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Monday, July 22, 2013

Sheep and Goats

In Matthew 25 Jesus gives the famous "Sheep and the Goats Parable". He describes how the goats did not do some things and how the sheep did do those things. The goats failed to "do them unto Me" and the sheep "did them unto Me". Both were unaware that they were doing or failing to do any of this to Christ, but they were. So doing good to "the least of these My brethren" is something the sheep did and the goats failed to do.

Some have concluded that the difference, then, between a sheep and a goat in this illustration is what they did or didn't do. I find this conclusion, quite frankly, ludicrous. First, if the sheep "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt 25:34) because of what they did, then Paul was in error and we are saved by works. Thus, this cannot be what Jesus is teaching. So what else is the difference between the sheep and the goats? This is almost too painful to say because it's too obvious, but the difference is that some are sheep and some are goats. Sheep are not goats and vice versa. The difference between the sheep and the goats was that they were different to start with.

So what's all this about what they did or didn't do? What's the point? Consider this. You're a city fellow and don't really know the difference between a sheep and a goat. They look similar (at least to a city guy) and you're just not up on this stuff. So you find yourself in a pen with ... one or the other. And you call a friend. "I'm in a pen with either sheep or goats and I don't know which." The friend asks some pertinent questions. "Are they curious, or do they tend to stay in a group?" "They tend to stay in a group over there." "Are they eating leaves or grass?" You tell him, "They are eating grass." "Okay," he says, "you're looking at sheep." And he'd likely be right. Now, are they sheep because they tend to stay in a flock and eat grass (as opposed to being more independent and eating leaves ... or just about anything else)? Does what they do make them sheep? No, of course not. You couldn't have a sheep who, watching a flock of goats, decided to wander about and eat leaves and, thus, become a goat. It doesn't work that way. No, these things differentiate between similar animals, but don't make them these different animals.

That was the point. The sheep and the goats were already sheep and goats when Jesus gathered them in the parable on the last day. They were already what they were, and while they may have appeared similar, they were different. Jesus demonstrated that they were (already) different by what they did. What they did didn't make them different. They were already different. What they did illustrated their differences. In other words, sheep did what sheep do and goats did what goats do.

Fine. So what's my point? This is a big thing, often missed in Christendom. John wrote, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9). So this "sheep" tries being a "goat" and sinning and finds that he just cannot. ("Cannot" is not my word; it's the word in the text.) A "goat", on the other hand, has no trouble remaining in sin. Or Paul writes, "We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:10) and "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:12-13). The "goat" tries to work out salvation and do good works and finds that he cannot sustain this (or even achieve this version of "good works") because the "goat" doesn't have God at work in him (or her) enabling his will and his ability to do good. A "sheep" does. What do we often miss? We miss the simple, biblical fact that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). We miss the reality that those who are born of God actually change, actually are transformed, actually perform good works.

Human beings always act on what we truly believe. We always act according to our nature. Thus, a genuine believer will act differently by necessity than an unbeliever, and one born of God will have a different nature than one not born of God. Lots of Christians try to strip out obedience from Christianity. "That's legalism." It's not. It's simply a fact of nature. We do what we are. Sheep do good to others; goats do not. (Indeed, sheep do good to other sheep, according to Jesus. It is "the least of these brothers of Mine" in view. See Matt 25:40.)

The parable of the sheep and the goats is not a story about being saved by what you did or didn't do. It's about doing what you are and using what you do as an indicator of what you are. Do you seek to do good to other believers? You're more likely a sheep -- and that's a good thing. Are you not too concerned about the welfare of believers? That might be a warning indicator, something to look into. You might be a billy goat and that's not funny or cute. That's tragic.

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