Bible Study Tools / Service

The Sheep and the Goats

by Kevin Ford
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels

Have you ever wondered what Jesus Christ will say to you when you meet Him for the very first time? All kinds of possibilities may occur to you, based on different scriptures. Some, remembering the parables of the talents and the pounds, may think it likely that the King of kings will simply make a brief reference to their new duties in the Kingdom of God. Others may hope to receive also a commendation of the order of: “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

Some may think it unlikely that they would be addressed personally, but would probably be included as part of a large assembled group of newly-resurrected saints. Have you ever considered a somewhat different possibility, based on the well-known parable of ‘The Sheep and the Goats’?

In this account, found in Matthew 25, we read of a separation of humanity that is to take place, with some, called the “sheep”, to be placed on Jesus Christ’s right hand, and the others, the “goats”, on his left. The separation, it should be noted, is decided not by ethnic origin, or by the extent of their Bible knowledge, or by any number of other criteria that might be considered important by some, but to the degree they have practiced basic human love and kindness in their lives. But what is also noteworthy are the words that Christ addresses to these groups.

To the righteous, the ‘sheep’, Christ says: “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 food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in...” (verses 34-35). A conversation then follows, with the righteous, astonished by His words, responding with embarrassment that they had never performed such acts of kindness for their Saviour.

Let’s return to the question we asked at the beginning. Is it conceivable, based on what we have just read, that Christ might actually say something like this to you? “Thank you for all the times you phoned me when I was lonely and depressed”; or “Thank you for going out of your way every Sabbath to give me a ride to church”; or “Thank you for the hot meals you brought round to me that time I was discharged from hospital”; or “Thank you for the many times you went down on those arthritic knees to wash my feet at the Passover”; or even, with a twinkle in His eye, “Thank you for that time when I lost my temper and said those cruel things, and afterwards, when I came to apologize, you didn’t even wait for me to finish, but just reached out and hugged me”.

Just imagine it ! And like the individuals in the parable, wouldn’t you, too, mumble in embarrassment, “But Lord, you know I never actually did any of those things for you”. And Jesus Christ will likely respond, “Yes, of course I realize that! But you did them for many of your brothers and sisters in the church, and whatever you did for them I took VERY, VERY PERSONALLY!”

There is nothing here that we really don’t know already, but it’s vitally important that we learn and never forget the lesson of this parable, because it can transform the way we think of our brethren. It has been observed that we Christians have been brought together in a rather curious way. If it were not for our calling, it is unlikely that we would ever have come to know the other members of our local congregation. But now we do know them, they are our brothers and sisters, and they are much more than that, because each one in a very real sense is a physical manifestation of Jesus Christ in our lives. And if we do not treat them as we should, He will not simply come to us and say, “Why have you treated them this way?” He will say: “WHY DID YOU TREAT ME THIS WAY?”

Some fifteen years ago, I heard a minister relate an incident that had taken place in a congregation of God’s Church in the U.S.

A young man was called into the truth and began attending this congregation. Now, he suffered from acute shyness, not just in the usual sense, but to a pathological degree that made it almost impossible for him to talk to anyone. Because of this, he would arrive just as the service was due to begin and take a seat at the back. After the service concluded, he could have left immediately, but he really did want to be with God’s people, so he stood at the back of the hall by himself, still unable to approach people. Sometimes someone would attempt a conversation with him, but mostly he was ignored. After a few weeks the pastor came to him and asked him to stop coming to church because he was “making people feel uncomfortable”. Perhaps we can imagine the terrible question that might be asked by Jesus Christ on the day when He separates the Sheep from the Goats.

Lev Tolstoy, the celebrated Russian author, once wrote a short story of some fourteen pages entitled “Where Love Is, God Is”. In this story, a poor cobbler Called, Martin Avdéich, hears a voice one night that he understands to be the voice of Christ. The voice told him that his Saviour will visit him next day. Martin is excited, and next morning he carefully prepares his little basement dwelling for this momentous occasion and watches from the window.

A figure standing with his back to the window causes him momentary excitement, but it turns out to be only old Stepánich, a neighbour employed to clear snow off the streets. He notices, though, that Stepánich looks cold and exhausted, so he brings him in to warm up and have some tea.

Then, a little later, he sees a woman with a baby outside his window. He invites her in and learns that her husband, a soldier, has been sent to the front, and because she has no money for food, she cannot produce milk for her baby. Martin gives her food, and a spare coat.

Still later, a woman selling fruit has an apple stolen by a hungry boy. She seizes the boy, and wants to take him to the police to be punished, but Martin intervenes and tells her that he will pay for the apple. He asks the boy to apologize and the woman to forgive him. Finally they leave together, the boy offering to help the woman carry her heavy sack.

That night, as he prepares to light his lamp, he realizes that his Saviour has still not come as promised, but then he seems to see figures in a dark corner of his room, and a voice whispers in his ear, “Martin, Martin, don’t you know me?”. “Who is it?’, he asks. Then old Stepánich appears, says “It is I”, smiles and disappears. Then the soldier’s wife and her baby appear, she smiles and the baby laughs, and they both vanish. Finally the woman and the boy, and they too smile and vanish. Martin then notices that his Bible, instead of opening to the last page he had been reading, is open at a different place, and at the top of the page he reads: “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”. And at the bottom of the page, he reads: “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”.

Tolstoy then concludes his story with the words: “And Martin understood that his dream had come true, and that the Saviour had really come to him that day, and he had welcomed Him!”

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