“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:31-33 NKJV).
It is quite common when driving in the mountains of Nepal to round a curve and find the road filled with a flock of sheep or goats, or to a mixed group of both. Though usually the difference is apparent, sometimes it requires a second look or more to decide exactly what kind of animals one is seeing.
This is apparently not something unique to me. I recently read an article about wild sheep which stated that scientists recognize more than forty species in each category, but that there are some species that share characteristics from both types. Opinion is split as to whether those animals are properly classified as sheep or goats. It is just not always easy to decide.
We recognize the same dilemma when it comes to spiritual discrimination. It is not always easy to tell whether an individual is a righteous person or sinful. Yes, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:20), but all humans bear mixed fruit. As someone has said, “there is a little good in the worst of us and a little bad in the best of us.” While the words are not inspired, the sentiment is consistent with Scripture. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
A student in one of my classes asked, “Why did God use an unrighteous man like Moses (because Moses was not allowed to enter Canaan because of his sin) to write the first books of the Bible?” I answered by reminding him of the sins of David, Peter, and Paul and then said, “If God used only perfect men to write the Bible we would not have a Bible.”
As imperfect humans, we must admit that our ability to judge others is also imperfect. We cannot always know the true relationship between another person and God. Yes, willful rebellious sin is usually obvious, and that person’s spiritual condition is not in doubt (1 John 3:4-9). But what about the alcoholic who struggles for years battling his addiction and striving to conquer it, often asking for God’s forgiveness? He may fluctuate between sin and righteousness frequently in such a struggle. Who among us really wants to be the judge of his condition at any given time? This is only one of many such ambiguous situations.
Thankfully, there is someone who knows infallibly the difference between sheep and goats. Jesus, the Son of Man (and Son of God), will come in judgment and separate one from the other, without mistake. We can trust his knowledge. His decisions will be perfectly righteous and just.
In a different parable, Jesus taught that separation of the righteous and unrighteous must wait until the time is right to avoid damaging the righteous. He spoke of a field in which an enemy had sown seed of tares among the wheat. When the servants of the landowner discovered the tares growing, they asked if he wanted them to pull them out. He said, “No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them” (Matthew 13:29).
We often grow impatient with God (much like the prophets Jonah and Habakkuk) because of his patience with sinners. We want him to “do something about all the wickedness and evil we see.” But he remains longsuffering and merciful, “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Sin will be punished. Righteousness will be rewarded. All in God’s good time.