"Blessed Sheep and Cursed Goats"
(Delivered Sunday, January 11, 2009 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We come this morning to a very important passage of Scripture. We come to the conclusion of that part of the Gospel of Matthew in which our Lord taught His disciples about His second coming. And what makes these words particularly important is that—in terms of the story of our Lord's ministry, as Matthew relates it in his Gospel—they are very last words of teaching He gave His disciples before He went to the cross for them.
Prior to this passage, the Lord taught His disciples in parables. But these final words, found in Matthew 25:32-46, are not in the form of a parable. Rather, they are the startling description of an event that will actually occur in the future:
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Matthew's Gospel is the Gospel that highlights the Lord Jesus as the King of Jews—destined to rule over this world as King of kings and Lord of lords. And so, there are several references scattered throughout this Gospel to the great judgment that will occur before His royal throne when He begins His reign on earth. 1 And this morning's passage is the most descriptive of them all.
And it's very important that we interpret this passage accurately. First, we should notice the time in which this judgment is said to occur: "When the Son of Man comes in His glory . . ."; In other words, this remarkable event will occur when He "comes" in glory to this earth. This “coming”, of course, is what the disciples had asked Jesus about at the beginning of this section (Matthew 24:3). And this means that our passage this morning is not (as some people have mistakenly interpreted it) speaking of the final 'great white throne judgment' that is found at the end of the book of Revelation (Revelation 20:11-15). That judgment will not occur until after the 1,000 year reign of our Lord upon the earth has been completed (Revelation 20:7-10).
Rather, the judgment in our passage this morning occurs at the very beginning of that earthly reign; and immediately after that period that our Lord referred to as the "great tribulation" (Matthew 24:21). It occurs at a time in which the nations of the earth are still in existence, and are capable of being gathered before Him.
A second key to interpreting this passage correctly is to understanding who it is that our Lord calls His "brethren" in verse 40. In this passage, He speaks to people from among the nations that He said had ministered to Him during the time before His return; telling them, "Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me." Who are these "brethren"?
Many people have interpreted the Lord's reference to His "brethren" in a very broad way—suggesting that it refers to anyone who is in need. If I see any fellow human being who is hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or in need of warm clothing, or sick, or in prison, then I am to view that needy person as someone that the Lord aligns Himself to as 'brother'. And if that's the case, then our Lord would be teaching His followers that every needy person is to be viewed as the Lord's "brother-in-need"; and that He aligns Himself with the needy in such a way that, if we minister to them, we will have ministered to Him.
Now; it's true that the Lord taught us something like this in His parable of the 'good Samaritan'. He taught that anyone that we find along our path who is in need is to be considered our 'neighbor' (Luke 10:30-37); and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (v. 27). But I don't believe that's what our Lord means in this passage. His "brethren" in this passage are held in clear distinction from another class of people called "the nations". “The nations" are gathered together, and the people within them are judged according to how they treated another class of people called His "brethren". And if we put ourselves in the mind of our Lord's Jewish disciples; we'd understand His "brethren" to be His Jewish kinsmen in distinction from the Gentile "nations" of the world.
But we need to be even more specific than that. Do you remember that there was a time when our Lord was teaching a multitude of people; and someone told Him that He needed to stop, because His mother and His brothers were waiting outside and wanted Him to come to them? He said,
So, taking everything into consideration, His brethren in this passage would His Jewish kinsmen, alive at the time of His second coming, who 'do the will of His Father in heaven' by believing on Him and becoming His disciples; and who were ministered to during their time of need in the great tribulation by certain people from among "the nations" of the Gentiles because they belong to Him.
There's a passage in the book of Revelation that sheds some light on this. It tells us that, during the time of the great tribulation, the Jewish people will be the victims of fierce, satanically-inspired persecution. But we're told that, during that time, a remarkable thing will also happen. God will seal to Himself—from out of the twelve tribes of Israel—144,000 witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 7:4-8). Apparently, God has preserved some remnant of the original tribes. Individual Jews may not know today which of the twelve tribes they are from; but God has always kept good records of His precious chosen people. And from out of each of the twelve tribes, He will seal 12,000 as servants of the Lord Jesus—"redeemed from the earth", who "follow the Lamb wherever He goes", and who are "firstfruits to God and to the Lamb" (Revelation 14:4-5).
I believe that these redeemed Jews from the twelve tribes of Israel are, primarily, who Jesus is referring to as His "brethren". These will not only be witnesses for the Lord Jesus during the great tribulation; but they will be used by God to bring great multitudes of the Gentile world to faith in Jesus Christ. And not only will they be persecuted for their identification with Christ; but so will those who believe on Him through their ministry—"who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17).
There will be a sense in which the people of the Gentile world will be put to a test during that dark time. They will be tested through how they will treat God's servants—those with whom the Lord Jesus identifies Himself as His "brethren". And that leads us to a third and final consideration. We need to remember the purpose of our Lord in describing this great time of 'judgment' in this passage.
Throughout this section, our Lord's purpose in teaching about His return has been a practical one for His followers. He has told them that the time of His return to this earth would be sudden and unexpected; and that, therefore, it is vital that His followers spend their time "watching" for His return, and "being faithful" to His commands. We are to "be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (24:44); and we are to be like "a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over all his household" (v. 45). "Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing" (v. 46).
As we saw in our previous times in this section of Matthew, the parable of 'the ten virgins' (25:1-13) emphasized the need for the saints to be vigilant in their 'watching'; and the parable of 'the talents' (vv. 14-30) emphasized the need to be diligent in their 'working'. And this morning's passage is a part of that same flow of thought—that is, that we are to be watchful and faithful during this time of waiting for our Lord's return. Because we do not know the time of His return, we are to be constantly ready by (1) faithfully watching for Him, and (2) faithfully laboring in His cause. And now, we see that we are to be ready by (3) faithfully ministering to those that He calls His “brethren”—because on the day of our Lord's return, the people of the nations will be distinguished by how they have treated even the least of those who belong to Him.
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Now; with all this in mind, let's look again at what our Lord tells us in this passage. Notice that, first, He says that there will be . . .
1. A GREAT SEPARATION BEFORE HIS THRONE (vv. 31-33).
I was reading about this passage from a very old commentary the other day. The Bible scholar who wrote it was working on his commentary while traveling in the Holy Land. And on the very morning that he wrote on this passage, he said that he had looked across the plain of Sharon and saw a shepherd leading a flock of white sheep and black goats—all following together. As the shepherd came to a little green valley, he turned and faced this mixed flock. And when a sheep came up to him, he tapped it on the right side of its head with his staff, and it quickly moved off to his right. And when a goat came up to him, he tapped it on the left side of its head with his staff, and it quickly moved off to his left.2
That shepherd separated his sheep from the goats. But when Jesus comes, He will not be like a humble shepherd. As Jesus promised in Matthew 16:27;
And it will not be gentle sheep and goats that He divides, but individual men and women from among all the nations of the earth at the time of His return. In Matthew 13:49, He let's us know that He will send forth His mighty angels to "separate the wicked from among the just". He will set the "sheep" (whom He later calls "the righteous" and "blessed of My Father") on His right hand—which is the place of honor. But on the left hand, He will set the "goats" (whom He later calls "cursed").
And if I may, let me pause here to say that if you are among His sheep in this dark and fallen world, this promise is a cause of great comfort. This world may not make much of a distinction anymore between good and evil, or justice and injustice, or righteousness and unrighteousness. But we need to remember that King Jesus does! When He comes, He will make clear distinctions; and will separate the righteous from the unrighteous on the great day of His righteous judgment.
How hopeless we would be in this fallen world, brothers and sisters, if it weren't for this promise!
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He then tells us that, after this great separation occurs, there will be . . .
2. A COMMENDATION UPON THE BLESSED WHO MINISTERED TO HIS 'BRETHREN' (vv. 34-40).
With respect to all these gathered nations, He calls Himself "King"; and He says;
This commendation will apparently come as great a surprise to the "blessed" ones on His right hand; because He says,
I suspect that it will be something like what has occurred at times in recent history. God's people were moved during wars and times of great turmoil—in love for the Lord Jesus—to minister to the persecuted Jewish people. But these who we see in this passage will be remarkable Jewish people; because they will suffer persecution for boldly bearing the name of Jesus to this world.
And perhaps these people who stand at the Lord's right hand will remember having seen those who bore a faithful witness for Jesus, and who suffered much as His 'brethren'. Paul said that he had suffered in his missionary work for Christ—"in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness" (2 Corinthians 11:27-28). And perhaps they will remember having provided care to other such redeemed Jewish people during those dark times. But they certainly don't remember doing such a thing to the Lord Himself!
But though they may not recognize it as an act unto the Lord Jesus, He will:
Do you remember that, before he was converted, Paul—then called Saul—was on his way to persecute Christians when he was suddenly confronted by the Lord Jesus Himself? And do you remember how Jesus said to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" (Acts 9:4)? Saul thought he was persecuting only Christians. But the Lord let Saul know that He identified Himself with His people. When Saul persecuted them, he was unwittingly persecuting the Lord of glory! And similarly, Jesus identifies Himself with His people when they are ministered to. When we minister to His suffering people, we minister to the Lord of glory! And though those who ministered to Him don't remember doing so, He certainly remembers!
And what a glorious thing it will be for them that the Lord remembers! He says to them, "Come, you blessed of My Father . . ." What a commendation to receive from Jesus on the day when He comes to this earth—accompanied by the angelic armies of heaven—and sits upon His throne of glory! He lets them know that they aren't just blessed by Him, but they are blessed of His Father! They are blessed "of Him" because they belong "to Him"! And he invites them to inherit the kingdom “prepared” for them “from the foundation of the world”. It will be a kingdom that's not just for His believing Jewish "brethren"; it will also prove to have been a kingdom that had been prepared for these "righteous” Gentiles, and set aside for them before they ever did a single thing!
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This inheritance was prepared by God for them from before the foundation of the world. And this shows us the real nature of their situation. It wasn't that, in some particular point of time, they proved themselves worthy of this great privilege by having ministered to Him through ministering to His people. Rather, they enter into it because they were chosen by God for it; and that it was set aside for them long before they could do anything to earn it.
And this means that their kindness to Christ's "brethren"—their feeding them, or giving them drink, welcoming them, or clothing them, or visiting them in their distress—was not the ground of their favor with God. Rather, it was the evidence of it. They weren't "blessed of the Father" because they did these things. Rather, they did them because they were already His blessed ones from the foundation of the world.
But that leads us to the somber words our Lord next spoke; and to . . .
3. THE CONDEMNATION UPON THE CURSED WHO DID NOT MINISTER TO HIS 'BRETHREN' (vv. 41-45).
Just as the Lord Jesus will identify Himself with the care His precious servants will receive on this earth, He will also identify Himself with the way that they were neglected. And look at how the "cursed" ones seek to defend themselves;
They will argue that they never saw Him! How could they have neglected Him? But hadn't He already recorded it all in His word when He spoke to His disciples?—
There will be no excuse on that great day of judgment. Jesus says,
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And finally, note that with the separation having been made, and these words having been uttered, there then follows . . .
4. A DEPARTURE UNTO ETERNAL DESTINIES (v. 46).
Jesus' closing words in this last instruction to His disciples is . . .
Those at His right hand are His 'sheep'; but those at His left are 'goats'. Those at His right hand are 'blessed of His Father': but those on His left are 'cursed'. Those at His right hand 'inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world'; but those on His left 'depart from Him into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels'. Those at His right hand enter into 'eternal life'; but those at His left 'go away into everlasting punishment'.
How important it will be, then, to be among those who are set at His right hand rather than among those set at His left! And based on this passage, the proof of whether someone is among the sheep or among the goats will be in how they treated His 'brethren'. Because if they loved His brethren, it would have been proof that they truly loved Him.
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You and I, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, don't know the time of our Lord's return. He has already told us that His coming will be sudden and unexpected; and He has urged us to constantly watch and be ready. And one of the ways that we watch and keep ready is by making sure that we are rightly oriented to Him by being rightly oriented to those who belong to Him.
And here's one of the ways I believe the Lord would have us keep in readiness: that is, by being very sure that we distinguish ourselves by love for the Jewish people. It's true that as a nation, they do not yet acknowledge Him. In fact, many times in history, they have even oppose our faith. But one day, God will surprise the world by calling 144,000 of them to declare His Son to the world; and then, the people of this world will be tested by how they treat His chosen "brethren".
And another, very practical way I believe that the Lord would have us keep in readiness for His return is by making sure that we minister to all those who love the Lord Jesus and suffer for His cause—particularly our suffering and persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. We are to always seek to do good and meet the needs of those around us; but as Paul wrote, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10).
And let's do these things remembering what our Lord said to His disciples:
1See also Matthew 3:12; 6:2, 5, 16; 7:24-27; 13:20, 48-50; 18:23-34; 20:1-16; 21:33-41; 22:1-14; 25:1-12, and 14-30.
2John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 509n.
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