What Future for the Sheep and the Goats?
“He will separate people one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”—MATTHEW 25:32.
1, 2. Why should the parable of the sheep and the goats interest us?
JESUS CHRIST certainly was the greatest Teacher on earth. (John 7:46) One of his teaching methods was the use of parables, or illustrations. (Matthew 13:34, 35) These were simple yet powerful in conveying deep spiritual and prophetic truths.
2 In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus pointed to a time for him to act in a special capacity: “When the Son of man arrives in his glory, and . . .” (Matthew 25:31) This should interest us because it is the illustration with which Jesus concludes his reply to the question: “What will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?” (Matthew 24:3) But what does this mean for us?
3. Earlier in his discourse, what did Jesus say would develop immediately after the great tribulation begins?
3 Jesus foretold striking developments to come “immediately after” the outbreak of great tribulation, developments we await. He said that then “the sign of the Son of man” would appear. This will profoundly affect “all the tribes of the earth” who will “see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” The Son of man will be accompanied by “his angels.” (Matthew 24:21, 29-31)* What of the parable of the sheep and the goats? Modern Bibles put it in Mt chapter 25, but it is part of Jesus’ reply, giving further details about his coming in glory and focusing on his judging of “all the nations.”—Matthew 25:32.
Figures in the Parable
4. What opening mention does the parable of the sheep and the goats make about Jesus, and who else comes into the picture?
4 Jesus begins the parable by saying: “When the Son of man arrives.” You likely know who “the Son of man” is. Gospel writers often applied that expression to Jesus. Even Jesus himself did so, no doubt having in mind Daniel’s vision of “someone like a son of man” approaching the Ancient of Days to receive “rulership and dignity and kingdom.” (Daniel 7:13, 14; Matthew 26:63, 64; Mark 14:61, 62) While Jesus is the principal one in this parable, he is not alone. Earlier in this discourse, as quoted at Matthew 24:30, 31, he said that when the Son of man ‘comes with power and great glory,’ his angels will play a vital role. Similarly, the parable of the sheep and the goats shows angels with Jesus when he ‘sits down on his glorious throne’ to judge. (Compare Matthew 16:27.) But the Judge and his angels are in heaven, so are humans discussed in the parable?
5. How can we identify Jesus’ “brothers”?
5 A glance at the parable reveals three groups that we need to identify. In addition to the sheep and the goats, the Son of man adds the third group whose identity is pivotal to identifying the sheep and the goats. Jesus calls this third group his spiritual brothers. (Matthew 25:40, 45) They must be true worshipers, for Jesus said: “Whoever does the will of my Father . . . , the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:50; John 20:17) More to the point, Paul wrote of Christians who are part of “Abraham’s seed” and who are sons of God. He called these Jesus’ “brothers” and “partakers of the heavenly calling.”—Hebrews 2:9–3:1; Galatians 3:26, 29.
6. Who are “the least” of Jesus’ brothers?
6 Why did Jesus mention “the least” of his brothers? Those words echo what the apostles heard him say earlier. When contrasting John the Baptist, who died before Jesus and therefore had an earthly hope, with those attaining to heavenly life, Jesus said: “There has not been raised up a greater than John the Baptist; but a person that is a lesser one in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he is.” (Matthew 11:11) Some going to heaven may have been prominent in the congregation, like the apostles, and others less so, but they are all Jesus’ spiritual brothers. (Luke 16:10; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:8; Hebrews 8:11) Thus, even if some seemed insignificant on earth, they were his brothers and should have been treated accordingly.
Who Are the Sheep and the Goats?
7, 8. What did Jesus say about the sheep, so what can we conclude about them?
7 We read concerning the judging of the sheep: “[Jesus] will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I became hungry and you gave me something to eat; I got thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you received me hospitably; naked, and you clothed me. I fell sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous ones will answer him with the words, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and receive you hospitably, or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to you?’ And in reply the king will say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, To the extent that you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”—Matthew 25:34-40.
8 Obviously, the sheep judged worthy of being on Jesus’ right side of honor and favor represent a class of humans. (Ephesians 1:20; Hebrews 1:3) What did they do and when? Jesus says that they kindly, respectfully, and generously gave him food, drink, and clothing, aiding him when he was sick or in prison. When the sheep say that they had not done this to Jesus personally, he points out that they did support his spiritual brothers, the remnant of anointed Christians, so in that sense they did it to him.
9. Why does the parable not apply during the Millennium?
9 The parable does not apply during the Millennium, for the anointed will not then be humans suffering hunger, thirst, sickness, or imprisonment. Many of them, though, have experienced such during the conclusion of this system of things. Ever since Satan was cast down to earth, he has made the remnant a special object of his fury, bringing on them ridicule, torture, and death.—Revelation 12:17.
10, 11. (a) Why is it unreasonable to think that the sheep include everyone doing a kind deed to Jesus’ brothers? (b) Whom do the sheep fittingly represent?
10 Is Jesus saying that everyone doing a small kindness to one of his brothers, such as offering a piece of bread or a glass of water, qualifies as one of these sheep? Granted, rendering such kindnesses may reflect human kindness, but really, it seems that much more is involved with the sheep of this parable. Jesus was hardly referring, for example, to atheists or clergymen who happen to do a kind act to one of his brothers. On the contrary, Jesus twice called the sheep “righteous ones.” (Matthew 25:37, 46) So the sheep must be ones who over a period of time have come to the aid of—actively supporting—Christ’s brothers and have exercised faith to the extent of receiving a righteous standing before God.
11 Over the centuries, many such as Abraham have enjoyed a righteous standing. (James 2:21-23) Noah, Abraham, and other faithful ones count among the “other sheep” who will inherit life in Paradise under God’s Kingdom. In recent times millions more have taken up true worship as other sheep and have become “one flock” with the anointed. (John 10:16; Revelation 7:9) These with earthly hopes recognize Jesus’ brothers as ambassadors of the Kingdom and have therefore aided them—literally and spiritually. Jesus counts as done to him what the other sheep do for his brothers on earth. Such ones who are alive when he comes to judge the nations will be judged as sheep.
12. Why might the sheep ask how they had done kindnesses to Jesus?
12 If the other sheep are now preaching the good news with the anointed and aiding them, why would they ask: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you something to drink?” (Matthew 25:37) There could be various reasons. This is a parable. By means of it, Jesus shows his deep concern for his spiritual brothers; he feels with them, suffers with them. Jesus had earlier said: “He that receives you receives me also, and he that receives me receives him also that sent me forth.” (Matthew 10:40) In this illustration, Jesus extends the principle, showing that what is done (good or bad) to his brothers reaches even into heaven; it is as if it is done to him in heaven. Also, Jesus here emphasizes Jehovah’s standard for judging, making it clear that God’s judgment, whether favorable or condemnatory, is valid and just. The goats cannot offer the excuse, ‘Well, if only we had seen you directly.’
13. Why might goatlike ones address Jesus as “Lord”?
13 Once we appreciate when it is that the judgment shown in this parable is rendered, we get a clearer view of who the goats are. The fulfillment is when “the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in lamentation, and they will see the Son of man coming . . . with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:29, 30) Survivors of the tribulation on Babylon the Great who have treated the King’s brothers despitefully may now desperately address the Judge as “Lord,” hoping to save their lives.—Matthew 7:22, 23; compare Revelation 6:15-17.
14. On what basis will Jesus judge the sheep and the goats?
14 However, Jesus’ judgment will not be based on desperate claims from former churchgoers, atheists, or others. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Instead, the judge will review the heart condition and past actions of people toward even “one of these least ones [of his brothers].” Admittedly, the number of anointed Christians left on earth is declining. However, as long as the anointed, making up “the faithful and discreet slave,” continue to provide spiritual food and direction, prospective sheep have an opportunity to do good to the slave class, just as the ‘great crowd out of all nations and tribes and peoples’ have done.—Revelation 7:9, 14.
15. (a) How have many shown themselves to be like goats? (b) Why should we avoid stating whether someone is a sheep or a goat?
15 How have Christ’s brothers and the millions of other sheep united with them as one flock been treated? Many people may not personally have attacked Christ’s representatives, but neither have they treated his people lovingly. Preferring the wicked world, goatlike ones reject the Kingdom message, whether hearing it directly or indirectly. (1 John 2:15-17) Of course, in the final analysis, Jesus is the one who is appointed to render judgment. It is not for us to determine who are sheep and who are goats.—Mark 2:8; Luke 5:22; John 2:24, 25; Romans 14:10-12; 1 Corinthians 4:5.
What Future for Each Group?
16, 17. What future will the sheep have?
16 Jesus gave his judgment of the sheep: “Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world.” What a warm invitation—“Come”! To what? To everlasting life, as he expressed in summation: “The righteous [will enter] into everlasting life.”—Matthew 25:34, 46.
17 In the parable of the talents, Jesus showed what is required of those who will rule with him in heaven, but in this parable he shows what is expected of the Kingdom’s subjects. (Matthew 25:14-23) Pointedly, because of their undivided support of Jesus’ brothers, the sheep inherit a place in the earthly realm of his Kingdom. They will enjoy life on a paradise earth—a prospect that God prepared for them “from the founding of the world” of redeemable humans.—Luke 11:50, 51.
18, 19. (a) Jesus will render what judgment of the goats? (b) How can we be sure that the goats will not face eternal suffering?
18 What a contrast is the judgment executed on the goats! “Then he will say, in turn, to those on his left, ‘Be on your way from me, you who have been cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I became hungry, but you gave me nothing to eat, and I got thirsty, but you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger, but you did not receive me hospitably; naked, but you did not clothe me; sick and in prison, but you did not look after me.’ Then they also will answer with the words, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them with the words, ‘Truly I say to you, To the extent that you did not do it to one of these least ones, you did not do it to me.’”—Matthew 25:41-45.
19 Bible students know that this cannot mean that immortal souls of goatlike ones will suffer in an eternal fire. No, for humans are souls; they do not possess immortal souls. (Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Ezekiel 18:4) By sentencing the goats to “everlasting fire,” the Judge means destruction devoid of a future hope, which will also be the permanent end for the Devil and his demons. (Revelation 20:10, 14) Hence, Jehovah’s Judge sets out opposites. He tells the sheep, “Come”; the goats, “Be on your way from me.” The sheep will inherit “everlasting life.” The goats will receive “everlasting cutting-off.”—Matthew 25:46.*
What Does It Mean for Us?
20, 21. (a) Christians have what important work to do? (b) What dividing is now going on? (c) What will be the situation of people when the parable of the sheep and the goats begins to be fulfilled?
20 The four apostles who heard Jesus’ reply about the sign of his presence and the conclusion of the system had much to consider. They would need to keep awake and on the watch. (Matthew 24:42) They would also need to do the witnessing work mentioned at Mark 13:10. Jehovah’s Witnesses are energetically engaged in that work today.
21 What, though, does this fresh understanding of the parable of the sheep and the goats mean to us? Well, people are already taking sides. Some are on ‘the broad road leading off into destruction,’ while others try to stay on ‘the cramped road leading off into life.’ (Matthew 7:13, 14) But the time when Jesus will pronounce final judgment on the sheep and the goats depicted in the parable is yet ahead. When the Son of man comes in the role of Judge, he will determine that many true Christians—actually “a great crowd” of dedicated sheep—will qualify to pass through the final part of “the great tribulation” into the new world. That prospect should now be a source of joy. (Revelation 7:9, 14) On the other hand, vast numbers out of “all the nations” will have proved themselves to be like stubborn goats. They “will depart into everlasting cutting-off.” What a relief for the earth!
22, 23. Since the parable’s outworking is yet future, why is our preaching work today vital?
22 While the judging as described in the parable is in the near future, even now something vital is taking place. We Christians are engaged in a lifesaving work of proclaiming a message that causes a division among people. (Matthew 10:32-39) Paul wrote: “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of Jehovah will be saved.’ However, how will they call on him in whom they have not put faith? How, in turn, will they put faith in him of whom they have not heard? How, in turn, will they hear without someone to preach?” (Romans 10:13, 14) Our public ministry is reaching people in over 230 lands with the name of God and his message of salvation. The anointed brothers of Christ are still spearheading this work. Some five million of the other sheep have now joined them. And people around the globe are responding to the message proclaimed by Jesus’ brothers.
23 Many are exposed to our message as we preach from house to house or informally. Others may learn of Jehovah’s Witnesses and what we represent in ways unknown to us. When judgment time arrives, to what extent will Jesus consider community responsibility and family merit? We cannot say, and it is pointless to speculate. (Compare 1 Corinthians 7:14.) Many now turn a deaf ear, ridicule, or share in outright persecution of God’s people. Hence, this is a crucial time; such ones may be developing into those whom Jesus will judge as goats.—Matthew 10:22; John 15:20; 16:2, 3; Romans 2:5, 6.
24. (a) Why is it important for individuals to respond favorably to our preaching? (b) This study has helped you personally to have what attitude toward your ministry?
24 Happily, though, many respond favorably, study God’s Word, and become Witnesses of Jehovah. Some who at present seem goatlike may change and become like sheep. The point is that those responding and actively supporting the remnant of Christ’s brothers are thereby now giving evidence that will provide a basis for them to be placed on Jesus’ right hand when, in the near future, he sits down on his throne to render judgment. These are being and will continue to be blessed. Thus, this parable should spur us on to more zealous activity in the Christian ministry. Before it is too late, we want to do all we can to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom and in that way give others the opportunity to respond. Then it is up to Jesus to render judgment, condemnatory or favorable.—Matthew 25:46.
El Evangelio de Mateo notes: “Eternal life is definitive life; its opposite is definitive punishment. The Greek adjective aionios does not primarily denote duration, but quality. The definitive punishment is death forever.”—Retired professor Juan Mateos (Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome) and Professor Fernando Camacho (Theological Center, Seville), Madrid, Spain, 1981.
Do You Recall?
□ Who are “the least” of Jesus’ brothers?
□ How does Jesus’ use of the expression “righteous ones” help us to identify whom these represent and whom they do not represent?
□ Though the parable will be fulfilled in the future, why is our preaching now important and urgent?
[Box/Picture on page 24]
NOTE THE PARALLELS
After the great tribulation Son of man arrives
begins, the Son of man comes
Comes with great glory Arrives in glory and sits on
his glorious throne
Angels present with him Angels arrive with him
All tribes of earth see him All nations gathered; goats
judged finally (the great