Picture this: Several years of cataclysmic occurrences and tremendous suffering have just gone by. The earth has been devastated, and many people (Christians included) have lost their lives. And now, with all the nations of the earth trembling at the thought of what might come next, the sign of the Son of Man suddenly appears in the sky, and all the nations mourn (in fright) over what’s about to happen. (Matthew 24:30)
Every living person watches as the Son of Man appears, coming on the clouds with power and great glory. His angels swarm over the earth, gathering His elect followers and whisking them up to meet Him in the air (aka The Rapture). From there they all descend with Him as an escort, all the way to the earth, where Jesus takes His rightful position on a glorious throne. His elect followers form a gigantic crowd behind Him as He proceeds to gather all the unsaved people who remain on earth to appear before His judgment seat. (Matthew 24:30b-31; 25:31-32)
One by one, Jesus separates the crowd of people into two groups—one group on His right and one group on His left. He tells those on His right (who are trembling with fear) that they are to be welcomed into His glorious kingdom, because they fed Him, clothed Him, visited Him, and cared for Him.
In shock, they ask, “When did we ever do those things for you?”
And Jesus replies, “Whenever you did it to the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me,” and He gently waves His hand, indicating His brethren to be those believers behind Him who suffered hunger, thirst, sickness, and imprisonment throughout the Tribulation.
Jesus then condemns those on His left, because they did not ever feed, clothe, visit, or care for Him. When they demand to know when it was that they neglected to do those things, Jesus replies, “Whenever you did not do it to the least of these (He again indicates His followers behind Him), you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:32-46)
These on His left are then consigned to eternal punishment, but those on His right to eternal life in the kingdom.
In this way, Jesus establishes who it is (besides the Church) that will populate the earth during His millennial reign. It will be from the descendants of this group (the sheep) that the final rebellion against Jesus will emerge at the end of the Millennium. (Revelation 20:1-9)
The “parable” of the Sheep and Goats does NOT teach that God’s final judgment of all people will hinge on whether or not they did some specific good works during their lifetime (feed the hungry, etc.). The only reason that the “sheep” are spared condemnation is that they showed love toward the followers of Jesus at a time when His followers were persecuted and hated by the world. By equating Himself with His disciples, Jesus is being consistent with several other of His teachings, for example:
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 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. 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.” (Matthew 10:40-42)
“Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)
The “parable” of the Sheep and Goats has often been misused to prove a “gospel of works” or a “social gospel” by which people will be saved or condemned. This was not Jesus’ intent, nor would it square with the rest of the New Testament.
Anyone with genuine faith in Christ will show it (prove it) by their good works, but no one will be saved merely by doing certain good works to earn God’s favor. Salvation is by grace, through faith (in Jesus as Lord), not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)