By Gabriel Hall
The “parable” of the sheep and the goats is often referenced, especially in the context of social justice. There is a lot to delve into when studying this story, and I am certain that I will not cover nearly all that there is to talk about here, but I do want to go over a few things that Jesus is saying in these passages, as well as discuss some things He is not saying.
A parable is a simple story used to teach a moral or spiritual truth. It might seem frustrating at times that Jesus often times spoke in parables rather than speaking straightforwardly. Jesus’s disciples asked this same question, saying, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10)
Jesus responded to this question by telling them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given…therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:11, 13)
This question came after Jesus had told “the parable of the sower.” From Mark and Luke’s account we find that the disciples privately asked Jesus the meaning of the parable, and Jesus explained it to them. (cf. Mark 4:10; Luke 8:9)
At other times we find the disciples asking Jesus to “explain this parable to us.” (Matthew 15:15; 13:36; Mark 4:34 etc.) Jesus fulfilled what Psalm 78:2 said about Him, “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter secret saying of old.”
The parables served to reveal the hearts of those who heard them. Those who had no desire to know the truth would not care to know the meaning of the parables, but those who hungered and thirst for righteousness would seek out the meaning, as the disciples did. Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”
We, today, cannot go to Jesus in the flesh to ask for an explanation as the first disciples could, however, Jesus has not left us as orphans, but has sent the Holy Spirit as a Helper, to guide us to the truth. (cf. John 14:16-18, 16:13) Through the Holy Spirit we are able to search out the mysteries of God. Paul said it like this, “God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:10)
Understanding Matthew 25:31-46
As we study this “parable” may we seek the wisdom of the Lord, through His Holy Spirit, so that it may bless us knowing that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to us, but our Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)
The story of the sheep and the goats is the last “parable” mentioned before the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection, and it is only found in Matthew’s gospel. The immediate context of this story is after Jesus predicted the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the tribulation to follow, His second coming, and then two parables related to the kingdom of heaven.
When will this happen?
Jesus begins the story by giving us a context of “when” these events are referring to:
- “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.” (v. 31)
What will happen?
So, the context of this story is in reference to the second coming of Christ, when He returns at the end of the age. In particular, Jesus is referring to the judgement seat, when:
- “All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats.” (v. 32)
Jesus, “the good Shepherd” (John 10:11, 14) will be the final Judge, Who will separate the sheep from the goats. Acts 17:31 tells us, “He [God] has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man [Jesus] whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” In 2 Corinthians 5:10 we are told, “We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” Revelation 20:11-15 adds that the dead also (those not found in “the Book of Life”) will be judged.
“And He will set the sheep on His right hand, and the goats on the left.” (v. 33). In an earlier parable Jesus said, “So it will be at the end of the age: The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous.” (Matthew 13:49). Several hundred years earlier the Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel saying, “As for you, O My flock, thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats.’” (Ezekiel 34:17) God also said, “I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them – My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:23) Ezekiel was writing about 500 years after David lived, so we know God was not speaking of King David, but rather of a “righteous Branch” of David, a descendant Who is the Messiah. (cf. Jeremiah 23:5; Luke 1:32 etc.) This Shepherd, Jesus, will separate the sheep from the goats for judgement.
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:” (v. 34) The Shepherd King will welcome His sheep into His kingdom as heirs to the inheritance. John 1:12 says, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” Furthermore, Paul said, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus…and if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:26, 29) Those who belong to Christ will inherit the Father’s kingdom – a kingdom that has been prepared for them since the creation of the world began. Jesus told His disciples, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with Me, that where I am there you may be also.” (John 14:3) God’s people will be judged righteous because of the righteousness of Christ, “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” (vv. 35-36)
After welcoming those who are “blessed” of the Father into His kingdom, Jesus lists a few things which the sheep of His flock had done: fed Him, given Him drink, taken Him in, clothed Him, visited Him. It is at this place in the story that many who cite this passage often go astray, missing the point and the context of the story itself. The Scriptures, which cannot be broken, (cf. Jn. 10:35) clearly teach that out inheritance is not based on works which we do, but rather the grace of God, through faith in Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift if God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10) The point is not that we are blessed because of the great things which we do. Our own efforts could never earn us the right to be called blessed of God. Rather, it is God’s grace and blessing that enables us to perform any good works.
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, produces much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) And “a good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” (Matthew 7:18) We cannot produce truly good works without being connected to the true Vine. These verses show the heart of people who are blessed of the Lord, not a description of how to be blessed by Him. Too often people take these verses to mean, “If I do these things, then God will be pleased with me, and if I do not do them He will be displeased.” This is not what Jesus is saying. We have been blessed because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, not because of works which we have done. We have been born into Christ so that God may do good works through us. 1 Corinthians 13:3 states, “If I give away all of my possessions, and boast in the surrender of my body, but I do not have love, I gain nothing.” The actions do not determine the destiny of the sheep and the goats, but rather they reveal the heart. Look at the response of the blessed sheep:
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” (vv. 37-39)
The heart of the righteous was not to keep score, or a list of duties which they had performed, but instead they had simply lived for Christ, with His love working through them. They had not lived for personal glory, but only to glorify the Lord. Jesus taught us to, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven…but when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matthew 6:1, 3) The heart of the righteous is not a litany of deeds which must be done, but a life of love lived in obedience to the Lord as a “living sacrifice.” (cf. Rom. 12:1) Jesus then shared an example of how the righteous had done these things.
“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to the least of these My brothers, you did it unto Me.’” (v. 40) The Shepherd is connected to His flock, and what we do to those who are His, we do it to Him. He bore our sins and our burdens on the cross, and He was “wounded for our transgressions.” (Isaiah 53:5) Likewise, when Paul was still called “Saul,” and went out to persecute the church of Christ, Jesus spoke to him, saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4) Jesus dwells in His people through the Holy Spirit, so what we do to the body of Christ, we do unto Him. Hebrews 13 opens with this reminder: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” (vv. 1-3)
Some may object that this passage doesn’t reserve kindness being shown to believers only. I agree with that. Certainly Jesus reminded us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Luke 10:27) and even to “love your enemies…and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) So, I agree with those who argue that we should have a heart to care for all people, and even more so those who are most in need. However, as believers we are called to have a special care for other believers, and especially those who are most in need among us. Jesus tells us, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). And Paul writes, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)
Not long after Jesus shared these sayings, Mary poured a flask of expensive fragrant oil on Jesus’s head. Some of the disciples called this wasteful, saying, “This fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.” Yet, Jesus responded to them, saying, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has done a good work for Me.” (Matthew 26:9, 10) If serving the poor was somehow a deed which earned someone inheritance to the kingdom of heaven, then Jesus would not have rebuked his disciples for their suggestion, nor would He have blessed Mary for her actions. Certainly Jesus wasn’t dismissing the poor (He reminded them that they always had opportunities to bless those in need), but He was reminding them that true love for others begins with love for the Lord above all.
The greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your mind…the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37, 39) Our love for others must be an overflow of our love for God, and that is how the heart of those “blessed of the Father” is revealed.
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels:” (v. 41)
As the sheep were separated and set apart for judgement to receive blessing, the goats are separated from among them to receive punishment. This separation of the blessed and the cursed is made clear throughout the Scriptures. John 3:36 tells us that, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” In Christ we receive the blessing of everlasting life, but outside of Christ there is no atonement for sin, and so the wrath of God abides, in everlasting fire. Since God is eternal, the life He gives the righteous in Christ is also eternal, and likewise the righteous wrath against sin is also eternal. Hebrews 10:31 tells us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and warns those who reject the grace of the Holy Spirit of a “fearful expectation of judgement, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:27) The fiery judgement of hell is designed for the devil and his angels (demons). The Devil (Satan) is called our “adversary” (e.g. 1 Peter 5:8) and all who reject Christ are adversaries as well, taking on the nature of the Serpent.
In one of Jesus’s earlier parables, He described the kingdom of heaven as a wheat field in which some weeds (tares, or darnel) became mixed into. Some servants of the field’s owner asked him if they should remove the weeds from the field, but the owner said, “No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘first gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:29, 30)
Jesus explained the meaning of the parable, telling us that the sower is Him, the field is the world, the good wheat seeds are the sons of the kingdom, and the tares (weeds) are the sons of “the wicked one.” (cf. Matt. 13:37, 38) He then explained that at the end of the age the angels will be sent to, “gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire…then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13:41-43) The weeds look similar to the wheat, but they have no use to the farmer. Yet, in order not to risk harming the wheat the owner will allow the weeds to grow with the wheat until the harvest time, when the weeds will be burned and the wheat can be transformed into useful grain.
Sheep and goats serve as a similar comparison. Although there are many similarities in appearance between sheep and goats, they are altogether different animals. The sheep and goats live together in the same field, but when it comes time to gather the herds, the tribe of goats is separated from the flock of sheep.
To the goats on His left hand, the Lord continues: “For I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.” (vv. 42, 43)
Once again, the Lord reveals the hearts of the unrighteous by their deeds. Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:19, 20) Through faith in Christ, God enables us to produce works of righteousness. As James 2:22 explains, in reference to Abraham, “faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect.” Our works do not determine our eternal destiny, but rather our faith determines the kind of works we produce, and thus our works reveal the heart of our faith. Not just in our actions or deeds toward others, but also our growth in the “fruit of the Spirit.” (cf. Galatians 5:22)
“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’” (v. 44)
The unrighteous respond with similar inquiry to the Lord’s statements about their deeds as the righteous had previously done. For surely, they might say, had they known it was the Lord they would have ministered in all of these ways. Yet, it tells us the Lords reply: “Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’” (v. 45)
We are told not to show partiality as we hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. (cf. James 2:1) This does not mean we make no distinctions, but that we don’t hold back kindness from those whom we deem less desirable. We certainly make distinction on our love – for example our love toward our spouse compared with that of our love toward a co-worker – but that distinction should merely determine the ways in which we show our love, not if we show love. Likewise, if the love of Christ were working in those on the Lord’s left hand, then they would show love to those in need whether they knew it was the Lord or not.
It is interesting that in this example, even the unrighteous referred to Jesus as “Lord.” Revelation 1:7 tells us that Jesus is, “coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him.” And Philippians 2:10-11 says that, “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” In that day, at the end of the age, everyone will see and know that Jesus is indeed the Lord of Lord and King of kings, yet Jesus Himself said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
Jesus also revealed that, “It is My Father’s will that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life.” (John 6:40) Jesus explains that it is not simply those who call him “Lord” who have eternal life, but those who know Him and put their faith in Him (not in their efforts or “goodness” or anything else). For, Jesus added, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not…done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:22, 23) Jesus makes it clear that it is not simply the deeds which we do that make us righteous in God’s eyes, but it is our relationship with Him through Christ that allows Him to make us righteous.
Finally, Jesus ends His story with this declaration: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (v. 46)
There is no life outside of Christ. No matter the deeds we do, or self-righteousness, or acts done out of guilt, we cannot earn the righteousness of God, nor fulfill God’s righteous standard. I cannot express, but with teary-eyed admiration, the beauty of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8-11:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
In studying these passages from Matthew’s gospel account, I hope it leaves you with a heart for fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord (especially those in much need), as well as a heart for those who are lost, not knowing the Lord.
Matthew 25 has been used too often to promote a social gospel message of simply helping the poor and needy, but I hope we can look beyond that to the heart of the teaching, and understand what the Lord was actually telling us. Certainly there are plenty of passages we could look to that tell us the importance of loving others and helping the poor and needy, but it would be a misunderstanding to attribute nothing more to this passage. The Lord is rich in love and bold in the truth, and His concern is for more than our time here on earth. He is calling us into eternity, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 2:9) Knowing that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief…and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are going to be dissolved, what sort of people should you be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 2:10-13)
May we, like Abraham, “look forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)