UNDERSTANDING THE “PARABLE” OF THE SHEEP AND GOATS by Dr. Monte Shanks.

 

Several passages in the Gospels can be difficult to understand; as a result some are often misinterpreted. One such passage is the “Parable of the Sheep and Goats” (Matthew 25.31-46). The problem concerning this passage is that some approach it as if it simply provides general instructions about how believers should behave, which is inaccurate because it is very imprecise. I hesitate to even refer to it as a “parable” because of this common misconception; nonetheless, it is regularly listed among the parables contained in the Gospels. Before continuing it may be helpful to explain a common purpose for many of Jesus’ parables. K. R. Snodgrass described the primary function of parables as follows: “Parables demand interpretation; they point to something else. They are not merely stories to enjoy. They hold up one reality to serve as a mirror of another . . . They are avenues to understanding, handles by which one can grasp the kingdom. Jesus told parables to confront people with the character of God’s kingdom and to invite them to participate in it and to live in accordance with it.” This explanation sufficiently explains the general purpose of many parables found in the Gospels; however, concerning the parable of the sheep and goats it provides an opportunity for significant misinterpretations, one to which many have fallen victim. Consequently, the following is a discussion of some of the more common misinterpretations of this passage.

1. The passage does not describe a “characteristic” of the Kingdom of God; instead it describes an actual future global event involving the physical governing presence of the Kingdom of God upon the Earth. The specific event is identified in the passage’s introduction, which is the coming of the “Son of Man” (i.e., the literal return of the Lord Jesus Christ to establish his geo-political messianic kingdom). Failing to observe that verse 31 foretells of an actual future event means that some will misunderstand this passage. Jesus often promised that he would return to earth (Matt 16.27, 24.30; Lk 21.27-28; Rev 3.11, 22.7, 12, and 20). Likewise, he also foretold of a great future judgment that will separate all unbelievers from the people of God (Matt 13.24-30, 47-50, 25.1-13). However, nowhere else than in this passage did he explain with such precision the timing and method of the judgment that will occur after his return and before the commencement of his Millennial Kingdom. Consequently, the rest of the passage describes this singular major event that will occur immediately after he returns and gains control of over the world’s population. The purpose of this event will be to determine who will inherit the benefits of his Millennial Kingdom, and who will be reserved in death for the final “White Throne” judgment.

2. The separation of the sheep from the goats in verses 32-33 is the definitive judgment concerning survival and entrance into Jesus’ kingdom. This judgment involves a great division, and this bi-polar separation is determined according to one’s spiritual state of being; specifically, whether or not they have been united with Christ through spiritual rebirth. One should note that this division occurs before there is any discussion concerning an individual’s works, deeds, or transgressions. Jesus’ use of animals is why the passage is often categorized as a parable, because within it he used an agricultural practice of his day as an analogy describing this great separation of humanity. However, the rest of the passage does not discuss general “characteristics” of godliness, but of a real individual accounting of every person that survives the Great Tribulation. Everyone from around the entire world that survives the dreadful seven-year Tribulation period will have a moment of personal evaluation before the Lord Jesus Christ as described in verses 32-33. This judgment will identify whether one truly has been born again through the spiritual rebirth that is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3.16, 36, 14.6; Acts 4.12), or if they are an unbeliever and thus unregenerate (John 3.36; Heb 2.3). Simply put, in order for anyone to be recognized as a “sheep” that one must have been born a sheep. In other words, a goat can’t become a sheep by behaving like a sheep. Sheep are sheep through their birth not their behavior. An animal’s behavior does not determine its nature, its nature is determined by its birth.

3. Verses 34-45 do not explain what is required for one to “become” a sheep. This is by far the greatest misunderstanding of this passage. Many have been taught that if they do what Jesus commended his sheep for doing in verses 35-40, then those “good deeds” will turn them into sheep. In other words, if they do these specific good works, then they will earn entrance into Jesus’ Millennial Kingdom. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is important to remember that the decisive identification and separation of the goats from the sheep has already occurred at the initial judgment. The decisive nature of this judgment is also observable by the type of evaluation that occurs afterwards in verses 34-45. In order to comprehend the significance of this initial judgment, one must recognize who the sheep and goats represent. The sheep are obviously those who entrusted themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, and the goats are those that rejected him. And it is this clear identification that is the determinative factor with respect to the types of evaluations the two species receive. For the sheep, there is only commendation for what they did to benefit the cause of Christ (35-40). Conversely, the goats are punished for their apathetic rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ (41-45). A critical observation concerning Jesus’ evaluation is that he only commends the sheep while making no mention of any of their iniquities, while the goats are only punished for their iniquities with no reference to any of their good deeds. This clear judicial differential should be extremely enlightening. Christians commit the same exact sins that the goats are condemned for every day, and every day unbelievers conduct sacrificial acts of mercy and compassion toward others. Nevertheless, none of the good deeds performed by goats will have any impact upon why they are prevented from entering the Millennial Kingdom. Moreover, all sheep will be allowed to enter the kingdom in spite of their sins precisely because they were all paid for by the Lord Jesus Christ. Similarly, all the goats will be rejected despite their acts of compassion precisely because they rejected the gift of salvation that God graciously offers all through the cross of Jesus Christ. There will be no goats that are so good that they enter the Millennial Kingdom, and not one sheep will be relegated to the fate of the goats (Jn 10.25-30). As previously stated, their different destinies will be determined by their birth, not their behavior. Sheep will be only commended for their faith and loyalty to Christ, and goats will suffer because of their rejection and apathy towards Christ.

4. Lastly, the acts that Jesus commends or condemns throughout the passage are not simply general acts of compassion, but specific acts that come with great risk, which is the danger that those who perform them may be associated with the Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone using this particular passage to teach that Jesus has called his followers to engage in general acts of compassion do not fully comprehend the world’s spiritual climate just before his return, which will be an atmosphere that is globally anti-Christian and Anti-Semitic. Consequently, when Jesus commends his sheep for supporting, harboring, or advocating for his impoverished or imprisoned “brothers,” he is referring to believing Jews and Gentiles that are committed to spreading the gospel throughout the world (Mk 3.35; Jn 6.29; Matt 24.14). In case you are unaware, the final years leading up to Jesus’ return will be one in which the universal distribution and management of the world’s diminishing resources will be controlled by a universal centralized government, one in which the Anti-Christ will inevitably ascend to power (Rev 13.15-17). This global government will progressively and incrementally classify the prophetic identification of sin as hate speech that promotes sedition and encourage anarchy. In short, any religion that does not promote diversity and inclusivism, but claims exclusivity with respect to God, heaven, or salvation will be systematically repressed, condemned, and inevitably outlawed. Consequently, anyone publicly proclaiming the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ during that time will be viewed by the global community as “the least of these.” This is understood by Jesus’ repetitive use of first person pronouns in verses 42-43, in which he identifies the great sin of the goats as their rejection of him and his gospel. 
For centuries many people have interpreted verses 42-45 as Jesus’ identification with the poor, oppressed, and needy, but this is not what this passage teaches. To be sure, Jesus instructed his followers to care for the poor, oppressed, and needy whenever possible. However, during the final few years leading up to his return, anyone that proclaims that salvation is found only in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be socially rejected and legally persecuted. Failing to recognize this observation demonstrates that one has little understanding of the global climate of the “last days” before Jesus’ return, which is a critical element to properly interpreting this passage.

The parable of the Sheep and Goats is in many ways not a typical parable. Consequently, it may be better to describe it simply as an “illustration,” one in which Jesus used an agricultural analogy to describe a literal future event. Therefore, this parable’s primary purpose is not to teach about a general “characteristic” of the Kingdom of God. Instead, it foretells and explains a real and great future judgment and division that will determine who enters Jesus’ Millennial Kingdom. The primary purpose of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is to foretell of a wonderful future for believers and a terrible end for all unbelievers. This assured future is why the church must be fiercely dedicated to proclaiming the gospel and the ministry of discipleship. If she loses this essential and central focus, then Jesus’ premonition about his impending arrival will become reality, which was “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18.8).
1. K. R. Snodgrass, “Parables,” in Dictionary of the Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 596-97.
Monte Shanks Copyright © 2019

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