About Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25)

Those of you who were at church yesterday and were in the main room heard me open with an illustration about my coaching years. Later in the day, a former runner on the team reminded me that I would often divide the team during practices into groups based upon their talent and level of fitness. One group would have higher expectations and demands. And she reminded me that I often referred to the groups as the sheep and the goats. I had forgotten that. And probably very few of my runners realized I was making a Scriptural inference in those titles.

The parable of the sheep and the goats is one that has been more debated than most parables as to what it is teaching and who are the characters in the groups. So, yes, there are sort of sheep and goats camps of biblical interpretation about who are the sheep and goats! And I did not want to get us too terribly deep into those weeds … because, well … there was another parable about weeds coming up later.

Simply stated, some believe the parable in its context of a discourse by Jesus is referencing God’s judgment upon Gentile nations relative to their treatment of Israel during the Great Tribulation and in advance of the 1000-year millennial kingdom. Others believe it is more general and is referencing the final judgment at the end of all time. I see the merits in the arguments of each, but along with the other two parables in this week’s study simply chose to draw the big ideas and timeless principles out of it.

And one of those timeless principles is the certain reality of God’s judgment. There is a time of accounting that will happen, and the reward or curse that follows is dependent upon one’s faith and execution of that faith in practical ways. Understand that the deeds being spoken of in these verses (and other such passages) are not prescriptions of things to be done in order to gain favor with God. Rather, having gained God’s favor and relationship through Christ, these deeds are the proof-positive outworking of that inner faith. There is a focus away from self to serving others — all men, but especially those of the household of faith.

So judgment is real and is not the overblown imagination of a televangelist in full stride. Not everyone agrees or believes that there will be a final judgment. Why do some people deny this teaching, found here and in many other passages? What might a denial of future and final judgment say about how a person has a wrong view of God? How do we reconcile seeing God as both the definition of love, yet also the dispenser of final justice and judgment?

Matthew 25:31-46 — The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 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, 36 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.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “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 help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed 3-4 hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and am the editor of a Baltimore/Maryland sports blog called "The Baltimore Wire." My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with a Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

One thought on “About Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25)

  1. You asked “Why do some people deny this teaching, found here and in many other passages? What might a denial of future and final judgment say about how a person has a wrong view of God? How do we reconcile seeing God as both the definition of love, yet also the dispenser of final justice and judgment?”

    I think I’ll attempt to address these questions by way of analogies, first. Some people think of God as a Father and we as children. (So far so good.) Except they think that as children we can do whatever we want, play around all day and then have dinner and everything provided for us. God though calls us to grow up and put away childish things and learn to serve Him and do what is right.

    Maybe other people think of God, like some people think of government. A generous entity that gives out foodstamps and numeroius benefits, pays for all needs while the recipient (not necessarily generalizing here) might spend his or her days living for pleasure, whether watching TV, taking pleasure enhancing drugs, or just living for themselves. These approaches then see God as an entity whose job it is to “love us” but require nothing from us. [I will just say that I am not attacking all people recieiving benefits, nor attacking children, but just pointing out that our society doesn’t mind that much if someone lives for him or herself but doesn’t hurt others.]

    God, though calls us to a very much higher standard. He has given everything for us and he also wants us to strive for perfection. He wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves and love him with our entire being. And as the one who made us and bought us, he is deserving of such worship, love and obedience.

    As for God punishing us … he doesn’t want to. But there are sins that it is impossible to ever repent from. Called “blaspheming the holy spirit” in scripture, or termed as recrucifying Jesus, typified by people who know the truth and keep on living wrong. The scripture is clear, when you look at the Greek,

    “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Heb. 10:26-27 NIV) Now we all make choices to sin after conversion (or perhaps stumble into sin), so what is being talked about here? The Greek word “delibererately” is key here.
    [Fri] ἑκουσίως adverb; (1) willingly, voluntarily, spontaneously (1P 5.2), opposite ἀναγκαστῶς (unwillingly); (2) deliberately, intentionally (HE 10.26)

    Here we have the same Greek word that is meant to be the depth of concern and total willingness to help that a Pastor is to have for his flock,(1P 5.2) — those that engage in the same deliberate, wholehearted approach to sinning is, according to Hebrews, a sin that there is no more sacrifice for.

    James points out that we all stumble in many ways. “We all stumble in many ways.” (Jas. 3:2 NIV)

    Take a look at this scripture.

    17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
    18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
    19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do– this I keep on doing.
    20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
    21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.
    22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; (Rom. 7:17-22 NIV)

    At face value one set of scriptures seems to tend to make people want to give up hope after sinning. The other set might be used to almost excuse sin.

    Never-the-less, the amount of sin that besets us is hard to fully describe. “We all stumble in many ways.” We are unlikely to be perfect in doctrine, even if we think we are. We have trusted teachers who have given us wrong information, maybe they were given wrong information. We might also fail to gracefully handle differences. Scripture says “where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” (1 Cor. 13:8 NIV)

    — “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.
    Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.
    But whoever loves God is known by God. — (1 Cor. 8:1-3 NIV)

    In looking up a scripture that deals with God’s judgment I just found the type of scripture that some use to assert that God will not judge the wicked.

    32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
    33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
    (Rom. 11:32-33 NIV)

    Verse 32 is the type of scipture that can be isolated from the larger body of scripture to argue that God won’t judge anyone. I think the other scriptures that I’ve laid out are enough of a counterbalance to this misconception that I don’t have start parsing the Greek words in Romans 11:32 (Especially since I don’t know Greek, but I have various Greek research tools) and don’t want to be spending excessive time on this comment of mine. Whether the Greek is helpful here in what the word “may” means or not, – there IS to be a final judgment. Well, despite what I just wrote, I just looked at the Greek. There is no specific use of the word “may” there, yet I can understand that God will have mercy on all when it is possible. As pointed out earlier there are many scriptures that show that it isn’t always possible. It appears that in the parable of Lazarus and Rich Man that it was not possible for the Rich Man to repent. He had already crossed the line in ignoring the truth that he already had. He had instructions from Moses and the prophets that he chose to ignore. You can say that his conscience has spoken to him repeatedly in the past. While the rich man and his brothers lived in abundance and luxury he must have wondered what to do with his excess food, and helping Lazarus get on his feet was an idea he must have repeatedly squashed in his pursuit of more pleasure and excess.

    I wonder sometimes if Jesus was inspired by the following Proverb when he came up with the Parable of the Sheeps and the Goats.
    NIV Proverbs 19:17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done. (Prov. 19:17 NIV)

    (“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’)

    And another Proverb
    NIV Proverbs 14:31 Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. (Prov. 14:31 NIV)

    (‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’)

    On another note. Sometimes people talk about the “Fear of God”. I find it analogous to things like a stop sign or red light when driving. We don’t ignore these things or we will quickly find ourselves, arrested, injured or dead. Yet we don’t have to tremble at it, unless it is the only way we can make ourselves respect them. Similarly, if our impulses are to ignore God, we should recognize his authority and bring ourselves under it. It may involve fear or trembling, if that is the only way we can change our behavior and thinking to stop harming others and stop dishonoring God.

    Your last question is about seeing God as both being a God of love, and as dispensing with justice. Part of the justice here, I think of as quaranteening or isolating the evil. A wicked person isolated … left with himself the evil can’t go elsewhere.

    Maybe I’ll end this by reminding Christians of the reward promised in this parable. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

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