Sheep and goats are apparently in vogue again, if movie titles are any indication. Whether it is Shaun the Sheep in his debut CG movie, or the horror movie, "Black Sheep: There are 40 Million Sheep in New Zealand and They're Pissed Off!" sheep and goats are becoming center stage. Let's not forget George Clooney's not-so-break-away hit, "Men Who Stare at Goats." Clooney's character is a psychic working for the government who can causes goats to pass out by using his powers. And when I hear the common interpretation of the Sheep and the Goats parable of Jesus, I want to pass out too.
No goats. No glory. Lol.
I realize that the sheep and goats images are deeply implanted into our Christian culture, so all I ask is that you keep an open mind.
The common modern interpretation is that this story is Jesus' description of the final judgment where all the world is brought before the throne for judgment and some go to hell, while others go to heaven. But there are so many problems with that view its just baaaad theology. (Sorry, lol)
Context Is King
In the art of biblical interpretation, it is said that context is king. Actually Jesus is king and the entirety of scripture should be viewed through his lens. Nevertheless, it is true that understanding the original audience, and the context is paramount to interpreting the meaning. In the case of the sheep and the goats it's no different. It's important to remember, then, that the Bible wasn't written TO us, it was simply gathered and sustained as letters FOR us.
Jesus begins this sermon called the Olivet discourse in chapter 23 where he scolds the religious leaders as the Great Prophet and predicts their demise for murdering the saints, and thereby, he says, incurring the self-inflicted wrath of Rome.
Matthew 23:34, Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, 35 that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
At the disciples request, he explains to them that the temple will be destroyed, that there will be persecution which they must endure until the end when he comes in the clouds with judgment. He also tells them what kind of signs will precede this event so that they can be fully aware and alert for this event so as to flee the city when the Romans march toward it.
One argument raised against Matthew 25's sheep and goats story is that it is a different event, but remember there are no chapter headings. This is one unified sermon filled with various illustrations to impact them regarding its fulfillment.
While many scholars admit that Matthew 24 is a description of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Matthew 25 presents us with the language of delay, therefore we are told it is an end of the world scenario instead. But the problem of delay is no problem at all actually. The bridegroom's delay isn't eternal, nor is it 2000 years. Rather he came to THEM in the midnight hour. So too the servants who were given the talents were confronted with the master returning after a long time, but it was to the SAME servants, i.e., in their lifetime.
Forty years SEEMS like a long time (one generation). So much so that Peter (2 Peter 3:4) addresses this because the scoffers in his day are saying "where is the promise of his coming?!" Therefore he urges patience because God is not willing that any perish in the coming sufferings on the city and religious system. Of special note is this: if his coming were to be 2000 years later all Peter needed to say is "what do you mean? Didn't you know his coming is several thousand years in the future?" Words of course that never came from his lips.
Judge For Yourself
Probably no teaching has seeped, like sepsis, into our culture more than the idea of a future judgment. What a confusing idea to impose over this text.
1. Is this a corporate judgment where entire nations themselves are sent to heaven or hell?
2. Or is it that we wait as departed souls till the end of time in heaven as a believer and then emerge from heaven's bliss to be judged and sent back, but this time with rewards?
3. Or the other version of this parable where the last generation of nations of people are judged based on how they treated the Jews (or Christians depending on what version you have heard)?
So nations will be judged based on works? Yet nations are made up of people, so that would mean there are two ways of salvation would it not? One by works based on our response to taking care of the poor and then entering into the bliss of an eternal reward, and one based on faith in the righteousness of Christ taught by Paul and affirmed by the Protestant Reformation?
Wouldn't it make more sense if he is speaking of the apostate Jews who instead of serving the least of these "my brethren" the believing Jews, they were killing them and imprisoning them instead. This is exactly what was happening in that day, Saul of Tarsus being one of the chief persecutors!
What if this judgment, often referred to as THE judgment, was based on covenant eschatology, i.e. the end time of the old covenant, Judah's judgment? Wouldn't that make more sense? Peter was very adamant to describe the timing of this event. He said, "they will give an account to Him who is READY to judge the living and the dead...But the end of ALL THINGS is at hand...For the TIME has come for THE judgment to begin at the house of God..." (2 Peter 4:5,7,17).
This was nothing new in terms of expectation. All eschatology is Jewish covenant eschatology. Plus, not only did Jesus affirm it was coming in that generation (Mt 23), but it was a promise reaching all the way back to Genesis 49:1,10 when Jacob prophesied what would happen to his children/seed "in the last days" when the scepter/kingdom would be removed from Judah! Indeed, it was the judgment of the Law (Deut. 32).
Daniel prophesied the same event in chapter 12 as occurring for times, time and half a time (3 1/2 years-the length of the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans) and when the power of the holy people were shattered (the Law and city).
In order to make certain they understood the timing would be in THEIR LIFETIME, Jesus said, "For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father, with his angels and reward each man according to his deeds. Assuredly I say to you there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
He said some of them would still be alive at this judgment which is according to deeds (Law). But pay particular attention to the elements of this event in that generation. Is this not the same as Matthew 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory." Anyone with an honest heart must acknowledge they are the same.
Too, we often forget the meaning of the word judgment. Typically we ascribe to it the meaning of punishment, and while some form of self-inflicted punishment/justice often does happen (Romans 1), the word itself, krino, means to separate.
What was being separated? The metaphors of the 10 virgins, the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats... were all being separated as describing who were true Jews (of faith; Galatians 3:7), and who were the apostate murderers of Jesus and the saints. Jesus described those apostates as a generation worse than Sodom (Mt. 10:15), or Nineveh (Mt 12:41). Paul notes the wrath of God was nothing more than simply handing them over to the Romans (Romans 1).
All this metaphor and apocalyptic language was common in the prophetic history of Israel and was fulfilled in AD 66-70 when Rome came against the city ending in a complete, catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem as a covenant city. Those who trusted Christ's words fled at the sight of the approaching Romans and were saved from that wrath. Indeed Judah chose the Law's eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, rather than the mercy of God extended to everyone who would believe and escape!
Who Are the Nations?
Wait a minute! Jesus said these are the "nations" being judged. Certainly this becomes prima facie evidence that this was a world-wide event that he is describing right? Not really.
1. The separation metaphor throughout Matthew 23-25 was specific to the Jews. This is true in other parables (Mt 13) as well as the words of John the Baptist himself (Mt. 3:12).
2. As I mentioned earlier, the apostate Jews are identified as having completely broken covenant and now are no different than the pagan nations. They are called Egypt (Gal. 4, Rev. 11:8), Babylon (1 Peter 5:13), Sodom (Rev. 11:8), and Nineveh (Mt 12:41). That alone is significant and sufficient, but there is scholarship that demonstrates how many of the "Jews" of Judah were Edomites as well.
It was the time in covenant history where the followers of Christ are already being called a "holy nation" by comparison. Do you see?
In addition, there are even several references where the Jews are included as a "nation", using the same language usually associated with the pagan people groups in contrast to themselves. But in these passages the word is applied to Jews: Luke 7:5, 23:2, John 11:48, 50-53; 18:35; Acts 10:22; Acts 24:2. Imagine the shock on the faces of those who claimed to be the true sheep, only to discover they were goats instead!
To Hell with the Devil!
Ok, but that doesn't answer the more pertinent question. This seems like a heaven or hell passage doesn't it? This trips people up more than anything else because we are unfamiliar with this eastern language and we misunderstand the meaning of the kingdom by believing it to be a synonym for going to heaven.
The kingdom belongs to an age in which Jesus would rule from righteousness. Jesus came announcing the new era of the kingdom saying it was near, at hand and already present in seed form in the person of Christ. By trusting the anointed king, they entered into relationship with him and his kingdom before it had fully manifest. Daniel 7:14,27 says a period of history was coming in which the everlasting kingdom would begin. Jesus said it began in his day being established in AD70 (Mt 16:27-28). One without religious Law/righteousness clouding its governance. Isaiah 9:7 prophesied that it would be a kingdom that would ever increase in its attendant peace for time without end. But the establishment of that kingdom era would not begin until the end of the old covenant age in AD 70.
To enter the kingdom, was to enter into the new era of history, an eternal age of grace! Not heaven! When Jesus said, "the kingdom of God is within you", if you look closely it means, "the kingdom of God is among you" or "in your midst", i.e. in the person of Christ. Yes of course the converted heart who receives Christ today experiences the kingdom, but don't get the two things confused.
Where debate is fierce is regarding the word aionios! There is not enough space to fully "vet" this word, but please note the following facts:
1. The word is not the equivalent to our English word, eternal (without beginning or end). It is often used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures (LXX) to translate "olam", a Hebrew word often translated "forever". The problem is that the priesthood of Aaron was described as an eternal, olam, aionios, priesthood. Yet that priesthood ended at the end of the Old Covenant age and the introduction to Christ as the priest after the order of Melchizedek. (see Her Gates are Never Shut, by Brad Jersak)
2. Young's Literal Translation of the word aionios, is "age-enduring" because it has time limitations depending on what it modifies. When it modifies God, it means what we think of as eternal. But modifying all else it is of a limited duration.
In this case it joins the language of fire and speaks of the age-enduring fire at the end of the old covenant age. Jerusalem, as we know from the testimony of history burned to the ground with all those within her walls, then temple itself, and their bodies were burned in the valley of Hinnom (Ge-Henna).
But what about Jesus' words about it being "prepared for the devil and his angels"? To touch this is to raise the ire of "dyed in the wool" (pun intended) sheep who cut their teeth on hell-fire and brimstone preaching. They fear that to interpret these passages differently than they were taught is akin to rejecting God himself and twisting the scriptures to our own destruction. They are understandably extremely loyal to the images written on their hearts by the fiery preaching of prior generations. But the nature of metaphor and apocalyptic language (sheep, goats, etc) is baptized in symbolism and exaggerated language on purpose. To catch the attention of that generation not this!
The word "devil", diabollos, means slanderer, and accuser. While angels literally mean messengers, which can be spiritual in form, or people who bring a message. Most of us fail to see the connection between the Law and the devil. The Law was the accuser and had no power to make us holy according to Paul, because it could only condemn us. Who were the angels/messengers of the Law? The Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and others.
The Law and its system of organized religion found expression beyond Jerusalem in the synagogues, which Jesus called "synagogues of Satan" (Rev. 2:9, 3:9).
Just like Jesus looked at Peter and said, "Get thee behind me Satan", as Peter was speaking from the realm of flesh, so too the devil and his angels are words to represent the Law and the religious system and its leadership.
To make it even clearer, Jesus said that his ministry of casting out demons would be for naught, in that those who rejected his work would be seven times worse off in THAT generation:
43 “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. 44 Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. SO SHALL IT ALSO BE with THIS wicked generation.”(Mt 12)
So Jerusalem was the place which was the epitome of man-made religion, that created accusation instead of communion, and that place which would burn in an end of the age fire as a monument "forever" of the fruit of religion. It would stand as an event testifying of the self-destructive power of religion which only produces death and accusation.
Here is an actual eye-witness, the historian Josephus. Notice the wailing in the terrible fire for those who refused to listen to Jesus' words and flee the city when they saw the Roman armies approaching (Mt. 24). Josephus records,
“While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered. There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank; children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered; every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance.
Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise – nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.
There were the war cries of the Roman legions as they swept onwards en masse, the yells of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the panic of the people who, cut off above, fled into the arms of the enemy, and their shrieks as they met their fate. The cries on the hill blended with those of the multitudes in the city below; and now many people who were exhausted and tongue-tied as a result of hunger, when they beheld the Temple on fire, found strength once more to lament and wail.
The Temple Mount, everywhere enveloped in flames, seemed to be boiling over from its base; yet the blood seemed more abundant than the flames and the numbers of the slain greater than those of the slayers. The soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives." (Josephus' account appears in: Cornfield, Gaalya ed., Josephus, The Jewish War (1982); Duruy, Victor, History of Rome vol. V (1883).)
Among the tragic events that at this time occurred, the following is more particularly deserving of notice: A false prophet, pretending to be a divine commission, said that if the people would flee to the Temple, they should behold signs of their speedy deliverance. Accordingly, about six thousand people, chiefly women and children, assembled in a gallery that was yet standing, on the outside of the building. While they waited in anxious expectation of the promised miracle, the Romans, with the most wanton barbarity, set fire to the gallery. Multitudes, rendered frantic by their horrible situation, threw themselves from the gallery onto the ruins below and were killed by the fall. Meanwhile, awful to relate, the rest, without a single exception, perished in the flames. (Welton, Jonathan (2013-11-01). Raptureless: An Optimistic Guide to the End of the World - Revised Edition Including The Art of Revelation (Kindle Locations 1380-1385). BookBaby. Kindle Edition.)
Would you prayerfully, and honestly reflect on this passage, rather than reacting because it differs with what you have been taught? This passage has nothing to do with "hell" or "final end time judgment". You would have to find that somewhere else.
We live in a new era of history where the kingdom rules in increasing influence and measure. We look back on the saints of that day honoring those who passed through the fires of persecution, avoided the fires of Jerusalem, and entered into the single covenant age of the kingdom of God marked by the delight of God. This is a kingdom that has been advancing ever so slightly for 2000 years. With turmoil in the world, what the world needs are sheep on fire with hope and confidence in an optimistic kingdom. Will you be one of those?
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