31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.
32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
33 He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on the left.
34 Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
35 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 took Me in;
36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you took care of Me; I was in prison and you visited 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?
38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or without clothes and clothe You?
39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and visit You?’
40 And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’
41 Then He will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!
42 For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink;
43 I was a stranger and you didn’t take Me in; I was naked and you didn’t clothe Me, sick and in prison and you didn’t take care of Me.’
44 Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help You?’
45 Then He will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.’
46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This parable ends the so-called Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24-25. Jesus is on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, responding to their questions about the future destruction of the Temple and the end of the age: “When will these things happen (the destruction of the Temple)? And what is the sign of your coming and of the end of the age” (Matt. 24:3)? He concludes His teaching in Matthew 25 with an exhortation to watchfulness (the parable of the 10 virgins, Matt. 25:1-13); an encouragement to faithfulness (the parable of the talents, Matt. 25:14-30); and an assurance of righteous judgment (the parable of the sheep and goats, Matt. 25:31-46).
The central theme of this parable is that Christ will separate believers from unbelievers at His return.
The central character in this parable is Christ, who assures His disciples He will return one day with the holy angels and sit on the throne of His glory – “the glory of His judicial authority” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary). Jesus refers to Himself as a shepherd, who faithfully separates the sheep from the goats. Jesus knows who belongs to Him and who does not. “My sheep hear My voice, I know them, and they follow Me,” He says in John 10:27. There are many other references to God/Christ as the shepherd and to His followers as sheep (see Ps. 23:1, 80:1; Zech. 13:7; Matt. 26:31; John 10:11, 14, 16; Heb. 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25, 5:4). In this parable, Jesus plainly teaches that a time of separation is coming when those who are of His flock will enjoy the benefits of His kingdom while those who have rejected Him will be rejected themselves.
It’s important to establish when this judgment takes place and who it involves as the sheep and goats. There is considerable disagreement over these two questions. Some commentators believe this parable is a general description of the final judgment of all mankind – a summary of both the judgment seat of Christ for believers (Rom. 14:10, 2 Cor. 5:10) and the great white throne judgment for unbelievers (Rev. 20:11-15), even though these judgments may be separated by a thousand years or more. Other scholars, however, believe this parable teaches a separate judgment for all those who survive the great tribulation and witness the return of Christ.
In the context of Jesus’ teaching on the Mount of Olives in Matthew 24-25, and since there is no reference to resurrection, it appears Jesus will carry out this judgment in concert with His personal, physical and glorious return one day, and that the sheep and goats represent those who are alive at His return. Their treatment of “the least of these brothers of Mine” (Matt. 25:40) indicates the true condition of their hearts, either as believers in Christ or rejecters of the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Next, it’s helpful to look more closely at some key words and phrases Jesus uses in this parable:
- Son of man. This is the name Jesus most frequently gives to Himself. “Some eighty times He thus designated Himself and this familiar title was a racial one as the representative Man” (Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible). Used also in the Old Testament, this term has Messianic meaning, and by using it liberally, Jesus is revealing not only His identity with man (John 1:14) but His identity as the Son of God.
- All the nations. The word “nations” also may be translated “Gentiles.” Herbert Lockyer points out that “when the plural is used in the Bible, it represents all the heathen or Gentile nations of the world as distinguished from the Jewish nation (All the Parables of the Bible). Others argue that the Jews are necessarily included here. Still others teach that this is a reference to representatives of all the sovereign nations of the world, which will be judged for their treatment of God’s people as all national boundaries are dissolved. It seems best in the context of this parable to see the nations/Gentiles as those individuals who are alive at the glorious appearing of Christ.
- Sheep and goats. These creatures often graze together, and it takes the trained eye of the shepherd to separate them at the time of shearing. Sheep symbolize mildness, simplicity, innocence – the qualities of one completely dependent upon the shepherd for protection and care. Clearly, these are believers. Goats naturally are quarrelsome, selfish and smelly – a stark contrast that highlights the profane and impure character of unbelievers.
- Right and left. “The right hand is the place of honour, and denotes the situation of those who are honoured, or those who are virtuous…. The left was the place of dishonour, denoting condemnation” (Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament).
- The King. This is the only time Jesus directly refers to Himself as King – and just three days before He is crucified as a common criminal.
- Brothers of mine. Some teach that these are the Jews, and eternal rewards await those who care for God’s chosen people, especially throughout the great tribulation. Others believe this is a reference to all believers. It would appear this phrase describes those who trust in Christ – at great personal cost – during the period between the rapture of the church and the glorious appearing of the King.
Now, let’s look more closely at what Jesus says to those who stand before Him in judgment. To those on His right, He says, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34). Believers often are called heirs of God and/or co-heirs with Christ in Scripture (see Rom. 8:17; Gal. 4:6-7; Heb. 1:14). The kingdom of heaven has been “prepared” – designed, appointed – for believers from the beginning. This is no new plan; rather, it is the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan to bless His own.
What is the basis of this blessing for these people? “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 took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you took care of Me; I was in prison and you visited Me” (vv. 35-36). We know from Jesus’ own words that eternal life is received by faith and not by works (John 5:24). So what He seems to be saying is that the way the sheep treat God’s children demonstrates they truly know Him. “The surprise expressed is not at their being told that they acted from love to Christ, but that Christ Himself was the Personal Object of all their deeds” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary).
In contrast, Jesus says to those on His left, “Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels” (v. 41). The one who rejects Christ is “already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God” (John 3:18). “There is a remarkable difference between the manner in which the righteous shall be addressed, and the wicked. Christ will say to the one that the kingdom was prepared for them; to the other, that the fire was not prepared for them, but for another race of beings. They will inherit it because they have the same character as the devil, and therefore are fitted to the same place” (Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament).
What is the basis of this departure into eternal fire? “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 didn’t take Me in; I was naked and you didn’t clothe Me, sick and in prison and you didn’t take care of Me” (vv. 42-43). As with the sheep, the goats’ destiny is not determined by works; rather, the works demonstrate the true condition of the heart. The unbeliever does not care for heirs of the kingdom because he has no regard for the King. And so, by his choice, the goat departs into eternal fire.
Our acts of kindness, especially toward those “who belong to the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10), demonstrate our true nature as children of the King, and are received by Christ as if done for Him personally.
The terms “kingdom of God,” “kingdom of heaven,” and “kingdom” (with reference to the kingdom of God/heaven) appear nearly 150 times in scripture. None of these references gives a simple, straightforward definition of the kingdom, and many passages appear to be contradictory. Yet the kingdom is the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Many of His parables describe the kingdom. The apostles preach the “gospel of the kingdom.” And end-times prophecy points us toward the day when God’s kingdom will come in its fullness.
So, what is the kingdom of heaven? Are the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God the same thing? Is the kingdom here already, or are we to wait for it? What does it look like? Who’s in the kingdom and who’s not? And what is required to enter the kingdom? These and other questions will be explored in this 17-part study, mostly through the lens of Jesus’ parables in Matthew on the kingdom of heaven.