December 13, 2013

Thinking about the sheep and the goats

The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix
By Vincent van Gogh (1890)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, December 12, 2013

Thinking about the sheep and the goats

In the New Testament, in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus sets out the parable of the sheep and the goats. In the story it’s judgment time, and Jesus divides people into two groups: those who will inherit God’s kingdom (the sheep) and those who will be sent into the eternal fire (the goats).

It’s a sobering story. Over the years I’ve struggled with what the story means when the larger Gospel message of the New Testament is also taken into account. Let’s review the story, and then I’ll share what I’ve come to believe.

Jesus gives the following reason for inviting the sheep into His kingdom: “For I was hungry and you gave me [1] something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me [2] something to drink, I was a [3] stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you [4] clothed me, I was [5] sick and you looked after me, I was in [6] prison, and you came to visit me.” (Note: I have added the numbers, and I will refer to them below.)

Jesus explains to the sheep, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Jesus disinherits the goats (and calls them “cursed”) for the following reason: “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

Jesus explains to the goats, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Clearly, Jesus is concerned about the well-being of “the least of these,” human beings made in the image of God yet who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, unclothed, ill, or imprisoned—i.e., the poor and needy.

Clearly, too, Jesus is calling us to care for (and speak up for) the poor and needy. (And to this calling, which some describe as “social justice,” I say: Amen!)

The poor and needy include a lot of people: orphans, the disabled, the abused, unborn children, the struggling single parent, widows, the elderly, the sick, the hungry, the refugee, the enslaved and trafficked, typhoon and tsunami victims, victims of totalitarian governments, the persecuted, the homeless, the lonely, the depressed, the sexually confused—the list is long. There is much work to do.

But, I have discovered, if we take the whole counsel of Scripture to bear on the sheep and the goats story, Jesus is calling us to do even more.

Jesus is also calling us to point people to Him. (This is where the numbers I added in the above verse should help.)

We are to introduce people to Jesus, i.e., the Holy One, who is (1) the Bread of Life, (2) the Living Water, (3) the Friend closer than a brother, (4) the Robe of Righteousness, (5) the Great Physician, and (6) the Bondage Breaker. (Yes, please check your Bible here to see whether or not what I’m asserting corresponds to Scripture.)

To be sure, in introducing people to Jesus we are called to care for the physical and social needs of others, which is hugely important. But, even more importantly, we are also called to care for their spiritual needs: we are to communicate a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. (This communication is probably done best after we’ve met the physical and social needs of the least of these.)

How do we communicate a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? By sharing the message of the Gospel.

The Gospel, stated succinctly in John 3:16, is this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [i.e., shall not be a goat] but have eternal life [i.e., be a sheep].”

(Note: Here “belief” is intellectual assent to and personal trust in a person, coupled with submission to his will, knowledge of which is informed by the communicated expectations of him who is the object of the intellectual assent and trust. In other words, the propositional content of our belief is important because it tells us how we should appropriately act on our faith plus relate to the person in whom we claim to trust—and such content should be consistent with the rest of the revealed will of God in Scripture.)

Jesus is the Son of God (i.e., God in the flesh) who suffered and died a horrible death on a Roman cross to forgive us our sins, a forgiveness we are invited to accept by faith; and Jesus subsequently resurrected physically, which serves as a sign so we can believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be and that his message of forgiveness is true—and thus that we have a real hope for eternal, resurrected life.

Significantly, the primacy of the Gospel message of reconciliation between God and humans relative to Jesus’ call to care for the poor and needy makes sense when we notice that Jesus elsewhere says that the greatest command is to love God with all of one’s heart and mind, and the second greatest command is to love others (Matthew 22:37-39).

The primacy of the Gospel also makes sense when we look at the Apostle Paul’s defence of his ministry: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God [revealed in Christ], and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Moreover, the primacy of the Gospel makes sense when we notice that in the early church (in Acts 6:1-7) looking after the poor and needy is delegated to a ministry of the church so that the preaching of the Gospel is not hindered.

Significantly, and seemingly paradoxically, the primacy of the Gospel has positive consequences for the poor and needy.

On a personal note, I have found that when I came to believe the Gospel, I began to strive to love Jesus with all my heart and mind and strength, and as a result I found myself more motivated to care for others than when I didn’t follow Jesus. Knowing that Jesus is Lord and that he is concerned for the poor and needy, coupled with my submission to his will (and coupled with the help of the Holy Spirit), transformed me to be concerned for the poor and needy, too.

On a public note, I am not alone in my experience of the Gospel. Two weeks ago in a sermon at Southland Church, Pastor Kris Duerksen mentioned similar experiences of Gospel transformation by others in Southland’s Four Winds Ministry (see, for starters, the video “Four Winds Car Ministry Testimony", December 4, 2013, available online at

Moreover, Canadian Justice Dallas Miller argues that “the historical and contemporary data show that culturally effective human rights movements are most often the result of Judeo-Christian principles” and that “the various secular rationales for human rights (such as utilitarianism, neo-Kantian principles and Marxism) all fail to transform the selfish human orientations that fuel abuses.” (These words are from philosopher Angus Menuge who is editor of the book Legitimizing Human Rights [Ashgate 2013]; Menuge is describing Justice Miller’s contribution to the book, i.e., Miller’s essay “The Motivation to Protect and Advance Human Rights.”)

It turns out that, via the power of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel has a “snowball” effect. Knowledge of the truth of the Gospel deeply transforms people to care for other people, so that those who have been cared for and have received the message of the Gospel are in turn transformed by the Gospel and go on to care for others, and so on.

In addition, as a Christian transformed by the Gospel, I’ve found that my love for others isn’t a mere subjective thing (which changes with my moods); rather, it’s got an abiding moral structure when aligned with the moral principles revealed in Scripture by God (who remains the same yesterday, today, and forever).

All this to say: During the festive, holiday season may we care for the least of these and may we keep our hearts and minds centered, first and foremost, on the greatest of all.

Merry Christmas—and don’t be a goat!

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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