The parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)
This article is based on a talk given by David Couchman at Above Bar Church, Southampton, on Sunday 20th August 2006. It may be reproduced in print or on other web sites, subject to the copyright notice below.
When I was at school, I wasn't any good at sport or P. E. On my school report one year I had a 'D' for P. E. The teacher, I think trying to be encouraging, had written 'always appears to do his best.' Thank you for that! However encouraging he tried to be, the reality was that I was useless!
We don't like to talk about failing these days. A teacher's union conference a year or two ago suggested that you should never talk about a student's failure. Rather, you should talk about 'deferred success.' The idea of judging someone is unpopular.
The reality, of course, is that we do make judgments all the time, between people who are good at something and people who aren't.
But we don't like to talk about judgment. We especially don't like to talk about God's judgment. But in this story in Matthew chapter 25 verses 31-46, Jesus says that there will be a judgment day. Let's look at what's going on in this story.
Jesus says that there's going to be a judgment, and a separation:
'... he will separate the people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.' (Verses 32-33)
Could you tell the difference between a sheep and a goat? I couldn't.
- goats always have horns, some kinds of sheep don't
- sheep have wool, goats have hair
- goats browse on branches, sheep graze on grass
Apparently in the ancient world, sheep were more valuable than goats.
At night, goats need to huddle together for warmth, while sheep need open space. Because of this, a shepherd would separate them. This is the picture in Jesus's story. Of course, for his hearers, this picture was familiar from their everyday lives.
So this is a picture of separation, and it's how Jesus describes the nations being judged by God:
'When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another...' (Verses 31-32)
This picture comes straight out of the Old Testament, from the book of Daniel:
'In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.' (Daniel chapter 7 verse 13)
The Jews believed that God was going to judge all the nations. The change in Matthew 25 is that Jesus says that he himself is going to be the judge. When he talks about the 'Son of Man' in verse 31, that's how he refers to himself. He's going to separate the sheep and the goats.
In verse 34:
'Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are spoken well of by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.'
Notice that the Son of Man is now described as the King. He talks about God as his Father. And he talks about a kingdom prepared for his people since the world was created.
Then in verse 41:
'Then he will say to those on his left, 'Go away from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'
So it's a picture of judgment and separation. Jesus says that he's going to come back. When he does, he will rule visibly and powerfully. We shall all be brought before him to be judged. This judgment will lead to a separation between those who are his people and those who are not.
What is the basis for the separation? How will Jesus reach his verdict on us? How will he decide? Look at what he says in verses 34-36, and also 41-43:
- I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, or you gave me nothing to eat.
- I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, or you gave me nothing to drink.
- I was a stranger, and you welcomed me in, or did not welcome me in.
- I needed clothes and you clothed me, or did not clothe me.
- I was sick and you looked after me, or did not look after me.
- I was in prison and you came to visit me, or did not look after me.
It's very important that we get hold of this: Jesus isn't talking here about being kind to people in general. He's talking very specifically about how we have treated him, how we have served him. He says:
'I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger... I needed clothes... I was sick... I was in prison...'
So the basis for this judgment is going to be how we have treated Jesus Christ himself. His verdict on us will depend on how we've responded to him.
There will be evidence, but the evidence will be a surprise. Both the wicked and the righteous are surprised by the verdict of king Jesus. Verse 37-39:
'Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 'The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
And similarly in verses 44-45:
'They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not serve you?' He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
So what's going on here? The key is in the little sentence that Jesus puts in at the end of both verdicts:
'Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (Verse 40)
'Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' (Verse 45)
So Jesus isn't just talking about the poor, the hungry, the strangers in the world. It is right and important that we should care for them, but Jesus is saying something more specific here.
He's talking particularly about those who count as his brothers and sisters. And it's because they are his brothers and sisters that they're hungry and thirsty, naked and strangers, sick or in prison.
Let's take a moment to look at a couple of earlier places in Matthew's Gospel that help us to understand who Jesus has in mind here. In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus is sending out his disciples on a training mission. This is what he says to them:
'He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.' (Matthew chapter 10 verses 40-42)
So here, Jesus is talking to his own followers, and he says, 'he who receives you receives me.' That is the same thought as in Matthew 25. Then in Matthew chapter 12:
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, 'Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.' He replied to him, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' Pointing to his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.' (Matthew chapter 12 verses 46-50)
Back to chapter 25: If we put these two quotations together with what Jesus says in chapter 25, we can see that he is talking about his own people, his true family. He's talking about Christian believers.
So there's going to be a judgment. Jesus will reach his verdict on us depending on how we have treated him, how we have responded to him. And the evidence on which this verdict will be based is how we have treated his people.
If you read this quickly, it sounds as if Jesus is saying that he is going to judge us based on our works, on our deeds. But surely we're saved by our faith, not by works? Surely it doesn't depend on what we do, does it?
Our being forgiven and accepted by God depends entirely on what Christ did for us on the cross. It doesn't depend on anything we do. All we have to do is to trust him and accept what he has done for us.
Remember what happened when Jesus was dying on the cross. The thief who was being crucified beside him said:
'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'
How did Jesus reply?
'Today you will be with me in paradise.'
The thief didn't have time to do any good works. All he did was to trust Jesus – and that was enough. But the Bible is also clear that if we have really trusted Christ, this will make a difference to how we live. If our lives don't show our faith, we have to ask just how real is that faith? Look at what James says:
'What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.' (James chapter 2 verses 14-18)
I want to say this to you gently, but also clearly: if you are relying on your faith in Jesus to save you on judgment day, but you are carrying on living the same kind of selfish life as the people around you who don't believe in him, watch out. Watch out. The Bible doesn't give you any reassurance at all that you will really be saved.
Good works aren't the reason we're saved; but they are the evidence that we're saved. Someone once asked, 'If you were put on trial for being a follower of Christ, would there be enough evidence to convict you?'
Jesus is saying here in Matthew 25 that on judgment day, he will look for evidence that we belong to him – evidence in how we've treated his brothers and sisters.
Who is he talking about, specifically? At one level, as we've seen, he's talking about all Christian believers – all his brothers and sisters. But we can also see some particular groups of people:
- If you relate it back to what Jesus said in chapter 10, it's clear that one of the groups he has in mind are those whose work involves taking his message to others, ministers, missionaries, evangelists. Such people often face poverty, overwork, stress, culture-shock, being strangers, being ill, all because of their work for the Good News. Do we care about them? Do we pray for them, support them practically, encourage them, and cheer them on? This is one of the marks of true Christian faith.
- Then what about people who are persecuted for their faith? More people were put to death for their Christian faith in the past hundred years than in the whole of the time since Jesus lived. Countless people today are in prison, or have lost their jobs, or have been rejected by their families, because of their faith. Do we care about them? Do we pray for them, support them practically, encourage them, cheer them on? This is another mark of true Christian faith. 'I was in prison and you visited me.'
- What about nearer home? What about people we know – perhaps even in this fellowship, who are ill, who are poor, who are strangers? What about overseas students who have come here? Do we care about them? Do we pray for them, support them, encourage them, cheer them on?
If we're really followers of Jesus, this will show itself in love and care for those who count as the least of his brothers and sisters. And on the other hand, if we don't have much sympathy for them, this may be a sign that we don't really care all that much about Christ himself.
Jesus identifies himself with his followers so closely that he takes what we do for them as something we've done for him. And he says that our destiny will be measured out by how we respond to his family. The good things we do for them show where we stand in relation to him.
The evidence on which Jesus will reach his verdict on us – if you like, the evidence of whether or not we really do have faith in him - will be how we have treated the least important, least significant members of his family.
- So it's a picture of judgment: Jesus is going to come back, and we are all going to face him.
- His verdict on us will depend on how we have treated him, how we have responded to him.
- The evidence on which he will base his verdict on us is how we have treated our Christian brothers and sisters.
Finally, there's going to be a sentence. Look at the contrast between the outcome for the righteous and the wicked:
'Then the King will say to those on his right,'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.' (Verse 34)
He describes them as blessed by God; he says there's a kingdom that's been prepared for them since the world began, and now is the time for them to inherit it.
But in verse 41:
'Then he will say to those on his left, 'Go away from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'
He describes them in exactly the opposite way to the righteous. Instead of being blessed, they're cursed. Instead of a kingdom, they're going to a place of fire. The kingdom was prepared for the righteous, but the fire was prepared for the devil and his angels. So, verse 46:
'Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.'
The same word is used for 'eternal' punishment and for 'eternal' life. You can't make one of these eternal and the other only temporary.
There's going to be a judgment, and the outcome is incredibly serious. It has massive repercussions that last for ever. Either an eternal kingdom, or unending fire.
Of course, I know as well as you do that talk of God's judgment is extremely unpopular today. It's very politically incorrect. Perhaps, even as a Christian believer, you feel very uncomfortable with what Jesus is saying in this story.
In the end, we have to make a choice: who do we believe? Do we believe the people around us, the people on television, or do we believe Jesus? Do we think that Jesus knew what he was talking about?
You see, if we say that we today know better than Jesus did, what we're really saying is that Jesus was just a man. He wasn't really the Son of God. And if we believe that, we can't honestly say we're Christians at all – because the most basic defining thing about a Christian is that they believe Jesus is the Son of God.
On the other hand, if he really is the Son of God, then doesn't that mean that he knows what he is talking about, and means what he says? Who do we believe?
There is going to be a judgment, and that judgment will lead to sorrow or joy – to the fire prepared for the devil and his angels or to the kingdom prepared for the righteous; to eternal suffering or eternal life. That's pretty important, isn't it? Is there anything else more important that you're going to think about this week?
What does this story have to say to us today?
This story challenges us at two different levels:
- Maybe you are not a follower of Christ at all. Then to you, this story says that Jesus is coming back, and when he does, it will be a time of judgment. This judgment will lead to a separation between those who are his people and those who are not. The outcome will either be joy or sorrow – eternal life or eternal fire. Now if all this is true, you need to get sorted out with him before it happens. If that's you, please do something about it. Please think about it, and talk to someone about it. It's the most important thing you'll think about this week.
- If you are a follower of Christ, the challenge to you is, are you showing your faith by how you live? Particularly, are you showing it by how you treat other Christians. Jesus says, 'whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
It's so easy to read this part of the Bible, but then we carry on with our lives and nothing has changed.
I would like to invite you to think of one specific thing that you will do for one particular person this week, to show them compassion, and to show that your faith in Christ is real.
If you were put on trial for being a follower of Christ, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Jesus says that one day, you will be.
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