And now a temporary break from our regularly scheduled blogging for a slight change of pace!
Over the past few months, a piece of scripture has come up in conversations several times and I’ve wanted to toss something in writing about it, so I’m just making time to get something written down. The passage is Matthew 25:31-46: the judgment of the sheep and the goats. Seeing that this is meant to be a short post (that’s what “Bible Bites” are supposed to be), I’ll just jump right in!
The passage opens with Matt. 25:31-32: “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.”
– Without getting into various and sundry debates about the many related issues around the end times, I’ll just point out that the opening phrase states that the events that follow will occur “when the Son of Man comes in his glory” along with the angels and sits on his throne.
– Whatever that is, it’s certainly in the future and sometime at the end of history.
The passage continues on with the process of separation. Matt. 22:33 reads, “And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.”
– So continuing the metaphor, when the shepherd returns in all his glory, there will be a separation. Pretty straightforward. Those who are sheep will be separated from those who (sorta) look like sheep.
Then we see the outcome of the separation for the sheep in 22:34 as Jesus says, “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.”
– So this separation is at the end, and at the time the sheep are separated from the goats, the sheep get the kingdom. So ignoring debates about the nature of the kingdom (which I’ve pounded through extensively here and here and here), at the time of the separation the sheep get the kingdom. That’s clearly not now, but some time in the future.
Why do the sheep get the kingdom? Jesus answers that in 25:35-36 when he says, “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.”
– This is interesting, more because of what’s not said. Jesus doesn’t mention the Gospel. It’s all a list of external actions, and many undiscerning folks have taken this as some text that sanctifies social justice and acts of kindness as being somehow meritorious, or worse: synonymous with sharing the Gospel. If you pay attention to the next passage, there’s a subtle hint that such isn’t the case.
25:37-39 contains a legitimate point of confusion. The sheep say, “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?’ “
– Notice how the sheep are now called the righteous. That’s not a trivial change of terminology. In this passage, the category of “sheep” is synonymous with “righteous.” Those righteous folks (who have heard the Gospel and received Christ’s righteousness, which is the only way one can be called “righteous”) don’t understand Jesus’ claim of having received care and provision from them.
Jesus explains his strange statement in 25:40 when he says, “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.’ “
– Now it makes a little more sense (though if you’re paying attention, you should have some serious and urgent questions by now). Jesus identifies himself with his brothers (namely, other sheep) so much that serving any one of them is quite actually synonymous with serving him. Caring for any one of them is quite actually synonymous with caring for him.
Then Jesus comments on the other half of this separating event in 25:41, saying “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.‘ ”
– Again, if there’s any confusion as to when these events are occurring, this should help clarify. The goats not only are told to depart from Christ, but they’re told to go “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Why do the goats get the eternal fire? Jesus states why in 25:42-43, saying, “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 welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
– Again, this is more interesting due to what’s not said. Like in 25:35-36, it’s just a list of external actions. There’s no mention of the gospel.
Like the sheep, the goats are confused. 25:44 states, “Then they also will answer, 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?’ ”
In Matt. 25:45, Jesus says, “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘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.’ ”
– Notice how the phrase “my brothers” is missing? Jesus isn’t talking to the sheep now; he’s talking to the goats and pointing at the sheep. Like before, the Son of Man is so identified with his brothers (the righteous sheep) that caring for them is caring for him. Feeding them is feeding him. Clothing them is clothing him.
Jesus closes off the passage restating the destiny of both groups, saying, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
– Just for emphasis, he mentions that the goats get eternal punishment and the righteous sheep get eternal life. It sure seems strange how Jesus never mentions how one becomes part of “the righteous” in the passage…though it’s not like he hasn’t said anything about that elsewhere.
If the post isn’t about how one becomes righteous, then what is it about?
This is where I cannot help but start talking about some issues related to the end times.
I’d argue that the passage follows the Olivet Discourse in Matt. 24, as well as the two warnings to prepare for the second coming (in Matt. 25:1-13 & 25:14-30), so the “coming” of the Son of Man must be understood in the immediate context. The “coming” is most likely the coming Jesus spoke of in 24:30, and the gathering of the sheep and the goats is likely the gathering Jesus spoke of in 24:31. That means it follows the events of the “great tribulation” that is worse than any period in history (24:21), involving the coming of false Christs (24:4-5), wars (24:6-7), the persecution and execution of Christians (24:9), the falling away of false brothers (24:10), the coming of false prophets (24:11), the death of love among many (24:12), the proclamation of the gospel to the world (24:13), the darkening of the son and the moon (24:29), the falling of the stars from Heaven (24:29), etc.
All of that stuff hasn’t happened yet.
In other words, the judgment of the sheep and the goats seems to come at the end of the seven-year tribulation as part of the transition into the millennial reign of Christ.
So, at the end of the tribulation, the world will be highly religious. Matt. 24:15 mentions the abomination of desolation, which takes place in the temple, and 24:24-26 also mentions the false christs and false prophets who perform signs and wonders and deceive many. It should seem obvious that people claiming to be Christ and people claiming to be a prophet are likely quite religious folks.
Also, the tribulation will be a period marked by the worst tribulation in history (24:21). It will be a time when Christians will frantically flee to the mountains due to the persecution they face (Matt. 24:16-19). People will betray the Christians they once claimed as “brothers,” and that betrayal will result in death (24:9-10). I’d dare suspect that in conditions like these, many Christians will believe the gospel and be killed that very same month, week, or even day.
In other words, there will be a whole lot of believers that understand the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus, but possibly not much else. So how does God differentiate between true and false Christians in a scenario like that?
Easy. The same way he always does.
There’s no doctrinal test administered.
There’s no “basic Christian belief” quota.
There’s no question asked of the sheep at all.
In fact, the sheep are the ones confused and asking questions, since they pass the test and aren’t exactly sure why.
What’s the test?
It’s a heart test.
The test is whether or not they have a changed heart.
That test is administered during a era when “many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another” (24:10) and when “the love of many will grow cold” (24:12).
In that era, the changed heart that loves one’s fellow Christians in selfless ways will be the one reliable test of who are really sheep and who are counterfeits. That changed heart, a heart that loves fellow believers and cannot help but love them, cannot be faked.
That heart that loves an unknown believer enough to welcome them into your home, in a time when believers you know are being betrayed unto death by “fellow believers,” cannot be faked.
That heart that loves a fellow believer enough to give them food and drink, in a time when believers are all living in famine conditions, cannot be faked.
That heart that loves a fellow believer enough to give them clothing, in a time when believers are all unable to participate in commerce, cannot be faked.’
That heart that loves a fellow believer enough to visit them in illness, in a time when believers are all likely unable to get actual medical care, cannot be faked.
That heart that loves a fellow believer enough to visit them in prison, in a time when believers are imprisoned for being believers, cannot be faked.
The test of a changed and love-filled heart, as manifest by selfless acts of sacrificial and risk-taking kindness, care and philanthropy, is the test administered by the Son of Man.
It’s the test that separates true believers from all the other religious people at the end; people who likely think they’re “Christians” too…in some strange sense. I mean, if there are “false christs” all over, it seems reasonable that those who follow them would (wrongfully) think of themselves as true Christians.
The more I think of it, the more I realize that it’s a harsh passage for several reason:
1. Claiming to be a Christian means nothing.
It’s not that the Gospel isn’t necessary, but rather that profession is not proof. The proof lies in the presence of a changed heart, and a changed heart cannot help but love fellow believers.
2. There is no doctrinal test that authenticates one as a true believer.
That’s not to say that one can consciously have heretical beliefs and still be a true believer, but the true test of regeneration is whether or not the heart is regenerated.
In other words, there will be many orthodox theologians in Hell but no heretics in Heaven. Knowing the right answers to all theological question is not the mark of being regenerate. Having a regenerated heart is the mark of being regenerate. One can even have a regenerated heart and be ignorant of many of the right answers (though true believers won’t willfully and consciously reject the teaching of scripture).
3. Preparing for the life to come involves knowing that leads to doing.
We live in an era where, thanks to the internet, the average person in the pew has more access to theological resources than any pastor who lived as recently as two decades ago. Sadly, this tends to mean that many of us have doctrine that far exceeds our practice. In other words, there are a lot of people in our churches who can argue about the fine points of eschatology but don’t know how to be gracious to an unbelieving neighbor.
Just some thoughts on a text that is often utilized as a proof-text for the social gospel but missed for what it actually says.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “I just wanna be a sheep” Unger