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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Whole-Book Context (Part 1 of 2), by Craig S. Keener

4. The “least of these” in Matt 25:40

Many people today emphasize the importance of caring for the poor by reminding us that Jesus warned us we would be judged by how we treat “the least of these” Jesus’ brothers (25:40, 45). While it is true that God will judge us according to how we treat the poor, is the “poor” what Jesus means here by his “brothers”? Will the nations be judged (25:32) only for this? The immediate context does not settle the issue, but the broader context of the Gospel tradition may help more. What does Jesus mean elsewhere by “brothers” and by the “least”?

Because ancient readers would unwind a scroll from the beginning, the first readers would have already read the preceding chapters before coming to Matthew 25. Thus they would know that Jesus’ brothers and sisters included all those who did his will (Matt 12:48-50), that all Jesus’ disciples are brothers and sisters (23:8), and, before they finished the Gospel, would know that Jesus’ disciples remained his brothers after his resurrection (28:10). (Because of the way the Greek language works, “brothers” often can include “sisters” as well, but in 28:10 the women disciples are addressing specifically the men disciples.) When Jesus speaks of the “least” in the kingdom, he sometimes also refers to some disciples (11:11).

Who then are the least of these disciples of Jesus that the nations accepted or rejected? It is at least possible that these are messengers of the gospel, “missionaries,” who bring the gospel to all unreached people groups before the day of judgment; certainly the message about the kingdom would be spread among all those people groups before the kingdom would come (24:14). These messengers might be hungry and thirsty because of the comforts they sacrificed to bring others the gospel; they might be imprisoned because of persecution; they might even be worn down to sickness by their efforts (like Epaphroditus in Phil 2:27-30). But those who received such messengers would receive Jesus who sent them, even if all they had to give them was a cup of cold water to drink—as Jesus had taught earlier (10:11-14, 40-42). It is possible, then, in light of the entire Gospel of Matthew, that these “least brothers and sisters” are the lowliest of the missionaries sent to the nations; the nations will be judged according to how they respond to Jesus’ emissaries.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2004

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story.

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