Posts Tagged With: Sheep

Sheep and Goats

Sheep and Goats
Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 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 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit 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 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire 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, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46″Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

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One of the more esoteric and potentially frightening texts in the New Testament is this Matthew 25 recounting of Jesus’ “The Sheep and Goats” narrative. Who exactly are these sheep? Or these goats? How best do we interpret this passage given the historic and religious contexts in which Jesus taught?

The gospel of Matthew, a biography of Jesus written from a Jewish perspective, builds on the theme of final judgment across chapters 23-25; culminating in crescendo in this agrarian/shepherd metaphor with its intended message aimed primarily at its religious Jewish audience.

Intentionally, this passage is intricately linked with the preceding parable of the ten virgins (vs.1-13) and the parable of the talents (vs.14-30). When these are taken altogether, the core message is unmistakable: Be prepared, get ready, the bridegroom/master/shepherd/king is coming!

In this devotional, we will look at the sheep and goats as well as the shepherd-king who tends them.

1. SHEEP and GOATS

Sheep & Goats Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Sheep & Goats
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

The simile used by Jesus would make perfect sense to his hearers in 1st century Palestine agrarian society.  While sheep and goats have many similarities, they do diverge within scientific classification: Each is a specific species and genus with a differing amount of chromosomes. All that to say that shepherds would tend them together, but at a certain point would separate them for whatever their final destination or use might be.

But who is Jesus speaking of? Who are these sheep and goats? This passage can be somewhat obscure in that there have historically been a couple different ways it has been interpreted.

  • One way this passage has been interpreted is in a social-justice framework:  That Jesus is speaking about how they, the religious Jews, treat the poor and disadvantaged in their midst.  The scholars who come to this conclusion do so in taking the terms food, drink, clothes, sick, and prison in a mostly literal sense while defining the “least of these” (vs.40,45) as being the needy within the community. Therefore, the application to today would be that the Church must take care of the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized in our society (and across the globe); delivering loving care and justice in Jesus’ name.

  • Another way this passage has been interpreted is in a disciple-specific framework: That Jesus is speaking about the way the outsiders (nations and individuals) welcome and treat his disciples, including those who would become his followers generations later.  The scholars who interpret the text this way come to this conclusion by taking the terms food, drink, etc as mostly figurative (think Jesus’ statements such as Jn 6:35, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”). They also emphasize the definition of the word “brothers” (adelphos ἀδελφός) in vs.40 to mean Christian believers; especially those who are marginalized and even persecuted for their faith in Christ.

So which is it? Treat the poor and disadvantaged well? Or treat the followers of Christ (with their message) well?  Certainly both explanations of this text have validity and, in a strong sense, both are true.

Goats Be Sayin'

Goats Be Sayin’

But if we step further and take into account other parables of Jesus such as the “Wheat and the Tares” (Mt 13:24-30) as well as “A Tree and its Fruit” (Mt 7:21-23) with it’s “Depart from me, I never knew you” climax, it becomes more clear that Jesus is explaining that within the Church (what theologians call the “Visible Church”; those inside the community, claiming to be participants), there is a subset of true regenerated followers of Christ side-by-side with a subset of others who are not.  Whether these others are “playing church” or deeply in denial about their relationship with Jesus (or any other reason) we simply don’t know.

Here is what we do know: In the Church of Jesus Christ, there are both sheep and goats who share a similar outward appearance and yet possess a completely different makeup in their internal spiritual DNA.

To restate it another way, the contrast that Jesus makes is between those who are focused and centered primarily on Him, with a resulting concern for others (sheep) -vs- those who are focused and centered primarily on themselves with a resulting self-focus on their own well-being, reputation, approval, and comfort (goats).

And Jesus communicates that the final outcome (and proof) per verse 46 is eternal life for the sheep and eternal punishment for the goats.  Since our text doesn’t give us any more particulars on what that punishment entails, suffice it to say as per C.S. Lewis’ famous quote from The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” (Chap. 9, pp 72-73).

This topic may be uncomfortable to many.  We’re typically not used to considering that those who are sitting side-by-side with us in pews (and especially those up on platforms preaching and leading) might not be truly “sheep” after all.  It’s a very sobering thought but the bottom line is that we are not to look at others and ask whether they are sheep or goats (or wheat or tares), but instead to look at ourselves; to take spiritual stock of the work of God’s Holy Spirit within our own hearts.

Christ the King Icon

Christ the King Icon

Is Jesus Christ living his life internally within our hearts to the degree where his love flows out in care, compassion, and service to others? Are we enthralled with the King to the point that the good works we perform are so innate and inherent to our Christ-filled souls that we’re not always even aware of performing them? If we are asking those questions with sincerity, that’s a good sign. And, as always, we’re called to a continual life of repentance; receiving grace where we continually fall short.

2. The Shepherd-King

Jesus’ message of warning across the entire gospel of Matthew is clear:  Get ready and be prepared, for the Lord is coming. Though he initially came to Bethlehem in incarnational humility and poverty, he will return in full divine glory (doxa δόξα) to “sit on his throne ” (vs 31), where he will rule and reign over everyone and everything forever.

Therefore Jesus is not only the absolute fulfillment of the shepherd metaphor in all of scripture, but of the kingly imagery as well. He is everything that matters.

So we can trust and rely that his judgments are good and perfect because he sees beyond the externals into the deep internal place in our hearts where he resides by the power of His Holy Spirit.

#Wade S

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From the gospel reading for the “Feast of William Wilberforce, 1833”.  Wilberforce was leader of British abolition movement to eradicate race-based slavery.
(the end)

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Categories: Christian Service, Devotional, Final Judgment, Good Shepherd, Sheep and Goats, Social Justice | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lord Is Our Good Shepherd

Ezekiel 34:11-16 11 For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

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People have mistakenly tried to construct a false dichotomy between a wrathful Old Testament God who judges and a loving New Testament God who saves, but that thinking is revealed as flawed in multiple places. Case in point: This chapter 34 of Ezekiel.

In the context of this prophetical book, pronouncing judgment upon sin, we encounter here in this chapter astonishing imagery describing our Lord shepherding his flock with compassion. So it becomes obvious again that God has revealed his depth of character in a profound “both-and” way. He is both sovereign Lord who provides justice AND he is also nurturing shepherd who loves tenderly.

Prophet Ezekiel

Prophet Ezekiel

The prophet-priest Ezekiel was called by God during Israel’s history right around the time of the Babylonian exile of 597 BC when Nebuchadnezzar swept through and destroyed all of Jerusalem including the Temple; the center of religious ritual. It was within this historical context that Ezekiel prophesied; enacting many of his proclamations symbolically and speaking others verbally.

The initial focus of Ezekiel’s prophecies were about God’s judgment on sin and idolatry; initially first against Israel, and then against the surrounding seven nations. But once Jerusalem fell, Ezekiel switched towards a message of consolation; foretelling of a restored people awaiting a glorious future where the Lord himself will shepherd his flock by gathering, caring for, and feeding them in deep and profound ways.

1. The Lord GATHERS his flock

The imagery of the Lord as a shepherd who actively seeks and saves those who are lost brings to mind the deliberate recounting of this metaphor in parabolic form by Jesus himself in Luke 15:1-7. Even though the flock had been scattered and exiled to Babylon (due to the sinful neglect by the “shepherds”; the religious leaders), the glorious day will come when the Lord will gather his sheep who are easily in view, but will also actively pursue those who are far off; those who are weak, hurt, injured, scared, from every nation on earth.

And imagine how comforting the message that they would be gathered “out from the nations” (vs.13) would have been to the scattered remnant captured into foreign lands. It would have brought hope to those exiles trapped there in Babylon.

In verse 16, the word translated “lost”, the Hebrew ‘abad, means scattered but also annihilated/destroyed and the word translated “scattered”, nadach, is even more insidious; meaning to be thrust away, banished, outcast! These sheep were lost to the point of desperately needing divine rescue (vs.12).

To expand our context to the entire chapter 34, we read that the Lord’s gathering of his flock is in stark contrast to the human shepherds (signifying the religious leaders) who only care about themselves and therefore don’t even bother to go out looking for missing sheep. They “have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost” (vs.4). A very strong indictment.

2. The Lord CARES FOR his flock.

Good Shepherd

Good Shepherd

The Lord as shepherd not only gathers his sheep together safely into his fold, he also cares for their every need; making sure they feel safe and treasured. Listen to the power of the nurturing words used in our text such as “look after” (vs.11,12), “bring them out” and “into their own land” (vs.13), “tend” them (vs.14,15), as well as “bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (vs.16). All of these activities would be expected of a normal shepherd watching over his sheep, but evidently those religious leaders, identified as shepherds of the people Israel, were preoccupied with other priorities; namely themselves.

Ezekiel draws the obvious contrast between the Lord as good shepherd (in vs.11-16) against all those who tended to their own comforts and privileges. Not only were they not caring for their own flocks (vs.2-3), they were actually plundering and exploiting them for their own comfort, gain, and well-being. Meanwhile, as they were not watching guard, many of the sheep were figuratively carried off (or scared off) by rampaging wild animals.

3. The Lord FEEDS his flock.

Ezekiel paints a beautiful portrait of the Lord as shepherd who gathers and cares for his beloved sheep, but also as one who feeds his flock in nourishing ways. To get the full sense of this concept, we must go back to the original language and notice the multitude of times the Hebrew word ra’ah is used in describing the pasturing and feeding of the sheep. This word ra’ah describes what shepherds do; pasturing, shepherding, feeding and even teaching (which is enormously significant for ministry application).

In the book of Ezekiel itself, this word ra’ah is used sixteen times and all but one of those times shows up here in this chapter 34. It’s as if Ezekiel is overstating again and again the obvious; shepherd the lost and needy sheep, and he communicates this within the agricultural imagery where the shepherd will bring his sheep to verdant pastures where they can feed without fear or anxiety.

Again we must contrast God’s divine shepherd to the human religious leaders who fed themselves without caring about their flock. Verse 2 is condemning, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves!”. This can also be properly translated as “Woe to the feeders of Israel who have been feeding themselves” (rather than their appointed flocks). Verse 3 goes on to explain that they feast on the choicest parts of their own sheep; on the delicious animal fatty meats. The picture is unmistakable: They were betraying their calling as shepherds and were gorging on the very animals supposedly under their care.

But the Lord turns the tables in verse 10, “I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them”. There is hope: He will reject those shepherds and will replace them with one who is far superior.

Note that the sheep themselves are not innocent in the text. Throughout verses 18-21, many of the neglected sheep are judged as selfish and vindictive to the remainder of their flock. They stamp down the pastures after they have eaten, making it inedible for others, and they pollute/muddy the water after drinking, making water unavailable to the others. Verse 21 adds that the stronger sheep are guilty of bullying and pushing the weak ones around. It’s an absolute mess and needs divine intervention.

The True Good Shepherd

Jesus himself explained on the Road to Emmaus (Lk.24) that all of the Old Testament was about him, and this text is yet another example. Even though a partial fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy did take place during the Old Testament period (the exile eventually ended, the people did return to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple), it was never completely fulfilled. Something was always still missing, and there continued to be false shepherds leading the sheep of Israel astray. Why was that?

Caring & Feeding His Sheep

Caring & Feeding His Sheep

This was because though partially fulfilled in the old covenant, this prophecy was not completely fulfilled until the new covenant in Jesus Christ. That word ra’ah which was used fifteen out of sixteen times in chapter 34 (about pasturing the sheep) takes a beautiful turn the final time used by Ezekiel three chapters later, in 37:24, pointing towards the true and coming shepherd of Israel, “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd ; and they will walk in My ordinances and keep My statutes and observe them”. Obviously this is not referring to King David who was already dead and gone, but to the true Davidic king to come, Jesus Christ himself.

As foreshadowed in Ezekiel 34:23, Jesus is the one who is the true shepherd. He will give the true rest (vs.15) to his flock where they can experience peace like sheep laying safely on a guarded field. In fulfillment of Ezekiel 34, along with Psalm 23 (with many other instances), Jesus Christ is the good shepherd who gathers, cares for, and feeds his flock with divine compassion.

In the New Testament, Jesus used the same imagery of himself shepherding his sheep (John 10). Those who belong to him will finally be gathered and secured into his flock, and will experience a banquet feast of spiritual food along with living waters as he will institute, per vs. 25, a “covenant of peace” forever.

We who have been gathered by Christ as his sheep can experience this partially now and then completely at the end of the age when the fulfillment of his Kingdom will have been fully accomplished .

#Wade

Categories: Devotional, Ezekiel, Good Shepherd | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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