How shall we interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 when He said “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)? Was He talking about a place called “heaven” for “believers” and a place called “hell” for “unbelievers”, which some people in evangelical christian circles tend to believe?
But the parable was talking about good works, not faith. So, this passage has nothing to do with “believers” or “unbelievers”.
Is there another way to interpret His words since Jesus was telling a parable to His disciples? For a start, let’s consider the historical context in which His words were spoken, as well as the audience to whom was He addressing (also known as “audience relevance”).
Context: About Jesus’ upcoming parousia (appearing) at the end of the old covenant age in AD70 (which was about 40 years after his speech)
The sheep could be referring to our true identity, which is based on the grace mindset, whereas the goats could be referring to our false identity, which is based on the law mindset.
When Jesus praised the sheep for doing good to Him, the sheep answered, “When did we help you?” The sheep were not conscious of their good works.
The sheep may represent the thought patterns that pertain to the grace mindset, which bear the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faith, goodness and self-control.
When Jesus told the goats that they did not help Him in the past, the goats protested, saying “When did we not help you?” The goats were performance-oriented and took pride in justifying themselves by their works.
The goats may represent the thought patterns that pertain to the law mindset, that manifest the works of the flesh (self-righteousness).
I believe Jesus was prophesying that at the end of the old covenant age in AD70, the religious system in Israel would come to an end, when the sheep (our new identity in Christ) would be separated from the goats (our old, Adamic identity).
The goats (representing thoughts of self-righteousness, pride, etc) would depart into the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (the word “everlasting” is aion in Greek, meaning “age-during” or “for an age”, not “without end”). The “devil” could symbolise the human ego or the dark side of the human psyche, also known as the shadow self. The “angels” could symbolise the principalities and powers, which are religious or legalistic thought patterns.
So, my take on the parable of the sheep and goat is that it is not meant to be taken literally (or else it paints Jesus as a tyrant), but should be taken metaphorically or symbolically.
“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”(2 Corinthians 3:6)
Hence, any attempt to interpret Jesus’ parables literally will minister condemnation, but a spiritual or metaphysical interpretation will minister life and peace.
“The mind set on the flesh (or law mindset) is death (or condemnation), but the mind set on the spirit (or grace mindset) is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6)
Jesus said in another place, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6:63) If, for some reasons, Jesus’ words do not minister life to us, then we may have probably not interpreted His words through the perspective of God’s grace.
In conclusion, the good news is that we have a new identity. We are living in the new covenant age and God is all in all. We can continue to adopt a grace mindset, knowing we are innocent, righteous and blameless at all times because our true identity is not based on what we do, but based on who we are – “Be still, and know I am”.
I think our part is simply to rest, and stay awake (spiritually) by remembering our original identity – that we are one with God and with one another. This is how we experience eternal life, which is not referring to the quantity of life, but quality of life – through knowing the one true God and knowing Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3), who is our true identity.
Namaste, peace, love and light.