No I did not get the title wrong. You are thinking of the words of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse when he spoke about the final judgment of the nations: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32).
But I am thinking of an important Old Testament passage which does indeed speak about separating the sheep from the sheep. I refer to Ezekiel 34. It is one big long sheep passage, if we can put it that way. The sheep and shepherd metaphor of course speaks about God’s people and those who rule over them.
In 34:1-10 we read about the false shepherds, those who do not really care about the sheep, but just themselves. It is a powerful indictment of lousy spiritual leaders, and deserves an entire article in itself (so stay tuned). But the text continues, and Yahweh says he will rightly shepherd his people.
But then he goes on to say that he will separate one sheep from another. Here is how the divisions are described:
-I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy (v.16).
-I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats (v. 17).
-I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep (v. 20).
-I will judge between one sheep and another (v. 22).
Now to the average person, all sheep look pretty much alike. But to the trained and experienced eye of the shepherd, there are very real discernable differences. In the churches today there are plenty of believers, and many may look quite alike – at least in outward appearance.
But God searches the hearts, and not everyone who rolls up to church on a Sunday, or who claims to be a follower of Jesus, really is. Jesus himself made this quite clear when he said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23).
There are tests however which can help us discern who is a true believer. Jesus said you would know them by their fruit (Matt. 7:16). But of course ultimately only God knows absolutely those who are really his. That is why we learn in the parable of the wheat and the tares that both must be allowed to grow together, and at the last day Jesus will judge which are which (Matt. 13:30).
Thus in the visible church today there will always be an admixture – true believers and false believers will sit in the same pew, sing the same hymns, and repeat the same words. But those who in fact make up the true, invisible church of God is a different matter.
When things are going along relatively smoothly, and it is easy to be a believer, then the likelihood of many false sheep in the churches is always going to be greater. But when real persecution comes, when things really start getting tough for the church, then a sifting process takes place.
Persecution certainly will separate the men from the boys, or the false sheep from the true sheep. Those who have been just playing games and pretending they are the real deal will quickly get out of harm’s way when the bullets start flying.
When real opposition arises, those who have been pretending to be believers will quickly leave the action, with the genuine followers of Christ staying behind to face the music. That has always been the case in the history of the church. So that at least is one positive we can take out of persecution.
Indeed, this sort of separating of the sheep from the sheep does not need to wait for the final judgment. It can happen now. Peter tells us that judgment must first begin with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). While the surrounding culture is over-ripe for judgment, so too is the church, and some much-needed housecleaning is clearly in order.
If the Christian church is going to be a fit fighting unit to take on the assault of everything ungodly and unrighteous in these difficult days, then a thorough cleansing of the flock must take place. Those who are just playing games and are along for the ride must be weeded out, and the true soldiers of Christ must come forth.
One might look at the current federal election as part of this process. As the governments of the day become more wicked and ungodly, and as they clamp down more and more on those who are true followers of Christ, this weeding out process will surely escalate.
When various anti-Christian ‘hate crime’ laws and the like are passed, making it increasingly difficult for real believers to proclaim their faith and values in the public arena, then we will see a real shaking of the church. Those who mean business with God will be willing to stand up and be counted, and will certainly face the music for doing so.
But all the fearful and worldly and hangers-on will quickly fall by the wayside. Thus a helpful sifting of the genuine from the fake, the true from the pretend, will occur. Study the history of the church and you will see this happening time and time again.
Thus the church will be cleansed, purified and made holy one way or another. It is a pity that it so often takes tribulation, persecution and fierce opposition for this purification process to occur however. It would be nice if believers so loved their Lord that they did not need the crucible of persecution to get rid of the dross and purify the body.
But that is often the way it is. So in the light of the increasing anti-Christian trends around the Western world, expect to see God work further to purify his people. And a big part of that process will be to weed out all the false sheep. It really cannot come any sooner. It is something urgently needed. So have your way Lord as you purify your church.