In Matthew 25:31-46, we read that when Jesus returns He will gather all the nations before Him. He will then divide everyone into two groups (v.32). He will place the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. Now what makes someone a sheep or a goat?
The sheep are those who have believed in Jesus Christ. They are the ones who follow Jesus and know His voice (John 10:4). The goats are consequently those who do not follow Jesus and have rejected him.
The parable Jesus gives us in Matthew 25 is meant to give assurance to those who have believed in Jesus and conviction for those who have not. Jesus is explaining who will inherit the kingdom of God and who will not. And He is going to do this by giving an example of what it looks like to have faith in Jesus.
Matthew 25:35–40 (ESV)
35 For I was hungy and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
What is the evidence of the sheep’s faith? They took care of the “the least of these” (v.40). They fed them and clothed and took care of them and visited them when they were in prison. Now who are the “least of these”? Is this anyone? Is this anyone who is poor and experiencing troubles and suffering?
Now many people have interpreted this passage to mean that Jesus is saying the church is to care for all who are poor and needy. And while we may be able to use other verses in the Bible to show how the church is care for all who are poor, this verse is not one of them. The “least of these” refers not to all who are needy but particularly to Christians who are in need.
Let me give two reasons why we should understand “the least of these” to refer to Christians.
- Verses 40 and 45 both refer to the “least of these” but verse 40 adds the words “my brothers.” It is highly unlikely that Jesus is referring to two different groups in these verses. Therefore, whoever the brothers are in verse 40, must also be the ones referred to in verse 45. The word “brother” in the New Testament is used to refer to either blood relatives or to fellow believers. And surely Jesus is not calling everyone to care for His immediate family for that would be highly restrictive, therefore we must understand that he is referring to the church. (see also Mark 3:35)
- Kevin deYoung in his book, What is the Mission of the Church writes, “the word “least” is the superlative form of mikroi (little ones), which always refers to the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel (10:42; 18:6,10,14, see also 11:11).
So Jesus is saying that the sheep (those on His right) have given evidence to their faith by taking care of Christians who are in need.
In contrast, the goats (those on His left) have not loved “the least of these” which proves they do not have faith in Jesus.
Now let me give a word of clarification. We do not love those who are needy in the church in order to earn our salvation. Rather, the evidence of our salvation, is that we love the body of Christ, especially those who are in need.
And what is the reward?
Verse 34 says, we “inherit the kingdom” that God has prepared for us before the foundation of the world. We will live eternally with God and His Son Jesus in the new heavens and new earth. Those who have true faith in Jesus (which is evidenced in how we love the church) are rewarded with eternal life.
But what about the goats? What happens to them?
Matthew 25:41 (ESV)
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Because they have rejected Jesus which is evidenced by the fact they do not love the body of Jesus, they will forever experience the wrath of God with the devil and his angels.
Here we come to a very sobering reality. One cannot say they follow Jesus and yet not live like Jesus. To follow Jesus is to be conformed into His image and be empowered by His Spirit that we would love those whom Jesus loves.
Kevin deYoung writes, “What Jesus says is this: if we are too embarrassed, too lazy, or too cowardly to support fellow Christians at our doorstep who depend on our assistance and are suffering for the sake of the gospel, we will go to hell” (165).