“To the extent that you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”—MATT. 25:40.
1, 2. (a) What illustrations has Jesus discussed with his close companions? (See opening image.) (b) What do we need to know about the illustration of the sheep and the goats?
JESUS has been speaking to Peter, Andrew, James, and John, his close companions. They have just heard him relate illustrations about the faithful and discreet slave, the ten virgins, and the talents. Jesus concludes his discussion with one more parable. He describes a time when “the Son of man” will judge “all the nations.” How this illustration must have fascinated his disciples! In it, Jesus focuses on two groups, one classed as sheep and the other as goats. And he highlights an important third group that he identifies as “brothers” of “the King.”—Read Matthew 25:31-46.
2 Jehovah’s people have long been intrigued by this illustration and rightly so, for in it Jesus speaks about the fate of people. He reveals why some will receive everlasting life while others will be cut off in death forever. Our lives depend on our understanding the truths Jesus conveyed and acting on them. With so much at stake, we should ask: How has Jehovah progressively clarified our understanding of this illustration? Why can we say that the illustration emphasizes the importance of the preaching work? Who is it that receives the commission to preach? And why is now the time to be loyal to “the King” and to those he calls “my brothers”?
HOW HAS OUR UNDERSTANDING BEEN CLARIFIED?
3, 4. (a) What key elements must we know to understand the illustration of the sheep and the goats? (b) In 1881, how did Zion’s Watch Tower explain this illustration?
3 To understand the illustration of the sheep and the goats correctly, we need to grasp three key elements of the account: the identity of those mentioned, the timing of the judgment, and the reason for being classified as either a sheep or a goat.
4 In 1881, Zion’s Watch Tower identified “the Son of man,” also called “the King,” as Jesus. The early Bible Students understood the expression rendered in the King James Version “my brethren” to refer to those who would rule with Christ as well as to all of mankind after they are restored to earthly perfection. They felt that the separating of the sheep from the goats would take place during the Thousand Year Reign of Christ. And they believed that people would be classed as sheep because they lived by God’s law of love.
5. In the 1920’s, how was our understanding refined?
5 In the early 1920’s, Jehovah helped his people refine their understanding of this illustration. The Watch Tower of October 15, 1923, affirmed that “the Son of man” is Jesus. However, it presented sound Scriptural arguments that limited the identity of Christ’s brothers to those who would rule with him in heaven, and it described the sheep as those who hope to live on earth under the rule of Christ’s Kingdom. What of the timing of the separating of the sheep from the goats? The article stated that Christ’s brothers would be ruling with him from heaven during the Millennial Reign, so they could not be helped or neglected by an earthly class. Therefore, the separating of the sheep from the goats would have to take place before the Millennial Rule begins. As for the reason why a person is identified as a sheep, the article concluded that people would be judged as such because they acknowledged Jesus as their Lord and looked to the Kingdom to bring better conditions.
6. In the 1990’s, how was our viewpoint further clarified?
6 As a result of that adjusted understanding, Jehovah’s people felt that individuals were being judged as sheep or goats throughout the conclusion of the system of things, depending on how they responded to the Kingdom message. However, in the mid-1990’s, our viewpoint was clarified. Two articles in the October 15, 1995, issue of The Watchtower noted the similarities between Jesus’ words as recorded at Matthew 24:29-31 (read) and those at Matthew 25:31, 32. (Read.)* The conclusion? The lead article stated: “The rendering of judgment on the sheep and the goats is future.” When, exactly? “It will take place after ‘the tribulation’ mentioned at Matthew 24:29, 30 breaks out and the Son of man ‘arrives in his glory.’ . . . Then, with the entire wicked system at its end, Jesus will hold court and render and execute judgment.”
7. What clear understanding do we now have?
7 Today, we have a clear understanding of the illustration of the sheep and the goats. Regarding the identity of those mentioned, Jesus is “the Son of man,” the King. Those referred to as “my brothers” are spirit-anointed men and women, who will rule with Christ from heaven. (Rom. 8:16, 17) “The sheep” and “the goats” represent individuals from all nations. These ones are not anointed by holy spirit. What about the timing of the judgment? This judgment will occur toward the end of the great tribulation just ahead. And what of the reason why people will be judged as either sheep or goats? The outcome hinges on how they have treated the remaining ones of Christ’s spirit-anointed brothers on earth. With the end of this system so close at hand, how grateful we are that Jehovah has progressively shed light on this illustration and on the related illustrations recorded in Matthew chapters 24 and 25!
HOW DOES THE ILLUSTRATION EMPHASIZE THE PREACHING WORK?
8, 9. Why are the sheep described as “righteous”?
8 In the illustration of the sheep and the goats, Jesus does not directly mention the preaching work. Why, then, can it be said that it emphasizes the importance of preaching?
9 First, note that Jesus is teaching by means of an illustration. Obviously, he is not talking about separating literal sheep from literal goats. Likewise, he is not saying that each individual judged to be a sheep must literally feed, clothe, nurse, or visit one of his brothers in prison. Rather, he is illustrating the attitude that the figurative sheep display toward his brothers. He describes the sheep as “righteous” because they recognize that Christ has a group of anointed brothers still on earth, and the sheep loyally support the anointed during these critical last days.—Matt. 10:40-42; 25:40, 46; 2 Tim. 3:1-5.
10. How can the sheep show kindness to Christ’s brothers?
10 Second, consider the context of Jesus’ words. He is discussing the sign of his presence and the conclusion of the system of things. (Matt. 24:3) Early in his discourse, Jesus indicated that the sign would include a remarkable feature—the good news of the Kingdom would “be preached in all the inhabited earth.” (Matt. 24:14) And just prior to talking about the sheep and the goats, he related the illustration of the talents. As discussed in the preceding article, Jesus gave that illustration to stress to his spirit-anointed disciples, his “brothers,” that they must zealously engage in the preaching work. However, the small number of anointed ones left on earth during Jesus’ presence face an enormous challenge—that of preaching to “all the nations” before the end comes. The illustration of the sheep and the goats shows that the anointed would have help. Therefore, one of the primary ways that those judged to be sheep show kindness to Christ’s brothers is by supporting them in the preaching work. What, though, is involved in providing that support? Does it consist only of material backing and emotional comfort, or is more required?
WHO ARE TO PREACH?
11. What question could arise, and why?
11 Today, the vast majority of the eight million disciples of Jesus are not spirit-anointed. They have not received the talents that Jesus gave to his anointed slaves. (Matt. 25:14-18) So the question could arise, ‘Does the commission to preach really apply to those who are not anointed with holy spirit?’ Consider just some of the reasons why the answer is yes.
12. What do we learn from Jesus’ words recorded at Matthew 28:19, 20?
12 Jesus instructed all his disciples to preach. After he was resurrected, Jesus told his followers to make disciples, teaching them to observe “all the things” he had commanded. Included among those commands was the commission to preach. (Read Matthew 28:19, 20.) Therefore, all disciples of Christ are to preach, whether their hope is to rule in heaven or to live on earth.—Acts 10:42.
13. What does the vision seen by John indicate, and why?
13 The book of Revelation indicates that the preaching work would be done both by the anointed and by others. Jesus gave the apostle John a vision of “the bride,” the 144,000 anointed humans who will rule with Christ in heaven, inviting people to “take life’s water free.” (Rev. 14:1, 3; 22:17) That symbolic water represents Jehovah’s provisions for recovering mankind from sin and death on the basis of Christ’s ransom sacrifice. (Matt. 20:28; John 3:16; 1 John 4:9, 10) The ransom is central to the message we preach, and the anointed are taking the lead in helping people learn about and benefit from it. (1 Cor. 1:23) But in the vision, John sees others, who are not of the bride class. They too are told to say, “Come!” They obey and invite still others to take life’s water. This second group are those who have the hope of living on earth. Therefore, this vision clearly indicates that all who accept the invitation to “come” have the responsibility to preach to others.
14. What is involved in obeying “the law of the Christ”?
14 All those bound by “the law of the Christ” must preach. (Gal. 6:2) Jehovah does not have double standards. For example, he told the Israelites: “One law will apply for the native and for the foreigner who is residing among you.” (Ex. 12:49; Lev. 24:22) Christians are not bound by the Mosaic Law. But all of us, whether anointed or not, are subject to “the law of the Christ.” That law includes all that Jesus taught. Foremost among Jesus’ teachings is that his followers should display love. (John 13:35; Jas. 2:8) And one of the primary ways we show love for God, for Christ, and for our neighbor is by preaching the good news of the Kingdom.—John 15:10; Acts 1:8.
15. Why can it be said that Jesus’ command applies to all his followers?
15 Jesus’ words to a small group can apply to a larger group. For example, Jesus made a covenant for a Kingdom with just 11 disciples, but that covenant really applies to all of the 144,000. (Luke 22:29, 30; Rev. 5:10; 7:4-8) Similarly, Jesus commanded only a relatively small number of his followers—those to whom he appeared after his resurrection—to preach. (Acts 10:40-42; 1 Cor. 15:6) But all his faithful first-century disciples recognized that the command applied to them, even if they had not personally heard Jesus speak. (Acts 8:4; 1 Pet. 1:8) Likewise today, Jesus has not personally spoken to any of the eight million active Kingdom preachers. But all recognize their obligation to exercise faith in Christ and to express that faith by means of the witnessing work.—Jas. 2:18.
NOW IS THE TIME TO BE LOYAL
16-18. How can prospective sheep support Christ’s brothers, and why should they do so now?
16 Satan is waging war with the remaining ones of Christ’s spirit-anointed brothers on earth, and he will intensify his attacks as the “short period of time” he has left runs out. (Rev. 12:9, 12, 17) Despite having to endure intense testing, the anointed are spearheading the greatest preaching campaign in history. Without a doubt, Jesus is with them, guiding their efforts.—Matt. 28:20.
17 The growing number of prospective sheep count it a privilege to support Christ’s brothers not only in the preaching work but also in other practical ways. For example, they give financial contributions and help to build Kingdom Halls, Assembly Halls, and branch facilities, and they loyally obey those appointed by “the faithful and discreet slave” to take the lead.—Matt. 24:45-47; Heb. 13:17.
18 Soon the angels will unleash the destructive winds of the great tribulation. This will occur after all the remaining ones of Christ’s brothers left on earth have received their final sealing. (Rev. 7:1-3) Before Armageddon breaks out, anointed ones will be taken to heaven. (Matt. 13:41-43) Therefore, now is the time for those who hope to be judged as sheep to support Christ’s brothers loyally.