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Alternate interpretations of Matthew 25:34-45

Interpretations from the Internet

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Matthew 25:34-45 contains the sheep and goats passage that discusses Jesus' judgment of "all nations."

Some alternative interpretations from the Internet:

The Internet is a rich source of interpretations of this passage. We studied five Evangelical and one Roman Catholic web site.

bulletSome hold the rather chauvinistic belief that all born-again Christians follow the Golden Rule and are compassionate towards the needy, while all who are not born-again Christians take a calloused attitude towards the disadvantaged and ignore their suffering. Studies by Barna Research seem to indicate that this belief does not reflect reality. The behavior of born-again Christians is almost identical to non-born again Christians and followers of other religions.
 
bulletBoston Christian Bible Study Resources states:

"what Matt[hew] 25 brings out is the correlation between one's salvation status and one's behavior. Is this teaching salvation by works? Indeed we might come to that conclusion if we hadn't read the rest of the Bible. In reality what happens is that those who have been born of God naturally love the children of God. This is not performance based salvation, but salvation based performance. One's works are an effect of (and therefore indication of) one's salvation status, rather than being a cause of one's salvation." 1

bulletBible.org writes that:

"... works are the fruit that demonstrates the reality of the conversion of one's heart. The love shown by these deeds of mercy springs from true faith. As Walvoord affirms, 'What is presented here is not the basis or ground of salvation but the evidence of it. Accordingly, while works are not the ground of justification for salvation, they can be the fruit or evidence of it.' ... it is clear from this parable that they are judged by their works and sent to hell for not having the works - which represent faith..." 2

bulletBible Tools writes

"... the sheep have love through a regular infusion of the Spirit of God. ... A godly life always comes down to the basic things. The sheep are simply unconsciously and unaffectedly good, kind, sympathetic, and concerned, attributes of character that cannot be feigned. 3

The implication is that the unsaved -- the goats -- have none of these fine qualities.

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bulletOther web sites suggest a different interpretation. They assert that the phrase "these my brethren" does not refer to all of the disenfranchised, hungry, naked, sick, and/or imprisoned people of today's world. Rather, they initially consisted of only the twelve disciples that Jesus selected in the first century CE to assist him in his ministry. In the 21st century, Jesus' "brethren" would be all those who evangelize; the sheep are those who accept the Gospel, accept Jesus into their hearts, and are saved.
 
bulletXenos Christian Fellowship does admit that this passage is "...a challenge to interpret." At first glance, it seems to teach that one can work one's way to Heaven through good works. This conflicts with many other passages where Paul and other authors stress that we are saved through faith, not works. Galatians 2:16 and Ephesians 2:8-9 are two examples. Xenos continues:

"Good works (like the ones mentioned in Matthew 25) are a result of our salvation and not a condition for it (Ephesians 2:8-10). For this reason, no matter how important caring for the needy is, it plays no part whatever in our salvation." 4

Jesus is here referring to how people of all nations responded to the twelve disciples as they spread out around the world teaching the gospel to countless Jews and Pagans during the middle of the 1st century CE. Some of the public accepted the message, and are considered sheep; others rejected it and are goats.
 

bulletBible Gateway writes:

"In the context of Jesus' teachings, especially in the context of Matthew, ... this parable addresses not serving all the poor but receiving the gospel's messengers. ... [Jesus] thus judges the nations based on how they have responded to the gospel of the kingdom already preached to them before the time of his kingdom. 5

bulletLooking at the Roman Catholic perspective, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a web site featuring the New American Bible translation. A footnote to Matthew 25 acknowledges that:

"A difficult and important question is the identification of these least brothers. Are they all people who have suffered hunger, thirst, etc. ... or a particular group of such sufferers? Scholars are divided in their response and arguments can be made for either side. But leaving aside the problem of what the traditional material that Matthew edited may have meant, it seems that a stronger case can be made for the view that in the evangelist's sense the sufferers are Christians, probably Christian missionaries whose sufferings were brought upon them by their preaching of the gospel. The criterion of judgment for all the nations is their treatment of those who have borne to the world the message of Jesus, and this means ultimately their acceptance or rejection of Jesus himself ..." 6

This is the only commentary among the many that we studied that suggests that there may be more than one possible interpretation of this passage.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Boston Christian Bible Study Resources, "Matthew 25's Sheep/Goat Judgment," at: http://www.bcbsr.com/
  2. Hampton Keathley IV , Th.M., "The Parables in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 25)," Bible.org, at: http://www.bible.org/
  3. "Commentaries: Matthew 25:31-46," Bible Tools, at: http://bibletools.org/
  4. Gary DeLashmutt, "Jesus' Parable of the The Sheep & Goats: Matthew 25: 31-46," Xenos Christian Fellowship, (2001), at: http://www.xenos.org/
  5. "Commentaries: The division of the sheep and the goats," Bible Gateway, at: http://www.biblegateway.com/
  6. "New American Bible: Matthew Chapter 25," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops," at: http://www.nccbuscc.org/

Copyright 2006 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-AUG-26
Latest update: 2008-DEC-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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