hell, 2Cor.5.8; Lk.16.22,23. Their bodies, by contrast, remain somewhere on planet earth to await resurrection. The bodies of the unsaved dead are raised and judged at the Final Judgment, which occurs at the end of the Millennium and before the creation of the new heavens and new earth, Jn.5.29; Rev.20.13; Dan.12.2. The unsaved dead, their souls and bodies reunited, then go to the lake of fire, Rev.19.20; 20.10,14,15. Some think that those condemned at the Judgment of the Living Nations go directly to the lake of fire and never experience hell.4 This is based on the words “depart from Me ye cursed into everlasting fire” Matt.25.41, and “these shall go away into everlasting punishment” Matt.25.46. There are two issues. Do the words imply that their body and soul go into “everlasting fire”? And, is “everlasting fire” referable to the lake of fire? As to the first issue, the normal course of events is for the body to go to the grave pending resurrection. There is therefore a burden of proof resting on those who contend that those alive at the Lord’s return in glory are in a special category. Next it is necessary to notice that the Lord does not state that the body and soul go simultaneously to the lake of fire. The body is not mentioned at all. He certainly told the “cursed” that they would go into everlasting fire. However, these words do not carry the implication contended for. When the Lord said “today shalt thou be with Me in paradise”, He was not implying that the thief’s body would be taken to paradise. His body like all other bodies of that dispensation awaits the “resurrection of the just”. The cursed went to judgment in the same way that all sinners go to judgment. Is there then any implication that the lake of fire is in view? The phrase “lake of fire” is nowhere mentioned in Matthew chapter 25. If it be argued that “everlasting fire” Matt.25.41, and “everlasting punishment” Matt.25.46, cannot refer to hell since its fire is not everlasting, it should be noted that the expression “everlasting fire” is used to refer to hell in Matthew’s Gospel, 18.8,9. Moreover, Rev.20.14 says that hell is thrown into the lake of fire. This shows conclusively that the “everlasting fire” and “everlasting punishment” of hell continues in the lake of fire.5
- 4 “The lake of fire is the place described by Christ as “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” Matt.25.41. Allen, James, “What the Bible teaches – Revelation”. John Ritchie Ltd, 1997, p. 498.
- 5 Editor’s note: This exposition will not attract universal acceptance, but we print it as our esteemed brother has desired.
The phrase “prepared for the devil and his angels” Matt.25.41, is instructive in that it shows that God did not specifically prepare these awful places for man. Angels are punished for their sin as well as men. In 2Pet.2.4 we are told that God cast the angels that sinned “down to hell (tartarosis) and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment” (i.e. “the judgment of the great day” Jude 6). As to the devil, we know that he is cast into the bottomless pit at the return of the Lord in glory and remains there throughout the Millennium, Rev.20.3. It seems that the lake of fire is the final destination of the beast, the false prophet, the devil, his angels, demons and evil spirits as well as the unrighteous dead. The “righteous” by contrast enter “life everlasting”.
THE BASIS OF THE JUDGMENT
In the Judgment of the Living Nations the Lord is depicted as separating the “sheep from the goats”. It is clear in this passage that the Shepherd is distinguishing between animals that, although somewhat similar, are different species, cf. Ezek.34.17-22. The sheep are put to His right hand and enter into blessing; the goats are put to His left hand and enter judgment. Elsewhere in Scripture sheep and goats have both positive and negative connotations. Nevertheless, here they are used to illustrate the differing fates of those who are believers, and those who are unbelievers. This phrase, “separating the sheep from the goats” has passed into common parlance to describe the task of distinguishing the good from the bad. In describing the judgment in this way the Lord draws attention to the fact that mankind is divided into two different types of people. Thus while people may look alike, salvation makes a change to the nature of the sinner. Those who argue that this passage proves that salvation is according to works would do well to consider the fact that He first judges according to nature.
Some argue that nations are judged at the Judgment of the Living Nations. However, it is impossible to imagine whole nations being confined to hell without regard to the individual faith of their constituent parts, Ezek.18.19,20. No nation is uniformly sinful. Even in idolatrous nations there may be true believers. Moreover, eternal judgment is meted out on an individual, not corporate basis. There are two possible explanations for the wording of the passage. The first explanation is that the nations are judged in the sense that they are brought before the Lord in ethnic groups and then judged according to the faith of each constituent member. Another explanation is that the word ethne does not mean “nation” but “peoples”. If that is so, then the passage teaches that all peoples, rather than nations, are brought before Him. Translators do not favour the latter approach and on balance the former is the better interpretation.
The Lord then states that the judgment is also based on conduct. As is the case throughout Scripture, the works of the believer demonstrate the reality of his salvation. The sheep reveal their nature by treating those He describes as “My brethren” in a considerate way. He regards these brethren as His representatives. To treat them well is to treat Him well. Who then are these brethren? There are two possible answers.6 The first is that He is speaking of His fellow countrymen: the Jews. The second is that He is speaking of His disciples. Since the Jews did not always respond favourably to Christ it seems unlikely that it is His brethren “after the flesh” that are in view. Although the Jews will turn to Christ in large numbers during the tribulation, there will be many who will remain opposed. It is easier to interpret the “brethren” here as the Lord’s spiritual brethren. However, given that these “brethren” are, according to the case, abused or well treated by members of the nations, it must follow that the “brethren” in this context are Jews. Hence these “brethren” are people like the Lord’s disciples during His public ministry. They were Jews and were His ethnic brothers, but more importantly they were His spiritual brethren. This passage anticipates that there will be a group like the Lord’s disciples on earth before His coming who will endure a time of persecution, but find among the nations here and there those who protect and feed them.7
- 6 A third view is that this is a reference to the poor and downtrodden of the world. Th is approach is inconsistent with the use of the phrase “My brethren” in the Gospel (see Matt.5.22–24,47; 7.3–5; 12.48–50; 18.15 (2×), 21,35; 23.8; 28.10). Another view is that the destitute brethren are Christian missionaries or evangelists. While this view is correct in its essence, it ignores the dispensational setting of the chapter.
7 In “What the Bible Teaches – Matthew”, John Ritchie, 1984: the author states that the “brethren” are the Jews who pass through the great tribulation, some of whom die and are resurrected at Christ’s return, Rev.20.4, and that those who remain enter His kingdom. I agree with this. I respectfully disagree, however, with the suggestion that the sheep are unsaved people who have not “received the testimony of Jesus unto salvation” and are “neutral” (p. 349). In my judgment these are Gentiles who respond to the gospel preached by the Jewish “brethren” and show them kindness in return. Th e fact they do not appreciate that ministering to them is ministering to Christ does not mean they are unsaved.
In Joel 3.1-3 another aspect of this judgment is mentioned. There the Lord judges the nations because they have scattered the Jews and forced them into exile. Although Assyria and Babylon no longer exist and those who inflicted the exiles are no more, the peoples who formed these nations continue. The hostility of their captors to the nation of Israel has continued down through the generations. It is evident that Joel has in mind the persistent hostility of the nations to the Jews. This anti-Semitism reaches a climax during the Tribulation. Thus this passage is consistent with Matt.25.31-48 in that the nations are judged because of their hostility to the saved Jewish “brethren”.
It is obvious that these “brethren” are undergoing a time of persecution. Matt.25.35-45 describes them as hungry, unclothed and imprisoned. The treatment to which they are exposed parallels the experience of the disciples both during the Lord’s ministry and after His return to heaven. After the Rapture, and in particular during the second half of the tribulation, the Jews will be persecuted, Rev.12.17. Matthew chapter 25 teaches that before the Lord’s return there will be saved Jews and the Gentiles. The “brethren” are evidently saved Jews. The Gentiles that refuse to participate in their persecution and treat them kindly are evidently saved Gentiles.
Elsewhere in Scripture, judgment involves consulting the book of life. This reveals whether the individual is in the Lamb’s book of life. The degree of punishment is then determined by other books which record the deeds of the persons judged. In Matthew chapter 25 the Lord does not consult the “book of life” Rev.21.27. Nevertheless, the discrimination between sheep and goats parallels the use of the book of life, since the basic issue is whether the individuals are saved. The conduct in which they have been engaged exposes their condition, just as the conduct recorded in the “books” determines the measure of punishment.
THE TIMING AND LOCATION OF THE JUDGMENT
Joel 3.2,3 also prophesies a gathering of the nations to “the valley of Jehoshaphat” for judgment. This gathering coincides with the return of the nation of Israel to the land of Israel. While Israel has been led into captivity in the past and while there have been returns to the land, none of them has involved the Gentile nations being gathered together. Even if Joel was writing after the exile, his prophecy was not fulfilled by the return to the land under Nehemiah or Ezra, nor does the partial return seen today satisfy the return prophesied by Scripture. Today there are thought to be about 13 million Jews living outside Israel with the largest concentrations in Russia and Poland. This passage taken with other passages anticipates a total return to Israel and a coincidental judgment of the nations that have scattered them. This suggests that Joel’s prophecy refers to the same judgment as that prophesied by the Lord in Matthew chapter 25.
Some have thought that the judgment referred to by Joel is judgment in the form of a Divine visitation. They link it with the defeat of the armies of the beast by the Lord with the armies of heaven. While judgment in Scripture adopts many forms, including military defeats of impious nations, the judgment here appears to be of a different variety. The Lord “pleads with them” (A.V.) or “enters into judgment” (J.N.D.) which is the language of the courtroom, not the battlefield. The subjects of the judgment are not confined to the soldiers in the field of battle, but to all living peoples.
The location of the judgment is the valley of Jehoshaphat. It is not clear where this valley is. There is no valley of that name mentioned in the Old Testament, so it may be that this is a name that has yet to be given to the location of the judgment. The choice of the name is significant. The name means ‘Jehovah judges’ or ‘Jehovah the Judge’. Jehoshaphat’s reign was connected to an incident that illustrated the unerring nature of God’s retribution. Ahab sought to escape God’s judgment but was brought down by a stray arrow. His death occurred during his joint military campaign with Jehoshaphat king of Judah. Jehoshaphat’s name may also be appropriate because of the victories he won over Judah’s foes. Valleys in Scripture are often connected with spiritual low points just as mountains are connected with spiritual high points. The location may indicate that God takes no delight in the death of the wicked.
THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE JUDGMENT
The Lord’s words in Matthew’s Gospel and the terms of Joel’s prophecy make it clear that the peoples of the earth are brought before the Lord. They are not dealt with by a series of judgments in their countries of origin. The Judge does not go to them. They come to the Judge. This will require a huge transportation exercise. We do not know what the population of the earth will be after the Tribulation. Even allowing for the tremendous slaughter that occurs in Tribulation times, the world will still have a large population. How they are transported to Israel is not specified. Matt.24.31 indicates that angels transport the elect who have survived the Tribulation to the land of Israel to be present at the coronation of Christ (cf. Matt.13.49,50). If supernatural transport is offered to the elect, perhaps the angels may bring the peoples of the earth before their Maker to face judgment. Whether each case is dealt with individually is not stated. Nevertheless, individual justice is necessary since each is guilty in his or her own way. Though the justice is personal there is no delay, since the facts do not require to be established. Justice is seen to be done.
THE JUDGMENT OF ISRAEL
The other judgment which occurs at the Lord’s manifestation is the judgment of Israel. This is recorded in Ezek.20.35-44. The judgment of the Gentiles occurs in the land of Israel. The judgment of Israel takes place outside its borders in a “wilderness”. Some have thought that this will be the Syro-Arabian desert between the Jordan and the Euphrates valley where the nations who influenced Israel lived.8 This present author prefers to think that it will be in the wilderness of Sinai where they once wandered, on account of its symbolic associations with the nation’s past. There He causes them to “pass under the rod” Ezek.20.37. This figure of speech describes a shepherd separating his own sheep from others. As they pass before him, he lifts his rod to allow his sheep to enter into the pen or brings it down to exclude sheep that are not his. His own sheep are brought “into the bond of the covenant” v.37, referring to the new covenant which will govern the relationship between Israel and Jehovah in the Millennium. Just as Israel entered into the old covenant with Jehovah at Sinai, so Israel will enter the new covenant in the wilderness. Just as a generation of unbelieving Jews died in the wilderness, so the unbelieving Jews at the Lord’s return likewise perish, not because of a plague of serpents or through old age, but because the Lord as judge condemns them. It is clear that not every Israelite enters the Millennium. Ezek.20.38 states, “I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against Me: I will bring them forth out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel …”. The judgment here involves exclusion from Israel. In other words, they are not permitted to enter into the land and enjoy the Millennium. Although it is not specified, it seems likely that these “rebels” will also share the fate of the unsaved Gentiles, Zech.13.8,9.
- 8 Feinberg, Charles Lee “The Prophecy of Ezekiel: The Glory of the Lord”. Wipf and Stock, 2003, p. 114.
These tribunals have no precedent. Although leaders of nations have been tried and although there have been occasional mass trials, nothing compares with these trials. The judge will be Christ and the issues will be spiritual. Humanity as a whole will be sentenced and the justice will be swift but true. Who can say how many people will be judged? No doubt it will be millions. For many the sentence will be death followed by eternal death. For righteous gentiles converted through the preaching of the 144,000 there will be entry into the earthly kingdom. For the remnant of Israel there will be entry into the rejuvenated land of Israel. The title of this chapter is “Christ’s glory as Judge at the Manifestation”. That glory will illuminate His courtroom and shine over the world for a thousand years.