(This passage is also referenced in Mark 14:1-2, 10-11, Luke 22:1-6)
This passage is Matthew’s fifth and final teaching section. The subject is about the “end times” when Jesus Christ will return to judge the world. At that time he will take account of how each person has treated others in his life. The word nation in v.32 means “Gentiles” and from these verses we learn that although the nations will be gathered before Jesus Christ, he will judge them as individuals – not as a nation, i.e. British, Italian, African. Some Theologians believe that the judgement mentioned here in chapter 25 will take place before God’s Kingdom is established on earth, for in verse 34 we read, “Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
In the parable of the ‘Sheep and the Goats’, there are three groups of people – Sheep, Goats and Brethren. It is possible that the word “Brethren” refers to the believing Jews from the tribulation period. The “Sheep” seem surprised to hear what the King says v.34-40. He affirms that their behaviour in showing love and kindness in helping others is as if they have loved and treated Jesus himself, in the same loving way! They were not looking out for any gain or reward from their good behaviour, rather their attitudes and good works were borne out of sacrificial love. We should always guard against misinterpreting Scripture, and an error to avoid in these verses is the view that just doing a few “good deeds” to others might be sufficient to earn one’s Salvation! However the people designated “Goats” were judged because of their lack of faith in Jesus and they failed to love and care in the right way.
The timing of these events could well have been symbolic for Matthew, for it was only two days before the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or the Passover, when the sacrificial lambs would be killed in a re-enactment of the event many years before in Egypt, when the lambs’ blood was smeared on the door lintels of the Israelites’ houses, thereby saving them from the Angel of Death! I wonder how the disciples and friends of Jesus felt, as the conflict around him grew more intense and dangerous. Were they already beginning to be more fearful, muddled in their thinking, insecure because their situation was increasingly uncomfortable and dangerous? There are many Christians around the world who live in constant fear of arrest and imprisonment, yet we have such freedom to be Christians in the UK relatively speaking.
We should pray that we may retain the privileges to worship and pray without fear of reprisals.