In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus teaches that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will separate sheep and goats along certain lines, saying: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (ESV v40) And again, "Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." (ESV, v45)

To whom is the King referring when he says "the least of these my brothers?" Does the word "these" refer to a particular group of persons present or is "the least of these" an idiom?


5 Answers 5


"Brothers" in Greek

The Greek word for "brothers" here is adelphoi (Strongs G80). This means literally "brothers". However, it can also mean "countryman" or "followers".

The NET Bible (which uses the most current translation, taking advantage of the latest in linguistic scholarship) translates this as "brothers and sisters". The footnote for this says of this word:

Grk “brothers,” but the Greek word may be used for “brothers and sisters” (cf. BDAG 18 s.v. ἀδελφός 1, where considerable nonbiblical evidence for the plural ἀδελφοί [adelfoi] meaning “brothers and sisters” is cited). In this context Jesus is ultimately speaking of his “followers” (whether men or women, adults or children), but the familial connotation of “brothers and sisters” is also important to retain here.

They show that Jesus is clearly speaking of his followers here even though they retain the familial connection.

Contextual Analysis

If we look at the entire context that you site (verses 31-46) we can see that there is strong support for Jesus meaning "followers" when he says brothers

The parable is talking about a King that separates out everyone on earth into two groups: the sheep and the goats. On his right will be the sheep that will enter heaven and on his left, the goats who get sent to eternal punishment.

In verses 34-36, Jesus says that the sheep helped him out when he was in need. Verses 37-39 are the sheep asking "When did we see you?"

Jesus replies with verse 40 (as you mention in the question) saying that if you did it to the "least of my adelphoi" (brothers or followers), then you did it to me.

Following the story down further, the opposite is true with the goats. However, when the goats ask "When did we see you?", the King (in the parable) replies:

Matthew 25:45b (NIV)
'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'

This response shows further support for the translation of "brothers" as followers because here the King is indicating that whoever did not help the least of the "these" (implying the "goats") did not help him.

Additional support

We can see this theme played out elsewhere, showing that these "brothers" are followers of Jesus:

Matthew 10:40-42 (NIV)
40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

This is Jesus speaking to his disciples. Clearly, there's additional support for interpreting this passage later in Matthew (and the word adelphoi) as "followers".

"Least of"

It's interesting that Jesus uses this phrase. It seems to indicate that there is a "sorting order" or a way to organize his followers. If this is true, this means that while any one of his followers are still considered his followers, there are some that he considers "greater" than others and one in particular that he considers the "greatest". We can see this in opposition of the phrase "the least of".


Clearly, "the least of my brothers" is referring to the followers of God. This parable encourages us to help out other Christians since that would be directly helping out God.

  • Most doctrines state that we should help everyone out since we don't know who is or is not a Christian. Other scriptures support this doctrine.
    – Richard
    Oct 7, 2011 at 17:18
  • If you'd like, I can dig into "least" a bit more...
    – Richard
    Oct 7, 2011 at 17:22
  • 2
    Are you sure that "least" is referring to Jesus perspective? I read it as referring to the mankind's perspective. We strongly tend to rank people (and would probably categorize the naked, sick, and prisoners among the "least"), but I don't think Jesus uses the same ranking system.
    – jimreed
    Oct 7, 2011 at 17:37
  • @jimreed Very true. I haven't really looked into this too much. Furthermore, this is a parable and it's "a King" talking here. While we can easily accept this to mean Jesus, it is still a parable, so there might be a little wiggle room in that. Furthermore, you're right that our perspectives and Jesus' perspectives are very differene, since the last (from our perspective) will be first and the first (from our perspective) will be last. Like I said, I can dig into that a bit more. (Still... the question is in regards to the group, not the sorting thereof.)
    – Richard
    Oct 7, 2011 at 17:45
  • I wonder if 'least of' means 'even just helping 1 or 2' rather than a ranking of worth.
    – MetaGuru
    Aug 7, 2012 at 15:05

In exegesis: Matthew writes to a Jewish mindset and answers unwritten questions in regard to the widely anticipated coming kingdom of God. Many Jews understood Daniel 2, 7 and 9 correctly in view of the timing of God's plan to restore the Davidic kingdom in the Messiah. The angel Gabriel tells Mary this in Luke 1:30-33 "He will receive the throne of His father (ancestor) David, and He will rule over the house of Jacob, and of His kingdom (sovereignty) there'll be no end."

What they didn't grasp was the nature of that kingdom, which would not be political like Rome, Greece, or the empires preceding them. The nature of the kingdom Jesus came to establish was universal sovereignty through a Jewish throne, but it was a kingdom of sacrificial service which reflects Matthew 6:9-11. Notice "forgive us our sins..."

Matthew 8:11-12 illustrates the loss of the kingdom by the disobedient Jews, ones who reject God's heavenly administration through the Son. They reject Jesus as the Messiah. The Jews who did receive and accept Him would receive the promised kingdom. Throughout Matthew's gospel there are distinctions of obedient and disobedient Jews. They are wheat and chaff, wise/foolish builders, fertile/unfruitful soil, wheat/tares, and sheep and goats. Matthew is not writing to translate Jesus' ministry into 21st century Western Christendom. He's writing to convince and reassure Jews that Jesus of Nazareth really was who He claimed, the anticipated Messiah of Jehovah.

So, when coming to Matthew 25 the setting shouldn't be ignored. Matthew 25:31-46 is about Jesus as the Jews inaugurated King. It will be Jesus who divides the sheep from the goats. It will be Jesus whom the sheep have served if they've "received" testimony to Jesus being their King. It will be the sheep that inherit the kingdom from Jesus. Notice, that the sheep did not know they were serving the King by serving His "brethren." Pharisees and Sadducees would obviously not have received anyone or served anyone coming in Jesus' authority. They are examples of goats. The goats don't inherit the kingdom.

Go back through the gospel. The chaff, foolish builder, unfruitful soil, and tares all refer to Jews who will not believe Jesus to be the Messiah. Now they are likened as goats, insulting. ....This passage in Matthew 25 is not teaching Christians to be benevolent. There are plenty of other passages for that. This passage is teaching Jews who will inherit the Davidic kingdom (God's kingdom) when Jesus is inaugurated. He's inaugurated at Pentecost after His ascension. Matthew 25:31-46 speaks figuratively of classifying disobedient Jews from obedient/discerning Jews. The story is parabolic nature and not futuristically literal.

  • Hi George. This answer wanders a bit off the topic of the question and seems a bit... confrontational? I'm not sure what exactly. I've taken the liberty to remove some of the more jarring bits. We are really looking for academic-style answers that deal mostly with the question that's raised. Thanks for your input and I hope to see you around. Oct 8, 2012 at 18:03

Synonyms permit remez linking. "Little" and "least" couple these verses:

Mt 18:6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and [that] he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Mt 25:40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done [it] unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done [it] unto me.

As such, Mt 18 defines them as the little ones "which believe in me". SO the brethren in Mt 25 are believers.


The previous answer that Jesus did not consider those that are "sick, poor or in prison," as being the "least of these" is completely logical in light of the beatitudes. This passage of scripture clearly speaks of Jesus separating the nations on His right and his left. He is not separating individuals asking them how they treated His "followers." He is not at all referring to social justice in this passage of scripture.

Jesus is speaking to the Nations! How can a Nation visit the sick, clothe the naked, give food to the hungry? He is clearly and specifically asking the Nations how they treated His brothers. In context, who were Jesus brothers, not only in His day but in each century known unto man? The Jews. The Jewish people - the brethren of Christ. Jesus came as saviour to the Jews with Gentiles being grafted into this salvation in his first appearance on earth, but He specifically said He would not return a second time until the house of Israel (speaking to Jerusalem directly) says "Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord." (Which gives a greater impact to the scripture that states the gospel is to be preached to the Jew first, and also the Gentile.) There will be a time when all of the house of Israel turns and calls upon the name of the Lord, and only then when He hears their cry will He return to the earth... as the Holy One of Israel.

God has not and will never forget his covenant with the Jewish People, and it is a slick trick of Satan to cause Gentile believers to believe otherwise. He returns to Israel, for the House of Israel, as the Holy One of Israel in defense of those that attack Israel. The Nations will clearly be judged on how they treated the Jews throughout the centuries from this passage of scripture. Jews have been under persecution in every age that has been known unto man and each nation will have to give an account to Israel's King.

  • Hi Teresa! Allow me to echo Kazark's welcome and encouragements. I agree that Jesus will not forget the covenants with Israel and I look forward to how He will fulfill them. But I think in Matthew 25 Jesus is speaking of individuals within nations and not the nations themselves. The metaphor is the gathering of many flocks of mixed sheep and goats. The Good Shepherd is able to sort them out one by one and create two, homogeneous flocks. I see no reason for Israel not to be one of those nations/flocks. May 7, 2012 at 19:03
  • Not related to the answer, but I followed the link to your website. You have a lovely voice. May 7, 2012 at 19:05
  • Teresa you're way off: See: Matthew 12:46-50 and John 8:38-45. Jesus uses brother in the context of birth via Spirit by faith not by blood. Jew or not those born in sin will die the second death... "first the Jew and also the Greek" (Romans 1:16).
    – user727
    Aug 15, 2012 at 17:42

Given the context I would suggest that "least" is the opposite of "greatest" and that these extremes relate to "societal power".

A "great" person is one who has great authority/liberty to assert their will. They are likely royal, rich or connected. They are immune to many of the nameless and faceless forces that control others. If they are want something they can buy it. They are not in trouble like other men:

Psa 73:3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. Psa 73:4 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. Psa 73:5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Psa 73:6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Psa 73:7 Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. Psa 73:8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. Psa 73:9 They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Psa 73:10 Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. Psa 73:11 And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?" Psa 73:12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.

In contrast, "the least of these" have no societal power. They are slaves, physically handicapped, in prison, in a low caste, etc.

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