The Judgment Scene in Matthew 25

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The Judgment Scene in Matthew 25

Questions and Answers

The Judgment Scene in Matthew 25

Who are the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned of Matthew 25:31-46?

Richard Hollerman

Frequently, when a well-meaning person wants to encourage us to help those in need or contribute to a charity, he or she takes us to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25. As you may recall, this is one of the three accounts of the judgment in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. The last of the accounts pertains to the great judgment with the symbols of the sheep on the right of Christ and goats on the left (vv. 31-46).

The Lord describes the scene in this way: “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 25:34). Jesus the King then says to these ones on His right: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothes Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me” (vv. 35-36).

It is evident that the scene pertains to the great judgment at the end of the age. It is also evident that the “sheep” are the “righteous” (Matthew 25:37, 46) who belong to the Lord and have had lives of service to Him and others. But the question then arises: Who are these people that the “sheep” helped during their earthly life? Various answers are given. For instance:

  1. Do they refer to anyone who is hungry, thirsty, naked, or sick on earth?
  2. Do they refer to Jews of this description?
  3. Do they refer to Gentiles of this description?
  4. Do they refer to followers of Jesus (Christians) in need?

Often preachers and teachers who use this passage assume that this is referring to anyone on earth who is needy. These are the ones whom we are to help and bless. Especially the verses are applied to the poor around the world who are in need, with the appeal given to support certain churches, denominations, or ministries who serve these people. But are we sure that this is the identification? D. A. Carson admits, “The great majority of scholars understand ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ to refer to all who are hungry, distressed, needy.’”[1] Carson, however, rejects this view since “there is no parallel for this” in Scripture.[2]

We might notice a few facts found in this passage. First, Jesus directly identifies with these ones in need. He says, “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink…” (Matthew 25:35). It is hard to imagine that most of the poor and needy on earth could be described in these terms. Most of these people would be lost and in sin, even children of Satan (cf. 1 John 3:10; John 8:44). Thus, it would be strange for Jesus to identify with these people in sin.

Further, we might remember that when Saul (later known as Paul) went to Damascus, intent on apprehending Christians, Jesus appeared to Him along the way. He said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me” (Acts 9:4). When Saul persecuted Christians, he was persecuting Jesus Himself!

Could these people whom the “sheep” help be Jews? Or maybe Gentiles? He did say, “All the nations will be gathered before Him” (Matthew 25:32a). Often “nations” is a term that refers to Gentiles, in contrast to Jews. However, often “nations” would be a reference to all people, all the nations of the earth. When Jesus gives His “Great Commission” after His resurrection, He commands His followers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (28:19). Surely this would refer to all people and not just to non-Jews. Similarly, in Luke 24:47, the Lord says that “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Here “nations” would surely include the Jews of Jerusalem and not only the Gentiles who may be visiting this city. Thus, our Lord seems not to be limiting the Judgment scene to Gentiles or Jews, but He includes both groups. As Larry Chouinard points out, “All the nations does not refer to Christians, or the Christianized nations, but rather to the entirety of the non-Christian world.”[3]

We noticed that Jesus identifies Himself directly with His persecuted followers in Acts 9:4-5 (see also Acts 22:7-8 and 26:14-15 where the same identification is made). We suggest that the Judgment scene also refers to followers of the Lord Jesus. We then read this: “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:40). It would be difficult to think that Jesus is referring to all people on earth (most of whom are lost) as His “brothers.” It would also be difficult to conclude that Jesus’ “brothers” would refer alone to Jews or Gentiles.

We might observe that Jesus told the women who had come to the tomb on resurrection morning, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me” (Matthew 28:10). Here Christ’s “brethren” would refer to His followers (perhaps primarily the apostles, but including others), and surely not to either Jews or Gentiles exclusively. As Carson observes:

The best interpretation is that Jesus’ ‘brothers’ are his disciples (12:48-49; 28:10; cf. 23:8). The fate of the nations will be determined by how they respond to Jesus’ followers, who, ‘missionaries’ or not, are charged with spreading the gospel and do so in the face of hunger, thirst, illness, and imprisonment. Good deeds done to Jesus’ followers, even the least of them, are not only works of compassion and morality but reflect where people stand in relation to the kingdom and to Jesus himself.”[4]

These are some of the considerations that lead us to think that Jesus in the Judgment scene is referring to Christians who have shown mercy toward their fellow-Christians. This is the interpretation that has fewer problems, thus we should probably adopt this. As Chouinard says, “. . . any act of kindness shown to even the most unassuming of Jesus’ disciples is service that is rendered to Jesus.”[5] Jackson also commented, “There is accountability, therefore, for our moral conduct as we interact with brothers and sisters in Christ—or fail to do so.”[6]

We might find a connection with James 2:15-16 in which James says, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food. . . .” Again, John the apostle has something similar: “Whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). Both references are to Christians helping fellow-Christians (genuine brothers and sisters) in their time of need. Jesus must have had the same idea in mind in our text.

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The Judgment Scene in Matthew 25

If this identification is correct, we would hasten to add that the Lord would not be saying that His children are to have an uncaring attitude toward non-Christians. Not at all. For instance, Paul says, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10). In other words, believers are to “do good to all people” but their primary interest and duty would be toward fellow-Christians, “those who are of the household of the faith.” (See also 1 Thessalonians 5:15). Thus, we as believers, are to be particularly mindful of helping, blessing, and showing mercy to fellow-believers, Christ’s “brothers,” but (as we have opportunity) we are to show mercy to everyone in need.

This primary interest in fellow-believers is demonstrated in Paul’s efforts to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem. When he wrote to the Romans, he said, “I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints” (15:25). There must have been many unbelievers in Jerusalem at this time, but his focus was on his “brothers” or fellow-Christians in need. He knew that, realistically, he and his Gentile brothers could not help all of those in need in Jerusalem or Judea, thus he focused on the saints.

Paul said that Christians in Macedonia and Achaia “have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (v. 26; cf. v. 27). Once again, the focus of this gathering of funds (or charity) was on fellow-believers. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also” (1 Corinthians 16:1). Later, in 2 Corinthians, Paul says that “the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God” (9:12). This makes us recall how those in Jerusalem urged Paul to “remember the poor”—obviously a reference to Jewish poor in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10). Thus, the emphasis in Paul’s writings and life would have been giving to meet the needs of the poor among the Christians in Jerusalem. Although he surely loved unbelievers, but his focus on the gathering of these funds from Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia was on the “saints” or fellow-Christians.

Again, we must point out that we are responsible for blessing and helping all people, regardless of their spiritual status. Thus, if a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, or a professing but false “Christian” is in need, let us help and supply such need. If your atheistic neighbor needs help, perhaps you can do something to help. But, of course, we can’t meet the needs of all unbelieving people of the world, and not even every saved person. Let us use wisdom and discretion and do what we can, within our limited resources.

Above all, let us be part of the “sheep” category in Christ’s Judgment scene, and let us look with expectation to receive the Lord’s (the Shepherd’s) welcome words, But let’s not become obsessed on our own good deeds. Maybe you remember that the righteous seemed somewhat surprised about Jesus’ connection with the needy whom they had helped (Matthew 25:37-39). Let’s just do good and know that this pleases the Lord, the “King” and Judge of this judgment scene. One day, let us hear those welcome words, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).







[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, p. 519.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Larry Chouinard, Matthew: The College Press NIV Commentary, p. 445.

[4] Carson, Ibid., p. 520.

[5] Ibid., p. 446.

[6] Wayne Jackson, A New Testament Commentary, p. 60.

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