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Last Updated on : Saturday, January 22, 2011

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The Parable Of The Sheep And Goats
(Matt. 25:31-46)
By H.P. Mansfield, The Story of the Bible, Vol. 11

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Though this section of the Lord's discourse is not so clearly parabolic as his previous instruction, it is obvious that it should be treated among the parables. Normally, a parable is a story with a hidden meaning, whereas, this discourse is clear on the surface and provides a prophetic picture of the judgment. Yet that picture is intermixed with allusions that are not literal, such as references to the Shepherd, the Sheep and Goats, an Everlasting Fire, and so forth.

On the other hand, there is clear teaching regarding Christ's return, the King, the Judgment Seat, the Reward, and so forth.

It will be noted in our parallelism of the Lords discourse from Matt. 21:28 to Matt. 16:1, that at the beginning, Matthew records the Lord as giving three parables which charged the Jews with disobedience, followed by one that sums up by giving the fate of the man without the marriage garment. Following the Olivet Prophecy, he delivered three parables on the need for watchfulness (Matt. 24:45-25:30), which he now concludes with a summary of the judgment seat.

Perhaps this discourse is more a vision of the Judgment Seat expressed in descriptive language, rather than a parable; and as such it is a fitting summary of all previous discourses, including the Olivet Prophecy.


The Parable

This is not so much a parable as a prophecy, so there is little to tell in way of narrative.

It predicts that the Son of man will come in his glory with the angels, and there will be gathered before him all the nations for judgment.

They will be separated into two great groups: sheep on the right hand and goats on the left.

To those on the right will be spoken words of warm welcome and pleasure, inviting them to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and declaring the reason for his commendation.

But those on the left will be rebuked in anger, and will be reminded of duties they have failed to perform.

A feature of the judgment is the ignorance that both groups display towards the reason for their respective judgments.

Finally, the righteous enter into life eternal; and the wicked receive everlasting punishment.

The general meaning of the parable-prophecy is clear on a casual reading of it, but important principles are unfolded when close consideration is given.

 

The Judge

In this discourse, the Lord described himself as the "Son of man." This is a most significant title, for it is his title as Judge. On an earlier occasion he declared:

"The Father hath given the Son authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man" (John 5:27).

The title of Son of man is drawn from two great prophecies of the Old Testament, both of which are associated with judgment and triumph: Psalm 8 and Daniel 7:13-14. The former commemorates the triumph of David over Goliath; the latter the triumph of the Lord Jesus over the forces of sin, 1900 years ago.

The former is typical of the latter, and the latter provides the basis for Christ's coming triumph in the Age to come.

The Psalm declares:

"What is man, that thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man that thou visitest him? For Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, And hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet" (Ps. 8:4-6).

In commenting upon this Scripture, Paul declared: "We see not yet all things under him; but we see Jesus . . . crowned with glory and honour" (Heb. 2:8-9).

The reference in Daniel reads:

"I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before Him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a king, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed" (Dan. 7:13).

Daniel thus predicted the triumph of the Lord Jesus, as Son of man, over the Jews who crucified him, his presentation to the Father in heaven after his ascension, and his return to establish his everlasting dominion.

In his parable-prophecy, Jesus made reference to this last item.

A few hours later, when walking to his death, the Lord told his unsuspecting disciples:

"Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me . . . In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."

Then, in prayer to the Father:

"Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify Thee: as thou hast given him power over all flesh ... "

In this prayer, the Lord gave expression to the fact that in him would be fulfilled the two prophecies relating to the Son of man quoted above, and which, in turn, are based upon the declaration that God made to Adam in the beginning, and which revealed His ultimate purpose in creation: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over" all things (Gen. 1:26).

The glorified Christ is the beginning of the consummation of that purpose, which will not be completed until a perfected Kingdom is delivered unto the Father that God may be "all and in all" (1 Cor. 15:28).

It is significant, that Paul, in expressing that glorious truth, quoted Psalm 8:6 in confirmation thereof (1 Cor. 15:27).

And now Christ, in this concluding parable-prophecy to the disciples, provides a word-picture of the future judgment, and declared: "When the Son of man shall come in his glory. . ."

The Holy Angels

The Lord declared that he would come with his "holy angels." On previous occasions also, he had spoken of them being with him at his coming, and assisting at the judgment (Matt. 16:27; Mark 8:38). In one parable, he indicated that they would be given the task of separating the tares from the true grain (Matt. 43:30, 49), and on another occasion he declared that the righteous would be glorified in their presence (Luke 12:8-9).

What a wonderful privilege it will be to stand approved before the Lord Jesus, and to hear his words of commendation in the presence of the angels of heaven! They, too, will hearken to such words with joy, for they will see in the glorified disciples of the Lord, the consummation of their own labors throughout the ages, as "the ministering spirits sent forth to minister to them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Heb. 1:14).

During the long period of probation, from creation onwards, they have played a part in the development of the characters of saints, overshadowing their lives for their good (see Gen. 48:16; Exod. 23:20, Ps. 34:7). In the approved they shall see the fruits of those labors.

But there will also be sorrow in that some will be condemned. It will be shown that they proved indifferent to Divine guidance, and obstinate to the Divine will.

The Throne Of His Glory

This expression is used in Matthew 19:28 for the Lord's future throne in Jerusalem. But the throne of Christ's glory, is also the throne of judgment on which he will sit.

The imagery is derived from the solemn mode of administering justice. Thus Yahweh's throne in the heavens, which is His throne of glory, is also described as the throne of judgment (Psalm 9:4-6). In the great prophecy of the Ancient of days and the Son of man, reference is made to "thrones cast down" or thrones of judgment being placed upon which the Son of Man, as representative of the Ancient of days, will sit in judgment upon the nations (Dan. 7:9).

The question thus remains as to what is signified by the statement: "Before him shall be gathered all nations" (Matt. 25:32). Does the judgment relate to the nations, or to the household?

Both are doubtless in mind.

As far as the household is concerned, it is made up of those "Called out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation" (Rev. 5:9), who thus become representatives of "all nations."

As far as the nations are concerned, Habakkuk 3:6 pictures Christ judging them in anticipation before moving against them at Armageddon.

"He stood, and measured the earth; he beheld, and drove asunder the nations; and the everlasting mountains (symbolic of empires) were scattered, the perpetual hills (symbolic of long standing nations) did bow" (Hab. 3:6).

In the terms of Christ's parable-prophecy, those nations are consigned either to everlasting fire (political extinction), or everlast ing life (continuance throughout the millenium).

Again, these expressions seem drawn from Daniel's prophecy. He likewise pictures national judgments as extermination or millenial continuance. Concerning the former, he declared:

"I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame" (Dan. 7:11).

This speaks of the fiery judgments that will consume the Catholic organisation of Europe. Other nations, however, will be preserved for the millenium. Thus:

"As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away; yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time" (Dan. 7:12).

They no longer exercise authority over their dominions, for such is given into the hands of the saints, but their national existence is extended for the period of the millenium, defined by the Lord Jesus as "life eternal," or the life of age.

Isaiah sums national judgment up by declaring:

"For the nation and kingdom that will not serve Thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted" (Isa. 60:12).

According to Christ's parable-prophecy, national judgments will be determined according to how the nation has treated Christ's people. Concerning Babylon the Great (the beast of Daniel 7 to be completely destroyed and given to the burning flame), it is recorded:

"And in her was found the blood of prophets, of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth" (Rev. 18:24).

Here is a nation that has ruthlessly ill-treated Christ's people, and for whom judgment has long slumbered. In that day it will be poured out without remedy.

Sheep and Goats

The figure of sheep and goats is used for the accepted and rejected because of the habits and color of the animals.

Sheep are inoffensive and easily led; they are noted for their mildness, simplicity, innocence, patience and usefulness. Goats are naturally mischievous, wayward, quarrelsome, lascivious, and ill-centred, and as such are a symbol of riotous, profane and impure men. Innately selfish, they represent those nations and individuals given up to their own passions and lusts, and who fail to see the needs of others. They are found quarrelling with or opposing God's people, whether it be Israel as a nation, or His true sons and daughters, and will reap the fruits of their action from the hands of him who will render a proper re-payment of vengeance in due time.

Goats are extremely destructive. We were once informed, when touring Israel, that the Jews had no success in restoring forests in certain areas, until they banned goats from it, and then, immediately, they had success. The goats browse on the tender shoots of the trees and shrubs, and so prevent growth. Even in color and habits there are significant differences between the two animals. Sheep are usually white whilst goats are black, speaking of righteousness and sin. Moreover, the two animals maintain a measure of separateness, for though goats might mingle with sheep, there is no disposition on either side for more intimate acquaintance. When drinking, around wells, they appear instinctively to classify themselves apart; at night, they settle down in separate, distinctive groups.

The lessons of this are not hard to apply.

In the parable portion of the prophecy, the sheep are described as following the lead of the shepherd by helping his people; where as the goats please themselves.

In the final apportioning of judgment, the sheep are gathered at the place of honor on the right hand of Christ, as he is on the right hand of the Father; whereas the goats are placed on his left.

Applying this parable-prophecy to the judgment of the household, we may well expect that after each individual saint has appeared personally before his particular angel, that his true character might be made manifest (Rom. 14:12; Matt. 13:39,49; 2 Cor. 5: 10), he will be sent to join the appropriate group, to hear the final decision from the lips of the Lord.

They will appear before the Lord, who is described as Shepherd, Judge (Son of Man), and King of nations (Rev. 15:3 - mg. Jer. 10: 7) in this solemn vision of the future.

The Reward

The righteous will be invited to inherit the kingdom prepared "from the foundation of the world."

For preparation of the kingdom has been proceeding from the very beginning of time. From the days of Adam onwards, God has supervised both His people and events, guiding the latter to a predetermined end, that ultimately the whole earth should be filled with His glory.

To their surprise, the righteous will be told that they will enter the kingdom because of their actions towards Christ.

They will confess that they have never been in a position to assist Christ personally.

But it will be explained that in asmuch as they did it unto the least of his brethren, they performed it for him. This can be understood on a national basis (as far as Israel, or the Ecclesias are concerned), or on an individual basis (in personal relationship one towards another).

Little actions long since forgotten, but performed in a brotherly spirit, will be credited as actions done for Christ himself! The common gestures of courtesy performed because Christ desires it thus, or kind deeds done in his name, accounted as services performed for Christ personally, and will be rewarded with the gift of life eternal.

But in addition to the obvious significance of the expressions used, the services mentioned can also be given spiritual meanings. The righteous are, said to have relieved the oppressed when the latter were in need of food, drink, shelter, clothing, healing and release. There is spiritual food (Isa. 55:1; 1 Peter 2:2-3), water (John 4:14), shelter (Eph. 2:18-19), clothing (Gal. 3:27), healing (Heb. 12:13), liberty (1 Pet. 3:19), and as Christ has helped the righteous by providing for those needs, they, in turn, should extend the same help to others.

"In that ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me," the Judge will declare.

Without deprecating the help that can be extended in material needs, the greatest help that we can possibly render, is assistance in those spiritual requirements. The most wealthy in material things are frequently poverty stricken in the true riches, and need assistance in the obtaining of those things that money cannot buy (Isa. 55:1-2).

The righteous have benefited from the bounty of their Lord, and have an obligation to pass on to others the benefits thus received. Like him, they can make many rich (2 Cor, 6:10; James 2:5), feed the flock (John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28, 1 Pet. 5:2), dispense the water of life (John 7:38; Philemon 7), provide shelter (Matt. 22:9-10, Rev. 22:17), heal the sick, and liberate the imprisoned.

The Punishment

On the other hand, the wicked are consigned into the "everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41).

The term "everlasting fire" is more literally rendered: "the fire pertaining to the age," the age in question being the millenium. This will not be everlasting in the normal meaning of the word, as usages of it in the Bible show.

For example, Jude 7 declares: "Sodom and Gomorrah . . . are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire."

In the Greek, this is the same word as is rendered "everlasting" in Mathew 25:41,46.

It is obvious that the fire that consumed those two wicked cities of the plain did not burn for ever; for it is not burning today. However, it did continue to bum until it utterly consumed those cities, and it is in that sense that the word "everlasting" is used.

Certainly, the wicked are not to be flung into a literal fire that will be burning forever in the sight of mankind! This is obvious from the teaching that a time is coming when there will be "no more pain" (Rev. 21:4). On the other hand the Bible reveals that the political, religious and social world of today is to be utterly consumed by fiery judgments that are to come upon it; which is the "fire" here referred to. Peter taught:

"The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Pet. 3:10).

This is not literal fire to consume the literal heavens and earth, but is a symbolic expression pointing to the destruction of man's ways upon the earth.

The literal heavens and earth are to remain forever (Eccles. 1:4; Ps. 125:1; Ps. 148:6), to be the glorious abode of the divine system of things (called "a new heaven and earth") which centred in Jerusalem will bring blessings on all mankind (Isa. 65:17-19).

The devil and his angels, to which the Lord made reference, is a term expressive of sin in its political manifestation (Heb. 2:14; Rev. 2:10) manifested through its agents, or angels. The word "angels" means no more than "messengers," and has been rendered as such in Matthew 11:10, Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24,27; 9:52; James 2:25, etc.

The fiery judgments referred to will consume the whole world, burning up the systems of men, in the course of which, the rejected will be consigned to the second death (Rev. 2:11; 20:14).

Whilst the "everlasting punishment" which the wicked receive, will bring upon them the utter finality of death (Prov. 21:16; Ps. 88:5), the reward of the righteous will reveal life unlimited (Luke 20:36; Hos. 13:14; Rev. 21:4; Luke 1:31-33; 1 Cor. 15:53-54).

Summary

The Lord therefore concluded this series of parables by drawing attention to the great Day of Judgment when the secret motives of the heart will be revealed (1 Cor. 4:5). He took the Apostles in thought to the time when it will be revealed that all mankind are divided into two categories and that men will reap as they have sown. The consequences of evil deeds, or the failure to perform good deeds, must, in the nature of the case, work out their retribution, at the Judgment Seat of Christ if a person is responsible.

That was the impressive sequel to the Lord's parabolic discourse on the dark slopes of Olivet's hill, as the sun had sunk in the west, covering the golden city of Jerusalem with the shroud of night. A few hours hence, and the people of that city were to commit the crime that would cause the political sun of Jerusalem to likewise depart until, when the King returns in the glory of his Father, the Sun of Righteousness will shine forth with healing in his beams.

 

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