Matthew 25 31-46: THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS

(1) Introduction.

This passage is a prophecy rather than a parable. It is a prophecy about Jesus the judge, discriminating in judgment between the true believer and the false professor. It reiterates the teaching of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares. See Matthew13v24to30. The wheat and tares were not easy to tell apart and nor are eastern sheep and goats. However, just as wheat and tares are different in their essential nature so, too, are sheep and goats. Each evening the eastern shepherd would take goats into the fold but leave the sheep at liberty on the hillside.

(2) The Judge.

(a) Jesus returns to judge as the Son of Man.

As I have indicated elsewhere, See Matthew16v13to20, it is not easy to capture the meaning of this strange little phrase: the Son of Man. We do use similar phrases, for example, 'Son of the Soil' and 'Son of Scotland'. When we say a person is a Son of the Soil we mean that person embodies and exemplifies all it means to be devoted to the land. When a man is called a true son of Scotland we are saying that person takes a pride in being Scottish and displays all the qualities that are best in Scottish manhood. So, Jesus, the Son of Man, is not ashamed of his manhood, but rather glories in it and exhibits to perfection the best of manly virtues.

It should be some comfort to us that our judge is a man and knows from experience what it is like to be a man. John records in his gospel: He, Jesus, did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in man. Jn2v24and25. The writer to the Hebrews points out for our comfort: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Heb4v15and16. See Heb4v13to5v10.

I am glad judgment is not left to God the Father or to a tribunal of angels!

(b) Jesus returns to judge in power and glory.

When Jesus returns at the end of the age there will be no doubt about his authority. He will come arraigned in the shining robes of heaven escorted by the denizens of that glorious "place" - legions of angels obedient to his every command.

(3) The judgment.

(a) The criteria used to judge between the true believer and the false professor.

Some Christians are very surprised by the criteria Jesus says he will use. It is almost as if Jesus is teaching that salvation is by works. Yet we know what Paul taught: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not of works, so that no one can boast. John asserts in his gospel: Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. Jn1v12and18.

In the light of these and other scriptures we might expect Jesus to discriminate between those who have true faith in him and those who don't'; between those trusting in his sacrificial death for the forgiveness of sins and those who don't.

BUT, what is the tangible EVIDENCE that we are true believers and hence sons of God and joint heirs with Christ. If we return for a moment to the famous passage in Ephesians, we are left in no doubt what should distinguish the true believer: For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. Eph2v10.

If, as John asserts, we are God's children by adoption - a fact reiterated by Paul in his epistle to the Romans, then, as Paul goes on to write, we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. Rom8v17. The fact that all believers in Jesus are brothers should obviously affect their relationship with one another. Jesus said, "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

A verse that was a great comfort to my old friend and fellow elder, Edward Underwood, was 1John3v14: We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Sometimes Edward lacked assurance that he was, indeed, a Christian because he had no dramatic conversion experience. But he would reassure himself with John's words: he loved his Christian brothers, he loved the brethren - evidence of the work of the Spirit and his new life in Christ Jesus.

We show love to the brethren by simply being KIND to them - kind to those whom Jesus called the least of these brothers of mine. He details four ways to be kind: being hospitable, welcoming visitors, providing poor families with the necessities and visiting the sick, locked in and lonely.

The apostle John remembered Jesus words when he wrote in his first epistle: If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 1Jn3v17and18.

All of us are capable of being kind in the way Jesus described. You don't need a degree in Theology or loads of money to visit the sick or to welcome visitors. Yet not all professing Christians are as kind as they might be. Such folk need to wake up to their obligations. Kindness is crucial because in being kind to Jesus' brothers and sisters we are being kind him. Remember what Jesus said: "And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these my little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." Mt10v42.

(b) The reaction to Christ's judgment.

It is interesting that both the righteous and the unrighteous were surprised by what Jesus said. They were unaware that by showing kindness to their fellow Christians they were showing kindness to Jesus himself. Why was this? There are three possible reasons:

  • Showing kindness seems so ordinary - so mundane. It is not like preaching an ultra-dramatic, moving and influential sermon, composing a beautiful hymn, praying with great passion and eloquence or singing a wonderful solo. But let us pause a moment and recall what Paul wrote: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge ..... but have not love, I am nothing. 1Cor13v1to3.

    Kindness may seem mundane but what do we remember about people? We remember acts of kindness when we forget everything else. I have given several examples in my website - but here are just two more. Just before Christmas 2017 a boyhood friend of mine died suddenly of heart failure. We had kept in touch for nearly 60 years since leaving school. We only met up again once in those 60 years. I remember two things about Tony Marsh. The first, a shared love of Science which was the basis of our friendship. The second, an act of kindness. After taking my O level exams I had a reaction. I was afflicted with severe asthma and depression. Tony bought to school a bag full of novels for me to read - he felt so sorry for me. He hoped the novels would take my mind off the asthma.

    Just a few weeks ago Denis asked if he could reserve a plot in our graveyard for the burial of himself and his wife. I asked him if there was anywhere in particular he would like to reserve. He replied, "Is there a plot near where Dominic is buried?" This puzzled me. Dennis was not related to Dominic. Then I remembered. A few years ago Dennis had to go to Addenbrookes Hospital for an operation on his spine. Dominic, who was familiar with Addenbrookes on account of treatment he underwent for cancer, offered to take Dennis to the hospital and ensure he got to the right department. It was an act of kindness Dennis has never forgotten.

    Jesus does not forget the kindnesses we show his brothers. It is as if we are being personally kind to him.

  • Jesus brethren seem so unlike Jesus himself - so imperfect and so undeserving of our consideration. A lot of Christians are not especially loveable! Certainly they are not very worthy! It is just so easy to overlook the status of some very ordinary, boring, impoverished and untalented Christians. It is hard to see them as joint heirs of Jesus - BUT that is just what they are! I am afraid that some Christians are very, very critical. They see the faults of others without being aware of their own. Jesus has a word for these super critics - sort out the plank in your own eye before worrying about the speck in your brother's eye.

    It is easy to overlook the deserving. Jesus commended some whom others treated with scant respect: Zacchaeus, the certain poor widow, the prostitute who wept over his feet, Mary who anointed him with precious ointment and a dying thief.

  • Kindness fatigue. It is possible to be so kind to our family, friends and fans that we have little left over for our fellow Christians. Jesus does not give eternal life to those who dearly love their natural family and show them great kindness. You do not acquire merit with Jesus for showing hospitality to your son and daughter, welcoming your grandchildren, buying your husband a new suit or visiting your old and senile mother in hospital. Jesus rewards those who are kind to HIS family. So there is a warning here. Don't let your natural family monopolise your attention.

(4) The Verdict.

(a) On the sheep on his right hand - the true believers.

Jesus, the king, will says to them:"Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world."

Those who genuinely love Jesus and show it by being kind to their fellow believers will be accepted as his subjects. The day will come when this old world and the universe it is in, will pass away. A new world and a new universe, planned before the creation of our present world, will be established. The subjects of king Jesus will see him, they will be like him and they will enjoy him forever. They will receive eternal life - the ultimate bliss.

(b) On the goats on his left hand - the false professors.

Jesus says of them: "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. ..... They will go away to eternal punishment." v41 and v46

It is obvious that the Greek word translated, 'eternal', does not mean everlasting. The eternal life of the true believer is more than everlasting. Life could be everlasting and miserable. Such a life would hardly be worth having. The word, 'eternal', describes the quality of being or the quality of experience. God is eternal - the ultimate being - supreme over other beings. The eternal life of the righteous is the ultimate quality of life. It cannot be bettered. The joy of it, the peace, the love, the fellowship, the creativity, the gratitude will be beyond improvement. Eternal punishment of the unrighteous is the ultimate punishment.

The ultimate punishment of the unrighteous is NOT one of everlasting pain and suffering; a life of endless torment. There are three reasons for this:

  • Adam was warned that if he disobeyed God and ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil he would die - NOT suffer endless torments forever. The wages of sin is death - not endless suffering.

  • Everlasting suffering would be a disproportionate punishment. We sin in time and it is only just we are punished in time.

  • God hates sin. It grieves him. It would distress God immeasurably to have the wicked curse him in their torments forever and ever.

God wants an end to all sin. He will achieve this by making believers anew at the resurrection - removing in them any inclination to sin whatever. All God's enemies: the devil, his angels and humans who have rejected king Jesus will be destroyed. Fire is essentially destructive. Eternal punishment, the ultimate punishment for failed humanity, is destruction. I deal with this in much greater length in my article on heaven and hell. See Article on the Afterlife.