The ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25

The gospel reading in the lectionary for the last Sunday before Advent (now known as ‘Christ the King’) is Matthew 25.31–46, the so-called ‘parable of the sheep and the goats’. But it isn’t actually a parable (since there is no suggestion that ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’), and isn’t really about sheep and goats (as we shall see). But it is very well known, and is most commonly interpreted as an encouragement for followers of Jesus to care for the poor—which it isn’t.

It comes as the conclusion to this long section of Jesus’ teaching about The End, answering the second part of the disciples’ two-part question about the fall of the temple, and the ‘sign of your coming and the end of the age’ in Matt 24.3. That answer began with a parallel with the time of Noah in Matt 24.36 (when Jesus teaches that we should want to be left behind), and the theme of his coming being unexpected; it continues with three parables (Matthew likes to organise things in threes) about the wicked servant, the wise and foolish girls, and the talents/bags of gold.

In the narrative, there are three groups of people: the ‘sheep’ who are placed on the king (= Son of Man)’s right; the ‘goats’ who are placed on his left; and the ‘least of these my brethren’ who are the ones who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison. The story itself is very memorable; many years ago I learnt it by heart and performed it as the Bible reading in an all age service, and I noticed the four-fold structure of dialogue (the king to those on his right, their response, the king to those on his left, and their response), and the six experiences of the ‘least’ which are grouped into three pairs (hungry/thirsty; stranger/naked; sick/in prison). In each of the four repetitions in the dialogue, this list of six things gets slightly compressed at the end. This kind of structuring to Jesus’ teaching is common, especially in Matthew’s gospel, and it makes it very memorable. (You should try memorising and performing this reading—it makes it highly engaging for your audience, especially any sitting on your post-pandemic left!)

The most common interpretation of the narrative allocates the people groups in the following way. The ‘least of these’ are the poor in general; the sheep are those (probably followers of Jesus, obeying his teaching here) who care for the poor rather than just having a theoretical faith; and the goats are those who neglect Jesus’ teaching. Thus this becomes a general argument of the importance of caring for the poor.

But this interpretation has only been around since around 1850 (which raises issues about how we should respond to ‘novel’ interpretations…) [note: I remembered this from some teaching on this I heard years ago, but a friend has pointed out that Aquinas’ Catena Aurea which compiles patristic comments on the biblical texts suggests that this might claim be wrong!] and in fact has some serious obstacles to it.

The first is the issue at the heart of the narrative itself. Although it is often passed over, in favour of focussing either on the two groups or on their reported activities, the central feature of the whole narrative is Jesus himself, described in the most exalted terms. First, he is the ‘Son of Man’, Jesus’ favourite self-description in the gospels, and a term primarily taken from Dan 7.13, where it refers to the vulnerable corporate figure of Israel, exalted to God in the face of the trampling beasts of the earlier part of the vision. This personification of faithful Israel ‘comes with the clouds of heaven’ to the throne of the Ancient of Days, and is given an everlasting kingdom. It is therefore not so surprising that in Matt 25.31 the Son of Man ‘sits on the throne of his glory’ and thereafter is referred to as ‘king’ as he exercises judgement. As Craig Keener notes (Commentary p 602), in rabbinical parables, the figure of the king is nearly always God, and it is God’s role to exercise judgement over the nations. The attendance of ‘his angels with him’ is an allusion to Zech 14.5, there the ‘holy ones’ accompany Yahweh, ‘my God’. Lastly, this Son of Man/king/judge also takes the role of shepherd; in Ezek 34, whilst the leaders are supposed to shepherd God’s people, the chief shepherd is God himself. Jesus is making some truly astonishing claims here. Thus France comments (p 959):

The debate about the criterion of judgment, however, theologically important as it is, should not be allowed to distract the reader from what is surely the main thrust of this passage as the climax of the discourse on judgment, its portrayal of the ultimate sovereignty of the Son of Man as the universal judge.

Mosaic from Ravenna

Why is the division of sheep and goats a suitable metaphor for judgement here, and what does Jesus have against goats? In richer pasture further west in the Mediterranean, the land is good enough to support single-species herds. But further east, where the grazing land is scrubbier, then mixed herds are essential, since the goats can graze the harder ground.

Why then does Jesus appear to have a negative view of the goats in Matt 25? This passage has almost universally been read in the light of the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matt 13:24–30, so that the emphasis of the contrast is between the good ones and the bad ones. But in Rabbinic literature, goats are seen as of equal value with sheep, and in some cases more valuable. Goats have a higher milk yield than sheep, and so the idea of the promised land as ‘flowing with milk and honey’ is actually most likely a reference to the benefits of a land where goats graze. Interestingly, many commentators think that Jesus’ teaching in Matt 25 has been influenced by Ezekiel 34:17–22, a passage which mentions the action of separation as judgement, and includes a reference to both sheep and goats:

As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture?

So what is going on? Goats reproduce faster than sheep, and if a herdsman is going to keep his flock properly balanced, then as a matter of course he will need to cull the male kids (baby goats), since otherwise they will outnumber the sheep, and with too many males he will not have a supply of milk (a small herd would typically only need a couple of males). When we look at Matt 25, we see that the word translated ‘goat’ is actually the word eriphos, the male term for a baby goat—also used ironically by the elder brother in Luke 15.29 (‘you never even gave me a kid’). So Jesus’ reference to the separation appears to be drawing on a well-known and regular occurrence in herding—the separation out and culling of the young male goats the herdsmen would do as a natural part of their work.

In other words, the focus is not on the different types of animals, but on the process of separation. This is supported when we read on in the parable; beyond Matt 25.32–33, the two groups are not again referred to as ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’, but as those on the king’s right and on his left. Reading the text carefully in its cultural context actually drives us back to read the text itself more carefully. A modern equivalent which could have been used a few years ago might be: ‘The king will separate the nations as easily as a housewife separates apples from pears’. This no longer applies, since all sorts of people do shopping, and fruit now comes in separate bags—but it illustrates the point.

A major difficulty with the popular reading is presented by the shape of the narrative, and its emotive effect. The king invites those on his right to ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world…’, they respond with complete surprise, and the king has to explain that ‘Whenever you did this for the least…you did it for me’. Likewise, those on his left are also surprised to have encountered the king in his moment of need. If the narrative were about helping the poor, then those who helped the poor (having read this story!) would hardly be surprised to find that they had been doing as the king asked.

And the language here challenges the notion that entrance into the kingdom is a ‘reward’ which has been merited by a life of good works. Rather, the language of ‘inheritance’ echoes God’s promise to Israel, for whom the land is an ‘inheritance’, granted to them not because of their virtue, but because they are God’s son, and they inherit as a son inherits from a father in the ancient world (and in the modern world until quite recently). In order to inherit, you don’t need to be good, you just need to be a son, and this image—of adoption by God, and so receiving the inheritance because of God’s gracious generosity—is found all over the New Testament.

And there are further problems with the popular interpretation, when it is read in the context of Matthew’s gospel as a whole. As Dick France points out in his commentaries (NIC and TNTC), Matthew never records Jesus referring to his ‘brothers’ or sisters as anyone other than those who do the will of God by becoming his followers. This is particularly clear in Matt 12.49, when Jesus is rather radically proposing that his new family are the disciples gathered around him (which of course includes women). Moreover, Jesus is clear that to follow him means to be homeless; in reply to a teacher of the law who would follow him, Jesus replies:

Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head (Matt 8.20 = Luke 9.58).

In other words, if you follow Jesus you will be like him, and this could involve being without home, a wandering stranger, reliant on the charity and provision of others. Some therefore interpret the ‘least of these’ as itinerant missionaries, sent out in the manner of the 12 and the 72 in Luke 9 and 10, who are indeed reliant on the charity of those they go to. But in the gospels, Jesus never draws a hard line between these groups and his disciples in general, so focussing on ‘missionaries’ is to make the reference too narrow.

Put together, all this data points to the ‘least of these’ not being the poor in general, but being Jesus’ own followers. Thus those on the king’s right are people who have welcomed his poor followers, and in doing so have welcomed Jesus. At the end of Jesus’ second block of teaching in Matthew (which Matthew attaches to the sending out of the 12 in chapter 10) we have a very similar idea—whoever receives the disciples in effect receives Jesus, and how they treat the disciples is in effect how they treat Jesus. (These verses, Matt 10.40–42, don’t have an exact parallel in the other gospels, though there is a similar saying in a different context in Mark 9.41). France, in his comment on Matt 25, describes this as the closest Matthew gets to a Pauline notion of the believers as the body of Christ, and it it likely that Paul was shaped in this by the words he heard on the Damascus Road. Persecuting Jesus’ followers, he hears Jesus ask: ‘Why do you persecute me?’

So the division is not between those who care for the poor or don’t (and there is plenty of encouragement to do that elsewhere in the gospels), but those who receive and care for the followers of Jesus or don’t—and in doing so reveal their attitude to the king himself.

This gives rise to some challenging lessons from this better reading of the narrative:

  1. To coin a cliché, it is all about Jesus. He is the exalted Son of Man, who takes the concerns of the people of God into the presence of God, and now sits on God’s throne as rightful king. He is the true Shepherd of Israel, and in him God exercises his reign and his just judgement.
  2. To follow Jesus means (to risk?) being hungry, thirsty, naked, as stranger, sick and in prison. This has not been hard to imagine for many Christians in many parts of the world in many times in history. In fact, it is perhaps only in a rich West that Christians could have misread this teaching, by naturally reading themselves in the role of the powerful helper rather than the powerless in need of help.
  3. It raises big questions about the status of those who don’t appear to have named Christ as Lord (Romans 10.9), but have responded to Christ in being the ‘sheep’ who have assisted his disciples because they are his disciples. This question was raised by someone listening to me teach on this, who worked in inner cities primarily with Muslims. ‘If my Muslim friend helps me out are they counted as sheep?’ In a sense it asks the bigger question of whether it is possible to become a Muslim follower of Jesus rather than become a Christian.
  4. But as a complement to that, we need to note that the judgement doesn’t just take place on the grounds of whether people like us and help us, or not. It is on the grounds of whether they receive us as we are living the lives Jesus called us to, in particular, whether we are healing the sick, driving out demons, calling people to repentance, and proclaiming the kingdom. It is how people receive us as disciples of Jesus, that is, while we are doing the things he calls us to. This means that there is not perhaps quite the gap between response to us and faith in Jesus that at first we might think.
  5. It suggests a rather different model for mission. We are not going as the strong with resources to help the weak, but we come as the weak ready to receive from those to whom we have been sent. And of course this is the idea behind the idea of finding the ‘person of peace’, taught by Mike Breen and others from the sending of the 12 and the 72 in Luke 9 and 10 and Matt 10. You can read about this in my co-authored Grove booklet How to be Fruitful.
  6. Jesus as judge will separate those who have responded to him, in whatever way they were able, from those who have rejected him. We might not be able to tell the difference now (since we do not know the secrets of people’s hearts), but he will be able to do so just as easily as a herdsman separates his flock for culling. He is a competent and a just judge, and we can trust him to do his job.

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70 thoughts on “The ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25”

  1. Thank you so much for your helpful exegesis of this passage–especially the reminder that this is primarily about Jesus, not us. A couple of questions, though, if I may?

    1) John Wesley seems to have understood the ‘parable’ in the ‘novel’ way earlier than 1850 (in at least two sermons, “The Reward of Righteousness” and “On Visiting the Sick”). I can only assume that he was not alone in this among his contemporaries. What do you think was the reason for this ‘novel’ interpretation taking root?

    2) You have made a good case for believing that the reference to ‘brothers’ throughout Matthew’s gospel makes the family of faith in Jesus the probable reference here as a kind of Hebrew shaliach concept. I am also struck that all of the conditions mentioned in Matt. 25 are mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor. 11. However, while I agree that following Jesus may often have meant (risking) the kinds of deprivation described (except in the rich West, as you say), the passage doesn’t speak of risking it, but experiencing it.

    I have no doubts that being known as a follower of Jesus was (and still is in much of the world) a lot tougher than I know from my own experience now, but I am not necessarily persuaded that it would have been a universal enough experience for Jesus to use this list of deprivations as a sort of synonym for being a disciple. If Jesus wanted to say that people would be according to the way they respond to Him through His people, why doesn’t He say that (as in 10:40)? What am I missing?

  2. It seems Muslims also interpret the parallel passage in the Muslim Hadiths as being an exhortation to look after the poor:

    The passage has striking similarities to the Sheep and Goats passage, and one feels that the writer (reportedly the Muslim Prophet) must have known about the Matthew passage.

    I have always believed that in reaching out to the poor and suffering, e.g. when on a shift at the Samaritans, that I am reaching out to Christ.

      • And early Quaker William Penn, writing in 1663 argues that “through patient continuance in well-doing … you have been the true companions of my tribulation and cross”.

        For the sentence is changed, and the Judge smiles; he casts the eye of love upon his own sheep, and invites them with “Come, ye blessed of my Father,” (Matt. xxv. 34,) that through patient continuance in well-doing have long waited for immortality; you have been the true companions of my tribulation and cross, and, with unwearied faithfulness, in obedience to my holy will, valiantly endured to the end, looking to me, the Author of your precious faith, for the recompense of reward that I have promised to them that love me, and faint not: O, enter ye into the joy of your Lord, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

  3. Whilst I tend to agree that ‘brothers’ does refer to followers of Jesus, I would question the notion that those who help said brothers may be saved regardless of personal belief. That seems to contradict Jesus’ words elsewhere, not to mention Paul. Ive always taken those who do the helping to be fellow Christians, helping other believers in need, ie behaving as God expects us to behave by loving one another, often at personal cost. Would it not be very odd that someone was saved, and thus supposedly chosen from before the creation of the world, yet never professes a faith in Jesus nor the belief in his sacrificial death and resurrection, both of which for example Muslims deny?

    Perhaps I have misunderstood?


      • Notice that the key qualifier is “monon eis onoma mathetou”. The issue isn’t general philanthropy but recognition that the person in need is a disciple of Christ and thus ‘in statu Christi’, as verse 40 indicates. It’s about receptivity to Christian messengers in ch.10. Matt 25.37 parallels this thought and its very language. I wonder if 25. 39 also envisages the persecution of Christians (cf. 10.17-20; 24.9).

      • If you mean we should equate ‘reward’ with salvation simply because of an act of kindness, Im not so sure. In the context of Ch 10 in which this is said, it could be argued those words primarily apply to the treatment of the original disciples whom Jesus sent out on a specific mission. But even if it should be applied to all followers, including today, it is in the context of evangelism, thus implying those accepting and treating Jesus’ followers well because they are Jesus’ followers do so because they are accepting of the message they have brought, and shows at least the beginnings of faith.

        It’s also possible the ‘reward’is temporal rather than of an eternal nature?

        That’s my tuppence worth.


        • This is a judgment of the living. The acts of the ‘sheep’ (who do not know the Lord Jesus Christ), coming alongside persecuted Christians, is very dear to God and His Christ. We are talking about the last days, a time of intense persecution and tribulation. These ‘sheep’ are risking their lives to help Christians and their heart posture to the Lord and His followers saves them, and garners them inherotance and entrance into the kingdom. Can you think of other examples in the OT that did not know God, but by their actions they were counted righteous by faith? They still will be judged at their deaths, but they will also receive the Holy Spirit entering the kingdom, and it is likely they will be worshipers of the King and the Ancient of Days. Blessings

    • I wonder if this “cup of water” might be the equivalent of “mustard seed faith”? I’d suggest that there are plenty of people in. and around congregations who are on a faith track but not declaring trust… but are not unbelievers either.

      I was reminded of 1 Kings 5…

      “18 But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”

      19 “Go in peace,” Elisha said.

    • The parable is a description of the fruit of the spirit, and not salvation by works , it is about
      fruits of people who rely on Jesus atoning blood “I am the vine you are the branches” who will bear much fruit John15:5

  4. Yes I should be cautious about the 1850 date, I seem to remember reading that Dr Johnson thought this passage was a challenge to how we behaved toward the poor, that puts it back by 100 years or so.

    • Yes, I am beginning to see that. I think I picked it up from France’s shorter commentary.

      I actually noted a monograph-length exploration of the question of interpretation in a post a couple of years ago:

      US evangelical Denny Burk helpfully looks at the evidence here, as gathered by Sherman Gray is his monograph on the subject.

      Gray argues that commentators over the centuries have interpreted “the least of these” in one of three ways: (1) a narrow reference to Christians, (2) a general reference to the poor, or (3) an unspecific identification of “the least of these.” Here’s a closer look at each historical period:

      In the Patristic Period, you can find the narrow interpretation in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, the Venerable Bede, and (most notably) Augustine. Augustine’s towering influence is well-known. He refers to “the least” 44 times in his writings, and “nowhere does Augustine specifically state that ‘the least’ are the poor in general… it is obvious that the Christian poor are meant” (p. 69). Whereas some of the patristics are inconsistent in their references to “the least,” Augustine is consistent in identifying “the least” as Christians. Thus, “Augustine comes down clearly on the side of those who hold a restrictive viewpoint” (p. 71).

      In the Medieval Period, the narrow interpretation is found in Anselm of Laon, who says that “the least” are not the poor in general, “but only those who are poor in spirit who, having put aside their own will, do the will of the heavenly Father” (p. 168). It is also in Bonaventure, who “clearly identifies ‘the least’ as Christians” (p. 175). The most influential theologian of this period is obviously Aquinas, and he also comes down clearly identifiying “the least” as Christ’s disciples (p. 180).

      In the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, you can find this interpretation in a number of figures including Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin. Of course, the latter two are the towering figures of the Reformation, and so it is significant that both Luther and Calvin are clear that “the least” are Christians (pp. 203-206, 208).

      One of the issues is that where a comment is taken out of context, and mentions ‘the poor’, that might look like the ‘broad’ reading, when in fact in context the writer is referring to ‘poor Christians’

      • Just for what it’s worth, Dale and Allison cite Chrysostom as going for the wider view of the needy, along with Gregory of Nyssa. No sources cited, though. Perhaps Chrysostom referred to both views at different times. I’m going with Gregory (and Dale and Allison) in my sermon later today…

        but it is worth reading the Sherman Gray as I find others tend to interpret his analysis. Summaries in particular can be unhelpful in what they overlook.

        I think there is also a proper debate about how we read “who are the poor?” in the Bible as there is a shift in post-exilic times to claim that the believers are the poor of God, but we might want to question whether this is a suitable lens to read other texts through.
        I think Jesus’ own actions suggest that the alien, the orphan and the widow trajectory of the torah is how Jesus speaks of the poor.

  5. Many thanks for this, it is appreciated.
    While I don’t have the book, I think I’m correct in my recall of reading Wright’s “Matthew for Everyone”, in which he wrote he’d changed his view from reference to behaviour towards brothers (believers) to the poor. But I don’t recall any detailed exegesis along the lines you’ve set out.
    Along similar lines, I think, was through listening to a sermon (not on this passage) by Sinclair Ferguson in which the following jumped out to me in strong emphasis, and in sharp contrast to knowing him, (those who call him Lord)which was deeply challenging : it’s whether we are known by Jesus – he knows those who belong to him, chosen.
    You have drawn out that what is central is who Jesus is and the inheritance prepared, the kingdom since the creation of the world (so not by works) but the gift of adopted sonship.
    Thanks again.

  6. Thanks for this Ian, you have developed my thinking and helped for my preach this Sunday. I also use Matthew Henry and Wesley commentaries both 18th century but they do see helping the poor as being at the outworking of faith. My concern is a big one. Trying to move from a straightforward reading of judgement relating to how we care for the poor requires extensive interpretation and interrogation which is usually criticised as ‘twisting scripture’, when it comes to dealing with verses about homosexuality and judgement. Are we sometimes guilty of forcing scripture into a reform theological paradigm that rejects works, requiring theological gymnastics which are not tolerated when seeking more gracious interpretations of same sex relationships?

    • Hi Matthew. Yes, there is a constant danger from all sides of forcing scripture out of shape! That is why we need to be reflective and self-aware.

      ‘I also use Matthew Henry and Wesley commentaries both 18th century but they do see helping the poor as being at the outworking of faith.’ Er, so do I! All I am pointing out is that, whilst Jesus says a lot about that elsewhere, he is not talking about that here.

      I can’t find anywhere in the Bible where there is negative comment about ‘same sex relationships’, or about gay people, or about ‘homosexuality’. What I do see is a consistently negative judgement about same sex sexual activity.

    • That when Jesus talks about His brethren thinking that He means His brethren and not some group that we’d be more comfortable about him talking about – its a bit uncomfortable to prioritise Christians, a bit racist, a bit xenophobic, a bit colonial, aren’t we buying false converts – is the very opposite of theological gymnastics?

      The relevant question is whether brethren is ever used elsewhere (figuratively) to refer to the whole world rather than the descendants of Abraham. Can the whole world understanding be justified from the Bible, or not? Or is this the one place where Jesus’ brothers should be considered everybody? That would be a sign of theological gymnastics.

      Plus, of course, if we’re following Augustine and the others of similar stature then we are not guilty of twisting scripture. The accusation would have to be levelled at Augustine rather than us.

  7. I can see the argument made that the least are needy believers and I can see the parallel to previous uses of brothers and little ones. It is a possible reading of the passage.

    However I am not convinced: this is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, the final section of the final section and there is a grand inclusio back to the blessed poor of the Beatitudes at the very beginning of the first teaching section.

    And all through Matthew’s Gospel we have seen the gospel bursting out beyond the in-group. From the women in the genealogy and the Magi in Bethlehem to the Centurion and the Canaanite woman and the feeding of the 4000 to the Great Commission when it finally bursts forth completely. And we have also heard warning after warning of those who claim belief but do not live it, of the religiously self-satisfied.

    Rhetorically, the gospel is written primarily to believers and so this is not a question of faith or works, but of people living out their faith – do-ers of the Word not hearers only, those who let their light shine before others so their good works lead to those others giving glory to God.
    This passage, rather like the man without a wedding garment is a warning to those of us who may want to claim our salvation without understanding grace and call.

    And a more expansive reading of this passage is not just modern. The Jewish Midrash teach “My children, when you gave food to the poor I counted it as though you had given it to me.’.

    I don’t enter the Kingdom by my good works, but in response to grace I should share God’s concern for lifting up the poor -[who are poor in a world which has the wealth to help.] And if I do not respond, there may well be a “nasty” surprise. But then Matthew has warned the religious that dubious characters are entering the Kingdom before them so it shouldn’t really be a surprise!

    To make this climactic teaching about the fate of those who may or may not help poor Christians in the future is to take the focus of the teaching away from the disciples and the early Church to an unknown outside group.

    Rather I would argue that the brothers of Jesus are now seen to include the poor and needy from across the world – we are challenged to open our eyes wider.

    • Thanks Peter—but hand on a moment.

      You have decided the structure of the gospel, and then you say that this text must mean what you need it to mean to make your structure work? I thought the logic should be the other way around—meaning, then discerning structure?

      Yes, we have seen the gospel bursting beyond the in-group—and that is precisely what my reading is suggesting!

      The central feature of this passage is Christ as king and judge—which you appear to be omitting.

      But, as I point out, this reading is located far more clearly in earlier parts of Matthew than your proposal.

      On what grounds do you think Jesus is suddenly changing the meaning ‘of these my brothers’?

      • I have suggested a structure for the gospel and all of us are understanding the “texts” in light of the structure we have got, whatever the structure; these short texts are not just stand alone snippets. What does this text mean is asked in light of what does this text mean in its context in the larger piece.
        I am not – I think – doubting the central character – Christ the King and Judge – though I think the focus is more on the judgement and those judged and so urging us to be in the right group when judgement comes as it were.
        I don’t think the meaning of “brothers” is being changed, but expanded – though you might say that is changing it.
        My counter question would be that it is putting quite a lot of weight on “brothers” as a code word which would be understood by the readers, to say that this teaching is about charity to poor Christians. Matthew could have made this much clearer.
        I also think that the reading you offer is weaker rhetorically, as it ends the teaching on a fairly minimal note, and also on a focus which is not primarily that of what the Christian should do / how they should live, whereas the reading / structure I suggest is much stronger rhetorically.
        I don’t think that the reading I suggest is counter to the wider teaching of Jesus, but confirms it; I also find that it is confirming of and strengthening of the message Matthew has been teaching consistently – while I find the limited interpretation is more tangential to the main message of the Gospel.
        I think this passage is one of those that is claimed by both parties as it is seen as a key passage in how we interpret the wider implications of the gospel, whether the social engagement is core to our faith or an ethical addition (how I think some put it).

        Clearly texts can be interpreted differently – and we all bring our own lenses. Having looked at the various interpretations, for me, the narrower reading is not compelling; but it is “easier” for richer Western Christian to live with the narrower reading as it lets us off the hook rather more. Because of that I think we have to be willing to ask ourselves whether that is a factor in how we interpret and how we balance the variant readings. I would prefer the narrow reading!

        • Are there so few poor Christians around that the narrow reading allows your conscience to be clear?

          The broad reason allows one to be pick who to help and picking in a socially approved manner. By having a larger problem it also allows us a clearer conscience to not care about the results or to declare victory prematurely. We cannot give all the world the lifestyles we enjoy. Nor can we defend the violent against themseves. However, we could seek to defend Christians in China or Syria. The narrow view condemns us for how little we are doing to help our brothers who are poor and homeless and persecuted. The broad view allows us to respond, ‘I’m giving money to the Red Crescent, I can’t do everything.’

          • That is an interesting challenge.
            However your approach has also definitely picked who to help and potentially salved the conscience from having to respond to the needs in so many parts of the world.
            We cannot all live at our level, but that is maybe a recognition that we (a general “Western” we) live too richly, use too much of the world’s resources (greed) or covet them (covetousness).
            I suggest that the violence in most parts of the world is made worse by Western, Russian or Chinese Arms companies who benefit from the ongoing fighting, and we (general we again) do not challenge this, and are not wanting to take in the refugees from these wars.
            I suggest we should always be more than somewhat uneasy (deeply troubled in fact) at the suffering and injustices and violence in the world, and our giving should be prayerful and generous and humble.
            The lawyer discovered the neighbour is the one who helped someone in need – and we are called to do the same, whatever the nationality or religion of the other person.

          • If four hundred years ago, the queen decided that the fact that her subjects did not live life of such luxury of herself and her lords, and this was a sign of greed and gluttony, and this inspired her to redistribute the wealth. Then life would still be nasty, brutal and short, full of slavery and child-birth deaths. It is through the inequalities that capital, invention and innovation are able to be put into action and propagated.

            The typical person in the developing world – whatever you might say of global inequalities – is far far richer than my ancestors.

            Man does not need high-tech weapons to be brutal to one another. A million people died in the Gallic Wars, in a similar period of time in Syria had only (‘only’) half that number died. For the modern weapons to be making it worse, we ought to see the numbers being different, I think.

            I do not think we should be troubled by the injustices and sufferings in the world. We should be satisfied that we know the explanation, and hopeful that there will come a time when there will be no more tears. NT Wright has pointed out – on the ‘Ask NT Wright’ podcast, and I’m sure in other places – that it is only in the modern prosperous western world that we find suffering a great confusion (I might add to that the phrase ‘middle-class’). If we were to distribute the world’s wealth equally, what we would do is just add the middle-class westerners back to the land of suffering.

            We certainly do not to love our neighbours, but our neighbours are not our brothers. And there is a major help that our neighbours need that isn’t mentioned herein the Matthew passage.

            The good Samiritan helped a man near-death, alone and dying in a ditch. The early church provided for Christian widows. When dealing with our neighbours we have to consider the difference between ‘life’ (however different from our cushy one) and ‘crisis’ while remembering the crisis of their eternal soul.

            (At least, that’s how I see it.)

  8. A friend emailed me back in February and quoted Matthew 25v32 as saying Jesus will separate Nation from Nation in the end times. I can only get Nation/Them or Nations/Peoples from the text. He wants to make it seem as if some nations are going to be saved wholesale and others rejected. It seemes to me like a deliberate, subtle twist to make scripture support a nationalistic agenda. Is there a valid case for “He would sit on His throne and gather all the nations before Him. And on that day He would then separate the nations ” version unknown
    Any thoughts, anyone?

    • Perhaps the first thing to comment is that ‘nation’ in the context of Matt 25 is very different from ‘nation (state)’ in the 21st century. There is a danger of confusing these. In modern jargon ethnos might better be translated ‘people group’. There is the other translation which as ‘gentiles’, of course.

      When the NIV translates ‘he will separate the people one from another’, that is interpretation. The Greek has ‘them’ which refers to ‘all nations’ (or ‘all peoples’). So that one nation should be separated from another nation is actually the more natural understanding of the text.

      The very idea that groups of people should be judged as a whole is abhorrent to the individualistic Modern(ist) mindset. However, it is very much present in the Hebrew Scriptures. An obvious place is the one mentioned in the article: Joel 3, where judgement is pronounced on the ‘nations’ for their treatment of the people (or ‘nation’) of Israel. For instance, Tyre, Sidon and all regions of Philistia are called out. This is not judgement of individuals but of groups of people.

      The judgements in Amos 1-2 are another clear example. Then in Exodus, although it is Paraoh’s heart which is hardened, it is all Egypt (i.e. Egyptians) who suffer from the plagues of judgement. The children of Israel do not.

      One obvious difference between Joel 3 and Matthew 25 is that in the former the judgement is universally negative, while Jesus offers a positive judgement – for some.

      I don’t know if one should go down this route, but then I think, is my reluctance due to a too-individualistic outlook?

      • Thanks David,
        I have just watched a video by Lance Wallnau who expounds his interpretation of Matt 25. I think he is equating nation states with sheep and goats. I think his political perspective colours his reading of scripture. I’ll send a link if you are interested.

        I think however that ‘people groups’ = sheep & goats = Jews & Gentiles. Both potentially salvageable. Jesus is both the Scapegoat Kid and the Lamb Ram amongst his sheep. A Lamb for Jews and a Kid for Gentiles. …I havn’t thought it through

      • My go-to verse for collective punishment is Joshua 7 where all of Achan’s pay the punishment for Achan. In addition in the exile although it was a collective punishment there are clearly personal consequences. And the Bible I think is quite clearly between the personal consequences and the national consequences. E.g. A nation can suffer famine, whereas it is it a person who suffers hunger. The person of the nation is different from the persons of the nation and can experience different things. Although, when all nations and peoples are gathered, so are all persons.

        The departing into everlasting fire – if we are to take it literally – is obviously a personal punishment. If the goat to be punished is a person then the goat who did not do those things is a person. For the goats to be nations it would require Jesus to have said ‘I will rain eternal fire on you’ or ‘Send your children away into eternal fire’ or similar.

        Why then does he ‘gather all the nations’? It’s idiomatic. Gathering all the nations means everyone is gathered (and of course it fits with distinct prophecies so we know the passage refers to final judgment without that being said explicitly.)

    • This is a dispensational reading. At the second coming Jesus divides the nations on how they respond to ethnic Jews (his brethren) in the days of the tribulation. Those that were pro-Israel enter the earthly kingdom.

    • I dont see how that understanding fits. In the end, nations/peoples are made up of individuals. The picture presented is of multiple nations/peoples in one large mass which God then separates into 2 groups, based on how they treated Jesus’ followers and therefore by extension Jesus Himself.

      I recently watched the Martin Scorsese film, Silence, about the treatment of Catholic missionaries and those Japanese who converted to Christianity in the 17th century. It was rather disturbing to watch, given the treatment of people by the authorities. And we know of the awful treatment meted out to prisoners of war in Japan during WW2. Perhaps that does reflect a certain mindset, but I doubt if God will judge the whole nation based on the behaviour of those in power. It will come down to individuals and their own behaviour.


  9. I checked wikipedia; a male kid ἐρίφων, is unwelcome in a flock of sheep because it is a different genera that produces stillborn young, it is a pretender for top position, for there can only be one male in a flock. So, male goats are not just passive fellow grazers but actively disruptive, vying for position with the ram, producing stillborn young. Therefore goats are not unbelievers but false leaders and sheep not believers but simply potential breeding stock.

      • I should have said same genera. Sheep and goats are able to breed but often produce still-borne young. I think Jesus is comparing ewes with Jews and goats with samaritans/hebrews/rival tribes of Israel. eg Herod was an Idumean; a kid goat. After the sheep(Ewes) have been separated from the kid-goats we still have female goats left. Perhaps Jesus is offering a lifeline to those ‘not of this flock’ i.e. Phoenician women / Samaritans/ etc

  10. Here is some further support for Ian’s exposition;
    1 Keener:The IVP Background Commentary, New Testament,
    It is not nearly as fully developed but includes,
    1.1 The Son of Man was going to come to reign for God (Dan 7:13 -14.) “The absolute authority afforded Jesus here fits most precisely the standard Jewish picture of God judging the nations in the day of judgement. (Is 2:4;Mic 4:3)
    1.2 God would distinguish among the sheep.
    1.3 The right is the preferred side in ancient texts, right for the righteous and left for the wicked
    1.4 The kingdom was prepared for Israel, who had been predestined by God, to inherit the kingdom

    (Comment the OT is replete with God’s judgements on the way Israel (Son), was treated by the nations. Israel was imprisoned and impoverished, the least. Hence, the move to the treatment of Jesus the Son: the treatment of his “brothers and sisters” – by adoption)

    2 DA Carson, For the Love of God, volume one.
    “While “loath to challenge” the usual interpretation because it is always important for those who know and follow the living God, to show, compassion, service, self abnegation” The bible has a great deal to say about caring for the poor…”
    “Another ancient stream of interpretation has much more plausibility”.
    The text is clarified by two elements:
    2.1. “Jesus insists that what was done By the “sheep”, or Not done By the “goats” Was Done “for one of the least of these brothers of mine” (v 40 cf. v45.) There is overwhelming evidence that this does not refer to everyone who is suffering, but to Jesus followers who are suffering. The emphasis is not on generic comparison (as important as that is elsewhere) but on who has shown compassion to the followers of Jesus who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, sick, or in prison”

    Just as Ian pointed out
    2.2 “the sheep and the goats, (v 37, 41, 44) are Both surprised when Jesus pronounces the verdict in the terms of the way they have treated “the least of these brothers of mine”. If what Jesus is referring to was compassion of a generic sort, it’s hard to see how anyone would be surprised at all.
    The point is that it is JESUS IDENTIFICATION with these people who have or have not helped that is critical – and that is a constant feature of biblical religion. For example when Saul (Paul) persecutes Christians. he is persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:4)”

    3 From 1871 Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, “Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible” prefaced by Herbert Lockyer this from Bible Study tools site:

    “The surprise expressed is not at their being told that they acted from love to Christ, but that Christ Himself was the Personal Object of all their deeds: that they found Him hungry, and supplied Him with food: that they brought water to Him, and slaked His thirst; that seeing Him naked and shivering, they put warm clothing upon Him, paid Him visits when lying in prison for the truth, and sat by His bedside when laid down with sickness. This is the astonishing interpretation which Jesus says “the King” will give to them of their own actions here below. And will any Christian reply, “How could this astonish them? Does not every Christian know that He does these very things, when He does them at all, just as they are here represented?” Nay, rather, is it conceivable that they should not be astonished, and almost doubt their own ears, to hear such an account of their own actions upon earth from the lips of the Judge? And remember, that Judge has come in His glory, and now sits upon the throne of His glory, and all the holy angels are with Him; and that it is from those glorified Lips that the words come forth, “Ye did all this unto ME.” Oh, can we imagine such a word addressed to ourselves, and then fancy ourselves replying, “Of course we did–To whom else did we anything? It must be others than we that are addressed, who never knew, in all their good deeds, what they were about?” Rather, can we imagine ourselves not overpowered with astonishment, and scarcely able to credit the testimony borne to us by the King?

    41.Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, &c.–As for you on the left hand, ye did nothing for Me. I came to you also, but ye knew Me not: ye had neither warm affections nor kind deeds to bestow upon Me: I was as one despised in your eyes.” “In our eyes, Lord? We never saw Thee before, and never, sure, behaved we so to Thee.” “But thus ye treated these little ones that believe in Me and now stand on My right hand. In the disguise of these poor members of Mine I came soliciting your pity, but ye shut up your bowels of compassion from Me: I asked relief, but ye had none to give Me. Take back therefore your own coldness, your own contemptuous distance: Ye bid Me away from your presence, and now I bid you from Mine–Depart from Me, ye cursed!”

  11. Although on a Bible interpretation level this is important, on a pastoral teaching level I would be reluctant to lean too heavily on the distinction as the fact is, whether it’s brethren or the poor

    a) we should be giving to both, just motivated by different verses
    b) we should beaking are we giving to anyone at the moment

  12. No one is suggesting that the poor etc, should not be helped , the poor “will always be with you” , certainly not Ian Paul, nor DA Carson; there are others scriptures for that, but it is as Ian says about scripture being squeezed out of shape.
    To me it is of significance how uncomfortable some of us seem to find this reading.
    Could it be suggested to have a look at Ian’s linked Twitter feed, where someone said that it is only in the wealthy West that this could be read in the usual way, strong rich Christians helping the poor, not even considering that they are the poor, hungry.
    It can take us back, can it not, to Ian’s early article on the beatitudes? ( With a similar consistent reading , with which this scripture fits.
    So that which applies in the earlier chapters is being applied, consistently again at the end, only now Jesus speaking as the Son of Man, King.
    As ever it is all about, centres on Jesus the Christ, his Kingdom, now, but not yet.

  13. Notice that the key qualifier in Matthew 10.42 is “monon eis onoma mathetou”. The issue isn’t general philanthropy but recognition that the person in need is a disciple of Christ and thus ‘in statu Christi’, as verse 40 indicates. It’s about receptivity to Christian messengers in ch.10. Matt 25.37 parallels this thought and its very language. I wonder if 25. 39 also envisages the persecution of Christians (cf. 10.17-20; 24.9).

  14. This is such an important Gospel passage and the reading of it on this blog spiritualises it in the extreme. When Christ asks us to feed to hungry and reach out to the least, the last and the lost I take him at his word. I also feel utterly challenged by the Gospel and want to do more for the poor and the hungry than I do. When we die, Christ will ask us what impact our lives had on the hungry and poor – what will we say?

    • ‘When Christ asks us to feed to hungry and reach out to the least, the last and the lost I take him at his word.’ So do I. And I do not deny that he says that.

      What I am pointing out is that he is not saying that here.

  15. Hi Ian – I’m sorry I find this a highly strained interpretation of the passage, I’ll try to explain why:

    I get that the passage assumes the sovereignty of Jesus in judgement, but I think it’s going too far to say that this is the ‘main thrust’ of the passage, surely the critical question here is how he exercises this authority? And the plain sense of the passage is that he bases his final judgement on how people have treated the poor and oppressed.

    I think you’re drastically over-interpreting the meaning of the word ‘inherit’ in an attempt to reverse the plain meaning of the passage. The passage plainly states that people inherit the because of their actions to the poor and oppressed with whom Jesus identifies (‘come and inherit the kingdom … for (gar) when I was hungry you gave me food’) – whereas you fix on the word ‘inherit’ to suggest Jesus really means salvation by grace apart from any good actions.

    I also think you’re over-interpreting the element of surprise, I find your point here rather obscure and it perhaps makes equal sense to say they are surprised because they have never heard of Jesus. But I wouldn’t make too much of the element of surprise anyway – I think it’s a rhetorical device intended for Jesus’ audience rather than a literal transcription of what will actually be said on the Day of Judgement.

    To me the only point on which the conservative interpretation has any traction is on the use of the word ‘brethren’ in verse 40 which indicates Jesus may be talking about his disciples rather than the poor in general. But of course this is not enough to bridge the gap between this passage and the conservative understanding of salvation, as this would imply that people are saved based on their acts of kindness towards poor / suffering disciples. So you need to make additional suggestions to argue Jesus is really talking about the response of faith to the gospel etc. But sheer common sense says we’ve drifted a long way from the plain sense of the passage, if we say it ‘really’ means faith / acceptance of truths about Jesus when it’s so clearly talking about acts of kindness towards a needy group (however we understand that group).

    • I think you may be missing some things here and Peter Reiss has made the same unguarded assumptions about poverty and piety.
      1. Poverty is neither holy nor unholy in itself and it does not, of itself, convey the status of being “my brothers and sisters”. You have to look elsewhere in the Gospel for the meaning of that expression.
      2. Similarly, who are those “in prison” in this passage? Criminals being punished – or the unjust victims of persecution? Read Matthew 10.19 and you will see that the persecution and arrest of Christian witnesses and missionaries is clearly envisaged.
      3. The beneficial actions of “the sheep” toward the oppressed brethren indicates receptivity to their Gospel message. This is a parallel to Matthew 10.11-13 in the first mission of the disciples.

      • Hi James, thanks for this. I did in fact grant the possibility that Jesus was talking about his disciples in Matt 25, this is a valid point (though far from certain) based on the way Jesus uses the word ‘brothers’ elsewhere in the gospel. However, even granting this possibility, it still seems to me that Jesus is basing final reward and condemnation based on acts of kindness to the disciples. If he is in fact talking indirectly about the acceptance of the disciples’ message this seems a rather cryptic reading, and Jesus could surely have made himself a whole lot clearer rather than expecting us to figure it out by finding parallels elsewhere (think Peter Reiss has made a similar point).

        On the other hand: do you think that the only ways someone could end up in prison was if they were either bona fide criminals or persecuted Christian missionaries? Surely people could end up in prison through poverty e.g. through simple debt? (cf Matt 18:30). I do get that there are parallels between what Jesus says in Matt 25 and what he says elsewhere about persecuted disciples, but note how he also mentions the care of the sick in Matt 25, and it seems much less intuitive to take this to mean persecuted disciples (did people become ill as a result of their witness to Jesus?)

        I think there are a number of occasions in the synoptic gospels where Jesus promises reward in heaven or threatens condemnation because of how people have treated the poor and needy – and on those occasions he doesn’t give any indication he’s just talking about his ‘brethren’ or Christians (Matt 19:16-22/Mark 10: 17-31/ Luke 18:18–30; Luke 16: 19f, Luke 14: 12-14; Mark 12:38-40/Luke 20:46-7; Matt 6: 4). I think Matt 25 is similar in meaning to these other passages.

        In some: I think there’s good reason for supposing that Matt 25:31-46 is talking about helping the poor and needy in general; and, even granted the possibility that Jesus is thinking specifically of his disciples here, it’s still quite a stretch to say he’s really talking about acceptance of the disciples’ message.

        • Surely Jesus’ understanding of his own words are clearly shown in his subsequent words to Saul – “Saul, Saul why do you persecute ME?” Saul was not persecuting Jesus, but he was persecuting his followers. Thus Jesus shows he identifies so closely with his disciples that what people do to them, they do to him. Therefore it is people’s treatment of his disciples (and logically their message) and therefore of him that determines their destiny. Their treatment of him shows where their heart lies.

          This seems perfectly logical and consistent to me.


          • Hi there – I’m not sure because Jesus personally identified with his disciples in one place, that means he could never identify with another group. Anyway – I think we’ll have to agree to differ on what ‘seems logical’. To me, if you build in two or more ‘logical steps’ which are not clear or explicit in the text, then you can end up quite a long way from the plain sense of the text. First step – Jesus could have made it clear he meant his disciples but didn’t, so that’s the first logical step which is not clear from the text – although I grant it as a possibility. But then you build on this and say Jesus was effectively talking about the disciples’ message – with nothing at all in the text to support that. And so I think you end up with a highly strained reading – Jesus talked plainly about acts of kindness but ‘really meant’ acceptance of the gospel message or faith in him etc. I’m sorry, I just can’t see that, I just think we need a criterion of ‘plain meaning’ to stop interpretations from going out of control.

  16. Hi Paul,
    Very interesting blog post. Lots to consider here.

    A few discussion points (if you have to pick, please look at point 3):

    1) I’m tempted to be looking for parallels between Jesus’ parables of the ten virgins and the ten talents and this account. (Am I simply doing that because the accounts fall in the same artificial chapter division?)

    If legitimate to do that, how would the parables parallel with the various interpretations? Something to consider??

    2) The hardest part of the points you make here is inferring that by good works to “these brothers” Jesus really means acceptance of them and therefore their message. And yet, point 3 below might practically show us a link, though not the link you make.

    3) Could the account in Acts 10 and 11 be a reflection of how Matthew 25 is outworked in life before the judgement?

    If so, then at least in this case, the poor were broader than just needy Christians, and the sheep are those who are accepted by Jesus for their Godward heart and care for the poor, and who receive the gospel message that God sends to them, though not necessarily through the poor they are caring for.

    Here are some key verses.

    The first few verses of Acts 10 which shows God’s view of people’s heart and actions:

    At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” …
    (Acts 10:1–3 NIV-GK)

    Cornelius later explained to Peter:

    “Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
    (Acts 10:30–33 NIV-GK)

    Peter’s response to Cornelius:
    Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.
    (Acts 10:34–35 NIV-GK)

    But according to Peter, that acceptance of those who do what is right is also linked to their receptivity to the gospel message, for Peter explained in Acts 11:

    He [Cornelius] told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
    “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”
    (Acts 11:13-17 NIV-GK)

    These are my reflections on your provoking blog post. Thank you.

    I hope you and others will give some feedback, particularly on discussion point 3.

    Best wishes,


    • Hi Paul,
      I think you are right to say that the hardest point of Ian’s interpretation is where he implies ‘that by good works to “these brothers” Jesus really means acceptance of them and therefore their message’. That is my main sticking point.

      Could I try to give my understanding of your point 3, and tell me if I’m right? – The sheep and the goats passage and the Cornelius passage both appear to teach that people are accepted by God because of good works to the poor and needy. However, the Cornelius passage also indicates that he, Cornelius, was saved through receiving the ‘message’ about Jesus. Therefore we can infer that in the sheep and the goats passage, people are also saved through receiving the (gospel) message about Jesus. Did you mean something along those lines? Sorry if I’ve not got it clear.

      • I think I would modify my comment on further reflection. These people receive the disciples of Jesus *as they are going about their business of proclaiming the kingdom in word and deed*. So it is not merely about doing good; it is about responding with kindness to the ambassadors of Jesus.

        The idea of receiving and treating a king’s ambassadors as the king himself is actually very common in the ancient world.

        • Hi Ian, that may be so and is an interesting point. But I still feel it skirts around my main difficulty. My main problem is the idea that Jesus appears to be talking about acts of kindness (to whatever group) but is ‘really’ talking indirectly about accepting the gospel message. E.g. if the message is that I am a sinner who has fallen short of God’s standards and so need to place my faith in Jesus who died to take my punishment – if this passage is really talking about the acceptance of this gospel message, then it seems to me a very obscure way of expressing it. If that is the most important issue facing me at final judgement, then it seems to me that Jesus is choosing a very obscure way of communicating this issue in Matt 25. Do you see what my issue is, and would you be able to answer this point directly? Many thanks!

        • Yes, that’s pretty much what I’ve been saying: that “the least of my brethren” are received as Christian messengers or missionaries (shalachim) of the King and how they are treated is how the King is treated. It’s a lot earlier, of course, but the Ammonites’ abuse of David’s emissaries in 2 Samuel 10 reflects the same understanding.

      • Hi Matthew,
        Sorry for being so slow to reply. I must have not activated the notifications when people reply to my comments (or I just missed it).

        Yes, I guess that is sort of what I’m saying, However, it is not so much that I am saying that this is what the passage is saying. More that I’m suggesting or exploring that the dynamics of Acts 10 may be a practical way in which Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 is outworked.

        What are your thoughts?

        Best wishes,


        • Hi Paul, sorry it’s taken me a while to see your response as well, I don’t seem to get notifications of replies.
          I’d agree that it’s interesting to compare Acts 10 and Matthew 25 – but for me this is because in both cases they seem to say that someone is accepted by God based on acts of kindness to the needy, prior to or apart from faith in Christ. I grant that Acts 10 (unlike Matthew 25) mentions receiving and accepting the message about Jesus. But the crucial point is: Peter seems to say Cornelius is already accepted by God even before he heard about Jesus, and that based on his ‘prayers and good works’ (Acts 10: 31, 35). I have read many conservative attempts to explain this, and they all seem to me just as strained as typical conservative readings of Matthew 25.

  17. 1. In reply to “Matthew” who says “My main problem is the idea that Jesus appears to be talking about acts of kindness (to whatever group) but is ‘really’ talking indirectly about accepting the gospel message.” Fair comment. But the actions of the ‘sheep’, in their kindnesses to Jesus’s suffering followers, show whose side they were on (ie, God’s).
    2. No one seems to have commented on the most remarkable feature for a Jewish audience: the absence of Torah-observance. The ‘sheep’, who are apparently part of ‘the nations’ (Gentiles), inherit the kingdom even though they are not Torah-observant.

  18. Hi Andrew – thanks for your response. Sorry I feel that your first point just repeats what others have said, and doesn’t really answer my question. It still leaves me feeling that if Jesus were an ‘Evangelical’ – if he meant that the most important thing was for people to believe certain things about him – then he is choosing a very obscure way of expressing this ‘gospel message’ here.

    Agreed on your second point – I think it is very important that the ‘sheep’ being saved here are not Torah-observant. I believe Jesus taught people are saved not through acts of ritual purity, but rather thought acts of love and kindness to the needy. That is surely the plain and natural reading of this passage on the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, and I think Jesus teaches this on many other occasions as well.

  19. Hi Ian and others,

    here is another passage that may help in interpreting who these brothers are that are in need and who these sheep are that respond to their needs.

    Hebrews 6:10 reads:

    God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him [towards his name] as you have helped his people and continue to help them.
    (Heb. 6:10 NIV)

    Any thoughts?

    Another potentially relevant passage may be Jesus teaching in Matthew 7 verse 15 onwards in which Jesus says:

    * “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “So then, you will know them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:18–20)

    * “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matt. 7:21–23)

    What I’m seeing or interpreting here is that faith in Jesus is accompanied by fruit. Paul calls it the “obedience that comes from faith” in Romans 1.

    Here are a couple of other possibly relevant passages:

    Have written that “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NAS95), James goes on to say:

    ‘What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.’
    (James 2:14–17)

    1 John 4:20-21 says:
    If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.
    (1 John 4:20)

    This brings me back to my question in my original comment of whether the “subjects” (the people in view) of the earlier parables in Matthew 25 (namely the virgins and the servants) might cast helpful light on the people in view as the sheep and goats? And therefore how we might understand Jesus teaching in the passage in question?

    Any thoughts?

    The reason I’m not suggesting an interpretation is that I’ve not concluded my thinking on it, and would welcome the discussion and other’s views. But I trying to contribute to the discussion stimulated by Ian’s blog post, which I’m still mulling on and need to read again to do it justice.

    Best wishes,


  20. It is clear the ‘sheep’ were saved and the ‘goats’ were not, literally in the Salvation meaning of the word. 

    It is clear that Salvation only comes through the profession of and faith in Christ, not works of any kind.

    It is clear that the evidence of the profession of faith in Christ is works of faith, and those are specific works. 

    It is clear those works, if a manifestation of faith in Christ (love God (personal/internal sacrifice) and love your brother as yourself (external sacrifice)) will be criteria of judgment. 

    It is clear that loving others, through works of faith (against all selfish human nature), provides the opportunity to share the Gospel, to be a reflective light, to be salt, to reflect the grace and mercy of Christ. 

    This is clearly a separation of those who claim Christ with no works of faith and those who live Christ and go to work in faith. 

    But Lord, I went to church, I studied and I tithed.. Depart from me.

  21. Thank you for writing this post, Ian; I am blessed by multiple things you shared with Bible references. I am led to share an additional insight to consider:

    With regard to Matthew 25:31, “The attendance of ‘his angels with him’ is an allusion to Zech 14.5, there the ‘holy ones’ accompany Yahweh, ‘my God’,” I would also consider including the glorified saints returning with the Son of man. References: Revelation 19:6-14 (fine linen, pure >>> glorified saints of God); Jude 1:14-15; Also, Didache 16:7 suggests that the apostolic fathers believed that Christ returns with all his consecrated ones, now glorified. We know angels are accompanying His return; could He also be returning with the glorified saints who will judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28), angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), and the world (1 Corinthians 6:2)? Blessings


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