Who are the “Least of These My Brethren?”

40And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:40 NKJV)

The Olivet Discourse ends with Jesus’ prophecy that He will gather and judge all the nations (Matthew 25:31-46). It is important to see that this judgment is the conclusion of the discourse that begins in Matthew 24. It is Jesus’ climax to His longest teaching on the end of the age. It is not an isolated event, nor a parable. It is a literal event and we must understand it. Matthew 24-25 can be generally outlined in this way:

  1. Matthew 24:3-31 – Jesus predicts themes, trends, and events before and during the end times.
  2. Matthew 24:32-25:30 – Jesus gives pastoral instructions on how to understand and respond to the end times along with several parables teaching how we should live in light of end time events.
  3. Matthew 25:31-46 – Jesus concludes His teaching with His dramatic judgment of the nations. This is the climax of His entire teaching. The previous two sections build towards this conclusion.

Often Jesus’ prophecy of judgment is shrouded in mystery because we do not consider the part that it plays in the entire discourse. It also is sometimes regulated to an “end times” event that may be more parabolic than literal. However, it is important to understand what Jesus taught. Any time Jesus teaches about the end times it is not for the sake of information. Jesus is like a teacher handing out a study guide for the final. He is warning us ahead of time how He will judge so that we can prepare ourselves and the nations to receive reward rather than punishment at His judgment.

This is why we must not neglect the judgment passages in Scripture. They are given for the sake of the church. They are given so that we will understand them and prepare the church. In light of this, we should seriously study the judgment of Matthew 25:31-46 so that we understand Jesus’ teaching and so that we can prepare the church to be successful on the day of judgment. We cannot afford to be ignorant of passages such as this, because we are to prepare the church to live daily lives of faithfulness that will be well rewarded at the judgment.

To properly understand Jesus’ method of judgment we must correctly understand the phrase “My brethren” that Jesus uses in verse 40 and 45 because Jesus’ judgment of the nations is in context to how the nations have treated His brethren. Jesus makes the nations’ treatment of “His brethren” equivalent to the nation’s treatment of Himself.

40And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’…45Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:40,45 NKJV)

In light of the magnitude of Jesus’ judgment of the nations, it is critical that we understand who He is referring to and what is serving as the basis for His judgment of the nations. Jesus never intended that we would be confused about He will judge and therefore unable to prepare the church for His judgments. Throughout history, commentators have interpreted the phrase “My brethren”1 in multiple ways. Some have argued that Jesus was speaking directly of the Jews, the ones that are physically His brethren, while others have seen the phrase as a reference to the apostles, all those who follow Jesus, or the poor and the suffering in general. While ministry to believers and to the poor in general are certainly important secondary interpretations that are supported by other passages in Scripture, this passage has a very specific eschatological application.

When we see the passage in its full context, it becomes very clear whom Jesus is referring to. These brethren are not Jesus’ brethren because they are suffering; instead they are suffering because they are Jesus’ brethren. That is an important distinction that takes us back to the beginning of the Olivet Discourse and Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24:21 of a time of unequaled trouble. We find the warning of a time of unequaled trouble prophesied in a Jerusalem-centric context where Jesus has reaffirmed the abomination in the temple prophesied by Daniel and given very specific warnings to those in Jerusalem at the end of the age.

Jesus’ teaching puts Jerusalem and the Jewish people front and center through the entire discourse as He gazes upon the city full of emotion (Matthew 23:37-38). This context helps us begin to understanding who “My brethren” are. We will also consider several other factors around the passage that help make it clear who Jesus is referring to.

Understanding “These” My Brethren

First we recognize that this third party Jesus calls His brethren are separate and distinct from the righteous and the unrighteous that He gathers out of the nations (Matthew 25:32). As Jesus is gazing towards Jerusalem while sitting on the Mount of Olives, He intentionally says “these My brethren” and not “you My brethren.” If Jesus had wanted to focus in on the apostles, He could have used a word such as ὑμᾶς to indicate “you” but instead He used the word τούτων to indicate “these.”

The Greek word τούτων translated here as “these” is essentially “a reference to an entity regarded as a part of the discourse setting.”2 Loux and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament describes the word as follows:

“οὗτος, αὕτη, τοῦτο: a reference to an entity regarded as a part of the discourse setting,7 with pejorative meaning in certain contexts—‘this, this one.’ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ‘this is my Son’ Mt 3:17; οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν ‘this was in the beginning with God’ Jn 1:2; τοῦτο γινώσκετε ὅτι ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ‘know this, that the kingdom of God has come near’ Lk 10:11; τοῦτο ἀληθὲς εἴρηκας ‘this that you have said is true’ Jn 4:18; ἢ καὶ ὡς οὗτος ὁ τελώνης ‘or even like this tax collector’ Lk 18:11; ὅτε δὲ ὁ υἱός σου οὗτος ὁ καταφαγών σου τὸν βίον μετὰ πορνῶν ἦλθεν ‘but when this son of yours, who wasted your property with prostitutes, came’ Lk 15:30.”3

When the Greek word that Jesus uses is examined it becomes clear that this word is used to describe an entity that is part of the discourse setting and yet the entity being referenced is not the entity being addressed. In other words, the word is always used to refer to a third-party that is present.

The word refers to an entity in the context of the conversation, so in this case we will see that Jesus is clearly referring to the Jewish people as He gazes on Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. While the word is used to describe someone or something in the current context, the word is specifically used to refer to someone other than the person being addressed. In this context, Jesus is using the word to refer to the Jews all around His conversation with the apostles, but He is not using the word to describe the apostles themselves. Jesus is prophesying the words of the King, but they are His words because He is the King. He is also prophesying in the place that He will give these words based on Joel 3, which we will examine in a moment.

The Jerusalem-centric context of the discourse and Jesus’ use of the word “these” make is clear that Jesus has in mind His Jewish brethren when He speaks of His brethren. Though some commentators have interpreted Jesus’ phrase as referencing the apostles and, by extension, the church or the poor at large, the context does not allow for that interpretation. If Jesus was speaking about the apostles or trying to reference the general poor, He would have used a very different word to describe His brethren and would not have set them as a distinct people from the righteous and unrighteous out of all the nations. The situational and linguistic evidence reveals that the “brethren” Jesus has in mind are physical Jews who are physically Jesus’ “brethren.” This becomes especially clear when the parallel passages to this event are examined.

The Covenantal Foundation for Jesus’ Judgment

Genesis 12 is the foundation for God’s judgment. God was very clear that His blessing would remain on those that blessed Abraham and His curse would be on those that cursed Abraham. His promise and warning form the basis of His judgment of the nations.

3I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3 NKJV)

Those who bless God’s purposes for Abraham descendants, purposes that are ultimately only fulfilled through Jesus, will be blessed. Those who curse God’s plan for Abraham’s descendants will receive a curse. This is the first hint in Scripture that God is going to design the history of this age in such a way that He can judge on how the nations respond to God’s plan for Abraham’s descendants.

The Context of Joel 3

Matthew 25:31-46 is a very clear prophecy, but it is not a new prophecy. Jesus was enforcing and giving definition to an event that had already been prophesied in the Old Testament. We must understand the biblical context of this judgment and understand that Jesus is not introducing something new, but affirming something already predicted. The primary thing that Jesus adds to what had already been prophesied is the clear insertion of Himself as the eschatological Judge. This was shocking to the disciples. By putting Matthew 25 in the context of what had been previously prophesied, the judgment becomes even clearer. Jesus would have expected His audience to read into His teaching all that the prophets had already prophesied about the event. Joel 3 is one of the most clear Old Testament prophesies about this event and that prophesy makes it completely clear who Jesus’ brethren are.

1“For behold, in those days and at that time, When I bring back the captives of Judah and Jerusalem, 2I will also gather all nations, And bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; And I will enter into judgment with them there On account of My people, My heritage Israel, Whom they have scattered among the nations; They have also divided up My land. 3They have cast lots for My people, Have given a boy as payment for a harlot, And sold a girl for wine, that they may drink. (Joel 3:1–3 NKJV)

12“Let the nations be wakened, and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; For there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. (Joel 3:12 NKJV)

14Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. (Joel 3:14 NKJV)

16The LORD also will roar from Zion, And utter His voice from Jerusalem; The heavens and earth will shake; But the LORD will be a shelter for His people, And the strength of the children of Israel. (Joel 3:16 NKJV)

Both Jesus’ prophesy and the way He delivered it caused the apostles to interpret all of it as a reference to the judgment of Joel 3. Simply the location of Jesus’ prophecy sets it in the context of Joel 3. When He gave the Olivet Discourse, Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Valley of Jehoshaphat facing Jerusalem.

When He said he would gather the goats at His left hand, His left hand was pointing toward the valley of Gehenna which was Jesus’ consistent reference place for the fire of eternal punishment. The disciples understood the symbolism and the seriousness of what Jesus was saying. They were shocked to realize that the one in front of them was the divine Judge – YHWH Himself – who Joel predicted would judge the nations. Jesus was acting out Joel’s prophesied day of judgment in front of them and acting as the one who was the Judge. The apostles did not miss the symbolism.

This is not surprising because Jesus’ entire teaching in the Olivet Discourse is in the context of Joel’s prophecy. The book of Joel is an end time book and Joel 3 is the grand conclusion to the end time drama Joel prophesies just as Matthew 25:31-46 is the end of Jesus’ summary of the end of the age. Joel’s prediction that the “captives” of Judah and Jerusalem are regathered at the end of the age reveals Israel’s condition at the end of the age. It is obvious that they have just undergone a trial at the hands of the nations. They have been oppressed and in the kinds of dire straights that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:35-36. This fact alone connects the phrase “My brethren” to Jesus, just as Isaiah prophesied.

9In all their affliction He was afflicted, And the Angel of His Presence saved them; In His love and in His pity He redeemed them; And He bore them and carried them All the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9 NKJV)

Joel sees that the Jews are oppressed throughout the nations, which is why God must regather the “captives” of Judah and Jerusalem. At the time He regathers the Jews in mercy, He also gathers the nations in kindness. The contrast between the two gatherings makes it clear that Jesus is connecting His need to regather Israel with His gathering of the nations for judgment. In other words He is bringing both Israel and the nations to Jerusalem and judging the nations based on how they treated the Jews. Israel is the third party identified with Himself that is He is judging on behalf of when He gathers the nations for judgment (Matthew 25:31).

On that day there will be multitudes in the valley of judgment waiting for the sentence of the Judge. It is a terrifying scene for those who will be sent to His left and this is what caused Joel to cry out over their judgment. It is a serious age-ending judgment. Jesus was intentionally putting Himself into the Joel 3 prophecy and establishing His identity as the judge of Joel 3. It was a clear claim to be the divine judge that had also been prophesied in Daniel 7.

The Prophetic Context for Judgment on the Day of the Lord

Joel and Jesus are not the only ones who describe God’s judgment of the nations on behalf of Israel. While Joel and Jesus give us specific details, the other prophets confirm the nature of the judgment as well. Isaiah prophesied the Day of Judgment using very graphic language and sets God’s judgment plainly in the context of the cause (controversy) over Zion. The day of judgment is referred to as the day of recompense, or repayment, for the cause of Zion. In other words, God will repay the nations according to His purpose for Zion and how they responded to those purposes.

2For the indignation of the LORD is against all nations, And His fury against all their armies; He has utterly destroyed them, He has given them over to the slaughter. 3Also their slain shall be thrown out; Their stench shall rise from their corpses, And the mountains shall be melted with their blood…5“For My sword shall be bathed in heaven; Indeed it shall come down on Edom, And on the people of My curse, for judgment. 6The sword of the LORD is filled with blood…8For it is the day of the LORD’s vengeance, The year of recompense for the cause of Zion. (Isaiah 34:2-3,5,8 NKJV)

Isaiah 63 describes Jesus’ judgment of the nations in graphic language. He will save and deliver Israel while releasing His fury on the nations. God’s judgment is both a day of salvation for Israel and a day of terror for the nations.

 1Who is this who comes from Edom, With dyed garments from Bozrah, This One who is glorious in His apparel, Traveling in the greatness of His strength?— “I who speak in righteousness, mighty to save.” 2Why is Your apparel red, And Your garments like one who treads in the winepress? 3“I have trodden the winepress alone, And from the peoples no one was with Me. For I have trodden them in My anger, And trampled them in My fury; Their blood is sprinkled upon My garments, And I have stained all My robes. 4For the day of vengeance is in My heart, And the year of My redeemed has come. 5I looked, but there was no one to help, And I wondered That there was no one to uphold; Therefore My own arm brought salvation for Me; And My own fury, it sustained Me. 6I have trodden down the peoples in My anger, Made them drunk in My fury, And brought down their strength to the earth.” 7I will mention the lovingkindnesses of the Lord And the praises of the Lord, According to all that the Lord has bestowed on us, And the great goodness toward the house of Israel, Which He has bestowed on them according to His mercies, According to the multitude of His lovingkindnesses. 8For He said, “Surely they are My people, Children who will not lie.” So He became their Savior. (Isaiah 63:1–8 NKJV)

God is very clear in Ezekiel 36 that He judges the nations based on their treatment of Israel, and He especially highlights the response of the nations to Israel when Israel was in crisis. Those who do not serve Israel, but instead seize her land and consent to her being made a possession of someone other than YHWH will bear His “burning jealousy” over the treatment of Israel.

2Thus says the Lord GOD: “Because the enemy has said of you, ‘Aha! The ancient heights have become our possession,’ ” ’ 3therefore prophesy, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Because they made you desolate and swallowed you up on every side, so that you became the possession of the rest of the nations, and you are taken up by the lips of talkers and slandered by the people”…5therefore thus says the Lord GOD: “Surely I have spoken in My burning jealousy against the rest of the nations and against all Edom, who gave My land to themselves as a possession, with wholehearted joy and spiteful minds, in order to plunder its open country.” ’ 6“Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel, and say to the mountains, the hills, the rivers, and the valleys, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I have spoken in My jealousy and My fury, because you have borne the shame of the nations.” 7Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: “I have raised My hand in an oath that surely the nations that are around you shall bear their own shame. (Ezekiel 36:2-3,5–7 NKJV)

Micah promises that God will judge on behalf of Israel. He will assemble them, judge their oppressors, and cause them to flourish. On account of Israel, He will treat the nations like sheaves in a threshing floor.

6“In that day,” says the LORD, “I will assemble the lame, I will gather the outcast And those whom I have afflicted; 7I will make the lame a remnant, And the outcast a strong nation; So the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion From now on, even forever. 8And you, O tower of the flock, The stronghold of the daughter of Zion, To you shall it come, Even the former dominion shall come, The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.” 9Now why do you cry aloud? Is there no king in your midst? Has your counselor perished? For pangs have seized you like a woman in labor. 10Be in pain, and labor to bring forth, O daughter of Zion, Like a woman in birth pangs. For now you shall go forth from the city, You shall dwell in the field, And to Babylon you shall go. There you shall be delivered; There the LORD will redeem you From the hand of your enemies. 11Now also many nations have gathered against you, Who say, “Let her be defiled, And let our eye look upon Zion.” 12But they do not know the thoughts of the LORD, Nor do they understand His counsel; For He will gather them like sheaves to the threshing floor.” (Micah 4:6–12 NKJV)

Zephaniah clearly prophesies to gentile nations to prepare for this judgment as well as prophesying that the Lord will judge on behalf of Israel. Zephaniah gives a very clear warning to the nations to prepare for His judgment. In light of the prophesied judgment, He warns the nations to prepare that the may be sheltered in the day of His wrath rather than be exposed.

2Before the decree is issued, Or the day passes like chaff, Before the LORD’s fierce anger comes upon you, Before the day of the LORD’s anger comes upon you! 3Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth, Who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden In the day of the LORD’s anger. (Zephaniah 2:2–3 NKJV)

Zephaniah emphasizes that we respond before that day because of the gravity of it. The key is that we uphold His justice, meaning the manner by which He will judge, and that we seek His righteousness. Zephaniah is clear that it is the reaction of the nations to Israel’s suffering that serves as the basis for God’s judgment.

4For Gaza shall be forsaken, And Ashkelon desolate; They shall drive out Ashdod at noonday, And Ekron shall be uprooted. 5Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast, The nation of the Cherethites! The word of the LORD is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines: “I will destroy you; So there shall be no inhabitant.” 6The seacoast shall be pastures, With shelters for shepherds and folds for flocks. 7The coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; They shall feed their flocks there; In the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For the LORD their God will intervene for them, And return their captives. 8“I have heard the reproach of Moab, And the insults of the people of Ammon, With which they have reproached My people, And made arrogant threats against their borders. 9Therefore, as I live,” Says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Surely Moab shall be like Sodom, And the people of Ammon like Gomorrah— Overrun with weeds and saltpits, And a perpetual desolation. The residue of My people shall plunder them, And the remnant of My people shall possess them.” 10This they shall have for their pride, Because they have reproached and made arrogant threats Against the people of the LORD of hosts. 11The LORD will be awesome to them, For He will reduce to nothing all the gods of the earth; People shall worship Him, Each one from his place, Indeed all the shores of the nations. (Zephaniah 2:4–11 NKJV)

Zechariah’s prophecy concludes with God judging the nations that have come against Jerusalem. Though His judgment was against Israel, He is extremely angry with the nations that assaulted Jerusalem with “evil intent.” Jesus not only judges the nations, He goes forth and executes the nations that oppose His plans for Jerusalem.

14So the angel who spoke with me said to me, “Proclaim, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: “I am zealous for Jerusalem And for Zion with great zeal. 15I am exceedingly angry with the nations at ease; For I was a little angry, And they helped—but with evil intent.” 16‘Therefore thus says the LORD: “I am returning to Jerusalem with mercy; My house shall be built in it,” says the LORD of hosts, “And a surveyor’s line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.” ’ 17“Again proclaim, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: “My cities shall again spread out through prosperity; The LORD will again comfort Zion, And will again choose Jerusalem.” ’ ” (Zechariah 1:14–17 NKJV)

2For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem; The city shall be taken, The houses rifled, And the women ravished. Half of the city shall go into captivity, But the remnant of the people shall not be cut off from the city. 3Then the LORD will go forth And fight against those nations, As He fights in the day of battle…12And this shall be the plague with which the LORD will strike all the people who fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh shall dissolve while they stand on their feet, Their eyes shall dissolve in their sockets, And their tongues shall dissolve in their mouths. 13It shall come to pass in that day That a great panic from the LORD will be among them. Everyone will seize the hand of his neighbor, And raise his hand against his neighbor’s hand; (Zechariah 14:2-3,12–13 NKJV)

Old Testament Usage of the Term

The term “brethren” was an understood term used to refer to the Jewish people. Jesus was using familiar language when He used that term and the apostles would have clearly understood it to refer to the Jews. Isaiah is an example of this language.

20Then they shall bring all your brethren for an offering to the LORD out of all nations, on horses and in chariots and in litters, on mules and on camels, to My holy mountain Jerusalem,” says the LORD, “as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD. (Isaiah 66:20 NKJV)

Jesus was identifying with the Jews as a physical Jews when He used that language. In this judgment Jesus is affirming both sides of His identity. He is demonstrating His divinity by identifying Himself as the judge that will execute the judgment the prophets prophesied YHWH would execute. At the same time He affirms His identity as a real human Jew, a full member of the “brethren.”

In addition to using familiar language, Jesus was specifically quoting Micah 5. In a Messianic prophecy, God specifically refers to the Jews as “His brethren.” When Jesus adopted this language He was clearly identifying Himself as the one that Micah was prophesying about. Micah is prophesying about Messiah in an eschatological sense, so it is natural for Jesus to adopt Micah’s language in His eschatological prophecy.

3Therefore He shall give them up, Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth; Then the remnant of His brethren shall return to the children of Israel. (Micah 5:3 NKJV)

Isaiah prophesied that God Himself suffered in all of Israel’s suffering. How much more is this true after the incarnation now that God has taken on Jewish flesh?

9In all their affliction He was afflicted, And the Angel of His Presence saved them; In His love and in His pity He redeemed them; And He bore them and carried them All the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9 NKJV)

The Apostles’ Understanding of Jesus’ Instructions

9and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10They desired only that we should remember the poor [in Jerusalem}, the very thing which I also was eager to do. (Galatians 2:9–10 NKJV)

26For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem. (Romans 15:26 NKJV)

Paul writes in Galatians that when he received the blessing of the apostles in Jerusalem on the expansion of the gospel among the gentiles that they desired he should remember the poor. This request was not a generic request, but a specific request to remember the poor in Jerusalem. The reference to the “poor” was shorthand for the “poor in Jerusalem.”4

Paul indicated that he was very eager to do this and his ministry among the gentile churches demonstrated it. He spent a lot of time and energy in collecting funds from gentile churches to bring as an offering to Jerusalem (Romans 15:25–33; 1 Corinthians 16:1–4). Paul carried this offering to Jerusalem during his final and ultimately fatal journey there. Paul was very clear that the gentiles owed a material debt of love to the Jews because they had been given access to the rich spiritual treasures of being part of Israel.

25But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. 26For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem. 27It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things. (Romans 15:25–27 NKJV)

Paul’s desire to remember the Jewish poor and to make provision for them, even though his ministry was focused on the gentiles, was grounded in the eschatological conviction that he clearly stated in Romans 9-11. Paul understood both the gentile debt to Israel and the ultimate salvation of Israel and this is the backdrop that gave him zeal to collect funds to serve the Jews in Jerusalem. Paul connected gentile provision for Israel to Israel’s ultimate salvation.

1Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. (Romans 10:1 NKJV)

26And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; (Romans 11:26 NKJV)

In his commentary on Galatians, Timothy George makes the following observation, “J. Munck, among others, has interpreted the Pauline collection in terms of the apostle’s eschatological hope for the conversion of Israel. It has been suggested that Paul may have hoped that his deliverance of a large collection from the Gentile churches would lead to the mass conversion of many Jews in Jerusalem thus preparing the way for the dawn of the messianic age. See J. Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (Richmond: John Knox, 1959), 282–308.”5

The statement from the apostles in Jerusalem combined with Paul’s response to their request make it very clear that the first century church understood gentile responsibility to serve the Jew and took it very seriously. Their Israel-centric paradigm, which saw the gentile church not as a completely new entity but as the inclusion of all people’s into the unique covenant with Israel, made gentile ministry to the Jew a natural conclusion. Their concern for Jerusalem also tell us that Jesus’ warning in Matthew 25:31-46 was taken literally by the apostles in Jerusalem, Paul, and the first century believers.

Paul and the apostles’ clearly saw “My brethren” as a reference to the Jews because the apostles in Jerusalem interpreted and taught it this way. Given the apostles’ proximity to Jesus, their actions are significant to how the first century church understood this passage. Because of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24-25, the early church leaders clearly understood and communicated gentile responsibility for ethnic Israel.

The “Least of These”

The fact that Jesus refers to His brethren as the “least of these” emphasizes the eschatological context. While the church has a requirement to serve His brethren throughout history, there is a specific hour of history in which Israel will be the “least of these.” The angel was very clear to Daniel that this would be a time of trouble. It would exceed every trouble before it and would not finish until the power of the holy people is completely shattered.

24His power shall be mighty, but not by his own power; He shall destroy fearfully, And shall prosper and thrive; He shall destroy the mighty, and also the holy people. (Daniel 8:24 NKJV)

1“At that time Michael shall stand up, The great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; And there shall be a time of trouble, Such as never was since there was a nation, Even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, Every one who is found written in the book. (Daniel 12:1 NKJV)

7Then I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand to heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever, that it shall be for a time, times, and half a time; and when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, all these things shall be finished. (Daniel 12:7 NKJV)

Daniel 12:1 is actually quoting Jeremiah 30:7 which refers to this as an unparalleled time of trouble centered around the salvation of the Jewish people and their coming into the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-40).

7Alas! For that day is great, So that none is like it; And it is the time of Jacob’s trouble, But he shall be saved out of it. (Jeremiah 30:7 NKJV)

Jesus referenced Daniel and affirmed that the trial coming would be the fiercest trial in history. Jesus said it would be so severe it would not only threaten Israel, but also threaten all flesh.

21For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. (Matthew 24:21–22 NKJV)

In the book of Revelation, we find that the dragon, representing satan, will pursue the woman, representing Israel, and attempt to destroy her by sending a “flood” against her. He also persecutes all the rest who love Jesus, but what is interesting is that His rage against all believers is connected to his attempt to destroy the Jewish people and prevent their salvation and obedience to Jesus.

15So the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood. 16But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Revelation 12:15–17 NKJV)

The trial at the end of the age is clearly focused around Israel and the chosen people because it is all centered on the Jewish King. The rage of the nations against YHWH and against His King (Psalm 2) will reach a crescendo and the nations will vent that rage against the people that Jesus said must welcome Him before He would rule in Jerusalem. No matter how difficult it will be around the earth, the Jews will be at the very center of the storm. Their strength will be taken away from them and they will be considered the “least” in a war against the prerequisites for the return of the King.

39for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ ” (Matthew 23:39 NKJV)

As the nations rage against YHWH, they will see His people as the least of all peoples. Because they do not respect Him, they will not respect them. They will find ways to justify treating Israel as the least of all humans. God will test the nations with Israel’s condition as the least of all. He always tests the nations with weakness before He confronts them with strength. This leaves men without excuse because righteous men consider and serve the weak while wicked men despise the weak and seek to use them for their own advantage.

Just as He tested the nations response to His King through the gap between His crucifixion, seemingly as the least of all, and His exaltation as the King of all, He will also test the nations in how they respond to Israel’s humiliation as the least of all the nations. b.Eyes of faith will be required to serve them and to believe for the fulfillment of the promises and to endure this trial alongside the least of His brethren.

There are none poorer on the earth than those that have no inheritance. In that hour Israel will virtually seem to have no inheritance. Her promises will seem unfulfilled, as the land is again breeched by foreign armies. God will ask the nations the defining question He asked Ezekiel: Can these dead bones live? Our answer to that question determines everything.

3And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” So I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.” (Ezekiel 37:3 NKJV)

The righteousness of faith will prophecy to the dry bones of Israel knowing that God can resurrect a nation in a day and that He will keep His covenant while the wicked will trample the bones underfoot, discarding them for their own purposes.

6The sound of noise from the city! A voice from the temple! The voice of the LORD, Who fully repays His enemies! 7“Before she was in labor, she gave birth; Before her pain came, She delivered a male child. 8Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall the earth be made to give birth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once? For as soon as Zion was in labor, She gave birth to her children. (Isaiah 66:6–8 NKJV)

This is why messengers must be in place to comfort Jerusalem in the hour of trial.

1“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” Says your God. 2“Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the LORD’s hand Double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1–2 NKJV)

Not only that, gentile believers are called to live as a people waiting for the fullness of the promise and the fullness of the inheritance. Having been joined to Israel, we have become a people in exile whose citizenship is in heaven because our King is in heaven. Like Abraham we live in the land as strangers waiting for a city, and a King, to come down.

19For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. (Romans 8:19 NKJV)

22For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. 23Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. 24For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. (Romans 8:22–25 NKJV)

13In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13–14 NKJV)

20For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, (Philippians 3:20 NKJV)

13These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13 NKJV)

Understanding “Sheep and Goat” Language

God has called believers to care for His people throughout history and especially in the final hour of exile. It will be their requirement to serve them and shepherd them in their hour of trial.

1And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? 3You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. 4The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. 6My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.” 7‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8“As I live,” says the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock”— 9therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD! 10Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand; I will cause them to cease feeding the sheep, and the shepherds shall feed themselves no more; for I will deliver My flock from their mouths, that they may no longer be food for them.” (Ezekiel 34:1–10 NKJV)

17‘And as for you, O My flock, thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. (Ezekiel 34:17 NKJV)

22therefore I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them— My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. (Ezekiel 34:22–24 NKJV)

The parable of Ezekiel 34 has had application throughout Israel’s history and certainly applies to leadership in the church, but its ultimate fulfillment at the end of the age because Jesus will judge the nations firmly on how they have stewarded the sheep. Jesus even borrows the same shepherding language of Ezekiel 34 in Matthew 25 to describe how He is going to separate the multitudes for judgment. God says that His judgment is against shepherds because, when they should have stewarded the sheep, they instead used the sheep for their own benefit and then left the sheep defenseless and allowed the “beasts of the earth” to devour them.

Throughout Christian history, there has been this tendency to take all the benefits of God’s covenant with Israel and then discard the sheep of Israel. Not only have believers not served the sheep and meet their needs – which includes giving them the gospel – in many cases the church has gone further and left them exposed to the nations of the earth so that they were devoured. More dreadful still, the church has even given the nations theology that allowed them to ravage the sheep. This is why theology around Israel is not a side issue. If it’s the center point of His judgment of the nations, it should be a center point in our theology.

Because no one has care for His sheep as He does, YHWH provided a shepherd for Himself. However, the crucial issue is that YHWH’s shepherd, in His absence, has entrusted His sheep to the church. The crisis comes when the delegated shepherds under the chief shepherd fail to shepherd the sheep of Israel, whether through failing to stand for them as a people or failing to give them a true witness of the gospel. Zechariah addressed the same shepherding issue that Ezekiel addressed and it has the same application at the end of the age.

2For the idols speak delusion; The diviners envision lies, And tell false dreams; They comfort in vain. Therefore the people wend their way like sheep; They are in trouble because there is no shepherd. 3“My anger is kindled against the shepherds, And I will punish the goatherds. For the LORD of hosts will visit His flock, The house of Judah, And will make them as His royal horse in the battle. (Zechariah 10:2–3 NKJV)

The crisis that comes upon Israel is actually intensified because of the lack of shepherds caring for the sheep. God promised to make an end of the unfaithful shepherds. He pronounced woe on the “worthless shepherd” who leaves the sheep.

3There is the sound of wailing shepherds! For their glory is in ruins. There is the sound of roaring lions! For the pride of the Jordan is in ruins. (Zechariah 11:3 NKJV)

15And the LORD said to me, “Next, take for yourself the implements of a foolish shepherd. 16For indeed I will raise up a shepherd in the land who will not care for those who are cut off, nor seek the young, nor heal those that are broken, nor feed those that still stand. But he will eat the flesh of the fat and tear their hooves in pieces. 17“Woe to the worthless shepherd, Who leaves the flock! A sword shall be against his arm And against his right eye; His arm shall completely wither, And his right eye shall be totally blinded.” (Zechariah 11:15–17 NKJV)

Using the shepherding analogy, Jesus was very clear on His own heart posture towards the sheep and this is the heart posture He is expecting of His church. He sets this heart posture in clear contrast to those that are not true shepherds because true shepherds are identified in the crisis.

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 12But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. 13The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. (John 10:11–13 NKJV)

In the hour of crisis, the church is called, like the Chief Shepherd, to lay down their lives for the sheep. Sheep is used as a reference for all believers, but the church also has a specific responsibility to shepherd the sheep of Israel whenever they find the sheep of Israel scattered among them.

16Then he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the LORD said, ‘These have no master. Let each return to his house in peace.’ ” (2 Chronicles 18:16 NKJV)

17“Israel is like scattered sheep; The lions have driven him away. First the king of Assyria devoured him; Now at last this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has broken his bones.” (Jeremiah 50:17 NKJV)

6But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 10:6 NKJV)

Peter exhorts the church clearly to labor as a shepherd under the Chief Shepherd knowing there is a reward for laying down our lives down for the sheep, both in the church, and the sheep of Israel.

2Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 4and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. (1 Peter 5:2–4 NKJV)

The Old Testament is very clear that God judges the nations based on how they have treated Israel (Psalm 68; 102:12-17; Isaiah 34; 49:25-26; 51:21-23; 63:1-8; 66:5-6; Jeremiah 46:27-28; 48; 49:1-6; Ezekiel 25-26; 28:20-26; 34; 36; 38-39; Joel 3; Amos 1:2-3:3; Micah 4:6-13; Zechariah 14:1-15). Paul taught us that God’s plan ends with Israel’s salvation (Romans 11:25-26), so this will be a time when the nations will strongly resist the salvation of Israel. We have been warned ahead of time so that we fight for their salvation. We fight for the salvation of all people groups, but we must recognize the unique dynamics that accompany the final people group to embrace salvation.

Conclusion

When Matthew 25:31-46 is examined in its entire context, it becomes very clear that Jesus set His judgment of the nations in context to the Day of the Lord and His salvation of Israel. Israel will face its most fierce trial at the end of the age and that will be following quickly by a fierce judgment of the nations. Matthew’s gospel was written primary to the Jews. Given that, it is understandable that Matthew’s gospel would be the gospel to highlight Jesus’ judgment of the nations in this way. Matthew’s readers would have understood Jesus’ vindication of Israel as a continuation of the promise repeated by the prophets that, at the end of their greatest trial, God would judge the nations on behalf of Israel. Matthew was assuring his readers that Jesus would judge on behalf of Israel after their season of suffering.

It is critical that the gentile church understands this so that it might have proper discernment at the end of the age. In Jesus’ first coming, the Jews failed to perceive Him properly. They did not perceive God walking in their midst in Jewish flesh. The church at the last days must be careful of the same error. We must again discern God moving among Jewish flesh. While no Jew can be saved apart from Jesus, we must not lose sight of the covenant destiny of the natural branches that Paul recognized (Romans 11).

Because Jesus made His judgment of the nations so clear, there is a requirement for the nations to respond to it. He intends that we prepare for that Day of Judgment. He gave us this preview of the judgment out of kindness so that we would be prepared for it. It is our responsibly to respond to His words. In the last days, as throughout history, Israel is caught in the crossfire of the nations’ rage against YHWH. Jesus is very clear that the nation’s treatment of Israel is equivalent to their treatment of Him, both positively and negatively.

40And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’…45Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:40,45 NKJV)

In the same manner when you fail to perceive YHWH among the suffering Jews and do not minister to them, you refuse to minister to Him (Matthew 25:45). This is foundational to understanding the conflict of history that culminates in the last days. To persecute Israel, both national Israel and grafted in believers who have joined themselves to YHWH, is to persecute Him. To serve Israel, both national Israel and the wild olive branches that have been grafted in, in their hour of trouble is to serve Him.

To serve national Israel before she comes into glory is to actually serve Him. Just as the disciples were called to serve Jesus in faith that the peasant from Nazareth was the divine King who would rule, Jesus considers serving national Israel before she comes into glory as equivalent to serving Him. The nations are either raging against or serving YHWH through their response to Israel because the battle for Israel’s salvation is ultimate the battle for the return of Jesus (Matthew 23:39).

Jesus wants the global church to understand how Israel must be saved – and Israel is only saved by calling on the name of Jesus – and the context in which they are saved. Jesus also wants us to understand how serious the battle for the salvation of this people group will be. We are called to labor for the salvation of all people (Matthew 24:14; Revelation 5:9; 7:9), but there are unique dynamics related to the salvation of this one people group, primarily because of the promises God will fulfill at the time of their salvation and the fact that the return of His Son is connected to their salvation.

While there are details of the end times that are not always clear to us, it is important that we understand the key themes of how the age ends so we can prepare the church to labor with understanding and prepare the nations to receive reward and not punishment at the judgment. The salvation of Israel, and how the nations will resist it, is one of those key issues we must understand so that we can anticipate their salvation, and what comes after that, with the same eagerness the apostle Paul had for that great day.

12Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness! (Romans 11:12 NKJV)

15For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11:15 NKJV)

25For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; (Romans 11:25–26 NKJV)

33Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! (Romans 11:33 NKJV)

Finally, the fact that there is an ultimately fulfillment to many of these verses when we are called to partner with God for Israel’s salvation in an hour of suffering certainly does not mean we do not labor for the salvation of other people or serve other people groups in suffering. The principle of serving Israel, both physically and with the gospel, in their final hour of suffering is a principle that applies to Christian ministry among all people and nations in every era of history.

Just because there will be specific and unique dynamics at the end of the age does not mean we do not not minister to other people groups and pursue God’s purposes for them now. There are unique dynamics around Israel’s salvation, but God wants to save a remnant from every tribe and tongue (Matthew 24:14; Revelation 5:9; 7:9) and we should be engaged in God’s grand plan for all the nations. This means actively engaging and ministering to those presently suffering in the nations and in need of the gospel, both Jew and gentile.

1 The word “brethren” here is a generic Greek word for actual brothers (ἀδελφός) that can also include “brothers and sisters.” In the New Testament it is sometimes also used of the relationship of believers to each other as “brothers and sisters.”

2 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 816.

3 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 816.

4 Timothy George, vol. 30, Galatians, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 165.

5 Ibid.

1 thought on “Who are the “Least of These My Brethren?””

  1. Outstanding article! The most in depth and accurate teaching I have ever read on this subject. You really drove the point home concerning standing with Israel as the church, especially in these last days. Thank you for the great insite my brother and God bless.

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