Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus standing between four sheep at his right hand and four goats at his left hand.
 "Jesus standing between four sheep at his right hand and four goats at his left hand." 
Reprinted from Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, copywrite© 2000 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission.


In this series, the texts for Pentecost XIX-Pentecost Last (six texts) occurred on Tuesday of holy week, a very busy day in Jesus' life. The text for Pentecost XXIII was Jesus' final word to His adversaries. Then (still on Tuesday) followed Jesus' scathing (and well-deserved) denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, spoken to the multitudes and His disciples, recorded at Mark 12:38-40; Matthew 23:1-39 and Luke 20:45-47. Then follows the account of the so-called widow's mite (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). In the afternoon of that Tuesday Jesus and His disciples went out to the Mount of Olives where Jesus delivered His great eschatological discourse found at Mark 13:1-37; Matthew 24 and 25; Luke 21:5-36. Our text is the third of three parables: Of the Ten Virgins, Of the Talents, Of the Final Judgment, all three found only in Matthew.

Matthew 25:31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.

The only element unknown to us is the time. The last sentence in the Apostles' Creed is the only item yet to be completed: "He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead." The  "Son of man" stresses Jesus' humanity. "In His glory" stresses His divinity, fully used by His humanity. The human nature possesses this divinity. JB renders the next words "escorted by all the angels."  "On His glorious throne," presents Christ as King, which term is used in verse 34.

Matthew 25:32 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.

"Will be gathered together" is passive. The righteous should have no fears of not being included and the unrighteous will have no choice. It's one meeting from which no human being will be absent. Compare Matthew 28:19; Galatians 3:8 and Matthew 24:14. The justification of all men, in Christ, was prophesied in Genesis 12:3 and accomplished. The church was told to evangelize all nations and is promised that it will happen. And the final judgment will involve all nations.

Imagine all the holy angels and all human beings gathered into one place! But no mention is made of the presence of the devil and his angels. More on that later. In this life sheep and goats are intermingled. Read Ezekiel 34:7-26 where the sheep and goats, in this life, are intermingled but the sheep are promised The Shepherd, Christ. But in everlasting life sheep and goats will be separated once and forever from each other. A great comfort.

Matthew 25:33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Sheep and goats represent the redeemed and the damned. Already Genesis 3: 15 and 12:3 teach the universal atonement in Christ. It is a persistent truth throughout Scripture that God seriously desires the salvation of all men. Compare 2 Pet. 3:9. He is a God of life, not of death. But if men reject salvation, justice requires adverse judgment. Therefore in Matthew 25:33  "His right hand" denotes His saving will, "the left hand" denotes His just judgment. Notice "His" with the right hand, and "the" with the left hand. This distinction found in the Greek text, is not reflected by the NIV used in these Notes. By the way, the last day will involve only a judgment, not a trial.

Commentators point out that it will involve only public declaration of the personal or private judgment at the time of death. Compare Luke 23:43 and Hebrews 9:27. For those who are still living when Christ comes, private judgment and public declaration evidently will be identical. Among sinful mortals the determination of justice and judgment involves a trial, sometimes lengthy, laborious and even then sometimes not certain. The omniscient God-man needs no attorneys, trial or jury. Nor is His judgment arbitrary.

Matthew 25:34 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.

It will be most orderly and plain for all to hear. Here the Son of man is called "The King." In this life only the regenerate willingly regarded Him as The King. But on that great day ALL will see and hear Him as King. "Come" is repeated from verse 33 and is an invitation. On this word and the whole thought compare Matthew 11 :28.

They heeded this invitation during their lifetime. "By my Father," the Father blessed them. Compare Ephesians 1 :3. Jesus is still incarnate, though glorified. "Your inheritance" can mean only that they receive a gift attained for them by Christ. Compare Romans 8:17. "The kingdom lastingly prepared for you," is eschatological, heaven, as at Luke 21:31. "From the foundation of the world." 

Election in Christ is described in Ephesians 1 :4, before time began. But heaven itself was created. When? On the seventh day, Genesis 2:2. That's the whole point of Hebrews 4:1-11. Read John 14:1-3. Jesus says: "In My Father's House are many staying-places.” The present creation will pass away, but not the Kingdom which has been prepared for you.

Matthew 25:35 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 invited me in,

The works of the blessed were evidence, not cause, of belonging to Christ. Compare Luke 7:46 where  "because" is evidential, not causal. Her love for Jesus was evidence of the fact that many sins had been forgiven. Back to Matthew 25:35. The deeds in verses 35-36 begin with a form "to give." They were truly godly. Compare John 3:16. Love causes giving. Note "me" referring to Jesus. In verses 35-36 Jesus is the recipient six times, as if He were the only human being. "You invited me in" is variously rendered "you welcomed me, you made me welcome, you invited my into your homes." Hospitality is proof of true love. Snubbing the needy is its opposite. On the former compare Hebrews 13:2 and on the latter, Luke 16:21.

Matthew 25:36 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.

"I needed clothes" can also mean "lacking proper clothing." In the New Testament forms of "visit" always mean visitation because of need. Compare Luke 1:68; 7:16. It denotes a Christ-like deed. The word "prison" here has overtones of persecution. Compare Hebrews 13:3. But, in any case, it's utter destitution. The deeds in verses 35-36 are those which can be performed by anyone, under ordinary circumstances. Simple deeds involving sacrifice.

Their sins are not mentioned. In Hebrews 11, where we have a catalog of Old Testament believers, no sins are mentioned. Only deeds done in faith are mentioned.

Matthew 25:37 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 invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

Three times in verses 37-39 they say  "when?" All the questions are questions of surprise and astonishment. Christians don't dwell on their deeds of love. The Christian's whole life is summed up in "faith which works through love," Galatians 5:6. Through the Gospel he lives in constant freedom in his conscience. At the same time, the Law obligates him to be servant to his neighbor. Galatians 5:13-14. He constantly tests his own life, without comparing himself with others, and yet has his boast toward himself because, by God's grace, he lives in freedom of conscience toward self and in love toward neighbor. Galatians 6:4. But Christians ought not dwell on their deeds of love. If they do they need to listen to Galatians 6:3. Note that verses 37-39 are almost a verbatim rehearsal of verses 35-36, in question form.

Matthew 25:40 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.'

He is called "The King" only when He addresses those who are called the blessed, the heirs, the righteous, those who throughout their lifetime did good to Him. He says "In very truth I say to you" which is always used of an unalterable truth uttered by the incarnate Christ. "To the extent that . . . To one of my brothers, the least" Good deeds come one by one to one by one. Read Mark 9:41. Furthermore, read Revelation 14:13. The deeds of Christians follow them and are never forgotten. Unbelievers start with the delusion things which attract attention but will be rejected. Matthew 7:21-23. Believers start with the little for the least but do not dwell on them.

Ylvisaker: They have not counted their acts. They have not kept them in memory, they have not mirrored their lives in their works. Their deeds have not been performed to gain honor and veneration among men. However, these unselfish acts are not forgotten, for they are recorded by Him whose book is complete to the minutest detail. . . . Every generous act shall follow them into eternity. . . . Jesus informs us in this word that He considers all deeds that are wrought in faith and love, as done for Him personally. . . . Jesus lives in those that are His, their cause is His cause. Such is the high standing of His believers.
Stoeckhardt: The Lord remembers only the good works of the believers, although they did many things in their lifetime which they should not have done, because through faith they have forgiveness of sins, and what God forgives, He remembers no more, it is eternally forgiven.
Bengel: Of the least, outwardly, or even inwardly. . . . Not 'to Me' only but 'to Me' absolutely.
Lenski: So is the union between true believers and Christ, but its glorious nature will not appear until the King declares this his identification with his brethren before the whole universe.

Compare John 15:5; Galatians 2:20.

Matthew 25:41 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.

They will not be left without witness, but the word "King" does not appear here. Every tongue will confess that He is Lord, but He does not regard Himself as King for unbelievers. See Philippians 2:11. Those on the left do not belong to the Kingdom and Christ does not call Himself their King. We noted above that the word "his" is not used with the term "on the left."

Fahling: Before God there is no predetermined 'left hand' meaning eternal damnation, but only a 'right hand' signifying life everlasting. It is really an upsetting of God's plan that 'any should perish' (2 Pet. 3:9). Since, however, men willfully transgressed His commandments, punishment became necessary, justice must be executed. Sternly the Judge addresses Himself to those at the left. . . . The Judge takes no pleasure in its pronouncement.

This is the opposite of verse 34. Compare Matthew 7:23. He is attracted by the blessed. He is repelled by the cursed. It denotes a lasting judgment pronounced at the time of death. By the way, Christians believe that Christ was cursed in their stead, Galatians 3:13. Unbelievers, who reject this, must bear their own curse.

Fahling: He does not say 'Cursed of My Father' for they brought the curse upon themselves. Neither does He say 'prepared from the beginning of the world'. God's original plan did not call for the damnation of anyone. The 'left hand' was a later addition, prepared only for the devil.

And on the final words in this verse.

Bengel: At the time of this judgment the devil (and his angels) will be already in hell. Revelation 20:10-13; 2 Pet. 3:6-7.

Note the three articles with "fire" and its modifiers: "into THE fire, THE eternal, THE one lastingly prepared for THE deceiver and THE angels of him." The devil and his angels were judged already in Eden. Genesis 3:15; Luke 10:18. For them there is no repentance nor do they want it, for they are incorrigibly wicked. John 8:44. Since Satan and his angels are not mentioned as present at the judgment, likely Bengel is right.

Matthew 25:42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, Matthew 25:43 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.'

As in verse 35,  "for" is evidential. The humble deeds of the blessed are evidence of what they are. Likewise, the total lack of even humble deeds of the cursed are evidence of what they are. Read Romans 2:1-11, a good commentary on our text. In verses 35-36 Jesus says  "You did-did-did." In verses 42-43 He says "you didn't-didn't-didn't."

Matthew 25:44 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?'

Though condemned, they call Him "Lord." The only thing which the blessed and the cursed will have in common is the address "Lord." Precisely what Paul says at Philippians 2:11. But He is not called their King.

In verses 37-39 the righteous asked "when?" three times in surprise and astonishment. But in the condemned ask "when?" only once, evidently in a spirit of reprimand, reproach and accusation. Commentators agree that in verse 44 the speakers are trying to place the blame on the Lord.

It is likely not an accident that in verse 44 the question is asked in an abbreviated form, compared with what Jesus said in verses 42-43. This perhaps indicates that it is not important to them.

Ylvisaker: They will not hear of any neglect on their part. They would excuse themselves and heap the responsibility on His shoulders who has even now pronounced sentence upon them. . . . Their words contain a grave accusation. God has not done enough for them. . . . The devil and the lost do not desire to return to the righteousness and the bliss of the sanctified.
Stoeckhardt: From their evil works the Lord proves that they did not believe. What weighs heaviest against them is the evil they did to the Christians.
Fahling: Nor is there a chance given for many of them to point with pride to the erection of hospitals and institutions, to the creation of funds, endowments, and memorials to honor and glory of their name. . . . It was the neglect of true charity and the small deeds of Christian love which testified to their lack of faith and love of Christ. . . . Such love as they showed was unsanctified love such as is found in natural man.
Bengel: The ignorance of the wicked and their endeavor to justify themselves will persist into eternity.

Matthew 25:45 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.'

Compare Jesus' answer here and in verse 40:
  1. He does not call Himself the King, for He is not their King, nor are they members of His Kingdom;

  2. Note the double negatives which are correlative "not-neither;"

  3. This time Jesus does not say "my brothers."
Bengel: The wicked are ignorant of the relation which the righteous stand in to Christ, and will remain so.

The unregenerate remain spiritually dead in their trespasses and sin, Ephesians 2: 1-2. In God's sight his deeds are worthless. He hates the Light and won't come to the Light lest his works be shown up for what they are. John 3:20. Their love was selfish. They did what they did only for reward from men. Luke 6:32. They must depart from Jesus for all their works are considered wickedness. Matthew 7:22.

Matthew 25:46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." 

This verse readily explains itself. The condemned are merely called "these" but the faithful are again called "the righteous." They are righteous not because of their works but because they believed what God, in Christ, did for them. The good works are plain evidence of this believing relationship. The punishment of the wicked is justice because they rejected God. The blessedness of the righteous is just because by faith they are that.

Apology , Art. IV, Justification, Tappert 163.370-374: Our opponents (the Church of Rome) urge that good works properly merit eternal life, since Paul says (Romans 2:6) 'He will render to every man according to his works' and verse 10: 'Glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good'. John 5:29: 'Those who have done good will come forth to resurrection of life'; Matthew 25:35: 'I was hungry and you gave me food' etc. These passages and all others like them where works are praised in the Scriptures must be taken to mean not only outward works but also the faith of the heart, since the Scriptures do not speak of hypocrisy but of righteousness in heart and of its fruits. Whenever law and works are mentioned, we must know that Christ, the mediator, should not be excluded. He is the end of the law (Romans 10:4), and he himself says 'Apart from me you can do nothing' (John 15:5). By this rule, as we have said earlier, all passages on works can be interpreted. Therefore, when eternal life is granted to works, it is granted to the justified. None can do good works except the justified, who are led by the Spirit of Christ; nor can good works please God without the mediator Christ and faith, according to Hebrews 11:6 'Without faith it is impossible to please God. When Paul says' He will render to every man according to his works' we must understand not merely outward works but the entire righteousness or unrighteousness. That is to say 'Glory for him who does good' namely, for the righteous man. 'You gave me food' (Matthew 25:35) is cited as fruit and evidence of the righteousness of the heart and its fruit. They often mention the fruit to make it clearer to the inexperienced and to show that a new life and new birth are required, not hypocrisy. Such a new birth comes by faith amid penitence.

After Luther's death, Lutheran theologians got into a controversy about the good works of a Christian. The question was: "Are good works necessary to salvation?" To make a long story short, they are not necessary in a meritorious sense nor are they detrimental to salvation. But they are necessary as evidence and fruit of faith.

Remember Luther's adage: "Faith alone saves but faith is never alone."

This text ought make a pastor aware of his great responsibility of properly applying and distinguishing Law and Gospel.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Matthew-John Sundays After Pentecost Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1981, pp. 100-103. Used with permission.

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