April 29, 2012

Flock and Shepherd - Apr 29, 2012

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In the Bible, God describes His followers as a flock being led by a shepherd. Our Bible readings for today will deal with this image of God's people - either describing the flock, or the Good Shepherd who leads them.


First Reading Acts 4:23-33 (NKJV)

23 And being let go, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. 24 So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, 25 who by the mouth of Your servant David have said:
‘Why did the nations rage,
And the people plot vain things?
26 The kings of the earth took their stand,
And the rulers were gathered together
Against the LORD and against His Christ.’
27 “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. 29 Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, 30 by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.”
31 And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
32 Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all.

For this reading I'm going to focus in on the last two verses. I'll read them again.
"32 Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all" (Acts 4:32-33 NKJV).
There were some very different people in this group. Matthew, also known as Levi, was among them. He was a tax collector for the Roman government. Before he met Jesus, Matthew made extra money for himself by charging his countrymen more than the tax code required. Tax collectors were known for this, and so, Matthew's fellow Jews considered him a traitor. After joining up with Jesus, Matthew stopped robbing the people like this, but his reputation couldn't be rebuilt in a day.

Also among the followers of Jesus was Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were revolutionaries who worked against the Roman government every chance they got. If it was sabotage, great. If violence was needed, fine. They were the extreme patriots of the Jewish nation. The Bible doesn't tell us what kind of things this Simon did back when he was a Zealot, but the fact that he was known as "Simon the Zealot" tells us enough.

Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot were about as different as it gets. And yet, when they became followers of Jesus, they were changed. United.

Our reading tells us that the early Christian church was so unified that they had "one heart and one soul". Their old lives were past, their new life in Christ had begun.

In the Bible, God describes His people as a flock. A flock is a group of individuals united under the leadership of a shepherd. The flock of God's early followers was united by their faith in Jesus Christ, the promised Savior from sin.

Because they knew that in Christ their sins had been forgiven, they could forgive each other's sins. And they could work through differences in their own character and opinions.

Now, I don't want you to misunderstand me. There are a lot of churches today that throw out teachings of Jesus for the sake of unity. That's not the kind of "working through differences of opinion" that I'm talking about. Unity under Christ doesn't come from changing what HE says, it comes from the Holy Spirit changing what we believe. Conforming our hearts and minds to Christ's Word.

The Christians of the early church compromised all the time. But not when it came to what Jesus taught. That wasn't on the table of compromise, because that was the source of their unity.

Acts 2:42 speaks of this dedication to Christ's Word when it says of the early church...
" 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42 NIV).

Because the unity of the early church was based on adherence to Christ's teachings, the early Christians were sure of what they were doing. They were enabled to be bold in the face of violent opposition from the ruthless religious leaders of Jerusalem because they knew they were teaching Christ's Message.

The Holy Spirit was working through the message of sins forgiven to such a degree that these young Christians were even overcoming their own selfish interests. They were putting each other first. They didn't look at the world from a ME first point of view anymore. They were in this together. They were a team under the coaching of Christ. They were a flock seeking to follow their Great Shepherd's leading, and His leading alone.

Before Jesus was arrested and crucified, all the apostles had sworn that they would die rather than desert Him. But they hadn't lived up to this promise. But now, they really would have died rather than desert their Savior. And why? They seen the risen Christ. Our reading says,
"With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all" (Acts 4:32-33 NKJV).
With their testimony the apostles, and all the other followers of Jesus, invited other sinners to join the unity. To be one in heart and soul with Christ. With this testimony, they offered peace with God to the sinners around them.

This is what we want to do as God's flock in Lynnwood, WA. Since we have received grace and forgiveness from our Savior, we pour it out on each other. We practice compromise when it comes to the things that aren't written in stone by God's Word, and we invite others to experience this unity with us.

Psalm of the Day Psalm 23 (NKJV)

A Psalm of David.

P: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
C: He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
P: Yea, 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.
C: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
P: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
C: And I will dwell in the house of the LORD

King David knew all about tending sheep. He had been a shepherd since he was a boy. He had led the flocks to pasture. He had coaxed them down to drink from streams. He had fended off predators with rod and staff.

Before David faced the giant Philistine warrior named Goliath, King Saul tried to tell the boy that he really had no business meeting Goliath in battle. David replied,
“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. 36 Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God” (1 Samuel 17:34-36 ESV).
David knew what shepherding was all about. And he saw a parallel between shepherding and the watchful care of the LORD.

When the LORD is leading you, you know that He has good things in store for you. In the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23 we see a picture of the spiritual health and healing that God's people receive from His hand.

Of course, it isn't always green pastures and still waters. Sometimes there's dark valleys to walk through. Canyon lands with dark shadows and threatening caves. But when the Shepherd is leading, we can bear these times.

And that brings up an important point in this poetic description. A shepherd LEADS his sheep. He doesn't drive them forward into the scary canyons. He goes first. He meets the predators who want to take us away from God, and into hell.

Our Jesus is a Shepherd, not a cheerleader. He doesn't just stand by our side to cheer us on. He went out alone to the cross and the grave. He was beaten and tortured for our sins. He died in our place. And then He rose to life. He led the way and cleared the path of our sins so that we can walk the easy road of forgiveness.

That brings up another important point in this description. Without the Shepherd, the sheep don't wouldn't have a chance. But with the Shepherd, we can't lose.

David expresses this certainty when he writes...

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (Psalm 23:6 NKJV).

NT Letter 1 John 3:1-2 (NIV)

3:1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

There is a certain intimacy in the picture of the LORD as our Shepherd. He leads us to food and water. He tends our wounds. He watches over our souls. But here, John offers an even more intimate picture. God calls us His own children.

It's one thing to belong to the King. It's another thing to be His sons and daughters. Through faith in Christ, we are children of God.

Like it says in Galatians...

"27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise" (Galatians 3:27-29 ESV).

Jesus explained what being a child of God ultimately means. If you're a child of the King, then you get to live in the palace. On the evening before Jesus was crucified, He told His disciples...
"1 Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going" (1 John 14:1-4 NIV).
Our reading from First John informs us through Christ we will not only have an amazing new place to live. When we live beside God, we will be remade to be like Christ was after His resurrection. Our bodies will be perfected. Ready to live forever.

Better than that, our very souls will be free from the sinful nature that hinders us in this life. We will no longer jump to stupid and false conclusions. We will no longer have sinful thoughts and emotions flare up on our minds. We will be LIKE HIM, for we shall see him as he is.

Being a child of God means that we will one day get to see God clearly. Just what will that be like? I don't have a clue. But I can't wait to find out.

Gospel History John 10:11-18 (ESV)

11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

In this last reading Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd and then describes how He would voluntarily die for the sins of His people.

The way that Jesus speaks here was prophetic. He returns again and again to the fact that He would soon lay down His life for the sheep. He would die on the cross to atone for their sins. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Jesus was not merely a great moral teacher. Here He claims to be the Savior, and the only Savior for sinners.

When you read this section over and over, you begin to see many different characteristics of Jesus. These characteristics come out in that singular event that defines Him as the Savior; the fact that He died for others.

Let me explain what I mean. Jesus says that He isn't like the hired hand who watches the sheep for a paycheck. That guy sees the wolf approaching and makes a "business decision" and gets out of harm's way. The hired hand isn't paid enough to die for the sheep - so he abandons the sheep for his own safety.

This is what the false prophet does. He's only there for personal gain, so when the going gets tough, the false prophet abandons ship.

Not so with Jesus. He is no cowardly hired hand present only for personal gain. He is the owner of the sheep. He stands bravely against the wolf because these are HIS sheep to defend.

And that brings out another trait of Christ. He is loyal to His own. He's not going to abandon them. He loves them. He will fight to the death for them.

Jesus says this is one of the reasons the Father loves Him. He is obedient to the Father. The Father sent Him to save the sheep, and so that's what He would do on the cross. Our Good Shepherd was obedient to the Father's gracious will to save sinners.

Though Jesus was obedient to the Father's will in going to the cross, there is yet another trait revealed in that obedience. Choice. Jesus chose to go to the cross for sinners. He laid down His life voluntarily, not grudgingly. It was hard to choose this path, but because it was the Father's will, and the only way to save sinners, Jesus chose it willingly. Our sins deserved Hell. So, Jesus suffered Hell.

Jesus says that He received the authority to lay down His life and to take it up again from the Father. It was His mission.

This is the Good Shepherd who still watches over us today. A Good Shepherd who lived and died to save us from our own stupid and disgusting sins. And this is why we can have utter confidence in His care today, and forever. You have a protector who GAVE Himself for you. That protector can no longer die.

It's one thing to be confident because you have a bodyguard who you know will throw Himself in front of a bullet to save you. When you have a bodyguard who will do that, and yet cannot die - well, that leads to a whole other level of confidence.

Jesus suffered for your sins. He died to pay your debt of sin off. And then He rose from the dead victorious. If you die in Him, trusting in Him for forgiveness and life, He guarantees that you will rise again, just like Him. This is the promise that we have from the Father, in the Son.

So, when the valleys get dark in your life, remember who is leading you down those valleys. He knows the way and will face the dangers ahead. When your sins seem heavy on your soul, remember who already took them on His shoulders. They may SEEM heavy, but they are already gone. Forgiven. And when you face the darkest valley, the valley of death, remember His feet have already been there. And at the end of that path eternal life and glory will dawn on you too, little sheep.

I'd like to close our mediation on the Good Shepherd with a blessing found at the end of the book of Hebrews. There it says...
" 20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen" (Hebrews 13:20-21 NIV).

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