The Sheep and the Goats: Matthew 25:31-46

INTRODUCTION

The content of Matthew 25 maintains the strong theme already introduced at Matthew 24:36: the disciples must be alert and occupied in the work Jesus had set before them. This theme continues into chapter 25 ending at Matthew 26:1.

First, please consider some very important things here in the sheep and goats parable:

-In context, Jesus is speaking to his disciples continuing his discourse he began as recorded in Mat 24.

-This passage is also part of the encouragement Jesus gave to the disciples to not give up.

-Like the two previous parables in Mat 25, this text must be interpreted as a parable not literally.

– Like the two previous parables we have two groups of people, one blessed and the other condemned.

-These people gathered before Him, it is clear, have claimed to follow Jesus, both ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’. They had been in the ‘sheepfold’ of the ekklesia, and when the chief shepherd would appear, who knows his own sheep and calls them by name (John 10:27), he will easily separate the one from the other.

-All people who ever have been or shall be whole world will be judged—“we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ”. But what is described here in this parable, only concerns the judgment of those who had made some profession of faith, those who had opportunity to receive Jesus. That’s important.

Next, a fundamental and important question is: who are ‘these brothers of mine’?

Consistently throughout the Gospel of Matthew, these are those who do His Father’s will (e.g., Mat 12:49-50). It refers to those who carry the good news of the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ disciples, His representatives, from the greatest to the least. So, in sending the disciples (Mat 10:1-42), He told them not to take provisions with them but to rely on the hospitality of those who would receive them in His name. He ends declaring, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” Not just the ‘least’, but ‘anyone’!

Jesus spoke these words on the Mt of Olives to encourage the disciples, reminding them of the sufferings and persecutions they would endure (Mat 10, 24:9-13). Many would come to their aid when they are imprisoned, thirsty, homeless, naked, etc. Acts and the apostles’ letters record many instances of this.

See also Hebrews 2:11,17 “He is not ashamed to call His own, ‘His brothers”. Note also Acts 9:4-5 where Jesus identified with the persecuted believers saying to Saul “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Of course, Jesus’ people must render help to anyone in need. Paul put it well “So then, while we have opportunity, let’s do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” But it is an error of interpretation to teach that Jesus in this parable meant the poor and disadvantaged.

Many scholars say this as a reference to “the last judgment” at the end of history. Does scripture ever say this? Or does the Bible even call it “The Last judgment”? Not really. This judgment parable is contextually set at the return of Jesus. It follows as a third parable in Matthew 25 and these three follow the parable in Mat 24:45-51. Thus there are four similar parables in the Olivet Discourse.

As you know, the original Greek has no chapters and the text must be read without any break. Thus it is certainly part of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus answers to the disciples’ questions (Mat 24:3).

Like other parables of Jesus, and indeed the whole of the Olivet Discourse , this passage is set in the context of Israel and addressed to Jews. So the scene is entirely Jewish and not worldwide.

THE TEXT

V31. “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.

-when the Son of Man comes:  Clearly, this is the same coming as we have already seen in Mat 24:30 with the motifs of glory and angels. Also see Mat 16:27-28. The NT only speaks of one coming of the Son of Man, never ‘a second coming’. In Hebrews 9:28 we read ‘will appear a second time”. This phrase is a strong allusion to Daniel 7:13-14.

-sit on his throne: that is in judgment—which will occur when Jesus has ascended and sits at God’s right hand. The book of Revelation pictures Him seated in judgment. And Jesus told the high priest “. . But I tell you from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mat 26:64).  Again, note the Daniel 7:13-14 text relevance.

V32-33.  And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left.

-all:  here doesn’t necessarily mean ‘every single one’, like many other texts using Greek word ‘pas’ e.g., Mat 2:3 “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

-nations (Grk ethne) is better translated ‘peoples’–so translated in Acts 8:9. Strong’s definitions include: a race, a tribe. ‘Peoples’ or ‘tribes’ makes more sense. Today’s usage of ‘nations’ just doesn’t fit. Sometimes ‘nations’ can be kinship groups—such as Judea, Samaria and Galilee as ‘nations’ of Israel. The scene, the context, is Jewish.

-separate them: sheep and goats typicallygrazed together but were separated at night because sheep needed different sleep conditions compared with goats. This is a very striking and suggestive comparison, as there will be two groups and two eternal destinations.

V34-36.  Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’

-then: the strikingly repetitive use of the word ‘then’ suggests a narrator telling a story.

– the King will . . . on His right: clearly, those gathered ‘sheep’ were addressed as having died. They are the elect of God, true believers, having the grace of God truly within them. They are Christ’s sheep for whom he, the good shepherd, had laid down his life.

-for I was hungry . . . to me: remarkable—these ‘sheep’ actually ministered to Jesus personally

V37-39.  Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you, or thirsty, and give you something to drink? And when did we see you as a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothe you? And when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’

– the righteous: they are now called ‘the righteous’

-when did we see you . . they are surprised and ask when did they ever respond so charitably? The righteous who know the Lord do not keep track of their good seeds. Love does not keep account. Such people know of no good works to claim to their credit.

they are portrayed as having died, yet are able to think, recall memory, be surprised and speak, asking the King “when did we . . . ?” Were they raised from death? Remember this is a parable.

V40. And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.’

-the King will answer: the King explains how they are the blessed ones. The King answers their question explaining His identification with even the least of his siblings!

-to the extent: each loving occasion has been recorded! There are so many times they did, yet they can’t recall—helping Jesus’ disciples had become their lifestyle.

-least of these brothers of mine: Who are these? Consistently throughout the Gospel of Matthew, His brothers are those who do His Father’s will (e.g., Mat 12:49-50). It refers to those who carry the good news of the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ disciples, His representatives. For example, in sending the disciples (Mat 10:1-42), He told them not to take provisions with them but to rely on the hospitality of those who would receive them in His name. He ends declaring, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. (Mat 10:42)” Not just the ‘least’ but ‘anyone’!

See also Hebrews ch 2—“He is not ashamed to call His own, ‘His brothers” (Heb 2:11,17).

And also Acts 9:4-5 where Jesus identified with the persecuted believers “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Of course, Jesus’ taught many times that his people must render help to anyone in need. But it is an error of interpretation to teach that Jesus here meant the poor and disadvantaged.

-encouragement for the disciples: Jesus spoke these words on the Mt of Olives that day, to encourage the disciples, reminding them of the sufferings and persecutions they would endure (Mat 10, 24:9-13). In days to come, many would come to their aid when they are imprisoned, thirsty, homeless, naked, etc. Acts and the apostles’ letters record numerous instances of this.

V41-43.  “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you accursed people, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’

-you accursed people: they are aligned with the devil and his angels and destined for eternal fire, the worst of all outcomes, because they failed to acknowledge Jesus in his followers. Chilling.

V44-46.  Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or as a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for Me, either.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

-Lord, when? They also are stunned—why they are the accursed? What wrong did we do?

-the King will answer: The King answers: because they did not support his agents, even the least of them! See Matthew 10:40-42 where Jesus commissioned the twelve and expected them to be supported by others in several ways—even with giving them a cup of cold water.

-to the extent: it was their lifestyle to despise his servants instead of receiving them (Mat 10:40-42) 

-the least of these: Who are the ‘least’? As we have seen, they are those who do his Father’s will who are called His brothers and sisters (Mat 12:49-50).

-eternal punishment . .  into eternal life: There are only two destinies. The same Greek word is used—eternal punishment or eternal life. If there is eternal life, there must be eternal punishment.

“Their excuses will not be regarded, their pleas will be of no avail, their pretensions to interest in Christ, and love to him, will be set aside; the sentence will remain irrevocable, and there will be no appeal from it, for there is no higher tribunal to bring the cause before.” (John Gill, Commentary on Matthew)

-compare Jesus’ words, Mat 7:22-23: Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonderful works in Your name?’ But then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice evil.’

CONCLUSION

Teresa of Calcutta said

“Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; Give the world the best you have anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is all between you and God; It was never between you and them anyway.”

There are many lessons for us today in this passage, even if we are not the ones addressed directly. I will leave this up to you dear reader and ask the Lord to speak to you and direct your paths, your heart.

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