Article based on the Revised Common Lectionary set readings for April 25, 2021. TLW is non-denominational and Bible-centred. See the Bible study post for April 25 for verse-by-verse commentary and brief reflections.
OT Psalm 23:1-6 — Knowing the Provider and Protector secures the soul
NT gospel John 10:11-18 — Jesus reveals His mission as the Good Shepherd
NT narrative Acts 4:5-12 — Salvation is found in no one else but Jesus
NT letter 1 John 3:16-24 — Those who belong to the Lord show it in changed lives
THIS week’s story around the Good Shepherd brings out the Bible emphasis on God’s desire for relationship with His children.
• See also the video ‘Knowing the Good Shepherd’ which brings out story (based on the article below)
What does ‘relationship’ mean? It could be a distant relationship, or a formal relationship, or a kind of religious relationship. But no, God likes us to call Him Father and to know the security of having our identity in being His children. And He wants that kind of close, trusting relationship, where we look to Him for all the things only He can provide — safety, provision, everlasting life, forgiveness when we mess up, faithful love and forbearance through it all. The other side of that kind of relationship is looking to us for the part we are positioned to do. For reaching people who don’t know Him, telling them who Jesus is and what He has already done for them, He needs people with arms and legs and spiritual gifts, and the essential practical skills — befriending, caring, encouraging, serving, speaking, getting about — and even using technology wisely!
It’s a close partnership that comes about by our salvation, and our salvation comes about by Jesus, not by anything else, and not by any particular flavour of church, whatever the church may say. Salvation is definitely not achieved by our own religious or charitable efforts to achieve sufficient merit.
The only Person who can give us this salvation is Jesus. In a sense He has already given it — but we need to trust Him for it, to believe it and receive it. And then this special relationship, a close relationship and partnership, comes about.
Our story this week is made up of four mini-stories with different perspectives.
- A psalm by the poet and worshipper, King David, a former shepherd and now shepherd of Israel.
- Jesus explains His mission in terms of the Good Shepherd.
- A story from the earliest days of the Early Church when Peter tells the court that arrested him that the only Name that brings salvation and wholeness is Jesus.
- And John, towards the end of his life, shares wisdom with the churches about how to tell who really belongs to the Lord — the difference between the talk and the walk.
First witness — King David
He was a king, and the word ‘shepherd’ in the OT was often used for kings and rulers, yet David deferred to, and depended on, Almighty God who was to him the good and just Shepherd. We could say, ‘it takes one to know one’.
The psalm is an ode to David’s personal experience of God — providing for Him, and being his place of rerst and security.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.Psalm 23:1-3
He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for His name’s sake.
David fought many battles and was himself betrayed and hunted, sometimes by members of his own family, but he always relied on the Lord being his reassurance; being with him in the dark places.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.Psalm 23:4
His declaration is that Almighty God has been his Good Shepherd, there for him at all times and especially the difficult ones.
Like many of his writings (at this time of year we think of Psalm 22 and Psalm 118, both of which are quoted in the gospels), this one is prophetic and clearly points to the coming of Jesus.
Second witness — the Lord Jesus
Jesus didn’t play games with people but He did stretch them. He did challenge people to work out who He was, and what He was doing.
Most Jews were fairly familiar with their Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament or Old Covenant. For them it was the covenant. It only becomes old in our terminology because Jesus established a new and better covenant for His believers in His death and resurrection, Hebrews 8:6, 13.
So they would have been familiar with “The Lord is my Shepherd” of Psalm 23. A very different passage they would have heard read are God’s stern words through Ezekiel, taking Israel’s corrupt leadership to task for being self-interested and uncaring.
… Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You… clothe yourselves with the wool…but… you have not strengthened the weak or healed those who are ill or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered… Ezekiel 34:2-5
The word through Ezekiel continued with the Lord saying that He Himself would be their shepherd.
I myself will tend My sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. Ezekiel 34:15-16
This is really important because it’s the background against which Jesus makes His declaration:
I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep…
… I am the Good Shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me – just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father – and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to My voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason My Father loves Me is that I lay down My life— only to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. John 10:11, 14-18
By identifying Himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus was demonstrating His deity and Messiahship.
His original hearers would have understood from this, that in Jesus Ezekiel’s prophecy was being fulfilled. And soon enough they would understand what He was saying about laying down His life.
We look back to this from the perspective of the New Covenant. We have the Holy Spirit to help us fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The picture emerges of a Saviour who voluntarily went to the Cross, allowing Himself to be arrested, tried in a kangaroo court with false evidence, and at the end surrendering His Spirit. No one could have put Him to death without Him allowing them to. The goodness of the Good Shepherd is a challenge to us to grasp.
Jesus also says He has other sheep that listen to His voice. Following Pentecost, and Peter’s vision in Acts 10, and Paul’s call to the Gentiles in Acts 13, this soon began to become reality. The Jews who had not listened to His voice were soon overtaken by Gentiles who did.
The message to us is to always be discerning about the ‘other’ sheep that Jesus has in mind. If people in the pews are not listening to what He says, there are plenty of people outside that are asking questions — and finding Him in other ways.
Third witness — Peter
The story has already moved into the very new, but growing assembly of believers in Jerusalem, soon to be joined by Samaria. The authorities have disposed of the Galilean preacher who was such a threat to them. But they cannot dispose of His memory! They cannot control His continuing actions as a resurrected Lord. Peter and John are arraigned before the Sanhedrin Supreme Court over a crippled man who was miraculously healed. Not that there is any question of the healing — the man is standing out there in plain sight. The question is by what power he was healed. Peter, emboldened and instructed by the Holy Spirit, gives a crystal-clear explanation. It was not the one they wanted to hear:
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.
“Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.”Acts 4:8-11
He concludes by using the word that covers healing, deliverance from demonic oppression — and spiritual regeneration:
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other Name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”Acts 4:12
We try to engineer all sorts of ways to achieve our salvation — good works, charitable giving, church ordinances and sacraments and ‘living a good life’. These things can be found in the Bible — the Jews believed in good works, in giving to the temple and ‘keeping the law’ and some were baptised. But these things are not found in the context of salvation. Jesus is very clear about this.
Salvation comes by the new spiritual birth of pledging our trust in Him and especially trusting in what He has done for us as Saviour (rather than trust in our own efforts), and living for Him as Lord.
Whatever we are tempted to ‘churchify’, needs to be put against the plain words of Peter. Jesus is the cornerstone. Salvation is found in Him alone, the Name given to us by which we must be saved.
This sounds uncomfortably exclusive. And for a moment it is, because it gives us only one route. However the proposition becomes inclusive when we realise that anyone, Jew or Gentile, aspiring disciple or self-conscious sinner, can choose that route, call on that Name. And receive the same love.
Fourth witness — The apostle John
Fast forward again and John, the youngest of Jesus’ first disciples, is now getting on in years — and sharing his considerable wisdom with the growing and spreading churches who share and copy the apostles’ letters written and circulated for their guidance.
Those early believers lived with the prospect of martyrdom. At the same time they were full of the example of their Lord, and to follow him in the ultimate witness of public execution was the highest form of fellowship. The other threat they had to cope with was self-appointed teachers who had their own agenda. These so-called ‘gnostics’ claimed a higher knowledge and spirituality by which they were somehow exempt from sin. And so their behaviour didn’t matter, or so they taught. John gives readers a short course in discerning who really belongs to the Lord and who is just talking the talk’ but not ‘walking the walk’.
Without the experience of the new life that comes through being born again, we have nothing to share and nothing of value to say. Robes and titles are no compensation. It is all about knowing Jesus, being really well acquainted personally with the Good Shepherd.
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.1 John 3:17-18
New life in Jesus comes with its own evidence. There is a generosity of spirit, that is a generosity inspired and enabled by by the Holy Spirit.
… If our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from Him anything we ask, because we keep His commands and do what pleases Him.
And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us.1 John 3:21-23
John is saying, do not be bamboozled by the fine but empty rhetoric of the false teachers, but look around to see who has ‘got it’. You see people who talk about Jesus as someone they know and love, who clearly love one another over and beyond differences of social level and character and race, who are setting out to do what Jesus wants — and who have a confident, faith-inspired prayer life. This is the evidence of new life. Giving your life to Jesus is to be changed by Jesus.
Which is where we started. It is all about relationship. God longs for the fellowship of each one of us. Jesus died for the fellowship that would give us by believing in Him and in His self-sacrifice. And it comes through salvation, and salvation comes by no other Name than Jesus. Simply believing in Jesus and submitting him has been derided over the centuries as ‘simple faith’ as it it is only for simple people. And all sorts of ‘churchy’ things have been added to that ‘simple faith’ that don’t stand up to biblical scrutiny.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He is what we need, and all we need.