Are You a Sheep or a Goat?
One of the more alarming aspects of Jesus’ parables is that many of them seem be all about showing us that not everyone who considers themselves a Christian will go to heaven. The parables of Matthew 25 do this more than any other passage I can think of.
All of the maidens (25:1-13) consider themselves friends of the bridegroom, and all of the servants in the parable of the talents (25:14-30) consider themselves in the employ of the Master. Most shockingly, the sheep and the goats (25:31-46) all seem to recognize the lordship of Jesus. No one is like, “Whoa, ‘Jesus,’ who are you? Where is Buddha?” Or, “I didn’t even think there was a God!”
The judgment displayed in all three of these parables does not separate Christians from the rest of the world. It separates genuine Christians from imposters.
Jesus ends the parable of the maidens by saying, “… and the door was shut. Later the rest of the virgins also came and said, ‘Master, master, open up for us!’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you!’” (Matthew 25:10-12 CSB).
He ends the parable of the talents by saying, “His master replied to him, ‘You evil, lazy servant! …. throw this good-for-nothing servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 25:26-30).
To the goats in the last parable he says, “Then he will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!” (Matthew 25:41)
I don’t think it could get any clearer: When we talk about judgment, we’re not dealing with simply “loss of reward.” We are talking about heaven and hell.
This is a big deal, because there are a lot of people in our churches who think they are Christians that are tragically mistaken. So, what exactly is the difference between those who go to heaven and those who go to hell?
According to the parable of the sheep and goats, it had little to do with how much they went to church or (more surprising) what they believed. There isn’t a single word about that.
The only difference in the sheep and the goats is what they did or did not do: whether or not they were actively, tangibly engaged in the mission of God and generous toward the poor, particularly poor believers.
Apart from that, all other religious activity is useless.
In Isaiah 56 and 58, God told Israel, “You’re doing all your religious exercises, but those things mean nothing if you ignore the poor. You claim to know me, but you turn a deaf ear to the poor. You don’t know me.”
James says it this way: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27 ESV). There are two signs of a true believer: You love the people God loves, and you are busy rooting sin out of your life.
You may say, “Well, doesn’t the Bible teach that salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone? Isn’t saying it is determined by how we respond to those poor brothers and sisters a contradiction?”
No, it’s not. What Jesus is showing us is that real faith—the kind of faith that saves you—is more than just intellectual assent and church attendance. Saving faith transforms you from the inside out, and then you demonstrate that transformation by engaging in the mission of God.
Saving faith transforms you from the inside out, and then you demonstrate that transformation by engaging in the mission of God.
James, Jesus’ half-brother, said it this way: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). In other words, intellectual beliefs without a change of heart that results in good works is like a body with no breath in it. We are saved by faith, not works; but saving faith will always work.
This is where it helps to reflect on the fact that the ones Jesus specifically identifies with are Christians—particularly Christians who are suffering because of their commitment to the gospel.
He is saying that if you believe this message at all, of course you are going to be moved to action by the stories of those who are suffering for their commitment to this message.
In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out his disciples on their first mission as his representatives to preach what he preached and heal like he healed. He told them they were going to be dependent on the hospitality of the villagers wherever they ministered: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:42 NIV).
In the ancient world, taking someone into your home was a sign of friendship, intimacy, and support for what the person stood for. So, Jesus equated the welcome of his representatives with acceptance of their message.
He’s saying the same thing in Matthew 25: If you really believe the gospel, how can you not be moved by the suffering of those who are suffering because they are committed to my message?
Jesus is not saying that we will be saved by our giving to the poor (or any other good deed). He’s saying that there is no way we can be saved if we do not give to the poor. If we are really saved, we will show that by our kindness and generosity to others, especially those who represent Jesus himself. As the Apostle John put it, it’s simply not possible to love God and hate others (1 John 4:20).
You see, there are two ways to tell what you believe: what your mouth says, and what your life says. And one of them never lies.
If what your life says you believe differs from what your mouth says you believe, God’s not fooled: He always accepts the candid testimony of your life.