Ministering to Needy Brethren : The Sheep and the Goats

by Keith Sharp | Parables of the Master  | Matthew 25:31-46

In Matthew 25:1-30 the Master taught two parables, the Ten Virgins (verses 1-13) and the Talents (verses 14-30), to teach His disciples to be ready for His return. Now, two days before His ultimate humiliation (Matthew 26:1-2), He teaches a lesson, also primarily for the benefit of His disciples, about the time when He returns in glory (Philippians 2:9-11) and sits upon His glorious throne, the throne of judgment (Matthew 25:31).

This is not strictly a parable, but, as virtually all of the Lord’s teaching, it does contain figurative language. “It is more a poetic description of the prophecy Jesus had spoken earlier that year at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16.27)” (Earnhart. 191).

In this dramatic story Jesus reaches the climax and end, not only of all He had been teaching the disciples since they left the Temple that day (Matthew 24:1 -25:46), but of all He had taught while He walked upon earth. This is the description of the Final Judgment. All He had said, all He had done and would do upon earth, was to prepare men for this great day, and His final, real, personal return will be to execute that judgment.

Jesus walked upon earth as a man and endured the humiliation of the cross as a man (Philippians 2:5-8), but He shall return gloriously as the Lord of glory. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory” (Matthew 25:31). A “throne” is the symbol of rule (Psalm 47:8), but a function of that rule is judgment (Psalm 9:4,7). Christ now sits on His throne (Acts 2:30-31), “the throne of grace,” from which obedient believers “obtain mercy and grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16). When Christ returns He will sit on the throne of judgment.

Then He shall be the judge of all nations (Matthew 25:32; John 5:22-23; Acts 17:30-31). This doesn’t mean judging them as nations. Just as the gospel message is to individuals of all nations (Matthew 28:19), so Christ will judge as individuals all of every nation (Romans 14:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Christ Jesus came once to save the world (John 3:17; 5:24-26), but when He returns it will be to judge all mankind (John 5:27-30). None shall be exempt; both the righteous and the wicked will be raised and appear before Him (John 5:28-29).

He shall then separate people “one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32). The Master’s disciples are compared to sheep (Mark 14:27; John 21:15-17) because sheep in Palestine recognized their shepherd’s voice and followed where he led (John 10:3-4, 27). They are placed on the right, the place of honor (1 Kings 2:19; Acts 2:33-34).

Those who are blessed by the Father will “inherit the kingdom prepared for” them “from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). To “inherit” the kingdom is to “come into possession of” (Arndt & Gingrich. 435) it (cf. Romans 8:16-17). Obedient believers enter the kingdom now in baptism (John 3:5; Colossians 1:13), but we will inherit the kingdom at the end of time when we enter heaven and gain eternal life (Matthew 25:46; 19:29; Revelation 21:7; 22:1-5).

In this story, the sole basis of judgment seems to be whether or not we have given benevolent help to needy disciples (Matthew 25:34-45). But passages may be multiplied indicating additional criteria of judgment (cf. Matthew 7:21-27; 15:13-14; John 3:18,36; 8:24; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 2:1-3; Jude verses 14-15; Revelation 21:8). This is a figure of speech called “synecdoche,” specifically synecdoche of the part for the whole (Dungan. 300). For example “confess” is put for all the conditions of pardon for an erring child of God (1 John 1:9; cf. Acts 8:22). Parallel to this, James teaches, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). There is much more to “pure religion” than the items mentioned in this verse, but James wants us to understand that the religion of Christ is manifested by action (James 2:14-16; cf. Galatians 5:6). And the Master wants us to understand that, if we are to inherit a home in heaven, we must be merciful even as our Master is. Thus, the passage, while not limiting the standard of judgment to acts of benevolence, certainly teaches we must demonstrate love and mercy in acts of kindness to receive eternal life. “… selfishness and lack of compassion … will cost its owner eternal life with a merciful and selfless Christ and put him in an eternal hell with a merciless and prideful devil” (Earnhart. 192).

Christ is so identified with His disciples that to help them is to help Him (Matthew 25:40), and to neglect them is to neglect Him (Matthew 25:45).

Incidentally, the passage teaches us what true benevolent needs are – the necessities of life: food, drink, clothing, shelter, medical care, and comfort in affliction (Matthew 25:35-39,42-44). Once a member of a congregation where I preached wanted the church to pay her cable TV bill. We declined.

Finally, the Master emphatically, tersely makes a point that few people believe. Yes, there is heaven, and the blessed will enjoy it eternally. But just as truly there is hell, a place of eternal torment (Mark 9:43-48) that is equal in duration to the eternal life in heaven of the blessed. The terms “everlasting” and “eternal” in Matthew 25:46 are both translations of the same Greek word, which means “without end” (Arndt & Gingrich. 28).

Christ Jesus invites you to come to Him for salvation now (Matthew 11:28-30), but one day He will come in judgment. If we have been merciful as He is merciful, we will inherit a home with Him in heaven for eternity. If not, we will be eternally punished in an awful place prepared for the devil and his angels. Which will it be?

Works Cited

Arndt, W.F. and F.W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.
Dungan, D.R., Hermeneutics.
Earnhart, Paul, Glimpses of Eternity.

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