The age-old story of the Sheep and the Goats has been used to frighten countless generations. Did Jesus mean it to be used for that purpose? Or have we got it all wrong? Here it is in Young’s Literal Translation (revised).
‘And whenever the Son of Man may come in his glory, and all the holy messengers with him, then he shall sit upon a throne of his glory; and gathered together before him shall be all the nations, and he shall separate them from one another, as the shepherd does separate the sheep from the goats, and he shall set the sheep indeed on his right hand, and the goats on the left.
‘Then shall the king say to those on his right hand, Come you, the blessed of my Father, inherit the reign that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I did hunger, and you gave me to eat; I did thirst, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you received me; naked, and you put around me; I was infirm, and you looked after me; in prison I was, and you came unto me.
‘Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungering, and we nourished? Or thirsting, and we gave to drink? And when did we see you a stranger, and we received? Or naked, and we put around? And when did we see you infirm, or in prison, and we came unto you?
‘And the king answering, shall say to them, Verily I say to you, Inasmuch as you did it to one of these my brethren — the least — to me you did it.
Then shall he say also to those on the left hand, Go you from me, the cursed, to the fire, the age-during, that has been prepared for the Devil and his messengers; for I did hunger, and you gave me not to eat; I did thirst, and you gave me not to drink; a stranger I was, and you did not receive me; naked, and you put not around me; infirm, and in prison, and you did not look after me.
‘Then shall they answer, they also, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungering, or thirsting, or a stranger, or naked, or infirm, or in prison, and we did not minister to you?
‘Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say to you, Inasmuch as you did it not to one of these, the least, you did it not to me. And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.’ (Matthew 25:31-46 RYLT-NT)
But what does it mean? Knowing the meaning of the words in this passage is, as always, vital. In this case, a little translational discrepancy creeps in at the very beginning, with the sheep and the goats. What does it really say?
and in front of Him shall be gathered all the nations. And He shall be severing them from one another even as a shepherd is severing the sheep from the kids. (Mat 25:32 CLV)
This is a little bit better, but even the Concordant Literal Version, in the interest of a simple one-word translation, renders “probaton” as “sheep”. If you want to be accurate, you should understand that probaton referred to any of a number of mature four-footed tame animals accustomed to graze. Jesus was not specifying sheep and goats, as we do when we say “sheep and goats.” He was referring to mature small grazing animals; small cattle, sheep, goats, and to baby (kid) goats. The distinction Jesus was making here was one of maturity, not species or type. We could call it the parable of the small tame four-footed grazing animals and the baby goats, but admittedly that lacks a certain something.
Another translational “problem” is the matter of eternity, eternal, and age-during. Most translations will render this as eternal, everlasting, never-ending, and so on. For a discussion of aion/aionios (which doesn’t in fact mean never-ending), see my posts: What’s in an Eternity? and Does an Eternity Have to be Forever? For now, I’ll just assume you’ve read them (or similar) and not explain that point further in this post.
This parable raises some questions, just in its basic foundations. In John 6, Jesus tells the people (when they ask) that the work the Father wishes them to do in order to inherit aionian (eternal) life is to believe on Him whom He has sent (the Him being Jesus). But here in this parable, Jesus says otherwise, or He seems to. Sheep are accepted based on what they have done. Baby goats are rejected based on what they have NOT done. This sounds like works-based salvation.
But here is another word we need a deeper understanding of — believe. As anyone who has ever struggled through a reading of the Amplified Bible will be able to recite by heart, the word believe doesn’t just signify a mental assent. It unfolds to “rely on, cling to, trust in, adhere to”. (I think I got that right . . .) And if you do those things, you’ll end up being like Jesus. And if you’re like Jesus, you’ll take care of other people who need you. You will know Him, and in knowing Him, you’ll know the Father. In one of Jesus’ last prayers before the Passion, He said, “. . . and this is everlasting (age abiding) life, that they may know You and Jesus the Messiah, whom You have sent.
Eternal life, as it turns out, is far more than unending years and length of days. It is about knowing God. In fact, it IS knowing God. Yes, yes — don’t worry — it does last forever, but honestly that’s not the point. Be real. Hasn’t there ever been a situation that made your life hell to the point you wished you didn’t have to deal with it any more? Who wants more life like that? Eternal life is the life of God in us. It is joy, peace, love, goodness. This is the kind of forever life a person could enjoy, well, forever. And we start living it the moment we forget about ourselves and surrender all to our Father. (Easy to say; hard to do, I know.)
And here’s where we come back to the sheep. You see, the sheep are mature. They’ve placed their own mortal lives on the brazen altar and felt them burn away. They’ve washed in the bronze laver and been made clean. They’ve been crushed into pure, ultra-refined olive oil and converted by the fire of the golden lampstand into light. They’ve been ground into fine flour and baked together into loaves to feed the hungry. They’ve been powdered into fragrant incense and gone up in clouds of sweet-smelling prayer to the Father. And they are ready to enter the Holy of Holies.
The baby goats, on the other hand . . . haven’t. More on that next time.