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The Life of Jesus - Series 12: Episode 7

Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 25:31-46

The final parable about discipleship and the Second Coming draws attention to the awareness of the needs of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and addressing those needs.

The final parable about discipleship and the Second Coming draws attention to the awareness of the needs of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and addressing those needs.


Welcome to Series 12 Episode 7 - 'the parable of the Sheep and Goats'. As in recent episodes, we are still in Matthew's Gospel. We have been in Matthew 24 and 25 since the beginning of this series, and we are now going to be studying Matthew 25: 31 - 46, which we'll read shortly.

Introduction and Recap

If you have been following this series, you will be aware that we are now in a detailed look at Jesus' extensive teaching about the end times. This episode is the last of seven that cover the whole of the material of Matthew 24 and 25. We have also kept in mind the parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21, which are shorter and have less material in them but there has been some useful things that we can compare notes on with those passages. We've used Luke's Gospel, in particular Luke 21, to help us with one section where Luke adds some important material. Jesus' teaching about the end-times is set in a particular context. It is right at the end of his ministry. He is instructing his disciples, because this is a private conversation, concerning the future in the last week of his life, and as I have mentioned in every episode of Series 12, we need to set this clearly in the context of Series 11, which describes the first half of the last week of Jesus' life when he came, with very great clarity and determination, to Jerusalem to bring his ministry to a conclusion, to bring to finality the simmering conflict between himself and the Jewish religious establishment, to bring this conflict to a conclusion.

As we looked at series 11, we can see Jesus taking very determined steps to provoke a confrontation. He is in the driving seat. He is in the initiative, especially as he comes in by the Triumphal Entry into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Thousands of people gather to welcome him and acclaim him and praise him as the Jewish Messiah, the Son of David and they are expecting him to do something wonderful in Jerusalem. The crowds of the Passover feast are gathered because it is Passover time and also crowds of people who followed Jesus along the road from nearby Jericho and Bethany where various miracles have taken place. We have been following the story through Series 11, and after that Triumphal Entry, on the following day was another spectacular confrontational moment, where Jesus went right into the heart of the Temple and challenged the market traders who are working for the High Priests, and conducting trade in money-changing and exchange and purchase of animals and birds with the sacrificial system. By all accounts, they made a lot of money out of this monopoly trading situation, corrupting the religious purposes of the Temple. Jesus confronted this and thereby he also confronted the Sanhedrin, the High Priest and all the religious powers behind that marketplace. This really infuriated his opponents, who the following day, when Jesus returned again to the Temple on the Tuesday, started questioning him in a very hostile manner, trying to trap him to say something foolish or unwise or illegal - something that would offend the Romans, that could cause them to arrest him and take him to the Roman governor. That didn't happen. Jesus outwitted them with very masterful and wise answers. We see that story unfolding in Matthew 21 and 22, and the parallel passages. 

In Series 12, we move onto this very important teaching that Jesus gives that comes out of that teaching because Jesus literally leaves the Temple compound after a day of teaching there. As he leaves, his disciples are walking with him through the city and they're looking up at the Temple. They make comments about the greatness of the Temple buildings which provokes Jesus to say something incredibly surprising. That comment provokes some questions from his disciples, and that again enables Jesus to give a detailed answer and prediction about the future and about some end-time issues.

We are right at the end of that long story of Jesus' teaching. We are in the very last section now, but I want to return back to the beginning, to remind us exactly what has happened so far, so we can set this parable of the Sheep and Goats firmly in context. Interpreting Scripture always depends on an accurate understanding of the original context. Let's read again, Matthew 24: 1 - 3,

‘Jesus left the Temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.“Do you see all these?” he asked ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another. Every one will be thrown down.” As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us” they said, “When will this happen and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”’

Matthew 24:1-3, NIV

The disciples' comments about the buildings and their greatness brought about a completely unexpected response. Jesus predicted that it will not be long before the Temple is destroyed. There was nothing that could have prepared the disciples for such a surprising answer. What did he mean? How was that going to happen? It provoked a lot of questions. They were thinking about it as they were walking through the city, going out of the city down into the valley of Kidron, up the other side to the little hill called the Mount of Olives. As they were sitting there privately, they asked him these three critical questions. Number 1 - When will this happen? When is the Temple going to be destroyed? When is Israel going to be judged? Number 2 - What will be the sign of your coming, the return of Jesus Christ - the second coming? Number 3 - What will be the sign of the end of the age, when God's kingdom is fully implemented on earth and fully revealed? Three questions and as we went through Matthew 24, I proposed to you that Jesus answered these questions step-by-step. In the first episode, from verse 4 - 14, we looked at him painting the general picture of what the age of the Church was going to be like, with all the complexity, all the pressures, all the upheavals that were going to take place in that context. Then in the second episode, verses 15 - 21, with the parallel passage in Luke 21: 20 - 24, Jesus described the destruction of the Temple and the judgement on the nation of Israel, which he predicted right at the end of Matthew 23: 36 - 39. Then in Episodes 3 and 4, we took the text from Matthew 24: 22 - 51, and both of these passages describe aspects of the Second Coming and the end of the age. It turns out that the destruction of the Temple and the judgement on Israel is separate in time considerably from the Second Coming. We now know that that destruction of Israel took place between 66 and 70 A.D in the way that I described very fully in episode 2. You can refer to that if you want more details and haven't heard it yet.

The Second Coming is still to take place. It is going to be a public, glorious, powerful and awesome event which everyone in the world will be aware of. God's glory will be revealed on a phenomenal scale. Those who don't believe will mourn and grieve and be deeply distressed. Those who do believe will have their hearts lifted when Christ comes in sight and their redemption is at hand. Jesus makes the point that nobody knows exactly when it is going to happen. Matthew 24: 36

‘but about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, only the Father’.

Matthew 24:36, NIV

One of the great mysteries of this life is the timing of the Second Coming. There isn't a single human being who knows the answer to that question.

Matthew 25, the chapter that we are dealing with now, deals with the question of how to be faithful, how to be productive, how to be ready for the Second Coming, and how to be ready in case it happens at any moment in your lifetime. Jesus teaches this by using the method of parables. He's already, at the end of Matthew 24, given us a short parable - the parable of the Wise and Faithful Steward in the household, but then three extended parables take up Matthew 25, and they are all talking about faithfulness, trustworthiness and hard work in that intervening period between the first coming of Jesus and the Second Coming - the period that we are living in. The first of those parables was the parable of the Ten Virgins, the second - the parable of the Bags of Gold, sometimes known as the parable of the Talents - that is the one we looked at in our last episode. In conclusion, we now come to the well-known and much-discussed parable of the Sheep and Goats. This is a very important parable to understand, so we are going to give careful attention to the text. We'll start by reading Matthew 25: 31 - 33,

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he'll sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate the people, one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left”.

Matthew 25:31-33, NIV

Sheep and Goats

The timing of this event is clear - the Second Coming - the return of Jesus Christ when the Son of Man comes in his glory. Like these other two parables we have just mentioned, this is a parable about the Second Coming. Humanity is likened to sheep and goats. I got a great insight into this many years ago when visiting the Middle East and travelling in the country of Jordan, the Arab nation adjacent to Israel to the east. I remember travelling through the countryside and stopping in the vehicle that we were travelling in at one point because a flock of animals was crossing the road. There were no fences and the flocks roamed freely in that area in the Jordan Valley. I got out of the vehicle, took a look at the animals and took a closer look at the animals. I thought they were sheep and I asked my guide, “Are they sheep or are they goats?” He smiled and said ‘both’ because they look very similar in our culture and in our context. As I looked closely, I could see yes, these animals are similar in size and are a similar shape. They are sheep and goats and they mixed together. I realised that probably in ancient Israel 2000 years ago a similar situation would have been the norm - that sheep and goats would sometimes mix together. Obviously they have to be separated for purposes of going to the market, or to be sheared, or to be sold. There is a time for separating sheep and goats who look similar from the outside, but are different species on the inside. The analogy of sheep and goats is a good one in the original context. People will immediately think people look similar from the outside but it is what has gone on in the inside that is going to determine whether they sit to the right or the left of the Son of Man in his judgement.

The Final Judgement

This is a picture of the moment of final judgement. It is only told in the form of a parable so we don't get all the details. We have here a glorious throne: a throne represents the authority to judge. We have a statement that it is ‘all nations’, so this is all the peoples of the earth. We have a separation which is based on moments of judgement. We have Jesus there as the judge. This reminds me of a particular passage in the book of Revelation which describes this same scene. I am going to read this passage because this illustrates some of the realities that are mentioned briefly in the parable. Revelation 20: 11 - 15.

‘Then I saw a great white throne and one who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.’

Revelation 20:11-15, NIV

This is an awesome scene of final judgement but it has a lot of similar elements in it to the ones we have just read in Matthew 25 at the beginning of the parable of the Sheep and Goats. The scene is the same scene, and all of humanity is gathered. Even the dead are mentioned here. Everyone comes alive in order to be judged. and their lives are recorded - what they had done is recorded. This particular passage mentions the book of life. This is the book in whose names are written those who have put their trust in Jesus Christ and by faith and repentance have come to believe in him and be born again. There is a more detail in that passage in Revelation but the scene of final judgement is unmistakable in this parable. So now we look in more detail at the two groups. Verses 34 - 40 describes those who are going to be redeemed and saved at that moment. Let's read this text and analyse its meaning.

The Redeemed

‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my father, take your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 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. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”.

Matthew 25:34-40, NIV

These are compassionate actions which form part of the assessment of the lives of the righteous. In interpreting this passage, the most critical issue is to identify who Jesus the King means by the expression ‘the least of these brothers and sisters of mine’ - verse 40. Upon this point rests the whole interpretation of this parable. The Greek word ‘adelphos’ is the one used here in the original writing. It is a masculine noun, but refers in appropriate context to both genders, hence the expression brothers and sisters is appropriate here for the plural.

There are three suggested meanings that have been used in the interpretation and you may have heard these interpretations if you are familiar with this text. Many people believe that brothers and sisters of Jesus are our fellow human beings, whoever they are who are in need - those who share Jesus' humanity, who we have helped. That is one possibility. Other people suggest and propose that the brothers and sisters is an ethnic statement referring to Jesus' ethnic brothers and sisters, fellow Jews - fellow Jews in need who have been helped. Thirdly it is proposed that these brothers and sisters are fellow disciples. They are the followers of Jesus who are brothers and sisters in the faith. You may have heard this passage interpreted in one or more of those different ways. If we take the first interpretation, this is about humanitarian concern within the Church. If we take the second interpretation, this is about giving special concern for Jewish people on behalf of the Church. If we take the third interpretation, then this expresses the concern that Christians have for their brothers and sisters in the faith who are suffering.

The way we can answer the question to work out which interpretation is correct is to look at how the Greek word ‘adelphos’ is used in the New Testament, first of all by Jesus himself, and secondly by the other writers. The answer is very clear. Jesus often explicitly uses this term but he uses it always of his disciples, his brothers and sisters in the faith. He never uses it of ethnic Jews, his racial brothers, and he never uses it of humanity in general. I will give you some notable examples of this. Matthew 12: 46 - 50,

‘While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside wanting to speak to him. Someone told him “Your mother and brothers are standing outside wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”.

Matthew 12:46-50, NIV

That is very explicit. He is drawing a priority for the spiritual family of the Church. Moving forward to Matthew 18, which describes relationships within the Church and we have studied this passage earlier on. In Matthew 18: 15, Jesus speaks about sin in the Church, starting with the expression if your brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault et cetera. and then Peter later on asks about forgiveness,

‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me’

Matthew 18:15, NIV

,again referring to the Church. And then in verse 35, Jesus concludes,

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from the heart”.

Matthew 18:35, NIV

And then Matthew 23: 8 gives us another example,

‘But you are not to be called Rabbi. For you have one teacher and you are all brothers’.

Matthew 23:8, NIV

The same can be said of the book of Acts using the term brothers and sisters of fellow Christians. The same can be said of Paul and John in their epistles. We find that the New Testament use, generally speaking, is that brothers and sisters means fellow believers. Therefore, what Jesus is identifying here is the specific acts of compassion made by Christians on behalf of fellow Christians in need, deprivation, or persecution, or suffering or prison. He points out that this particular action is an indicator of true faith because there is a discernment in the believer of the needs of the other believer to be a particular priority for that person.

Those Who Come Under Judgement

Let's now turn to the other half of the story, verses 41 - 46.

‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison, but you did not look after me”. They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or needing clothes, or sick or in prison and did not help you.” He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”.

Matthew 25:41-46, NIV

Those who come under the judgement of Christ are those who have not discerned the special needs of Christians - Jesus' brothers and sisters in the faith - those special needs based on material circumstances, sickness, and particularly persecution and deprivation. They haven't discerned those needs; they haven't made them a priority; they have not responded to those needs. The reason they haven't done that is because they lack the faith that discerns that particular need. This interpretation may be challenging to you. You may have been used to some other interpretation but I based it on the fundamental contextual fact that the expression ‘brothers and sisters’, as used by Jesus in other contexts, especially in Matthew's Gospel, and elsewhere in the New Testament, by Luke in Acts, by Paul in his epistles, by John in his epistles - the use of this word is applied to fellow believers. It is a specific group.


Let's make some concluding observations and reflections. The fundamental point about this parable is very similar to the earlier ones in this chapter. It is about readiness and faithfulness but it highlights an aspect of that readiness and faithfulness. An aspect about readiness and faithfulness is an awareness of the needs of fellow believers and a willingness to help them. As we look around the world today, we can see that Christians are in vulnerable situations and suffering in all sorts of different contexts, whether in Communist countries, or in Islamic countries, or in one-party states, or in countries of great poverty and deprivation, or in countries where other religions are dominant, such as Hinduism. There are a whole variety of contexts, and the most up-to-date information suggests to us that Christians in many different contexts in the world are vulnerable to persecution. There is a real relevance in this text for us, and we should be open to helping financially, prayerfully and practically fellow believers in need, wherever we have opportunity to do so. That applies particularly to those listening who live in free societies and who have opportunity to give and to support vulnerable people.

The fundamental doctrine of the New Testament concerning salvation is justification by faith. We should not take this parable to contradict that. This parable merely illustrates an aspect of faith, and the aspect of faith that is illustrated is so specific to Christian faith that you can understand why Jesus used it. It is a description of the works that will follow those who have been justified by faith. They will have an alertness to the needs of fellow Christians. They will respond to them but without realising that in responding to them, they would be responding to Jesus Christ himself because he is living within them by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We have now come to the end of this great teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24 and 25, on the end times and the Second Coming, including the judgement on Israel in the immediate historical period after Jesus' death and resurrection. I trust that you have come to a clearer understanding of some of these foundational teachings, and I trust that this will strengthen your faith, and strengthen your commitment, particularly to live your lives filled with faithfulness, alertness and energy, and work for the Kingdom of God in the expectation that Jesus could come at any time, and in the hope that when he comes he will find you ready and be able to say to you ‘well done good and faithful servant’.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Will God be able to say "Well done good and faithful servant" to you?
  • Discipleship
    1. Find pictures of sheep and goats from Israel to understand how alike they are from the outside. How does that help you to understand this parable more?
    2. Should you help your spiritual family more than humanitarian aid? Give some time to evaluating your own responses in terms of finance, prayer and practical work/serving.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What does the Greek word ‘adelphus’ mean? Look again at Matthew 12:46 - 50, Matthew 18:15, and Matthew 23:8.
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