Wonderful are the promises for those who follow Jesus, our Shepherd. Yet Jesus warns of some who … Are not His sheep, for they did not heed to His voice. Though in His flock (kingdom), will one day be cast out. Yes, Jesus described a day in which the sheep and goats will be parted. What side will we be on? It depends on whether we fulfill our duties as His sheep. Foretold in the OT prophecy is the promise of a Shepherd. It would be glad tidings for the cities of Judah. He would gather Israel as a shepherd does his flock. He would feed them, a type of David (who would be his ancestor). The motif of a shepherd is revealing… it pictures the sort of blessing enjoyed by those who follow Jesus. It should remind us of the duties we have as His sheep.
Included in the Olivet Discourse is two parables, followed by a judgment scene… The parables are directed toward Jesus’ disciples. The first to encourage them to be watchful. The second to admonish them to be productive. The judgment scene depicts the nations brought before Jesus. Note that it is the ‘nations’ being judged, not disciples. The nations are judged based on their treatment of Jesus’ disciples. Those that showed mercy and kindness to His disciples are blessed. Those that did not are condemned.
Did you know that we are mentioned in Matthew 25:31-46? Yes, we are! Listen: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats are on the left.
It is hard for us to remember that these words are uttered by a Man standing in the gathering dusk on the Mount of Olives, in the midst of a tiny hand of forsaken men, and looking out over a city where even at that moment his enemies were completing the plans for His arrest and execution. When Jesus uttered these words, by every human appearance He was defeated. The powers of darkness were triumphant, the shadows of the cross was falling across His path way, the crowds that once had followed Him had long since gone, His friends were fearful and powerless, and one of them was even then set to betray Him. Yet, as He surveyed the centuries He saw the light that was yet to come, and without uncertainty in His words, in that hour of triumphant evil and seeming human defeat, He declared, When the Son of man comes in his glory… he will sit on his glorious throne. [A]nd before him will be gathered the nations.
The mention of nations has proved confusing to some. Those who appear before this judgment seat do not come as Englishmen or Americans or Chinese or Afghans. The Greek word translated ‘nations’ is literally the word for ‘Gentiles.’ This is, then, the judgment of the Gentiles, the non-Jewish peoples of earth. They were the people living on the earth at the time of Christ’s manifestation of His presence in power and great glory.
The truth is there will be this separation of the sheep and the goats. There will be a judgment day. We confess that in our creeds, don’t we? All three ecumenical creeds – the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian – all states that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. In this judgment of all people, there will be a separation: He will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left. Notice that is no middle ground – there is the right, and there is the left, and that is it! There are sheep and there are goats, just sheep and goats! All the masks come off, the truth comes out, no more pretending and play acting. Sheep are revealed as sheep, goats are revealed as goats. That is not always so immediately apparent in this life. But it will be then.
The purpose of this judgment is obvious to determine who shall enter the kingdom of God, which the Son has come to establish. Through all the great discourses of Jesus in the Gospels the evident passion of His heart is to see the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. He will manifest Himself in power for the very purpose of fulfilling those ancient dreams of the prophets and the earth will be filled with the righteousness of God as the waters cover the sea. But only the righteous will be allowed to enter.
It is important to note, that this judgment is of sheep and goats, not one of sheep and wolves! Jesus is not choosing between the obviously bad and the obviously good. There is no division here between the opponents of the Gospel and the believer in it. That separation is to be made in the very hour of the appearing of Jesus in power and glory. In the judgment of the sheep and the goats, Jesus is distinguishing sharply among the persons all of whom profess to be Christians and claim to belong to Him as members of the family of God. It is the separation of the hypocrites from the real; of the false from the true.
Secondly, the truth about sheep and goats is that this judgment will be on the basis of works. Yes, you heard me correctly, on the basis of … works. The King will judge us according to our works. He will say, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,’ etc. And then, on the other hand, I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, and so on. So it will be good works, either done or not done, that will be the standard for the judgment.
Did you know that this is the consistent teaching of Holy Writ – judgment according to works? For example, earlier in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says The Son of Man is going to come with his angel in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. St. Paul teaches likewise in 2 Corinthians, he writes, We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Good works done will be cited as evidence when the righteous are rewarded. Good works not done likewise will be cited as evidence when those on the left are told to depart. The truth about sheep and goats is, first, that there will be judgment, a separation, and second, that this judgment will be according to works.
Thirdly, the truth is, it is only faith in Christ that can produce the good works that righteous sheep do. Everything is centered on the Person of the King. If the work is done in connection with Christ, then it is regarded as a good work. If there is no connection with Christ, then there is no good works. Faith in Christ is the key as to whether our works are judged to be good or not.
Let us now return to the scene our Lord describes, when He will do what no other figure in human history is capable of: dissolve all national distinctions, unite all the nations as one, and sit as the unchallenged Judge of all men.
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, O bless of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
The interesting thing about this is that Jesus is clearly saying that the ultimate mark of an authentic Christian is not his creed, or his faith, or his Bible knowledge, but the concern which he shows to those who are in need. The practical demonstration of love is the final proof. And note also that Jesus does not ask anyone to present his case or argue his cause. He asks no questions, nor requests any evidence. He simply extends to this one group the invitation. Then He explains the basis of His choice. It is sobering to realize that Jesus identifies Himself with those in need. If you can help them, He says you are really helping Me; and if you ignore them you are ignoring Me.
The sheep who inherit the kingdom are those who have responded to these needs with love, concern, and ministry. They have probably done so at considerable cost or risk to themselves. But not matter, they did what they could. When Jesus turns to the right, He speaks to those who knew they did not deserve the word, ‘Come.” He speaks to those who did not earn their way in, but who inherited it – because they received a new status as sons, blessed by the Father. He speaks to those who inherited a kingdom prepared since the creation of the world – before they did anything at all. Do you see? Jesus will make it very clear that His invitation is a gift to us. It comes only by grace. We will not be confronted with any sins, because they have all been judged and condemned at the Cross. Our risen and living Savior will come not to judge us by our works, but He will come in a new way – to bring us to everlasting life. With the goats it is the opposite story.
Surprise!? But we knew this already!? This is our hope, right? Saved by grace? But it is not so much more than worldly hope – it is a hope that changes us now. It changes our natural hope to all-out confident hope. Because Jesus tells us here what He will say – and here He speaks of a gift, of an inheritance, of a blessing only by grace. He will tell us what we had hoped for all along. The point here is, that on the Last Day Jesus will welcome us to heaven by grace, through faith in Him. And if Jesus tells us this is how it is then in the End, we can be so sure it is true now. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The rules will not be changed on the Last Day. The Gospel will not suddenly be ineffective; otherwise our hope would be in vain.
The seriousness of this matter of helping the needy is seen in the severity of the Lord’s words here. Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. And let us remember that these are people honestly think they are sheep! They can point with pride to a moment when they made a profession of belief, they are, perhaps, dogmatic about a creed and are church members in good standing, but their lack of response to the pleas for help that come tot hem from every side they stand revealed as goats – false sheep – who never were sheep at all.
The reaction of both the sheep and the goats to the Lord’s words is one of stunned surprise. They are completely taken aback by what He says. It is clearly evident that both groups expected a different basis of judgment. As they were being divided into one group or another, they doubtless felt they knew the reason for the choice. Surely the sheep would feel that the basis was that of faith. Can’t you see them waiting to come before the King, each one nervously reviewing his testimony, trying to recall the exact wording of the great promises on which he would rest all his hopes for this moment?
But the strange thing is, not one is ever given the chance to say a word. The issue is already settled. Each person is simply told to which group he belongs.
The sheep are asked to take their place on the right hand of the throne because all through their genuine faith has been producing its inevitable fruit of good works. Unthinkingly, unconsciously, born of love for Jesus Christ, they have been responding to the needs of those around them. They kept no records, they expected no praise. For them it has been a glad privilege. They were unaware they were doing anything unusual, but found a real delight in meeting the needs of others. There was no hardship involved. They felt it was a continuing joy to be permitted to minister in Christ’s name. But not one deed performed in that way has ever escaped the eyes of their watching Lord. There is no need for Him to examine them. The had laid up abundant treasure in heaven.
The goats are equally surprised. Very likely they are sure that it is good works. They know that God is interested in the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and they are all ready for Him. Already, they are making long mental lists of the many times they have ministered to those in need around them. they can recall detailed descriptions of what they did. They, too, are caught off guard by this basis of judgment. Yet they have guessed more closely than the sheep the true basis for judgment. They are a total loss to understand His rejection. But they have forgotten what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. There He is careful to tell us that deeds done to be seen by men already have their reward. Even if the deeds are not publicly known, if they are done for private satisfaction they are in the same category. Let not your left hand know what your right hand does, He says. That is, do not even take note of what you do yourself; do not even privately pat yourself on the back.
It is times which they have forgotten that He uses for judgment, and not the times they remember. It is the times they looked the other way when some begging hand reached out. The times they were busy with other demands when word came of the sick and the dying. The times when they refused, through shame or pride, to visit some poor wretch in prison lest they be associated with him. Their eyes were averted as they walked around the stricken man lying by the wayside. They turned deaf ears to pleas when they could have helped. But these incidents have long been forgotten. They are quite honest when they say in astonishment, Lord, when?
Nothing reveals more sharply the radical difference between God’s judging and man’s than this story of the sheep and the goats. Even our treasured ‘good deeds’ are shown up for what they are in the searching light from the this throne of glory. The good deeds that are not unconscious, automatic response of a heart indwelt by Jesus Christ are not truly ‘good’ deeds. They are planned deeds, contrived, carefully performed in the public eye, or if in private, done in the hope that they will purchase some merit or favor before God. But God’s judgments take note only of the unconscious moments of our lives, the times when we are off guard, when we are unaware. It is then that we truly reveal ourselves. The test comes, not in our remembered actions, but in our unconscious reactions, our instinctive, unplanned responses.
Yes, He described a Day in which the sheep and goats will be parted. What side will we be on? It depends on whether we fulfill out duties as His sheep.
The Rev. Deacon Dennis Klinzing is a deacon in the United States Old Catholic Church. He is stationed in Augusta, Georgia. He is working his way toward the priesthood. He, his partner, and his two children live in Augusta, GA.