Separating Sheep from Goats – Matthew 25:31-46


This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on June14th, 2015. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Sheep.

The parable that Jesus tells about the Sheep and the Goats, is one of the most misunderstood parables in the Gospels.  One finds it difficult to read this parable without, in the end, feeling a sense of guilt or fear, and coming away feeling that we need to do more. 

However, this parable is not about doing more.  Rather it is a parable about spiritual perception, and how who we are before God determines what we see and, consequently, how we then behave towards others and ultimately towards Jesus Christ.  This is a parable about spiritual discernment which repeats the phrase, “Lord, when did we see you…” four times, and calls us to be people of discernment who are able to separate out what truly matters in the spiritual life. 

Sheep and Goats are Separated by What They Love.

The temptation is to read this parable and focus on ourselves.  However, the first section of this parable is a statement by Jesus about himself.  We tend to pass over this statement in our anxiety to get to the rest of the parable.  However, the truth about this parable is that the central figure is Jesus himself.  The fact is that Jesus is, in a sense, saying to his disciples-”You need to pay attention to me!  This becomes clearer as the parable goes on.  Nevertheless, we need to stop, before we rush on, and look at what these first few verses say about Jesus.

The Son of Man Is Coming in Glory: Jesus makes very clear, here, that he understands himself as the King and Son of God — the Messiah — who has not yet been fully revealed, even to his disciples.  Jesus describes himself as

(1) coming in the glory of God, (2) attended by all God’s angels, (3) to sit on His glorious throne as a king! (4) with authority to judge all the nations who will be gathered before him. 

Good News or Bad News for You? One of the questions we are confronted with as we see Jesus’ statements about his coming is whether this is good or bad news for us.  What does Jesus’ coming mean for us?  Do we long for the coming of the King, as those who have received his favor and who desire to live a new life–to love him back and please him.  Do we expect his coming to be the moment of our deliverance from sin and of freedom from the temptations and bondages of this world?  Or is the coming of the King bad news?  Is it the moment of confrontation by a harsh and demanding task master who intrudes in on our comfortable life?

Jesus began with these statements about his coming in order to confront his hearers with their response–the orientation of their hearts towards God.  Those who have not believed the gospel of grace and favor of Jesus Christ, are one group (goats), who dread his coming and hope to do enough good works to get by.  Those who have believed the gospel of grace and favor through Jesus Christ are another orientation (sheep), who look forward to his coming because they love him — and, as we will see — they love his people as well.

Sheep and Goats are Separated by Their Nature.

Sheep are Sheep and Goats are Goats – What You Are Determines What You Do:  The temptation, again, is to read this parable merely as a statement on the behavior of two separate groups.  However, the parable of the sheep and goats is not intended to say that who we are is determined by what we do.  That would be legalism. 

Sheep are sheep because they have heard the shepherd’s call and received his favor. They are sheep because, in light of Christ’s love and favor, they have a changed heart and long to respond to the shepherd with love and obedience. Their acts of compassion are symptoms of the fact that they are sheep by faith!  Jesus is not abandoning the Gospel here to say that everything comes down to mere behavior. 

Goats, on the other hand, are goats, not merely by virtue of what they did or did not do, but rather because Christ, for them, is someone to be appeased. This is the point of Jesus parable–Not that we are what we do–but that we do what we are–in accordance with what we believe.

Pay Attention to Your Heart!  The message of Jesus in this parable, does not primarily call us to focus on our deeds–but on our heart orientations.  Our actions point to what is already happening in our hearts.  What we love.  What we value.  What we care about and do not care about–these things come out in our behavior.  Our behavior can never change our hearts–as though we could work righteousness from the outside in.  Our hearts must be changed.  To do acts of compassion out of a heart that merely seeks to stack up good works is an empty, self-righteous offering to God.

Sheep and Goats are Separated by What They See.

Seeing and Perceiving:   Four times the question is repeated, “When did we see you…”.  The righteous repeat the question, in astonishment, three times–the unrighteous only once.  Jesus uses this formula to contrast the desire and interest of the righteous to see Jesus against the dullness and disinterest of the unrighteous.  However, it is clear that neither group seems to have understood that they were seeing Jesus, and that fact draws us to pay attention to this very central idea.

What do the righteous see–ought the righteous to see?  What did they see, in a sense, without ever really seeing it?  They saw those who were hungry and thirsty.  They saw strangers.  They saw the naked and the sick.  They looked at people and responded to Jesus.  But the question is when did they look at these people and see Jesus?

When Do You See Him?  If one responded to this parable in fear and guilt, like a goat, one could go join a weekly or monthly ministry to make sure that they fill their quota of loving their neighbor.  This would be like a goat putting on a sheepskin once a week or month.  Certainly, those who respond to this parable know when they are fulfilling their law.

But the righteous do not know when they have done this because the righteous have not made an event out of it.  Instead the righteous respond to those they see throughout the day with love–and they do so, not to do their good deed for the day or week, but because they have received the love of God for and into themselves, and their desire is to respond with that same faithfulness, sacrifice and brotherliness (Biblical definitions of love), to whoever they see in front of them.  The goats, on their way to do their good deeds, push out of their way the “least of these” that Jesus is talking about–speak cruelly to them–ignore the need of the familiar needy in order to fulfill their official charge.

Sheep look at the “least of these” and see Jesus because the love of God has changed their hearts–and they have taken on the family likeness – the love of God.  Goats do not see with love because they themselves have not received love, and so they care only for themselves.  Goats can only parrot love, and they soon grow weary because love is always external to them.

Jesus Came to Call Sheep:  Jesus did not tell this parable to condemn,  but to both warn and to call.  The tragedy of the parable of the sheep and goats is that the goats, in the end, depart, never having known the love freely offered to them by the King–never having been changed by that love.  They depart from the King, who frightens and threatens them.  But the righteous enter eternal life having been loved by God, and having lived a life returning that love to God and others.

What Will You Be/Become?  The sheep and goats have not already been determined.  Jesus confronts us this morning, calling attention to the state of our hearts. 

  • What is your response to the coming of the King?
    • Do you long for the King who has loved, forgiven and favored you?
    • Or do you fear the King’s coming as one who will intrude and disrupt your life in this world?
  • How do you respond to the people who are in front of you every day – your family, your neighbor, your co-workers?
    • Would they describe you as someone who loves faithfully, caringly, sacrificially?
    • Would they describe you as someone who is short-tempered, dismissive or unforgiving?

To answer these questions is to truly confront the heart of this parable. God’s grace is freely offered.  This morning, God is calling you to receive his grace, his love–to seek it until you find it, and receive his favor–to become a sheep.

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