The Sheep and the Goats

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus himself spoke most of judgment and prophesied an eternal separation between sheep and goats in the last story he told just before the end of his life. That is a solemn truth upon which our careless world would do well to reflect.

The great Dr. Samuel Johnson once noted,

I remember that my Maker has said that he will place the sheep on his right hand, and the goats on his left. That is a solemn truth which this frivolous age needs to hear, for it strikes at the very roots of life and destiny.

Johnson’s frivolous age was the 18th century. Our own at least equally frivolous age (witness popular television programming) should therefore be in even greater need of hearing this solemn truth.

It is a truth that Jesus taught in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the last story he told just before the end of his life. And in outline form, it goes like this:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” . . Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed . . . 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.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-41 English Standard Version (esv)

I don’t know about you, but the parable of the sheep and goats has always troubled me. I feel uneasy at the prospect of having my life judged on the basis of the care and compassion I have showed to “the least of these my brethren.” And I suspect that is exactly the way Jesus wants me to feel when I read this story. Its purpose is to disturb our self-satisfied complacency. This is a solemn truth that our frivolous age needs to hear.

Judgment Is Certain

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . he will sit on his throne . . . all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people . . .” (vv. 31-32).

The picture the Lord describes of his return is one of judgment; that is what must and will happen at the end before anything else can proceed. Judgment is both universal and comprehensive everyone is there, every nation, every person. Judgment is the one inescapable reality for every last creature of God. As the apostle Paul said, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10).

Human nature being what it is, we have a tendency to bail out of uncomfortable situations (witness the divorce statistics), but there will be no avoiding that examination before the Son of Man in glory. People often complain that Christians have distorted the simple message of Jesus. Jesus came teaching a simple gospel of love, they say, but his followers have twisted it into all kinds of hard-line things.

Only someone who has never really read the Gospels could make such a claim. In fact, it was Jesus himself who spoke most of judgment and who prophesied an eternal separation between sheep and goats. That is a truth upon which our careless world would do well to reflect. Judgment is certain.

It is especially disconcerting to realize that the primary criterion for that judgment will be our actions. We will all be judged according to what we do, not what we say. We will be judged by what we do to others, especially the poor and disadvantaged, not just what we do for those we naturally care about. And, most alarming of all, we will be judged for what we failed to do whenever we saw a brother or sister in need.

It is the little things that count with God. The little things, in fact, are big things, the ordinary everyday things that indicate what our hearts are like. God is looking for the humble acts of love that the world never notices, that even the sheep have forgotten. He won’t evaluate us on how much we knew, or how much we said, or how much we made, or how much we accomplished. He will evaluate us on how much we loved, how much we did for those with whom he has been pleased to identify himself. Is that fair?

Yes it is, for the Lord is telling us right here what he expects of us. None of us will be able to plead ignorance in the last day. Is this works-righteousness, salvation through our own good works? No it isn’t. We will not be saved by doing works of love. Everyone who is saved will be saved by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone. But as the great preacher Charles Spurgeon once remarked, faith that doesn’t change your behavior will not change your destiny.

We should also look at this positively. What would you give to be able to touch Jesus in the flesh the way Mary did in the Garden, or to open your home to him and feed him like Lazarus and his sisters, or to wash his body and clothe it one last time along with Nicodemus and Joseph and the women at the tomb? But, you see, you can do those things! Whenever you and I feed the hungry, or shelter the homeless, or clothe the naked, or befriend the lonely, or visit the suffering, or love the unlovely even the least of these we’re really doing it for him. We’re really doing it to him.

Judgment Is Final

Here is another truth: judgment is final. The essence of judgment is separation. That is what the New Testament word means at its root and that is the central action in Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and Goats.

As usual, the Lord is drawing his imagery from daily life. In Palestine flocks of sheep and goats grazed together by day, but were separated at day’s end because goats needed shelter while sheep remained in the open. Jesus lifts this one experience up to illuminate the meaning of the last judgment.

Judgment at the end of time will be a separating, identifying process. All other distinctions which people make so much of and strive so hard to maintain in this life will then be erased. There will be no more rich and poor, no more black and white, no more native and foreigner, no more educated and ignorant, no more civilized and savage, no more haves and have-nots; there will only be sheep and goats.

And between those two groups there is an infinite and final and lasting difference. The one group is blessed by the King, and the other he calls accursed. The one is invited to come in to eternal life and unending bliss; the other is commanded to depart into eternal fire, a horrific symbol of the awfulness of existence apart from God. From this sentence there is no appeal, no chance of reversal, no opportunity of parole. Judgment is final.

Judgment Is Surprising

And then, consider this, perhaps most interesting of all: judgment is surprising. I find it especially significant that the sheep and the goats alike are shocked by the sentence of the King. According to no less an authority than Jesus himself, the outstanding feature of the Last Judgment is the unexpectedness of the verdicts. When the Son of Man, seated on his throne of glory with all the angels around him, pronounces his solemn sentence of blessing or curse and the reasons for it, both sheep and goats ask in astonishment, “Lord, when did that happen? When did we do that? When did we fail to do that?”

This is the final enactment of the basic Biblical principle that God overturns worldly values. The world does not value the things that the sheep did, all of them humble acts of love for the insignificant and despised of humanity, most of them unknown to anyone except the giver and receiver of the act of love. No doubt the goats were busy doing more important things, acts that brought them recognition and reward and glory. But that’s not what counted with God.

There is a lesson here surely, is there not? The Bible says that for believers, for anyone who trusts in Jesus Christ, there is no longer any condemnation (see Romans 8:1), but it also says that we must still appear before the judgment seat of Christ, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). So no condemnation but still examination, still judgment.

The outstanding feature of this judgment too, judgment for Christians I think, will be the unexpectedness of the verdicts. We have been so influenced by the world’s values, we are so used to measuring even our success as Christians, even our spiritual importance by worldly standards of numbers and fame and money, that we are going to be shocked by the revelation of what God considers to be valuable in the last day. The apostle Paul says that the works of some will be like gold and others will be burned up like wood, hay, and stubble.

Since each of us will be surprised one way or the other on that last day of judgment, it seems to me that the sensible thing for us to do is to think little of ourselves and much about the needs of others. If we do that, maybe our surprise at the judgment will be a pleasant one. God grant that it will be so!