Can anyone complete God’s intentions for one’s life? Because of our weaknesses and sins, our reach will always exceed our grasp. No man is noble enough, and no woman has enough years to accomplish every goal and dream.

When we are young, this does not occur to us. In our youth, all of life with all its possibilities stretches out before us. We feel immortal, and everything seems possible. But then the years pass—not quickly, but constantly. Our children grow up, and we grow old. One by one, options close, and life seems short, given all that we hoped to do and see. Disappointments make us wonder what comes next. Is there more? Jesus tells us what comes next in Matthew 24 and 25.

Matthew 25:40, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

What Is Happening in Matthew 25:40 

Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory” (25:31). Every phrase makes a point. Jesus, the Son of Man, will return to the earth personally. He will return in glory, accompanied by the host of his angels. In his power, he will take his throne.

At that time, Jesus will gather “all the nations” and all angels to his throne and seat of judgment (25:32, 41; Rom. 14:10). Then “he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (25:32). Over and over, Jesus implored his disciples to watch and be ready for that day. Since no signs will forecast the hour of Jesus’ return (Matthew 24:36), the only course is to be ready and watchful at all times. Then Jesus told two parables that describe the way of preparation; both parables deserve a review.

In the first parable, ten maidens wait for a wedding procession that was long delayed (25:1-13). Five maidens brought enough oil for the wedding procession, and five did not. The five who had no oil asked the other five to share their oil, but the five who were prepared refused. This hardly seems loving or neighborly, but the parable has no concern for the golden rule. Jesus bends the story's details to the main lesson: We must be ready, and readiness is not transferable. Some things are not transferable; readiness for Jesus is one of them.

The second parable, the talents (25:14–30), portrays readiness in active terms. David Garland writes in his book that “Vigilance is not a passive waiting and watching, but consists of active, responsible service. When Christ returns, he will not ask if one had the date right but ‘What have you been doing?’” Whenever Jesus may return, we will be caught in the act—in the act of serving him, or not.

Throughout Matthew 24–25, Jesus emphasizes deeds. Toward the end, he turns to the origin of those deeds. In the parable of the talents, when the master went away, he entrusted his wealth to two servants who set to work at once. They were eager to please their master, to labor for his gain. When he returned, they gladly gave their profits to him. The root of such service is love, the kind of love most often exemplified in families. We find satisfaction in serving people whom we love.

The parable also features a third servant who did no work for his master. He did nothing with his master’s wealth but buried it in the ground and handed it back to him. The dialogue reveals his reasons. He says, “I was afraid,” and calls his master a “hard man” who would seize whatever he produced. He has no love for his master. So then, we prepare for Jesus’ return by performing “evidential works of righteousness,” works that grow from the love of the king. The virgins’ oil and the stewards’ talents both represent deeds of loving obedience. Such deeds keep us ready for the day of judgment, Matthew 25 shows.

Man kneeling in front of the cross on Golgatha

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/GordonImages

What Does Matthew 25:40 Mean?

Jesus praises the righteous for performing these acts of kindness to him, and he blames the rest for failing to show kindness. The righteous are surprised by Jesus’ commendation. We should observe the precise form of both his praise and their surprise.

Jesus blesses the righteous not for feeding the poor, but for feeding him. But they cannot recall the event: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?” (25:37). Jesus replies, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (25:40). By contrast, the wicked are surprised, but in the opposite manner: “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?” (25:44). Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (25:45). 

Thus, if anyone failed to help Jesus’ brothers, they failed him. As Jesus sees it, failure to aid the least of his brothers is sacrilege—a refusal to aid Christ himself. In Calvin’s words, “So then, whenever we are reluctant to assist the poor, let us place before our eyes the Son of God, to whom it would be base sacrilege to refuse anything.”

Who Are "the Least of These"?

Jesus describes both what we ought to do and for whom we ought to do it—for “the least of these brothers of mine” (25:40, 45). By “my brothers,” Jesus means “my disciples,” as Matthew 12:48–49 and 28:10 show. The term “little ones” means disciples throughout Matthew (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14; cf. 5:19), and “least” is the superlative of “little.” The least seems to be the weakest members of Jesus’ spiritual family.

Along this line, when Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, he said that anyone who welcomed his disciples welcomed him and would be rewarded for it (10:40–42). This makes us wonder: is Jesus saying he will judge the nations based on how they treat his disciples?

Yes and no. The Bible certainly says believers ought to be especially quick to come to fellow believers' aid (Gal. 6:10). Love for Jesus’ disciples and messengers certainly proves that someone has responded properly to the gospel message. But Moses and Jesus both commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” so we also have a debt to all neighbors (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19; 22:39).

Further, the Bible often says our treatment of the poor and the needy tests the genuineness of our faith (Prov. 31:20; James 2:14–16). For example, when Amos accuses Israel of faithlessness, he cites their treatment of the poor. They sell out, crush, and trample the needy (Amos 2:6–7; 4:1; 8:4–6). But when Job proves he is God’s friend, he says, “I was a father to the needy” (Job 29:16).

What Does Jesus Teach about Helping Those in Need?

Works are the evidence, but not the basis for Jesus’ judgment. The basis or cause is our heart response to Jesus. But our works either prove or disprove our claim that our heart and mind trust in Jesus. We know the Bible says we are justified by faith. How then can we be judged by works?

First, the entire Bible teaches all our works will be examined. We will account for them all on the last day (Ps. 62:12; Jer. 17:10; Matt. 16:27; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Peter 1:17; Rev. 20:12). But this is not salvation by works because our works follow our heart commitments. 

In the last line of Psalm 62, David says, “Lord, … surely you will reward each person according to what he has done” (62:12). But hear it in context. David says,

“My soul finds rest in God alone.…

He alone is my rock and salvation.…

Trust in him at all times, O people …

though your riches increase,

do not set your heart on them.…

… you, O God, are strong, …

you, O Lord, are loving.

Surely you will reward each person

according to what he has done. (Ps. 62:1–2, 8, 10–12)

Because David trusts the Lord alone, he is confident that his life, including his works, reflects that trust. He is confident that the Lord will see David’s loyalty in his deeds. Our words and deeds witness and testify to our heart commitment on judgment day. They supply public, verifiable evidence of our heart’s condition (Matt. 7:17–18; 12:33–35; James 2:14–26). 

friends in face masks due to COVID-19 helping at food pantry small group serving

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Biserka Stojanovic

What Does This Mean for Us?

Matthew 25:40 teaches several vital things about eternal destinies. First, they are eternal. Jesus tells the righteous: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (25:34). But he tells the cursed: “Depart … into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41).

There is symmetry here. The wicked “go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (25:46). Yet, there is a difference. The Lord always intended to spend eternity with his people. We inherit “the kingdom prepared … since the creation of the world” (25:34). But God prepared hell for the devil and his angels, not for humanity. 

The basis for our eternal destiny is our response to the gospel and the messengers who bring God’s word, whether they do so by formal preaching or quiet testimony. Jesus says both the sheep and the goats will be surprised on the last day—but not at their destiny. If you love Jesus, repent of your sins, know him as Savior, and follow him daily; it is your enduring aspiration to see Jesus face to face. Believers will be joyful, not surprised at their destiny. Nor will unbelievers be stunned to hear that Jesus neither knows nor welcomes them. After all, they neither knew nor welcomed him, and they had no desire for heaven.

The surprise lies not with the destiny assigned but with the reason given. Neither sheep nor goats knew their deeds were so weighty. The righteous did not perform to gain a reward but to show love to the needy, especially Jesus’ disciples. But then such deeds will count because they were free gifts, not calculated acts.

Live in Faith

Our task today is to prepare to meet Jesus, our good king. We do this not by looking for signs of his return but by trusting him, loving him, looking to see the Great Shepherd, the Son of David, the Son of God, every day. We follow him and live as he lived, not to earn His favor, but from pure delight in him. And when we fail, we remember. The same Jesus who urged you to love your neighbor died on the cross, to bear the penalty of sin when you do not love him or your neighbor. Grace will cover those failings, so that he will bless us.

Because of our faith and the good deeds that sprang from it—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner—he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!… Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matt. 25:21).

This world is good but flawed and very short compared to eternity. Through time and eternity, God the Father, Son, and Spirit is Lord of the living. By his love, he put the powers of death to death through His finished and sufficient work. As we trust him, we prepare to live with him forever. 

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/trumzz

Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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