In Matthew 16:16-18 Jesus promised to build his church. In verse 19 he equated the church with the kingdom. From that time onward Jesus began to reveal to his disciples the approaching realities of his suffering, death and resurrection, and at the same time answered Peter’s doubts and misconceptions relative to the same (Vss. 21-23). In verses 24-26 the Lord laid down the terms of self-denial for those who would follow him. Then, Jesus described the beginning of his kingdom (Vss. 27-28). Some would live to see the kingdom come into being. These realities stand in the background of Matthew 25:31-46.
The section opens with these words: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separated the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (Vss. 31-33). The Son of Man coming in his glory should be read in light of Daniel 7:13-14. At his ascension into heaven Jesus took the throne of his glory (Acts 2:29-36). His “angels” (or, messengers) – apostles – were with him (Acts 1:2-4). “All nations” (Matt. 25:31) were gathered together at Pentecost (Acts 2:5). And then, as now, the gospel is the great separator of humanity (Matt. 7:13-14, 21-23). Who are the “sheep”? See, Psalm 110:3, John 10:1-18; 21:15-17. Who are the “goats”? See, Ezekiel 34:17.
I have often said that Matthew 25:31-46 is not a judgment passage, but it is a kingdom passage. In other words Jesus does not describe what will occur at the final judgment. He describes two different classes of people – those who have built their lives upon the principles of the gospel of Jesus (“sheep”), and those who have not (“goats”). In other words, Jesus describes those who are in the kingdom of heaven and those who are not. Ultimately that will be the decisive factor as far as our eternal destinies are concerned (Vs. 46).
Who is the “King” in Matthew 25:33? See, Matthew 2:2; 21:5; 1 Timothy 6:15 and Revelation 17:14. What is the kingdom that has been “prepared for you from the foundation of the world”? (Vs. 34). Most people believe this is heaven, but they cannot tell you how heaven was prepared from the foundation of the world. I prefer to believe that this is a reference to the kingdom of heaven, and we are told how it was prepared from the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3-6; 3:8-11; 1 Pet. 1:20-21; 2:4-10).
Who will “inherit” this kingdom? (Vs. 34) Answer: those who obey the gospel of the kingdom that is proclaimed throughout the whole world (Matt. 24:14; 28:18-20; Col. 1:12). These are the ones who follow Christ (Acts 2:42-45). What do those who follow Jesus look like? They look like the ones described in Matthew 25:35-36.
It is not uncommon for people to conclude that all we really need to do is be nice to others, because that will be the real basis of final judgment. William Barclay said it this way: “God’s judgment does not depend on the knowledge we have amassed, or the fame that we have acquired, or the fortune that we have gained, but on the help that we have given” (The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, pg. 359). All of that sounds good, but ignores the fact that one must know and be in Christ to be safe at the final judgement. We will not be saved based on how good we have been, but on whether or not we are in Christ and have been faithful to him (Eph. 2:8-10; 2 Pet. 1:5-11).
More to the point of what I wish to address here, note how Jesus described the sheep: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Vss. 35-36). It might be helpful to see Jesus describing conditions that his apostles would face in their evangelism (Matt. 5:25; 10:5-42). Please note that Jesus said to them, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt. 10:40). After the church was established, and the Great Commission had gone into effect, the apostles/evangelists largely depended on others for their care and maintenance (3 Jn. 5-8). Some brethren would be hostile to such arrangements and act the part of “goats,” as did Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9-10). Those described on the negative side of Matthew 25:42-43 would display attitudes not characteristic of the kingdom of heaven. Those who are driven by self-interest show no concern for the Lord’s kingdom and its realities. The acts of kindness and benevolence described by the Lord would mark the lives of faithful Christians mentioned in the book of Acts, and throughout the rest of the New Testament (Gal. 6:10; 1 Tim. 5:9-10; Heb. 13:16; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). They also mark the lives of dedicated saints in the present day!