Q: Who are Jesus’ “brothers” in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46?

A: In his final parable regarding “the kingdom of the heavens,” that of the sheep and the goats, Jesus illustrates an important feature that he had not directly touched on previously in any of his other parables; and which will be fulfilled when he returns in kingdom glory. We can readily understand the seriousness of the meaning behind this illustration, for Jesus emphasizes that it will be a matter of life and death at that time: Eternal life for the sheep—who did good to his brothers and are therefore declared righteous, being placed on his right hand and inheriting “the kingdom prepared for [them] from the founding of the world”; while the goats, who failed to come to the aid of his brothers will find themselves on his left side, and depart into the “everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” (Matt. 25:31-33, 41, 46; 7:23; 24:37-39; Rev. 20:14-15) These are definitely compelling reasons for wanting to understand this parable.

The meaning of the parable is far greater than simply teaching the lesson of doing good deeds to others, such as by giving a brother something to eat; or to drink; or to receive hospitably; or to clothe; or to look after when sick; or visiting in prison. As Jesus’ disciples, we are under obligation to come to the assistance of our fellow brothers when they are in need, but this is not the point he is making in this case. (John 13:34-35; Gal. 6:10; James 2:14-16) Jesus indicates that this parable is more of a personal yet important nature, the treatment of his brothers; equating what is done to “one of the least of these my brothers” as being—or not being—done to him. Who are Jesus’ “brothers” in this parable, and why does the treatment of them become a matter of life and death?

Jesus indicated the distinction, or eminent position, of even the least one of his brothers when he had earlier compared such one with John the Baptist, saying: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt. 11:11, ESV) If all the faithful men of old who ever lived, including such prominent individuals as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Daniel, etc., were not greater than John the Baptist, yet “the least one in the kingdom of heaven” is greater than all of them, it rules out that all good people go to heaven. Jesus was thereby saying that John the Baptist is not among "the least one" who receives the kingdom of heaven. (Luke 12:32)

The prophet Daniel saw in vision the "holy ones," the brothers of Jesus, at the time they receive the kingdom of heaven, when Jesus himself, as the Son of Man, also receives his kingdom. He wrote: “As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honor, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed. . . As I watched, this horn was waging war against God’s holy people and was defeating them, until the Ancient One—the Most High—came and judged in favor of his holy people. Then the time arrived for the holy people to take over the kingdom. . .
Then the sovereignty, power, and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be given to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will last forever, and all rulers will serve and obey him.” (Dan. 7:13-14, 21-22, 27; NLT; Rev. 19:6-8)

Who are the "holy people of the Most High," who are given “the sovereignty, power, and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven,” along with the Son of Man? The Son of Man is Jesus, while the holy ones who receive the kingdom are his brothers, as he had promised them while he was yet with them. (Luke 22:29) The apostle John, one of Christ's brothers, likewise saw them in his vision of the Revelation: “Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given the authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.” (Rev. 20:4-6; NLT)

John further stated that they have been “bought from the earth,” “from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb,” and they are seen with Jesus standing upon the heavenly Mount Zion. (Rev. 14:1-4; Heb. 12:22-23) Their close association with Jesus is therefore emphasized. We are told that there are 144,000 of them. We know that this is a literal number because the great tribulation cannot begin until every last one of them has been sealed. (Rev. 7:1-4)

Since Christ’s brothers will rule with him in the heavenly kingdom—receiving their glory and authority from God as Jesus himself does—we can appreciate why Jesus considers it of vital importance for everyone to treat them as they would him! (Matt. 19:28; Rev. 3:21) In fact, it is not possible to worship God apart from Jesus' seemingly least one of his brothers. (Matt. 23:8-10; Luke 21:24-26) The apostle Paul explains why that is the case. In his letter to the Ephesian congregation, he wrote: “So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph. 2:19-22; NLT)

God's holy temple came into existence at Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus' death and resurrection. In a few short years both Jews and Gentiles became living stones within that temple. We need to understand the importance of the foundation stones of God's temple, as Paul describes it, if we want to also know the identity of Christ's brothers of the parable of the sheep and the goats. (1 Peter 2:4-5)

We today, who desire to worship Jehovah, need to realize that he does not leave it up to anyone to decide for himself how to worship God. That has never been the case! God’s temple arrangement under the old covenant served a specific purpose, which has a bearing on our worship today. His people back then could not offer their sacrifices at just any location of their choosing. In fact, any deviation from what God had commanded was not only rejected by him, but was also considered to be false worship, with its consequences. (Lev. 16:8-9; Deut. 12:2-7) The reason was that although Jehovah was said to reside with his people, that was not just anywhere. His residence was in Jerusalem, where his holy temple stood; and his presence therein was represented by the bright cloud of the Shechinah light, which shone brilliantly over the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy compartment of his temple. There the high priest, who represented the people, appeared before God on Atonement Day with the blood of animals. He was thus symbolically standing in the presence of Jehovah. (Ezra 7:15-17; Lev. 16:2) Now, these things pictured heavenly things, such as the greater high priest Jesus presenting before the person of God his own shed blood. (Heb. 8:1-6; 9:11-14, 23-24)

How would you like to have stood in the presence of Jehovah, in front of the Shechinah light? Wouldn't that have been fear inspiring? Of course, back then that would have been impossible for any one but the high priest; and even he could do so only once a year. But the reality today is, you do stand before Jehovah! And even more awesome, you have his holy spirit reside in you! That is what Paul is explaining. Under the new and better covenant, God’s people no longer worship Jehovah in a physical temple, for they themselves are his temple, “a place for God to inhabit by spirit.” Jesus’ ransom has reconciled them to God, which makes this possible; and having God's spirit, the righteous among them shine “as brightly as the sun in the kingdom of their Father," reminding us of the miraculous light in God's temple at that time. (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Rom. 5:8-11; Matt. 13:43; Dan. 12:3, 10)

Do you fully appreciate this basic truth? Since we are God’s temple, we have his holy spirit dwell in us, not merely teaching us. That is why Jesus said that “the true worshipers must worship the Father with spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24) We cannot worship God “with truth” apart from his spirit; and we have his spirit dwell in us because we are his temple; and God’s temple is build upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets—who are Christ’s brothers; with Jesus himself being the foundation cornerstone. (1 Peter 2:4-9; 2 Cor. 6:16-18)

Since Jesus, together with his brothers, form the foundation of God’s temple, upon which the entire spiritual building is constructed and growing—“being harmoniously joined together”—you can understand why Jesus would regard the doing good to his brothers the same as being done to him. The fact is, we cannot worship God apart from Jesus and his brothers, not even the least of them! God has only one temple where his servants are rendering him sacred service that he accepts. That is where the great crowd is shown rendering sacred service to God. (Heb. 9:14; 12:28-29; Rev. 7:14-15) If Jehovah enforced the law which he gave to his people Israel under the old covenant, which was merely “a shadow of the things to come” and was “our tutor leading to Christ,” would he not just as surely, perhaps even more zealously, enforce “the reality [which] belongs to the Christ”? After all, which is more important: the shadow or the reality? (Col. 2:17; Gal. 3:24; Heb. 8:5; 10:28-31)


Who are Christ's brothers, to whom Jesus considers the things done as having been done to him? Since Pentecost, they together with Jesus have made up the foundation of God's temple, with Jesus being the foundation cornerstone; and it is only in connection with them that the righteous sheep can render sacred service to God within his temple. Upon his return in kingdom glory, Jesus will receive his brothers home to himself, where they will rule with him in his heavenly kingdom. (John 14:2-3; Rev. 20:6) Fittingly they are also referred to as the Lamb's bride and wife. (John 3:29; Rev. 19:7-9)
Who are the sheep
in the parable of the sheep and the goats? They are the righteous, who, by doing good to Christ's brothers, were in reality doing good to Jesus himself. The sheep cannot follow Jesus if they were to reject his brothers. Jesus and his brothers cannot be separated! Because of their faith, the sheep are blessed with everlasting life "at the time [Jesus] comes to be glorified in connection with his holy ones and to be regarded in that day with wonder in connection with all those who exercised faith." (2 Thess. 1:7-10)
The goats, on the other hand, failed to come to the assistance of Christ's brothers, and will be shocked when they hear Jesus tell them: "Truly I say to you, To the extent that you did not do it to one of these least ones, you did not do it to me." And these will "undergo the judicial punishment of everlasting destruction from before the Lord and from the glory of his strength." (2 Thess. 1:9,10; Matt. 25:46) They had wrongly assumed that only faith in Jesus was necessary for salvation, in spite of Jesus' words to the contrary; and because of spurning Jesus' brothers, perhaps even speaking abusively of them, Jesus in turn rejects them. (Matt. 7:21-23; Jude 1:8, 10-12, 17-21) 

In some of his previous parables about the kingdom of the heavens, Jesus illustrated the fact that there would be righteous as well as unrighteous persons within God's kingdom right up until his return in kingdom glory; and that the wicked would be removed from among the righteous. (Matt. 13:49) But in his final parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus focuses on the difference in attitude of the righteous and the unrighteous towards the "holy ones" God had chosen to rule with his Son in his kingdom; stressing that their acceptance of these ones was just as vital as accepting Jesus himself.