The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is one of those stories told by Jesus that once you hear it, you will never forget it. The parable is the exclamation mark on a series of parables Jesus told, appearing in Matthew 24-25, about the need for all people to be ready for His return.
Throughout history there have been those who have announced that they had figured it out, they knew the time of the Lord’s return, and they let everyone know. I vividly remember being in Plano, TX and working as a Youth Pastor when a NASA engineer wrote a little book titled, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988.” He had narrowed the time of Jesus’ return to the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, some time between sunset on September 11 and sunset on September 13, of 1988. He mailed 300,000 copies to pastors all over America. I got a copy. He had done his homework. There were Scripture references throughout the little booklet. He detailed each of the 88 reasons. Whisenant said, “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town.” He sold 4.5 million copies of his book. Then Rosh Hashanah came and went in 1988 and Edgar began working on his next book. He kept making predictions. He said Jesus was coming back in 1989, 1993, 1994, and 1997. It’s pretty obvious none of his predictions were right.
In Matthew 24-25 Jesus stressed the importance of being ready. He made it clear to His followers that no one knows the day or the hour of His return, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always be ready. Jesus said,
36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Matthew 24:36 NIVO)
42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. (Matthew 24:42 NIVO)
“Keep watch.” Be ready. In the parables found in Matthew 24-25, we not only learn about the need to be ready, but we also learn about what we should focus on as we live our lives preparing for the return of our King.
In Matthew 25, the Parable of the Talents comes immediately before our parable for today. In the story, a man gave his servants talents. One was given five talents, another two, and a third man was given one talent. Jesus said the men who were given five talents and two talents took their talents and doubled them. The man who had been given one talent, dug a hole, and hid his master’s money. When the master returned, Jesus says, “after a long time,” he settled accounts with his servants. The first man who had been given five talents, gave his master ten talents. Jesus tells us how the master responded,
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matthew 25:21 NIVO)
The man who had taken two talents and turned them into four brought great joy to his master as well, but the man who had taken his one talent, dug a hole, and hid it–he didn’t fare so well. His master called him a “wicked, lazy servant!” He took his one talent and gave it to the man who had ten talents. Then he ordered,
30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 25:30 NIVO)
As we await our King’s return we are not to do as those who believed Edgar Whisenant and quit their jobs. We’re not to follow in the footsteps of those who bought into the idea that Jesus was coming back at the strike of midnight in 2000, at Y2K, and ran up their credit cards, stockpiled food, and moved to the mountains waiting on Jesus’ return. No, as we await the return of our King we are to be about our Father’s business, we are to be good stewards of the time and talents He has given us. And what is our Father’s business? That’s a great question. In the next parable Jesus told, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, we get a glimpse into what was on Jesus’ mind and heart. Let’s read it together beginning in Matthew 25:31.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 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, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 NIVO)
It’s important for us to recognize the setting. Did you catch it? It is the gathering of all people before the judgment of the King. All of the parables Jesus has told, beginning in Matthew 24:32, the Parable of the Thief, the Parable of the Good and Wicked Servants, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and the Parable of the Talents; each of them build one on the next and lead us, all the world, before the judgment of the King.
This is an important biblical truth that has somehow been lost in our day. The popular teaching of the American Church is that you just need to pray a simple prayer and be done with it until you go to heaven. There’s no accountability, no need for discipleship, certainly no sacrifice for the cause of the Kingdom, just live your life. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of us who have received Jesus as Lord of our life, Master of our life, we are called to die to ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Our goals and ambitions are irrelevant. What is of utmost importance is to be about our Father’s business.
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats gives us a snapshot of what the Lord has called us to do. I do need to say that when we study the parables we need to understand that none of them are exhaustive. Each parable is not meant to convey to us the whole truth, but instead they each stress an important biblical truth Jesus wants to teach His people. Let me explain. One of the criticisms I’ve heard about the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is that it teaches works righteousness. I understand their criticism if this is the only section of the Bible we read, but it’s not. We study God’s Word, the entirety of God’s Word, and this is the only way we can understand the truth of God. God has made it clear, over and over again, that we are saved by grace and not by works. Paul wrote,
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIVO)
“Sola fide,” faith alone, was the Reformers battle cry! We are saved by faith alone. Yet, they understood that the faith that saves is never alone. They said, “We are saved by faith alone–but not by faith that remains alone; faith without works is dead, not true justifying faith.” They understood that when Jesus takes over He immediately goes about rearranging our priorities and passions.
In our parable we see the sea of humanity gathered before the King who begins to separate the people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He places the sheep on his right hand, the goats on his left. He then turns to the sheep and says,
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 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, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:34-36 NIVO)
“The Kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” Aren’t those the sweetest words ever to the ears of those who love Jesus?! What’s startling is what comes next. No mention of serving as an Elder or Deacon. No mention of preaching sermons. No mention of teaching Sunday school or hosting an Alpha or being a BSF leader or singing in the choir. Jesus said, “I was hungry…I was thirsty…I was a stranger…I needed clothes…I was sick…I was in prison…and you met my need.”
Now, immediately, those of us who sing in the choir, preach and teach, and serve as Deacons and Elders get all in a huff. “Well, what about what I’m doing?” If we do that we’re missing the point. It’s good to teach God’s Word. It’s good to use your gifts to sing and serve, but don’t do those to the neglect of meeting the needs of those Jesus calls, “the least of these.” That’s an important phrase.
I’ve got to tell you the tide is turning in what people are saying about just who Jesus had on His mind when He pointed out the “least of these brothers.” I don’t want to bore you with detail so let me simply tell you that folks are debating whether Jesus meant the “least of these brothers” to be his ethnic kinfolks, the Jews, or other Christians, even Christian missionaries, or the poor and needy. It is becoming more and more popular, and accepted, to teach that Jesus was referring to suffering Christians, but I don’t buy it. Certainly we are to love, and serve, and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul wrote to the church in Galatia,
9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:9-10 NIVO)
Our love and care begin with those who are closest to us, but it’s not to stop there. I’ve got to take a moment and let you know how grateful I am for all of you and the love you have shown Somer, Emilio, and their family this week once you learned that little Elias had died. Their family is our family. Su familia es nuestra familia. You have filled the Care Calendar with a month of meals, you’ve given over $6,000 to pay for Elias funeral arrangements, you’ve gone to their home, called to express your love, and prayed for them. You are the picture of what Paul was writing about when he wrote to the brothers and sisters in Galatia.
Our love and help, though beginning with those who are in our family of believers here at Britton Christian Church doesn’t stop with our family. There are many who are hurting all around us and God’s Word is crystal clear about our relationship to those who are hurting. James, the brother of Jesus, put it this way,
27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27 NIVO)
James writes, in James 2:13, that judgment without mercy will be shown to those who didn’t show mercy to others. D.A. Carson writes, “This is not because caring for the poor saves you, but because it is the inevitable outcome of saving, justifying faith.” Caring for the poor, the hurting, the marginalized in society is not a New Testament concept that came about with Jesus’ teaching. Jesus was merely emphasizing the heart of God shown throughout the whole Bible, beginning in the Old Testament. Let me just show you one example.
In Isaiah’s day the people were showing up at God’s house. They were singing, praying, and crying out to God, but God saw right through them. He says, “they seem eager to know my ways…” God told them, “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.” (Isaiah 58:3 NIVO) And then, beginning in verse 5, God speaks to His people.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:5-7 NIVO)
“Loose the chains of injustice…set the oppressed free…share your food with the hungry…provide shelter for the homeless…clothe the naked…don’t turn away from your own.” Sound familiar? Back in Matthew 25, when the righteous were told they had inherited the Kingdom because they had met Jesus in the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned they were shocked. They said, “Lord, when did we see You hungry? When did we see You?”
40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
I want to show you something that is important. The Greek word translated, “least,” is the word, “?????????” (elachistos) and it means, “smallest, least in importance, in the estimation of people, in rank or excellence.” It’s a word used to categorize the insignificant among us, according to the opinions of others. Jesus stands with the least, He counts Himself among the least, He makes His home among the least, and while He was walking this earth He was seen by so many as the least, the insignificant. It was not a mistake, it was according to God’s plan. In Isaiah 53 we read the prophecy of the coming Messiah. Listen to this,
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:2-3 NIVO)
“No beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Just another guy in the eyes of the world who was in reality the King of Glory!
The second part of the parable is about the goats, those who were on the King’s left. To the sheep the King had said, “Welcome to the Kingdom!” To the goats, He said, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The King tells them that he was hungry, he was thirsty, he was in the same predicaments that the sheep found him in, and took the time to help, but the goats didn’t help him. They walked on by. They, like the priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, just passed by on the other side. They didn’t have any extra food, they were too busy to buy a bottle of water, prisons are scary, and naked people…surely they’ve got mental illness! And then there are those who just don’t want to get their hands dirty, they are uncomfortable with “those” kinds of people so they send a check to the United Way, at Thanksgiving they send a check to buy turkeys for BritVil, and at Christmas they send a check to the Jesus’ House. Once again, those are wonderful things to do, but not to the neglect of “sending” ourselves to the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, and imprisoned. Jesus said, “you gave me something to eat…you gave me something to drink…you clothed me…you invited me in…you looked after me…you came to visit me.”
Millions of dollars are spent by churches each year hiring consultants, sending staff and ministry leaders to conferences, and buying the latest equipment to make their church more appealing to those outside the church. Church growth has been a buzz word for decades now. I was reading an article this past week by Dr. Rodney Stark about the explosive growth of the early Church. I was so intrigued that I wanted to learn more. Dr. Stark has written more than 30 books, but the book I read from is called, “The Rise of Christianity.” In the book he describes how the rapid growth of the followers of Jesus had much to do with their message, the hope found in Jesus, and in the way those early followers of Jesus loved those who were hurting and alienated in their cities. He writes,
…Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world…Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services…For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable. (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, Princeton University Press, 1996, page 161.)
I’m convinced what our city needs is for us, the followers of Jesus, to leave the stained glass sanctuary each Sunday and intentionally, purposefully, and consistently take the Gospel to those who are hurting, those who are lost, to the least among us so they might come to know the hope that only comes through knowing and walking with Jesus.
I’ve lived in Oklahoma City for almost thirty years now. Things are so much different than when I arrived. Tons of money has been spent on making Oklahoma City a better, more vibrant city and yet we’re no different than we were when I moved here. There are hurting people all around us. Lonely people at every turn. Addicts dying on a daily basis. Hungry people, thirsty people walking the streets. We’ve got more beds in prison cells than ever before. “The fields are ripe for harvest,” Jesus said, “but the workers are few.” Lord, give us eyes to see and hearts that are broken for the least of these.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
February 10, 2019