Treating others as if they were Jesus

It seems as if each generation is labeled as being excessively self-centered and self-focused. Take, for example, the millennials. According to the former Time columnist, Joel Stein, millennials are the “me me me generation.”[1] He also thinks they are “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.”


Baby boomers don’t escape similar accusations, either. For instance, cultural historian, Amy Henderson, stated in a Smithsonian column that “when it comes to Baby Boomers, it is still about ‘me’”.[2] In fact, she maintains that the aging members of this generation have “merrily embraced their selfhood.”


Scripture, it turns out, urges Jesus’ followers to resist the temptation of becoming lifelong, career narcissists, regardless of the generation to which they belong. Of interest here is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31–45). In this story, He revealed that He would one day return as both a shepherd and a king. 


In this dual role, Jesus would exercise supreme authority to judge the eternal destination of every human soul. Undoubtedly, what startled Jesus’ listeners most is that His assessment was based on the way they treated those less fortunate than themselves.


Concerning the parable’s literary context, Matthew 24:1–25:46 is the last of the five discourses in the first Synoptic Gospel. Because Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives when He taught this material to His disciples, it has been called the Olivet Discourse. It contains some of the most noteworthy prophetic passages in all of Scripture.


In 24:1–14, Jesus revealed the signs of His return. He then talked about perilous times (vv. 15–28) and the glory associated with His second coming (vv. 29–31). 


In the parable of the fig tree (vv. 32–35), Jesus said that as the buds of a fig tree tell that summer is near, so would signs tell that the Messiah’s return was imminent. Then in verses 36–44, Jesus said that only the Father knew the time of the Son’s return. His advent would be so sudden that the wicked and the righteous would be separated instantaneously.


Following the parable of the wise and wicked servants (vv. 45–51), Jesus told three more parables related to His return: the parable of the 10 virgins (25:1–13), the parable of the talents (vv. 14–30), and the parable of the sheep and the goats (vv. 31–46). All these stories have to do with being ready for the Savior’s return by remaining faithful to Him. 


Each of these parables, however, has a slightly different slant. For example, in the parable of the 10 virgins, Jesus called His disciples to exercise foresight and wisdom, especially as they prepared themselves for His return. 


In the parable of the talents, Jesus stressed that His followers were to be wise stewards of all He had entrusted to their care. And in the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus revealed that the righteous would be rewarded for their concern and hospitality, while the wicked would be punished for their ambivalence and indifference.


Staying, then, with this final parable that Jesus delivered on the Mount of Olives, He provided a few details about what His second advent would be like. First, Jesus would come in “glory” (v. 31), or majestic splendor, no longer simply appearing as an ordinary human. 


Second, Jesus would bring with Him “all the angels,” who would no doubt serve as His assistants. Third, Jesus would “sit on his throne in heavenly glory,” meaning He would rule in resplendent magnificence.


Once Jesus was seated on His throne, all the nations would be gathered in His presence. He would then separate them as a shepherd separates sheep from goats (v. 32). Expressed differently, the purpose of the judgment would be to isolate the righteous from the wicked. Only the Son of God could do that with perfect justice.


An excursus about shepherding is in order. This was a prominent occupation in ancient Palestine. Shepherds had to make sure that their master’s flock was provided for and protected. 


Moreover, shepherds would lead their animals to good pasturelands and ample supplies of water. They would find adequate shelter for their flocks and assist any crippled or exhausted animals. If necessary, shepherds would risk their own lives to ensure the safety of the flock.


Now, in Jesus’ parable, He compared the separation of humans to the way a shepherd would separate sheep from goats. In ancient Palestine, sheep and goats often grazed together during the day. When night came, however, they were herded into separate folds. That was because the goats, unlike the sheep, could not easily endure the cooler night air and so had to be grouped to keep warm.


The point of the comparison lies in the fact that sheep and goats were separated at the end of the day. Jesus, as the shepherd of judgment, would put the “sheep” on His right-hand side and the “goats” on His left-hand side (v. 33). 


There are two primary ways of understanding Jesus’ parable. Some say the “nations” (v. 32) refer to all peoples, while others claim they refer to Gentiles only. One group thinks the judgment occurs at the conclusion of history; in contrast, the second group says it takes place when Jesus comes to set up a kingdom on earth. 


For those in the first group, the judgment determines who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Oppositely, those in the second group say the judgment concerns who enters Jesus’ earthly kingdom and who are excluded from it.


The remainder of Jesus’ parable describes what He would do with the sheep (or the righteous) and the goats (or the wicked) once He separates then. First, He commented on the sheep (vv. 34–40) and then the goats (vv. 41–45).


While seated on His throne, Jesus would reign and judge as King. He would address those on His right side as “blessed by my Father” (v. 34). They would be favored by God in the blessing they would receive as an inheritance from Him, namely, the kingdom of heaven. 


Jesus described this kingdom as having been “prepared for you since the creation of the world.” All along it has been a part of God’s plan to bless the righteous with His kingdom. Upon the Messiah’s return, it would be time for the plan’s fulfillment.


Concerning the kingdom of God, it embraces all who walk in fellowship with the Creator and do His will. It is governed by God’s laws, which are summed up in our duty to love God supremely and love others as ourselves. Also, this Kingdom, which was announced by the prophets and introduced by Jesus, would one day displace all the kingdoms of this world, following the Savior’s return.


How would it be possible for previously sinful people to share in the divine kingdom? It’s because they have trusted in the Son, whom the Father sent to earth to die for humanity’s transgressions (John 3:16). 


The believers’ place in the Father’s kingdom is assured because they are forgiven in union with the Son (Eph 1:7). Also, their hope of salvation is assured because it rests on the Son’s redemptive work at Calvary (1 Pet 1:3–5).


Jesus said the righteous would inherit the kingdom because of how they have treated Him. They would have met His needs for food, drink, shelter, clothing, nursing, and visitation (vv. 35–36). These are endeavors that anyone at any time in any society could understand, for they are the common concerns of life everywhere.


So, the test of faith that stands Jesus’ inspection would be how His followers performed deeds of mercy, love, and kindness. After all, this is what Jesus did for people while He was here on earth. And His righteous sheep follow His example. 


In the preceding way, believers demonstrate that their commitment to the Savior is practical and touches the lives of hurting people. Clearly, then, valid Christian faith is more than saying the correct prayers or singing the right hymns in a corporate worship service. It includes standing alongside people in the harshest circumstances.


Of particular note is that Jesus called His sheep “the righteous” (v. 37). They were upright because of their faith in the Son, and their lives were marked by rectitude because they cared for people in need. 


In verses 37–39, Jesus’ disciples asked a series of clarifying questions. Believers today might also wonder when they ever had an opportunity to do such acts of charity for Jesus. Here believers see that Jesus wants them to show His love unconditionally to others. Even the simplest act of kindness to the seemingly most insignificant person meets with God’s approval and would be rewarded in the future time of reckoning. 


Jesus said that the deeds the upright had done “for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (v. 40) were done for Him. Put another way, service done for Jesus’ needy followers is the same as service done for Him. This is an astonishing truth, for it radically transforms the Christians’ motivation for performing deeds of mercy. 


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 pedantic question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).


The point of Jesus’ parable is not the who, but rather the what; in other words, the emphasis is on importance of serving where service is needed. The focus, then, of this story about the sheep and the goats is that believers should show kindness to every person and serve anyone they can. Such compassion glorifies God by reflecting the Christians’ love for Him.


Jesus next focused on the goats. Instead of being invited to come, like the ones on the right (the place of honor in ancient times), the ones on the left (the place of dishonor) would be told to depart. 


Instead of being blessed by the Father, these people would be cursed. Also, rather than inheriting the kingdom prepared for the righteous, these people would be consigned to the eternal fire (hell) prepared for Satan and his demonic cohort (v. 41).


Just as the righteous would inherit the Kingdom for meeting Jesus’ needs, the wicked would be consigned to eternal torment for not meeting His needs. They were presented with the same opportunities to give Jesus food and drink and the rest, but they chose not to do so (vv. 42–43).


For those who spurn the Son, all that remains is for the Lord to condemn them. It would be a terrifying scene as He issues a verdict of guilty against the unsaved.


The wicked would be just as mystified as the righteous about when they had the opportunities that Jesus mentioned. The wicked would ask when they chose not to help the Lord (v. 44). 


The narcissists didn’t realize that the basis for judgment would be whether they showed benevolence to others, whom God has created in His image (1 John 3:14–18). Jesus’ solemn reply would be that refusing to help others in need is the same as refusing to help Him (Matt. 25:45). 


Verse 46 concludes both the story about the sheep and the goats. The parable illustrates that the wicked and righteous have radically different futures. The first group is eternally condemned, while the second group experiences everlasting blessing. Jesus’ judgments would be beyond appeal.


As Jesus approached His crucifixion, He never wavered from judgment. He told His followers to get ready, to keep watching, to keep working, and to take care of one another when they were hungry, sick, imprisoned, and so on. In fact, He pictured a grand finale of judgment when He would separate everyone, some to His kingdom and some to everlasting fire.


It would be incorrect to misinterpret Jesus’ parable to mean that one’s fate is based upon good works. The New Testament is clear that faith in the Messiah (or its absence) determines one’s future destiny. 


Nonetheless, believers can take away from Jesus’ parable the realization that He rewards service done to Him, that real faith is expressed in good works, and that He counts deeds of charity done to His disciples as the same as service done to Him.


So, what acts of service are they that receive the reward of the kingdom? Included are simple deeds any of believer can perform, such as offering a meal to a hungry person and giving a cup of water to a thirsty person. 


Jesus, then, directs Christians to get busy. Likewise, as they do so, they are to get ready for the Savior’s eventual return.



[1] J Stein. 2013. Millennials: the me me me generation. Time. Website:–the–me–me–me–generation/.

[2] A Henderson 2014. When it comes to the baby boomers, it is still all about “me.” Smithsonian. Website:–institution/when–comes–baby–boomers–still–all–about–me–180953030/.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.