Separating the Sheep from the Goats

Round about mid-1995, and after I’d been out of Bethel for 2 1/2 years, I was chatting on the phone with Awake! editor, Harry Peloyan, during his recovery from bypass heart surgery. In the course of our conversation, Harry told me there had been a reconsideration of the Society’s understanding of Jesus parable found in Matthew 25:31, 32, and soon articles about this would be coming out in the Watchtower.


Matthew 25:31, 32 reads:

[31] When the Son of man arrives in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit down on his glorious throne. [32] And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Matt. 25:31, 32.

In 1954, during a Bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I learned that when Jesus Christ took his reign as King in the heavens in 1914, he sat in judgment over all the nations, and through the angels Jesus directed his faithful followers on earth to witness to all the nations. This witness work would separate sheep-like people from goat-like people.

This explanation of Matthew 25:31, 32 by the Watch Tower Society prodded me for over 40 years to go out in the door-to-door ministry to participate in the separating work. My actions showed I supported “Christ’s brothers” who, they said, were being used to do this momentous dividing work. Until 1995 this parable, part of what the Witnesses called “the prophecy of Matthew chapter 25,” was the backbone of the Watch Tower organization and was used as a catalyst to infuse “Jehovah’s servants” with zeal to “advertise, advertise the Kingdom.” The 1993 book, Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, makes no bones about it—to understand the “sheep and the goats” parable was to understand God’s purpose.

A truly significant step in understanding Jehovah’s purpose centered around Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, at Matthew 25:31-46, Proclaimers, p. 163, par. 3.

An incredible adjustment respecting this parable, the correction had to do with precisely who separates the sheep from the goats. In no uncertain terms, Harry told me, “We’re not the ones separating the sheep from the goats, but Jesus does the separating in the future when he comes in his glory soon after the ‘Great Tribulation!’ ”

As a Watch Tower researcher, I was accustomed to help fuel adjustments to doctrine. I wasn’t disturbed by what Harry said. I supported change because I thought searching for a clearer understanding of God’s word and enhancing spiritual truths was what it was all about to be “God’s organization.” As the years passed, I rarely ever thought about this subject until recently when curiosity got the best of me and I decided to look at the background of the explanation of the parable that was being replaced by another one in 1995.

While reading older Watch Tower literature, I noticed that there were two other parable explanations before then. In the Watch Tower Society’s 1993 book, Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, I found on p. 164 that it had long been theorized by the Watch Tower Society that the final judgment “would take place at the end of the Millennium.” However, it was explained in Proclaimers that “…in 1923, reasons for another view of matters were set forth by J. F. Rutherford … in an enlightening discourse in Los Angeles, California. This was published later that year in the October 15 issue of The Watch Tower.” When Karl Adams, the compiler of Proclaimers, wrote those words, in no way did he suspect that a few years later there would be coming from the Writing Department a vital replacement of the then parable’s second explanation.

To better understand the Watch Tower Society’s second version of the parable, I studied all eight pages of the October 15, 1923 Watch Tower article titled, “THE PARABLE OF THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS.” In addition, I located as many articles I could find in the Watchtower and other Watch Tower publications on the topic to see if there had been any adjustments to the 1923 teaching up until 1995. And lastly, I reread the article in the October 15, 1995, Watchtower, the one Harry talked about that completely revolutionized the “sheep and the goats” interpretation of 1923.

Briefly, here’s what I found:

1. The earliest belief of Russell and associates—1879 onward Zion’s Watch Tower, September 1881, p. 269, par. 5, 6:

A thousand years of such ruling and teaching! … This thousand years is the time during which all the nations are gathered before the judgment seat of Christ. It is their judgment day—one thousand years. [6] During all that time, God’s truth, as a two-edged sword, will be quietly, … doing a separating work, dividing the sheep from the goats. Matt. XXV, 31-46. This article originally appeared in the September 1879 Zion’s Watch Tower, p. 34, and was expanded in Sept.1881.

Zion’s Watch Tower, March 15, 1905, p. 3528, par. 6:

The Lord refers to this other flock of sheep, and explicitly tells us about the gathering of those sheep to his favor under him as the great Shepherd. He definitely fixes the time and shows that the parable of the sheep and goats belongs not to the present age but to the Millennial age…

The Watch Tower, February 15, 1914, p. 5406, par. 7:

One parable at least tells about the future work of the kingdom, after the Church is completed and sits with Christ in his throne. This is the parable of the Sheep and the Goats… [par. 10] This dividing of the world, the Gentiles, will progress for a thousand years, and eventually will make a most complete separation. . .

2. 1923—Change In the October 15, 1923 issue of The Watch Tower, p. 308, par. 18, 21, the second president of the Watch Tower Society, Joseph F. Rutherford wrote:

(18) Our Lord’s throne, or judgment-seat, mentioned in the parable does not seem to be that of the Millennial throne which will deal with the living and the dead during his reign, but seem clearly to be the throne of court established to judge the things existing at the time of or during his second presence and before the beginning of restoration. (21) …that this judgment of the unrighteous things spoken of by St. Jude takes place prior to the beginning of the Millennial age judgment, which shall be in righteousness. Acts 17:31

Repetition for emphasis: Rutherford applied the judgment of everlasting destruction for goat-like people before the Millennium began and during Christ’s invisible presence, which was thought to have begun in 1874. According to that same Watch Tower, the message and how people react to that message about the day of God’s vengeance preached by God’s earthly representatives separates goat-like people from sheep-like people only in Christendom and not dividing or separating the gentile world as Russell taught.

But it is the duty of the church, as representing the Lord on earth, to proclaim the day of his vengeance against Satan’s unrighteous system and to call upon the people to separate themselves from the unclean thing and come apart and recognize and acknowledge allegiance to the King of kings and Lord of lords (p. 314, par. 61). His [Jesus] words concerning the separating of one from another in this parable do not seem to relate to a general separation of the nations, but rather to the separation of the two general classes composing the nations of Christendom, one symbolized by goats and the other by sheep.(p. 310, par. 30).

3. The latest belief—1995

“The rendering of judgment on the sheep and goats is future. It will take place after ‘the tribulation’ mentioned at Matthew 24:29, 30 breaks out and the Son of man ‘arrives in his glory.’ Then, with the entire wicked system at its end, Jesus will hold court and render and execute judgment.” Watchtower, October 15, 1995, p. 23, par. 26.

In other words, Jesus executes judgment when the entire wicked system has ended, right after the tribulation starts. And Jesus’ judgment includes people of all nations, just like the parable states, not merely the Gentiles or only Christendom. Nowhere in the 1995 articles does it enlighten readers that for some forty-four years previous to 1923 the Watch Tower Society taught that the parable of the sheep and the goats applied during the Millennium, but simply explains on page 25, par. 9:

The parable does not apply during the Millennium, for the anointed will not then be humans suffering hunger, thirst sickness, or imprisonment.

For a fact, that October 15, 1995 Watchtower, on p. 19, par. 24, and p. 22, par. 22 misleads the Witnesses by stating that it was long understood that the parable found application starting in 1914 when that was the second application the Society endorsed, the first being Russell’s teaching that application was during the Millennium. This should have been clarified. In addition, in the October 15, 1923 Watchtower, the year 1914 is never mentioned; rather, the Watch Tower explains that Christ came in 1918 for the purpose of judging, first the spirit-begotten saints, later, Christendom.

To recap, the new development in the Society’s understanding is that the other sheep are those who are preaching the good news with the anointed and do good towards them. Goat-like ones are those whose past actions were not supportive of the anointed and rejected the Kingdom message. And, most importantly, as explained in the Oct. 15, 1995 Watchtower, p. 26, par. 15,

Of course, in the final analysis, Jesus is the one who is appointed to render judgment. It is not for us to determine who are sheep and who are goats.

What else did Harry Peloyan say? Well, here’s the kicker: Harry told me that day in 1995: “Now Jehovah’s Witnesses believe just like Christendom has for 2,000 years!” Not only did the October 15, 1995 Watchtower not mention that this was the third major interpretation of the sheep and goats parable, but, as would be expected, never so much as hinted they were now in agreement with Christendom’s teaching that Jesus does the separating of the sheep and goats. Remember the Watchtower’s words, “It is not up to us to determine who are sheep and goats.” Yet, that’s exactly what the Bible Students (renamed Jehovah’s Witnesses) thought they were doing for well over seven decades.

When I finally left the Witnesses a few years after 1995, I told my son, Lance, that upon reflection I had been teaching a lie to people when I taught Watch Tower’s construal of that parable (the second one because I didn’t know there was another interpretation before that). And further, I said, when I had been a Catholic, I had been closer to the truth in this matter than when I was a Witness. From his defense of the Society, I knew my son didn’t understand why I felt so strongly about the issue. Although he engaged in field service, he never converted anyone, whereas, for decades, his father and I had taught that particular lie to all our Bible studies, and, somehow, I felt responsible for teaching a great untruth about such an important Bible subject to so many people. Did Rutherford turn over in his grave in 1995? Rutherford said in the Watch Tower of October 15, 1923, p. 309, par. 24 these words:

To whom, then do the symbols sheep and goats apply? We answer: Sheep represent all the peoples of the nations, not spirit-begotten but disposed toward righteousness, who mentally acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Lord and who are looking for and hoping for a better time under his reign. Goats represent all that class who claim to be Christians, but who do not acknowledge Christ as the great Redeemer and King of mankind, but claim that the present evil order of things on this earth constitutes Christ’s kingdom.

And just who claimed to be Christian that Rutherford accused of declaring that the present evil order of things on this earth constitutes Christ’s kingdom? Why the ecclesiastics or Christendom’s clergy (Ibid, p. 309, par. 23) that Rutherford hated because he contended it was they that were instrumental in 1918 to have him and the other Watch Tower directors sent to prison. How Rutherford felt about the clergy can be perceived from his liberal use throughout the October 15, 1923 article of the word, “apostate” when he mentioned Christendom’s clergy. As an example, look at p. 312, par. 51:

The apostate clergy have had even greater opportunities than the Pharisees. They have had the words of Jesus and the apostles, the instruction of the prophets; and these they have ignored. They have gone even further in playing the hypocrite; for they have openly claimed to represent the Lord, at the same time denying him and denying his Word, denying the fall of man and the great ransom-sacrifice, and substituting Satanic doctrines instead.

Was Rutherford correct that it was Christendom’s clergy who substituted Satanic doctrines, claiming to represent the Lord, yet, denying his Word? Who was it that ignored the clear words of the parable which stated Jesus would separate the sheep from the goats? No one else but Joseph F. Rutherford! By changing Rutherford’s elucidation of the meaning of the parable to Christendom’s 2,000 year old explanation, the religion Rutherford gave its name to in 1931, demonstrated in 1995, without directly admitting it was the case, that their second president, Joseph F. Rutherford, was an apostate, a deserter from the truth. Even the adoption of the name, Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931, fit what Rutherford wanted the Bible Students to do—witness to Christendom (a message that Jesus second presence came invisibly in 1874, etc.) and, by doing so, separate sheep-like Christians from goat-like Christians, something the parable says is Jesus’ job which he does at his second-coming when he comes to judge all the nations, not just Christendom.

You have to know that if Rutherford could, he would have sent lighting from heaven to strike dead his successors who implemented “apostate” Christendom’s centuries-old interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats in 1995, which, by the way, was the year for reexamination of another Watch Tower Society doctrine. Not only did they “adjust” their understanding of the parable of the sheep and goats, but “corrected” the “Generation” teaching. And they still haven’t settled down as far as that teaching goes because it was “fiddled with” (certainly not “fine-tuned”) a few more times including in 2010. It’s a good thing Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain in their literature that they are not “inspired,” but only “spirit directed,” or they sure would look foolish!

Barbara Anderson

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