The Sheep and the Goats – Matthew 25:31-46 (Part 1)

This pericope is a grand conclusion to the Olivet Discourse and sums up many of the eschatological themes in Matthew.  But is this a parable? Not in the normal sense of a parable, it is more of an apocalyptic prophecy with parabolic elements.  The story is usually treated as a parable, despite the fact it is not a story drawn from everyday life.  As an apocalyptic prophecy, the Sheep and Goats is an interpretation and re-application of themes from the Hebrew Bible to a new situation.

Clearly the “Son of Man” is not a symbol, Jesus is identifying himself as the one who will be doing the final judgment.  There is, however, a shift from Son of Man to “the King” in verse 34.  The King in this parable is not necessarily a metaphor for Jesus but an actual title of Jesus that he will have at that time.  That Jesus sees himself as the central character in this parable helps us to read the previous parables – Jesus is the king who went away, Jesus is the bridegroom.

The Sheep and the Goats are metaphorical elements that parallel the Wise and foolish virgins and the productive and unproductive servants in the parable of the talents. The elements of the judgment are not to be taken as metaphors, what the sheep do and what the goats do not do should be understood as a part of the judgment that they are facing at the end of the age.  The wise virgin and prepared servant are more or less like the Sheep, the foolish virgin and the unprepared servant are more or less like the goats.

It is probably best to see this is prophecy that is using the metaphor of the separation of sheep and goats to indicate that at the end of the age the nations will be separated and judged.  The basis of that judgment will be the treatment of the “least of these brothers of mine.” This prophecy may be based on several passages from the Hebrew Bible.  For example,  Ezekiel 34:11-17 describes Israel as a flock in need of a true shepherd.  It is quite possible that the Sheep and Goats of Matthew 25 is a reflection on Ezekiel 34:16: “As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.”  Compare also Joel 3:12: “Let the nations be roused; let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side.”  The Animal Apocalypse in the 1 Enoch is very similar – the sheep represent Israel, while other animals represent the nations.

Like any of the parables, this story must be read in the context of the first listeners.  The shocking end of the parables of the kingdom is that those that thought they were getting into the kingdom are not going to be there, and those that were on the outside do get in.   The ruling Jews thought that they were going to be in the kingdom, in fact, they were the “keepers of the kingdom of God.”  Yet when Messiah came, they did not recognize him.  They never really had much of a chance to since they were not caring for the poor and the needy as they ought.  Jesus is very critical of the Pharisees who liked their fine things, or the people giving in the temple and mocking the widow and her mite.

On the other hand, the underclass probably did not think of themselves are serious candidates for the first to get into the kingdom.  They were told repeatedly that they were the unclean, “sinners and tax-collectors.”  Yet they will enter the kingdom, and those that were accepting and caring for this underclass, as Jesus was, will enter as well.

10 thoughts on “The Sheep and the Goats – Matthew 25:31-46 (Part 1)

  1. It makes me think of how God says no sin is greater than another. God’s expectations are so high, that hating someone is like murdering and lusting is like committing adultery and so on. Even the ruling Jews in this time who were so strict and kept the law and what not, still sinned in God’s eyes. The so called “unclean” lower class people were equal to the ruling Jews in the eyes of the Lord. The idea that God judges each “sheep”, in the sense of this verse, is very comforting. If God clumped the sheep all together just because they were all sheep, some would get judged unfairly, just like in this world. We are all human beings in this world, but we are all equally unworthy of entering the kingdom, but fortunately for us we have the hope in Jesus Christ to be saved. just like the sheep! 🙂

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  2. The issue of the end of the age seems to be extremely important to Jesus because He tells so many stories about His coming. I never noticed how there are so many different parallels between the stories. P. Long says, “The wise virgin and prepared servant are more or less like the Sheep, the foolish virgin and the unprepared servant are more or less like the goats.” Although there are many stories about the end times, it seems like they all point to many of the same things. P. Long also talks about how some of the people were shocked because they were not accepted into the Kingdom when they thought they would be. That seems like it would be the worst feeling. It makes me think that it would feel like getting a question wrong on an important exam when you knew the answer but just read the question wrong. We cannot be like many of the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah when He came. We have to be prepared and ready for His return so we will not be like the bummed out goats. Something interesting it seems as when we first glance over Matthew 25: 37-46 is possibly salvation through works. This would contradict everything in the Bible. Blomberg replies, “true righteousness a disciple exhibits will include such works” (380). Our works should be evident through the living of our everyday lives. We need to walk the walk as well!

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  3. I agree with Greg when he says that the end age must have been important because Jesus does tell so many stories about His coming. I like how Blomberg gave us the reminder that Christ will come back. “Jesus’ answer to this second question is, in essence, ‘nothing conclusive’ or ‘don’t worry, when it comes you won’t miss it!’ At some unspecified time after the destruction of the temple, Christ will come back” (Blomberg, 377). I really liked that reminder because I know a lot of people that worry about all the time when the time is coming. I also know a lot of people who are afraid they are going to miss it and that scares me because if you are worrying about something like that it makes me ask the question of “does this person actually have faith and believe in Jesus Christ?” It says in John 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” This verse clearly states that if you have faith, you will have eternal life so then there is nothing to worry about in missing the end.

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  4. Interesting.

    One of the first stories that I connected with reading the closing paragraph of Plong’s post was the fact that “the shocking end of the parables of the kingdom is that those that thought they were getting into the kingdom are not going to be there, and those that were on the outside do get in.” The story of Nicodemus comes to my mind. Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was essentially one of the most religious people in the Jewish nation. The bible says that he was “a ruler of the Jews” [John 3:1]. Jesus, in a matter of fact way tells him that unless HE is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Why on earth would Jesus tell Nicodemus that he must be born again if he was indeed a teacher of israel [John 3:10]? “The ruling Jews thought that they were going to be in the kingdom, in fact, they were the “keepers of the kingdom of God.” Yet when Messiah came, they did not recognize him. They never really had much of a chance to since they were not caring for the poor and the needy as they ought. Jesus is very critical of the Pharisees who liked their fine things, or the people giving in the temple and mocking the widow and her mite” [plong].

    One last thing that I would like to comment on is the statement that the “underclass probably did not think of themselves are serious candidates for the first to get into the kingdom” [plong]. Isn’t that the case for all of us…this reality that the Gospel is so much more attractive to those “underclass” than those that have everything to lose. In other words, the Gospel, is Good News for those who accept it as such. It does seem funny how the Gospel is much more real to all of us when we are in the miry pit, versus when we are in a point in our life where it seems like we don’t need Him? Interesting indeed!

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  5. Moses states that the first thing that comes to mind is Nicodemus. However, when I read the description of those who are not going to be there and are surprised; my mind went directly to Mathew 7.

    21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

    Just before Jesus is questioning false prophets and compares them to bearing fruit or not. I wonder if this passage has anything to do with the parable we are speaking about as well.

    Greg makes a good point with Blomberg on page 380. He writes “Blomberg replies, “true righteousness a disciple exhibits will include such works” (380). Our works should be evident through the living of our everyday lives. We need to walk the walk as well!”

    James 2:20-24:

    20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?[c] 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”[d]And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

    This is some of my thoughts to the section.

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  6. I really liked what Joey had to say about it bringing her to when Jesus states that no sin is greater than any other. This is such a hard concept for us living in this world today to grasp. We all know if someone lies about taking the last cookie they aren’t going to jail, but if they kill someone they definitely are! I also liked what Greg was saying about the ends times. I totally agree, it was extremely important to Jesus. We know this because of all the parables and his teachings of his return. I personally agree with Jesus (haha of course I do) the end times are key to our eternal life obviously. Our life on earth is temporary our life after this is FOREVER!! So why wouldn’t Jesus stress this? I think he did us all a favor in stressing this so that we can try and grasp this concept of eternal life.

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  7. Many have stated that the issue of the end of the age seems to be very important to Jesus. Could this be the reason why he isn’t telling this story in the typical parabolic way. It could be the case that he didn’t want everyone to miss this, or let it be open to interpretation or confusion in any way possible, so he laid it out as clear as day. As far as the word “brothers” in verse 40, I have a sweet footnote in my bible. It says that some think it mean the Jews, others think it’s all Christians, and still others think it’s all those who are suffering. It goes on to say that in this verse, we shouldn’t be focusing so much on the who, but on the what. The point is the importance of serving where service is needed. I think this happens way too often in the Christian faith. Not that learning about what the Bible literally meant is wrong or not important, but I think that we often focus so much on that and not the basic things we are commanded to do; love, serve, disciple, etc. We must focus on these things and not get in arguments and let the specifics tear us apart as the Body of Christ.

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  8. Like Greg, I never really realized how intricately all the different stories events and parables in the Gospels fit together, mirror each other, or are building on each other. P Long suggests that the wise and unwise virgins, the good and bad servants and the goats and sheep are all related. Which then brings me to what I thought was a really good connection that Joe made between the “parable” of the sheep and goats and the passage in Matthew 7:21-23 talking about those who will be allowed to enter the kingdom. This connection I think makes a little less sense if we are arguing that Jesus is speaking particularly about taking care of the disciples and not “the least of these” in the more general sense.

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  9. KEN: I appreciate all the above comments, but they do not seem to answer the question of whether sincerely accepting Jesus as Saviour is enough for salvation (i.e unless one adds to it by doing good works). In this parable Jesus says nothing about believing in Him; it seems here that good works are the only criterion. Why it worries me, is that atheists whom I try to convert often use this parable to tell me that if it turns out that there is a God, they have enough good works that would count in their favour (and in fact do more by means of charities and moral living than many of their Christian friends). My view is that accepting Jesus is a sine qua non for salvation and that good works can only add to heavenly rewards. This parable seems to say something that no one has so far satisfactorily explained to me. Please help.

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    • I think that you are right, Jesus is the only way of salvation and no one works for their salvation. I would like to separate good works from reward for the very reason you describe. You are right with God, saved, because of your relationship with Jesus. You are adopted into a new family and there are no requirements to “stay saved.” “Good works” are the things you do because you are saved, not to keep you saved.

      I’ll use another parable, the Sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. The sheep are not sheep because they did the good deeds, they did the good deeds because they are sheep. A Christian bears good fruit because they are a Christian, we do not bear good fruit and become a Christian.

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