Who are "the least of these my brothers"?

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you invited me in,
I needed clothes and you clothed me,
I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.
— Jesus

Our series on the Great Commission is concluded. Before we leave Matthew I’d like to take a look at Jesus’ teaching on the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46).

When the Son of Man comes in his glory he will judge the nations. Eternal life and eternal punishment will depend on how the nations care for the least of his brothers.

Most scholars understand “the least of these brothers of mine” to refer to all who are hungry, distressed, needy. The basis of acceptance into the kingdom is by deeds of mercy and compassion.

They identify the least of Jesus’ brothers with anyone who is poor and needy. Yet elsewhere in Matthew Jesus’ brothers are his disciples (Matt 12:48-50; 28:10).

In Matthew 24 Jesus told his disciples that before the end of the age comes, the gospel of kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations/peoples (Matt 24:14). They will be persecuted and put to death. They will be hated by all nations because of him. There will be wars, famines and earthquakes. In the face of persecution many will fall away from the faith and even betray other believers. They will be deceived by false prophets.

In this setting Matt 25:31-46 is a reassurance to Jesus’ true disciples, his brothers, that God’s enemies will not triumph. The nations will be judged on the basis of how they treat the messengers whom Jesus sends to proclaim the gospel.

Jesus’ “least brothers” are his disciples who are to proclaim the gospel to all nations, despite persecution (Matt 10:32-33; 24:9-14; 28:18-20). Their treatment determines the fate of all men. Those who receive them receive Christ; those who reject them reject Christ (Matt 10:40-42; cf Acts 9:5).

Jesus’ brothers are his disciples. The fate of the nations will be determined by how they respond to Jesus’ followers, who are charged with spreading the gospel and do so in the face of hunger, thirst, illness, and imprisonment. Good deeds done to Jesus’ followers, even the least of them, are not only works of compassion and morality but reflect where people stand in relation to the kingdom and to Jesus himself. Jesus identifies himself with the fate of his followers and makes compassion for them equivalent to compassion for himself.

DA Carson concludes, We must not think that the Bible is unconcerned for the poor and the oppressed (Deut 15:11; Matt 22:37-40; 26:11; Gal 2:10). But that is not the center of interest here.

Sources:

UPDATE: Ian Paul comes to the same conclusion.