The sheep and the goats is one of the most striking and the most controversial statements made by Jesus regarding the final judgment. It is a time when the genuine believers (the sheep) will be separated from the non-believers (the goats).
Now over the years, this has caused a lot of fear and confusion, as I have heard people express to me their fear that they might be a goat and not know it. After all, what exactly is a goat, and how do we tell a goat from a sheep in the spiritual sense? There are some who say that a genuine sheep will be the hardest worker for God, while a goat will slack-off on their spiritual duties and responsibilities.
Is that true?
If so, how do we know when we’ve worked hard enough to merit sheep-hood? And afterwards, can we fall back to being a goat?
In order to have any real assurance and security, these questions must be answered – and thankfully, God hasn’t left us wondering about the answers; Jesus spoke plainly about them.
This is what we will be examining today in this study, and by seeing this, you will not need to be confused or afraid about the sheep and the goats any longer.
So as we begin today, let’s take a look at what Jesus Himself said about the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 25:32-46:
“And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats:
And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then shall the King say to them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in:
Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you hungry, and fed you? or thirsty, and gave you drink?
When saw we you a stranger, and took you in? or naked, and clothed you?
Or when saw we you sick, or in prison, and came to you?
And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.
Then shall he say also to them on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
For I was hungry, and you gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink:
I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and you visited me not.
Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to you?
Then shall he answer them, saying, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”
Now there are some important details to see here right at the start, that get skimmed-over most of the time. Yet when seen, they will begin to change the way this text actually is read and understood. The first is at the very beginning in verse 32, where we can notice something straight-away about the sheep and the goats… where Jesus calls the sheep his sheep versus where He calls the goats, the goats.
It may appear to be a small and insignificant detail at first, but what it shows us is that one group (his sheep) are actually His, whereas the goats are not. This goes deeper than works as you may have guessed, this is about position and relationship (more on that in a few minutes).
Next we can see in verse 34, that He tells His sheep: Come you blessed of my Father, whereas in contrast He tells the goats in verse 41: Depart you cursed.
So we see that the sheep are blessed, whereas the goats are cursed; but that’s not all we see regarding this point. We can also see that back in the second-half of verse 34, He tells his sheep to come and inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. Whereas He tells the goats in the second-half of verse 41, to depart into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.
Now this has significance because it tells us also what the plan of God always has been. Namely that we, as children of God were always meant to inherit and share in His kingdom. He has prepared it that way from the very beginning; from the foundation of the world.
It also tells us that hellfire was never intended to be a punishment for mankind. On the contrary, it was prepared specifically for the devil and his angels… not for you or for me. This kills the common idea that God hand-selects certain people to go to hell – because Jesus Himself here says that hell was never intended for mankind… but mankind himself decides to send himself there.
Having now established these points, we must continue on to the main question on everyone’s mind: What makes a sheep, a sheep? And what makes a goat, a goat? We must understand this to have any kind of assurance or confidence (and to relieve any fears of being a goat).
Most people assume that what makes the sheep and what makes the goat, are the difference in works, or performance. And they get this from where Jesus says that the sheep fed Him when He was hungry and clothed Him, and visited Him when He was sick, etc. And that the goats didn’t do these things.
So the natural conclusion is that because the sheep did these things, they are therefore sheep, and the goats are goats because they didn’t do those things.
However, this seemingly logical conclusion does not even line up with the other teachings of Jesus. For example, earlier in chapter 7 of Matthew, specifically in verses 21-23, we see Jesus telling a group of people that did many works which we would consider to be “good works: (such as prophesying, casting out demons, and other wonderful things); we see Him telling them to depart, because He never knew them. And furthermore, He calls them “workers of iniquity”.
So what we can see from this is that the works themselves do not make a person good, holy, or righteous, but it rather has to do with the relationship, and the position. It isn’t the works that make a sheep, but rather the sheep is a sheep, and it does what is natural to it.
So if works and performance are not the deciding factor, how does one become a sheep or a goat then?
Good question! For the answer, let’s turn to John 10:26-28:
“But you believe not, because you are not of my sheep, as I said to you.
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
And I give to them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.”
We can plainly see here that genuine sheep will believe Jesus! While the goats on the other-hand, will not believe. The sheep will have eternal life (the life of Jesus, which He gives) and will be eternally secure – and the goats will not.
There is more. Remembering that the sheep are blessed of the Father and inherit a kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world, we can cross-reference with Ephesians 1:3-6, which tells us:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:
According as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:
Having predestinated us to the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,
To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he has made us accepted in the beloved.”
So from this, we can further plainly see that a sheep is a sheep purely because of the finished work of Christ, and their belief on Him. We are accepted in the Beloved, which is Christ.
As for the goats, which are cursed, and departed into hellfire, well if they are not “accepted in the Beloved” which they aren’t since they do not accept and believe in Jesus, then there is only one option left… rejected and cursed.
Remember that this was never God’s plan. He never prepared hell for people, but for the devil and His angels. Jesus wants to give life, and redeem mankind from the curse, but we have a choice to accept it or not. And this was the whole point of the parable of the sheep and the goats… as a warning and encouragement to accept what has been offered.
It’s not about doing works to obtain acceptance, but it is about being accepted because of who you have been made to me.
A goat cannot transform itself into a sheep by acting like a sheep… but genuine rebirth can happen, as it must for everyone. And that is the key; being born-again by the Spirit of God through Christ Jesus.
Simply accept the free gift of Jesus, and receive the cleansing and regeneration that He gives.
Then you will have the assurance and security of acceptance. No works, no effort, no striving and no fear.