We don’t act righteously in order to win His approval, on the contrary, we act righteously because we have His approval.
An examination of Matthew 25:31-46
Matthew chapters 24 and 25 record a series of warnings from Yeshua regarding the last days. What begins as a literal warning of events and the coming of, “The Son of Man,” continues in chapter 25 as a series of mashlim/parables that reinforce the weightiness of this teaching. For those who are misled into predictive eschatology (theology of the end times), it’s important to note that all of these parables are premised on the fact that, “The day and the hour are unknown” (Deut. 29:29). Yeshua is quoted at the end of chapter 24 as saying:
“Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.” –Mattitiyahu/Matthew 24:42
The mashlim of chapter 25 are all warnings, beginning with the parable of the ten virgins and continuing with the parable of entrusted wealth, Yeshua intends to emphasize the fact that one who genuinely follows his lord, acts righteously without a second thought. The juxtaposition to this is the wicked servant or servants, who are preoccupied with selfish inaction.
Yeshua is not changing the rules of salvation here. These parables do not teach that righteous acts bring about salvation, on the contrary, they show that righteous acts are the natural outworking of an already transformed person.
Yeshua places great importance on identifying Himself as, “The Son of Man,” prior to the telling of these mashlim. Why is that? He is bringing His Jewish listeners back to the beginning of the end, the prophecies of the great prophet Daniel. We will be unable to understand the mashal of the Sheep and the Goats unless we first understand what it means for Yeshua to be, “The Son of Man”.
THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS
31 “But when the Son of Man comes in His K’vod (glory), and all the malakhim (angels) with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.
Who is this mysterious Son of Man?
13 “I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
14 “And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and sovereignty,
Over all the peoples (ahm), nations (goyim) and human beings (Eenashim) of every language, that they might serve Him,
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed. –Daniel 7:13-14
Many have attempted to explain away this title as nothing more than a generic term referring to human beings, saying that Yeshua simply uses it as an example of what we can become. While this may be true in some cases, it is not true in the context of this passage. On the contrary, the rabbis’ have understood this term to be Messianic for thousands of years. One rabbi in particular, Rabbi Nachman of the Talmud, when commenting on Amos 9:11, calls the Messiah, “Bar Nafle—Son of the fallen (house of David). In other words, “The one who will restore the fallen house of David,” that is, the Messiah. The Hebrew, Bar Nafle is generally assumed to represent the Greek , uios nephelon, meaning, “Son of the clouds,” which refers to the Messiah coming in the clouds as quoted above.
By using the title Son of Man, Yeshua knew that His Jewish listeners would identify it as a reference to the coming Messiah. It is important to note that Yeshua’s candid admission to the High priest in Mark 14:62 is immediately followed by His being condemned by the High priest:
“I AM,” answered Yeshua. “Moreover, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of HaG’vurah (The mighty/powerful One) and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 63 At this, the high priest (cohen hagadol) tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You heard him blaspheme! What is your decision?” And they all declared him guilty and subject to the death penalty. –Mark 14:62-64
Yeshua uses this title a number of times in the gospels and is clearly referencing His second coming (Mark 8:31; Mark 14:62; 2 Th. 1:7; Rev19:11-16).
As a contextual concern relating to our present mashal/parable, we must consider the preceding chapter of Matthew and in particular the quoted words of Yeshua in Matthew 24:30-31:
”And then the banner (nisi) of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the land (eretz: land of Israel) will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. (Daniel 7:13) 31 And He will send forth His angels with a great Shofar sounding and they will gather together His elect (Israel, empirical, ethnic—not the Church) from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.”
Yeshua is quoting two key passages from the Tanakh (OT) here. First He quotes Zechariah 12:10-14, which refers to the day when the people of Israel (empirical, ethnic) will mourn over G-d Whom they’ve pierced as they would mourn over a firstborn son (John 19:37). Second, He quotes the Daniel 7:13 passage, thus affirming His status as the Son of Man and the One Who will gather Israel (empirical, ethnic), the elect from the corners of the earth. This event happens prior to the separating of the nations (goyim) in the mashal/parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Understanding this chronology is essential in properly understanding the mashal.
The calling and ingathering of Israel, the elect (empirical, ethnic, not the Church), happens prior to the gathering together of the nations. Why is this? It’s because Judgement comes first to the Jews and also to the goyim (nations) Romans 2:9.
32 All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats;
Although Israel is a goy (nation), she is not included here. The elect have already been gathered prior to this scene. Yeshua indicates in verse 40, that the righteous acts of the sheep have been done to His brothers and sisters, fellow Jews. Therefore Israel (empirical, ethnic), is not part of the gathering of nations in this mashal/parable.
Why does Yeshua use sheep and goats to represent the righteous and the unrighteous? Are sheep more righteous than goats? Of course not. Though many have sought to give more complex meaning to this symbolism, the truth is that it is an example much like that of the agricultural example of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). Anyone who has seen a picture of wheat and tares growing together will agree that it is very difficult to determine one from the other. The same is true of the varieties of sheep and goats herded in the land of Israel and throughout the Middle East. The point is that it’s the farmer or the shepherd who is best equipped to identify one from the other.
33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
The symbolism here is simple, the right hand is the hand of strength, progeny, righteousness and power; whereas the left hand is a symbol of weakness, subjugation and loss.
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
Who are these sheep? They are blessed of the Father and have been chosen to be His children from before the creation of the world. They will inherit the kingdom, Olam haba, everlasting life. We know that no one can come to the Father except through the Son (Yeshua) John 14:6. We also know that followers of Yeshua (Jesus) are chosen from the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). In addition we know that those who have accepted Messiah have been promised eternal life (John 3, 4). Therefore the sheep are disciples of Yeshua, the Ecclesia (Church) of G-d from among the goyim, that is, Gentile Christians.
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 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to 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 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
Notice that the sheep are unaware of their many acts of righteousness. Why is this? It is because as believers in Yeshua we act from His life in us rather than from our nature. We don’t act righteously in order to win His approval, on the contrary, we act righteously because we have His approval. All that we do for Him is sin because it is initiated from our desire to save ourselves through our own actions, however, all that we do from Him is righteousness, that is, Messiah in us works mitzvot (good deeds). Thus we act in Him as lovers of His brothers and sisters.
We should take great comfort in the fact that this parable doesn’t threaten our eternal security, rather it shows us that we need not keep an account of righteous deeds or manufacture deeds of our own, rather, we should simply live according to the Spirit of Messiah in us and in doing so we will act righteously of Him rather than of our sin nature.
40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these Jewish brothers and sisters of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
It is true that we should act in righteousness toward all human beings, however this mashal/parable doesn’t teach this general principle, rather it’s addressing the specific acts of righteousness that believers who live among the nations perform toward the Jewish people (Israel, ethnic, empirical).
Some will say, “The brethren Jesus refers to here are all believers, because He says elsewhere, ‘Those who do the will of my Father in heaven are my mother and brothers’” (Matthew 12:46-50). However, here Yeshua makes a distinction between those that act righteously (the sheep) and those who have been the recipients of that action (His brothers and sisters), therefore the sheep are believers and the brethren are empirical, ethnic, Israel, Yeshua’s brothers and sisters by blood.
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been 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; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’
This is just one of many times that eternal punishment is spoken of in the Bible. The Greek ahee-o'-nee-os literally, figuratively, metaphorically and allegorically means: forever, perpetual, eternal and everlasting. This punishment is not hades or hell but the eternal fire that comes after the final judgement. Some have said this parable is simply an allegory and really refers to something temporal or something that isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.
If as some say, it’s simply an allegory then one must accept that it’s an allegory for something that is spiritually eternal and tortured (Rev 20:14-15). An allegory cannot contradict itself in conveying its message.
The same Greek word, ahee-o'-nee-os (eternal) is used to describe eternal life (John 3:16; 4:14; Acts 13:46; Romans 6:22 to name a few). Is our hope in eternal life really just a hope in temporary life? Seriously, what would be the point? A curse on it!
The same Greek word, ahee-o'-nee-os (eternal) is used to describe G-d Himself (Romans 16:26). Is G-d not eternal? What utter nonsense it is to suggest that there is no eternal punishment simply because we don’t like the idea of it. What are we being saved from if not the rightful punishment for our sin? What hope do we have if neither G-d nor His promise of life are eternal?
Thank G-d, we do have an eternal hope in Him through His Son our Messiah Yeshua.
The unrighteous (goats) are as surprised as their counterparts. “Surely we’ve helped the poor and the sick, when did we not help them? Show us some specific examples.”
45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’
Yeshua’s answer is plain, allow me to put it into a modern context for you:
“When you didn’t stand up for my people Israel (empirical, ethnic) while the nations verbally abused her, when you didn’t help the Jewish poor and sick, when you rallied against them in the streets and helped to send them to labour camps and prisons where you murdered them and mistreated them, when you supported so called social justice groups that opposed my people’s safety and her right to the land, when you hid beneath the guise of open minded liberalism while my people were being bombed and persecuted from every side, when you spat on the very idea of the Jewish people and the Jewish state and raged against them, that’s when you rejected Me and failed to recognize Me!”
46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
But the righteous will go into the Olam Haba—Eternal life, with the Son of Man, Yeshua our King.
© 2015 Yaakov Brown
Founder of the Beth Melekh International Messiah Following Jewish Community,