Summary: Many of us know about the separation of the sheep and the goats, but what is the reason for the separation? Since it cannot be only our treatment of the down and out there must be another reason.
“You ought to be congratulated”
Matthew 25:31-46 (text)
Congregation in the Lord,
The basic teaching of this passage is obvious … Jesus summarizes it in verse 46. “Then they (the goats) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous (sheep will go) to eternal life”. There is no confusion. There are no issues left hanging in the air. On the day of judgement our destiny will be clearly revealed by Jesus who is the righteous judge. But what is not so clear is the standard which is used to bring this judgement about. Let’s compare verse 40 with verse 45
“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’.” (verse 40)
“He (the King) 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’.” (verse 45)
The ultimate destiny of the sheep and the goats totally hinges around the way they treated “the least of these”. So if we are going to understand this passage properly we need to answer the question, “Who are the least?”.
At first glance the answer seems to be quite simple. The least seem to be the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the unclothed, the sick and the prisoner. The people in our society who are down and out. Those who are considered to be a drain to social resources. Those who are on the fringes because of their actions. The uncared for. The unloved. The difficult to get along with. These are the least. This means that the sheep are the ones who have carefully looked after such people, while the goats are the ones who have ignored their responsibility to such people.
That is what seems to be happening at first glance – but first impressions are not always the best. If we were to hold onto this first impression we are actually undermining the very foundation of Scripture. Think about the relief work which is done by the United Nations. Or the aid agencies which are connected to organisations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. They all help the stranger who is hungry and thirsty. They give support to the unclothed, the sick and the prisoner. They are doing great work and spending millions of dollars. But for all that work many of the people involved in these organizations and religious groups will not be among the sheep. It has to be so because many of the people in these organizations have not confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
The foundation of Scripture is a foundation of salvation by grace alone. In no way can this passage be interpreted to mean that the sheep earned their salvation but the goats didn’t earn it. Look at verse 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’.” One does not earn an inheritance … an inheritance is given. All the sheep have been bought at a price. All the sheep have received the gift of life at the greatest of costs. For the same King who sits robed in majesty, who judges all the nations, who wears the crown of glory, this same King once wore a crown of thorns. This King was despised and rejected, betrayed and abandoned and left all alone to die. All of the work necessary to enable the sheep to be where they are has been done by Christ. There is nothing we can do to earn a place next to the King. This is a central truth of the Scriptures – and it is a central truth embedded in this passage.
But it still looks like this passage is teaching that we are saved by our works. The sheep are given eternal life because whatever they did for one of the least of these brothers of Jesus, they did for Jesus. The goats are sent to eternal punishment because whatever they did not do for one of the least of these brothers of Jesus, they did not do for Jesus. So how can we be sure that this passage is not going against the foundational truth that we are saved by grace alone? The answer comes by once again having a closer look at verse 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’.”
Again we ask, “Who are the least?”. As we saw earlier, at first glance, it looks like the least are all the people in our society who are uncared for, unloved, and difficult to get along with. The down and out. Those who are on the fringes. Those who are a drain on social resources. So let’s move on from a first glance to a more in depth gaze. To do that we need to go back to Matthew 10.