Part 4 of The Second Coming series, by Rosie Moore.
Jesus gives us a glimpse of his full majesty and mission in the last eschatological parable recorded by Matthew. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, we see that Christ’s return will be in stark contrast to the humble scene of his birth in Bethlehem, ‘while shepherds watched their flocks by night’. The second coming will usher in the final judgment, when Christ the King will separate the nations of the world, like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The parable is about the great divide between two contrasting groups, the boundary between life and death.
Final judgment is the ultimate goal of history, when the Lord’s majesty, justice and mercy will be on full display.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 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, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters 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, ‘Truly I tell you, 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.” (Matt 25:31-46)
Three aspects of the final judgment struck me most in this parable:
- Only two identities will separate humanity.
- The mark of Christ’s sheep is their love for one another.
- Judgment day is the only rational basis for justice in this world.
1. Only two identities
If you’re a city dweller, you may be confused about Christ’s analogy of sheep and goats. Sheep and goats look similar, but being raised as a farm girl, I can assure you that they are very different animals!
Sheep have wool and goats have hair. Sheep tails point down and goat tails point up. Sheep are grazers, while goats are browsers that tend to eat everything in sight. Sheep have a strong flocking instinct and follow their shepherd, while goats are more independent.
In Jesus’ time, shepherds allowed their sheep and goats to graze together in the day, but at night they would divide them into two separate groups, as their coats provided different levels of protection against the cold. In case you’re wondering, there’s nothing inherently good or bad about sheep and goats. They’re all delightful creatures, doing exactly what God made them to do. But Jesus used them as a useful picture of two different animals with distinct characteristics and destinies.
Jesus tells his disciples that on the final day, there will be a great divide of humanity unlike anything the world has seen. He will separate the nations on the basis of two identities—Sheep and goats, the righteous and the unrighteous. There is nothing fluid about these identities. They are binary.
Nor will the Lord ask on that day, “What would you prefer to identify as today—a sheep or a goat?” Since sheep and goats are separate species, we cannot choose or alter our identity on that day. Since they have different DNA, a sheep can never become a goat, and vice versa.
Moreover, the destinies of the sheep and goats are also in stark contrast: The blessed and the cursed. Those who are invited to come into God’s kingdom and those who are told to depart. Those who inherit an eternal kingdom prepared for them since the world’s creation, and those who go to eternal punishment. The sheep on the right hand of the King (a position of honour and privilege) and the goats on the left. Outcomes are based entirely on whether people are sheep are goats.
Some argue that this parable is about believers’ rewards or doing good works to escape judgment, but it is difficult to see how this is possible. There is no hybrid identity or destiny in this parable. So if we care about what Jesus is saying, it’s crucial to define our terms. Who do the “sheep” represent?
Scripture consistently identifies God’s redeemed people as his sheep. For example, believers often say together the words of David,
“Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture (Ps 100:3).
In John 10, Jesus identified Himself as the good shepherd promised by the prophet Ezekiel—the one who would rescue his flock and judge between people (Ezek 34:22, 23). Jesus claimed to be God’s Shepherd who knows his sheep and calls them each by name, who leads them out and gives them abundant life (John 10:3, 10). He lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11, 14).
Jesus himself said that He is gathering his sheep from every nation into one flock and one sheepfold (John 10:16). These are the sheep from every nation who will inherit Christ’s future kingdom (Matt 25:34-36).
And so, the ‘sheep’ in Christ’s parable can only be those who know His voice and follow him as their own Shepherd (John 10:4). The sheep are those who enter the safety of the sheep pen via the door, who is Christ himself (John 10:9, 12-13). They do not find some alternative way to climb in.
“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9). And so, it is only by repentance and faith in Christ that we become His sheep– Jews and Gentiles alike (Matt 4:17; Acts 20:21).
Isn’t it amazing to think that Christ knows his sheep from every nation on earth, through every generation of history? He will not have to be introduced to his people. He will call out each one by name on the final day of judgment. And God’s sheep will follow their Shepherd all the way into the new creation—a kingdom of justice and righteousness. There, they will find eternal shelter in His presence:
“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:16-17)
2. The mark of Christ’s sheep.
Care and compassion for spiritual siblings are spontaneous instincts of Christ’s sheep, as irrepressible as huddling in a flock, grazing on grass or drinking from a stream. On the other hand, carelessness and callousness reveal the heart of a hypocrite.
It’s evident from the parable that Christ is not judging the nations on the basis of their charity, but on the basis of their identity (Matt 25:33). Since Scripture cannot contradict itself, we can be sure that we are always saved by grace, through faith in Christ, not by our works. Nothing changes on the day of judgment (Eph 2:8-9, Rom 11:6).
But the King’s response in Matthew 25:40 and 45 are striking statements about the distinctive DNA of Christ’s people. True disciples will be known for their intuitive, unselfconscious charity towards their brothers and sisters in Christ– “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”. And we need not guess what Christ meant, because He defined his ‘brothers and sisters’ in the spiritual sense (Matthew 12:46-50.)
So, in this parable, Jesus is not describing a generic compassion for all in need (which is also a good thing), but is highlighting the special kind of love that flows naturally out of his followers when they see their spiritual family in need– whether hungry, thirsty, unclothed, sick or in prison. We need only think of the many persecuted Christians around the world, as well as those close to us who are facing troubles, to know that ministries of mercy and compassion are really needed in Christ’s Church. It’s what identifies us as God’s people.
Remarkably, Christ identifies so deeply with the Church—his body—that whatever was done by the sheep, or omitted by the goats, was done to Him too. This bond is illustrated by Christ’s High Priestly prayer where he asks his Father to create unity and love amongst his present and future followers (John 17:11, 21, 23, 26).
Therefore, we can be sure that our Shepherd shares in the suffering and persecution of his Church today, the body for whom He died. It also stands to reason that Christ is greatly offended when believers hurt, lie and slander one another.
But when we minister to a fellow Christian who is grieving or needy, we are not performing some sort of ritual for Christ, nor earning brownie points for the day of judgment. Notice the genuine surprise of both the sheep and the goats at Christ’s verdict. They weren’t even aware of what they were doing when they acted or failed to act for his sake (Matt 25:37-39; 44).
This brotherly and sisterly love will always be the distinctive mark of a sheep waiting expectantly for Christ’s kingdom, because down-to-earth charity is the fruit of true faith (James 2:14-24).
“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” (1 John 3:14).
3. The only basis for justice.
What’s clear from the parable of the sheep and the goats is that Final Judgment will be both a fearful and wonderful thing, as God will do what is right in the end, and all the world will know that it is just. Justice is a buzzword today, but the Bible tells us that God will establish perfect justice on earth.
Deep down in our hearts, most people long for justice to be done. The idea that there might be no judgment at all—that people might get away with gross evil, abuse, tyranny, corruption, theft, oppression, rape, child trafficking, genocide, violence, greed and murder —is sickening.
Every human cry for justice is based on the fact that we’re made in God’s image and we instinctively know the difference between right and wrong. The Lord’s judgment is a pledge that the Creator hears our cries for justice and will not ignore any injustice or sin. He will overthrow evil and put all things right. His throne is established on justice.
Seven hundred years before Christ’s parable, Isaiah prophesied that one day the righteous Messiah would establish justice on earth:
“And he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isaiah 11:1-4)
A few decades after the Lord’s death and resurrection, the Apostle John saw this apocalyptic vision of Christ the Judge:
“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:11-16).
If we believe that history has no goal or purpose– that we are just the product of time and chance; that the fittest should survive and the weak should not; that there’s no final day of reckoning– then there cannot be a rational basis for applying justice in this world. There’s not even a logical foundation for right and wrong.
But Christ’s parable assures us that the day of reckoning is coming for all of us. We will either face judgment as a sheep, because Christ has absorbed the demands of justice on our behalf. Or we will face judgment as a goat, because we’ve not taken shelter in the Shepherd.
Christ’s redeemed people need not fear that day. It is a day of mercy, hope and blessing for his sheep. We are called his eternal heirs and siblings, not because we are better than others, but simply because Christ has absorbed God’s judgment in place of those who have placed their trust in Him. At the Reckoning, the sheep will be glorifying God because of His grace, nothing else.
The Good Shepherd has taken the punishment we deserve by laying down his life for his sheep. Isn’t it only natural that we would do the same for our brothers and sisters, as we wait for him to return?
This is the last devotion in a series on “The Second Coming”. If you’d like to read the previous three in this series, just click on the links below.