56. Shepherd and Sheep

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 56.  Shepherd and Sheep

Mt 26:31   Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ” `I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered

And so we come to the last of these analogies and parables and it is a very appropriate one with which to finish. Time is running out; the disciples have met in the upper room and the Last Supper has finished: When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (v.30) It is then that we come to our verse above, where Jesus quotes from Zech 13:7 which was a strange verse.

It was a strange verse because it started, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty.” i.e. the shepherd that God speak of is the Good Shepherd, one close to the Father, it is this one who is going to be struck so that his flock will be scattered. Now that was strange because earlier in Zechariah it was the worthless shepherd who would be struck in disciplinary judgment but now it is the Good Shepherd, the one close to God. Whatever did that mean? Perhaps the emphasis was on the sheep being scattered because that was the fulfillment of the curses for covenant disobedience (see Deut 28:64; 29:24-25). Now maybe, it is the disciples who would be scattered temporarily, perhaps as a picture of the dispersion that would come to the Jews before the century was out.

Thus Jesus is the shepherd and his disciples, his followers, are the sheep. It is a very simple analogy and yet the more we think about it, a very poignant one. Indeed before the quote, Jesus had plainly declared, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me,” (v.31) and then showed how it is prophetic fulfillment within the plan of God by quoting from Zechariah. But he doesn’t leave it there for he adds, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee. (v.32) In other words, he is quite explicitly explaining that everything is under control, his control, and the control of His Father in heaven; his death will not be the end.

Yes, the immediate future is going to look chaotically out of control, especially when you consider all the wonderful things that this amazing Son of God had been doing for three years, completely in control in every situation, whether confronted by demoniacs or threatened by a terrible storm in the middle of the sea of Galilee. Oh yes, Jesus had been in utter control throughout that period and even when hostile religious leaders had come after him, he had shown a wisdom that undermined all of the scheming and challenging words. Whatever else, Jesus was in control.

And then comes Gethsemane and Jesus tries to prepare the disciples in a small way for what he knows is about to happen. Remember what Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) I find that one of the greatest verses of revelation in the New Testament. He ‘saw’ that what had taken place in those terrible hours, and then incredible hours, of what we today call Easter, was all part of God’s plan. God knew it would happen, He knew how it would come about and it was part of the plan of the Godhead to bring about the possibility of our salvation as the Son of God stood in our place and took the punishment for our sins. So the disciples falling away and fleeing in the face of soldiers arresting their master in the middle of the night, was all part of this plan and Jesus had just told them that.

The only problem is that so often we struggle to accept the will of God because we don’t understand it!!! Jesus warns them that they will all fall away BUT, “Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (v.33) Oh, how unknowing we so often are! Peter, if the Son of God says you will fall away, you will and, actually, in your case it is going to be quite spectacular for Jesus has already warned you that you will deny him and that before the early morning is out and a cockerel will have crowed three times. Oh yes, that is how specific that warning had been, but Peter in his self-confidence could not believe it.

Have you ever been given a prophetic word? How did you receive it? I watch responses. Who me, you must be joking! God gracious, surely that can’t be!  At such times, we take on the Peter-spirit. It may be for us it is low self-esteem that shrugs off a word of love. It may be hardness of heart. It may just be lack of understanding.  Mary’s response was the best recorded to this sort of thing: “May it be to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38)

But there are bigger issues here to be taken hold of. There is the issue of the big picture. Our difficulty is that we struggle to see the big picture, where this present history is going. Yes, we can hear sermons on Jesus, the Lamb of God, in Revelation 5 unrolling the scroll of the end times, but actually seeing how yesterday, today and tomorrow fit in, that isn’t so easy. It is especially ‘not easy’ when it appears to be going badly, when church seems mundane, things seem to be going wrong and nobody seems to have a handle on it all. Well God does!

When Jesus says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” (Heb 13:5), he means it. He could change it all like he stilled the storm with just three words: “Peace, be still!” but he wants you to have that peace in you first, the peace that comes from knowing that he IS in control and he does know what he is doing and he is there for you in the midst of it. When we come to that place, then often he gives us the faith so that we declare those three words, and it all changes. When children have constant nightmares, when someone seems to constantly have poor health, when finances seem to be a struggle despite whatever you do, we have to come to the place of knowing

  • that he is in control
  • he does know what he is doing and
  • he is there for you

because only then does faith rise up and, under his prompting, we can speak the words of authority that bring the change that is needed. Perhaps it means we have to make some personal changes, perhaps we have to step out in faith in some way, but we get connected to him when we realise the truth of these things above. He is the shepherd and we are the sheep. We may appear somewhat ‘scattered’ at the moment by the circumstances but these truths remain unchanged. As we come to the end of this particular series, hold on to them, grasp them firmly, declare them and live in the light of them. Resurrection is just round the corner! Hallelujah”

54. Sheep and Goats

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 54.  Sheep and Goats

Mt 25:32,33   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.

Whereas I have always had the Parable of the Talents as my favourite parable, I have always felt most uncomfortable with this analogy. It comes in three parts. Part 1 is the return of Jesus and the separating out (v.31-33) that will come at the final accounting (judgment). Part 2 is his blessing of believers (v.34-40) and Part 3 is his judgment on unbelievers (v.41-46). Within Parts 2 & 3 there is a commendation/judgment by Jesus, a questioning by the people and then an explanation by Jesus. As an analogy of the End Time, it is in the general flow of all Jesus’ teaching in that last week before his death, about his eventual return and as such brings condemnation of the guilty, hope for the faithful and a warning for all.

Part 1: The Separating Out: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 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.” (v.31-33) Now this conforms to the picture of that judgment given in Rev 20:11-15 and as we go on we need to note, “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” (Rev 20:12) and “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev 21:8)

Now what is intriguing about those verses and the ones that now come before us, is that judgment and condemnation is NOT about belief, but about behaviour, and the natural conclusion, which is so important in this parable, is that behaviour confirms belief.  It is not what we say we believe or say who we are, (“I am a Christian”) it is the proof of that revealed by the sort of lives we lived. That is what makes these uncomfortable verses because it makes us look at what we actually DO rather than what we say.

Part 2: The Faithful: in what follows we find, “Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (v.34) The most fascinating part of that verses is the reference to this being God’s plan that originated right back at (before) the Creation. It was no last-minute strategy. He then gives the reason why they are in this group – they fed Jesus, that quenched his thirst, then gave him hospitality, they clothed him, they looked after him and visited him in prison. (v.35,36) That leaves the righteous showing surprise, asking when had they done that (v.37-39) and Jesus will reply, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (v.40) Now some suggest that this is all about how we respond to the Jews (“brothers of mine”) but I suggest that it could equally suggest how we respond to all other Christians. It is not, according to his words, how we responded to the rest of the world, but specifically how we respond to his family. That’s a challenge when we go into church next!

Part 3: The Unbelievers: This is the opposite. This is condemnation (v.41) because they failed to do all those things for Jesus (v.42,43). They too will act surprised and ask when didn’t they do that (v.44) and he replies, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (v.45). He concludes, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (v.46) The ‘least of these’ is most likely to apply to his followers there with him, in the light of those identified in Part 2 above.

There are several additional points to be made. First, we need to be wise in understanding when we look at such a parable. A parable usually only makes one main point. Jesus’ main point here is an ongoing condemnation of the religious aspects of being a Jew, the failure of the Chief Priests, all the temple officials and religious groups like the Pharisees, to care for the ordinary people. Religious ritual is not what gets a person into heaven, it is becoming an expression of the Son of God by surrendering to him in repentance and receiving his salvation and his power and going on to reflect him throughout the rest of your life in a growing measure (see 2 Cor 3:18).  But obviously it doesn’t merely apply to those at that time; it applies throughout history.

Second, I would suggest that, to keep the parable simple, Jesus only uses ‘sins of omission’, things people fail to do, because those were the areas where, say, the Pharisees failed the most. No, to quote part of the Revelation verse we saw earlier, they were not, “vile, murderers, sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, idolaters and liars.” The apostle Paul, in his former life as the Pharisee, Saul, could have easily declared that none of those things applied to him, but the way he treated ‘Jesus brothers’ clearly put him in a bad place before God, even though he did not realise it in his former blindness.

Third, we should also note that this parable does not negate the rest of the New Testament teaching that salvation starts with belief, but it does confirm the other New Testament teaching, that faith is expressed through works, is what is important (see Rom 4:6 – salvation is righteousness credited not by works, but also Jas 2:14,17 bringing the balance that it is faith seen in works).

Fourth, perhaps we might summarise this as a call to the church to look to how it cares for all areas of the church – those believers around the world (or in our own neighbourhood) who are poor and don’t know how they are going to get through the next month, or those who are sick to whom we fail to bring Jesus’ healing, or those around the world who are persecuted or imprisoned for their faith. How easy it is to forget these, but the call comes, don’t!  It is a serious call from the head of the body as he reigns at his Father’s right hand. Let’s listen to him.

16. Four Creatures

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 16.  Four Creatures

Mt 10:16  I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Four analogies packed into one short verse! The thing about Jesus’ teaching, whether by parable or simple analogy, was that he used illustrations that his listeners would understand; here with four well-known creatures. But before we focus on each creature, we need to check out the context which is particularly important here and will add depth of meaning to the above verse.

The chapter starts out, He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (10:1) Yes, Jesus is sending out his ‘disciples’ and making them ‘apostles’. He is turning learners into ‘sent and anointed ones’. But there is something more here: he is pushing them out of their comfort zone. So far they had been mostly observers, but now it was their turn to do the stuff. They were being sent out to convey the love of God in very practical power ministry – driving out demons and healing the sick. This is very real ‘faith stuff’ because it utterly relies upon God. No God, no deliverance. No God, no healing. Perhaps the corollary in respect of many modern churches bears thinking about?

So this is the context: they are being sent out to do what Jesus does and in this they will be confronting the enemy and the ‘world’ with the truths and power of the kingdom. But there is a problem: not everyone will gladly welcome them. There were so many schisms in the Jewish society of that day, so many political or religious groupings, that almost certainly they would encounter opposition and hostility from some of those groups, apart from general people who simply might not want to know.

Thus, Jesus first sums up the situation they face: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.”  The truth is that when the early church went out they faced a number of oppositions, and although initially some of these may have been minor in this first foray into the world, they would become greater and greater as the Gospel spread around the world, as is testified in Acts and in secular history. Jesus’ teaching as recorded by Matthew in following verses, clearly shows that he is talking about the big picture of history and not just about the coming few days.

First, there was misunderstanding. For example, with communion they were accused of cannibalism. Second, there were accusations of creating family divisions – Jesus himself warned about this reality. Third, there was defensive opposition from rulers – the Caesars often demanded divinity and when Christians failed to give them that, they persecuted them. Fourth, the ethical demands of Christianity would make unscrupulous employers or business men hostile to the demands of Christianity. Fifth, there would be other specific religious groups who would be hostile to the competitive challenges coming from Christianity. Sixth, and far more generally, Satan would no doubt stir up rejection, hostility and resentment against the Christians who brought the demands of Christianity to challenge ‘self’ in the individual.

Such people in opposition, who bring hostility that ranges from outright persecution to simple rejection, are the ‘wolves’ Jesus refers to here. Wolves, we have commented before, are ravenous creatures who desire to bring down other creatures and destroy them. Modern crusading atheists are, I believe, just like this. They want to destroy Christian faith and undermine Christian beliefs and relationships. Now all this sounds pretty negative, especially when Jesus calls his disciples – who he is sending out to confront wolves – a bunch of sheep. Again, we have noted previously that sheep are pretty inoffensive and harmless, i.e. they rarely attack and are often prey to predators. Humanly speaking, they haven’t got a chance! However, two thousand years later, those ‘sheep’ can be found in every continent of the world and even in countries that are blatantly hostile to the Gospel.

So how do these sheep cope against this sort of opposition? First because we have been given authority (and power) from on high (10:1) and the Lord is with us. Moreover, when difficult circumstances arise, He will be there and His Holy Spirit will enable us (see 10:19,20) i.e. the Lord’s presence and provision will always be there for us.

But there is also a human responsibility involved: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Satan, coming in the form of a snake in the Garden of Eden was known for his cunning. But Jesus is specific here and says be ‘shrewd’. Shrewd means be insightful, astute, wise, smart, i.e. be alert to your surroundings, understand what is going on and operate with the wisdom God gives you as you seek Him for it (Jas 1:5). When confronted by impregnable fortresses of unrighteousness in the middle of our societies (like Jericho – see Josh 6), seek the Lord for His strategy to bring it down. Read the accounts of David and his dealings with enemies and learn his key strategy – to inquire of the Lord (e.g. 2 Sam 5:22-25). Get revelation!

The reference to being “innocent as doves” conveys the picture of simple humility and absence of guile. Guile is human cleverness as distinct from the godly wisdom we have been considering. Human wisdom gets hostile and defensive but that is unrighteous and that has no place in our dealings with the world. We often quote it but Peter’s advice is applicable here: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Note first the word ‘prepared’. This suggests we would be wise to understand the basics of our faith and also be able to give a simple testimony of our experience of the Lord. But note also the way we are to reply to people who question us: “with gentleness and respect”. That’s the ‘dove’ part! Not hostile. Not belligerent. Not arrogant. Gently and respectfully. When we operate like this with the grace of God, He will always back us up and be there for us.

If you think the picture of sheep being confronted by wolves is not good news, read again the story of David versus Goliath (1 Sam 17). This giant scared the life out of Saul and all his army, but a young man arrived on the scene who knew his God and knew what the Lord had done for him and knew that this giant was abusing God and was therefore in major trouble – and he just made himself available to God for Him to use him to bring down this scary character.  Key things to remember: 1. God is with you.  2. You are His servant.  3. His intent is to deal with the enemy. 4. He will give you all you need to deal with this enemy. 5. Don’t do it in your own strength or wisdom but with His grace, His revelation and His power. Done!

15. Sheep and Shepherd

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 15.  Sheep and Shepherd

Mt 9:35,36   Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

The analogy of us as sheep and Jesus as shepherd arises a number of times in the New Testament. This comment from Matthew about Jesus’ compassion and the harassed and helpless sheep is only seen elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel (Mk 6:34) so it is probable that that is where Matthews gets it, but he sees its application in what is happening. This may not actually be an analogy that Jesus uses here but it clearly fits with his wider teaching which we will see as we go on.

The picture of a shepherd is a fairly obvious one: one who looks after the sheep, cares for them, protects them, guards them, binds up their wounds, and leads them to places where they can eat and drink. The shepherd feels for his sheep and so it should be no surprise that it is compassion that moves him to act on behalf of the sheep and heal them.

We also see his compassion when faced with a crowd in Mt 14:14 which provokes him to heal them. He also had compassion on the hungry crowd before feeding them in Mt 15:32 as well as in respect of two blind men on the roadside (Mt 20:34). Mark also shows his compassion in respect of a leper who he cleansed (Mk 1:41). Luke tells the story of the Prodigal Son and compassion made the father run to greet the son (Lk 15:20). Compassion is a primary characteristic of this shepherd and it was that which so often stirred him into action to bring healing, cleansing and deliverance. It was Jesus heart going out to the widow of Nain that appeared to provoke him to act and raise up her dead son (Lk 7:13-15) and it was Jesus’ ‘pity’ that the father of a young demoniac appealed to (Mk 9:22) and was also key in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:33).

Jesus spoke out his heart when he taught, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:28,29). These are the words of the gentle and compassionate shepherd, offering help to all are worn by the ways of life.

Speaking into the religious life of Israel at that time, Jesus recognized the loads that were imposed on ordinary people by the religion imposed by the Pharisees and he came to the ‘weary sheep’  to lift off such loads: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Mt 23:3,4) He, by comparison, came to make the loads that we carry appear light as he pulls alongside us and shares the weight.

We will leave many of the references to Jesus being the shepherd to later studies but simply note it was a key analogy. At the end Jesus, warning the disciples what would happen, did it by referring to the prophetic scriptures: “Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ” `I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” (Mt 26:31,33 quoting Zech 13:7) a clear reference to what would happen when he was arrested and taken away, tried, and crucified.

When Moses, aware he had not much time left, appealed to the Lord to provide another to follow him, he prayed, “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num 27:16,17) The Lord immediately appointed Joshua who we tend to think of more of a general leading the army, and yet it is the picture of a shepherd that Moses uses, perhaps having come to the understanding that that was what his role had been for the last eighty years – first as a shepherd of literal sheep in Midian, and then as the shepherd of Israel. Yet the picture of a shepherd was mostly attributed to the Lord Himself (see Psa 23:1, 28:9, 80:1) and the picture of shepherds in the life of Israel was a familiar one in the books of the prophets.

Now in the New Testament, it will come up again and again. For the people of a land with many sheep and many shepherds it was an easily understood analogy and one we will see again and again. It was left to John, writing many years later after much reflection, to remember Jesus specifically teaching: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” (Jn 10:11) summarizing his position and his activity on behalf of his ‘sheep’.

In the previous study we noted Jesus’ words to John’s disciples. See in them the heart of a shepherd: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (11:4,5) In Luke’s Gospel a summary of Jesus’ coming ministry is revealed through the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19 citing Isa 61:1,2) These are the words for the shepherd who had come from heaven to reach out to those who were “harassed and helpless”, telling them that the time had arrived for their lives to be changed by the power of God, and confirming the truth of those words by the power he brought.

How are we today? Harassed and helpless? Harassed simply means stressed and hassled and under pressure from the burdens of life. The outworking of these things means a weariness, often a heaviness, and these things are not uncommon in the pressures and concerns of life in the twenty-first century. The answer: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:28,29). Amen.

27. The Shepherd

Meditations in David’s Psalms : 27 : The Shepherd  – Psa 23

Psa 23:1   The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing

The danger with meditating on this psalm is that it is so well known that we might become complacent with it. The sense of it is that it is written by a shepherd about The Shepherd. David starts off, “The I AM is my shepherd.” The name of the Lord as revealed to Moses is the name he refers to. The great eternal God, the One who is and was and always will be, is his God. But more than this, this One acts like a shepherd to David and David is one of His sheep. David, as a shepherd, knows about sheep and he knows that the shepherd cares for and provides for his sheep. David knows that with the Lord as his shepherd he lacks nothing. The Lord is first of all his Provider.

But the provision he speaks of is not what we might have thought: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” (v.2a) He provides David with gentle, quiet, refreshing rest. Note He’s not providing food in the usual sense but food for the soul – stillness, rest, freedom from activity; that’s what being made to lie in green pastures does for you.

But it’s even more than this, “he leads me beside quiet waters.” (v.2b). It is a second picture that suggests gentle, quiet, refreshing that is not merely of the body, for so David concludes,  he refreshes my soul.” (v.3) For Dave, the Lord’s provision, that is so important, is a provision that refreshes not his body but his soul. How important this is in this day of haste and stress. How so many need this refreshing of soul. They cannot do it on their own, they need to come under the Lord’s direction and let Him bring them into that place of quiet, that place where solitude brings a refreshing. How so many of us struggle and strive with life, strive to achieve some importance,  some stature, when all along the Lord wishes to restore us to what we were originally, His children untrammelled by the ways of the world and the stupidity of sin.  Instead of struggling to get our own way, instead of trying to make something of ourselves, if only we would put ourselves in the hands of the great shepherd He would bring us into a place of stillness and quiet and refreshing that life in the world has denied us, a place where He is able to lead us to become the people He has on His heart, more wonderful than anything we might consider for ourselves.

Movement through life is at the heart of this psalm. Yes, it started with the Lord bringing him to a standstill, to stillness, for that is where spiritual life begins, when we come to the  end of ourselves and place our reliance entirely upon Him. But then the Lord led him in quiet places and refreshed him. After we have come to the Lord that first time, we find life takes on a new feel. Striving and struggling have gone – He is in charge, He is now leading us and that is very refreshing.

But then we find that the way He is leading us, had a very right and good feel about it: “He guides me along the right paths.” (v.3a) Notice the repeat language: “He leads me… guides me…”  It is all about the Lord showing the way. No longer is it us in control of our lives. And why does He do it? There may be many reasons but they are summed up, as we now know, because He is love (1 Jn 4:8) and He wants the best for us, but that is all in conformity with who He is and therefore all He does is to conform to who He is and how He is known in His world and so it is, “for his name’s sake.” (v.3b)

He thinks on further to his ongoing walk with the Lord: Even though I walk through the darkest valley….” (v.4a). He thinks of some of the dark moments of life that he has experienced, seeing them as times of walking through a dark valley. They are scary BUT, “I will fear no evil.” (v.4b) What should be the human experience, isn’t. Why? “for you are with me.” (v.4c) In however long it is that he’s known the Lord, David has come to realise that security comes from knowing that the Lord is there with him.

This is a tremendous revelation for the new believer (and the old!) and it comes with a specific reason: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (v.4d) Now without trying to go deep here, the rod and the staff were the shepherds tools of his trade. They were what he used to beat off attacks of wild animals, and what he used to both lean on, but also to reach out and guide the sheep and even, sometimes, to rescue them. Put most simply, David the sheep knew that his Shepherd had the means to protect him, guide him and rescue him – and that was both comforting and bought a great sense of security.

So there it was, his walk with the Lord. It started off with the Lord bringing him to a standstill, then leading him into a way of quietness and refreshing, guiding him in right ways and in such a way that he had total security. He now reflects on the wonder of this, starting from this place of security where he doesn’t have to worry about the dark times of life or of enemies. Indeed, he reflects, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” (v.5a). What does that say? It says when enemies turn up, leave it to the Lord. Come and sit down with Him and enjoy His presence as you ‘eat’ together in great style.  Yes, battles may have to be fought but before that, just focus on the Lord and on enjoying Him and either leave it up to Him to sort out or let Him show you how He wants you to sort it out.

But it gets even better than that: “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  (v.5b) i.e. the Lord blesses him and makes him look and feel good, and he’s left with a really good feeling and optimistic about the future: Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (v.6) Is that the sense that you and I have as a result of our walk with the Lord? All I’m going to get in my life as I walk it with the Lord is goodness and love and a real sense that my future with the Lord is secure. Hallelujah!

117. Compassion

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 117. Compassion

Mk 6:34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

Jesus’ intent, you will remember, is to take the tired disciples away to a place of quiet and rest – but the crowd have seen them go and have followed them along the coast so when the boat lands they are there waiting for Jesus.

So when Jesus lands, does he chastise them and sends them off? No, he feels for them, he feels compassion. Compassion is a sense of deep concern for the needs of another, and Jesus feels that for this people. They are, says Mark, like sheep without a shepherd. This crowd look like they need looking after, and despite all else, Jesus is willing to look after them and teach them. The disciples can sit in the background and fall asleep (perhaps?).

Again and again in the Gospels we see Jesus moved by compassion. He is someone who sees need and feels for the person in need and it is that which so often seems to motivate him into action. He said he only did what his Father was doing (Jn 5:19) but perhaps His Father’s will is being expressed through the way He allows His Son to feel. When the Father ‘looks down from heaven’ He sees everything that goes on and He knows what is going on, including the feelings of people (see Him with Moses in Ex 3)

When Ezekiel prophesied about the coming work of God through His Messiah, he said, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ex 36:26,27) Part of the package of salvation is to receive a new heart, a heart of flesh, that is pliable, that is soft and open to be moved. In the world round about us people are stony hearted and are unmoved by the wonder of God. Indeed a phenomena we have witnessed in modern times is people moved by their emotions following a death but that is more of a self-serving emotion and not one that prompts servant heartedness.

No, compassion sees a need and is moved into action on behalf of it. There are people who are shaken by the circumstances of life into feeling for the needs of others and into action but mostly we are self-centred and self-concerned. May we become more like Jesus.

 

36. Returned Sheep

Meditations in 1 Peter : 36:  Returned Sheep

1 Pet 2:25 For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls

Sometimes Scripture says things that are so simple that they are almost overwhelming. This simple verse is like that. This is Peter tacking in one more nail in the coffin of our self-centredness. He has, you will remember, been challenging us to be people who stand out for God in this world and he’s just reminded us in the previous verses that we are to follow Christ’s example of coping with unjust suffering as a means of doing this. He had gone on to describe what Christ had done but now he sums up that work with the way it has changed us.  Anyone who thinks being a Christian is about being nice or being religious, clearly hasn’t read the New Testament carefully, or taken in such verses as we have here today!

This verse clearly speaks about change. We were one thing but now we are something else. But it is not merely about activity; it is about position, in fact it is all about position and if we have not moved we are not Christians! We were in one place but now we are in another. Peter envisages us as sheep. It is a popular analogy in the Bible.

David had written that famous Psalm 23 starting out, “The Lord is my shepherd.” It is a psalm all about him thinking of himself as a sheep and God as his Shepherd. Speaking of the discipline Israel suffered Psalm 44 declares, “You gave us up to be devoured like sheep,” (v.11) and “we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” (v.22). Speaking of the Exodus, Psalm 78 declares, “he brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the desert.” (v.52) and Psalm 49 declares, “Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever,” (v.13) while in psalm 100 we find, “Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” (v.3), and Isaiah was to write, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isa 53:6)

That is the thing about sheep, as preachers and now Peter delight in reminding us: sheep go astray. Given the opportunity they will wander off. Adam and Eve ‘wandered off’ out of the will of God, and every human being since has wandered away from God in a purposeful, self-centred, self-concerned, godless life. Instead of rejoicing in the wonder of life of relationship with the Creator of all things, we go our own way. As Jeremiah pictured it, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer 2:13), conveying exactly this same thing through a very different picture.

That, says Peter, is how we had been, “like sheep going astray. If you’ve never realised it before, that is the truth. You are (if you’ve never yet come to God through Christ) or were, a ‘sheep that had gone astray’. You are or were out of relationship with God, the relationship He had designed us to have but which we didn’t know. We were ‘away’ from God. That was our position.

Now, says Peter, speaking to Christians,you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” This is where we are today, if we are Christians. At some point in our lives a major change came about and we were brought from a place of aloneness to a place of close relationship with the Lord. Paul spoke of this same thing in a different way: he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” Col 1:13). There was a major positional change. We were out in the cold, out in the darkness of Satan’s dominion, but now we have been brought in to the kingdom of light, the kingdom of God’s Son, the place where it is all about relationship.

But note particularly how God is described by Peter: “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” The picture of the Shepherd is one that conveys a caring provider. Thus David had written, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psa 23:1) But a shepherd is also a protector of the sheep and Peter emphasizes this by calling God our ‘Overseer’. He oversees us or watches over us to guard and protect us. Thus David was able to write, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” (Psa 23:4,5) David could face death and face his enemies and still be secure because God was his Shepherd and God watched over him and cared for him and protected him. That is what Peter is also referring to. Hallelujah! Know His provision and His protection as your Shepherd!