Separating the Sheep from the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

Can you tell the difference between a sheep and a goat? I tried and tried to think of a common example that could be used to illustrate this separation of the sheep from the goats but was unable to do so because this situation is so unique and the reason it is so unique is because the sheep and the goats have chosen their species.

Imagine a world where a goat, when presented with the opportunity to be transformed miraculously into a sheep, could do so just by embracing the offer extended by the one making the offer. Supernaturally the goat would be instantaneously into a baby sheep and cared for by the Great Transformer, Christ the Savior and King!

Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when we talked about grace? Grace was shown to be prevenient grace which draws each person to Christ. Then there is saving grace, which, when embraced brings that person to Christ, and finally, sustaining grace which enables we humans who are spiritually weak and pitiful to remain faithful to Christ the King.

All of us are born as goats and, as we will see later in this Scripture, the Lord, the Judge, Christ the King will allow each of us to enjoy or endure the path we have freely chosen.

That is why it is so difficult to come up with an illustration. For instance, if a jeweler had a bag of jewels containing both diamonds and cubic zirconia and was separating them into two groups, one for use in jewelry and the other for disposal, it would be a poor illustration as the contents of the bag would have no choice in the matter. In this Scripture, however, the sheep were once goats who have been transformed into sheep by their individual response to the calling grace of God.  Which is a sheep? Which is a goat? How do you know the difference? What gives it away for me is the coat. Sheep usually have a fuller coat than do goats (though not all sheep have wool nor do all goats have short hair).
Today in our gospel lesson Jesus speaks about how he will reappear on Judgment Day to separate mankind into two groups: the sheep and the goats. What will distinguish the groups from one another? F.L.U.F. That’s Faith, Love, Unpretentiousness, and Fate. It’s imperative that we understand what this means so that we don’t find ourselves standing in the wrong group bound for hell instead of heaven.

Jesus spoke the words of our text. Among the many things he taught that day he told his disciples about a day known only to God when the world will come to an end. We’ll know that it’s the end because Jesus will descend on the clouds with all his holy angels (Matthew 25:31). That will be some sight. I mean think of how overwhelmed the shepherds of Bethlehem were when a choir of angels appeared before them. What will it be like to see the entire army of angels accompany a glorified Jesus?
Afraid you’ll miss out on the spectacle? Don’t worry about that. Jesus tells us that all the nations will be gathered before him. The prophet Daniel explains that this will be accomplished when all the dead are raised to life (Daniel 12:2). Can you imagine standing in a cemetery when Jesus returns? Would sounds of splintering wood fill the air as people fight their way out of their coffins? Would the smell of fresh earth fill your nostrils as the un-dead dig their way to the surface? We don’t have all the details of how this resurrection will be accomplished but God assures us that no one will miss their court date before the eternal judge.
SheepAnd who will the judge be? Jesus. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t though it will surprise those who want to see Jesus as perpetual-nice-guy. Those who think Jesus’ love for mankind means tolerance for sin are in for a shock. Listen to what Jesus will say to many on Judgment Day: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). There is a certain group of people that is so offensive to Jesus that he won’t tolerate their presence on Judgment Day. Instead he’ll send them to a place of eternal punishment. What will these people have done that’s so offensive to Jesus? It’s not so much what they have done as what they have failed to do. Listen to Jesus’ assessment: “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” (Matthew 25:42, 43). Jesus does not say of this hell-bound group: “You sold drugs to pre-teens. You cheated on your spouse. You murdered unborn children. You ripped off your customers.” By not mentioning these obvious sins Jesus is teaching us a sobering lesson. Don’t think that everything is OK between God and you just because you haven’t committed any “big” sins.

If you’ve ever failed to serve those around you, if you’ve ever thought that your comfort was more important than someone else’s, you deserved to be  damned.
Come on, Pastor! Jesus can’t be that strict? Is he really going to send me to hell because I didn’t get off the couch to get my little brother a glass of water when he asked for one? And don’t tell me Christians will get to heaven because they’re always cheerfully serving others.
Since Jesus is God, he is strict about sin. Failing to cheerfully serve another person even once makes us deserving of his wrath. But you would be correct in your assessment of Christians. We don’t always cheerfully serve others. This is perhaps why Jesus doesn’t compare the two Judgment Day groups to sheep and snakes but to sheep and goats, two animals that look very much alike. So what sets these two groups apart? F.L.U.F. Let’s take a closer look at what this means.
The first and most important distinction is faith. Those whom Jesus calls sheep are those who have faith in him. Not just faith that a guy named Jesus existed, but faith that he is the only one who can save us from our sins. Think of it like this. If I say: “I have faith in president-elect.” I don’t mean, “I believe the next president exists.” I mean, “I think the next president can help the United States.” Likewise those who have true faith in Jesus believe that he has saved them from an eternal future in hell when he lived a perfect life and paid for their sins on the cross. They understand that, like decoy flares dropped from a fighter jet to keep a heat-seeking missile from slamming into the plane, Jesus diverted to himself God’s wrath originally meant for sinners.
Now those who have saving faith in Jesus will show it in the way they love others. In fact on Judgment Day Jesus will point to this visible love as evidence of invisible faith. Jesus will say to the sheep, “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” (Matthew 25:34b-36).
One Christian observed that Jesus will not say: “I was sick and you healed me. I was in prison and you freed me” but “I was sick and you cared for me. I was in prison and you came to visit me”. Do you see the comfort here? You don’t have to become a missionary and move to the other side of the world to please God. Nor do you have to perform miracles to get Jesus’ attention. He is pleased when you simply get up off the couch to get your little sister a glass of water because she’s thirsty. He’s delighted when you change a diaper because the baby needs a dry bum. And he won’t forget that you took the time to package those hand-me-downs to give to someone who needs them. In fact he will point to these things on Judgment Day and say that you did them for him! (Matthew 25:40)
What will our response be? It will be unpretentious. The sheep will answer: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?” (Matthew 25:37) Our response will be such because Christians don’t keep track of the good things they’ve done (Or we shouldn’t be!), as if wracking up points for a pizza party in heaven.

This is how the goats are different. Because they did not have faith in Jesus as their savior they did not show  love to God’s people. If they did, like the time your unbelieving neighbor watched the kids while you had to attend a medical emergency, their motive was impure. They did it because they wanted you to think well of them or because they wanted you to do the same for them some day. They didn’t do it to thank Jesus for all he had done for them.
But wait a minute. Don’t Christians also do good things with impure motives? Sure. The prophet Isaiah said that even our righteous acts are like filthy rags in God’s eyes. That’s another reason the sheep’s response to Jesus’ words of commendation is unpretentious. They are well aware of how often they have failed to live up to God’s standard of love for others. They know that they deserve Jesus’ curse, not his blessing and so are humbled that Jesus would mention anything remotely good that they have done. The goats on the other hand are offended that Jesus does not acknowledge any of the “good” things they have done. It just goes to show that their faith is really in themselves and their own goodness. Their goodness, however, doesn’t come close to matching the standard of perfection God expects.
GoatFaith, Love, Unpretentiousness. Those are three things that distinguish the sheep from the goats but there is, however, one more thing that sets them apart: Fate. The sheep will enter into an eternal life of happiness with Jesus in heaven. Heaven is going to be an awesome place. I mean if the Garden of Eden was paradise and it only took God six days to make it, think of how much better heaven will be considering God has been working on it since Creation (Matthew 25:34)! I know of at least one way heaven will be better than the Garden of Eden; there will be no Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to trip us up. Our joy with Jesus will never be interrupted.
The goats on the other hand will go away to eternal judgment. How bad will that be? Well, consider this: God originally created hell for Satan and his evil angels. Hell must be some terrible place if a powerful spiritual being like Satan is going to be in anguish there forever. God of course doesn’t want people to end up there with Satan but they will, not because they’re pedophiles, drug dealers, or terrorists, but because they thumbed their nose at Jesus in this life saying: “I don’t need you, Jesus. I’m really not that bad. I can stand before God on my own two feet.” To God, that scornful rejection of his Son is as despicable as all the evil Satan has ever engineered and therefore deserving of the same punishment.

F.L.U.F. That’s all that separates the sheep from the goats. It doesn’t seem like much but it will make an eternal difference. So strengthen your God-given Faith through the study of his Word. Look to Jesus and not yourself for salvation and your Love for others will grow in acts of service. But remain Unpretentious about the good that you do knowing that it never measures up to God’s perfect standard. Still, remain confident that your eternal Fate is never in doubt because your future depends on Jesus’ righteousness. May God keep us as his sheep until he calls us home to enjoy the eternal pastures of heaven. Amen.

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Filed under Daily Biblical Studies for the Soul Text, Studies in the Gospel of Matthew

One response to “Separating the Sheep from the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

  1. Pingback: Seeking to save the lost | daily meditation

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