The Stories Jesus Told: The Sheep and the Goats, Matthew 25:31–46

By Peter Amsterdam

August 7, 2018

The parable of the sheep and the goats, referencing the Son of Man’s return, is one of three parables in Matthew 25. The other two are The Ten Virgins and The King and the Stewards,1 which is also known as The Talents and the Pounds. These three parables make comparisons between groups of people: the five wise and five foolish virgins; those who invest their talents and those who bury them; and in this parable, the “sheep” and the “goats.”

The parable begins:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.2

These opening words reflect Jesus’ teaching throughout the Gospels regarding His role in the final judgment. Elsewhere in the book of Matthew we read about the Son of Man sitting on a throne:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne…”3

We read that angels will be with Him:

The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.4

And that He will sit in judgment:

For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.5

In stating that “all of the nations” will be gathered before Him, Jesus is referring to the universal judgment of all humanity. Jesus likens humanity to a mixed flock of sheep and goats. Flocks of sheep and goats often grazed together, and some authors suggest that shepherds would separate the sheep from the goats each evening, as the goats required a covered shelter due to being more susceptible to the cold, whereas the sheep preferred the open air. Whatever the reason, the parable assumes that shepherds of mixed flocks would sometimes separate the sheep from the goats. In like manner, we’re told that the Son of Man will separate people into two groups, placing some on His right side and others on the left.

The theme of separation and judgment is found throughout the parables in the Gospel of Matthew. The parable of The Wheat and Weeds ends with the master telling the servants to let the weeds grow alongside the wheat:

Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.6

In the parable of the dragnet, the fishermen pulled in their nets and sat down and sorted the good fish into containers, but threw away the bad.

So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous.7

In The Ten Virgins, the five who didn’t have enough oil had to leave the wedding feast, and when they returned the doors were closed, and they cried out:

“Lord, lord, open to us.” But he answered, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”8

In The King and the Stewards, those who received either two or five talents and wisely invested them were rewarded, but the man who received one talent and buried it due to fear was cast out:

“Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”9

All these indicate that at the time of judgment there will be a separation.

Jesus then gave some specifics:

The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” 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.”10

The Son of Man is now called the King, and those who are invited to inherit the kingdom are blessed. They are confirmed as members of God’s kingdom, and because of the way they have lived, they share in the authority of their Lord as rulers. We also see this concept in the book of Revelation:

They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.11

They will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.12

Jesus listed six actions that help fulfill the needs of others. Feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty are two of the most basic acts of kindness. Throughout the Old Testament, we find commands to feed those in need:

Is not this the fast that I choose: … to share your bread with the hungry?13

If a man is righteous and does what is just and right … gives his bread to the hungry …14

If your enemy … is thirsty, give him water to drink.15

Welcoming a stranger means taking someone who is unknown into one’s home. This kindness and hospitality reflects Old Testament teaching.

Is not this the fast that I choose: … to bring the homeless poor into your house?16

The old man said, “Peace be to you; I will care for all your wants. Only, do not spend the night in the square.” So he brought him into his house and gave the donkeys feed. And they washed their feet, and ate and drank.17

Covering the naked was also spoken of in the Old Testament.

If a man is righteous and does what is just and right … gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment …18

Is not this the fast that I choose: … when you see the naked, to cover him?19

Visiting and caring for the sick was considered an act of kindness and a religious duty, mentioned a number of times in Jewish writings in the time before Jesus, and given even greater emphasis in Christian writings.

In Roman times, prisons were used for detention while awaiting trial, as opposed to long-term incarceration. Prisoners were often dependent on their families and friends for food, water, and other necessities. We see this portrayed when the apostle Paul wrote about the visitation and help he received when he was imprisoned.

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me.20

I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.21

The book of Hebrews tells us to Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.22

The righteous referred to by Jesus in this parable as those who have cared for the needy had no point of reference as to when they had given food, water, clothing, or hospitality to the King, so they asked Him when they did so. Jesus’ very touching answer was that each kind act they did for another, they were doing for Him. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.23 A question this gives rise to is who would qualify as one of the least of these my brothers? The most common understanding is that it refers to any needy person. Some commentators feel it refers to Jesus’ disciples, past and present; others that it refers to missionaries; and others believe it is speaking about the Jews. The interpretation that best fits the passage and other teachings of Jesus, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, appears to be that Jesus was speaking about any needy person, and that any acts of mercy to someone in need are offered to Him.

Helping those in need has its roots in the Old Testament, where generous people received the promise of God’s blessing.

There will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”24

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.25

He who is generous will be blessed, For he gives some of his food to the poor.26

The New Testament writers reflected both the Old Testament concept of generosity as well as Jesus’ teachings on the subject.

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.27

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.28

If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?29

In the first part of this parable, Jesus refers to those who act mercifully as the sheep who are on His right side, who are blessed by my Father, and who will inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.30 He then changes the focus in the second part.

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. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.31

In this case, Jesus refers to those who neglected to help those in need as the cursed—and their fate is very different from that of the first group. In this passage, He isn't referring to those who sinned by overt immoral actions such as killing or stealing; He’s referring to those who sinned by not doing what they should have done, by sins of omission. They ignored those in need instead of helping them, and because of this they face a horrible punishment. They are separated from God’s blessings and are instead in the presence of the devil and his angels, in a place Jesus refers to as hell.

Like the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus32 in the Gospel of Luke, this parable brings to mind that everyone is going to face judgment and our godly actions toward the needy—or the lack of them—will make a difference at that time. Jesus pointed out that He is found in the faces of the poverty-stricken, the destitute, the sick, and imprisoned—who together symbolize everyone in need. Those who treat them with love and compassion and care for them do so to Jesus. Those who ignore them and refuse to give aid also do the same to Him. The former are blessed for the love and care they gave to the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, and foreign, and are welcomed into God’s presence. Those who show no concern, who ignore or refuse to help those in need, meet a different fate. This parable has inspired Christians throughout history to do works of mercy as a way of serving Christ.

Jesus stressed the importance of His followers being compassionate by highlighting the drastically different outcomes for those who show love and compassion to others, and those who are unwilling to share their bread, clothe the naked, and aid the needy. He used this word picture as a teaching tool to focus on the point that everyone will be held accountable for their actions, or the lack of them. He also showed how we are responsible for both our sins of commission and our sins of omission. As believers, we are called to not only love God, but also our neighbors; to reflect Jesus’ care and concern for those in need, and to take action to help meet those needs.


This brings us to the end of The Stories Jesus Told. Thirty-two of Jesus’ parables have been covered in this series. My prayer is that this series has been a blessing to you, has helped you better understand Jesus’ parables, and has been spiritually feeding for you and those you may share the articles with.


The Sheep and the Goats, Matthew 25:31–46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.

32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

35 For I was hungry 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.’

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.

42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,

43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’

45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


Note

Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


1 This parable is included in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In The Stories Jesus Told, the parable The King and the Stewards is based on Luke 19:11–27.

2 Matthew 25:31–33.

3 Matthew 19:28.

4 Matthew 16:27.

5 John 5:26–27.

6 Matthew 13:30.

7 Matthew 13:49.

8 Matthew 25:11–12.

9 Matthew 25:30.

10 Matthew 25:34–40.

11 Revelation 22:5.

12 Revelation 20:6.

13 Isaiah 58:6–7.

14 Ezekiel 18:5, 7.

15 Proverbs 25:21.

16 Isaiah 58:6–7.

17 Judges 19:20–21.

18 Ezekiel 18:5–7.

19 Isaiah 58:6–7.

20 2 Timothy 1:16–17.

21 Philippians 4:18.

22 Hebrews 13:3.

23 Matthew 25:40.

24 Deuteronomy 15:11.

25 Proverbs 19:17.

26 Proverbs 22:9 NAS.

27 Hebrews 13:16.

28 Philippians 2:4.

29 1 John 3:17.

30 Matthew 25:33–34.

31 Matthew 25:41–46.

32 Luke 16:19–31.

 

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