“Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:32)
The Judgment Day scene in this Sunday’s Gospel can be easily misunderstood. Some may look at those who are “saved” and come to the conclusion that they are saved by their own efforts, saved by their own good works. But further consideration reveals that the “saved” are not saved by what they have done, but by who they are.
The first identity of the saved is that they are sheep, and as such they exist under the care of the Good Shepherd. The rest of the world consists of goats. Sheep are sheep and goats are goats by their birth; they were born that way. So the sheep behave as sheep because that is what they are; it is natural for them to behave as sheep. Indeed as they follow the Good Shepherd they go where He directs, and He directs that they go to the needy of the world both with the Gospel and with acts of mercy. They don’t do these things in order to “become” sheep, they do it because they are Christ’s sheep.
A second identification of the saved is that they have been placed at the right of Jesus (v 33). In Scripture God’s right hand is the place of blessing and favor. Observe that those at Christ’s right were placed there; they did not make any effort to attain this position. Those at Christ’s right have been given the position of salvation, and having been given the position of salvation they behave as the saved; their behavior did not place them at Christ’s right hand, but it is the result of being at Christ’s right hand.
Jesus further identifies the saved as those “blessed by my Father” (v 34). A primary way that the saved are blessed of the Father is that they have been brought into His family; they stand as brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God. Thus when they behave in a godly way, they are only doing that which comes naturally; children of God behave with mercy and love even as their Father is merciful and loving.
Related to being blessed of our Lord’s Father, the saved are identified as heirs. Jesus says to the saved,…inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (v 34). People inherit something because they are born in or have been brought into the family of the deceased. The saved are heirs because they are in God’s family, and they will inherit what the deceased has bequeathed—a kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world. Jesus, the deceased one, has not only bequeathed a kingdom because of the testament flowing from His death, but having risen from the dead He has also raised the saved to new life and has established them as joint heirs with Him. Realizing they have an eternal kingdom, the saved use their wealth to help others now, realizing they stand to inherit that which will not fade away.
Finally the saved are identified by Jesus as The Righteous. The Righteous may at times be identified by their righteous works; however in both the Old and New Testaments the righteous are foundationally those who have been justified, declared righteous. Thus when Jesus labels them as righteous, He is first and foremost identifying them as the justified, those who are clothed with the righteousness of Jesus.
So when (or how) did the sheep become sheep, when did they become blessed of the Father, heirs of the eternal kingdom, and when were they declared righteous? All of these transformations happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The transformation was then bestowed on individuals uniquely when they were baptized, and they believed they were thus united with the One whose death and resurrection combine to truly change people in this life and into eternity.