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Matthew 25:31-46 - The Judgment of the Nations

Bible Passage

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 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. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"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. 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, 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.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

"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. 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 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.' "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?' "He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (TNIV, Matthew 25:31-46)

Interpretation

This teaching of Jesus is difficult for some Christians because it seems to say that we will be judged on the basis of good works done rather than on faith or belief in Jesus alone.

Most Bible experts say it means we will be judged by what we have done to help other people in need:

This passage elaborated the concept in 25:26 that not only blatant acts of evil would reap judgment. The failure to do the will of the Father and to use his gifts for the sake of others would also bring judgment.1
There has been much discussion about the identity of the "brothers and sisters." Some have said they are the Jews; others say they are all Christians; still others say they are suffering people everywhere. Such a debate is much like the lawyer's earlier question to Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). The point of this parable is not the who, but the what - the importance of serving where service is needed. The focus of this parable is that we should love every person and serve anyone we can. Such love for others glorifies God by reflecting our love for him.2
This is one of the most vivid parables Jesus ever spoke, and the lesson is crystal clear--that God will judge us in accordance with our reaction to human need. His 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.3
We have been taught that salvation is by grace through faith apart from works, and here the judgment is on the basis of what people have done or not done. ... Does that mean we are saved by works after all? Does it mean that the theology of the Reformation is all wrong? No, but it is a statement of the necessity of works following faith - if we truly are regenerate.4

However, some have proposed interpretations which restrict the scope of the obligation:

To the goats on His left hand (cf. v. 33) the King will pronounce judgment. They will be told, Depart ... into the eternal fire prepared not for men but for the devil and his angels (cf. "the kingdom prepared," v. 34). The basis of their judgment will be their failure to extend mercy to the remnant of Jewish believers during the Tribulation. Their lack of righteous works will evidence their unconcern. Such individuals will sympathize with the world dictator and support his cause.5
My brothers and sisters (literally my brothers): This expresses either Jesus' solidarity with his disciples (see 10:42; 18:1-14; Gal 6:10) or Jesus' solidarity with humanity in general, irrespective of the faith of the one being helped (see 6:1-4; 25:43; Prov 19:17). The use of brothers and sisters points to the first interpretation (12:46-50; 18:15-35; 23:8; 28:10) but does not invalidate social responsibility for other people in general (see Luke 10:30-37).6

Related articles:
What Does the Bible Say About Salvation?
What Does the Bible Say About Generosity and Duty to the Poor?

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1Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.
2Bruce Barton, ed., Life Application Bible Study Notes, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1991.
3William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, Westminster Press, 1975.
4James Montgomery Boice, The Parables of Jesus, Moody Press, 1983.
5J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, eds., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Victor Books, 1985.
6Tyndale House, New Living Translation Study Bible, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008.