“all the nations will be gathered before him.” Matthew 25:31-46 describes the Sheep and Goat Judgment. In the End Times, there is horrible tribulation on earth, often described by Christians as “the Great Tribulation.” The Great Tribulation ends with the Battle of Armageddon when Jesus comes down from heaven with his army and conquers the earth (cp. Rev. 19:11-21). The great majority of people on earth will have been killed in the Tribulation and in the Battle of Armageddon (see commentary on Dan. 12:1 and Isa. 13:9), but there will be survivors. Given the huge number of people alive on earth today, even if the vast majority of them are killed in the Tribulation and Armageddon there could still be millions left alive, which explains why Joel 3:14 says, “Multitudes, multitudes in the Valley of Decision.”
After the Battle of Armageddon, Jesus will send out his angels and gather the survivors and will judge them, and that judgment is often referred to as “The Sheep and Goat Judgment.” Jesus will let the “sheep,” the good people, into his Millennial Kingdom, while the “goats,” the evil people, will be thrown into the flames of the Lake of Fire.
Separating the righteous people from the unrighteous people is also described in different ways in other places in the Gospels. For example, in the Parable of the Good and Bad Seed (Matt. 13:24-30; 36-43), Jesus taught that both good and evil people live together on earth until the end of the age, at which point the angels gather up the bad people, called “darnel” in the parable, and throw them into the fire. Also, in Matthew 13:47-50, Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was like a net that gathered every kind of fish, and that is what will happen when Jesus comes and conquers the earth, every sort of person will be there. But then in his parable, Jesus explains that the fish will be sorted into “good” and “bad” and the “good” will be kept while the “bad” will be thrown into the fire. Jesus’ teachings build on each other and teach the same basic thing: good people and evil people live together here on earth until Christ comes and conquers the earth, and then everyone alive at that time will be gathered to “the Sheep and Goat Judgment,” and the good people will be let into Christ’s kingdom and the evil people will be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Matt. 25:31-46).
There is a good chance that many people who escape death during the Tribulation and Armageddon will do so by hiding, and although it is impossible to successfully hide from God and His angels, God emphasizes that no one will escape judgment. He says, “it will happen that at that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps” (Zeph. 1:12), so there will be no dark places to hide in. After Armageddon, everyone left alive on earth will be rounded up and judged.
The Sheep and Goat Judgment will not happen in Jerusalem, it will happen in the “wilderness of the people,” that is, the wilderness between Egypt and Israel, just as Ezekiel 20:35 says (cp. Ezek. 20:34-38). The wicked Israelites, the “goats,” will not get to enter the land of Israel (Ezek. 20:38), but will be destroyed (Ezek. 34:16).
“as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” After the Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 19:11-21), Jesus will gather together the people who survived Armageddon and will divide them into two groups, “sheep” (righteous people) and “goats” (unrighteous people), so theologians refer to this judgment as “The Sheep and Goat Judgment.” The sheep and goat judgment occurs at the start of Christ’s Millennial Kingdom on earth. It is possible that Jesus got the terminology of “sheep” and “goats” from Ezekiel 34:11-24, where God’s people are sheep but there are also male goats among them (Ezek. 34:17).
The Sheep and Goat Judgment is not well understood by Christians. It has been called a parable by some theologians, which it is not, and it has been called an illustration of the final judgment, and it is not that either. The Sheep and Goat judgment has been misunderstood for a number of reasons. One is that it happens on earth, but most Christians are taught that when a person dies he or she is immediately judged and is either granted entrance to heaven or is sent to “hell.” In that system there is no judgment on earth, nor is there a judgment of a large group of people at one time, as we see here in Matthew 25 when Christ judges the nations.
Another reason the sheep and goat judgment is misunderstood is that some Christians are taught that when Christ comes from heaven and fights the Battle of Armageddon, no one on earth survives. In that case, even though in Matthew 25 this judgment occurs after the Tribulation and Armageddon, supposedly there would be no one left on earth to judge. However, the Bible makes it clear that some people will survive the Tribulation and Armageddon. For example, Isaiah 13:12 and 24:6 show us there will be “very few” survivors, but given that there are more than seven billion people on earth, “very few” could easily mean a few million or more. Matthew 25:31-46 implies that there will be a significant number of people alive because the “nations” will be brought before Christ.
The record of the Sheep and Goat Judgment is also confusing to some people because it does not seem to be clearly connected to the other resurrections and judgments, so people have a hard time figuring out what it is and when it occurs. Actually, when we properly understand the Bible and the chronology it sets forth, the Sheep and Goat Judgment not only makes sense, it can be seen to be a necessity. To understand it, we must fit it into the general chronology of the book of Revelation. Thankfully, we can do that because Jesus taught about the end of this age and the tribulation period in some detail (Matt. 24, 25; Mark 13:5-31; Luke 21:5-36).
When fitting the sheep and goat judgment into the chronology of the end times, it helps to keep in mind that Matthew 24:4-25:46 is Jesus’ very long but single answer to the question the apostles asked in Matthew 24:3: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and end of the age?” It would have helped us understand the end times if Jesus’ teaching that is recorded in Matthew 24 and 25 had been kept as one chapter instead of broken into two because the overall flow of Matthew 24:4-25:46 is chronological: There will be tribulation on earth; then Jesus will come with his angels and the elect and nations will be gathered; then there will be the sheep and goat judgment when all those gathered will be judged. At that point, the righteous people will be allowed to enter the Millennial Kingdom, while the unrighteous people are sentenced to punishment and are cast into the Lake of Fire. The righteous people marry, have children, age, and die (Isa. 65:20-23). What we now know from the New Testament that no one knew until the New Testament was written was what happened to those natural people after they died. We now know that they will get up in the second resurrection, the Resurrection of the Unrighteous, which is at the end of the 1,000-year Millennial Kingdom of Christ, and if they lived righteous lives they will have been written in the Book of Life and granted everlasting life (Rev. 20:4-6, 11-15).
Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and goat judgment comes near the end of his answer to the apostles’ question and connects that judgment to the Tribulation and the end of the Age. In fact, Jesus’ teaching shows us that the sheep and goat judgment comes after the Tribulation and his being on earth (Matt. 24:29-30; 25:31).
There is a lot of confusion and disagreement about how the details of the book of Revelation fit together, but this is in large part due to erroneous teaching. For example, in the Gospels and Revelation, Christ comes to earth, but orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus stays in heaven, and this obviously confuses people. Or, when the Bible says that Satan is bound in the Abyss-prison while people reign on earth 1,000 years, some denominations teach that those statements are just figures of speech—Satan is not literally bound and the 1,000 years are not a literal period of time but are a figure of speech—so again, people are confused. Or, people are taught that the book of Revelation is not chronological, so they don’t look for it to set forth a timeline that can be followed.
But the “big picture” set forth in Revelation is indeed in chronological order. There will be a period of great tribulation; then the Battle of Armageddon will occur; then Satan will be bound for 1,000 years; then there will be the Sheep and Goat Judgment for people who lived through the Tribulation and Armageddon and the resurrection of the Righteous (the first resurrection) for those people who had died by the end of Armageddon; then there will be the 1,000-year Millennial Kingdom of Christ on earth; then Satan will be loosed and will gather an army and attack Jerusalem. That army will be defeated and Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire; then there will be the White Throne Judgment; then the New Jerusalem comes to earth and the righteous live forever in it. This “big picture” chronology can be seen if Revelation is read and believed literally. We give the following summary (events that are not mentioned in the book of Revelation but occur within the general timeframe of Revelation are in brackets):
[For more on the coming kingdom of Christ on earth, the Millennial Kingdom, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more on the duration of the last half of the Tribulation, as well as the days of Judgment following Armageddon, see commentary on Daniel 12:11. For more on the terrible death and destruction in the Great Tribulation and Armageddon, see commentary on Dan. 12:1. For more on the first and second resurrection, see commentary on Acts 24:15. For more on how the future will unfold from this present age to the Millennial Kingdom to the Everlasting Kingdom, see commentary on Rev. 21:1.]
“goats.” The typical goat of the ancient Middle East was black. This made separating the sheep from the goats an easy job and added to the differences between the sheep and goats in biblical metaphor. Second to man, goats have been the most severe destroyers of land in history. They will overgraze areas of vegetation, eating weeds, shrubs, and small trees, and stand on their hind legs to eat the twigs of larger trees (and will climb the trees if the branches are dense enough and eat twigs and small branches they can reach). They will usually stick with a flock, but are not averse to wandering off, and a couple of goats can quickly establish a feral flock that damages crops. The meat was eaten, but usually only of the young goat, or kid, and it was not valued as highly as the meat of the cow or sheep. Similarly, goat milk was used, but not valued as highly as cow milk, perhaps in part due to volume. Those things, added to the fact that the sheep were white, the color of righteousness and purity, and the goat was black, the color of evil and darkness, made the metaphor between the sheep (believers), and goats (unbelievers), a natural and good one.
A major reason for keeping goats was their hardiness and their hair. Usually, goat hair was long and black, and thus easily woven. It was woven into a rough cloth which was made into sacks for storing and carrying things, and thus this cloth was called “sackcloth” (cp. Matt. 11:21; Luke 10:13; Rev. 6:12; 11:3). Another important use for goat hair was it was tightly woven into the cloth that tents were made from. The reason that goat hair was especially good for tents was that it swelled when wet, and shrank when dry. That meant that if it started to rain, the tent cloth would swell and naturally repel the rain, but when it was dry the tent hair shrank and let the air circulate so that the tent was comfortable.
The Beloved woman in Song of Songs said her skin was “dark like the tents of Kedar” (Song 1:5), because she worked out in the sun so her skin had become dark like goat hair. Her lover said to her: “Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Gilead” (Song 6:5), meaning she had black hair that waved and bounced from the top of her head over her shoulders, dark and shining and bouncing like a large flock of goats winding its way down the mountain.
The goat has been associated with evil for so long that when the association began is lost in ancient history. We could speculate that it is because the Devil and demons sometimes appear to people in the form of goats or goat people (people involved in witchcraft attest that still happens today), but no one is really sure. In Leviticus 16:8, the Hebrew word “Azazel” most likely means “Mighty Goat” and is a name for the Devil, and even the people of Israel occasionally worshiped goat demons (Lev. 17:7; 2 Chron. 11:15). Leaders, especially evil or unscrupulous and overbearing ones, were referred to as “he-goats” (Isa. 14:9; Zech. 10:3).
[For more on Azazel, see commentary on Lev. 16:8. For more on leaders being referred to as “he-goats,” see commentary on Isa. 14:9.]