Matthew 25:31-46 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of 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 took me in: Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you hungry, and fed you? or thirsty, and gave you drink? When saw we you a stranger, and took you in? or naked, and clothed you? Or when saw we you sick, or in prison, and came unto you? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Since you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting 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 took me not in: naked, and you clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and you visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you hungry, or thirsty or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto you? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Since you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
Do the words ‘my brethren’ refer to the ‘world’ in general, or specifically to believers, followers of Christ? To save time and words, we need to go to the heart of the matter and look at what Jesus himself meant when he said ‘my brethren’ in this passage. Without doubt, the best commentary on the Bible – at least initially – is the Bible itself. And we are helped by the fact that Jesus himself defines who his ‘brethren’ are.
Matthew 12:47-50 Then one said unto him, Behold, your mother and your brothers stand outside, desiring to speak with you. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brothers? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brothers! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.
Christians are called ‘brethren’ (whether male or female) by virtue of the fact that they have been born of God’s Spirit through the salvation that is through Christ alone, “For both he that sanctifies and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren.” (Hebrews 2:11). Jesus Christ is God’s son, and through his redemption we too are born of God, and for this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brethren! The term ‘brethren’ in the NT is used for those who have come into a relationship with the Father and the Son through the power of the Gospel.
What could be clearer than this? After his resurrection, Jesus tells some of his disciples,
“Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.” Matthew 28:10
He is clearly talking about those who believe in him and are his followers. Then of course, we have the most telling statement by Jesus to Saul of Tarsus, when he says,
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? And he said, Who are you, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom you persecute” (Acts 9:4,5).
This agrees with and underscores the truth in Matthew 25. To treat Christians badly is to treat Christ badly! Jesus Christ identifies himself with those who believe in him, and he identifies those that believe in him with himself! Saul was persecuting believers in Christ and the Lord Jesus says, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ Thus, he says in Matthew 18:6, “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones ‘who believe in me’, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Christ associates himself with those that believe him and follow him without reservation,
“And he that takes not his cross, and follows after me, is not worthy of me…He that receives you receives me, and he that receives me receives him that sent me.” (Matthew 10:38-42)
Christ associates himself with his people. The person that doesn’t take up his cross and follow Jesus is not worthy of him and with such a person Christ does not associate himself by calling him his brother. How can one turn the consistent teaching found in the Gospels and Acts on its head by suddenly stating that ‘my brethren’ refers to people in general – to the ‘world’? Nowhere in the New Testament does Christ refer to unbelievers (to the ‘world’), or to those who reject Him, as ‘his brethren’. Nowhere in the New Testament are unbelievers called ‘brethren’. If we follow the principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture then the meaning of the words ‘my brethren’ becomes very clear.
Take for example John 10:14-16, where Jesus says, ‘I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knows me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”
Jesus laid down his life to save anyone who believes in him, whether Jew or Gentile, and he calls these redeemed ones his sheep and they are gathered into one fold, and they are one flock. Christ does not ‘associate’ himself with the ‘world’ in the sense we are considering in this study.
When praying about his disciples and the world, Jesus makes a clear distinction: “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them that you have given me; for they are yours.…I have given them your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” (John 17:9,14)
It was the common practice of Christian believers to address each other as ‘brethren’ in NT times, as in the following examples, “But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil affected against the brethren…Greet all the brethren with an holy kiss… I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, … And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See you do it not: I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God…”. (Acts 14:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:26; Romans 12:1; Revelation 19:10). This custom has continued even up to this present time. As we can see, this designation is not just casual or sentimental, but underlines a fundamental truth and refers to those who have been redeemed and born of God – a privilege that takes precedent over every other human relationship (Matthew 12:47-50; Luke 14:26,27; 1 John 3:1). The ‘brethren’ are those that have the testimony of Jesus Christ!
Not only do Christians use the common designation of ‘brothers’ for one another, but the truth highlighted by Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats is exemplified and reflected by the actions of believers in the NT. All the examples in the Acts and the Epistles of practical help and support that the churches were involved in relate exclusively to helping believers. Most of these refer to suffering believers but there are also references of support for those who labour in the Gospel. For the former we have the following verses: Acts 2:45-46; 4:32-35; 6:1-3; 11:29-30; 24:17; Romans 12:13; 15:25-26; 2 Corinthians 8:1-4; 9:1-2. For the latter: 1 Timothy 5:17,18; 1 Corinthians 9:1-15; Philippians 4:15-18. Looking at the former verses in particular, we see that right from the inception of the church, care and support for one another among the Christian community was natural and common – not just locally, but such care for believers in need extended beyond regional or national borders! From these verses it is obvious that such care for other believers represented the burden and focus of the early church. This is true to such an extent that it was called ‘the fellowship of ministering to the saints.’ (2 Cor.8:4; 9:1).
There is no example of a church or company of believers being involved in supporting unbelievers – financially or otherwise – in the NT. This does not mean they did not do so – it just means that such actions were not recorded in the writings of the NT. Considering the commands to love one’s neighbour and the parable of the good Samaritan – as well as other exhortations which we will shortly look at – it would be only reasonable to assume that Christians exercised such care and compassion as opportunities naturally afforded themselves. But what is recorded is that the burden and focus of the NT church was to support those believers who were suffering need.
All this is consistent with the words of Jesus to his disciples when he says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.” (John 13:35). The apostle John gives this as a mark of someone who has truly been converted when he says, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.” (1 John 3:14). A few verses after this John says that loving and supporting a fellow believer in need is the inevitable result of God’s love dwelling in our hearts, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother have need, and shuts up his heart of compassion from him, how dwells the love of God in him?” (1 John 3:17).
As with the examples we have of support and aid in the NT, so likewise the teaching of the apostles in the NT on supporting others largely, though not exclusively, refers to supporting believers who are in need, as we have just seen in John’s first letter. Paul exhorts the Roman believers that they should distribute ‘to the necessity of saints’ (Rom.12:13). The writer of Hebrews encourages and commends the believers in saying, “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which you have showed toward his name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” (Hebrews 6:10). When writing to the Corinthians (2 cor. 8:1-7), Paul exhorts them to abound in this ‘grace’ as much as in other virtues, “Therefore, as you abound in everything, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that you abound in this grace also.” Which ‘grace is he talking about? In verse four he calls it the grace of ‘ministering to the saints’. It hardly needs proving that ‘saints’ refers to Christian believers just as the word ‘brothers’ does in the NT.
We have noted that supporting believers in need was the burden and focus of the early church and the natural, common expression of love among those early Christians, to the extent that it was called the ‘fellowship of ministering to the saints’. Helping the poor was so much an integral part of the early church that when Peter gave Paul the ‘right hand of fellowship’, the one thing he emphasized is that Paul should ‘remember the poor’ (Gal.2:9,10), which Paul confirmed he was also keen to do. We have looked at many verses that show us that the NT church focussed on remembering poor believers, but in no way was the teaching limited to this. So, for example, in the same Galatian letter Paul writes, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10). We are to do good to all – but again the burden of the early church comes through as Paul emphasizes that we ought to do so especially to believers in need. James, when talking about the nature of true religion, says, “Pure religion and undefiled before God the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27). In the next chapter when he talks about true faith needing works to follow it, it seems his emphasis is directed to having compassion on believers – “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food….” (James 2:15).
We must remember that the apostles heard (or in the case of Paul, would have been told about) the teaching of Jesus concerning the parables of the good Samaritan and the sheep and goats, and since we believe in the inspiration of scripture, there is no way that the actions or teaching of the apostles in these matters would have been a distortion or misrepresentation of Jesus’ teaching. As we have noted, none of this limits or precludes Christians from aiding others by good works, but without doubt, the focus and burden of the NT church was to ensure support for suffering Christians. Today, the priorities of scripture are being inverted as the focus and burden of the social gospel is on community action rather than the support of suffering Christians.
Paul speaks of his desire for his fellow Jews to be saved, but makes it clear they are his brothers ‘according to the flesh’. This simply emphasizes the point that a Christians ‘true’ brother is a fellow believer. Paul also naturally calls Jews his brethren when preaching the Gospel to them, to witness to an identical background and to gain their hearing, as do the other apostles (Acts 13:26; 2:29).
In Acts 17:26, 29, Paul is preaching to the philosophical and idolatrous Athenians and he says this: “God…has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth…Therefore then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Deity is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” Paul is not calling these Athenians his ‘brothers’ by saying this. It is evident he is pointing out the fundamental truth that it is God that has made us all and in that sense we are his ‘offspring’ and therefore we should not liken God to earthly images made of silver or gold. He is trying to woo them away from their idolatry and bring them back to the one who created them.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats, that Jesus is referring to helping those who believe on him and follow him, is consistent with, and harmonises totally with all the teaching and scriptures we have looked at.
A FURTHER THOUGHT PROPAGATED BY SOME:
Do the ‘brethren’ in Matthew 25 refer to the Jewish people?
In Matthew 25 verse 32 Jesus uses the expression ‘all nations’. Who is he referring to? Does this expression mean that he is necessarily referring only to the Gentile nations and not the Jewish nation. No, of course it doesn’t necessarily mean this. The Greek word for ‘nation’ is ‘ethnos’, and is very often used in the New Testament in the plural to denote ‘the Gentiles’, in other words, the nations apart from the Jewish nation. And there are many examples of this – Mtt. 10:5; Romans 11:13, etc.
However, the word ‘nations’ (ethne) can also be used to refer to all the nations of the world as it is in Luke 21:25 (And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring).
More importantly though, is the use of the expression ‘all nations’ (panta ta ethne) in the New Testament. This is expression is often used to mean exactly what it says, namely, it refers to all the nations of the world including the Jews. For example:
Matthew 24:9 Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and you shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.
Is it only Jewish believers that shall be hated by all nations and not Gentile believers? In this chapter Jesus is talking to his followers, those that believe in him. Indeed, anyone who follows Christ is in a position of being hated by the world, including Gentile believers: “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.” 1 John 3:13. Consider the following verse,
Matthew 24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
Is this witness of the gospel only to come to Gentile nations and not to the Jews? Yes, to the Jews also, for Jesus makes this clear,
Luke 24:47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Furthermore we read,
“And has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” (Acts 17:26).
It is evident here that ‘all nations’ means all nations including the Jewish nation, unless one claims they have different blood! And are we to say that the Jews are excluded from the following company of ‘all nations’,
“After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9).
According to how this expression is used in the New Testament, the idea that ‘all nations’ necessarily refers only to Gentile nations is manifestly false. In many cases it refers to every nation on earth including the Jewish nation. The context must decide – both the immediate context and the context of the passage within the New and Old Testaments.
‘My brethren’ / ‘My brothers’
To save time and words, we need to go to the heart of the matter and look at what Jesus meant when he said ‘my brethren’ in this passage. Without doubt, the best commentary – at least initially – on the Bible, is the Bible itself. And we are helped by the fact that Jesus himself defines who his brethren are.
“Then one said unto him, Behold, your mother and your brothers stand outside, desiring to speak with you. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brothers? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brothers! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:47-50).
The expression ‘whosoever shall do the will of my father’ manifestly refers to all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles. The historical fact that he was speaking to Jews at that time does not limit this truth to the Jews, as though it is only the Jews who will be able to do the will of his father!
After his resurrection, Jesus tells some of his disciples,
“Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.” (Matthew 28:10).
He is clearly talking about those who believe in him and are his followers. (As his ministry was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel at this time, these believers would naturally be Jews, but soon to be added to!)
And then of course, we have the most telling statement by Jesus to Saul of Tarsus when he says,
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).
To treat Christians badly is to treat Christ badly! (And who was treating the Christians badly at this time? It was the unbelieving Jews.) Jesus Christ identifies himself with those who believe in him, and he identifies those that believe in him with himself! Thus, he says in Matthew 18:6, “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones ‘who believe in me’, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Christ associates himself with those that believe him and follow him without reservation,
“And he that takes not his cross, and follows after me, is not worthy of me…He that receives you receives me, and he that receives me receives him that sent me.” (Matthew 10:38-42).
The person that doesn’t take up his cross and follow Jesus is not worthy of him and with such a person Christ does not associate himself by calling him his brother. How can one turn the consistent teaching found in the Gospels and Acts on its head by suddenly stating that ‘my brethren’ refers to natural Jews or the Jewish nation. Nowhere in the New Testament does Christ refer to natural Jews or natural Israel as ‘his brethren’. If we follow the principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture then this interpretation becomes a nonsense.
It goes without saying that it was the common practice of Christian believers to address each other as ‘brethren’ in NT times and beyond. Paul speaks of his desire for his fellow Jews to be saved, but makes it clear they are his brothers ‘according to the flesh’. And he most naturally calls Jews his brethren when preaching the Gospel to them, to witness to an identical background and to gain their hearing, as do the other apostles ( Acts 13:26; 2:29). But Christ’s definition of who represents his brothers holds true and, as I have said, was the common designation of believers for one another.
The ones that Jesus Christ is most naturally associated with, are the ones that rejected him, namely the Jews or the Jewish nation.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets, and stone them which are sent unto you, how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, you shall not see me again, till you shall say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23:37-39).
To the Pharisees he said, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15).
He pronounces severe impending judgement of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum for their rejection of him despite the miracles he did among them (Matthew 11:20-24).
The Jews’ rejection of Jesus at this time led to the most serious pronouncements concerning them and their nation…
“From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zachariah, who perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation. Woe unto you, lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge: you entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in you hindered.” (Luke 11:51-52).
The consequences of all this are put out in clear and stark terms by the Lord when the faith of a gentile surprises Him,
“And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:11-12).
Much of the teaching and many of the parables of Jesus highlight this very issue of the Jews’ rejection of Him in favour of holding on to their traditions and a form of religion that is just outward – and the consequences that would ensue from that. Examples of this abound,
“Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, who planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into a far country… Therefore I say unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” (Matthew 21:33, 43).
“…Then said he to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but they who were bidden were not worthy. Go you therefore into the highways, and as many as you shall find, bid to the marriage.’” (Matthew 22:4-9).
These parables highlight the fact that the Jewish nation had not been faithful with that which God had given, and how ‘the kingdom’ would be taken away from them. You may also notice that these are the chapters leading up to Matthew chapter 25. They all speak of the nation of the Jews turning their backs on what had been purposed for them by God!
In chapter 25 itself, in the lead up to the passage we are considering, Jesus tells further parables which warn against a lack of faithfulness with regard to what the Lord has given to those who (profess to) know him. The five wise virgins had taken time to keep the inward living content of their outward vessels full and alive, and so were ‘ready’ to meet the Lord. All ten were outwardly the same – they all slept and were woken at the same time; they all had vessels; they all had the same expectation – but the other five had not looked after the content of their vessels properly. The servant who had been given one talent hadn’t used it properly nor been faithful with it, so had no part in the kingdom.
The truths or principles that are highlighted in these two parables refer to those who out of a genuine inner relationship with the Lord are faithful to him at all times and consequently bare genuine fruit and are thus ready (in the truest sense) to meet him with joy.
Now some believe that in the following parable of the sheep and the goats, when Jesus talks about ‘my brethren’, he is now suddenly referring to natural Jews or the Jewish nation as His brethren, and the other nations shall be judged according to how they have treated them! This flies in the face of everything Christ has been teaching right up to this point and turns it on its head! It counters the whole message given in the Gospels of the Jews general (but certainly not absolute) rejection of Christ, their apostate condition as a nation and their loss of the kingdom. With His words of judgement still fresh in their ears, we are now to believe that Christ is teaching in this parable of the sheep and goats that the nations will be judged by how they treated the Jewish people and the Jewish nation!
If we are to believe that the ‘brethren’ now represent the Jewish nation, then where does this lead us? Those nations or people who treat the nation or people of Israel kindly are now called ‘the righteous’! Forget the gospel! Forget the truth that there is none righteous, no not one, and that for this reason Christ had to die on Calvary to bear our sins that we may be made the righteousness of God through Christ! We now have a new criterion for righteousness! And it is by this righteousness that we enter the kingdom of God, namely, the righteousness of treating the Jewish people kindly! Jesus says, “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
This language is used for all genuine believers in Christ – “According as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world… For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 1:4; 2:10). The purposes of God were already determined before the foundation of the world in Christ and for all genuine believers, Jew or Gentile, “Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you… And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (1 Peter 1:20, Revelation 13:8; and Ephesians 1:3, 4). To the 70 disciples Jesus said, “Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20). It is genuine believers in Christ whose names are written in the book of life (Phil.4:3; Rev.3:5) and it is they that shall inherit the kingdom of God prepared from the foundation of the world (John 3:3,5; 1 Cor.6:9).
I would like to state clearly and with great emphasis that none of what is written in this study means that Jewish people are to be treated unkindly or badly, or that anyone should have the remotest antipathy or ill feeling towards Jewish people or the nation of Israel. Far from it! Read Romans 11:13-33.
Of course in the Old Testament God pronounced judgements on nations that had treated Israel cruelly, but the idea that the nations are accounted righteous and ordained from the foundation of the world to eternal life and to inherit the kingdom of God because of their treatment of the Jewish people is nowhere taught in the New Testament, nor in the Old Testament. And there is no biblical warrant for using the specific context of the Old Testament and arbitrarily applying them to the final judgement day.
Do we have any indication as to who exactly will be judged and why in the NT? Yes, we have clear indications. Paul says about the Lord’s coming, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ”. And again, “And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. (2 Thess. 1:8; 3:10). And Peter follows the same line, “But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” (2 Peter 3:7). People will be judged because of their refusal to receive the truth of the Gospel and their refusal to repent of their evil deeds. Thus we read in the Revelation that men repented not of their wicked ways, “Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts… And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds. (Rev. 9:21; 16:11).
And how shall the world be judged on that final day? We read, “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it; and death and hades delivered up the dead who were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:12-15). Men and women shall be judged by their works, whose names are not written in the Book of Life! What works? Well, Revelation 21:8 tells us, “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
Now some may say, “Ah, but many of these verses refer to the coming of the Lord in clouds of glory when he judges the world, not to the final judgement.” Indeed, this is so. However, all these verses – including the final day of judgement – make no mention of people being judged by their treatment of natural Israel! There is no such scenario in the NT – which must as a matter of course be consistent with the OT. All the scriptures that depict ultimate judgement agree that men will be punished for their refusal to repent of their evil deeds and their rejection of the Gospel of truth.
There is only one description of the one day of judgement when all the resurrected dead shall appear before Him who sits on the throne, and that is in Revelation 20, and in verse 12 we read this, “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.” Faith and love towards God must result in works that reflect God’s work of grace in our hearts, and according to the parable under consideration in this study, one of those ‘works’ is showing compassion to the Lord’s people, his brethren.
The idea that all the dead shall be judged by how they treated Israel is simply taught or implied anywhere in the Bible, and to give the passage concerning the sheep and goats such a meaning can only be the result of an agenda-driven interpretation. Or are people inventing an additional judgement day not recorded in the NT? The parable of the sheep and goats states that it will be the day the Son of man sits on the throne to judge all nations. Will there be two such days? Of course not.
Understanding the meaning of the words of Jesus.
Some say that we need to recognise how the Jews would have understood the words and teachings of Jesus. This indeed may be useful to some degree. But the idea that this should in the end determine our understanding or interpretation of Scripture is fundamentally wrong. Jesus taught about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and after listening to this many of his disciples turned away from him and followed him no more. I suggest that we do not follow their example! The Pharisees believed that the Messiah would set up an outward kingdom when he came. The apostles themselves, right up to the time of Christ’s ascension, believed in a similar vein, thinking that Jesus would deliver them from the occupation and rule of the Romans and set up an earthly kingdom. (Acts 1:6).
Such thoughts as these did not come out of the blue! They based these expectations on the declarations of the prophets! They were Jews. They had been taught the Scriptures! And after everything that Jesus had said and taught over three years they still hadn’t understood God’s fundamental purpose for men and women – which had been in fact declared by those very prophets! The disciples had fundamentally misunderstood the pronouncements made by the prophets. But it would be all right. Jesus knew that when the Holy Spirit came he would lead them into all truth!
If we follow how the Jews of his day ‘understood’ the words of Jesus, then we Christians today would still be waiting for Jesus to deliver Judaea out of the hands of Roman rule! However, we have the benefit not only of hindsight, of knowing about subsequent historical events, but also of the teachings of the Acts of the Apostle and the epistles! Those who seek to interpret the words ‘my brethren’ as referring to Jewish people by alluding to prophecies in the Old Testament are just as wrong as the apostles when thought Jesus might deliver them from Roman occupation!
How the Jews understood the words of Jesus cannot in itself determine how we understand or interpret them! We have been given the precious word of God and the Holy Spirit who is to lead us into all truth through this word. These are the decisive and determining elements in our understanding and interpretation. To interpret Scripture by Scripture is always the first rule and principle!
Let me say again, especially in these days when anti-Semitism is rife, that it goes without saying that none of this means that we should have a negative attitude towards the Jews! Not at all! All we are doing here is looking at the meaning of the parable of the sheep and the goats in the context of other scriptures. Nor does it mean that God doesn’t have some further purpose with Israel in the future! We read, “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” Moreover, we have the teaching of Romans 9 – 11, which indicates momentous events yet to come. Nothing written here is to engender any kind of pride, animosity or dismissiveness of the Jewish people. On the contrary, should we not pray for the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh as much as for anyone else?
However, we want to be found on God’s side in these matters. What do I mean? I mean this – King Jehoshaphat is invited by the evil and apostate King Ahab of Israel to go out with him against the King of Syria to retake Ramoth-Gilead. King Jehoshaphat wrongly replies, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.” (1 Kings 22:4). So Jehoshaphat goes with Ahab to fight against the king of Syria, believing that because they are all Jews, they are therefore ‘one’. The King of Israel is killed in the battle and Jehoshaphat escapes. Upon returning to his house the prophet Jehu comes to him and says, “Should you help the wicked, and love them that hate the LORD? Therefore is wrath came upon you from the LORD.” (2 Chron.19:2).
These are severe words! But it is exactly what some Christians are doing today – they are making the same mistake that Jehoshaphat made. It is a totally carnal and sentimental understanding of who the people of God are! The kingdoms of Judah and Israel were all Jews, all descendants of Abraham, they represented the twelve tribes! But the kingdom of Israel was not following the Lord. They had turned their backs on him! It was wrong and ungodly for Jehoshaphat to identify himself or the people under his rule with the King of Israel. It was not enough to be of the same race, it was not enough to be a descendant of Abraham. True brotherhood is based on a genuine relationship with the one true God which is displayed in works that reflect that relationship.
Jehoshaphat might have thought something like this, “Ohhhhh. Israel are Jews. They are our brothers. They are God’s people. Of course I will help them!”
He was wrong, just as many Christians with a similar attitude today are wrong. The nation state of Israel today is a secular state which does not follow the Lord! To say, as some Christians today are saying, that it is an obligation and a blessing to help the secular state of Israel, is as wrong, as sentimental and as foolish as Jehoshaphat’s support for King Ahab of Israel. And who is to say that it is not as deserving of the same rebuke that God gave to Jehoshaphat? Some go even further and say that individual churches that do not support (the secular nation of) Israel, will be subject to God’s judgement in this life, as well as the next. We are now entering the area of ‘another gospel’. I was given a tract many years ago which warned that any church that does not ‘support’ Israel will forfeit God’s sanctifying protection and the church will fall into all kinds of immorality!
This might not be the outlook of all those who interpret ‘my brethren’ as referring to the Jewish people, but without doubt there is an agenda-driven interpretation of Scripture today that is both carnal and wrong and helps neither Jew nor Gentile. It is in danger of undermining the meaning and power of the Gospel and of God’s purposes for each man and woman on earth by setting up a standard of righteousness and acceptance before God other than the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Teachings like, “Your church will not be spiritually blessed unless you are involved in actively and practically supporting the nation state of Israel” are as erroneous as those that the apostle Paul was fighting against when he wrote his letter to the Galatians.
Again I say, this doesn’t mean in the slightest that one should be against the state of Israel, but we should distinguish things that differ in order that we may both pray in the right way and act in the right way. Let us pray for the work of the Lord in Israel. Let us pray that the gospel will prosper and yet more will be added to the church there.
Helping the poor.
In Romans 15:27, Paul says, “It has pleased them greatly; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in material things.” Some make mention of this as though Christians are obliged to support the state of Israel with material things today. This verse doesn’t mean this at all as can be plainly seen. This is not a ‘blanket’ statement to the effect that all Christians for all time should support the nation of Israel! It wouldn’t have done them much good in the first century when God fulfilled his own purposes in having Rome destroy Jerusalem in AD 70!
Paul is underlining the truth that the origin of their spiritual blessing stems from the Jews, and therefore it is simply right and proper that they should help suffering believers back in Judaea. As we have noted above, it is called ministering to the saints (Romans 15:25; 2 Cor.8:4, 9:1). The support was for Jewish believers – “For it has pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints who are at Jerusalem.” (Romans 15:26). I have no hesitation in backing this! Care for poor believers was a priority in the early church, and we can read many verses to that effect! And if city churches outside of Judaea had resources to help their poor brethren in Judaea, then it was a righteous thing for them to do. The Scriptures are clear and wonderful! They give us no ground for misunderstanding the context!
When Jesus is talking about ‘his brethren’, the context, as we have seen, is a reference to those who believe and obey him. The fact that he says, “Since you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me”, instead of, “Since you have done it unto one of the least of these your brethren, you have done it unto me,” is not anomaly at all. It is simply to emphasise a truth, namely, his total identification with his own – as when Jesus said to Saul, “why do you persecute me?”
Whatever our eschatological views may be, we have no right to presume that they are so accurate that we can interpret a passage of Scripture by them in a way that contradicts the plain teaching of other Scriptures that are consistent and uniform on this matter.
The latter chapters of Matthew focus on the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, the judgement that ensues on them because of this, and how we will be judged according to how faithful we have been with what has been given to us. (The other Gospels are totally in tune with this emphasis and focus.) The parable of the sheep and goats comes in the wake of these teachings. ‘My brethren’ refers to those who follow Christ and do the will of the Father, whether Jew or Gentile. To make it refer only to the Jews (whether believing or unbelieving) is an unjustified quantum leap in logic that doesn’t accord with the rest of Jesus’ teaching on this subject in the Gospels. Nor is such a scenario depicted in any recognisable way anywhere else in the New Testament, not even in the book of the Revelation – except if one chooses to interpret a passage in this way! That God has yet future dealings with Israel seems very much indicated in Romans chapters 9 – 11, but these chapters in no way lead us into an interpretation of Matthew 25:21-36 given by those who wish to suggest ‘my brethren’ refers to natural Jews. We should always interpret a verse by that which is clear elsewhere in the Bible.
Whatever our eschatology and our view of the nation of Israel in that eschatology, it must recognise and harmonise with the following truths:
John 10:14-16: I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knows me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
Ephesians 2:11-18: Therefore remember, that you being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; to make in himself of two one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you who were afar off, and to them that were near. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.
Ephesians 4:4: There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling;
1 Corinthians 12:12-13 For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
Romans 2:28-29: For he is not a Jew, who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.