Harmonizing Jesus' Parable of the Sheep and Goats with Revelation
In a recent Sunday School, a friend brought up to me what he had been learning from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. It’s a prophetic parable that tells about Christ’s second coming. We had a stimulating conversation which caused me to wonder how this parable connects to what Revelation 19-20 says about the same period.
The parable of the sheep and the goats says that when Jesus returns to earth, He will separate the people of the nations and judge whether individuals are sheep (belonging to Him) or goats (not belonging to Him) (25:32-33). Those who are His sheep will have shown that by caring for other believers as they went through hard times (25:34-40). Those who are goats will have shown their lack of faith in Christ by disregarding the needs of suffering believers (25:41-44).
Jesus says that the sheep will enter His kingdom (25:34) and have eternal life (25:46) while the goats will go away into eternal fire (25:41) and experience eternal punishment (25:46).
While I was familiar with the parable, the conversation we had helped me to realize I needed to harmonize my understanding of this verse along with my expectation of what Jesus will do in Revelation 20, which describes His return, His millennial kingdom, and the final judgment.
A Harmony of Matthew 25:31-46 and Revelation 19-20
How does Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats fit with the details of Christ’s return in Revelation?
First, Revelation teaches that there will be a period of intense suffering due to earthly disasters right before Jesus’ second coming (Revelation 6, 8-9,15-16). It also describes intense persecution of believers at this time due to the power and influence of the antichrist (Revelation 7,13-14). This period comes to an end in Revelation 19:11-16, when Jesus defeats the nations which have attacked His people.
Now, let’s recall the criteria by which Jesus identifies His sheep in Matthew 25: whether they cared for believers when they were “hungry”, “thirsty”, “strangers”, “naked”, “sick”, and “in prison”. When would Christians all go through this kind of experience? Immediately prior to Christ’s return, in the times of persecution described in Revelation 7, 13-14. Jesus could rightly judge all people alive on earth by this criteria because Christians will have suffered intense, global persecution.
Jesus’ parable also says that when He returns, He will gather “the nations” (25:32) to separate them. Jesus will gather those who are alive everywhere on earth; that is, they made it through the tribulation period. From this group of living people, Jesus will send unbelievers into hell and allow believers to enter His kingdom. Jesus did not say He would judge the dead as well at His second coming. Revelation 20:11-15 confirms that all dead unbelievers are judged at the end of the millennium.
Second, Revelation teaches that Jesus will give resurrected believers “authority to judge” during His kingdom (20:4-6). Who will need to be judged? Didn’t Jesus already judge everyone who was alive and only let in those who were genuine believers enter the kingdom?
The answer is that the Bible clearly teaches that there will be sin in the millennial kingdom and that Jesus will use His glorified saints to establish His perfect justice on earth.
To understand this, recognize that we just saw that Jesus will welcome the believers from the “nations” into His kingdom (25:32). They aren’t the same people as the resurrected believers who receive glorified bodies in Revelation 20:4. These are people like you and me. They are believers who don’t yet have a glorified body or soul, have normal life-spans, and can give birth to more sinful people.
Zechariah 8:4-5 agrees with this. It states that in the Messianic kingdom, Jerusalem will be inhabited safely with people living, having babies, and growing old. Zechariah 13 also explains that from those who are born during this period, there come to be false prophets who will be investigated, tried, and sentenced according to the laws Christ makes (Zechariah 13:1-6).
Strange as it may seem, many parts of the Bible teach that one day, mortals will live alongside immortal Christians whom Christ will authorize to judge the earth (Daniel 7:22; Matt 19:28; Luke 19:17, 19; 1 Cor 6:2-3; Rev 2:26-27).
Third, Revelation 20 teaches that Satan will be released and deceive the nations at the end of Christ’s millennial kingdom (20:7-10). It would be impossible for Satan to deceive the nations if it were only made up of glorified believers. The reason Satan will be able to deceive people is that there will be many generations of mortal people being born, having babies, and dying throughout the millennial kingdom. And like all mortal people, they are born sinners (Psalm 51:5). Those who are deceived by Satan will be the unbelievers who have been born at this time.
While many mortal people will be alive during the millennium, those whom Christ appoints to judge the earth will be those who “came to life and reigned with Christ” (20:4). Those people are the ones of whom it is said, “the second death has no power over them” (20:6).
So the Bible teaches there are two groups of believers who enter the millennial kingdom: those who live through the tribulation and those who die before Christ’s return. Those who live through the tribulation enter it with their normal bodies. Those who die prior to Christ’s return return to reign with Christ in their glorified bodies.
Fourth, and finally, after Satan deceives the nations one last time, God will destroy his final attack and Jesus will judge all the dead at His great white throne of judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). Revelation describes this as a terrifying judgment (20:11) where those who appear before God’s great white throne are “judged according to their works” (20:12-13), and they are “thrown into the lake of fire” (20:15). None are said to enter into eternal glory.
This final judgment of God is clearly distinct from Jesus’ judgment of the sheep and the goats in significant ways: (1) those who are judged are the dead, not those living among the nations, (2) they are all the unbelieving dead, not believers and unbelievers, (3) they are judged according to the works they had done which were recorded in the books, not merely according to how they treated suffering believers, and most importantly (4) they are punished in the lake of fire, none of them enter Christ’s kingdom.
I think the simplest truth to take away from this study is that there is a real emphasis on God’s judgment as we look to the future.
First, Jesus will directly judge all living people throughout the world when He returns. Second, He will judge the nations through glorified believers during His 1,000 year kingdom. Last, He will issue a final judgment on all unbelievers at the end of that period.
One application of this, made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3, is that believers today should be prepared to use Scripture wisely to make judgments in the church. He argues that since we will judge the nations (and angels) in the future, we should be competent to judge each other in the church.
Harmonizing different parts of Scripture is one of the most challenging and satisfying parts of Bible study. I hope I’ve given you a way to see how Matthew 25 and Revelation 19-20 fit together. But I promise you, there is much more work to be done in order to make sense of all the prophecies the Bible makes for the future.