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Meaning of the separation of sheep and goats

Call to discipleship: the passage in the gospel of Matthew about the separation of sheep and goats is partly about the importance of how we treat others

Sunday was the last in the Christian year, over which we tell the story of Jesus Christ in the world. It was called Christ the King, and on the first Sunday in December we start the story all over again with the season we call Advent, the time of waiting with its lead-up to Christ entering the world, celebrated at Christmas.

The set Bible reading last Sunday was from the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Verses 31-46, and I find it difficult to summarise what Jesus was saying and how he was saying it. I highly recommend you read it, however, for those not within reach of a Bible, it speaks of the separation of the sheep and goats, eternal life and punishment, and a discourse on the importance of how we treat others.

The passage was and is about the judgement of the world and it is a call to discipleship, expressing something of God’s heart for the poor and marginalised, however it is wrapped up in apocalyptic language, harking back to the ancient prophet Daniel in the Old Testament, and has a poetic, rhythmic quality and structure associated with poetic prose.

To confound matters, across the ages, it is a passage that has been interpreted widely differently by Bible scholars and theologians. For some, it is purely eschatological, meaning it points to end times yet to come — either literally or symbolically. For others it is firmly immanent, set in the context of Christ’s present ministry. Yet, for me, it is both.

First, the context of when Jesus was saying this was right after Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem (hailed as king) and right before he was anointed at Bethany (something done to kings), and before he was crucified (heralded as King of the Jews).

It is a passage coming on the heels of other parables featuring kings and even begins with the “Son of Man” sitting on his throne (something kings do). In other words, the passage is set within and embedded in the theme of the kingship of Christ and what the king expects of us, his subjects.

Second, we know that the cross of Christ has an impact on all of history, reaching back to the beginning of time, and stretching forward into eternity. Jesus died on the Cross for all humanity, for everyone who ever existed in the past and who would ever exist in the future.

Like a stone thrown into a lake, the ripples extended in every direction, back towards the shore from which it was thrown, and towards the far, distant shore, currently out of sight.

Third, we know that the Cross of Christ is synonymous with the throne of Christ and that the Cross is described as Christ coming into his glory.

We know that through the Cross, all are effectively judged and can be justified in and through Christ. We know that eternal life means “life in all its fullness in the here and now and forever” and that this is available to us in the present, and we know we can meet the risen Christ in the here and now.

Because of these three things, I think, because we humans are locked into linear time, we make the mistake of thinking something must be either in the past, present, or future. Yet, we must remember that God is outside time.

So, in a sense, when Jesus talked about ascending to his throne and coming in glory yes, it was to come, but also has been and will be! The sheep have been separated from the goats, they are being, and they will be. It is why the Apostle Paul writes, “I was saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved.”

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes the church makes is when it makes eternity our focus or when preachers preach that salvation is about “getting into heaven” or making sure “we do not go to hell”, for this is missing the point. The point is how we live in the here and now, as those called to be Christ-followers and to join in with God’s restoration for the world.

For example, in last Sunday’s Bible passage Jesus spends most of his time poetically talking about the difference we are called to make in the here and now — especially to the poor and marginalised.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:25-26, 40).

The story of Christ in the world is a story of God saving us and calling us to his mission and ministry. As, this year, we reach the end of our telling of the story, we are reminded of the kingship of Christ; a Christ who descended from his throne to invite us into his kingdom; a Christ who asks us to pray, “Your Kingdom come” and to live it out; a Christ who was, and is, and is to come, and who we can meet today. So, in the words of Psalm 95, let us, “bow down and kneel before the Lord our Maker, for he is our God; we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand”.


Psalm 95.1–7

O come, let us sing to the Lord;

let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation.

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving

and be glad in him with psalms.

For the Lord is a great God

and a great king above all gods.

In his hand are the depths of the earth

and the heights of the mountains are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it,

and his hands have moulded the dry land.

Come, let us worship and bow down

and kneel before the Lord our Maker.

For he is our God;

we are the people of his pasture

and the sheep of his hand.

The Reverend Gavin Tyte is pastor at St Mark’s Church. Visit stmarks.bm

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Published December 02, 2023 at 7:59 am (Updated December 02, 2023 at 7:16 am)

Meaning of the separation of sheep and goats

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