Introduction: Not all scholars agree that Jesus' teaching in this part of Matthew 25 should rightly be called a parable. For example, one prominent New Testament scholar, characteristic of those who think we should not call this a parable, argues:
This is not really a parable. At most we have a parabolic saying about the separation of sheep and goats in vv. 32-33 which provides an analogy, an implied similitude, to the separation which will take place at the final judgment. This is followed by a detailed explanation of the reason for and significance of this separation in vv. 34-46. One could say that we have a two verse analogy and that the rest is explanation. (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 543)
So, we don't have a parable, he says, just an analogy or parabolic saying with an explanation. Sounds like a distinction without a difference to me, so we will just treat it as a parable accompanied by a lengthy explanation. As we have seen in our previous studies, this certainly isn't the first time Jesus has followed this pattern in teaching the disciples.
Anyway, in our treatment of the parable, we will follow a basic, four point outline: 1) the separation of the sheep and the goats for judgment, 2) the judgment of the sheep, 3) the judgment of the goats, and 4) the separation of the sheep and the goats for eternity.
I. The Separation of the Sheep and the Goats for Judgment
This is found in verses 31-33.
NKJ Matthew 25:31-33 When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations [πάντα τὰ ἔθνη] will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.
This parable may reflect a key Old Testament Messianic passage, in which God pronounces judgment on the shepherds of Israel and promises a day when He Himself will be a Shepherd for His people. For example:
NKJ Ezekiel 34:11-12 For thus says the Lord GOD: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day.”
But He also promises that He will come in judgment and issues this stern warming to Israel:
NKJ Ezekiel 34:17 And as for you, O My flock, thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams [male sheep] and goats.”
I think it is quite likely that this passage forms the background for Jesus' metaphorical use of sheep and goats in this parable, just as it forms the background for His claim to be the Good Shepherd in John 10. If so, then He is again applying this passage to Himself so as to indicate His deity, since He takes a text that says Yahweh will come and announces Himself as the fulfillment.
But there is another key Old Testament Messianic prophecy from the book of Daniel that is most definitely in Jesus' mind here:
NKJ Daniel 7:13-14 I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. 14 Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations [LXX has πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, just as in vs. 32 of our text], and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.
In bringing this passage to mind, Jesus is identifying the period ushered in by His second coming as the fulfillment of this kingdom promise. At that time He will judge between the sheep and the goats, which is indicated by the way in which they will be separated, with the sheep on His right hand – the place of honor – and the goats on His left hand. But what is hinted at here is directly stated in the following verses, which leads us to our next point.
II. The Judgment of the Sheep
This is found in verses 34-40.
NKJ Matthew 25:34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand [the sheep], “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”
Jesus' identification of the sheep as those “blessed of My Father,” and His declaration of their inheritance of the kingdom “prepared” for them “from the foundation of the world,” shows that they are not accepted by God based upon their own works but rather upon His sovereign grace. In fact, those who are called blessed by the Father must also be those Jesus said elsewhere were taught by the Father:
NKJ John 6:44-45 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.
But even before the Father drew us to Christ and bestowed His blessings upon us, Jesus says, He had already prepared our inheritance in the kingdom “from the foundation of the world.” Elsewhere Paul takes up the same language in his letter to the Ephesian Church:
NKJ Ephesians 1:3-6 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He has made us accepted in the Beloved.
Paul makes explicit what I believe Jesus has implied in verse 34 of our text, namely that our standing before God is ultimately due to His work on our behalf and not because of anything we have done. But God's work also brings about a changed heart and life, as Paul goes on to say:
NKJ Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
These are works that Jesus is thinking about in this parable, when He goes on to speak about the coming judgment of the sheep.
NKJ Matthew 25:35-40 “for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” 40 And the King will answer and say to 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.”
Notice here the surprise of the sheep. And notice that hey are not surprised that they inherit the kingdom, but rather by the reason given. As D. A. Carson puts it in his commentary on this passage:
[T]he surprise of the righteous makes it impossible to think that works of righteousness win salvation. How the sheep and the goats treated Jesus' brothers was not for the purpose of being accepted or rejected by the King. The sheep did not show love to gain an eschatological reward, nor did the goats fail to show it to flout eschatological retribution. (EBC, Vol. 8, p. 522)
This does not mean, however, that their works of love do not matter, for they clearly do, but these works only matter because they demonstrate the sheep's acceptance of Jesus. This is the point Jesus is making when He says to them, “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” And then He says, “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (italics mine).
Here it is important to remember what Jesus has previously taught about what it means to accept those who represent Him and about those who are is brethren. For example:
NKJ Matthew 10:40-42 He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. 41 He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.
NKJ Matthew 12:46-50 While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. 47 Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.” 48 But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” 49 And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”
We simply cannot separate love for and acceptance of Christ from love for and acceptance of those who believe in Him. In fact, this is reflected later in Jesus' confrontation of Paul on the road to Damascus:
NKJ Acts 9:1-5 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
To persecute Jesus' brethren – those who believe in Him and have been given the Gospel to share with a lost and dying world – is to persecute Jesus Himself.
This is the same kind of emphasis in the passage before us this morning. Jesus is telling the sheep in the judgment that they demonstrated that they have been blessed by the Father and have inherited the kingdom through their having accepted Him. And they accepted Him when they accepted those who believed in Him and bore witness of Him. They were thus willing to help those who shared the Gospel by supporting them and by identifying with them in their imprisonment. You see, in those days people could easily starve and suffer from exposure in most prisons unless people were willing to bring them the food and clothing they needed. But doing this also meant openly showing oneself to be connected with those so imprisoned. Such an action toward Christians shows that one has indeed accepted their Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. And this is what Jesus is talking about here when He speaks of visiting Him in prison and giving Him food, drink, and clothing.
Herein lies the ultimate difference between the sheep and the goats: the sheep are those who have been blessed by the Father and who demonstrate this through their acceptance of Christ, which in turn is seen in their love toward His people, even when such love puts them at risk. This difference will become even more clear when we look at the next part of Jesus' explanation of this parable.
III. The Judgment of the Goats
This is found in verses 41-45.
NKJ Matthew 25:41-45 Then He will also say to those on the left hand [the goats, vs. 33], “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.” 44 Then they also will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?” 45 Then He will answer them, saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”
The real issue is that they rejected Jesus, and this was seen in the way they rejected His brethren.
The goats are those who have not been “blessed by the Father” (vs. 34) but rather are “cursed” (vs. 41). They do not, therefore, inherit the everlasting kingdom spoken of in Daniel 7 but rather are ordered to depart to “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (vs. 41). They wanted life without Christ – and thus without God – just as the devil and his angels did, so that is exactly what they will get, along with the devil and his angels! In fact, they will go to the same place of punishment that God has “prepared” for the devil and his angels, which means that it has been prepared for these unbelievers as well.
Now, it is true that these goats will address Jesus as “Lord” (vs. 44), but this is obviously not a genuine acknowledgment of Jesus as their Savior. In fact, Jesus had earlier taught His disciples that there would be such false professors of faith:
NKJ Matthew 7:21-23 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” 23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”
However, their calling Him “Lord” may also be due to the fact that this will become obvious to them, as it will to all who witness Jesus in His glory. As Paul says:
NKJ Philippians 2:9-11 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
We can either confess that Jesus is Lord because we accept Him as such and place our trust in Him for salvation, or we can confess that He is Lord on the way to hell, but we will confess that He is Lord! Sadly, the goats in this passage are confessing His lordship when it is too late, when they are already on their way to hell. But, just in case we might have missed the eternal nature of the consequences Jesus is describing here, He goes on to talk about it about it further.
IV. The Separation of the Sheep and the Goats for Eternity
This is found in verse 46.
NKJ Matthew 25:46 And these [the goats] will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] into eternal life.
There are two – and only two – options: everlasting life or everlasting punishment. And our response to Christ now indicates which future we may look forward to, doesn't it? If we trust Him as our Lord and Savior now, we may look forward to everlasting life with Him in the age to come, but if we do not trust Him now, we will face an everlasting punishment that Jesus has described as “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (vs. 41).
The Apostle John later received a revelation concerning this place of punishment:
NKJ Revelation 20:10 The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
This is the fate that awaits those who do not trust Jesus in this life!
Conclusion: I would like to remind you all of what the author of Hebrews wrote:
NKJ Hebrews 9:27-28 And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, 28 so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.
I hope and pray that you are all among those who eagerly wait for Jesus as your Savior from sin. If not, then you must remember that you only get one life. If you do not accept Jesus in this life, you won't be getting another chance!
But for those of us who do profess to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, let us remember that the reality of this will be demonstrated through a changed life, which will be seen especially in our love for the brethren. Does such a sincere faith show in your life?
I would also point out, lastly, that those of us who truly know Christ will also care about what He cares about. So, for example, if His love for others led Him to tell them the truth about the coming judgment, then we should not fail to do so as well. It is one of the truly sad things about modern Evangelicalism that it seems to have no room for talk of the coming judgment. But this only shows how far from Christ and His teaching they have gotten, doesn't it?