The judgment-scene Christ presents in Matthew 25:31-46 best fits a postmillennial view of eschatology. I mean this in two senses, with especial emphasis upon the second sense that will be explained below.
First, in contrast to premillennial interpretation, this judgment is not one which precedes the millennial kingdom an order Christ will ostensibly establish after His return. It is, therefore, a postmillennial judgment in the sense that the Second Coming is postmillennial; it is postmillennial in the sense that the present (interadvental) age is the millennial period and this judgment occurs at the conclusion of this age (ergo, after the millennium). It is thus postmillennial in the sense in which amillennialists and postmillennialists agree among themselves, and over against premillennialists, in rejecting the idea of a future (postadvental) millennium.
Second, however, and chiefly, I mean that this judgment is postmillennial in contrast to how both amillennialists and premillennialists tend to view world conditions at the time of Christ's return. Far from a situation of widespread unbelief and wickedness (what amils and premils expect), there is reason to conclude from this depiction of judgment that the world has been impacted by the gospel and the nations have been discipled. My thesis is that the judgment portrayed in Matthew 25:31ff. deals exclusively with covenant peoples who are products of Christian families and cultures (and Christian education) and belong to confessionally orthodox Christian churches (are baptized and catechized), who worship Christ, (even, if, in some cases, only with their lips) and formally acknowledge Him as King of kings and Lord of lords (Ruler of the kings of the earth). The world Christ returns to is predominantly a Christian world, a world in which theonomy is the norm of societal practice and profession of Christian Faith is widespread the cultural norm.
In this particular depiction of the Last Judgment, we have no mention of a resurrection of the dead. Far from picturing a raising to life of all who have ever lived throughout all the ages of mankind, no previous generations are brought into view here. Rather, when the nations are gathered for judgment, it seems to be only the living people who are alive at the time of the parousia who are depicted as those assembled before the Son of Man.
This does not mean that this is an altogether different, separate event from the appearing of all Christians before "the Judgment-seat of Christ" or the appearance of all the dead before "the Great White Throne," as dispensationalists insist. We are not to take all the details literally or read too much into the omissions, but we must instead understand the point Jesus intends in this image of judgment.1 He addresses His disciples only, leaving others out of view as irrelevant to His main point in this specific issue-context. His purpose in Matthew 25:31ff. is to elaborate further upon the same point He has already made in the warnings, exhortations, and parables of judgment in the preceding context of this discourse (Mt. 24:42-25:30), and this single purpose controls His emphases and omissions His manner of depiction. The overriding issue here is the faithful stewardship of the disciple-community, the readiness of those who call Him Lord to give an accounting of their service to Him. This is judgment of the covenant people, the historical household of Faith (the baptized, those who profess faith and are called by His name); it examines the worthiness of those within the empirical-historical, externally-covenanted community (the visible church) to enter the kingdom, gauging their suitability for eternal life according to the discharge of covenantal stewardship. It is a judgment exclusively focused upon those living at the time of the Second Coming, who are the coram hominibus numbered among the community of Christ's disciples (having the covenant signs and the Faith of the community) and continuing as members in good standing of the community. It is these heirs-apparent, not mankind in general, who are to be divided into sheep and goats, according to the works they have done or have failed to do in service to their professed Lord.
This is evident from the fact that even the "goats" call Him Lord (v. 44). This judgment-scene thus alludes back to the point Christ made in Matthew 7:21-23. Not everyone who calls Him Lord will enter the Kingdom, only those who do the will of the Father. In other ways these "goats" may have appeared to be disciples, doing much in Christ's name, but they have not exercised a faithful and wise stewardship in bringing forth the works of righteousness that characterize genuine faith. Though they may have made what we would regard as a credible confession of faith, have been faithful in the assembling together of corporate worship, the "faith" they have is nevertheless found wanting, and Christ has never truly known them as His sheep. While they are not truly elect and regenerate, from a covenantal perspective they are not sinners and the ungodly (those outside the visible church); they are not covenantally counted as unbelievers or "of the world." By all appearances by appropriate, covenantal standards of outward identification with the people of God they are Christians: products of the baptizing, discipling, teaching work of the church in fulfillment of the Great Commission. Though genuine fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) is present, these "goats" likely give evidence of some work of the Spirit short of regeneration within the covenant community (cf. Heb. 6:4-5). This judgment-scene deals with the separation of the tares from the wheat within the mixed company of the historical church alive on earth at the end of history.
Before proceeding further, it must here be emphasized that the parable of the wheat and tares (Mt. 13: 24-30) does not speak of the world as a common field that is co-inhabited by both believers and unbelievers throughout this age. The parable is not concerned with the parallel growth of two cities the City of God and the City of Man in the world-at-large. The contrast of wheat to tares does not set church over against world ("world" in its ethical sense as world-in-rebellion or as the Adamic order). The tares are not the citizens of the historical City of Man, those outside the covenant and making no profession of faith. That the field is the world (v. 38) speaks simply of the dissemination of the disciple-community throughout the world, to the uttermost parts of the earth (extensive inclusiveness). The covenant people are not confined to Israel; it is a worldwide, international community. Thus, reference to the world does not take us outside the covenantal boundaries, beyond the church, to comprehend within its scope both societies in their historical expression as distinct communities. The parable is concerned only with the earthly-historical City of God, the visible church; it sees this covenantal community itself as a mixed company of both wheat and tares genuine believers and counterfeits. Tares are within the church, not outside. Satan has planted false believers counterfeit disciples in the midst of God's covenantal plantation, and the mixture of true and false will characterize the church throughout this age, until Christ separates the real wheat from that which is spurious at the harvest-time. In view in Matthew 25:31ff. is the sifting of the disciple-community that is living at the time of Christ's return.
Yet, it is all nations that are gathered to this intra-covenantal judgment. The gospel has been preached throughout the world before the end (Mt. 24:14). The Great Commission has been fulfilled, and the nations have been discipled, baptized, and instructed in the Lord's commandments (Mt. 28:19-20). The obedience of faith among all nations has been secured by the proclamation of the gospel. These are Christianized nations, comprised of those who have formally professed faith in Christ and have received the covenant signs and catechesis. This is the postmillennial aspect of this depiction of judgment. Christ is not separating pagan, heathen unbelievers from Christians; He is rather discriminating among His servants, dividing the faithful from the unfaithful. The unregenerate He deals with here are not outward atheists and secular humanists, or idolaters, or Hindus and Muslims, etc.; they are outwardly (i.e., at least nominally) Christian, the product of an extensive and intensive evangelical penetration of all societies and cultures that has stamped the nations with the Faith and has produced widespread (near-universal) external conformity to it. By this time, the knowledge of the Lord has covered the earth as the waters cover the sea and the leaven of the gospel has thoroughly infiltrated every culture.
We do not know the proportion of nominal disciples (goats) to the faithful (sheep), and we have no warrant from Matthew 25:31ff. for assuming that the former are in the majority. However, we can conclude from this passage that the nations are predominantly Christian in character at the time of Christ's return, that judgment of the nations far from being a judgment of predominantly ungodly peoples of manifest unbelief and rebellion is to be a judgment that separates wheat from tares, a judgment that discriminates among peoples who are within the covenantal boundaries and are called by the name of the Lord. It is what a judgment by Christ of the members of your local church might be, only on a grander scale.
What then of the prediction of end-time (postmillennial) rebellion we find in Revelation 20:7-10? Where does this fit? Indeed, Matthew 24:36-41 expands the depiction of Second-Advental judgment-execution to include the destruction of the wicked (those who are overt unbelievers apostates who have thrown off the covenant yoke).2 Obviously, not everyone living at the end of history is within the scope of the covenant as a disciple in outward appearance and form of life. There are rebels; there is a historical form of expression of the City of Man on earth at this time, a community marked by explicit unbelief and blasphemy. These rebels (and there seems to be a sizeable number of them) make an aborted attempt to overthrow the camp of the saints and reassert the historical dominance of the City of Man after long being suppressed by the cultural ascendancy of the City of God. Does this fact weigh against what has been said regarding Matthew 25:31ff.? Can we still speak of this passage as depicting postmillennial judgment of a Christian world? What explains the presence of rebels if the world has been Christianized prior to the end?
As postmillennialists, we believe that the gospel will be carried to the uttermost parts of the earth and bear miraculous fruit. The righteousness of God is revealed by means of the gospel, and we are instruments of that righteousness. The preaching by Christ's witnesses will be effective, and the kingdom will have a marked impact upon world-history, affecting nations and societies and cultures. The times of messianic woes birth pangs of great tribulation and tumult will pass, and the fruit of righteousness and peace will have social consequences as widespread cultural blessings of peace and prosperity. The world will not continue in a state of perpetual crisis, constantly disrupted by a series of disasters and catastrophes; it will not be continually disturbed by Sodom-like overt wickedness or the lawlessness of tyrants and their reigns of terror and warmongerings. Conditions improve and stabilize as the effects of the gospel transform societies. The prevalence of Christian values serves as a check upon destabilizing and disintegrative forces in society and promotes true justice. Righteousness exalts nations and bears peaceable fruit. People can begin to lay aside their fears and worries, feel secure, and pursue their day-to-day lives in peace, enjoying a settled normalcy.
It is for this reason that we are warned by Christ in Matthew 24:42-25:30 against allowing the relative peace and safety of such a settled and undisturbed life to lull us to sleep. We must not grow negligent or slothful in praying "Thy Kingdom come" and "Come, Lord Jesus" in keeping our priorities straight concerning what is our blessed hope. The snare of peace and prosperity fruits of the gospel's impact upon a culture is that it can breed forgetfulness and complacency (cf. Dt. 8:6-20). Accordingly, many who are not themselves personally believers in Christ, but who nevertheless enjoy by covenantal common grace (as a living off of borrowed cultural capital) the socio-economic benefits of Christian civilization, will be wholly unprepared for that day of reckoning and will be called into account for not wisely investing the talents entrusted to them as common-grace beneficiaries of a gospel-permeated, Christianized society. Divine beneficence and longsuffering that ought to have led to repentance, in the wake of hardhearted ingratitude and refusal to give glory to God, at last evokes the wrath of God and becomes the basis of a greater condemnation commensurate with the greater responsibility attending the magnitude of the covenantal blessings bestowed.
At the very end, Satan is loosed once more to deceive the nations3 and gather them to rebellion. However, he gathers them in a figurativesense, not geographically (into one location) or as a literal army mustered for physical battle. He unites the City of Man in spirit in a renewed spiritual struggle against the City of God. The City of Man emerges from the underground once more to assert openly its self-consciously anti-theistic agenda and challenge the City of God.
Revelation 20 gives no hint of a renewed persecution, of a new time of tribulation. The City of Man is gathered only to be suddenly and swiftly destroyed. It follows Satan only to plunge headlong to its own destruction; God has permitted it to be gathered under Satan to this end. Judgment consumes the rebels before they can wreak havoc upon the established order, before they can disrupt the peace or do any harm. Their offensive proves utterly futile because it is to be preempted by the parousia.
The status quo of peace and safety continues without war or violence or any notable disruption of the routines of ordinary life (Mt. 24: 37-39). The populace remains unaware of impending doom because there are no rumors of impending war,4 no disturbances of the peace by preparations for the sort of global conflict many "prophecy experts" associate with Armageddon. There are no signs that mass destruction may be imminent through a heightening of tensions that could plunge the nations into all-out warfare. No one is particularly worried; all is calm, and normalcy continues. This precludes any notion of a penultimate triumph of wickedness, a great tribulation, or an Armageddon. Indeed, the rallying cry of the City of Man is that of "peace and safety" before sudden destruction befalls (1 Thes. 5:2-3), for Satan has deceived the nations to turn in their heart from the Lord and deny in self-deception ("the lie" 2 Thes. 2:10-11) the true basis of the peace and prosperity that has been long enjoyed.
In this self-deception, the ungodly reassert the humanistic Babel-dream of the City of Man and thus repudiate the gospel-foundation of the latter-day culture. The City of God is thus philosophically opposed in a war of ideas, and the City of Man unsuccessfully seeks to claim the fruits of culture for itself (c.f. Dt. 8:7-20) when, without warning, the crack of doom suddenly sounds to bring this revolt to naught before it can truly get underway. The wrath of man is exposed but not allowed to express itself in violence to the City of God, and the ungodly are consumed as chaff as Christ quickly returns to glorify His saints.
We do not know the relative size of the City of Man vis a vis the City of God. We cannot say which constitutes the majority at the time of the end. The proportionate strength of the City of Man is such that it constitutes a genuine threat to dominion of the City of God apart from divine intervention, and it is a growing movement, but this does not necessarily mean that it has greater numbers, that there are more rebels than disciples at the end. We simply cannot assign relative sizes to the two camps with anything like dogmatic certainty, but it is altogether unwarranted to think that the City of God has been reduced to but a remnant or "little flock" a marginalized minority that is overwhelmed by the size of the opposition camp. If Satan's time is indeed brief, and the rebellion is squelched quickly before any great reversal (the actual overthrow of the cultural dominance of the City of God) can occur, it is hardly likely that the rebels outnumber the disciples, that the former are anything more than a dedicated minority only beginning to gain strength and flex muscle before Christ comes in judgment.
If we view the end-time Satanic rebellion in this manner, we can sustain the interpretation of Matthew 25:31ff. that I have proposed. In Matthew's sense of the nations as the Gentile world, the nations are largely Christian at the end of time, calling Jesus Lord. The Great Commission has met with tremendous success. The fact that there are more counter- feits within the covenant community (tares, goats) and some more virulent unbelievers outside the covenant (nations in Revelation's sense) in no way mitigates against this interpretation.
- Jesus often speaks in graphic, picturesque figures that are not intended to be detailed, literal descriptions of states of affairs. He often, for illustrative purposes, borrows from the cultural stock of common and familiar apocalyptic imagery in order to paint His canvas or provide a set of props for the drama He presents with a storyteller's flair. The manner of depiction sometimes contains exaggerations or employs details that are designed to establish suitable setting or that serve only as embellishments of emphasis to drive home His point. To interpret Him correctly, we need to be mainly concerned with the overall impression created by the whole scenario, a total picture that is controlled by the single point of exhortation or warning that He intends to illustrate and press upon His audience in an evocative and provocative manner, not with a careful analysis of every single detail that treats these as literally intended bits of inside information or specific descriptions of what the future will be like. If we fail to do this we will inevitably find a passage like Matthew 25: 31ff. to be irreconcilable with a passage like 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 or Revelation 20:11-15 and join the dispensationalists in positing multiple judgments. In Matthew 25:31ff., Jesus is not intending to present the whole of the general judgment, the order of its proceedings, the location of the action, nor even necessarily a description of what will actually happen in one particular part of it (how a portion of it will literally proceed). Such concerns miss the point, driving us to artificial attempts of harmonizing.
- This action of judgment-execution, occurring at the parousia, speaks of a consuming of the ungodly enemies that occurs prior to the scene of Matthew 25:31ff. The historical City of Man is totally removed from the scene before Christ sifts the wheat and the tares (sheep and goats). Those taken are those who fall under destructive judgment-action, who are taken away by the flood of outpoured wrath (Mt. 24:37-39). The "taking" is not a depiction of a rapture that delivers saints while leaving behind sinners for judgment. The manifestly ungodly sinners are out of the picture; those left behind are those who remain unscathed to stand in the intra-covenantal judgment of Matthew 25:31ff.
- We must note that Matthew and Revelation each mean something different by "the nations." In Matthew, the nations are to be understood in terms of that gospel universalism that does not restrict the scope of the New Covenant to Israel only. Israel is regarded as unbelieving and superseded by the church, and the church is commissioned to go out and disciple the nations, bringing many Gentiles from east and west to sit at table in the Kingdom. Thus, when Matthew 25:31 speaks of gathering the nations, they are gathered as that which was the mission-field of the gospel so that the fruit of evangelization can be harvested from among nations that have been discipled according to the Great Commission. In contrast, Revelation portrays the antithesis between church and world (unbelieving world) under the image of the OT covenantal distinction between Israel and the nations. "Nations" stands for the ungodly, the sinners - those outside. Satan's gathering of the nations against the camp of the saints (Zion) is his gathering of unbelievers.
- Matthew 24:4-35 deals with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, not with events surrounding the Second Advent at the end of history.