Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Who are the sheep, and who are the goats

Matt 25:31-46 –

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 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, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers 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, ‘I tell you the truth, 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.”

Verse 31-33 suggest to us that the setting is one of Jesus coming in His glory at end time, with all the angels with Him, and He will sit on His glorious throne as the King, to judge. All peoples will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep, He will place them on His right, and the goats, on His left.

The King will say to those on His right, i.e. the sheep, the ones blessed by the Father God, to take their inheritance, which is the kingdom of Heaven, prepared since the creation of the world. As a Christian, this is the side we all should want to be. But who are the sheep?

I agree with some pastors’ interpretation that the above text is a narrative, not a parable. However, I believe the sheep and goats are representations, i.e. they are allegoric of actual persons falling into the respective categories. Who then are the sheep, and the goats?

The followings are possible scenarios:

1. Sheep are Christians or believers, and goats are non-believers.
2. Sheep are persons with good works (of love), and goats are persons without.
3. Sheep are Christians with good works (of love), and goats are persons without.

If you were to choose one, which will be your answer, 1, 2, or 3, or do you have another possible scenario? For me, my choice is no. 3, but let me explain away the other 2 options.

If it were just simply sheep are Christians or believers, and goats are non-believers, then there is really no need for the subsequent verses 35 & 36. These verses talked about works. Not any works, not bad works, but good works; works characterized by compassion and love, and of giving encouragement and hope. They are also works without expectation of return, for the help was even extended to strangers. Such works as are listed here are not exclusive to Christians or believers. There are non-believers, and even many other religious faiths followers, who do such works. In later verses, 42 & 43, the same list is thrown at the goats, but the rebuke is that they did not do them. It really isn’t the case of persons who do them, are Christians, and persons who do not do them, are non-believers, for the works, per se, cannot be pointing directly to the kind of people comprised in the classes of sheep and goats.

Following what is said in the above paragraph, are sheep simply persons who do those things listed, and goats, those who do not do them, making option 2 as the answer? No, that cannot be the answer. In fact, there is a teaching in the broader Christian brotherhood that use this narrative (story) to substantiate their claim that Jesus is not even required, and that such good works in love is the ultimate criterion for salvation – this is clearly WRONG, and is a teaching that is not consistent with the overall counsel of the Word of God, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is very sad that some leaders openly endorsed it in their books.

Indeed, it is true that Jesus did say that all of the commandments of God could be distilled down to 2 pillars of love, firstly to love God with our all, and secondly to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:37-40), and while it is correct that love is very important indeed, such teachers who choose to take one pillar of love, and leaving out the other, are clearly apostates.

Actually, if such teachers have been careful enough, they would have noticed that there is a hint in the text that suggested that it is not just a matter of showing love and kindness to people, solely; “righteous” is used on the sheep (v 37), meaning, they have been redeemed by Jesus, such is not used on the goats, for they are not all the redeemed of the Lord. To say that we can infer from the above text, that the ultimate sole criterion for salvation is the measure of our charity or love to men, is heretic. To further say that peoples of other religious faiths (or unbelievers) with such good works can also go to Heaven is apostate.

The fact that “righteous” is used on the sheep, I believe, is meant to imply that there is at least an additional element for a person to be classified as a sheep. The overall counsel of the Word of God tells us that righteousness is not had by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:28), and we are saved by grace, through faith (Eph 2:8-9). One can only be righteous after one is justified.

“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28). For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:8-9).

The “righteous” in verse 37 referring to the sheep, implies that sheep have to be Christians or believers. For this reason alone, option 2 is out.

Now, verse 32 paints to us that all peoples will be gathered; if sheep are referring to Christians who do good works of love, then goats must be referring to all the other peoples, barring no other criteria are in place. This means that among the goats will be Christians without such good works of love. In this interpretation of mine, not all Christians are regarded as sheep here, only those Christians with such good works of love. All non-believers are goats, and all Christians without such good works of love are goats. This, I believe, is the reason, “they” is used for the goats, as in verses 44, and “righteous” is not used, for included in the goats are non-believers.

Could it be that only the Christians are addressed here, and no non-believers included? My answer is that verse 32 painted for us that all peoples are gathered, and that must be including the non-believers. But if one wants to suggest that non-believers are, perhaps, separately judged, already or subsequent to this, it is fine with me, except, it still does not negate the serious implication that there are Christians not going into eternal life, but into eternal punishment (verse 46). The eternal punishment is named for us, and it is stated in verse 41 - into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. This is the burning lake of fire in Hell!

I can envision my readers who are Christians getting very disturbed at the last 2 lines above. Nevertheless, it is a conclusion arrived at, by reasonable interpretation of who are being talked about as the sheep and the goats. There is no other way, if the text is a narrative, and not a parable of an end time judgment. As I have mentioned in the preceding paragraph, we can say that only the Christians are being referred to, but that does not negate the conclusion. If you want to say only non-believers are being referred to, it cannot be, because that will be apostate, for it suggests that non-believers can enter the kingdom of Heaven by works.

This is my suggestions:

1. Accept it that we have to be righteous to get to Heaven, and we get that righteousness through the justification by Christ Jesus, meaning we have to be a Christian before we can ever get to Heaven.

2. We have to love God. We must subscribe to the 1st pillar of love referred to, by Jesus; it is the greatest commandment, according to Jesus. If you read carefully at both, the replies of both the sheep (vv37-39) and the goats (v44), and the replies of the King to their replies (v40 & v45), you will catch that it is implied in there, and apparently it is understood by all. Only those who are blind to say such apostate statement as, being a Christian is not a must, cannot see it implied in the verses, and follow on to say that non-believers, including followers of other religious faiths, can be admitted to Heaven on the basis of good works of love.

3. We have to love our neighbors, the 2nd pillar of love, and in actions, please. The King’s replies (vv40 & 45) suggested to us that in the eyes of God, loving our neighbors adds up to the same thing, loving God, for we are pleasing God, and executing His desires and wishes.

4. Do not be gripped by fear and anxiety at the knowledge of the conclusion painted here. The text does not specify in any way concerning adequacy or sufficiency of the works of love; there is no measure of quantum specified, nor is there a measure of quality given. But decide today, you are not going to come before the King on that day without any works of love. Adopt 1 John 3:18-19 given at the end of the article (at the sign-off).

5. Be careful of teachings that seek to turn believers into selfish people who just bask in grace in their Christian walk. I am not against basking in grace, yet, do not be carried away with the idea that there is no such thing as Man’s part (arguing everything is wholly God’s job), for that breeds complacency and incorrectly pushes all accountability back to God; subconsciously, many overly grace believers, are adopting the attitude of “if God wants me to do such and such, He has to make me feel moved enough to do it, otherwise, it is all works which must be avoided.” Over emphasis on the notion that believers will “automatically” do good works in love, and therefore, all believers are sheep of the above, are also misplaced. Such teachings are too skewed. We have responsibility to guard our hearts against false teachings. In 2 Tim 4:3, we read this: For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

6. Do not hide behind the excuse that “I do not know what is the will of God for my life, and so, I do not know what to do, and I therefore, have every reason to wait for God to speak to me before I should even do anything; and so, since I do not hear God, it is perfectly fine that I do nothing.” If you are a Christian, and you do read the Bible, including this Matt 25 text, you are self-deluding to say you do not know a single thing that can be counted as good works of love that God will accept. Start doing, start small, do something.

7. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, and read His Word. At the very core of the Christian faith is the Lordship of God in our life. Do not listen to people who say that you have invited Jesus into your life as your Savior, and nothing else. That is a lie; you have invited Jesus into your life as your Lord and Savior. If you have never regarded Him as your Lord, only as Savior, because you were misled, today, say sorry to the Lord, acknowledge His Lordship over your life. As you properly acknowledge Him as your Lord, and desire to serve Him, He will, through His Holy Spirit, and His Word, guide you, in your journey of loving Him in works.

Another way of the labeling the narrative, would perhaps be “My sheep and the goats”, for not all sheep are Jesus’ sheep, for only His sheep hear His voice and obey, including doing the things He wants done (John 10:27), all other sheep, might ultimately turn out to be goats!

Anthony Chia, high.expressions - Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence (1 John 3:18-19).

[Added 22 June 2011: PS:
1) Some interpreted "one of the least of these brothers of mine" in v40, as calling that works must be directed at believers, to be valid. I considered it too narrow a definition to adopt for "brothers", unless the "neighbors" in "Love thy neighbors" is also said as referring to believers only. No, I do NOT believe God is calling us to love only the believers. Yes, at the end, there is a certain end for the non-believers, but meanwhile, it is NOT for us to love only the believers, although we are to love our fellow believers.

2)There also those who avoided the use of the word, "works", treating it like it is leperous. I think it is wrong to do that; Scriptures do NOT portray that understanding. You just need to look at 1 John 3:18-19 at my sign-off, to see that works is NOT a concept that Biblical authors shy away from. See also Eph 2:10, Matt 3:10]

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  1. Hi there - Interesting, but I believe you missed just one little thing...
    The criteria for the sheep was looking after 'least of these brothers of mine', but for the goats it was just 'for the least of these'.

    Here's my take:

    The 'brothers of mine' are His sheep.
    The sheep on the right look after His brothers (all the other sheep present) , and inherit eternal life. Take note He uses the word 'inherit', not 'earnt', meaning someone had to die in order for them to receive it. They did not earn it.

    The goats on the left persecuted, or did not look after, the sheep. And going by Jesus' words, whoever persecutes His brothers, persecutes Him. They did not earn eternal life. They certainly did not inherit it, because Jesus did not die for them. When Jesus used the words least of 'these', He was pointing out the sheep on His right.

    Think about it from this perspective and you see that this is more about works (or law) vs gospel. It's the common thread through all His parables and teachings. When you look for the gospel - that's why Matthew is called a gospel - you will never be confused again.

    That's my 2 cents worth, anyway. Have a think about it and let me know.



  2. In my article, I have expressed only believers can be on the right side. There are people who incorrectly assigned “unbelievers” to the word, “nations” (“ethnos”). The right assignment for this context is “all peoples” which includes both believers and non-believers (you can check the Strong’s Lexicon). If we incorrectly start with “unbelievers”, inevitably we are forced into the conclusion that some unbelievers go to Heaven with eternal lives, and some, to Hell – an apostate assertion!

    As to persecution, I don’t see it in the text. Below, I have “cut and paste” a like-analysis from the Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the text:

    “All that is charged upon them, on which the sentence is grounded, is, omission; as, before, the servant was condemned, not for wasting his talent {earlier parable}, but for burying it; so here, he doth not say, "I was hungry and thirsty, for you took my meat and drink from me; I was a stranger, for you banished me; naked, for you stripped me; in prison, for you laid me there:" but, "When I was in these distresses, you were so selfish, so taken up with your own ease and pleasure, made so much of your labour, and were so loth to part with your money, that you did not minister as you might have done to my relief and succour. You were like those epicures that were at ease in Zion, and were not grieved for the affliction of Joseph," Amos 6:4-6. Note, Omissions are the ruin of thousands.”


    1. Hi Craig Godfrey, I have decided not to post your additional comments, for I desire NOT to turn this into a forum style discussion. I will add this:

      I am NOT advocating salvation by works; on the contrary, I spoken against those who use this narrative to argue for unbelievers are able to go to Heaven on the basis of their good works.

      Christians are to be with good works in keeping with their faith. Eph 2:8-10 tells that we are saved by grace for good works. One critical prescription of God for men is that we have to live our lives in keeping with our faith or consistent with our faith or congruent to our faith. Other ways of putting it included “You are who you are, when you live out what you are” or God does employ “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”. We read in Scripture, such was referred to, with regard to, for example, faith – faith is to be lived or accompanied by deeds consistent to it (faith), otherwise it is dead faith (James 2:17); righteousness - is to be lived out – 1 John 3:7 said that we are NOT to be fooled; he who practises what is right, is righteousness, in the same way that Christ Jesus was righteous; love – just by words only, is insufficient (1 John 3:18); holiness – be holy in all that you do (1 Pet 1:15).

      It may NOT be wrong to view works as a fruit from righteousness, yet it is NOT exhorted as such to us, in Scripture, that good works are all automatic or that it is all God’s part, none men’s. Is all of fruit completely optional; you and I can have it or NOT have it, and it matters NOT? We need to work with God in developing all the godly virtues, and producing the fruit. To me, it is untenable to, in the end, to be answering back to God, “I thought I was just to bask in grace; you, God, was supposed to make it all happen – whatever that would please you!” It is NOT like that; sure, there are times and for various individuals, God sovereignly insists things and makes them, to happen in a certain way, regardless of volition of men, but generally, it is still men, including believers, have to exercise their volition consistent with the will and desires of God.

      Sure, how much good works was NOT specified and rightly so, left unspecified, because it really depends on God in relation to the individual; for that matter, the same with other godly attributes. Just because things are NOT quantifiable so as to give us certainty by quantum, it does NOT mean it is wrong. I used to want to be 100% certain (like it is a fact) that I will go to Heaven; I have since, no longer insisted that, because I realised that faith is NOT facts. “If I die now, I will go to Heaven” is my statement of faith, NOT facts; ultimately, it is still God who judges. We do our best (and yes, it is about doing) to seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness (Matt 6:33), the rest, we let God be God – He judges. My life, including good works, proves my faith, and it is NOT I am trying to earn my salvation. In my life, including in doing good works, I perfect holiness, so that I may see God and be with Him.

      This narrative is NOT intended to say to us, salvation is by grace, as such, and that good works is NOT exhorted. If one wants to pinpoint why the expression of surprise by the sheep was included in the narrative, it is proper to view it this way: When we have grown enough, we could be in the likes of Apostle Paul - be transformed of heart to the extent that all of things he sacrificed was nothing, dung even, to him; but until then, we learn and grow to sacrifice, in our good works. In our agape of God, sacrifice is inevitable (agape love is sacrificial), but after much true living out of our love for God, we will be transformed to no longer viewing sacrifice as sacrifice (as was Paul), but what is done is a natural thing to do. Scripture does exhort us in good works, and does say our works of righteousness follow us, yet more basically, what God is after, is our transformation into a holy and godly people, from it.



I welcome comments.