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: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth 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 unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. Matthew 25:31-46
The Parable of the Sheep and Goats occurs at the very end of a long discussion by Jesus that is traditionally called the Olivet Discourse after the location where it was given, the Mount of Olives. This sermon occupies two chapters in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Much more abridged versions of it can be found in the Gospels according to SS Mark and Luke. It was given on the Tuesday of Passion Week, that is, the Tuesday after His Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and prior to His Crucifixion on Good Friday. The occasion of His giving this sermon was His having told His disciples that not one stone would be left on another of the Second Temple, prompting the disciples to ask Him when this would be and when would be the time of His Coming.
The Olivet Discourse as a whole has long been a hermeneutical conundrum. Is it eschatological, that is to say, talking about the events that will take place at the very end of temporal history at what we after the Ascension would call the Second Coming of Christ? Is it historical, that is to say, discussing events that took place within the first century, specifically when the Roman army led by Titus crushed the Jewish rebellion and destroyed the Temple. Much of the language within the Sermon is apocalyptic, suggesting that it is eschatological. The context, however, suggests the historical interpretation since it was certainly the events of AD 70 to which Jesus was referring when He predicted the dismantling of the Temple.
The closest thing to a traditional consensus is to say that the Olivet Discourse pertains to both the events of AD 70 and those that will occur at the end of time because the disciples had, without realizing it, asked a question about both by conflating the Destruction of the Temple that Jesus had been talking about with His Second Coming which, of course, they would not have conceived of as a Second Coming at that point in time. Accepting this consensus does not solve the interpretive problem, however, because the question then becomes how does the Discourse pertain to the events of the first century and those of the end of time? Is it a matter of everything in the Discourse having a double reference, first to the events of AD 70 and second to the events surrounding the Second Coming? Or does part of the Discourse refer to the Destruction of the Temple and part to the end of time?
Something in between these two seems the most likely answer. The parts of the Discourse that most obviously are speaking of the Destruction of the Temple could easily be understood as having a secondary reference to the Second Coming. There are other parts of the Discourse, however, where the reference to the end of time is quite clear but which would require a great deal of text-torture to fit the events of AD 70. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is one of these parts.
The Parable presents us with a different sort of interpretive conundrum. It seems to be teaching that salvation is a reward for good works. How do we reconcile this with the rest of the New Testament that teaches that salvation is a gift and not a reward for works?
A few observations are in order.
The first is that the Parable is about the Last Judgement. This is why works are in focus here. Works are the subject matter of all judgement, temporal or final. That is the nature of judgement. To judge is to pronounce what someone has done to be either good and praiseworthy or bad and worthy of condemnation. The question, therefore, is not so much how this Parable squares with the New Testament teaching of salvation by grace but how the idea of a Last Judgement squares with the idea of salvation by grace. The Parable, as we shall see, sheds a lot of light on the answer to this question.
The second observation is that in the Parable the works are not what determines who is a sheep and who is a goat. It is amazing how often this obvious detail is overlooked. The Parable does not say that the Judge will say to some people, “I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me and for this reason I count you as my sheep” and that He will say to others “I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not and for this reason I count you as goats”. No, they are divided into sheep and goats first, then the judgement of each takes place.
The reason that it is important to note this is because of our third observation: the Parable does not say that the corporal works of mercy were done only by the sheep and never by the goats. What it says is that in the Judgement the goats will be held strictly accountable and condemned for the slightest neglect or failure to do these works. The sheep, on the other hand, will receive a very different sort of Judgement in which they are rewarded for the slightest example of their doing such works.
The difference in the way the two groups are judged is precisely the difference between Law and Gospel. In the Law, God establishes His standard of righteousness, holds people strictly to account, and “whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10). The goats are those who receive Judgement according to the Law. This is the Judgement that those who reject the Gospel will receive.
The Gospel is the Good News to people who deserve the Judgement the goats receive, and that is all of us, that God has given us His Only-Begotten Son to save us from our sin and the destruction it brings upon us through His death on the Cross for our sins and His Resurrection. The salvation proclaimed in the Gospel is free and is received by believing in the Saviour given. To believe in the freely given Saviour and His salvation, however, one must abandon all claim to reward based on his own merit and pronounce himself worthy of condemnation. Hence the surprise on the part of the sheep to hear their works brought up in a commendatory way. The sheep are those who had renounced their works, renounced the idea that they could merit any reward from God, pronounced themselves to be unprofitable servants, and put their trust in the freely given mercy and grace of God in Jesus Christ.
That the Judge does commend their works and speak of their entrance into His Kingdom as a reward is itself an act of mercy and grace. Their works most certainly did not merit this. Held up to the strict scrutiny of the Law they would merit only the condemnation the goats received. The Judge, not as Judge at His Second Coming but as Saviour at His First Coming, had taken their sin upon Himself that He might share His righteousness with them, and the cleansing of His blood had removed the sin from their works, that He might now at the Last Judgement, in an act of pure grace, commend them for the works that did not merit such commendation and could not be so commended apart from His saving mercy.