Sheep and Goats

Today in my Sunday school class we took a detour from Hebrews. Last time we had reached the phrase “eternal judgment” and the question came up of whom the author of the letter envisaged being judged, and on what basis. And so I suggested that taking a look at the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.

This parable is a serious problem for the sort of Christian theology which says that belief is what really matters, and that any focus on what people do is wrong-headed and displeasing to God, since it depicts Jesus saying the very opposite. The nations are brought before the king – and whether that is all nations (including Jews) or only Gentiles, it envisages their being judged based on their acts of compassion, on how they treated others.

There is no real way that I can see to turn this into a passage that teaches either that all one needs to do to be saved is to believe. If anything, it suggests that all one needs to do to be saved is to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the prisoner, and so on.

I remember as a teenager hearing a missionary comment about the Keith Green song “The Sheep and the Goats” that he didn’t like it because it emphasized works too much. I was shocked not only because I had not previously encountered a Christian who didn’t like Keith Green, but also because it seemed to raise the question of whether it was not in fact the underlying parable that the individual in question disagreed with.

Today I see matters as much more complex than I realized them to be then. Matthew 25:31-46 is material that is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and it has features characteristic of that author. And so one cannot avoid asking whether the parable in any form goes back to Jesus. Likewise one has to ask whether, on this point, Matthew agreed or disagreed with other New Testament authors – writings attributed to Paul, James, and John, in particular.

The text should not be neutralized by the approach called “interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture,” which is another name for saying “This text says X, which is what I believe, and therefore another text cannot say Y which would disagree with X.” That is just a convenient way of justifying ignoring material one dislikes. Better to be honest that there is a tension, and find a creative way to live with the tension.

For some of us, of course, this passage emphasizes things that we consider important, and it is other texts in the New Testament where we need to avoid ignoring or neutralizing.

Ultimately, the whole reason for having a New Testament is to have a collection of voices that connect us with the earliest days of Christianity, with a time before the phenomenon even had that name. We may ultimately decide that we need to believe, practice, and/or emphasize different things than those ancient authors did. Indeed, we cannot help but do that. But we ignore them at our peril, just as we put ourselves at risk if we only surround ourselves with people who say things that we already agree with.

What is your understanding of the parable of the sheep and the goats? Have you ever encountered a serious, perhaps even a persuasive, attempt to reconcile it to the Protestant emphasis on grace alone?

For those who may not know it, here’s the Keith Green song I referred to earlier:

"Perhaps "pure gnostic influence..." would have been more succinct."

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  • Michael Pahl

    “Have you ever encountered a serious, perhaps even a persuasive, attempt
    to reconcile it to the Protestant emphasis on grace alone?”

    I remember hearing that Christ’s judgment is first on the basis of one’s nature (“sheep” vs. “goat”) and only secondarily on the basis of good works (things done “for the least of these”). That is, one’s nature as a sheep (i.e. being “born again” by the Spirit, which happens by believing in Christ, “by grace through faith”) necessarily results in these good works. I’ve probably even taught this interpretation at some point in the past. Now, however, I’m more inclined to see that as projecting a particular interpretation of Paul and/or John onto Matthew, and to try to let Matthew’s emphases stand on their own – which, as I see it, don’t even map nicely onto some works vs. faith grid.

  • lageorgia

    I have been a strong Protestant for many decades and accepted the grace/faith alone for salvation. Now in my middle years I have redefined what that is exactly. To me, in my study, the belief in Christ alone for salvation is really having the word belief an action verb. To believe, to have faith, means to carry out the actions of that faith.

    So the question is: does the believer who does nothing for His kingdom or the nonbeliever who does all they can to help improve people’s lives…which of these will Christ smile upon?

    • Wendy K

      Indeed, what does it even mean to believe in something if one does not act consistent with those beliefs? Are they even separable, really?

  • Paul

    If one views that Christ had to teach to people who had a limited view of God based on their cultural and historical preparedness for understanding — a people who came in with the codification of a tribal view of a jealous God (which Judaisim was at the time, and is still carried on today by Islam), then Jesus could not entirely negate the metaphor of eternal damnation. Instead, Jesus used it to illustrate what was a very important teaching. Even if Matthew sort of “got it wrong”, and even inserted the metaphor of eternal damnation based on misinterpretation of the original teaching, it is clear to be one of the most fundamental of Christ’s teachings.

    • Nick Gotts

      What grounds do you have for saying that the reference to eternal damnation (in the words of the translation used, “eternal punishment”) is metaphorical? What do you think it is a metaphor for? Do you think the same with regard to “eternal life”?

  • SoWhat78

    Well said, James. Matthew 25 destroys the eschatological system of preterism. Preterism teaches that Matthew 24 was fulfilled in 70AD. That alone is unlikely, but then we see that Matthew 25 is an expanded explanation on that final judgement that was supposed to have taken place in “this generation”, and there’s just NO way that the sheep and goats judgment was fulfilled in 70AD.

    The critical scholarly consensus that Jesus wrongly predicted the end of the world in the first century is the consensus because it makes the most sense.

    • Gary

      I do not see evidence that Matt 23, 24, and 25 can be totally eliminated from a 70AD event. Not saying it proves a connection. But can’t eliminate it based upon what Mika says. First, not sure they were meant to be read consecutively. But if they were, and assuming Matt was written after 70AD, which seems a certainy… I take the evidence:
      Matt 23, “23Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: “…hate and discontent at the scribes and Pharisees.
      Matt 24, temple distruction.
      Matt 25, separating sheep and goats as final judgement.
      Seems to fit 70AD. Another pious fraud, after the fact prediction, but telling the story of believers, having faith in Jesus, leaving Jerusalem before 70 AD, because they believe Jesus’ prediction. And the unbelieving, and especially the scribes and Pharasees who abuse the poor, and lack works, are left in Jerusalem and the temple, to be starved to death, and burnt up in 70 AD with the Roman army surrounding the city. Sheep (followers), goats (not so good at following, and not so good at works either)
      Any projection of this judgement applying to people in the far future, 2013 and beyond, might as well become a dispensationalist, which doesn’t make sense at all. Matt writing, and Jesus talking about people living 2000+ years later is a reach. If that is the case, I prefer to be a universalist, since I like both sheep and goats.
      Isn’t any place to have an everlasting, burning hell. Besides, that would violate entropy. More like an everlasting freezing empty space.

      • Gary

        Btw, this is also based upon “nations” being more like tribes. Why would Jesus or Matt care about all nations on an earth in 2013AD. Their focus could only be on Jewish tribes, and Rome. Nothing else would have mattered.

      • Gary

        Another btw. When I say pious fraud, I do that with the utmost respect. Just believe that Matt’s author was just trying to build his case for Jesus. No evil intent. Same for much of the scriptures in the bible… Trying to sell the ideas, good or bad (like Lev selling the Aaron priesthood).

        • SoWhat78

          Hi Gary, thanks for your response. It seems that Christian apologists, when they realize these troubling verses, try to make everything symbolic and less than literal, and they are right about some things. I’m not saying you’re a Christian apologist and that you are necessarily doing this, by the way.

          You may be right about nations being tribes, but I don’t know. I’ll have to research that on my own. Perhaps Dr. McGrath can weigh in on this. Whether this was written before 70AD or after 70AD, the generation that was being spoken of has obviously passed and the world did not end, and there was no final judgment. Also, when Jesus was talking about the Gospel being preached throughout the world before the end came, I find it plausible that he mainly had in view the Roman empire.

          The Matthew 24: 29-31 verses clearly indicate that a final judgement is in mind. I see now way how that happened in 70AD. With regards to your interpretation of the sheep and goats judgement, I have never seen a scholar, liberal or conservative, come up with anything close to your interpretation of those verses. I mean no disrespect, but it seems to me that you are committing eisegesis and reading into the text what you want to be in the text. All over the new testament, we see implicit and explicit predictions of the end of the world in the first century. With the language that it is used, I find it almost impossible that this all could have been fulfilled in 70AD. Look at what Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4. This was written before the canonical gospels. Do you think Paul had in mind the apocalypse on a world scale, while Matthew only had the apocalypse on a local scale?

          I should point out that I’m not saying that if Jesus was wrong, you shouldn’t be a Christian. James McGrath and a lot of other Christians (of the more theologically liberal mindset) believe Jesus was wrong and are still Christians. I just think it’s intellectual dishonesty of Christian apologists to distort what the New Testament says in order to save face.

          The fact that you are admitting that there is at least one error in the Bible speaks well of your intellectual honesty. Thank you for that.

          • Gary

            Mika, if I am wrong, then I have to agree with you. I am the last one to take the bible literally, or inerrant. Or infallible. I tend to reject the entire OT as a political spin on the opinions of Israelite’s own interpretation of their history. If I am wrong about goats and sheep, then I see no other alternative that Jesus’s words (if they are indeed his words and not revisionists from 70+AD), were incorrect. I don’t put much value in what Paul had to say since he was post Jesus, and had his own political/doctrine spin. So I guess I am a Christian, but doubting, maybe a quasi-Christian. But I still see what I said as the most logical approach. I take preterists as actually believing that the predictions were pre-70AD. I take the predictions as non-predictions, post-70AD, and therefore pious fraud.

          • SoWhat78

            Gary, well, I do believe Jesus’s words here are incorrect, at least in a literal sense. If one wants to interpret it in a symbolic or allegorical manner, I don’t have a problem with that. Sorry, Gary, but I see no way that this was fulfilled in any sense in 70AD and I’ve read nothing in scholarship to make me think otherwise, although your explanation is an interesting spin on it, but in the end, it’s unconvincing, to me at least.

            That being said, I don’t think there’s any need to debate this. You seem like a good dude. The fact you reject the doctrine of eternal torment of non-Christians speaks well of you. If most Christians adhered to the Christianity of people like you and James McGrath, the world would be a better place. Hell, I might be tempted to join up. :-)

          • Gary

            First time I’ve been called a good dude. I have a Buddhist friend, and know too many UUists to see any of them condemned to eternal anything. Actualy, some atheists are pretty good dudes too. A religion from the middle east origins can’t cover the entire earth, regardless of what Christians say…. But I don’t think I am the only one to hold that Matt 24 refers to 70 AD, and that it was written post 70 AD. Now whether Jesus actually said these things as reported, that is a different question. Actually, I still tend to like the gnostics more than the Irenaeus/Athanasius crowd. But that’s a different story.

          • SoWhat78

            Oh, I know you’re not the only one to hold that Matthew 24 refers to 70AD, but I’m not convinced, mainly because of verses 29-31. What I’m focusing on is Matthew 25 and the sheep-goats judgement. I’ve read nothing in scholarship that points to this being fulfilled in 70AD.

            Thank you for your humane and compassionate attitude towards those who follow different religious traditions or no religious traditions at all.

          • Gary

            “I’ve read nothing in scholarship that points to this being fulfilled in 70AD”…but something being fulfilled is open to interpretation, scholarship or not. Sheep as Christians leaving Jerusalem pre-70AD and goats as the zealots and sicarii as Josephus called them burning up in the temple in 70AD sounds pretty fulfilling to me. Rev is so symbolic, everything has to be taken with a grain of salt for your 29-31 ref in Matt. Anyway, thanks for calling me a good dude.

          • James F. McGrath

            Sorry it took so long for me to chime in in response to the earlier question. The term “nations” could mean all the nations, or it could be used in the sense of “Gentiles” i.e. all the other nations. Many Jews expected that, when the kingship was restored to the line of David, the king would rule over the nations. And so it does seem to envisage a final judgment occurring in conjunction with the dawn of the long-awaited messianic kingdom.

          • Gary

            ” And so it does seem to envisage a final judgment occurring in conjunction with the dawn of the long-awaited messianic kingdom.” Exactly. Maybe I am wrong, but the author of Matt, writing 10 years after the destruction of the temple, trying to establish Jesus as the messiah, would want to say the kingdom has already come (although only spiritually – judgement is in heaven), and the sheep and goats were already separated 10 years earlier. Goats leaders, sheep followers. But it was presented as if Jesus predicted it in 33AD. And of course, the Matt writings would then also encourage current believers in Jesus to continue their beliefs, Jewish or Gentile. And obviously, being good sheep, caring for the poor, and Christian collective (pooling assets for the good of the movement), could only help the movement. Thus pious fraud, but all with good intent. No way the author would be referring to a judgement in the near, or far future, when Jerusalem is in ruins, Rome is in charge, and the Jesus followers are in the duck and cover mode. Otherwise, the author of Matthew was the first SciFi writer, who’s work would be for entertainment only, and hold no practical value at all. My opinion only. Then again, I’m a little crazy.

          • SoWhat78

            Very good explanation, and I don’t see how that happened in 70AD.

          • SoWhat78

            Gary, if you want to look at the sheep and goats judgement as the author looking back and reflecting on what happened in 70AD, that’s cool. Just know, I honestly think that’s a huge stretch and no scholarship that I’ve read, from various perspectives, comes close to affirming that view. That being said, I think that’s a more humane and compassionate view to have than believing that there will be a future judgment in which Jesus will cast all non-Christians into eternal fire where they will be consciously tormented for eternity. Unfortunately, this is the majority view of evangelical/fundamentalist Christians. So, even though I disagree with your view, there are certainly worse views you could adhere to, such as the one that is prevalent among fundy Christians. So, I say more power to you. Forgive me if my post sounds schizophrenic. Ha!

          • Gary

            Mika, “believing that there will be a future judgment in which Jesus will cast all non-Christians into eternal fire”…that is a non-starter. Simple doesn’t make sense to me. I am not so sure there are no scholarship that backs me up. Certainly, the spiritual kingdom being established back then, is a well documented belief of some; amillennialists, Catholics, for two. Final judgement? I am sure there are people that believe that occurs when you die, and they blow the rest of the stuff away, such as Rev, bloody lamb with multiple eyes….rather strange, even if symbolic. The only 2 alternatives are, one, the author of Matthew exagerates on an oral story, or Jesus was wrong on the facts. If the later, then I could worship the universal Mother Nature, since it is all the same. I guess my main point, is that the authors of all the text, whether Matt, Ezekiel,Rev, Paul, all seem to have an agenda which needs to be taken into account. Sorting ground truth from hyperbole becomes almost impossible. Scholars can comment, evaluate, interprete the words, translations, etc, and tie them to some historic events. But they cannot tell too well when an ancient author is spinning the truth to make their specific point (and whether their specific point is a bunch of hogwash to begin with). Case in point, JDEP plus redactors, which makes perfect sense to me. Just because a bunch of church fathers in 330 AD or so, decided what they think is ground truth, doesn’t make it ground truth. I suppose Irenaeus and Athanasius where considered scholars in their day. So was Valentinus. Anyway, enough of preterism, goats, and sheep for me. For every expert, there is a different opinion (not of the translations, but what all this stuff *(I was going to use another word) means in the grand scheme of life and death.

          • SoWhat78

            “For every expert, there is a different opinion (not of the translations, but what all this stuff *(I was going to use another word) means in the grand scheme of life and death.”

            Yeah, arguing over it doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. I think Jesus was wrong, at least about this issue. But unlike theologically conservative Christianity, I don’t think that makes him a bad dude or not worthy of admiration.

          • Gary

            I agree.

  • Saskia

    Keith Green is amazing.
    I see the nations as the non-believers. “The least of these brothers of mine” are Jesus brothers (Christians – as in “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my mother and sister and brother”… “This is the will of my father, that you believe in my words.”). So non-Christians will be judged, in the absence of Jesus Himself, by how they respond to His church (obviously is this is problematic due to the way the church rarely acts how Jesus would have it).
    Maybe an unorthodox way of interpreting it, but it makes the most sense to me out of any of the interpretations I have read.

  • Rosi

    For me the best answer to this question is the book of James. My faith, my belief, leads me to do the actions, to be, as the parable says, a sheep. It is grace that gives me the compassion, the empathy, and the strength to do as Jesus asks, to love, even when the humanness inside of me would rather not. That I am alive in Christ which is through God’s grace, is proven by my deeds. It is when I stray from His grace that I fall short, and it is His grace that grants me forgiveness.

  • brgulker

    Faith without works is dead. Real faith will produce action. So if we are judged on the basis of one, we are judged on the basis of the other.

    • Neil Bob

      I was going to say the same thing. The only place in the bible that faith alone is mentioned is where faith alone is dead faith. Works don’t save you, but lack of “fruit” (good works) will kill you.

  • Beau Quilter

    What’s Jesus got against goats? They are hardy creatures, far better suited for a nomadic lifestyle than sheep.

    Well, at least he doesn’t abuse them as he does the pigs in Matthew 8.

    • Gary

      My RSV references Ezekiel 34, for Matt 25, goats and sheep.
      Ezek 34:20 “20Therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah unto them: Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” Ezekiel 34:17 “17And as for you, O my flock, thus saith the Lord Jehovah: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, the rams and the he-goats.”
      Seems to be a fascination with livestock. According to Ezekiel, I need to go on a diet.

  • Kevin Holtsberry

    Andrew Perriman approaches this from a historical-narrative perspective and seems to make sense of it to my mind.

  • John Lategan

    Believers have passed from death to life and have eternal life (present tense) – there is no condemnation for believers- whoever calls on the name of The Lord will be saved.
    “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
    The separation of the sheep and goats are unbelievers- the dead – the guilty
    Do not marvel at this.
    The dead in their graves (Hades )will hear Jesus and come out.
    They will be judged according to what they have done – White Throne Jugement
    Those who have done good are the sheep – this is the other sheep pen.
    They will receive eternal life- do not marvel at this
    The goats are the wicked.

    “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice and come out- those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”

    • James F. McGrath

      That the sheep are unbelievers saved by their works is a possibility. But it may still be the case that John and Matthew reflect different views on judgment.

      • John. Lategan

        Believers who do not produce fruit are thrown out into darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teach.
        This means that the believer is out of fellowship with God- he has grieved the Holy Spirit- he is in a place of darkness in his relationship with God and filled with remorse.
        This is a temporary state of correction until the believer repents and his relationship with God is restored.
        This correction must not be confused with going to Hades.

        • James F. McGrath

          Hades seems in the New Testament to be a place where the dead go when they die, and so it is indeed important to distinguish that from this final judgment, which you take to be aimed not at some sort of eternal punishment, but for corrective purposes. It is refreshing to see someone who grasps that eternal punishment is not as obvious a teaching of the New Testament as some make it out to be!

  • John. Lategan

    When believers die physically they go to heaven -“absent from the body and at home with The Lord”(2 Corinthians5:6-8)
    When unbelievers die they go to the grave(Hades-rich man andLazarus)
    The unbelievers stand guilty of sin but God will be judge them according to what they have done (Great White Throne Jugement)This is where the sheep will be separated from the goats for those who have done good will be declared righteous and receive eternal life (John5:28-29)
    If unbelievers are all damned for eternity as many believe then what is the purpose of judging them by what they have done?
    The goats will go to the lake of fire.This is the second death. The first death was the body. The second death could mean the soul.
    Death and Hades will also be thrown into the lake of fire.

    • Beau Quilter

      Unless, of course, you are a Hindu, in which case your soul will either travel the path of the sun (the bright path) or the path of the moon (the dark path of the ancestors in which the soul returns). If you don’t believe me, check the holy scriptures: Bhagavad-Gita 8:24.

      • John. Lategan

        Jesus answered, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

        • Beau Quilter

          Sri Krishna said:

          For those who set their hearts on me
          And worship me with unfailing devotion and faith,
          The way of love leads sure and swift to me.

          Those who seek the transcendental Reality,
          Unmanifested, without name or form,
          Beyond the reach of feeling and of thought,
          With their senses subdued and mind serene
          And striving for the good of all beings,
          They too will verily come unto me.

          Bhagavad-Gita Chapter 12

          • John. Lategan

            “For the wages of sin is death;but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
            Romans 6: 23

          • Beau Quilter

            “Even if the most sinful worship Me, with devotion to none else, he too should indeed be regarded as righteous, for he has rightly resolved. Soon he becomes righteous and attains eternal peace, O Kaunteya; know thou for certain that My devotee is never destroyed.”

            Bhagavad-Gita 12:30-31

  • John. Lategan

    “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

    • Beau Quilter

      Allah says: “Say: O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah: for Allah forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Sûrah al-Zumar: 53]

      • John. Lategan

        “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,”. 1corinthians 15:3-4

      • John. Lategan

        “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2: 24

  • John. Lategan

    “Whoever believes in Jesus is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” John 3-18

    • Beau Quilter

      OK, I’m tired of competing with you to see who can blast out the most contextless scriptural references …

      … you win.

      • James F. McGrath

        John may “win” from Beau’s perspective. But John, what you are doing amounts to spamming with Bible verses. Comments are for discussion, not copying and pasting for no obvious reason things which are readily available elsewhere. And so I must ask that you desist.

        • Beau Quilter

          … and please forgive my Islamic and Hindu spamming. I hereby desist!

  • Ukulelemike

    this text is not difficut if one takes it in it’s context. Notice that this judgment takes place “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:” (Vs 31). That’s important. This occurs when Jesus has returned to earth for the mjlennial reign. The sheep and the goats here are those of the nations who have survived the great tribulation period, and the falling of God’s wrath. Those left alive will be judged according to their treatment of the people of God, who will be terribly persecuted. Those who sought to help them will be allowed to enter the kingdom, though they will still need to receive salvation by grace through faith, though Christ will be there. It also cross-references to Zechariah 14:16: “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all
    the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to
    year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the feast of

    • Andrew Dowling

      Ah yes, that’s exactly it’s proper historical context LOL . .

    • James F. McGrath

      Introducing a millennial reign that Matthew nowhere mentions, and worse, adding an additional requirement for their salvation beyond what the text states, shows the utmost disconsideration for what Matthew wrote. I am sure you believe you are honoring the Bible as a whole through this exercise in harmonization. But you are doing so by ignoring what this specific Gospel does and does not say.

  • Stephen “Steve” Sponsler

    Almost everything interpretation I’m seeing implies they are all Christians..but can a Christians be a goat? How can his sheep not know it his Him if the Know Him, and Know his Voice? You had mentioned relieving the tension but not avoiding it either. Another interpretation is that they are not Christians but people who served Christians unknowingly, (or even possibly knowingly). or even did not serve (help) Christians intentionally knowing they were Christians. A non-Christian truly would not know that The Person they are ‘helping’ is Actually Christ (Christ in you, The Hope of Glory)…the argument then is, these are not Christians…and might have had the works based belief system kind of life that other religions of ‘all the nations’ possess that are apart from Him. ..and yet whether the could admit it or not, followed the Law of Moses which is according to all the world’s consciousness. One thing they all were though apparently were believers, as all nations see or think of God as LORD. Didn’t Paul mention that there are those who ‘abide’ by The Law who do not have the law? And Christ said that “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward..