Separating the “sheep from the goats” starting with John the Baptist’s ministry:
(Read) Matt. 3:2, 7, 10, 12 Pending judgment about to come (we, in the 21st Century western culture, have so often only thought of John as coming to announce the coming of the Messiah, as the lamb of God as the “savior” of the world, but when understanding the OT predictions of the coming of the Messiah it was two-fold: judgment and salvation. The Hebrew people very well knew their OC writings.)
It is critical at this point that we slow down to understand the significance of the Holy Spirit’s selecting of words, and their meaning. John the Baptist is standing amidst his Old Covenant audience, among who are many farmers, and have come from generations of farming, or are familiar with the agricultural industry, and are well aware of the farming language metaphors John is speaking to them. Again, we need to hear and understand this from the audience relevance significance to whom it is spoken, and not lose the power in the message from any modern or uncultured (their 1st century culture) lack of understanding.
In Matt. 3:12 the Holy Spirit inspired John to speak to them about a winnowing fork (some translations say fan, but it actually refers to a “pitch fork”). His audience being well aware of the customs and procedures done for wheat harvesting would fully understand the significance of what God was wanting them to know. It is us, here in our modern unfamiliar world/culture views who are the ones who need to see the power of what they are being told – explain “winnowing fork” (used to throw the wheat up in the air to separate the wheat from the chaff)
- A winnowing fork is used at the “end” of the harvest once all of the wheat/tares are gathered.
- John is giving them clear visual imagery about the whole passage he had just spoken:
- It was all stated as present tense/time, and imminent to them.
- The Kingdom had drawn near (vs. 2)
- The axe is at their root (vs. 10)
- Christ’s winnowing fork for the end of the harvest was already in His hand.
Look at what Jesus had to say about John the Baptizer: (read) Matt. 11:10, 14; then 17:10-13, “The disciples asked him, ‘Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’ Jesus replied, ‘To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”
To understand all of this better we need to go back to the OT prophecies to see what was written: (read) Mal. 3:1…then keep reading vs. 2-3 (which is about Jesus Christ). Look what it says was a major purpose of His coming – judgment – Israel. (See how Amos 9:8-10 confirms same thing.)
This same prophecy does not end there – look over at (read) Chpt. 4:4 What does it say, “Remember the law of Moses…” here again the OC people are brought back to their beginning to remind them that God has not forgotten His promises – and their judgment is coming.
AND what was to be their warning of when the “time was at hand/at the door” – v. 5, “behold I will send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”
- This was their/Israel’s judgment time warning! And what did we just read Jesus said in Matt. 17:10-13 – John the Baptizer was Elijah, and had now come already.
**Matt. 17:12 is a direct cross reference from Mal. 4:5. Do we realize what we are being told here – Elijah “had” come, and that this coming was in fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi, which said this was “just before” the “great and dreadful day of the Lord.”
- Do you not think the Jews understood the significance of this warning?
- Do you not think their history came into their minds?
- The covenant promises/curses?
- Hundreds of years of prophet after prophet warning them to repent and turn back to God, or the promise of judgment and destruction? (The last thing they heard was from Malachi warning them that Elijah was coming to prepare the way of the Lord, and part of this was to be to “purify the sons of Levi” and of this “great and dreadful day of the Lord” coming upon them)
NOW, after 400 years of no word from God, out of the “wilderness” comes a voice crying to them (v. 2)“repent,” (v. 7)“the wrath is about to come,” (v. 10)“the axe is now at the root,” (v.12)“Jesus’ winnowing fork is in His hand…to thoroughly clean out His threshing floor…”(Israel – same as Mal. 3:2 – purify the sons of Levi).
* Let’s turn to read what Luke has to tell us about the purpose of the ministry of John the Baptist in (read) Luke 1:16-17 – John’s ministry was again stated to be to Israel, and he was used to turn many of them to God. And as we saw in Matthew Chpt. 3 – away from the pending judgment about to come upon them when Jesus Christ cleaned His threshing floor (Israel) in vs. 10 and 12.
Separating the “sheep from the goats” continues with Christ’s ministry:
(Read) Matt. 4:17 Jesus had just gone through the testing by Satan in the wilderness and proved Himself faithful, and was now starting His ministry, and look what it says, “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” We have already seen from several verses earlier in this study that He had come to be revealed to His people (Israel) (John 1:31 and elsewhere). Every city He went to He was separating the Hebrew sheep from the goats (believer from unbeliever).
Let’s turn to the parallel of this in (read) Mark 1:14-15, “…the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Every city Christ went to He was separating the “Hebrew sheep from the goats” (believer from unbeliever).
Matt. 10:5-7, “These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’’”
- The whole world is represented in these three groups listed – and only the OC Hebrews were to be warned to repent. (It is important to understand the significance of this: the command was to just go to the cities of Israel, as the judgments from the OC that were promised were “about to” come, were only against them). Christ sent His disciples to only the “cities of Israel” where their message separated the Hebrew sheep from the goats (believer from unbeliever).
Isa. 61:1-2, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”
** Do we see the two-fold purpose of the Messiah in Isa 61:2 – while to one group of people He was to provide salvation, to another group at the same time, He was to be bringing vengeance/judgment (Same as we have also seen in Deut. 32:20-21; 43; Matt. 21:33-45; Isa. 65:15; Acts 13:45-46; Rom. 10:19-21; Heb. 8:6-9:11 and elsewhere).
Matt. 21:33-45 (read green sections), “…But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’… When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”…Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits… When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.”
- It is noticeable, and clearly planned as well, that the further along Jesus’ ministry gets, and the closer to His work being completed, that the more and more open and obvious and accusatory-condemnatory against the OC Hebrew religious body we see Him become. Clearly drawing an increasing delineation between the “sheep and the goats.”
Matt. 22:1-10, (read green sections), “And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come…while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
- The Lord had just been very specific about His Father’s vineyard, and how in Matt. 21:43 it was also said to be the “Kingdom of God,” and how it was going to be taken away from OC Israel and given to a nation, or peoples, who would bear fruit. This parable was clear enough that even the Pharisees and Chief Priests understood that Jesus was referring to them (v. 45)
- Now, He is even more direct in speaking of their coming judgment in Chapter 22. Verse 1 emphasized the audience context for us again – “spoke to them again.”
- Look at the familiar terminology the Holy Spirit is speaking about a marriage. Here we are seeing the NC marriage that is for God’s Son. Remember the whole ministry of Jesus and the disciples up to this point had been to go and preach to only Israel, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matt. 10:5-7; 15:24; etc.) They were invited, but they were not willing to come (receive Him as their Messiah).
- Jesus is then prophesying to them about what they were about to do, in vs. 6, “while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.”
- Verse 7 spells out prophecy, and the fulfillment of it, about as clear as it can be done. God said He will send His armies and destroy those murderers, and burn up their city.
- Remember, all through the OT when God said He would come to enact vengeance, or send His army, every instance it was a foreign nation He sent to carry out His vengeance and punishment, but it was always referred to as “the Lord doing it, or coming.” In AD 70 He used the Roman armies to fulfill this.
- Recall that the wedding in Revelation 19 takes place just after the judgment and destruction of Babylon/OC Jerusalem. The Matthew 25 judgment scene takes place just after this destruction where all the “dead” OC Hebrews are judged before Him for who had the proper “wedding clothing” on (Christ’s righteousness) to be able to enter the wedding banquet where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be.
For even further evidence of Christ’s ministry of this delineating between the “sheep and the goats” of OC Israel we do not have to look further than (read) John 10:14-15, 24-27. This passage of Christ clearly characterizing His first ministry as calling out/separating “His sheep” from OC Israel, is quite clear.
**This passage is of the scene of the Great White Throne judgment in Matt. 25/Rev. 20:
(Read) Luke 13:22-29, “And He said to them, (Jews)…When once the master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open up for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where are you from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘we ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets,’ but He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the Kingdom of God.”
- This is such a powerful passage that thoroughly explains itself for exactly who the audience is who is being spoken to, and also shows that this coming judgment and “thrusting out of the kingdom” was coming very shortly – when they would be seeing those coming from the east/west/north/south (Gentiles) coming in. This was their (OC Israel) “sign” telling them the kingdom was being taken away, and for all of those who did not repent that their promised coming judgment fate would be sealed.
To this point we have seen how both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ ministries were both primarily focused on speaking to OC Israel and separating the “wheat from the chaff,” or “sheep from the goats.”
This ministry of separating the Hebrew “sheep from the goats” to save “the remnant,” Christ would continue through commissioning His disciples to fulfill throughout the 40 year period between the cross and the Parousia of Christ consummating in AD 70. The disciples would carry out this ministry among the Jews, while also carrying out the ministry of evangelizing to the Gentiles and bringing them into the Kingdom (to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles. Rom. 1:16).
To look into this ministry in more depth, and its direct correlation to Matthew 25 and the Great White Throne Judgment, let’s turn back to the commission Christ gave His disciples in Matthew 10:5-42:
Of critical importance to understand is that Jesus told His disciples at first not to go to the Samaritans or the Gentiles, but to go only to the lost sheep of the “house of Israel.” (Later, however, the apostles were commanded to share the good news with Samaria and the Gentiles – see the book of Acts on that). Not only is it highly significant that He told His disciples that this commission was “only to Israel,” but it has been greatly neglected by scholars over time in understanding the high significance of the reference to “sheep” in Christ’s statement. This commission by Christ has direct correlation to the separating of the “sheep and goats” in the Matthew 25 Great Throne Judgment.
All of Matthew 10:5-42, especially 10:9-10, 40-42, is the basis for the separating of the “sheep from the goats Parousia judgment in Matthew 25. The Matthew 10 commission of the disciples to “only OC Israel” directly lays the determining factors of the exact basis presented in Matthew 25 for the separating of the OC Israel “sheep from the goats.”
- Matt. 10:9-10, 40-42, “9Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, 10nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food… 40“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. 41He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. 42And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.”
- Matt. 25:41-46, 41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ 44 “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
* It cannot be over emphasized the correlation between these two passages, even incorporating the very referencing in Matt. 10:42 and Matt. 25:42 to an aspect of the judgment being about the brethren being thirsty and the giving of, or not giving of, a drink.
Moreover, Matthew 10 also helps establish the direct 1st century “audience relevant” timing of when the Matthew 25 Great Throne Judgment would take place – “When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23).
Remember, this is the commission Jesus gave to His living breathing 1st century disciples. He told them:
- They would be delivered up to councils and they will scourge you in their synagogues” (v. 17). Clearly indicating where the force of the persecution would come from – only the Jews had synagogues.
- They would be brought before governors and kings and that they did not need to worry about what they would say because the Holy Spirit would give them the words to say in that hour (vs. 18-20).
- His return (Parousia) was to happen within their lifetime because He promised them that whoever among them endured to the end would be rescued/saved (raptured to Him) upon His return (v. 22).
- He instructs them that when they are being persecuted in one city of Israel to flee to the next. Interestingly, what often gets missed in this verse is the significance that Christ is speaking to His Hebrew disciples and indicating this fleeing from one city in Israel to another – drawing on the kingdom of Israel’s history of “cities of refuge” – well established in the OT.
- And the promise of His Coming return (Parousia) is so imminent within their lifetime that they will not have run out of the last city of refuge in Israel before Jesus returns to rescue/save those of them who are still alive and have endured to the end/return.
- In Matt. 10:16-42 Jesus tells His disciples the hardships they will have to face in this commission He is giving them until His return.
- In verses 21 and 34-39 Jesus describes the deteriorating turmoil during this period of separating/delineating of the Hebrew sheep/goats, and the extreme hostility there will be towards the sheep, even among family members.
- Verses 40-42 again reiterates that the timing of this commission was to be completed within their lifetime (“he who receives you” v. 40) – which also goes to solidify that the parallel judgment scene in Matthew 25 was at the consummation of this commission within their lifetime – at the one and only Coming/Parousia of Matt. 10:23/Matt. 25:31.
In summary, the Matthew 25 judgment scene was a “part of” the full Revelation 19-20 judgment scene. The Matthew 25 scene was a primary focus on the judgment against Old Covenant Israel – the separating of the sheep from the goats (faithful believing Hebrews from the unfaithful adulterous covenant breaking ones).
- Matt. 25:34-40, we saw how the qualification of separating the sheep from the goats was only based on “works” with how they treated the brethren – and nothing about true salvation (which is based on “faith only” and nothing about your works).
- Matt. 25:41-45, we also saw how the separated goats answer back to Christ is also only based on the “works” they did not do for the brethren/believer.
See also related “Topic Studies & Terms”:
Related full “Study Series” (available upon request if not hyperlinked):
[For a more in-depth study see eschatology “Study Series 16 Lesson 7 Rev. Chapters 19 and 20”]