Sheep, goats, and social programs of the church

Sheep, goats, and social programs of the church: An interpretation of Matthew 25:31–46

Is the traditional view of who the sheep and the goats are in Matthew 24 correct?

Anton Petrishchev, PhD, serves as vice president for academic administration, Zaoksky Adventist University, Zaoksky, Tula, Russia

Many see Matthew 25:31– 46 as a call for Christians to serve the needs of the world. “Sheep” are those followers of Jesus who do works of mercy. “Goats” are people, including those who pretend to follow Jesus, who refuse to serve the needy.1 We base such understanding, in particular, on the identification of God as Israel’s Shepherd in Ezekiel 34:13–22. The judgment described by Ezekiel and initiated by social injustice toward the weak is a local judgment limited to God’s flock; that is, the people of Israel.2 Thus one can suppose that the parable tells about a social program of Christianity directed to help the needy. And those Christians who refuse to take part in this program jeopardize their eternal destiny.

Not rejecting this sound and plausible interpretation, let us look for another possible meaning of Matthew 25:31–46.

Context of the parable

Matthew 25:31–46 ends a section that begins in 24:1 with the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem‘s temple and disciples asking Jesus
about the signs of His return and the end of the world.  Matthew 24 and 25 provide Jesus’ answer to the question.3

This section emphasizes the universal nature of the described events. While it is possible to understand the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as a local calamity, Jesus wants to point to the wider context of the future events,4 using the expression “all nations.” Thus, He warns the disciples about the global opposition they will face: “ ‘You will be hated by all nations because of me’ ” (Matt. 24:9),5 and He tells them about the universal character of their mission: “ ‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations’ ” (Matt. 24:14).

Then Matthew 24 describes events that will take place before the Advent as well as during the Advent itself. The description of the Second Coming in Matthew 24:30, 31 includes the following elements: (1) Jesus as the Son of Man, (2) great glory, (3) angels, (4) gathering of the elect, and (5) mention of “the peoples of the earth,” which is a conceptual parallel to the expression “all nations” in verses 9 and 14.6

The next part of the section tells about the events surrounding the Second Coming and can be divided into the introduction (Matt. 24:32–44) and four parables (Matt. 24:45–25:46), which have parallel elements. All of them describe the reward of the righteous and the destiny of the wicked at the Second Coming.

Universal judgment

In Matthew 25:31–36, the theme of “all nations” reappears. The expression panta ta ethne is used again in Matthew 25:32. Besides, in Matthew 25:31, 32 the key elements of the Advent are found, which have been noted already in 24:30, 31: (1) Jesus calls Himself the Son of God, (2) He talks about coming in glory, (3) He is accompanied by angels, (4) and He talks about the “gathering” of all nations. Thus, a sort of inclusio is formed, which emphasizes that the entire humankind participates in the described events. 

It seems, therefore, that Matthew 24:32–25:46 tells about a universal judgment that relates not only to the believers who await the Second Coming but also, especially, to all humankind. The idea of universality is strengthened by the repetition of the title “Son of Man,” which, in turn, refers to Daniel 7:13, 147, where the Son of Man receives “authority, glory, and sovereign power” over “all nations and peoples of every language.” Thus, Matthew 24:32–25:46 contains a response of “all nations” to the preaching of the gospel (see Matt. 24:14) and the consequences of this response: those who accept the gospel are rewarded; those who refuse it are punished.8

Characters of the parable

The next important step is to identify the characters of the parable. They are (1) the Son of Man (the King), (2) sheep, (3) goats, (4) the least of the King’s brothers. One can easily identify
the Son of Man, but the others require some investigation.

Sheep. As seen from verse 32, “sheep” originally belong to “all nations.” The King names the “sheep” as “ ‘blessed by my Father’ ” and invites them to inherit the kingdom prepared “ ‘since the creation of the world’ ” (v. 34); besides, they are also called “ ‘the righteous’ ” (vv. 37, 46). Can all these characteristics be applied to those who do not belong to the people of God, but represent “all nations”?

The expression blessed by my Father can be a reference to Genesis 12:3 (cf. Num. 24:9), where God promises to bless those who will bless Abram, that is, will do good to him,9 and the phrase “all peoples on earth” shows that Gentiles are also meant. In turn, the invitation to inherit “ ‘the kingdom prepared . . .  since the creation of the world’ ” is, possibly, an echo of Genesis 1:28, where God blessed the first people and, through them, the entire humanity and gave them authority over all creation. And now representatives of “all nations” are invited to inherit the blessing of the royal governance given to the humankind at the Creation.

The term righteous does not contradict the fact that the “sheep” in the parable come from “all nations.” Righteousness is often defined as works of mercy (see Job 22:6–9; Isa. 58:6, 7; Ezek. 18:6–9). According to
this definition, even Gentiles can be deemed righteous if they do righteousness.10

Although “sheep” is a common biblical symbol for the people of God, it is sometimes applied to other nations. Thus, Jeremiah 51:40 says of Babylon, “ ‘I will bring them down like lambs to the slaughter, like rams and goats.’ ” Similar symbols and the context of judgment over Gentiles tie this text to the studied passage.

Goats. Representatives of “all nations” named as “goats” in the parable are also called “ ‘cursed’ ” (Matt. 25:41). The verb kataraomai, “to curse,” is used in the Greek of Genesis 12:3 in contrast to eulogeo, “to bless.” As God will bless Gentiles who do good to Abraham, He will curse those who “curse” Abraham, that is, do evil to Abraham.11

Thus Genesis 12:3 seems to be an important text for interpretation of Matthew 25:31–46, because both passages share some verbal and conceptual parallels. In the case of Abraham, obviously Gentiles will be blessed or cursed based upon their attitude to the patriarch and his family.

The least. Identity of “the least” in Matthew 25:40, 45 is also very important. The four most common interpretations identify them with (1) all the needy, (2) the Jews, (3) apostles, or (4) Christians in general.12

In Matthew 25:40 the King speaks of “the least” as His brothers. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus talks about His brothers13 as those who do the will of the Heavenly Father (Matt. 12:49, 50).14 This characteristic of “the least” as Jesus’ brothers allows their identification as Christians.

The expression “one of the least” should be interpreted in the context of Matthew 10.15 This chapter shares a number of parallels with Matthew 24, among which are the preaching of the gospel, persecutions, witnessing to Gentiles, hatred of people, the coming of the Son of Man, and betrayal by relatives. When Jesus sends His disciples to ministry, He orders them not to take any money, food, or clothes (Matt. 10:9, 10), thus making them dependent on the help of those to whom they preach, just as in Matthew 25:31–46. The ending of Matthew 10 resembles the last part of Matthew 25—in both cases Jesus identifies Himself with “the least”: “ ‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me. . . .  And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.’ ” (Matt. 10:40–42).

To give a cup of water to “ ‘one of these little ones’ ”16 means “to welcome” a disciple; and Jesus repeats a similar idea in Matthew 25:40: “ ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ” On the other hand, those who refuse to welcome Jesus’ disciples will receive punishment in the day of judgment (Matt. 10:14, 15), just as those who did not help “one of the least” (Matt. 25:41–45). It seems, therefore, that identification of “the least” as Jesus’ disciples is possible.

Church and society in the context of Matthew 25:31–46

If we agree that “sheep” and “goats” are representatives of “all nations;” that is, humanity in general, while “the least” are the followers and ministers of Christ, then it becomes evident that the text here says not so much about the church serving society and implementing certain social programs but more likely about the society serving the messengers of the gospel and fulfilling their needs.17 It does not mean that the church should not serve society; in fact, “there are plenty of other texts that clearly enjoin an active concern for the needy and the marginalized of society.”18

As for the parable, it makes clear that the church can serve this world and prepare it for the Second Coming by giving society a possibility to serve Christians. The meaning of the parable can be expressed in the following way: every person can become a part of Jesus’ family, if they respond to the proclamation of the gospel and treat Christ’s disciples as brothers and sisters.

However, the above interpretation assumes that “the least” are a separate group of people, different from the “sheep” and “goats” and thus having nothing in common with “all nations.” Such understanding can be supported by Matthew 24:9, where “all nations” are put in contrast to the disciples. Still, there is nothing in Matthew 25:31–46 that explicitly presents “the least” as a third group in addition to “sheep” and “goats.” At the same time, some biblical evidence can be provided in favor of identifying “the least” as “sheep” and, consequently, a part of “all nations.” This idea is found in such texts as Isaiah 66:18–20; and Ezekiel 34:11–22. Speaking about “the least” of His brothers, Jesus could include in their number some representatives of “all nations” who were not known as Jesus’ followers but still were a part of the “invisible church.” Thus people of “all nations” can also be among “the least” and expect some care and aid while in need. In the very same way “the least,” being a part of the society, belong to “all nations” and, therefore, share with them responsibility to express mercy and compassion.19

Christ does not set the church in opposition to society, or society to the church. He demonstrates our responsibility, as members of society, to His—and our—brothers and sisters scattered in this world. The parable of the sheep and goats shows that it is necessary for everybody, regardless of their relation to the Christian community, to respond to the proclamation of the gospel in helping the needy members of the invisible church of the Lord.



1 Edward Schweizer, “Matthew’s Church,” in The Interpretation of Matthew, ed. G. Stanton (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 138, 139; Joseph A. Grassi, “I Was Hungry and You Gave Me to Eat (Matt. 25:35ff): The Divine Identification Ethic in Matthew,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 11 (1981): 81–84.

2 Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20–48, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 29 (Dallas: Word, 2002), 163.

3 According to Donald A. Hagner, the disciples’ question serves as an introduction to the following discourse. See Hagner, Matthew 14–28, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33B (Dallas: Word, 2002), 687.

4 Cf. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 628.

5 All Bible references are from the New International Version.

6 Here Matthew expands the original meaning of Zechariah 12:12 to make it universal. Cf. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 984.

7 Cf. Craig Blomberg, Matthew ,The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 362.

8 “For Matthew, then, the conversation Jesus has with all the nations in the final judgment focuses on the way humankind has responded to Jesus in the person of his disciples. . . . Now the setting is a cosmic one, presupposing the response of all the peoples of earth to the universal mission of the disciples described in 28:18–20 (cf. 24:14).” Richard B. Gardner, Matthew: Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), 359.

9 William D. Reyburn and Euan M. Fry, A Handbook on Genesis, United Bible Societies’ Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1997), 274.

10 Cf. White, The Desire of Ages, 638. It is also interesting to note a parallel with Romans 2:9–16.

11 See Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1 (Dallas: Word, 2002), 277.

12 For a detailed discussion, see James M. Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 540.

13 Gardner, Matthew, 359.

14 The same thought can be found in Hebrews 2:11.

15 Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 745.

16 There is no essential difference between ton mikron in Matthew 10:42 and ton elachiston in Matthew 25:40, 45, because the latter form is the superlative of the former. Cf. William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 314.

17 The commission in Matthew 10:1, 8 implies not so much performing of a social order but rather doing of miracles, which would confirm that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 10:7) and that the disciples indeed were given special authority (exousia, 10:1). Cf. G. Jerome Albrecht and Michael J. Albrecht, Matthew, The People’s Bible (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1996), 149. See also Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:2–6.

18 Larry Chouinard, Matthew, The College Press NIV Commentary, electronic edition (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1997), s.v. Matthew 25:40. It is interesting also that Luke, the most “social” of all Gospels, lacks this parable.

19 Cf. White, The Desire of Ages, 638.

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Anton Petrishchev, PhD, serves as vice president for academic administration, Zaoksky Adventist University, Zaoksky, Tula, Russia

August 2016

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