[From ws15/03 p. 25 for May 25-31]
“To the extent that you did it to one of the least of
these my brothers, you did it to me.” – Mt 25:40
The parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the theme of this week’s Watchtower Study. The second paragraph states:
“Jehovah’s people have long been intrigued by this illustration…”
One reason for this interest is that this parable is a major part of the “other sheep” doctrine which creates a subordinate class of Christian with an earthly hope. This class must be obedient to the Governing Body if they hope to gain everlasting life.
“The other sheep should never forget that their salvation depends on their active support of Christ’s anointed “brothers” still on earth. (Matt. 25:34-40)” (w12 3/15 p. 20 par. 2)
Before we go deeper into this, let us address one premise that misleads many sincere Jehovah’s Witnesses. The premise is that the “other sheep” Jesus mentions only once in the Bible, at John 10:16, are the same sheep he is referring to at Matthew 25:32. This link has never been established with scriptural proof. It remains an assumption.
We should also bear in mind that what is spoken by our Lord at Matthew 25:31-46 is a parable, an illustration. The purpose of an illustration is to explain or illustrate a truth that is already established. An illustration does not constitute proof. My aunt, an Adventist, once tried to prove the Trinity to me using the three components of an egg—the shell, white, and yoke—as proof. It may seem like a solid argument if one is willing to accept an illustration as proof, but it would be foolish to do so.
What did Jesus and the Bible writers clearly explain without illustrations? Review the following sampling of Scriptures to see that the hope held out to mankind since Christ’s day is for Christians to be called children of God and for them to rule with Christ in the Kingdom of the Heavens. (Mt 5:9; Joh 1:12; Ro 8:1-25; 9:25, 26; Ga 3:26; 4:6, 7; Mt 12:46-50; Col 1:2; 1Co 15:42-49; Re 12:10; Re 20:6)
Ask yourself if it is logical—and more important, in keeping with the love of God—for Jesus to have revealed in specific detail so much about the hope for only 144,000 of his brothers, while couching the hope for millions more in the vague symbolism of parables?[i]
In this article, we are being expected to base our hope of eternal salvation on the interpretation the Governing Body gives to the metaphorical elements in Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Given that, let us examine their interpretation to see if it harmonizes with Scripture and can be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.
How Has Our Understanding Been Clarified?
According to paragraph 4, we used to believe (from 1881 onward) that the fulfillment of this parable took place during the thousand year reign of Christ. However, in 1923, “Jehovah helped his people refine their understanding of this illustration.”
The publishers therefore claim that our current understanding is based on a clarification or refinement originating with God. What other refinements were we claiming Jehovah was revealing to his people in 1923? That was the time of the “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” campaign. We were preaching that the end would come in 1925 and that Abraham, Moses and other notable men of faith would be resurrected in that year. That turned out to be a false doctrine that did not originate with God, but with man—specifically, Judge Rutherford.
It would appear that the only reason we continue to claim that the 1923 understanding of the Sheep and Goats parable is from God is that we haven’t changed it yet.
Paragraph 4 continues:
“The Watch Tower of October 15, 1923…presented sound Scriptural arguments that limited the identity of Christ’s brothers to those who would rule with him in heaven, and it described the sheep as those who hope to live on earth under the rule of Christ’s Kingdom.”
One has to wonder why these “sound Scriptural arguments” are not reproduced in this article. After all, the October 15, 1923 issue of The Watchtower has not been included in the Watchtower Library program, so there is no easy way for the average Jehovah’s Witness to verify this statement unless he or she wishes to flout the direction of the Governing Body and go on the internet to research this.
Not being constrained by this policy, we have obtained the 1923 volume of The Watchtower. On page 309, par. 24, under the subtitle “To Whom Applied”, the article in question states:
“To whom, then, do the symbols sheep and goats apply? We answer: Sheep represent all the peoples of the nations, not spirit-begotten but disposed toward righteousness, who mentally acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Lord and who are looking for and hoping for a better time under his reign. Goats represent all that class who claim to be Christians, but who do not acknowledge Christ as the great Redeemer and King of Mankind, but claim that the present evil order of things on this earth constitutes Christ’s kingdom.”
One would suppose that “sound Scriptural arguments” would include…I don’t know…scriptures? Apparently not. Perhaps this is merely the result of slipshod research and overconfidence. Or perhaps it is indicative of something more disturbing. Whatever the case, there is no excuse for misleading eight million faithful readers by telling them that one’s teaching is based on the Bible when in fact it is not.
Examining the reasoning from the 1923 article, we see that the goats are “Christians” who do not acknowledge Christ as redeemer and king, but believe the present system is Christ’s kingdom.
The Watchtower belief is that this parable does not deal with the judgment of the house of God. (1 Peter 4:17) If so, then the 1923 interpretation—apparently still in vogue—relegates them to some limbo, being neither sheep nor goat. Yet Jesus says that “all the nations” are gathered.
Overlooking that for the moment, we have to ask just who are these Christians to whom the article refers? I’ve spoken to Catholics and Protestants and Baptists and Mormons, and one thing they all have in common is that they acknowledge Jesus as both redeemer and king. As for the canard that all other Christian denominations believe that Christ’s kingdom is found on earth today either in the present system or as a state of mind and heart in the soul of the Christian faithful…well, a simple internet search puts the lie to that belief. (See beginningCatholic.com)
Paragraph 6 states that further “clarifications”, presumably also from Jehovah, arrived in the mid-1990s. That is when the Governing Body refined the understanding of the timing of the judgment to a point just after the tribulation of Matthew 24:29. This was done because of the alleged similarity of wording between Matthew 24:29-31 and 25:31, 32. It is unclear what similarity of wording they are referring to, because the only common element is that the Son of man comes. In one, he comes in the clouds; in the other, he sits on his throne. In one, he arrives alone; in the other, he is accompanied by angels. Basing a new understanding on one common element in two passages when there are several others that fail to match up seems to be a dubious methodology.
Paragraph 7 states that, “Today, we have a clear understanding of the illustration of the sheep and the goats.” It then goes on to explain each facet of the illustration, but like the articles before it, it offers no Scriptural proof for its interpretation. Apparently, we must believe we have a clear understanding because that is what we are told. Okay, let’s examine that logic.
How Does the Illustration Emphasize the Preaching Work?
Under this subtitle, we are led to believe that it is the preaching work that identifies the sheep. This means that while all the nations are gathered before Christ, he really is wasting his time looking at all those billions. It would be far more efficient for our Lord to just concentrate on the eight million or so Jehovah’s Witnesses, since only they have any hope of being identified as sheep, since only they are engaged in “the greatest preaching campaign in history.” (par. 16)
This brings us to the crux of the article and the real agenda.
“Therefore, now is the time for those who hope to be judged as sheep to support Christ’s brothers loyally.” (par. 18)
Like many before it, this interpretation is being used to instill a motivation for loyalty to and support of the leaders of the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
We must guard ourselves against being deceived by specious reasoning. Our best defensive and offensive weapon is, as it always has been, the Bible.
For example, to convince us that the Bible teaches that the preaching would be done by Christians who are not God’s children, who are not anointed, paragraph 13 refers to John’s vision in Revelation and states that he sees others who are not of the bride class, hence not anointed. Yet, the timing of this part of the vision places it within the time period of the Messianic Kingdom when billions of unrighteous are to be resurrected. The article is suggesting that the Bride is inviting a second group to take life’s water free in our day, the “other sheep”. Yet, the Bride does not exist in our day. It only exists when all Christ’s brothers have been resurrected. We are again taking a metaphor and trying to make it into proof, when in fact there is nothing in the Christian Scriptures that points to a secondary class of Christian in our day drinking life’s water free from the hand of a superclass of Christian.
More specious reasoning is revealed in the inconsistency of the Organization’s doctrinal teaching. Through The Watchtower and other publications, we are taught that the other sheep who survive Armageddon will continue in their imperfect, sinful state and will need to work toward perfection over the course of 1,000 years; then, if they pass the final test after Satan is released, they will get everlasting life. Yet the parable says that these ones depart into everlasting life; no ifs, ands, or buts about it. (Mt 25:46)
The Organization also seems unwilling to apply its own rules when it’s inconvenient. Take the rule of “similarity of wording” used to justify moving the fulfillment to just before Armageddon. Let us now apply it to Matthew 25:34, and 1 Corinthians 15: 50 and Ephesians 1:4.
“Then the King will say to those on his right: ‘Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world.” (Mt 25:34)
“However, this I say, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom, neither does corruption inherit incorruption.” (1Co 15:50)
“as he chose us to be in union with him before the founding of the world, that we should be holy and unblemished before him in love.” (Eph 1:4)
Ephesians 1:4 speaks of something chosen before the founding of the world and it is obviously speaking about anointed Christians. 1 Corinthians 15:50 also speaks of anointed Christians inheriting the kingdom of God. Matthew 25:34 uses both these terms which are applied elsewhere to anointed Christians, but the Governing Body would have us ignore that connection—that “similarity of wording”—and accept that Jesus is talking about a different group of people who also inherit the kingdom.
“He that receives YOU receives me also, and he that receives me receives him also that sent me forth. 41 He that receives a prophet because he is a prophet will get a prophet’s reward, and he that receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will get a righteous man’s reward. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water to drink because he is a disciple, I tell YOU truly, he will by no means lose his reward.” – Mt 10:40-42.
Again, notice the similarity of wording. He that gives a disciple only a cup of cold water to drink will get his reward. What reward? Those who received a prophet because he was a prophet got a prophet’s reward. Those who received a righteous man because he was a righteous man got a righteous man’s reward. What was the reward for righteous men and prophets in the time of Jesus? Was it not to inherit the kingdom?
Not Making Too Much of a Parable
It is very easy for someone to make too much of a parable, especially if they have an agenda. The Governing Body’s agenda is to continue to support the fragmenting antitype-based 1934 doctrine of Judge Rutherford that created a laity class among Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since there is no Scriptural proof for this teaching, they have pressed Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats into service in an effort to fabricate Scriptural evidence.
As we have already stated, a parable or an illustration is not proof of anything. Its sole purpose is to illustrate a truth that is already established. If we are to have any hope of understanding Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats, we have to drop our preconceptions and agendas, and instead search for the core truth he was trying to explain.
Let’s start with this: What is the parable about? It starts off with a king sitting on his throne to judge all the nations. So it is about judgment. Very well. What else? Well, the rest of the parable lists the criteria upon which the nations are judged. Okay, what is the criteria?
It all comes down to whether the ones being judged,
- gave food to the hungry;
- gave water to the thirsty;
- showed hospitality to a stranger;
- clothed the naked;
- cared for the sick;
- comforted those in prison.
The organization looks at these six items through its agenda-colored glasses and cries: “It’s all about the preaching!”
If you were to describe all these actions with a single phrase or word, what would it be? Are they not all acts of mercy? So the parable is about judgment and the criteria for favorable or unfavorable judgment are whether or not the individual displayed mercy to Christ’s brothers.
How are judgment and mercy related? We probably will call to mind James’ words on the matter.
“For the one who does not practice mercy will have his judgment without mercy. Mercy exults triumphantly over judgment.” (James 2:13 NWT Reference Bible)
To this point, we can deduce that Jesus is telling us that if we want to be favorably judged, we must perform acts of mercy.
Is there more?
Yes, because he specifically mentions his brothers. The mercy is performed to them, and through them it is performed to Jesus. Does this exclude the sheep from being Jesus’ brothers? Let us not be quick to arrive at that conclusion. We have to remember that when James wrote about mercy triumphing over judgment he was writing to his brothers, fellow Christians. The sheep and the goats all know Jesus. They both ask, “When did we see you a stranger and receive you hospitably, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?”
The parable was given to his disciples for their benefit. It teaches that even if one is a Christian and considers himself a brother of Christ, it matters not. What matters—what he is judged on—is how he treats his brothers. If he fails to show mercy to his fellow brothers when he sees them suffering, then his judgment will be adverse. He may think that his service to Christ, his zeal in the ministry, his donations to the building work, all guarantee his salvation; but he deludes himself.
“Of what benefit is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he does not have works? That faith cannot save him, can it? 15 If a brother or a sister is lacking clothing and enough food for the day, 16 yet one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but you do not give them what they need for their body, of what benefit is it? 17 So, too, faith by itself, without works, is dead.” (Jas 2:14-17)
His words parallel those of Jesus’ parable. Jesus says that if we, although thinking ourselves to be his brother, do not show mercy to “the least of these, my brothers”, then we are going to find Jesus judging us with the same lack of mercy we displayed. There is no basis for a favorable judgment without mercy, for we are all good-for-nothing slaves.
Can His Brothers Also Be Sheep or Goats?
In Western society, we are very binary in our approach to things. We like things to be black or white. The Oriental mindset of Jesus’ day was different. A person or object or concept could be one thing from one point of view, and another from a different point of view. This vagueness tends to make us Westerners uneasy, but if we are to understand Jesus’ words about the Sheep and Goats, I submit that we should give this some thought.
Our understanding can be enhanced by considering the 18th chapter of Matthew. The chapter opens with the words:
“In that hour the disciples came near to Jesus and said: ‘Who really is greatest in the Kingdom of the heavens?'”
The rest of the chapter is a discourse Jesus has with his disciples. It is crucial that we understand who is audience was. To further convince us that this is a single instruction session spoken to his disciples, the opening words of the next chapter state: “When Jesus had finished speaking these things, he departed from Galʹi·lee and came to the borders of Ju·deʹa across the Jordan.” (Mt 19:1)
So what does he say to his disciples that is germane to our discussion of the Sheep and Goats parable?
Mt 18:2-6: He tells his disciples that to be great they must be humble, and that any one of them that stumbles a brother—a little one; Jesus uses a young child to enforce his point—will die for all time.
Mt 18:7-10: He warns his disciples against becoming causes for stumbling and then tells them that if they despise a little one—a fellow brother—they will end up in Gehenna.
Mt 18:12-14: His disciples are told how to care for one of his brothers who strays and becomes lost.
Mt 18:21, 22: A principle to govern forgiving one’s brother.
Mt 18:23-35: A parable showing how forgiveness is related to mercy.
Here is what all of this has in common with the parable of the Sheep and Goats.
That parable is about judgment and mercy. It has three groups in it: Christ’s brothers, the Sheep and the Goats. There are two outcomes: everlasting life or eternal destruction.
All of Matthew 18 is addressing the brothers of Christ. Yet, he differentiates between little ones and causes for stumbling. Anyone can be a little one; anyone can become a cause for stumbling.
Vs 2-6 speak against pride. A proud man tends not to be merciful, while the humble one does.
Vs 7-10 condemns brothers who despise other brothers. If you despise your brother you will not help him in a time of need. You will not act mercifully. Jesus says that despising a brother means eternal destruction.
Vs 12-14 speaks of the act of mercy which consists of leaving the 99 sheep (one’s brothers who are safe and sound) and performing a merciful act of rescue for a lost brother.
Vs 21-35 show how mercy and forgiveness are intertwined and how by showing forgiveness to a brother through an act of mercy, we will have our debt to God forgiven and gain everlasting life. We also see how acting without mercy toward a brother results in our getting eternal destruction.
So Jesus is saying in Matthew 18 that if his brothers act toward one another mercifully, they get the reward extended to the Sheep and if they act toward one another without mercy, they get the punishment meted out to the Goats.
To put this in a different perspective: The Brothers in the parable are all Christians, or brothers of Christ, prior to judgment. The Sheep and the Goats are these same ones after judgment. Each is judged based on what he did to his fellow brothers prior to Jesus’ arrival.
Judgment on the House of God
If the organization is right about the timing of the illustration—and in this case I believe they are—then this would be the first judgment Jesus performs.
“For it is the appointed time for the judgment to start with the house of God. Now if it starts first with us, what will the outcome be for those who are not obedient to the good news of God?” (1Pe 4:17)
Jesus judges the house of God first. That judgment was already underway in Paul’s day. That makes sense, because Jesus does not only judge the living, but the dead.
“But these people will render an account to the one ready to judge those living and those dead.” (1Pe 4:5)
So Jesus judged Christians from the first century down to our day when he sits on his throne. This judgment is not about living on earth, but about inheriting the kingdom. It is the first judgment.
All the rest are judged in the future, during or at the end of the 1,000 year period when the world of unrighteous mankind is judged.
I do not presume to have the absolute truth on this matter, nor am I expecting anyone to accept this understanding because I say so. (I’ve already had a lifetime of that, thank you very much.) We must always reason for ourselves based on the evidence presented and arrive at our own understanding, for we are all judged individually, not on the basis of the teachings of others.
Nevertheless, we all bring some baggage to these discussions in the form of personal bias or organizational indoctrination. For example:
If you believe that all Christians are Jesus’ brothers, or at least have the potential to be—a fact supported in Scripture—and that the sheep are not his brothers, then the sheep and goats must come from the non-Christian part of the world. If, on the other hand, you are a Jehovah’s Witnesses, you believe that only 144,000 Christians are anointed. You therefore believe you have the basis for considering that all other Christians make up the sheep and goats. The problem with that take on the parable is that it is founded on the false premise that the other sheep are a secondary class of Christian. This is unscriptural as we’ve proven repeatedly in the pages of this forum. (See the category “Other Sheep“.)
Still, the parable does seem to refer to two groups: One that is not judged, his brothers; and one that is, people of all the nations.
Here are a few more facts to help us reconcile these two elements with one another. The sheep are judged. The goats are judged. The basis for that judgment is specified. Do we imagine that Jesus brothers are not judged? Of course not. Are they judged on a different basis? Is mercy not a factor in their judgment? Again, of course not. So they could be included in the parable’s application. Jesus could be referring to the basis for judgment upon the individual, based on his actions toward the collective.
For instance, when I am judged, it will not matter to which or to how many of Jesus’ brothers I have shown mercy, only that I have. Nor will it matter that I might consider myself to be one of Jesus’ brothers at the time of judgment. After all, it is Jesus who determines who his brothers are.
The Wheat and the Weeds Parable
There is another factor which should weigh in to the discussion. No parable exists in isolation. All are part of the tapestry that is Christianity. The parables of the Minas and the Talents are closely related. Likewise, the parables of the Sheep and Goats and the Wheat and Weeds. Both relate to the same period of judgment. Jesus said that we are either with him or against him. (Mt 12:30) There is no third category in the Christian congregation. We would not imagine that the goats are a distinct class from the weeds, would we? That there is a judgment that condemns the weeds and another judgment that condemns another group that are goats?
In the Wheat and Weeds parable, Jesus doesn’t stipulate the basis for judgment, only that the angels are involved in the separating work. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats, the angels are also involved but this time we have the basis for judgment spelled out. The goats are destroyed, the weeds are burned. The sheep inherit the kingdom, the wheat is gathered into the kingdom.
Both the Sheep and Goats and the Wheat and Weeds are identified at the same time, at the end.
In any Christian congregation, we cannot be sure who the wheat are and who are weeds, nor can we know who will be judged as sheep and who as goats. We are speaking in an absolute, final-judgment sense here. However, if our heart is loyal to the Lord, we are naturally drawn to those doing the will of the Lord, those striving to be wheat—brothers of Christ. These ones will be there for us in times of trouble, even at great risk to themselves. If we reflect such courage and give of ourselves when the occasion arises to perform an act of mercy (i.e., alleviate the suffering of another), then we may well have our judgment with mercy. What a triumph that will be!
What can we be certain of?
Whatever your personal understanding, it seems beyond question that the truth Jesus is illustrating in this parable is that if we want to be judged worthy of everlasting life, we have to abound in acts of mercy toward those who are his brothers. If we are sure of nothing else, this understanding will lead us to salvation.
The Governing Body misappropriates the application of this parable to support their own agenda. They get us to disregard life-saving acts of mercy in favor of helping them spread their particular brand of Christianity and helping to grow their Organization. They also use this parable to reinforce the idea that by serving them and obeying them, our salvation is assured.
By this they do a gross disservice to the flock they presume to care for. Nevertheless, the one true shepherd is coming. He is the judge of all the earth. Therefore, let us all abound in acts of mercy, for “mercy exalts triumphantly over judgment.”
[i] While the number 144,000 is almost certainly symbolic, the teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that it is literal and so this line of reasoning is based on that supposition.