Please read Matthew 25:31-46.
Our works will come under scrutiny on Judgment Day.
The picture of the lamb and goat above were rendered to emphasize the “cute” anthropomorphic aspect of this parable. Jesus chose to tell a parable that substituted animals for people. Everyone hearing it understood this was a metaphor because Jesus made that clear in verse 32.
Having preached this passage three times previously in my 30+ years of preaching, I have always wondered why Jesus chose to substitute animals for people. Part of the reason is that He often starts parables with a familiar scene and then veers off in an unexpected direction. But this one is blazing a new trail from the first verse. Something else is going on, and that answer has never really satisfied my curiosity.
Another answer was revealed to me in a nightmare three days ago. The details of the nightmare are gone from my memory, but I recall lying awake in bad silently crying as the Lord made it clear to me. The use of animals and the tedious repetition of the good deeds is designed to set an emotional counterpoint to the fact that this is a nightmarish scene on the left hand of the Shepherd King.
Life is serious, folks. To die and then face Judgment Day is most serious. Jesus brilliantly told this parable the way He did because it emphasizes the horror of sin and its deadly consequences. The parable packs a greater emotional punch because it was told the way Jesus told it.
The glorious light of the Son of Man on His throne is not a gentle glow, but the blazingly bright searchlight that reveals the insides of person. Like an x-ray, it exposes human personalities, laying bare guilt and innocence.
The contrast of the sheep going to heaven and the goats going to hell reveals this scene is not just a throne room, it is more than a court room, it is also a slaughterhouse. To make the contrast even more visceral, the condemned are sentenced to eternal conscious torment.
When you strip away the anthropomorphic metaphor and realize these are human beings – not “goats” – who are finally and eternally rejected, the scene becomes as frightening as it should be.
Let’s not confuse the Gentle Shepherd of John 10 with the Shepherd King of Matthew 25. They occupy opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.
One more thing to consider: both the sheep-people and the goat-people are surprised by the Shepherd King’s verdict. This passage is meant to slap self-confidence right out of our heads. This was Jesus’ last word to His disciples before His death. It is a provocative one, meant to motivate us to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves and prepare to meet our maker.
- The context and the one main point. (31-33)
All parables in chapter 25 deal with Judgment Day. Understand that Judgment Day is not a trial; it is a sentencing. God knows all and he knows all of us perfectly. At this point the issue of heaven or hell is already decided; this is a sentencing hearing.
Of the three parables in chapter 25, this parable is the only one to describe Judgment Day. It is written; THE SON OF MAN will be IN HIS GLORY, seated on HIS THRONE IN HEAVENLY GLORY. In His glorified state ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE GATHERED BEFORE HIM. All people who have ever lived will be gathered, and then separated one final time. God will bring to pass the end of all evil.
The separation of the people is described in verse 33, the purpose for it in verse 46. In verse 33 we see the SHEEP will be gathered to His RIGHT hand. The GOATS will be gathered on His LEFT hand. Verse 46 reveals that the purpose is to pronounce judgment: to reward the sheep and condemn the goats.
These parables come between Jesus’ teaching about the last things in chapter 24 and His arrest and trial in chapter 26. Jesus would experience His own “last days.” There is an ironic similarity between these teachings and what comes next in Jesus’ life.
The main point of the parable is this: our works are important on Judgment Day. If all you knew was this parable, you’d think works are the determining factor. Note that the parable doesn’t actually say that, it simply does not mention any other factor. Parables are, by their nature, narrow in their focus, designed to reinforce the one main point. Because we have the entire Bible, we know works are a secondary factor. The primary factor of judgment is each person’s acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The secondary factor of works is evidence of the primary decision about Jesus. They are proof of what’s truly in a person. The works are evidence of God’s justice: God is right to exclude the GOATS and include the SHEEP, as their deeds demonstrate.
- He will keep the sheep. (34-40, 46)
The Shepherd King pronounces a blessing on those at His right (34). There are six facts to be noted about the blessing.
One, He invites them to come into God the Father’s presence.
Two, He urges them to take their INHERITANCE, a place in God’s KINGDOM.
Three, their blessing has been in the works SINCE THE CREATION OF THE WORLD. This highlights God’s sovereignty.
Four, their reward is ETERNAL LIFE (46).
Five, in biblical culture, the RIGHT side is the side of intimacy and influence. After He ascended to heaven, it was the place of honor Jesus occupied when He ascended to heaven.
Six, Jesus used SHEEP as a symbol of God’s faithful people because that was a biblical image. God is symbolized by a Shepherd.
The reason given for their blessing: they helped the needy (35-36). Six different kinds of needs are listed. Jesus offered these as a representative sample, not as a preferred or exhaustive list. These are everyday needs involving people in ordinary situations.
Who are THE LEAST OF THESE BROTHERS? In the Bible, God identifies Himself with disadvantaged people. That usually meant the poor, widowed, orphaned, and foreigners.
The reaction of the sheep-people to the blessing is surprise (37-40). The text identifies them as THE RIGHTEOUS. Their benevolent actions are evidence of their righteousness. Their surprise is a measure of their innocence.
They had done all these things out of the love in their hearts. They had no expectation of reward because their motive was love; they acted without any hint of a mixed motive or desire for reward. In other passages, heavenly rewards are promised for godly living. Acting to earn such rewards is an approved motive.
- The goats have got to go. (41-46)
The King pronounces a CURSE on those to His left (41). We note four features to the CURSE.
One, He orders them to DEPART.
Two, they have no place in God’s kingdom but are exiled to a place of ETERNAL FIRE.
Three, as was the case with the sheep-people, the place of the goat-people has also been prepared, but it was created for someone else; THE DEVIL AND HIS ANGELS.
Four, their condemnation is described as ETERNAL PUNISHMENT.
The Shepherd Kings gives the reason for their cursing: they did not help the needy (42-43). The same set of six needs is listed four times here and always in the same order. This attention to detail underlines God’s justice; He is comparing “apples to apples;” He is judging them fairly.
The reaction of the goat-people is also surprise, but for a reason entirely opposed to the sheep-people’s surprise (44-45). The goat-people failed to do these things because neither the love of God nor the love of neighbor was in their hearts.
Their protest might be paraphrased as follows; “If we’d known it was You, we would have done these things.” They are surprised to hear that Jesus identified Himself with people they dismissed as lowlifes, bums, and human trash. They judged their fellow man as unworthy of charity; in response, Jesus will judge them as unworthy of a place in heaven.
Our works will come under scrutiny on Judgment Day.
Anyone who reads this parable and does not come away with a healthy fear of the Lord has missed the point of this parable. The stark contrast between the sheep and the goats ought to have every one of us rethinking how we are using the magnificent gift of life.
Proverbs repeatedly tells us fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Job 31:23 puts into words the form wise fear should take: FOR I DREADED DESTRUCTION FROM GOD, AND FOR FEAR OF HIS SPLENDOR I COULD NOT DO SUCH THINGS. This is Job explaining his personal motivation for being a good guy and doing the right thing.
Persons who hoard their gifts, legalize their definition of neighbor, or have a flip attitude about Judgment Day are in peril of being unpleasantly surprised on that Day. Jesus warned of the peril of hypocrisy in Matthew 7:21-23.
Proverbs 11 delivers a similar warning about wasting God’s gifts on selfish pursuits. Verse four states, WEALTH IS WORTHLESS IN THE DAY OF WRATH, BUT RIGHTEOUSNESS DELIVERS FROM DEATH. In verse 6, it is written; THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF THE UPRIGHT DELIVERS THEM, BUT THE UNFAITHFUL ARE TRAPPED BY EVIL DESIRES.
The refusal to do good is sin (James 4:17). Sin has deadly and eternal consequences. Only the intervention of Jesus Christ will save us from the fate of eternal separation from God.
Let us spend our days vigilant for opportunities to do good to others. Be willing to speak up, offer help, and do right by those who need you. The consequences of failure are too nightmarish to accept.
Messages #1169, 685, 33
Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary, Ben Witherington III