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Parables of the Last Judgment

Matthew 25:31-46 "The Sheep and the Goats"

By Timothy Copple

In the last two studies, we have looked briefly at the history of salvation as it relates to how we were originally created, what we fell from and how God in Christ Jesus our Lord made a way of restoration to that former glory. It was necessary to establish a basic foundation of what salvation is about from an Orthodox perspective to really understand the parables on the Last Judgment and end times, which are the culmination of salvation history. To recap, we saw that we were created in the image of God, as "icons" of His glory, and breathed into us our soul via the "breath of life," which made the soul alive. At the fall, Adam and Eve lost this life and the soul died while the physical body was given a time for repentance before the soul leaves it and it also dies. Christ, by uniting Himself with our fallen nature, restored it to its former glory and with that restored nature took it through death and Hades, and destroyed them in that body. We then, by becoming one with that divine body and blood not only regain also for ourselves the "breath of life" anew but also a union with the Holy Spirit who is the life-giver, the eating of the flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist and the other sacraments of the Church which serve to unite us to God.

Now we come to the parable in Matthew 25 that we are all so familiar with, the parable of the Sheep and Goats. Let's go through this parable and begin to discern what the Last Judgment is about as it relates to our final salvation.

25:31 - When the Son of Man shall come in His glory and all the holy angles with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory.

This scene is described in Rev. 4:1-6.

After this I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven; and the first voice which I heard was, as it were, of a trumpet talking with me, which said, "Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter." And immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was set in Heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He that sat thereon was to look upon like a jasper and a sardius stone; and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in appearance like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats; and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment, and they had on their heads crowns of gold. And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four living beings full of eyes in front and behind.

You will notice three things present here. First, this throne of glory is described as being in "light". He uses similes of brilliant stones to speak of Christ on His throne. Second, fire is mentioned, and this fire is spoken of both as "lightning and thunder" coming from His mouth and as seven burning lamps of the seven spirits of God. Third, he speaks of this sea of glass like unto "crystal." This sea of brilliance and glory is what we have termed the "river of fire". In this you see two primary characteristics of God's glory, light and heat. This will be a common theme in the Scriptures and the Fathers concerning God's glory and the final judgment.

David says, God shall manifestly come, even our God, and shall not keep silence; a fire shall burn before Him, and a fierce tempest round about Him, and the rest. The Son of Man shall come to the Father, according to the Scripture which was just now read, on the clouds of heaven, drawn by a stream of fire, which is to make trial of men. Then if any man's works are of gold, he shall be made brighter; if any man's course of life be like stubble, and unsubstantial, it shall be burnt up by the fire.

(Cyril, "Catechetical Lectures," #15)

We have several Scriptures which speak of this.

As light:

Col. 1:12-13 - …giving thanks unto the Father, who hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. He hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the Kingdom of His dear Son…

1 John 1:5 - This then is the message which we have heard from Him and declare unto you: that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.

Rev. 21:10-11; 23-25 - And He carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the Holy Jerusalem, descending out of Heaven from God, having the glory of God. And her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal….And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it; for the glory of God gave it light, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of the earth bring their glory and honor into it.

As fire:

Duet. 4:24 - For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.

Psa 68:2 - As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.

Heb. 12:29 - For our God is a consuming fire.

Ex 19:18 - And Mount Sinai was altogether in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.

Isa 29:6 - Thou shalt be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with storm and temptest and the flame of devouring fire.

Isa 10:16-17a - Therefore shall the Lord, the Lord of hosts, send among His fat ones leanness; and under His glory He shall kindle a burning like the burning of a fire. And the Light of Israel shall be for a fire and his Holy One for a flame…

This dual quality of God's nature is of course beyond what we know as light and fire. That is just the closest that we have to relate it to in our experience. Yet, it is much more in quality and essence. Yet, when you hear of God's glory, whether of the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit, you can be assured that we are speaking of these dual qualities of light and heat as of fire.

It is the very nature of God that forms the means by which we are judged. It is for this reason that the Father remains hidden, that we have no form of Him nor has any man seen Him at any time save the Son. To look upon God is to die. It is to have the full glory of God exposed upon us, and if we are not united with Him, then we will die fully. So God keeps Himself hidden for a time, giving us a chance of repentance. That is also why God barred the way to the Tree of Life, because to have taken it then would have resulted in everlasting death. It is why Adam and Eve had to hide when God came to them, for they could no longer stand the glory of God. On the last day, however, we will be present as Christ comes into His full glory, and then…watch out! Your either united or not!

Something also alludes to the end [of all things], as [where He speaks of] the fine brass burning in the fire, which denotes the power of faith, and the continuing instant in prayer, because of the consuming fire which is to come at the end of time.

(Irenaeus, "Against the Heresies," Book 4, Chp. 20

32-33 - And before Him shall be gathered all nations, and He shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.

This parable gives us several comparisons that we can make. The first is that of sheep and goats. Much has been written about the humbleness of sheep as compared to the stubborn pride of the goat, and no doubt this has much to do with why Jesus chooses to call these people by these names. It does reveal to us, however, that one of the criteria Jesus uses to separate the two groups is by their disposition. Yet, while Christ certainly knows the heart, the Scriptures here and in other places indicate that the means by which Jesus Christ judges is by their works, which reveal their heart's disposition. A tree is known by its fruit, says Christ. St. Cyril also states it thus:

How does the shepherd make the separation? Does he examine out of a book which is a sheep and which a goat? or does he distinguish by their evident marks? Does not the wool show the sheep, and the hairy and rough skin the goat? In like manner, if thou hast been just now cleansed from thy sins, thy deeds shall be henceforth as pure wool; and thy robe shall remain unstained, and thou shall ever say, I have put off my coat, how shall I put it on? By thy vesture shall thou be known for a sheep. But if thou be found hairy, like Esau, who was rough with hair, and wicked in mind, who for food lost his birthright and sold his privilege, thou shall be one of those on the left hand.

(Cyril, "Catechetical Lectures," #15)

And in the Scriptures:

Rev. 20:12 - And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

We also have the sheep on the right hand of Christ, and the goats on the left hand. The right hand is generally considered the place of honor, and the left of lesser honor. However, in this case, the right hand represents those who are righteous and the left those who are not.

Then there is the distinction made that the sheep are to "inherit" the Kingdom while the goats destination is described as that place which is "prepared for the devil and his angels" (vs. 46). One is our created and rightful destination, the other is prepared for others. Yet, as St. John Chrysostom notes, those who cast themselves into that by works of pride will end up in the place that they didn't need to go to.

34, 41 - Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, 'Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'….Then shall He say also unto them on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'

Here we see more contrast. We have the comparison that the sheep are called to "come" but the goats to "depart." Now, as we noted in speaking on the creation, quoting St. John of Damascus where he says: "all things are distant from God not by place but by nature," we find that come and depart are not necessarily referring to locations. Even in the story Jesus told concerning the rich man and Lazarus, we find that they are separated by a great gulf…yet they talk to each other and the rich man believes that Lazarus can bring him some water.

One of the results of our union with Christ through the sacraments of the Church is our taking on His energies and likeness, so that we become like Him and we are once again able to icon His glory instead of being destroyed by it. Thus, the righteous sheep can come to Christ, but the unrighteous goats are driven away since they cannot face His nature revealed.

Another contrast painted for us here is that the sheep are called "blessed" and the goats are called "cursed." The blessing and the curse is due to their own works, as is revealed in the Book of Life. This pretty much speaks for itself.

A final contrast given here is that the sheep end up in the Kingdom and the goats into everlasting fire. As we noted above, the Kingdom is spoken of as light, and the two natures of God's glory are brought out depending on the disposition of the heart revealed in their works. The clearest passage from the Bible on this is in:

Rev. 14:9-10 - And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If any man worship the beast and image, and receive his mark in his forehead or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out unmixed into the cup of His indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.

It is also attested to by the Fathers:

For a servant of the Lord should be diligent and careful, yea, moreover, burning like a flame, so that when, by an ardent spirit, he has destroyed all carnal sin, he may be able to draw near to God who, according to the expression of the saints is called 'a consuming fire .' Therefore, the God of all, 'Who maketh His angels [spirits],' is a spirit, 'and His ministers a flame of fire.' Wherefore, in the departure from Egypt, He forbade the multitude to touch the mountain, where God was appointing them the law, because they were not of this character.

(Athanasius, "Festal Letters," #3)

For it is as when some worthless material has been mixed with gold, and the gold-refiners burn up the foreign and refuse part in the consuming fire, and so restore the more precious substance to its natural luster: In the same way when death, and corruption, and darkness, and every other offshoot of evil had grown into the nature of the author of evil, the approach of the Divine power, acting like fire, and making that unnatural accretion to disappear, thus by purgation of the evil becomes a blessing to that nature, though the separation is agonizing.

(Ibid., "The Great Catechism," Chp. 26)

35-40, 42-45 - 'For I hungered, and ye gave Me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took Me in; naked, and ye clothed Me; I was sick, and ye visited Me; I was in prison, and ye came unto Me.' Then shall the righteous answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when saw we Thee hungering and fed Thee, or thirsty and gave Thee drink? And clothed Thee? Or when saw we Thee sick, or in prison, and came unto Thee?' And the King shall answer and say unto hem, 'Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.' (The ones on the left get the same speech, except that they are accused of not doing these things.)

Therefore we have these works which are done by the sheep, and not done by the goats. One might notice how simple these works are. Nothing outstanding that would cause people to take notice. No great talent is needed to visit the sick and those in prison. No great ability is needed to give food and drink to someone in need. These are things that we can all easily do. Jesus is not setting up some high standard here that we have to meet to be sheep. While they are good, we don't need to necessarily accomplish some great ascetical feat. A particular person might need to do that, but as a general rule, we are not talking about fasting till you drop type stuff here. Simple generosity and love for others; Gospel basics.

That is, however, the problem with pride. It seeks the grand things, those things that people take notice of and say, "Wow!" That doesn't mean that everyone who does great things are doing it for that reason, don't misunderstand me. Nor does it mean that we should avoid doing them if God calls us to that. However, the greater works towards salvation are those that are little, those that most people don't notice and which you will probably get very little praise for. However, God will praise such acts and as you see, you are rewarded with more honor on that day than anyone here on earth can ever give you.

However, we are not perfect. We fail. Yet, God has provided a cleansing by this same fire. For the basic character of God's nature is to burn away that which is evil. St. Paul speaks of this when he talks about our works being put through the fire, and the wood, hay and stubble would be burned away, leaving only what is pure and able to live in the fire of God's glory. For those who do not have Christ as a foundation, they will lose everything. For those with Christ, they will simply go through some pain in the process of purifying. Yet, they will be saved in the end.

For it is no small light wherewith Christ encompasses His world: since "His going forth is from the height of heaven, and His progress to the height thereof, nor is there any who can hide himself from His heat." For with His Goodness He enlightens all, and wills not to reject but to amend the foolish, and desires not to exclude the hard-hearted from the Church, but to soften them. And so the Church in the Song of Songs and Christ in the Gospel invites them, saying: "Come unto Me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you; take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart."

(Ambrose, "The Decease of Satyrus," Book 2, "Belief in the Resurrection")

Another critical aspect of this is what we discussed in our examination of our original created state. We were created in the image and likeness of God. We are icons of God and His glory. Here we see the reality of the fact that we are images of God brought out of any abstract concept, and made a living reality in each of us. It is sin for one to trash that image within himself or herself through various sins. It is even worse when we also trash that image in another person, no matter what righteousness we might or might not think they have. Everyone is an image of Christ.

This is why Christ makes it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to have no enemies. We are to love all as ourselves, even in these little things. If we really took the attitude that even a little child, the lowliest beggar, the corrupt polititan, the person who gets on our last nerve, the person who is out to get us; are indeed Christ Himself, then our reactions to people would be different if we really took that to heart. That is what the ascetical life is about, to subdue these passions that would have us treat ourselves and others as non-icons of Christ so that we feel free to either attack and fight back, or just not do the things that we should be doing if we really saw Christ in each person. That was the sin of pride that those on the left had. They failed to discern the reality of Christ in the icons of people they came in contact with while those on the right did, out of humility. That is why Jesus says:

46 - And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.

Next time we will look at some of the other parables which deal with the end times, and have other messages for us. This will help us to realize that our union with Christ brings about these kind of works and disposition of the heart in faith and obedience to Him in humility of spirit. That is the meaning of the word "faith" as is used in the Fathers. Let us seek to strive towards the mark of the high calling of Christ Jesus in our lives, and may it start with simply loving one another as He has loved us, in doing the simple basic things we are all called to do as disciples of Christ.

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