The Lambs and Kids Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 December 2020

Matthew 25.31-46.

The next story in Jesus’s Olivet Discourse, where he taught his students about the End Times, is usually called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It all comes from verses 32-33, in which Jesus compares the division of humanity into camps of righteous and reprobate, like a shepherd segregating his flock by species: Lambs on one side, kids on the other. One group to get shorn, one to get milked. Or in this case, one group to go one way, the other to go another.

This story terrifies legalists. Because outside the proper context of God’s grace, it looks like you get into God’s kingdom entirely on merit. You do for Jesus—or, as Jesus puts it, you do for the very lowest of the people he identifies with, which is all the same to him—and you inherit his kingdom. Or you don’t, so you go to hell. So get cracking! Start feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, reforming the prison and healthcare system, and otherwise fixing society!

Wait, is that what legalists do? Nah. Usually they’re too busy getting all paranoid about the rules they designated for themselves, or their cult leaders assigned them. Doing for society?—they don’t. Or they interpret “one of the least of these my brethren” Mt 25.40 KJV as only meaning fellow Christians—or, if they wanna get strict about it, only meaning members of their churches; or if even stricter, only church members of good standing. The stricter you get, the less you gotta love your neighbors. Funny how that works.

More often, Christians just ignore this passage altogether. We figure we’re saved by grace (which we are), but this passage sounds like we’re saved by good works. And we’re not. We know we’re not. We know that we know that we KNOW we’re not. So whatever this passage means, it can’t mean that… and we’re fine with not really knowing what it’s about, so we skip it. Unless we wanna terrify pagans with it.

Of course you realize I’m gonna apply historical context to it, and explain what it’d mean to Jesus’s students who heard it, and point out how entirely consistent it is with God’s grace. Probably to the degree it’ll outrage many a legalist Christian. But whatever. Let’s begin with my translation, and if you wanna compare it with other translations be my guest. I don’t think mine is far different.

Matthew 25.31-46 KWL
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, all the angels with him,
he’ll then sit on his glorious throne
32 and every nation on earth will be gathered together before him.
He separates them like a shepherd, lambs from kids,
33 and will place the lambs at his right, and the kids at his left.
34 The King will then tell those at his right:
‘Come, you who’ve been blessed by my Father!
Inherit the kingdom, prepared for you from the world’s foundation!
35 For I hunger and you feed me. Thirst and you water me.
A foreigner and you include me. 36 Naked and you clothe me.
Weak and you look out for me. Imprisoned and you come to me.’
37 In reply the righteous lambs will then say, ‘Master?
When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and water you?
38 When did we see you a foreigner and include you, or naked and clothe you?
39 When did we see you weak and imprisoned and come to you?’
40 In reply the King will tell them, ‘Amen! I promise you:
Whatever you do for one of the lowest of these people in my family, you do for me.’
41 The King then says to those at his left:
‘Get away from me, you damned people!
Go to the fire of the age, prepared for the devil and its angels!
42 For I hunger and you don’t feed me. Thirst and you don’t water me.
43 A foreigner and you don’t include me. Naked and you don’t clothe me.
Weak and imprisoned and you don’t look out for me.’
44 In reply the kids will say, ‘Master?
When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a foreigner, naked, weak, or imprisoned, and not serve you?’
45 In reply the King will tell them, ‘Amen! I promise you:
Whatever you don’t do for one of the lowest of these, you neither do for me.’
46 These people will go to the correction of the age to come.
The righteous, to life in the age to come.”

The Textus Receptus added the word ἅγιοι/áyiï, “holy,” to verse 31, which is why the King James has “holy angels” instead of just “angels.” As if Jesus would bring unholy angels with him. But whatever.

The Son of Man conquers the world.

For Pharisees, and Jesus’s students who had grown up Pharisee, the בַ֥ר אֱנָ֖שׁ/ben-enóš, the Son of Man, is an End Times figure from Daniel who was gonna be king of God’s kingdom, and rule forever. Jesus liked to call himself that, so they knew “Son of Man” means Jesus: At some point he’s gonna take over the world and rule forever. The students presumed Jesus would do this in his first coming, as Pharisees claimed Messiah would do. They had no idea there was a second coming. No doubt they figured angels would come pouring out of the sky, form an unstoppable army around Jesus, kick the Romans out of Israel, then proceed to take over the world.

So when Jesus says the Son of Man will take his throne, and every nation will be gathered before him, the students weren’t really thinking of their nation gathered before him as well. ’Cause they wouldn’t be included. This isn’t a description of a king addressing his subjects: This is the King of Kings addressing the world he just conquered. The ἔθνη/éthni, “ethnics,” in the bible generally mean gentiles, the non-Hebrew foreigners outside the nation of Israel. And if we Christians have been adopted into Jesus’s family—and we have—we’re not included among these éthni either. We’re not of the nations; we’re his nation. Jesus hasn’t conquered us; we’re already part of his army!

In fact you might recall at Jesus’s second coming, we get raptured. We get resurrected. Those holy angels with Jesus? We’re among them, not the nations of the world. We came out of them. We picked sides a long, long time ago. Unless we foolishly picked the United States over Jesus; then we’ll totally be in the crowd of the conquered.

So when the Son of Man takes his throne, we’re behind him, not before him. Cheering him on. Meanwhile the rest of the world stands before him as conquered nations. No doubt terrified, wondering what’s gonna become of them. Is he a good and benevolent king, like the Christians have been saying? Is he a violent and wrathful king, like the dark Christians have been saying? What are they in for?

Christians who assume they’re among the sheep or lambs, who figure this is the point in the timeline where Jesus judges them, have either been confused by a lifetime of bad interpretations, or they don’t understand their existing place in God’s kingdom. We were sealed to Jesus when we believed. Ep 1.13 That’s not getting decided later; that’s decided already. We’re not getting transformed in the rapture, only to find ourselves standing before him, with a chance we might possibly find ourselves among the goats/kids. We’re neither at Jesus’s right nor his left in this story: We have his back.

This is everybody else who’s getting their place assigned. The pagans.

Wait, pagans inherit God’s kingdom?

And here’s where I lose all the legalists who have been reading thus far. “Waitaminnit, no. These people never acknowledged Jesus as Lord. They weren’t included in the rapture. They can’t be included in the kingdom. When Jesus returns it’s to judge the world, not give people yet another chance to turn to him!”

Yeah, these Chrisitians don’t understand how gracious our God is. What’s the point of a millennial reign of Jesus? It’s to give people a thousand years of chances. Jesus places people in their final destinies after the millennium, not before.

And here in this story, y’notice the Son of Man addresses people who didn’t expect to get in. Who ask him, “Master, when did we ever…?” because they’re surprised he’s giving them the kingdom, startled he says they did for him. Does this sound like Christians to you? We Christians are totally aware we’ve done for our neighbors. (Heck, many of us have done for our neighbors specifically because of this story.) We’ve been trying to do for our neighbors as if we’re doing for Jesus, and rightly so. If Jesus ever addressed us like he does the “righteous” in this story, and we respond, “Wait, we did?” it’s gonna come across as utter hypocrisy. You’d think a resurrected, sin-cleansed people would stop being hypocrites at last.

Nope; Jesus’s grace wholly blindsides ’em. “We did? When did we ever…?” and the Son of Man has to explain, “Whatever you do for one of the lowest of these people in my family, you do for me.”

Who are the people in his family? Us Christians.

Yep. If pagans were good to us Christians, to their great surprise, Christ is actually letting ’em into his kingdom! Jesus actually calls ’em righteous. I should remind you righteousness doesn’t come by good deeds; it comes by faith. These people might not be Christian, but they had just enough faith in God to treat his people with kindness… and it may stun you, but that’s enough.

Jesus said as much elsewhere in Matthew.

Matthew 10.40-42 KWL
40 He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. 41 He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.

Again, too many Christians interpret this passage to mean Jesus is only talking about fellow Christians; not just anybody who shows kindness to a Christian because they recognize Christians belong to God. Too many of us Christians claim they know we’re saved by grace, but it hasn’t actually sunk in. When it gets right down to it they figure we’re saved by practicing the right faith. We’re in the correct religion; we have orthodox theology; we’re saved by what we believe. But that’s also salvation by good karma—and not how Jesus saves!

God did not create humanity so he could doom two-thirds of us to hell. He wants to save everybody. But no, I’m not at all preaching universalism. Not everybody will accept his salvation, nor his Messiah; some will inevitably go to hell. But it definitely won’t be for a lack of grace on God’s part. And it shouldn’t be for a lack of grace on ours.

And just because Jesus gives pagans tons of extra chances, doesn’t mean we should ever slack on evangelism. Keep sharing that good news! Turns out it’s a lot better than you’ve been describing it.

Oh yeah; the goats.

Of course not everybody in the crowd of the conquered will fall into the category of righteous. Plenty will be unrighteous. Plenty will have actively sought the end of Christianity. And of course plenty will have been apathetic, figuring if Christians suffer, that’s just what you get for devoting your life to a harebrained belief system, but it’s none of their business.

For them, the Son of Man’s conquest will stun them. It’s something they never, ever expected. They may have heard the gospel, but didn’t believe it whatsoever, and now here he is. And when he explains they never did for him, of course they never did… but they’re kinda wondering why the rest of humanity gets into his kingdom, but they don’t. They don’t see how “the lambs” are objectively any better than they.

Oh, they’re not better. But they have a minuscule faith in God which “the kids” lack. Jesus can work with “the lambs,” but “the kids” are just gonna fight him every step of the way. So letting ’em into his kingdom to rehabilitate them, isn’t the best thing for them. Staying outside—which, admittedly, will suck—is the best thing for them.

Historically this has been interpreted as Jesus sending the reprobate to hell. He does, after all, tell them to go to the fire prepared for Satan and its angels. Mt 25.41 But this isn’t the final judgment after the millennium, Ro 20.11-15 and I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t throwing them into hell yet. Just sending them thataway.

Because Jesus ends the story with, “These people will go to the correction of the age to come.” The word κόλασιν/kólasin tends to be translated “punishment” or “torment,” but properly it’s about pruning. Y’know, like our Father prunes Christians who don’t produce fruit. Jn 15.2 The goal is actually not their destruction, but their eventual salvation—’cause they still have a thousand years (or at least the rest of their lives) to repent and turn to Jesus. If not, the Son of Man did send ’em in the direction of hellfire, because that’s the current road they’re on.

Too many Christians believe in the End of Days theory of the End Times, in which there is no millennium; only judgment once Jesus returns. The Vulgate reflects this—et ibunt hii in supplicium aeternum, “and these will go away into eternal punishment”—and the KJV pretty much repeats the Vulgate, “These shall go away into everlasting punishment.” Mt 25.41 KJV Other translations simply follow their lead. But I’m not amillennialist, so I don’t hold to an amillennialist view of this parable. If Jesus is only just taking his throne, he’s not sending people to hell yet. He’s not letting ’em into his kingdom, which might feel just as terrible. But they still have time to repent!

And again: Don’t assume because Jesus grants anyone more time to repent, that we needn’t worry about leading them to him! Why abandon them to suffer outside the kingdom, when they could be inside the kingdom, experiencing how awesome Jesus really is? Minister to them. Maybe they stubbornly won’t turn to Jesus yet… but maybe our kindness will lead them to do for the lowest in Jesus’s family. Maybe we can help spark some faith in them. Couldn’t hurt, right?