What sheep and goats teach us about the sanctity of life

Matthew 25 and the least of these

January 29, 2020

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus vividly teaches his disciples that the fundamental difference between the sheep and the goat is what they did and didn’t do for the most vulnerable people in society. 

In the original context of Jesus’ instruction, he was emphasizing the need for his disciples to care for each other. However, in the more expansive context of the gospel of Matthew, it is clear that Jesus expected his disciples to care for both their brothers and their neighbors as a reflection of God’s concern for the world. As Paul would teach us in the book of Ephesians, Jesus’ concern encompassed the brothers and sisters who are near and the stranger who is far away and often forgotten.

To be sure, Jesus was not teaching his disciples that they were saved by their works. When Jesus announced the coming of his Kingdom, he called everyone to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). And, as Scripture teaches elsewhere, saving faith works itself out in love (Gal. 5:6). Thus, faith in Christ is accompanied by manifestation of love and care toward others, which is the point of Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. 

With the Sanctity of Human Life in focus in the month of January, I believe it would be helpful for Christians to revisit Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 25 and consider how it should inform their love and care for “the least of these in our midst.”

The sheep and the goats

In Matthew 25:31-30, we see a person called the “Son of Man” coming with authority and glory to judge the earth. While at the time the disciples might not have realized that the Son of Man to whom Jesus referred was actually himself, it did not take them long after his resurrection to see that Jesus is the Lord over all. Specifically, in this case, Jesus is seen as the Lord over judgment. Whereas in Jesus’ first coming, he came as Savior; in his second coming, he comes as Judge. 

In the first scene of judgment, we see Jesus addressing the “sheep.” As we know from other parts of Scripture, Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20). The sheep represent his people, those who have been called by his name, those who have repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. In this first scene, Jesus addresses the sheep, and he commends them for the way they have lived their lives toward others. They have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner. In summary, the sheep reflected the Shepherd’s care for the most vulnerable and forsaken people in society.

After detailing the works of the sheep, Jesus reveals that “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” For Jesus, there is an extricable relationship between having regard for him and having regard for others. 

What we believe about the grace, mercy, and compassion of Jesus must translate into actions of grace, mercy, and compassion toward others.

From the judgment of the sheep, Jesus, in verses 41-46, turns his attention to the goats on his left. In these verses, we feel the mood of the scene change. What we find here are the goats doing the exact opposite of what the sheep have done. Instead of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for sick, giving drink to the thirsty, and visiting the imprisoned, the goats stuck to “ministering” to people who they felt were worthy of their time and efforts. This is clear from the way that the goats respond to Jesus. They are appalled at the idea that they would have treated Jesus that way, but they have failed to recognize that the very definition of “serving Jesus” means “serving others.” Specifically, it means serving those that society tends to cast aside. Jesus concludes his judgment of the goats by saying, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.” 

According to this passage, the fundamental difference between the sheep and the goats was not what they claimed to believe about Jesus, but rather how what they believed about Jesus affected the way they lived toward others. 

This passage and our understanding of the sanctity of life

What we believe about the grace, mercy, and compassion of Jesus must translate into actions of grace, mercy, and compassion toward others. Christians who love the mercy of Christ ought to be merciful toward the “least of these” in our midst. This means caring for the weak, the oppressed, the stranger, the refugee, the homeless family, and drug addict in our community. This means that following Jesus is more than singing a song about how “Jesus loves the little children.” We must also demonstrate that same love in word and in deed. 

Jesus loves the unwed mother who so often is wracked with guilt and shame. He loves the child who daily wrestles with trauma from abuse and neglect. And Jesus even loves that unseen, unborn child in the womb, even when society attempts to dehumanize bearers of his image. Such a reality should provoke Christians to work hard for the end of abortion through various efforts available to them. Whether through prayer or public policy, benevolence funds or baby showers, Christians must act to care for the least of these in our community.

So, when the unwed, pregnant mother visits your church, the response is never shame and disgust, but love and compassion. Sadly, love and compassion are not always the ways that professing Christians respond to unexpected pregnancies. According to some studies, approximately 73% of the women who have an abortion report some religious affiliation. One cannot help but wonder how these women might have responded if they would have known their churches genuinely loved them and wanted to care for them in their time of need. 

When Jesus calls us to love the “least of these” in our midst, he is not calling us to something that isn’t messy. He isn’t calling us to a weekend project. He is calling us to a life of sacrificial love and care as the body of Christ. When we love the weak, forsaken, and vulnerable, we are loving like the Good Shepherd.

Casey B. Hough

Casey B. Hough (Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as lead pastor at Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and assistant professor of biblical interpretation at a Luther Rice College and Seminary. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. For more ministry resources from Casey, visit his … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24