Jesus Our Shepherd

“On some high moor, across which at night hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice.”

G. A. Smith

Shepherding imagery abounds in both the Old and New Testaments. Many of Israel’s greatest leaders were shepherds (Moses and David). Israel’s spiritual leaders were criticized as poor shepherds for serving themselves instead of providing for the sheep (Ezekiel 34:1-10). In light of this failure, God himself promises to take up the shepherd staff and rescue the scattered flock (Ezekiel 34:11-24). In the New Testament, those who lead the church are called to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:4). 

Most importantly, the shepherd of ancient Israel provides the perfect metaphor for God’s involvement in the lives of his people. Like a shepherd leading his flock, God demonstrates care, provision, concern, protection, and guidance for his sheep (Psalm 23). As God in the flesh, Jesus willingly adopted and applied the title of “shepherd” to himself. We see this teased out several ways in the New Testament.

Jesus is the compassionate shepherd who longs to rescue his sheep

As Jesus traveled from city to city preaching and healing the afflicted, he drew quite a crowd. Matthew records Jesus’ response to the mass of people, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The problem with a crowd being characterized as “sheep without a shepherd” is that sheep do not fare well without their shepherd. They are defenseless animals, vulnerable to attack unless the shepherd provides protection. Even in the absence of predators, sheep are still in danger as they need to be shown where to eat and drink. They are completely dependent on a shepherd for their care and safety. 

As Jesus peered at the crowd, he saw beyond the physical bodies that made up the assembly. He looked into the heart and saw a people that were in great spiritual danger. They were scattered, lost, and in need of rescue. To compound the matter, they lacked any resources in and of themselves to provide such a rescue. As a result, Jesus had compassion for them. This compassion moved him to act in ways that would characterize an ancient shepherd. He would act; he would act at great cost to himself; he would act on behalf of the sheep. 

Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep

In John 10 Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. He is contrasting himself with a “hired hand” who has no real attachment to the sheep. The primary difference? “… the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11) while the hired hand flees at the first sign of danger (see v. 12).

Shepherding can be a dangerous form of employment. Before David was king of Israel, he had to slay a bear in defense of his flock (1 Samuel 17:34-36). However, this type of danger was probably quite rare and a shepherd would never intentionally die. Jesus goes beyond the metaphor and points to himself as the one who doesn’t simply put his life at risk, but intentionally lays it down. D.A. Carson summarizes this point well, “Far from being accidental, Jesus’ death is precisely what qualifies him to be the good shepherd.” 

In Jesus, we see that the good shepherd is also the lamb slain in our place. Jesus bore the wrath of God so that we might be credited with his perfect obedience. We, who were once lost sheep, are rescued at the cost of the shepherd’s life. Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

Jesus is the great shepherd who cares for his sheep

The fundamental issue in the book of Hebrews is whether readers will remain faithful to Christ or return to the Law in a futile attempt to earn their salvation. In other words, believers are called to persevere in their faith. However, this is not something that a person can do in his or her power. That is why the author of Hebrews prays and asks God to produce good works in the reader through Jesus Christ. The author prays, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20).

Jesus is not only able to save us from our sins, but he will keep us. He provides for us by bringing about in us something we could not achieve on our own. God the Father, through the great shepherd Son, gives us everything we need to do his will by working in us a desire and ability to glorify him. 

Jesus is the chief shepherd who is coming again in glory

1 Peter 5:1-4 is a reminder to local church pastors that they are not their own authority. They are not their own standard. Instead, pastors are to be servants of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. One of the motivations for pastors to shepherd well is the future reception of the “unfading crown of glory” when “the chief Shepherd appears” (1 Peter 5:4). Peter pushes pastors towards faithfulness by pointing them forward to the coming of Christ. Soon, Jesus will appear in glory and faithful shepherds will receive their full reward from him. 

This hope is not limited to pastors. Peter gave a similar encouragement at the beginning of his epistle, telling all believers, “… set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). The same shepherd that had compassion on the crowds, that laid his life down for the sheep, is returning to rule and reign in full authority. 

We can have real hope today as we anticipate the coming of Christ where he will complete the good work he began in us. We long for that day, knowing that “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

Credits

G. A. Smith Quoted by Timothy Laniak in Shepherds After My Own Heart, 57.

Photo by joseph d’mello on Unsplash

D A Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 386.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (John 10:11 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The Temptation of Christ: Better News Than You Think

If you were alive in the 90s you probably remember WWJD bracelets. They exploded onto the scene quickly becoming a nationwide phenomenon. The goal was to be reminded to live like Jesus by asking in every moment, “What Would Jesus Do?” What this fad revealed was man’s tendency to simplify Jesus to nothing more than a helpful example.

WWJD bracelets may have disappeared, but this inclination towards self-focused theology remains. For instance, most sermons on the temptation of Christ focus solely on Jesus’ response to temptation. The emphasis often falls on how we can resist temptation by following Jesus’ pattern. Though Jesus is certainly our example (1 Peter 2:21), a closer look at the temptation of Christ, specifically Luke’s account, demonstrates that this narrative is less about us than we like to admit. It is primarily answering the question, “what kind of Savior has come into the world?” There is great news concerning Christ in Luke 4, but we have to look past ourselves to see it.

Jesus is perfect where we are not

Just before the temptation of Christ, Luke includes a genealogy that begins with Jesus and stretches all the way back to Adam, the first man. The long list of names ends with, “the son of Adam, the son of God.” We often assume that genealogies are not important and skip over them. However, we can’t fully understand the temptation of Jesus without the genealogy of Luke 3. Luke is setting up a deliberate parallel between Adam and Christ by tracing Jesus’ line all the way to Adam and calling Adam the son of God. We are meant to read Luke 4 in light of Genesis 1-3 (there are also many parallels between Christ and Israel).

Adam was tempted in the garden and failed. As a result sin, death, and judgment was thrust upon all creation (Genesis 3). Conversely, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and resisted every temptation (Luke 4:1-13). In his perfect obedience, Jesus demonstrates that he is indeed the Savior who has come to rescue those under the curse of Adam’s sin. The Apostle Paul made the same point in Romans 5:18-19 writing, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (ESV).

The good news of Luke 4 is that Christ perfectly obeyed the will of the Father, thus, demonstrating himself to be the true Savior who alone can be our substitute. If you are in Christ, then you have received more than a clean slate. Your justification is more than God simply wiping away your past failures. You are credited with the perfection of Jesus himself. He became sin for you so that you might be found righteous before God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Jesus sympathizes in our weakness

Many have scoffed at the temptation of Christ, wondering if Jesus really experienced temptation since he is God in the flesh and unable to sin. Hebrews 4:15 is instructive, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” So, how do we reconcile Jesus’ inability to sin with his very real temptation to sin? Bruce Ware points out in his excellent book The Man Christ Jesus that the reason Jesus could not sin is entirely separate from the reason Jesus did not sin. Jesus could not sin because he is God and therefore unable to sin. Jesus did not sin because he fully resisted every temptation through reliance on the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and prayer. This is a necessary distinction if indeed Jesus was tempted in every way as we are. Luke also demonstrates this truth in highlighting Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit and his three-fold citation of the Scriptures (Luke 4:1, 4, 8, 12).

This is also good news. Unlike Christ, we can’t be described as without sin. We do, however, have the same resources at our disposal when it comes to resisting temptation today. Bruce Ware writes, “The resources God gives–particularly his Word, prayer, and the power of the Spirit–are there for us as they were for Jesus.” We have been given everything we need in Christ to resist every temptation. Though we will fight imperfectly, it is encouraging to know that we are not helpless victims of sin.

In closing, the point of Luke 4 is to magnify Christ. Only when we see him as the sinless Savior and sympathetic high priest are we in a position to follow his example and resist temptation.

Credits

Bruce Ware, The Man Christ Jesus: Theological Reflections on the Humanity of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) 73ff.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Luke 4:1-13 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Jared Verdi on Unsplash

Does God Really Hate Religion?

“Inconceivable!”

“You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So goes the dialogue in one of the most memorable scenes of perhaps the greatest comedy ever made, The Princess Bride.

I believe you could level the same critique at the way the word “religion” is used in Christian circles today. Whether on a podcast, on social media, or in a sermon you have probably been exposed to more than one person proclaiming that God hates religion. Or maybe you’ve heard that God wants a relationship, not religion. Or, Jesus came to abolish religion. It has become common for Christians to use the word “religion” in a strictly negative sense. It has become synonymous with legalism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness. Religion is understood to be all law and no grace.

What is the problem with equating religion with legalism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness? The Bible doesn’t allow for such a simplistic understanding. James 1:27 speaks of religion that is “pure and undefiled.” If Jesus hates religion, he forgot to tell his brother James. In the Bible, religion can devolve into a legalistic routine, rote ritual, and self-righteous attitudes, or religion can be pure and undefiled. What makes the difference?

What Is Pure Religion?

Pure religion has three necessary components: true faith, proper ritual, and godly living. This can be seen in James 1:26-27 wherein the brother of Jesus contrasts worthless religion with pure religion. James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Let’s look at each of the three aspects of pure religion from this passage:

  1. True Faith. Pure religion before God begins with a proper understanding of Christ and a proper response to his sacrificial death and victorious resurrection. John Piper argues that “religion” in James 1 is synonymous with “faith in Christ” in James 2. He states, “The reason I think he means ‘faith in Jesus’ when he uses the word ‘religious”’(1:26), or talks about ‘pure and undefiled religion’ (1:27), is that this is what he continues with in the next verse (2:1): ‘My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.’ There is no break in the flow between 1:27 and 2:1; so there is good reason to think that ‘pure religion’ is ‘faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
  2. Proper Ritual. In v. 26 James is critiquing those who engage in religious activities (praying, fasting, and worshipping in community) but are divisive with their words. James is not being critical of religious activities themselves, he is simply pointing out that engaging in these activities is pointless if they aren’t bracketed by true faith in Christ on one side and godly living on the other. Jesus himself was often engaged in religious observances. He taught the Scriptures in the synagogue (Luke 4:31-37), he engaged in prayer often (Luke 5:16), he instituted the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:12–26) and church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20), et al.
  3. Godly Living. The main point of James’ critique is that true faith, presumably accompanied by meaningful engagement in religious worship, will produce godly living. Specifically, it will produce a deep concern for orphans and widows. David H. Peters writes, “true piety helps the helpless, for God is the God who secures the rights of those who have no hope.” True religion, James goes on to argue, also produces a separation from the evil influences of the pervading culture.

What Does God Hate?

Now we are in a position to better consider what it is that God hates. He certainly doesn’t hate what James has called “pure and undefiled” religion–True faith in Christ, proper engagement in religious practices, and godliness. What God hates is religion that is lacking in one or more of the three areas listed above. He hates legalism–believing that we can earn God’s righteousness through being good–because it fails to properly understand and trust Christ. He hates hypocrisy because it claims to believe rightly about Christ, but doesn’t result in a deep concern for others or separation from the world. He hates self-righteousness because it tries to obey outwardly but lacks true worship and reliance on God through prayer, fasting, and worship.

It is not that God hates religion, he hates religion that is in clear defiance to his good will.

Conclusion

One of the reasons that the motto “God hates religion” is so attractive to us is that it gives us the illusion of having all the benefits of Jesus without all of his demands. It allows us to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we should submit to and which parts are just a little too “religious” for our relationship with God. It is tempting to cast off all the commands of Scripture we don’t like and label them as mere religious legalism. However, if we do that, we are actually participating in the very thing we are decrying, namely, a religious system that God hates.

Credits

PhPhoto by Marie Bellando-Mitjans on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (James 1:26-27 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

John Piper sermon quoted above can be found here: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/visiting-orphans-in-a-world-of-aids-and-abortion.

David H. Peters, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1982) 103.

What Goes Around Comes Around, Sort of

“I have a question,” 47-year-old Susan forced out through the tears. “Is the suffering I’m experiencing now, God’s punishment for making bad decisions when I was a teenager? Like karma?”

For Susan, her view of God and how he works in this world left her defeated and hopeless. Defeated because she couldn’t go back and change her past. Hopeless because she couldn’t escape the judgment she is now experiencing. Her future was accursed and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Susan believed something we are all tempted to believe, that God operates solely on the basis of cause and effect, tit for tat, reward and punishment.

One thought was instantly clear as I considered how to best comfort this hurting lady, “the gospel is superior to karma!” But how?

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Karma?

We’ve all heard people joke about karma or have joked about it ourselves. For instance, a friend makes fun of you for tripping over the curb only to trip over the same curb a few minutes later. You might jokingly respond, “That’s what you get! It’s karma.” Most of the time we are talking about karma not in reference to its Hindu roots but as a kind of cosmic cause and effect. If you are bad today, bad things will happen to you in the future. Alternatively, if you are good today, blessings are in store.

Thankfully, God’s grace (receiving God’s kindness we don’t deserve) and mercy (not receiving God’s judgement we do deserve) move him to act in surprising ways toward us. Specifically, He acted in sending Jesus to die an excruciating death as the wrath-bearing sacrifice in our place. As a result of the gospel, we can experience hope despite our sin and we can find meaning in our suffering.

Hope Despite Sin

One thing our popular understanding of karma gets right is that sin is serious. The selfish and sinful activities we persist in are not ignored. Sin has definite consequences. However, with karma there is no solution for sin, so the only hope is to do better and be better next time. Stop sinning, start living righteously and maybe we will experience some reward. For those who recognize our continual shortcomings, this doesn’t feel much like hope.

In the gospel we also see sin taken seriously. In fact, sin is such a grave offense it cost Jesus his very life. The hope of the gospel, then, is not that sin is no big deal and is taken lightly by God. Rather, the good news is that “He does not deal with us according to our sin, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). Grace is the opposite of karma. At the cross, we see that God the Father dealt with God the Son “according to our iniquities,” so that he might deal with us like sons and daughters. Jesus got what was coming to us, so that we might get what was coming to him.

The gospel offers real hope by offering a solution for sin without diminishing the reality and gravity of sin. At the cross we see that this hope doesn’t rest in our ability to create our own good fortune, but is found in the Rescuer, Jesus Christ.

Purpose in Suffering

If our view of God is little more than Christianized karma, we will inevitably view suffering as meaningless punishment for past offenses. We are not alone in wanting to make a straight line connection between our suffering and our sin. Job’s friends were less than helpful in insisting that his difficulty was the direct result of his wrongdoing. The disciples, as well, looked upon a man born blind and wondered aloud, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 ESV). Certainly, suffering can be the direct result of sin (See Numbers 12; 2 Samuel 12). However, the disciples were so confident that this was the only explanation that they did not ask if this man’s blindness was the result of sin, they asked whose sin caused the blindness.

In response to the simplistic assumption of the disciples, Jesus responds, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3 ESV). Jesus asserts that there is a deeper purpose for this man’s suffering. He is not actually paying the price for his sin or that of his parents. There is more to his circumstances than karma. Instead, his suffering is meant to be a demonstration of the glory of God.

A truly Christian understanding of suffering makes room for multiple purposes for our trials. We see in the gospel that God takes the most undeserved suffering–the sinless Son of God tortured to death–and brings about the ultimate good. Through the cross, God displays his glory in unparalleled fashion in accomplishing our salvation. What might have looked like meaningless suffering from the outside was God’s good plan to demonstrate his grace and mercy to an undeserving world.

We may never know all that God is up to in our suffering. I suppose Joseph wasn’t pondering what it would be like to be one of the most powerful persons in the world while he was being sold into slavery or falsely accused and imprisoned (Genesis 35-50). We may not have all the answers, however, we can rely on two truths to encourage us: 1) God is using trials in our lives as a means to glorify himself by making us like Jesus (Rom. 8:28-29). 2) God is with us and for us, even when our circumstances would suggest otherwise (Rom. 8:35-39).

No suffering is enjoyable, but suffering without purpose is unbearable. The gospel teaches us that God is active in our suffering by making us more like Jesus. Furthermore, God is likely up to more than making us like Jesus. Similar to Joseph’s story, we can trust that God is working in a thousand ways that we may not discern for some time. Finding real meaning in our suffering can flood our hearts with hope even in the darkest moments.

In Closing

The gospel does not mean we can continue sinning and escape any consequences for our disobedience. God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7). It does mean that God is not sitting in heaven arbitrarily dishing out punishment for sins we committed decades ago. It does mean that there is the hope of real forgiveness because real justice was poured out on Jesus at Calvary. It does mean that God uses suffering to bring about his good agenda of displaying his glory through making us like Christ. The gospel is greater than karma because it provides hope for our sin and meaning in our suffering.


The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (John 9:2-3 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Greg Jeanneau on Unsplash