New Testament Study:

Matthew 25:31-46

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Separation of the Sheep from the Goats,

by Scott Sperling

 

31“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left.

34“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. 35For 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, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

41“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. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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 and you did not look after me.’

44“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?’

45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

 

This discourse was initiated by the disciples asking about the destruction of the Temple, and (what the disciples thought would happen at the same time) the end of the age (see Matt. 24:3).  The focus now, and in the previous few parables, is the return of Christ at the end of the age.  While the prediction of the destruction of the Temple was a great prophecy, and the destruction itself a significant event, the coming return of Christ is a much more significant event, especially to us today.  “The reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, with which this great discourse began, has now passed out of sight, and we think only of the final coming of Christ” [Broadus, 507].  Specifically, here we see that, with the return of Jesus, will come the final judgment:  “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory.  All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left” (vss. 31–33). 

Note that, though in the previous sections Jesus spoke in parables, He here does not use a parable, but speaks directly about the end-times judgment, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory…”  This is a description of what will happen on Judgment Day.  We learn that “there is a judgment to come, in which every man shall be sentenced to a state of everlasting happiness, or misery, in the world of recompence or retribution, according to what he did in this world of trial and probation, which is to be judged of by the rule of the everlasting gospel” [Henry].  The significance of this cannot be understated.  “There are few passages in the whole Bible more solemn and heart-searching than this.  May we read it with the deep and serious attention which it deserves” [Ryle, 341].

It is somewhat ironic that Jesus here spoke of Himself as being exalted, for very soon, He would face His greatest humiliation.  “Within three days He was to be crucified; yet He spoke of the time ‘when the Son of man shall come in His glory’” [Spurgeon, 369].  “That same Jesus who was born in the manger of Bethlehem, and took upon Him the form of a servant; who was despised and rejected of men, and often had not where to lay His head; who was condemned by the princes of this world, beaten, scourged, and nailed to the cross—that same Jesus shall Himself judge the world, when He comes in His glory” [Ryle, 341].  “No longer will He be a homeless wanderer, with a handful of followers,” rather, “all the angels” will be with Him [Broadus, 508]. 

And let us all take note that it is Jesus who will be Judge.  “The administration of the judgment of the great day is committed to the Son of man; for by Him God will judge the world (see Acts 17:31), and to Him all judgment is committed” [Henry].  Our eternal destiny will be determined by Him.  Did we please Him when on earth?  Did we accept His great gift of sacrifice?  Will He be a stranger to us when we stand before Him?

Note that Jesus will be Judge over, not just those from so-called Christian nations, but rather, All the nations will be gathered before Him” (vs. 32).  No matter what religion you profess, you will stand before Jesus in judgment.  “Not only Jews, but Gentiles, not only some nations, but all… Though His personal mission was exclusively to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (15:24), yet He was destined to draw all men unto Him (John 12:32), and the proclamation of His work was to be made to all nations (28:19)” [Broadus, 508].  Note also that, the separation in judgment of people will be “one from another.”  The judgment will be made on an individual basis.  The actions of your godly mother will not apply to your account.  “The division will be very close and personal:  ‘one from another.’  They will not be separated into nations, nor even into families; but each individual will be allotted his or her proper place among the sheep or among the goats” [Spurgeon, 370].

“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? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (vss. 34–39).  Jesus here refers to Himself as “the King”.  This is somewhat unusual.  He usually referred to Himself as “the Son of Man”.  But here, He is looking forward to when He will come to earth to reign.

The “King”, presiding over the judgment, will bestow an “inheritance” on the “righteous”.  Their righteousness was evidenced in their actions.  They fed the hungry, clothed the needy, and visited the imprisoned.  They had compassion for the afflicted, and did their best to ease their afflictions.  Their compassion proved that they were true disciples.  “The good works here described imply three things, which must be found in all that are saved:  Self-denial; love to our brethren; a believing regard to Jesus Christ” [Henry].  At the judgment, “the question to be ascertained will not merely be what we said, but what we did; not merely what we professed, but what we practiced.  Our works unquestionably will not justify us:  we are justified by faith without the deeds of the law; but the truth of our faith will be tested by our lives.  Faith which hath not works is dead, being alone (see James 2:11)” [Ryle, 342].  “The essence of the passage is that the actions in question will be accepted as indicating personal relation to Christ; and it is really personal relation to Christ, as acted out in the life, that will fix eternal destiny” [Broadus, 510].  “We must bear in mind that it is common to the whole scriptural picture that we are saved by grace and judged by works (for this latter point, cf. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; II Cor. 5:10, etc).   The works we do are the evidence either of the grace of God at work in us or of our rejection of that grace” [Morris, 634].  “Are we, then, after all, to be saved by our works?  By no means.  Yet are our works the evidences of our being saved. If our actions are such as Christ will commend at the day of judgment, they prove that we are saved by grace, and that the Holy Spirit has wrought effectually in us, and through us” [Spurgeon, 371]. 

The rewarded ones were surprised at the King’s words:  “Lord, when did we…”.  Christ answered them:  “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (vs. 40).  Notable here is that when we show our compassion for others, and help them out, our Lord accounts the action as if we had helped Him.  “Christ is more among us than we think…  Christ espouses His people’s cause, and interests Himself in their interests, and reckons Himself received, and love, and owned in them.  If Christ Himself were among us in poverty, how readily would we relieve Him?  In prison, how frequently would we visit Him?” [Henry].  “They will bashfully disclaim the praise pronounced by the King.  They had no idea that there was anything meritorious in what they had done; they never dreamed of being rewarded for it” [Spurgeon, 371].   They weren’t doing the works to be saved.  The works were natural, outflowing acts from their lives as children of God.  “They did it because they delighted to do it, because they could not help doing it, because their new nature impelled them to it” [Spurgeon, 372]

Many wonder, how can I serve Christ?  Well, here’s your answer.  The simplest act on behalf of the needy is accounted as if done for Christ.  One doesn’t have to fly to the far reaches of a jungle to serve Christ.  One doesn’t have to found a mega-church to serve Christ.  There is no shortage of affliction in the world, and so there is no shortage of opportunity to serve our Lord.

Let us not move on from this passage without taking note of the reward given the righteous.  Jesus said, “Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (vs. 34).  The kingdom, which will be our inheritance, was “prepared” for us.  What a blessing!  It was “prepared” especially for us.  This demonstrates the care, and love God has for us.  “The Father designed it for us in His thoughts of love, and provided it for us in the greatness of His wisdom and power” [Henry]. 

The unrighteous will face a different fate:  “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 and 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, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (vss. 42–46).  They are judged for neglecting to give aid to the “hungry”, the “thirsty”, the “stranger”, the unclothed, and those “in prison”.  “All that is charged upon them, on which the sentence is grounded, is omission; as, before, the servant was condemned, not for wasting his talent, but for burying it” [Henry].  Their omission demonstrated that they were not true children of God.  “This omission on their part was no small matter; it was fatal, and it was visited with the eternal death sentence” [Spurgeon, 372].  “They are not sentenced for omitting their sacrifices and burnt-offerings, but for omitting the weightier matter of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith…  Note, sinners will be condemned, at the great day, for the omission of that good which it was in the power of their hand to do.  But if the doom of the uncharitable be so dreadful, how much more intolerable will the doom of the cruel be, the doom of persecutors!” [Henry]. 

Just as the righteous were surprised at what they were commended for, so this group is surprised at what they are condemned for.  They asked:  “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?(vs. 44).

Their punishment is severe:  “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (vs. 46).  Take note of this.  “He leaves His hearers in no doubt as to the solemnity of what He is saying.  Eternal issues are involved, and this is so for both those on His right hand and on His left” [Morris, 641].  The state of things after the judgment is changeless and without end.  The misery of the lost, and the blessedness of the saved, are both alike for ever:  let no man deceive us on this point” [Ryle, 344].  “It will at once be taken for granted, by any unprejudiced and docile mind, that the punishment of the wicked will last as long as the life of the righteous; it is to the last degree improbable that the Great Teacher would have used an expression so inevitably suggesting a great doctrine He did not mean to teach; those who deny the doctrine must establish here a difference of meaning, and with an overwhelming presumption against them” [Broadus, 512].