One of Jesus’ more rhetorically powerful teachings is found in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus describes the final judgment of the world (25:31, 46) using the vivid imagery of sheep and goats being marked for either reward (the sheep) or punishment (the goats). The final verdict is based on how “the nations” have responded to the needy person identified as “one of the least of these brothers of mine” (25:40) or simply “one of the least of these” (25:45).
This passage presents a challenging interpretative choice: who exactly are the “least of these” that Jesus describes? The three most likely options are: 1) they are any and all needy people in this world (supported by commentators Davies and Allison, and Bruner); (2) they are needy followers of Jesus (Turner, Wilkins, France), 3) they are persecuted messengers for Jesus (Keener, Blomberg, Osborne). In addition, some commentators make the point that all disciples are expected to be messengers of Jesus, so there is little need to distinguish between needy Christians and persecuted messengers of the gospel (Carson, Hagner).
Let’s narrow the discussion to an examination of views #1 and #3 from above, with the understanding that view #2 could be included in view #3 after making minor modifications.
View #1: The sheep and goats (self-identified followers of Jesus) are people being judged based upon how actively they helped the poor and needy. Here are some arguments that support this view:
A. The sheep and goats express surprise in the passage. This is best understood as the surprise of those who thought they had been following Christ but discover that they are tragically mistaken.
B. Along these lines, the sheep and goat story reflects the teaching that a tree is known by its fruit. Matthew 7:15-23 (speaking of false prophets) says, “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . . Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name? And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me.’”
C. Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus stresses the importance of showing mercy to those in need (Matt 6:2-3; Matt 23:23). Additionally, Jesus’ own life displays a concern for the overlooked and disregarded people of the world.
D. The preceding passages are addressed to Christ’s followers and emphasize the theme of being prepared for Christ’s return and judgment (Matt 24 and 25, with stories such as the parable of the 10 virgins and the parable of the talents).
E. Understanding this passage as a call to show mercy to anyone in need makes the teaching more directly applicable in any society and any time period.
View #3 (including view #2, for simplicity): The sheep and goats are people from the nations being judged based upon how they respond to the lowly believers who proclaim and demonstrate the good news of the kingdom of God in Christ. Here are some of the best arguments for this position:
A. Jesus’ disciples are called his “brothers” and “little ones” in Matthew (12:46-50; 28:10; see also 10:40-42), and these terms are very similar to “the least of these brothers of mine,” and “the least of these” from Matthew 25.
B. Matthew 25 :31-46 shows a strong parallel to the language of Matt 10:40-42: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes someone known to be a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes someone known to be righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded.” The close association between Jesus and the little ones is the same in both passages, and the wording of Matthew 10:40-42 unambiguously refers to Jesus’ disciples in that instance.
C. In Matthew, suffering and persecution is promised to disciples who are sent out on mission for Jesus (10:1-23; 24:9-14; 28:16-20). This also recalls the final Beatitude from Matt 5:10-13: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” Jesus always give assurances to his persecuted followers that he is standing with them and strengthening them. The ultimate vindication of persecuted believers is envisioned in Matt 25:31-46, according to view #3.
D. The “nations” in Matthew are consistently identified as the recipients of the disciples’ gospel outreach (12:18-21; 20:19; 24:9; 24:14; 28:19), which suggests that the “nations” (Matt 25:32) being judged in this teaching are similarly the people of the broader world into which Jesus’ disciples are being sent.
E. A passage that reveals Jesus’ similar perspective on his disciples and their treatment by the nations is Matthew 24:9-14: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. . . . And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
F. The sacrificial death of Christ (which is introduced immediately after this passage – see Matt 26:1-2) is more centrally featured with this view.
As you can see, both of these positions have compelling evidence in their favor. That is why so many people disagree about which view is more likely. What is the resulting difference of interpretation? View #1 challenges people to help the poor and needy, while view #3 encourages believers to become poor and needy for the sake of the gospel (with the assurance that Jesus is standing with them and identifying himself with them). Either way, this is a convicting passage that helps Christians evaluate their priorities in the light of eternity.