I gazed across a lush, green, undulating field that stretched as far as my eyes could see. This was somewhere in Wisconsin. I’d been driving for hours when I happened to notice farm signs peppering the little country roads. Growing up in a big city, I’d never seen large herds of… well, anything. So, I made a detour and found a farm. The sheep’s white contrasted sharply with the deep green of the fields. There were so many sheep that my untrained eye couldn’t count them. After a few minutes, a middle-aged farmer in stereotypical overalls and various layers of flannel called out to me with a thick Wisconsin brogue (they never pronounce the “g” at the end of a word). He was friendly and talkative in a quiet, hard-working midwestern way. Eventually, I asked him about raising sheep. “Sheep and goats,” he corrected. I didn’t see goats, so I asked, “Do you keep the goats somewhere else?” “Nah, they’re out there with the sheep,” he said. I squinted into the bright sunlight, still not seeing goats. Then, he added helpfully, “They’re hard to spot from a distance; they just blend in with the sheep.”
They Blend In
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 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. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you whom my Father blesses; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world (Matthew 25:31-34).”
A common thread runs through the Old and New Testaments, which likens God to a shepherd and us as His sheep. Surveys show that Psalms 23:1, “the Lord is my Shepherd,” is the most well-known verse in the Bible. Jesus added several layers to this analogy, like ravenous wolves disguised as sheep (Matthew 7:15), people who try to sneak into Heaven without using the sheep’s gate (John 10:1) and introduced the concept of pastoral under-shepherds (John 21:16). All of these are just examples, of course. False prophets aren’t literally wolves, but they are cunning and dangerous like wolves. Nevertheless, the shepherding and animal comparisons Jesus used are remarkably relevant today.
I’ve found that, much like looking over that Wisconsin field and struggling to differentiate the sheep from the goats, from a distance, sheep and goats blend together in our churches too. Eventually, the goats act like goats, or you get close enough to tell, but they can coexist for a long time. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t have trouble telling the difference, but rather than separating the herd right now, He’s waiting until judgment day. God is content to let the goats play like sheep until the final moment when hearts are revealed at the throne. Until then, our church communities have goats blending in with the sheep. Occasionally, goats paw the ground, show their horns, and reveal their true nature. That can be especially sad if, up to that moment, you believed they were sheep.
You Should Smell Like Sheep
If you can forgive a transparent moment, I want to share a story that dramatically impacted my thinking on this subject. Years ago, an individual began attending services regularly, our church was much smaller, and I was far more naïve. He was shy and troubled. It took a long time to get his background story. He already had the Holy Ghost, but his church background was impossible to follow. He’d just been to so many places of every denomination and creed. It’s no exaggeration to say I spent countless hours on the phone counseling, in-person fellowshipping, or teaching Bible studies with him. But, no matter how much time I gave him, it was never enough.
In the beginning, he was incredibly faithful. But a strange cycle eventually manifested of randomly disappearing for months at a time. He’d attend a random church for a few months and then show back up at our church with a story about how badly that other church had failed him. The first several times this happened, I chased him down (figuratively) to check on him and encourage him to get settled here. I called, texted, and even knocked on his door. I quit doing that, however. You see, I realized if he was going to be faithful, it would take a heart change, not just an encouraging word.
One day he showed back up at church and aggressively confronted me, shouting, “You should smell like sheep!” He said, “Jesus left the church to find the lost sheep, and you should too!” I was stunned and hurt. I let guilt wash all over me. Had I been wrong not to keep chasing and chasing and chasing? I mean, Jesus did talk about leaving the flock to find the one lost sheep. I stammered and told him all the sincere things I could think of to assure him I cared about his soul and did indeed want to be a good pastor. I agreed to meet him for coffee very soon. He never returned my calls, and I didn’t see him again for six months.
The evening after that verbal ambush, I spent a good deal of time in prayer about the situation. As pastors do, I replayed everything in my mind over and over again. Did I do enough? Was I approachable? Am I inadequate? How can I duplicate myself so I can give everyone all the time they need? Lord, help me be a better pastor. Lord, how can I meet the insatiable needs and overwhelming demands? Lord, I don’t want to be responsible for lost sheep. And God let me twist in the wind for a good while before gently saying, “your job is to feed sheep, not chase goats.”
Sheep Wander, Goats Run Away
Put aside the fact that the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) is really a story about winning the lost and not about chasing stray saints. But regardless, good shepherds search for lost sheep and do their best to bring them safely back home. Tragically, sometimes the wolves, the goats, the elements, or all three have already taken their toll when a shepherd locates them. Here’s a little observation the Lord helped me unearth: Lost sheep may wander away and get hurt or lost, but goats run away and resist being brought back to the fold. When lost sheep see their shepherd, they are happy and relieved. Yes, they might be embarrassed or ashamed too. But mostly, they are thankful for the help. Goats, on the other hand, are defiant, angry, and defensive. A goat isn’t going to let you put him on your shoulders and take him home, as Jesus described in the parable.
Grazers & Browsers
Goats have a well-deserved reputation for eating anything in sight. Sometimes they chew it up and spew it out. There’s a classic episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Barney and Andy hilariously deal with a goat that had eaten a crate of dynamite. The last thing they needed was a goat with a belly full of dynamite, headbutting something and going kaboom in the middle of Mayberry. And while that may be ridiculous, it is believable because goats are browsers. They don’t feed on grass or low-growth vegetation like sheep. So, the green pastures mentioned in Psalm 23 aren’t all that exciting to goats. And that is a crucial difference between sheep and goats. Sheep are grazers. They are content with green grass and will follow shepherds who lead them beside “still waters.”
Goats don’t want a shepherd. They’re never full. They leave churches because they “aren’t being fed.” That’s rarely the case. They have an appetite for thorns and thistles. They like faux shepherds who promise something better, something more exciting, more relevant, than godly pastures and still waters. When that gets boring, or they realize how unsatisfying that diet is, they move on to another place. While that’s fine for actual goats, people with a goat nature Jesus described reject living water and the bread of life (yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors). This is partially because goats are discontented by nature. Sheep have learned, as the apostle Paul said:
…I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things, I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need (Philippians 4:11-12).
Interdependent & Independent
I get that being compared to sheep carries a stigma. We’ve all heard derogatory comments about “sheeple,” “herd mentalities,” and “lemmings.” In America, at least for most of its history, personal independence is sought after and celebrated. And Jesus certainly wasn’t suggesting that we’re all alike or that Christ’s followers are supposed to be robots, mindlessly going with the flow. On the contrary, the Gospel is intensely personal and intimate. Everyone must have a close relationship with the Great Shepherd, so much so that they recognize His voice (John 10:27). If anything, remaining with God’s flock in His pasture takes great individual intentionality, sincere thought, and an extraordinary understanding of the greater good. By the “greater good,” I mean that sheep willingly trade their independence for interdependence. Because, let’s face it, complete independence is a total fabrication. Everyone needs someone or something, and sheep have realized they want and need the Great Shepherd.
But here’s the thing, if you want the Great Shepherd, you must accept that you are also getting His undershepherds and His flock. So, gaining the Great Shepherd gives you exclusive access to His pastures but also excludes you from wandering back to old fields. There will be fences, parameters, and requirements. You may not always understand or even like them, but you trust the Great Shepherd sees dangers you cannot see. Sure, the flock might slow you down or cramp your style, and it might be tempting to wander off and do your own thing for a while. You might misconstrue Christian liberty as freedom from the responsibilities of the flock. The apostle Paul addressed this carnal propensity in his letter to the church in Galatia: For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another (Galatians 5:13, ESV). The apostle Peter described our obligation to the flock this way: Have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8, ESV).
Goats are all about “my” and “me.” Sheep are focused on community, the “us” and “we.” Goats are constantly looking for advancement for themselves, while sheep look to enhance everyone. That’s why Jesus emphasized things like, “The last shall be first, and the first last (Matthew 20:16).” It’s counterintuitive, but putting others first is the best thing you can do for yourself. Let me show you something people miss who think they can accept Jesus while rejecting His undershepherds and flock. During Jesus’ most famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, He gave an example of how everyone should pray:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil… (Matthew 6:9-13).
Did you catch it? Jesus didn’t say to pray, “My Father which art in heaven.” Instead, he said, “Our Father.” And don’t pray, “Give me this day.” Rather pray, “Give us this day.” Read the full prayer. Not once does Jesus use singular pronouns except when addressing the Father. Why? Because even in prayer, we must remember that we are part of a community more significant than ourselves. You can’t accept the Shepherd and reject your role in His flock. Sheep know this to be true.
Faithful & Playful
Even the flakiest, most undependable Christians take great comfort in knowing God is always faithful. I’m the first to raise my hand and say that what I probably love most about the Lord is that He will never leave or forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:8). In other words, God is never going to flake out on me. Yet, people who claim to be like Christ are often more playful than faithful.
It’s true that goats are more playful than sheep. This is because goats are more adventurous by nature. However, that doesn’t mean sheep aren’t playful. They are. They just don’t prioritize playfulness over faithfulness. Sheep know the ultimate goal is to hear the Great Shepherd say, “Well done my good and faithful servant (Matthew 25:23). Faithfulness always sounds boring until you need someone to be faithful to you. Likewise, loyalty seems mundane until you need loyalty.
Goats are not dependable. They’re terrible with follow-through. And they lack loyalty when the chips are down. But, oh, yes, they can be a lot of fun. Sometimes they’re a downright joy to have hanging around the sheep. But that playfulness quickly becomes annoying and occasionally destructive when faithfulness is required. Sheep, like having a good time. They need it and crave it. But they know when to take things seriously. They know how to listen for changes in their Shepherd’s tone. They’ve learned that fun at all costs isn’t worth the price.
Amiable & Onery
But, even with all that fun-loving independence, an orneriness lurks beneath the surface of a goat’s facade. The term “stubborn as a goat” exists for a good reason. Goats are indeed stubborn and hardheaded (literally). Goats are notoriously onery and rebellious. It’s their nature. Of course, some are more so than others. My grandfather would have called them cantankerous. Human goats are like that too. This puts them at odds with sheep, in opposition to undershepherds, and in trouble with the Great Shepherd.
While sheep are far from perfect, they have an amiable nature. They’ve learned to “strive for peace with everyone (Hebrews 12:14).” If it’s possible, and if they can do anything about it, they try to have peaceful relationships with everyone they encounter (Romans 12:18). This isn’t always easy. Still, it’s the will of the Great Shepherd, so they obey. After all, sheep don’t have to fight their own battles. Their Shepherd fights for them.
Shoats & Geeps
My daughter, our in-house animal expert, informed me that there are sheep-goat hybrids, usually referred to as “shoats” or “geeps.” I kid you not. The Bible never mentions these curious creatures. However, it does describe how every person has a war between two competing natures raging on the inside. You might say we’re all born with a goat nature, and the Holy Ghost gives us a new character. But even after receiving the Holy Ghost, we’re still a sheep-goat hybrid. That old goat nature desperately wants to take back control.
The apostle Paul lamented that the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the wishes of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other (Galatians 5:17). The apostle Peter called this inward struggle a war saying, “the passions of the flesh wage war against your soul (1 Peter 2:11).” Paul homed in on geeps that had transformed back into goats when he said: For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot (Romans 8:7, ESV). The transformation from sheep to goat and vice versa is always a possibility. Therefore, sheep must always be on guard, and goats have no choice but to repent or be lost.