Separating the Sheep from the Sheep

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.

[1086 words]

26 Replies to “Separating the Sheep from the Sheep”

  1. Bill you are very right. Actually this is one of the major themes in scripture, the subject of man’s false religion. When one starts to notice it it seems to be everywhere. The mockers and the scoffers are not just outside the church but inside it.

    Note that Christ says “when men deliver you up to the synagogues and prisons…” Why is there this pairing of the religious courts with the secular judicial ones? Because they are so paired.

    This seems to be a rising theme at the end of scripture.

    In 2 Tim 4:10 Demas is said to have left Paul for the love of the world, to which he had returned.

    Note that 2 Peter chap 3 expounds on mockers and scoffers. Were they necessarily outside the church as we usually assume?? There are plenty of anti-creationists in most churches worldwide today!

    It is one of the major themes of 3 John – see his comments on Diotrephes who was big noting himself in the church.

    Most of the book of Jude is on just this topic- “some men have infiltrated you with a cheap view of grace, and so allow immorality..”
    And of course in the letters to the 7 churches of Revelations 2 & 3 it is a very major theme – with 5 of the seven churches being subject to Christ’s censure on just this point.

    We need to understand what scripture says on this point.

    Such teaching clearly contradicts the frequent “assurance of salvation:” once saved always saved” sermons of which we have all heard so many.

    It comes out clearest again in Ezekiel “If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and perishes in his iniquity, he will surely die in his iniquity. His former righteousness will not save him.”

    This is something we need to understand much more clearly or else we will not understand the persecution we experience from within the house of God.

    Again Jesus says “You will be betrayed and delivered up by brother, and relative and parents and close friends” – obviously of a kind of faith, and obviously in denial and betrayal.

    But Christ says “fear not. for such words and such spirit will be given you in that hour as to reduce all your accusers to stammers and stutters.” (Message bible).

    We need very much to hear this message and think deeply on it.

    It is only of the most prominent themes of Christ’s teaching and through idolatry as false religion – of the scripture in general.

    Irreligion is never the problem so much as false religion.

    In Jesus,

    Stuart Reece

  2. Thanks Bill for this wake up call and for the wealth of inspiring information you pass on. I never understood the concept of Jesus being the shepherd with his sheep until later in life when I realised to what great extent people are indeed like sheep. A timely word from a charismatic person can make the herd do a U-turn and that word can spread like wildfire around the world if it resonates with people. I would suggest that Christians are in the mire with ambiguous information about the faith e.g. if someone talks about going to church on Sunday, I say to myself smugly “but the sabbath is Saturday”. Or recently I heard a Jehovah’s Witness exclaim by unwittingly taking God’s name in vain which made me flinch. I’m no angel but these are commonplace examples which indicate we need more rigour in establishing the foundation of the faith and observing the ten commandments. Lots of young people in today’s secular age haven’t the faintest idea of what the Lord’s prayer is or what the 10 commandments are. It’s only that I went to a catholic junior school that I had them drummed into me and found they have done me the world of good! It would be another way of purifying the church, apart from the cleansing effect of persecution which has already started. It has to be a living faith though and not something dead, didactic, humourless and punitive – like the jesuits and puritans (who I know very little about but it’s all about learning). “The fruit of the Spirit is joy.”
    Rachel Smith

  3. I think we can often be too careless, flippant and thoughtless with the Biblical truth above that God looks on the heart. It is thrown around too loosely at times, by someone who is trying to make us feel better. While there can be some benefit in that, when someone uses that phrase to me it causes me to tremble. I know what is in my heart – as Jeremiah says, it is a sickly, deceitful thing, beyond cure without the transforming, cleansing circumcision of Christ. The knowledge that God looks upon my heart only gives me comfort in those rare times when I can say that my conscience is truly clear – but most times it evokes in me a holy and reverential fear.
    Kerry Letheby

  4. This message must be proclaimed loudly and clearly for much of the Church as fallen asleep on its watch.

    Paul Washer has been shouting this message (much to the chagrin of many 1/2-hearted Christians) with unswerving courage for some time now.

    I wonder if freedom of speech laws in Australia will drive the Church underground. If not forced underground, then many of us will be proseucted – simply for preaching the Word.

    Paul Evans

  5. You know Bill, your blog is such a huge blessing!

    I enjoyed this post and was greatly encouraged to read that you are a fan of Paul Washer……

    I have been greatly taught, encouraged and blessed by his teaching / preaching…..

    Matthew Johnston

  6. I’m very much in agreement with Stuart. The church needs to stop preaching the apostacy of “once saved always saved”.

    It has watered down so many so-called Christians it’s scary.

    We need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling and stop playing with the devil. Only then will we be close enough to Jesus’ own heart to truly fight the good fight.

    Mario Del Giudice

  7. Exactly right, Bill. Where are the ministers, pastors, elders, leaders standing firmly for what is right. Many pastors keep people in pews, measuring their Christian life based upon church involvement.
    We all need to do what is right, not what is poplular. Many are not teaching Bible based principles.
    Woe to the shepherds who do not turn the people away from iniquity.
    Preach the Word, the WHOLE counsel of God.
    Judith Bond

  8. Thanks Bill for your informitive article.
    You are right there are a lot of wolves in sheep clothing today who pass as Sheperds. But I think this way of thinking is putting a bandaid on the cause.
    What is the primary purpose of parents, who can also be called sheperds of their flock?
    Yes, parents are supposed to provide food, shelter, clothing and care for their offsprings; but their primary purpose is to prepare their children for Heaven. What good are parents who only provide children with temporary goods, when their real purpose is to teach their children the value of “eternal” gifts? As parents we will not be judged on the level of education, wealth, or prestige that our children achieved, but on how well they lived Christian lives, and were readied for a good and holy death.
    We cannot blame everything on society. Parents too need to look at themselves, for all the politicians, police, judges were once childeren with parents. How well were they taught?

    Anne van Tilburg

  9. Mario, “once saved always saved” is not an apostasy. It is a reflection of the biblical truth that God holds on to those who are His; and it is not in our own power to choose or to remain in the faith.

    The doctrine of predestination is not the root cause of the sick state of the church. The church is sick because we are not hearing enough about the holiness of God, because pastors are not teaching the Bible to their congregations, and because theological and moral compromises are being allowed to infiltrate the church without censure.

    It is worth noting that the healthiest mainline denomination in Melbourne is the Presbyterian church — which is rooted deeply in Calvinism. By contrast, churches that tend towards Arminianism (eg. the Baptists and the Churches of Christ) are in far poorer shape on many levels — poverty of prayer, theological liberalism, moral compromises (such as support of the gay agenda), rejection of family values, embracing of the social gospel, etc.

    Jereth Kok

  10. Well said yet again, Bill.
    These are times when both political and religious (including Christian of course) events are so intertwined that the community cannot help but notice. It could be said that we have the Muslims, the secularists, and political correctness to thank for this.
    I am, left wondering what might be required in our lifetime for our God to intervene. It would seem that we must assist to the best of our abilities, the proclamation of the Good News far and wide, if every person on earth is to have the best opportunity to respond in repentance…..but then our God is sovereign….and that must include the times and seasons and methods of the revelation of his glory.
    Brian Tideman

  11. “Once saved always saved” is conditional. Only if we co-operate with God in living in accordance with His commandments.
    It is not only the teaching of some of the churches which are in error, the main cause is the rejection of family values. Anyone can find God’s teachings if they really want to, and anyone can learn to live a true Christian life by reading the Bible or the many good books that are available.
    Take for example the Christians who are pursecuted and martyred for their faith in many countries, many do not even have the opportunity or the right to attend any church. But they rather give up their life than their Christian values. That is what is needed today, Christian parents who prepare their children for Christian adulthood.

    Anne Van Tilburg

  12. Hi Bill and all else

    I recently watched a 6-part dvd series on David Pawson’s prophetic message to Britain, in particular, on the challenge which Islam poses to the country and how they ought to deal with it. I feel it is relevant to the situation discussed in the above article as well.

    He started of by explaining the history and movements of Islam but then went into how the church ought to respond. The message was not so much to ridicule Islam or ignite unnecessary fear but rather a wake-up call to the church. His word was rooted in Habakkuk and the three areas in which he believes the church needs to improve to withstand what is coming are the following: reality, relationship, and righteousness.

    The church first needs to wake up to the reality that the message Jesus preached is the truth and that Jesus is truly risen and the Son of God and only with a true faith in our foundational beliefs can we stand and war for God. We can’t fight this spiritual war doubting in the reality of the fight we’re in or the reality of the One who we call on as Saviour.

    Secondly, there is no other god who offers relationship and if we do not participate in that relationship we will not remain faithful. If we don’t live from an actual relationship with God and bear the actual fruits of such a relationship we have nothing to offer the world and will fall under pressure.

    Lastly, we must live righteous lives, we must remain faithful to God. He takes that well-known verse which states ‘the just shall live by faith’ and explains that in context it means that the just (those who live righteous lives) shall live (survive) by faith (remaining faithful).

    I would strongly suggest that any of you who live in Britain or other European countries for that matter get hold of this message from Pawson.

    Servaas Hofmeyr, South Africa

  13. Another excellent article Bill, I think a good start to this challenge is to pray to God that he will give each one of us the strength to stand firm for him. I think that anyone who is serious about their walk with Jesus would read this article and be afraid. Also, this David Pawson 6 part DVD series – where would you get it?
    Stephen Davis

  14. Bill, I just reread this article and I think to myself – who then can be saved?
    Steve Davis

  15. Dear Bill Muehlenberg,

    Well Bill, on a point that you have made. I believe that all we have to do as house holds of faith, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in us. For only by Him, we are called Christ liked. Wherefore let us not give in to the trials and tribulations but actually keep on keeping on, on the race which we are still in, until the perfect of all perfection comes and puts us on which ever side we will belong to. For the King of kings is coming again. Who is the lamb of God-worthy of all praise. (Amen).

    Sunday Babatunde Teniola.

  16. Hi Jereth,

    I must disagree since there are many scriptures that show that despite the fact that God will not separate himself from us, we still have the choice to reject him.

    Paul himself feared ever falling into sin as in 1 Corinthians 9:27 ‘But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.’

    Romans 11 speaks of the olive tree and shows that even those that are grafted into the tree should take heed. ‘For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.’

    The ‘Once saved, always saved’ teaching has caused for many to believe that because they once made a little prayer, or they used to street preach, or they once prayed for someone who got healed, or they have moved in the gifts of the prophetic that they automatically have made it and that they are now covered sufficiently by God’s grace so that they can live like devils.

    I do not claim that all who teach this are bad or unsaved, but the word of God speaks for itself on this matter.

    Mario Del Giudice

  17. Mario,

    You are correct that we all have the ability to reject God. Nevertheless the Bible’s teaching is that the elect will not reject God.

    People who profess faith in Christ and then fall away were not truly converted in the first place. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” 1 John 2:19

    The doctrine of election is not an excuse for complacency in the Christian life. Calvinism does not teach that “once made a little prayer … they automatically have made it and that they are now covered sufficiently by God’s grace so that they can live like devils”. To the contrary it teaches that genuine conversion is followed by ever increasing holiness and maturity. I encourage you to do some further reading on the doctrine of election (starting with Romans 8-9) rather than rejecting it on the basis of straw men caricatures of the doctrine.

    As I said above, the sick state of the churches occurs because many church leaders are not teaching the Scriptures faithfully and therefore many unconverted people are turning up to sit in the pews week after week. It is not the doctrine of election that is the problem.

    Jereth Kok

  18. Thanks Bill for that link to Paul Washer. I have since spent a fair bit of time watching his sermons on youtube. All I can say is wow..awesome, his one on the Great Throne just blew me away.
    Jeffrey Carl

  19. Great Bill, Jesus told a parable to the lost sheep.
    To Mario, you had a good insight and Judith too.
    We need leaders with courage with the humility to depend on Jesus with all their heart and mind.
    Luigi Rosolin

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