NATIONS have a destiny as well as individuals. Israel is an eonian nation (2 Sam.7:24). Other nations will endure eonian chastening, or receive eonian life, according to their treatment of our Lord's brethren (Matt.25:46). We miss much if we confound nations with individuals, and confuse the time of their judgment and reward with that of the persons who compose them. The fact that Israel as a nation is to live and rule until the consummation does not by any means imply that every individual in it possesses eonian life, and will share in the kingdom when it comes. Far from it. Only those who did in faith will receive their allotment in the kingdom at the resurrection of the just. The nation to which we belong may have a place in that kingdom, but the saints of this day will enjoy a far higher destiny.
In the Hebrew Scriptures the fortunes of many nations are discussed, as they came into contact with Israel, and were used by Jehovah to discipline or to support His people. Their treatment of Israel had a marked influence on their welfare even in the past, when the chosen nation was often weak and insignificant. It should not be difficult to see that the same principle will operate in the era of its supremacy. Even now, when a nation establishes itself after a severe conflict, its attitude toward other nations is determined largely by their conduct during its period of trial. When Israel takes its place as the ruling nation of the earth, the other nations will each be accorded a place corresponding to their attitude toward its scattered units during their long period of affliction.
All nations come into contact with the Jews, but by no means all individuals. The sons of Israel are scattered in practically every nation on earth already, and certainly will be in that day, because they will come out of every realm when the kingdom is set up. All governments will be called upon to deal with them, as to their political status and their economic position.
There are many other parables in the Scriptures which deal with the individuals, such as the harvest, the darnel, the fishing, etc. But these are not specifically referred to nations. Individuals in Israel will also be judged at the commencement of the kingdom. It requires faith to accept the word nations here. Much more faith is required than from those for whom Matthew is especially written. Jews are very keen when the word goim occurs, for they would like to apply all the judgments to others, and all the blessings to themselves, just as we are in the habit of doing. Let us not confuse this parable with all the rest. The key hangs at the door. If we do not use it the parable will not yield its treasures.
The mere fact that this parable occurs in Matthew should settle the matter, for this account is devoted especially to the King, and contains the kingdom charter. Here Christ quotes Isaiah (42:1-3) to the effect that judging shall He be reporting to the nations (Matt.12:18). Isaiah goes right on to say that He shall continue until He shall place judgment in the earth, and for His law the nations shall wait. In this Matthew differs from the other accounts, for in them our Lord appears in different characters. The Servant of Mark, the Man of Luke, and the divine Son of John dealt with individuals, as a rule. Such discrepancies as the grounds for divorce (unfaithfulness in Matthew and none in the others) can only be explained that He is dealing with the unfaithful nation (which Jehovah divorced) in Matthew, and with His own disciples, as individuals, elsewhere. We should never adulterate any of the accounts of our Lord's life with statements or thoughts taken from another, nor supplement one from a different one, for their very omissions are more vital than our additions. They do not present the same character, even though they deal with the same Person.
Matthew is the kingdom account. It is intensely national. In it Christ forbade His apostles even to go on a road of the nations (10:5). The testimony is not merely to men, but to governors and kings and the nations (10:18). At the time of the end nation shall rise against nation (24:7), and they will be hated by all of the nations. The evangel of the kingdom shall be heralded in the whole inhabited earth for a testimony to all the nations (24:14). Therefore there is also a judgment at the inauguration of the kingdom, not of individuals, but of nations, as such, under the figure of sheep and kids. It is further illustrated by personifying the nations, comparing them to individuals. This has generally been taken literally, and so has led to much confusion, and to the idea that this is the "general judgment," in which those who do well receive eternal life, and others everlasting punishment (Matt.25:31-46).
It is strange that the utter incongruity of making this passage mean persons has not long since been recognized. This is undoubtedly due to the general ignorance as to figures of speech. We should have been warned by the opening words; which are as clear as they are concise. All nations (as such) are before us. But our minds fail to apprehend its full significance. We are not accustomed to taking God's Word precisely as it stands. Perhaps here it is somewhat difficult to distinguish between those of the nations, and the nations themselves. Still the fact that the passage is found at the end of Matthew, the national account, should have prepared us for a judgment in line with its message, in which the nations, as such, receive their deserts for the eons, when the kingdom is established.
The account as a whole is a parable, in which a shepherd's dealings with his sheep and kids are compared with the King's dealings with the nations. Each sheep or kid represents one nation, the former those favorable to Israel and the latter those who did not treat them well. Within the parable are several other figures. First the severing is as that of a shepherd, a plain simile. Then, by the figure of personification, or impersonation, the animals, or the nations, are transformed into human beings. Each one of the sheep at His right hand is given a kingdom made ready for them from the disruption. If each gentile who treats the Jews well gets a kingdom all for himself, he is better off in the kingdom than the Jew! Besides, then there is no figure, no parable. Why bring in the sheep and the kids at all? If each individual of that day will deal with the Lord's brethren as here recorded, and will be literally rewarded with a kingdom the whole picture is unnecessary and obscures the point. All this is only a graphic illustration of our Lord's dealings with the nations, not the individuals.
The nations in the kingdom, during the millennium and in the new earth, will be allotted a place corresponding to their previous political treatment of Israel. Some will receive special blessings because they were kind to them. Others will be most severely disciplined because they had made no efforts to alleviate their lot. "These shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian." Such is the only possible import of these much-abused words, when they are kept connected with their context, and viewed within the scope of the account which contains them. Matthew continues and completes the kingdom testimony of the prophets, and is in perfect agreement with it. As Son of Mankind our Lord will adjudicate among the nations. All the debts of Israel must be paid. All wrong must be recompensed. It will not be revenge, such as the unregenerate Jew would like to have, but righteousness, leading to the subjection of all to God at the consummation.
What is indicated by the eonian fire for the nations who do not succor the Lord's brethren in their distress may be apprehended best by considering the sufferings of the chosen nation themselves at the present time, before our very eyes, for this also is characterized as torment in a flame. It is Israel nationally and politically that is dead, not the individuals of the nation, and this is brought before us in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. As a nation Israel is tormented by the nations. Altogether apart from their personal worth or unworthiness, good and bad, high and low, rich and poor, the nation, as such, has been generally subject to discriminatory legislation by the governments of the earth, especially in the middle ages.
Antisemitism is called a "flame" in the Scriptures. Is it not most appropriate to characterize its judgment as "fire?" In this flame the chosen nation suffers as it once did in Egypt. But it is not burned up. Notwithstanding its painful lot, its numbers have increased. And such is quite possible in the kingdom, for at its end Satan mobilizes a tremendous host that threatens to destroy the capital. This revolt could easily be accounted for if these nations, at a distance from Jerusalem, had been reduced to political slavery, and forced to submit by the iron rule. Otherwise why should they object to the fullness of physical blessing with which the earth will be filled at that time? Satan wishes to rule. His aim is political. He deceives the nations. It is a national uprising.
The unbeliever is usually allowed to monopolize the fire of the future. For them we reserve the flaming judgments of Jehovah's day, the unextinguished fires of Hinnom's vale, and the fiery lake which is the second death. But the believer also has his testing time, not indeed to determine his fate but his reward. No one, perhaps, thinks of literal fire in this connection, for our works are not, as a rule, such as can be tested by actual flames. Yet the figure of fire is there, and we may as well prepare ourselves for a most searching investigation of the character of our deeds. Much of our service, we fear, will feed the flames and disappear.
The failure to see the corporate character of the fate of the rich man may easily lead to an entirely false conception of God's dealings with the individual. According to that the principle of compensation, which does obtain in national affairs, is applied to each one, and he who gets good in this life is fated to fare ill in hades, and he who has evil in this life is sure of blessings in the beyond. The good sense of expositors has kept them from pressing this part of the parable, for it would soon show how untenable the personal application is. Applied to Israel nationally, with Lazarus as the faithful remnant, who take comfort in the bosom of faith, all is in place and appropriate.
An equally impossible pass is reached if we take the judgment of the nations as that of individuals. How many who have quoted the last verse of the chapter in preaching the gospel have made it clear to themselves or to their audience that "these" who "go away into everlasting punishment" (AV), do so, not because they are sinners, but because they did not succor Christ's brethren according to the flesh? And how many set forth the only road to eonian life as the context demands? There is no repentance here, no faith in God, not even good works, except those done to suffering Israel. We may be sure that Paul would not tolerate such an evangel for this administration for a moment. Now it is not of works, but by grace through faith in God's word concerning Christ and His sacrifice. Physical relationship, which is paramount here, is entirely ruled out (2 Cor.5:16).
It is very little relief to shift this strange evangel (which is no evangel at all) to the time of the end, immediately before the Son of Man comes. No doubt this will be the crucial period and will usually correspond to what has gone before, but there is no limitation in the passage. It would be most unjust to punish a nation for their attitude in this short period alone if their previous history had been favorable. Indeed, at that time, all nations will hate those of them who are disciples of Christ (Matt.24:9). The time is not limited, and justice demands that the whole history of a nation be taken into account, just as in individual judgment, all the acts of each come under review, not only those in the hours of death.
What sort of an evangel have we here, that promises eonian life to the individuals who succor the Lord's brethren, and eonian chastening to those who do not! It is an evangel of works, pure and simple, done accidentally, as it were, by those who realize nothing of the gravity or significance of their acts. Now we know that Israel is scattered among all nations, so all governments will make contact with them. But will all individuals even find an opportunity to show their benevolence? Perhaps one in a thousand of earth's inhabitants belongs to this favored race. They live in large groups. How little opportunity there would be for most people to avail themselves of the means of obtaining eonian life, even if it seems so simple to perform the necessary duties!
But that which should make us hesitate is the fact that these works are done without faith in God, and in utter ignorance of His Christ, and without the aid of His sacrifice, without the least reference to His precious blood. Life apart from the death of Christ, and for the eons, sounds suspicious to everyone who knows the value of His work. We read that, apart from faith, it is impossible to be well pleasing to God (Heb.11:6). Even these brethren of His, who are succored, have no title to eonian life unless they believe. Yet, according to this evangel, one who feeds a Jew, whether he is a believer or not, thereby earns eonian life! Were it applied today (and why not?), and were properly advertised, what a good time these persecuted people would have!
None of Israel will get into the kingdom on any such terms. Peter makes this very clear. Jesus Christ is the only one Who can save them. "There is no salvation in any other, for neither has any other name been given under heaven among men in which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Many a gentile today has fulfilled the conditions here laid down, but I am sure that he will not receive eonian life as his wages, for now God's righteousness comes to him who is not working but believing (Rom.4:4). This evangel of succoring Israel cannot operate today, yet we have no right to shut it out. Nationally, it no doubt has its place, but individually it is impossible.
Essentially, this evangel is the converse of the true. In it those who are awarded eonian life are not sinners needing a Saviour, but philanthropists benefitting Christ Himself! All we need to do is to widen the scope of Christ's "brethren" to all mankind and it would make a bloodless and beautiful evangel, well adapted to the pride and unbelief of the modern man.
One of the greatest advances in truth in modern times was the placing of this passage in its proper time, at the beginning of the reign of Christ, and limiting its scope to the living, thus rescuing it from the "general judgment," with which it is so often confounded. Now we propose another advance, limiting it still further to the nations (as such) at that time, according to its own declaration. We have already insisted on this at various times, but further study has clarified the details and led to the entire rejection of the thought that it might be applicable to individuals at the time of the end, who succor Israel in their time of trouble. It cannot have a personal application.
This leads to the interesting conclusion that nations may have eonian life, or may be subjected to eonian chastening. That there will be nations in the thousand years and in the new earth is abundantly clear from the various references to them in the Unveiling. It is the essence of Christ's reign that He shall have authority over the nations and that He shall share this with the overcomers in Israel (Rev.2:26; 12:5). Even in the last eon, when priesthood is no more, the glory and honor of the nations will be carried into the holy city, new Jerusalem (Rev.21:26). As they will not war among themselves and will be under the iron club of the great King, there is no reason why the nations which exist when the kingdom is set up should not continue throughout its course, and thus have eonian life or chastening until the consummation.
The iron club is a feature of the millennium which we are prone to forget. The entrancing visions of peace and plenty, especially for the redeemed in Israel, captivate our minds and keep us from considering other aspects of that day. The revolt at its close comes as a shock to most of us the first time we seriously consider it, because we imagine that the conditions in Israel are common to all the peoples of the earth. In the sphere of government there is a great contrast, for all other nations become dependent vassals of the chosen people. They will be forced to obey the mandates of Jerusalem. Even Egypt, which, with Assyria and Israel, will be a blessing in the earth (Isa.19:25), if she should not send up her quota to worship in Jerusalem will be stricken in a special way besides getting no rain. And downpour will be withheld if any other of those who are left of the nations should fail to send their representatives (Zech.14:17).
There will be no self-determination then, no independence, no empire with self-governing members. The kingdom is God's means of subjecting all to Himself, not of making His creatures independent of His power. It will be an unlimited despotism with Israel as the ruling nation. Not only Christ will exercise absolute power at its head, but He will delegate Israelites to rule over the other nations. They will shepherd them with an iron club, as vessels of pottery are being crushed (Rev.2:27). Is not this quite the equivalent of eonian chastening and fire? A government that has the forces of nature at its command does not need to use such crude weapons as our most modern implements of warfare. It will be much more effective to command the clouds to keep away. And at the last grand revolt no army is needed to oppose the horde led on by Satan. Fire simply descends and devours them.
Satan has succeeded in deceiving the nations hitherto (Rev.20:3). This does not signify that he has deceived every individual. It refers to the political divisions of the earth. He has mislead the governments because he aspires to rule. As, in the kingdom, Christ is determined to rule, Satan is bound in the abyss. When he is loosed he does not seek to deceive the nations near Jerusalem. Evidently they have come to a knowledge of Jehovah such as makes deception impracticable. So he goes to the four corners, those furthest from the center, where he finds a ready response. Is it not likely that these are the ones who have been crushed by the iron club, whose chastening is most severe, who have felt the fire of Jehovah's indignation on account of their treatment of Israel during the era of the nations? Would such not tend to drift away from the center of government and be found as far as possible from the city of the great King?
At the same time would not the revolt at the end of the thousand years serve to solve another problem in connection with individual judgment, which follows immediately thereafter? In that eon salvation will be a very different matter from the present. All Israel will be saved (Rom.11:26). If there should be a small remnant within it, they will be the unsaved, not the saved, as in the past. These will die. Nationally it will be the first really "Christian" nation. And the evangel of that day will be based on the authority of Christ over all the earth, and nations, as such, will be discipled and baptized (Matt.28:18-20). As the earth will be full of the knowledge of Jehovah (Isa.11:9), it may be that all the unsaved join the last revolt and die in the fire that descends from heaven and so find themselves among the dead who stand before the great white throne. In this way none but the saved enter the new creation, and all others are judged in the last great judgment, which deals with the acts of each individual.
The judgment of the nations as set forth by our Lord in Matthew has long been recognized as such, especially in contrast to the judgment of the individual at the great white throne. But there have been details which were not satisfactory. Gradually the light has been increasing. The final flash which illuminated the whole to full satisfaction came through the study of figures of speech. The literal interpretation grew more and more untenable. Once it became apparent that the nations are intended, not only by the sheep and the kids, but also by those who take part in the judgment, and not individuals, all of the difficulties vanished except that of making it clear to others.
Those who have grown up with the thought that this passage is the general judgment and gives us the destiny of the two classes into which all mankind is divided--the wicked and the just--have evidently never taken the context to heart, for only a small fraction of them have ever visited anyone in jail, or base their hopes upon the giving of food, drink or clothing. Most of my readers will know how utterly contrary this is to the true evangel of God's grace. We therefore urge them with all kindness to consider the context. See how impossible it is to base eonian life on the action here spoken of. It is in conflict with the kingdom evangel, which demands repentance. It militates against the evangel for today, which excludes works. It is diametrical opposed to God's dealings with His creatures to give eonian life to anyone apart from Christ and His sacrifice.
Those who have already recognized that this judgment is not concerned with sinners as a whole, or with the general conduct of mankind, but is based only on contacts with the Lord's brethren, will find that this gives only partial relief. Even if this is confined to the time of the end, for which there is no adequate evidence, there still remains the impossibility of setting the eonian destiny of anyone on such grounds.
There was a time when I limited the action here to the time of the end. Destiny in the kingdom for each nation, it seemed to me, depended upon their attitude to Israel at that time. But this has its difficulties. The judgment is at that time, indeed, but the action is not thus limited. It seems better to include the whole "times of the gentiles" or eras of the nations, for at the time of the end the nations are angered, without exception (Rev. 11:18) and all of them are in the toils of Babylon (Rev.14:8), and all nations will hate the disciples of Christ (Matt.24:9). There would be few sheep to stand at His right hand in that case. It seems far more just to deal with the nations according to all of their contacts with Israel, for this has varied greatly from time to time.
Now, however, that I see in this judgment the complete squaring of accounts between the nations and Israel, introductory to the setting up of the kingdom, all seems supremely satisfactory. This is just what we should expect at the end of Matthew's account. It agrees with all the facts, for the Lord's brethren have been scattered among all nations and had been politically in distress most of the time, even when they managed to gain a good livelihood or amass wealth. And when the Son of Mankind sits on the throne of His glory, with nations before Him, what else can it be but the long delayed adjudication between Israel and the nations? Each must be assigned its place according to some standard, and the one given here is in full accord with the righteousness on which the kingdom is founded.