We read in Matthew 24, Jesus’ disciples asked Him two questions (Mat 24:3) and we read His answers in what is known as the Olivet Discourse which runs from Mat 24:4 and ends in Mat 26:1. We read many promises, encouragements and warnings in answer to His disciples’ questions.
Remember the original Greek has no chapters and there is no break in the discourse—the three parables in Matthew 25 are certainly part of the Olivet Discourse and in it Jesus gives some light to the disciples’ question “when will these things be . . . ?” (Mat 24:3a)
Like the other parables of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse, this parable is set in the context of Israel and the Jews and belongs to when Jesus returns. The scenes are Jewish, of Israel, not worldwide. Jesus words are addressed to the Jews of His day, not to us! The scriptures are written FOR us not to us
These parables are part of the encouragements Jesus gave to his disciples to not give up.
Many scholars say this as a reference to “the last judgment” which they place at the end of history. Does scripture ever say this? Does the Bible even call it The Last Judgment? I think not. This judgment passage is contextually set in the coming of Jesus: “when the Son of Man comes . . . .”
Who are the people of these two groups? They are certainly not us today!
These represent people who had claimed to follow Jesus. Both ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ were in the ‘sheepfold’ of the ekklesia. But when “the chief shepherd appears (his coming) who knows his own sheep and calls them by name” (John 10:27), he could easily separate the sheep from the goats.
Of course, Scripture teaches that all people who ever have been or shall be in the world will be judged. But what is described in this passage and demanded by the context, only concerns the many 1000’s who had opportunity to react to Jesus’ words or to the ministry of ‘his brothers’ before his return (see John 1:11f).
So just who are ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ who are represented in this parable?
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. Thus He told the disciples (Mat 10:1-42), 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 Hebrews 2:11,17: “He is not ashamed to call His own ‘His brothers”. Note also Acts 9:4-5 where Jesus identified with persecuted believers saying to Saul “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
It is a serious error to teach that Jesus in this parable meant the poor and disadvantaged. Of course, Jesus’ people are called to 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.”
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 the days to come, many would come to their aid when they are imprisoned, thirsty, homeless, naked, etc. The Book of Acts and the apostles’ letters record numerous instances of this. Likewise many would reject them and even persecute them.
Take away: Be encouraged in following Jesus and be active supporting those who are His representatives!