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.

United to Christ and Free from Sin, but Still Sinning?

If you are reading this it is likely because your experience with sin doesn’t make sense to you. This is the case for many of us. We read passages like Romans 6:18 (“and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”) and we are confused. We wonder how it is that we, who Christ has set free from sin, still have such strong urges to keep on sinning. Shouldn’t it be easy for those who have freedom from sin to stop sinning? The answer is, no, and Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 6, makes sense of our struggle.

Sin is a master

Paul speaks of sin as if it is a king or a master who cruelly reigns over people. He uses the words “dominion” (v. 9, 14) and “reign” (v. 12) to talk about sin’s power over people and likewise the words “slaves” (v. 20) and “enslaved” (v. 6) to talk about people’s experience living under the reign of sin.

We are born under sin’s enslavement and sin totally dominates us (v. 14). Being enslaved to sin does not mean that we are as sinful as we could be but it does mean that prior to personal salvation sin taints even our good and moral behavior. This imagery is important to consider if we want to understand why it is those of us who are free from sin still sin.

In Christ we have a new Master

The two most significant words in the New Testament are: in Christ.  Being in Christ is more than just letters added after our names signaling our credentials (i.e. MD, PhD, MA, MDiv), it is a transformation of who we once were. These words speak of the identity we take on at our personal salvation.

God miraculously brings us into Christ when we place our faith in Christ. When God brings us into Christ it marks a spiritual union with Christ. When Paul says we have been “baptized into Christ” (v.3) he means that we have been spiritually “united with Christ” (v.5). The result of this spiritual union is that we are made new creatures and old things pass away (2 Corinthians 5:17). To use the language of Romans 6:18 we have become “slaves of righteousness.” Before being in Christ our master was sin but in Christ we have a new master and that master is Jesus. No longer does sin totally dominate us. We now have the choice to not sin.

Why do we still struggle with sin?

For those of us in Christ we have a new master reigning over us and the claim of our old master, sin, has been broken. But why do we still desire to sin and participate in sin? The answer is that our old master, sin, is in a fight till the bitter end. We still feel the presence of sin long after its rule and reign has concluded because sin refuses to acknowledge defeat.

Even though you are in Christ (if you have placed your faith in Christ) sin is continuing to compete for the throne of your heart. Sin still gives orders for you to follow and is in a massive marketing campaign trying to convince you to submit yourself again to its cruel reign. Often times its commands, pleas, and promises are unfortunately successful and we sin.

My six year old daughter loves to play with putty. It molds and takes shape as she desires and commands. The thing about putty is that long after my daughter releases her grip it maintains the markings and impressions of her hands. The reign of sin is like this. Although sin’s powerful grip has been broken, we feel its impression, contours, and indents long after the fact.

Romans 6 and Juneteenth

Trip Barefield (Trip Lee) preached a sermon at Capitol Hill Baptist Church titled The Living Dead where he likens Paul’s message in Romans chapter 6 to something known as Juneteenth (do yourself a favor and go listen to his sermon). He explains that in January 1863 Abraham Lincoln brought into effect the Emancipation Proclamation formally ending slavery but that, sadly, the news of this freedom did not initially reach slaves in Texas. It was not until almost two and a half years later that slaves in Texas became aware of the status of freedom they already had. This day was June 19th, 1865 and became known as Juneteenth.

Paul is writing to believers set free from sin. Romans chapter 6 serves as an announcement of that Good News. What Paul knows is that in order for us to “consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” we must be reminded of who we are in Christ and what we are to be in Christ.

In Closing

As we look back again at the phrase in v. 18, “have become slaves of righteousness”, there are two observations I want to make in closing. First, becoming a slave of righteousness is an identity bestowed upon us immediately at our conversion. At the moment we place our faith in Christ we are “freed (lit. ‘justified’) from sin” (v. 7) and we have a new master reigning over us. Second, becoming a slave of righteousness is something we grow into throughout our lives in Christ. This becoming a slave of righteousness is a progressive work of God (Philippians 2:12-13) as you refuse to let sin “reign in your mortal body” and instead you “present” yourself as an instrument of righteousness to God (v. 13).

May God be gracious to us as we “so now present [our] members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (v. 19).

Credits

Photo by Filip Zrnzević on Unsplash

The sermon titled The Living Dead by Trip Barefield can be found here.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Matthew 4:19 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.