Second Week Of Advent
In this our second week of Advent we are going to look at the topic of shepherds. Often times we examine what Luke had to say about the shepherds in Chapter 2 of his Gospel. That's the typical reference used when celebrating week two of the advent calender. However, I want to do something a little bit different. Originally I thought it might be good to look at section of the Old Testament such as Psalm 23. Indeed there are any number of passages in the Old Testament that refer to God as a Shepherd. And that's what I want to focus on today. Not on the shepherds who were there who saw the Angels and who went to see Jesus in the manger. That's very important; there's no question about that. But today I'm going to take a little different approach and look at Christ as the shepherd.
I think this is the reason that the shepherds were notified on that night that was Jesus was born. All throughout the old testament the Lord is described as a shepherd. He is described as one who - in Isaiah 40:11 for instance who "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." In fact one of the first times a name is applied to God in order to describe His character - if not the first time such an event takes place - is found in Genesis 49:24. There we read Jacob's prophetic utterance concerning the Messiah, which says, "his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel)."
So from the very beginning of time - from the very beginning of God's engagement with mankind and His chosen people He is described as a shepherd. Of course, all references to the shepherd ultimately refer to Jesus Christ. And the shepherds were notified that a new member of their guild had arrived - indeed - the member.
This portion of the book of Hebrews (which I believe, as I've told you before, is written by the apostle Paul), is something that I have used many times as the benediction or the closing passage which I read at the conclusion of our service. Let me read that to you once again;
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 and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before at any point, but Hebrews 13:20-21 is presented in the five point covenant outline. Each Sunday we recite the outline of prayer given to us by Jesus Christ. We call it the Lord's prayer but it is probably better termed the congregational prayer, or something like that. The reason is that the prayer was intended for the people of God as an outline for all of our prayer whether it be corporate or individual. In any case it isn't a prayer that Jesus would necessarily pray; no doubt he prayed to the father in keeping with this outline. But as we have seen this outline of prayer is structured according to the five points of the covenant. Therefore it is not just a prayer outline, it is also a life outline. And we discover the same outline here in Hebrews 13:20-21.
The apostle Paul concludes this letter to the Hebrew Christians in a fashion that they should immediately recognize. If they didn't recognize the five point outline they certainly would have recognized that this is an benediction which embraces the covenant sequence and emphasizes the covenant relationship.
1. God Of Peace Brought Up Jesus Christ
The first point in this benediction is that God is a God of peace, who brought up Jesus from the dead. Almost anytime the Bible refers to peace, it is talking about the character of the covenant relationship between God and man. It is impossible to have peace apart from God. Indeed peace is a description of a life in right relationship with God. As Albert Barnes said:
The word ‘peace' in the New Testament is used to denote every kind of blessing or happiness. It is opposed to all that would disturb or trouble the mind, and may refer, therefore, to reconciliation with God; to a quiet conscience; to the evidence of pardoned sin; to health and prosperity, and to the hope of heaven.
If we are at peace then all is well and life is going along as it should. This doesn't mean that everything is perfect. It simply means that we are in right relationship with God and therefore no matter what happens in this life we are at peace - meaning we are no longer at war with God. Man in his natural state is at enmity with God and thus true peace of any kind is impossible apart from God.
The Bible says that the kingdom of God is righteousness peace and joy in the holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). Righteousness in that we are made the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:21). Joy in that no matter what we experience we may rest assured that all is working for our good and we look forward to an eternally blessed relationship with Jesus Christ. And peace because the kingdom of God is all about submission to the Messiah. If we are in submission to Jesus then of course we are at right relationship with God. Thus we have peace. So what Paul says here is that this God of peace will accomplish something in our life as we will see in a minute. This God of peace -- this God with whom we must have right relationship if we want to experience peace -- is the very same God who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead. This is an expression of his power and sovereign control of all things.
As we read this morning in John's gospel, Jesus said that he laid his own life down and that he took it up again. That may seem to be at odds with what this section of Hebrews says but it is not. We must not forget that in the Trinity we have a single essence with three persons. There is no way we can truly understand that. We must simply accept it by faith. Therefore when the Bible tells us that it is God who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead we must not think that Christ was somehow misled when he claimed that he was the one who laid his life down voluntarily and there after took it up again. Let us be clear on this issue: Jesus the man did not accomplish his own resurrection; the everlasting son did. Jesus the man as we saw last week is our kinsman redeemer. The everlasting son is very God of very God. Moreover, Jesus the Man - in his humanity - voluntarily laid his life down.
So Paul tells us in his first point of this benediction -- the first point of the covenant sequence -- that the God of peace, the God who defines right relationship and the one who defines a life of value and purpose and meaning is the very same God who by his power and might raised Jesus Christ from the dead. That very same omnipotent God raised Jesus, the son of Abraham the son of David, from the tomb.
Therefore when we talk about shepherds in the second week of Advent we must begin by recognizing that it is God who is sovereign. It is God who brought about the events recorded in Luke's Gospel concerning the shepherds who were notified about the birth of Jesus Christ. That was no accident. God intended that the shepherds would learn of the birth of the great shepherd of the sheep. It was symbolic. It was supposed to remind us and to remind people of that age concerning the character of the Messiah. It wouldn't have been typical for that class of society - shepherds - to be included in the celebration of a royal birth. You can bet your bottom dollar that King Herod would never have invited a local shepherd to come to celebrate the birth of one of his children.
And yet the sovereign Lord of the universe, in order to display his intentions, notified the shepherds that indeed the great shepherd of the sheep had been born.
2. The Great Shepherd Of The Sheep/Blood of the Covenant
And that is the second idea here - this great shepherd is the administrator of the everlasting covenant in his own blood. This great shepherd of the sheep is the fulfillment of all that God had promised his people. We read concerning the shepherd-like characteristics of God as he takes his people into his arms and holds them close and cares for them. Jesus himself described his ministry as like unto a shepherd. He is the true shepherd. He is the one who lays his life down for the sheep. All others who came before him, Jesus says, were mere hirelings and were not willing to die for the sheep. But Jesus is the great shepherd. He cares for his own flock even at the cost of his life.
In that first Century culture a shepherd was different than what we might expect. You've heard me say before - and you probably have read this for yourself - that the first Century shepherd, indeed for many centuries previous to that in this region of Palestine, was one who would lead the sheep rather than push them along.
I remember when we lived down in American Falls we would sometimes go south of town into a section of the Sawtooth National Forest. We would go there to hike around and take our dog for a run. When it was time for the pup to get some exercise we'd let her out of the car and she'd run along in front of us we drove down the road at about 20 or 30 miles an hour. Oddly enough she loved it and would never stray from the Forest Service roads that we traveled on. Anyway, we would often see great herds - or flocks - of sheep in that area. We would be driving along and suddenly there would appear one of the little sheepherder wagons with the canvas top. Invariably there would be two or three - or more dogs - hanging around there as well. At least one of them would be one of those large white dogs that shepherds keep these days to drive away coyotes. In any case shepherds in this day and age typically move the sheep around with the aid of dogs. Those shepherds we saw in the Sawtooth Mountains of southern Idaho would herd the sheep rather than lead them. In the middle eastern culture of 2000 years ago where-in Christ described himself as the true shepherd and in which Paul depicted Jesus as the great shepherd of the sheep - in that culture the shepherd would lead his flock of sheep. It is said that a shepherd in that day and age would constantly talk to the sheep, singing to them and otherwise making sure that they recognize the sound of his voice. Normally a shepherd in that age would have only a hundred sheep or so. And I suppose the primary difference between then and now is that there was some kind of a relationship between the shepherd and the sheep that is most closely approximated today in the relationship that many people have with their dog or cat. They are considered a member of the family. That's why Jesus could say that his sheep knew his voice. He was in communication with them. This would not have seemed strange to the people who heard him 2000 years ago. They would have recognized that he was merely describing the typical relationship a shepherd would have with his sheep. That is why it is so important for us to understand when Jesus is described as the great shepherd of the sheep he is telling us - or rather Paul is telling us - this is a close, personal relationship. The sheep are dependent upon the shepherd. He leads them to proper grazing and to still waters where they might drink. He watches over them and protects them from vicious beasts. That's the picture Jesus wanted to paint. That's the picture the apostle Paul points to when he says Christ is the great shepherd of the sheep.
Indeed this shepherd loved his sheep so dearly, he was willing to die a brutal death that his sheep might have life. The God of peace, the same one who brought up the Lord Jesus, gives this great shepherd the responsibility of caring for his sheep and to make them complete - as we will see in just a moment - in every good work to do his will. But this is accomplished only through the blood of the everlasting covenant.
In the book of Hebrews we are told that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. In the old covenant, specifically in the book of Exodus, we see that Moses ratified the covenant by sprinkling blood on the assembled people. Likewise, the shed blood of Jesus Christ ratifies the everlasting covenant we enjoy in this messianic age. It is only by the blood of Jesus Christ we are washed clean and brought into this covenant relationship. It is only Christ who is the representative to whom we may turn and expect to be brought into relationship with the father. It is only through the shed blood of this kinsman redeemer - this last Adam - it is only that great shepherd of the sheep who is able to bring us into the covenant where we enjoy all the promises of Almighty God.
And this is an everlasting covenant. In other words there is nothing that comes after this covenant. There is no plan B. This is what God had intended from the beginning of time. And so, if we understand the idea of an everlasting covenant properly, we recognize that there has always been this one covenant. Granted, there were different administrations of the covenant. No doubt the earlier expressions of this covenant were anticipatory. The Adamic, the Noaic, the Abraham, the Mosaic, the Davidic and the restoration covenants all operated in anticipation of their ultimate fulfillment in Christ Jesus.
So the second thing we see here is that this great shepherd of the sheep who cares for me and you like no one else could has shed his blood that we might have a covenant relationship with the triune God.
3. Make complete/Perfect to do will/What is pleasing
In addition, it is only by the blood of the everlasting covenant that any one is able to be made complete. Now, we should recognize that this letter was written to the corporate body of Jesus Christ. Remember, the Judaizing element within the church was apt to sow discord among the brethren. In fact is not just the Christian Judaizers who were want to do so; there were also the Jews who had rejected Christ as the Messiah who were vehemently opposed to anything Christian. Think of Saul, the persecutor of the Church..
Thus, we must consider the entire letter in order to understand what Paul (or whoever the author may be) has in mind here in verse 21. The entire letter as a whole is written to combat the tendency of Jewish Christians in the first century to turn away from the Gospel and to embrace a legalistic, Judaic life instead. Paul, throughout the letter, is showing again and again how the new covenant is far superior to the old covenant way. What he wants them to understand is that in Christ all of God's promises find fulfillment and to reject Jesus as the Messiah is to in fact reject God himself.
Therefore when we see that this blood of the covenant ratifies our relationship with God so that we might be complete in every good work we need to step back and consider; who is intended by this clause? Who is it that is to be made complete or perfect? The answer is the corporate body. Because this actually says in the Greek that they would be put in joint. That they would be reassembled, so to speak. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's commentary says that this is "properly said of healing a rent - or to join you together in perfect harmony." And this has to do with the relationships within the corporate body. So this third point is directed at the church and refers to the unity of the faith.
Now there is no doubt that we should be "put back in joint" as individuals. There is no doubt that the blood of the covenant is designed to make us perfect in that we are to be like Jesus himself. Indeed, the shed blood of Jesus Christ is that which effects the new creation. The truth is we are perfect. The truth is, it is no longer I who sins but the sin that lives in me. This isn't to say that we can somehow attain perfection in this life. Our goal is to manifest the new creation as much as we possibly can in the power of the Holy Spirit. As I've said many times this is what Paul means when he says that we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling - knowing it is God who both gives us the desire and ability to do his good will. Thus we cultivate the new creation in order to manifest to those around us the fact it is Christ who lives within us.
Yet in this section of Hebrews Paul is focused on the corporate body. And what he wants to happen here is the corporate group to be in joint. A body that is out of joint - separated at the joints with the ligaments stretched or torn - is in no condition to do any kind of work. Corporately we are the body of Jesus Christ. Corporately we are supposed to do the work of the Lord Jesus. If we are out of joint then we are not going to be able to accomplish every good work and do his will.
There is so much that the body of Jesus Christ does as a corporate entity. Obviously it depends upon each member of the body being in right relationship with the great shepherd. Nevertheless when each member of the body is in right relationship with the Lord it is merely the first step toward accomplishing every good work as the corporate body of Jesus Christ. This might be something like starting a soup kitchen for the homeless. It might be something like beginning a ministry to unwed mothers. It might be something like running a day school to truly educate and as a means of outreach and evangelism. Perhaps it is something as simple as purchasing gifts and working together to make sure that the children of incarcerated parents are able to celebrate Christmas this year.
In any case the great shepherd of the sheep has accomplished his task so that the body might be in joint and able to accomplish good works according to the will of God. It is when we are in joint, it is when we are in right relationship with one another and God that our Lord will work in us what is well pleasing in his sight.
A church that is out of joint isn't going to accomplish anything good. When a church is out of joint - when the body is broken and injured - it must be repaired before it can do the work that is well pleasing in God's sight. Sometimes this means that deadwood must be trimmed away. Sometimes it means that the drooping bough must be bound up and lifted up. It always means each individual member of the body must learn to love the other members. Don't get me wrong; that doesn't mean no matter what the situation is every person in the local fellowship will continue to be a part of that specific body. Sometimes it's best for a person to find a different fellowship. That is normally not the case; but when it is the best option it takes place only because it is what is necessary to put the body back in joint so that we might please God and to do his will.
4. Through Jesus Christ
And how is this accomplished? Through Jesus Christ of course. You see, it is in Jesus Christ that we experience the blessings of our covenant relationship with God. And this, of course, is the fourth point in the covenant sequence.
When we pray the Lord's prayer the fourth point is "give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Or more accurately "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." The point, however, is that the material and spiritual blessings we enjoy are found in the covenant relationship. And, again, we are in this covenant relationship because of Jesus Christ. We cannot emphasize that fact too much. There is no other way to be part of the covenant family of God. There is no alternate path. There is no plan B. There is nothing coming forward in the future that will somehow alter the state of affairs as it now exists and make Jesus Christ a secondary figure in the plan of God. It is through Jesus Christ and him alone that we enjoy the covenant relationship we have with God. There is no other great shepherd: it is only Jesus. And those who reject Jesus Christ will not be blessed: they will, in fact, be cursed. This was the teaching of Jesus himself as he traveled about the land of Israel in the first century. It continued to be the teaching of the apostles who carried his message into the entire Roman in world after his death, resurrection and ascension. This has never changed. It has always been the case, as we have already noted, because this is an everlasting covenant.
So the blessings that we enjoy as sheep under the care of the great shepherd are found in Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that we find help in times of trouble. It is in Christ that we find purpose and meaning and hope in this life. It is in Jesus Christ that we can look to life beyond the grave and recognize that this realm serves to fit us for eternity.
We must do all that we can to share with people that the blessings of God are available in Jesus. This time of year is perfect; everyone is thinking about the birth of Jesus around Christmastime. Even those who are disgusted by the display of a manger scene on the courthouse lawn are still thinking about Jesus Christ. They don't like it; but they're doing just that. Believe me, this is one of the best times to share the blessings we have in Christ with our friends and loved ones who have rejected the great shepherd of the sheep. We need to be able to articulate the blessings we enjoy in him. First of all, the personal blessing of salvation and all that means. We need to be able to describe what is meant by the forgiveness of sins. You'd be surprised how many folks out there think that Christians claim to be perfect because they been forgiven. That's not what we mean; we need to be able to tell people exactly what that blessing of forgiveness is. Once again that is something that is part of the Lord's prayer and it is something we need to understand so we can we explain exactly what is meant by forgiveness of sin. Moreover, we need to be able to explain why forgiveness is necessary.
We also need to be able to tell people about the material blessings we enjoy in Jesus Christ. I don't mean just the provision of food and clothing and housing; I mean the material blessings that are realized in relationships and the way we do our job and so on. These are material blessings in so far as they are realized in this physical realm. Obviously the blessing of a well ordered house is experienced in this life and it only happens because of Jesus Christ. Don't get the wrong; there are non-believing households that are relatively well ordered and peaceful. But if you get under the surface you'll find that there is really nothing there. Yes they do enjoy - because of common grace - a certain amount of order and peace in the home. Yet, there is an emptiness there that they cannot fill. In fact I have found that the awareness of this void is sometimes more striking in a better ordered household. Do you understand why? It is because the chaos that would normally mask that void isn't there. Sometimes the better things are the worse people feel. A chaotic and tumultuous lifestyle will occupy one's mind to the point that they don't even recognize they are missing something. On the other hand when life is going well and everything seems to be in order the stillness of one's mind allows for reflection and recognition that there is still something desperately wrong.
I have related to you before an article - or actually an interview - I read one time about a world famous performer who upon achieving all of his dreams sat back and asked the question "is this all there is?" I was amazed, frankly, that he would admit this in a national weekly publication. And yet in the interview this world famous performing artist said "I had hoped that upon reaching this point in life I would feel fulfilled but I have found that is not the case."
In this season of the year we should loudly proclaim that it is through Jesus Christ the blessings of the covenant are realized. Obviously we will have to do more than simply say that. But I think that at this time of year we have a more ready audience then at other times. That may not be the case with the unbelievers you know. You will have to determine for yourself in your own situation. Nonetheless I encourage you to express your thanks to Jesus Christ for the material and spiritual blessings that you enjoy and to do so as a witness to those around you.
5. Glory For Ever and Ever: To God and Christ
The last point we see in this benediction is the idea of the continuity of the covenant. Remember the five points of the covenant sequence are these: number one, God is sovereign; number two, Jesus is the singular representative of man before God; three, God expects his people to obey his word; four, there are blessings we receive as participants in this covenant and number five the covenant is an everlasting covenant: it has continuity.
Thus, to Jesus Christ glory should be ascribed for ever and ever. It is not saying too much to include the God of peace as the recipient of glory as well.
Paul says to the church at Corinth that "if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19). Certainly the Christian faith is a practical religion. In other words, it has an impact on this life and realm. We have been discussing recently how as Christians we are required to bring our sphere of influence under the authority of Jesus Christ. As we do that we will have an effect on this world. As more and more Christians bring their sphere of influence into the kingdom of God - do their job as unto the Lord, treat their family in a Christlike fashion, allow the new creation to be cultivated in their entertainment, their politics, their views on science and medicine and so on - obviously this realm will be affected.
However, if it is only in this life that we have hope then we are to be pitied. There are plenty of folk who do not know the Lord Jesus and yet do good things in his life. There are plenty of people who reject Christ as the great shepherd and yet have a positive impact on this realm. They do so because they - like us - have been created in the image of God. This even though that image has been held down and stomped down by those who reject Jesus as the savior. Nonetheless, due to the effects of common grace, even the unregenerate can do good things in this life. But they have no hope for eternity. And without hope for eternity they really have no meaning or purpose behind the good things they do. They may tell you they are accomplishing these wonderful works because of their love for humanity. But when they die, their name will soon be forgotten. If it is not completely forgotten then their name will be remembered by mere words in a history book somewhere. In the mean time their soul is lost forever.
Therefore our relationship to this great shepherd of the sheep assures us that after this life is done there is something more. This covenant has continuity not just from generation to generation here on earth but also in eternity in heaven.
I've said before that the Bible doesn't really tell us a lot about heaven. The main thing we learn from Scripture concerning heaven is that it will be a life spent in the presence of God. It will be a life, or an existence, of meaning and purpose that far transcends the life of meaning and purpose we have here. Certainly this life can be wonderful. The next life is far more so in the presence of Christ.
In a nutshell our relationship to the shepherd who loves us assures us of an eternal hope. And once again we have so much to share with those who do not know Jesus Christ.
Every human being seeks after peace. Every human being desires a right relationship with God. They may express it in some other language. Indeed even the atheists express a desire for peace with God in their search for meaning via human reason.
I recently watched a debate between Christopher Hitchens - the well known atheist and Douglas Wilson, a prolific author and the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow Idaho. Mr. Hitchens is very articulate and clearly an intelligent man. And yet as I watched this discussion between he and Pastor Wilson I could not help but be struck by his constant borrowing from God. What I mean by that is that Mr. Hitchens made a number of assumptions that only have validity if we accept the presence of the God of peace and the great shepherd of the sheep. For instance Mr. Hitchens claims that there is some objective standard we may appeal to in the realm of truth and beauty. And yet he could not articulate what that objective standard might be. You see, he is desperately wanting to be at peace. He desperately wants to quell the demons of discontent and doubt that I am sure continually eat away at his heart. I might be wrong; he may be so jaded and hardened that he is never bothered by this sort of thing. But it was my impression in watching this discussion that Mr. Hitchens is not so sure of his atheist beliefs after all.
Mankind seeks after peace. And mankind desperately desires the warmth and protection of the great shepherd of the sheep. All of us - every human being - wants security and comfort and love. The great shepherd of the sheep is the only source that will not disappoint. He loves his sheep enough to die for them and this is what people want - the love and security that is found only in Jesus.
Moreover people want to belong. This is one of the things that is so important in the witness of the Church; the expression of unity. Everybody wants to be part of the crowd. Everyone wants to belong to the family or to the clan or to the tribe. People everywhere are searching for acceptance and inclusion and the Church must be prepared to show what true community is like. Frankly it is at this point that many churches fail miserably. I realize that sometimes a local fellowship will go through hardship and difficulty which serves to fracture the body. But it cannot end there. The body must be put back into joint so that we can express a unity that is only possible in Jesus Christ. I think we have unity in his church. And I think it is important for each expression of the body of Jesus Christ - each expression of the corporate family meeting in their individual buildings - I think it is important for those separate examples of the body to be in unity with each other as well. Remember that in the first century each city had a single church. There is evidence that Christians met in a variety of locations in each of the cities of the ancient world such as Ephesus or Smyrna or Corinth and so on. Yet the body was viewed as a single entity in each city even though there were a number of different fellowships meeting in any given town.
Unity is critical and it is something that is desperately sought after by people today.
I want to encourage you in this Christmas season to make an effort to share with others your relationship with the great shepherd of the sheep. The season may come and go without such an opportunity but I encourage you to do your best to recognize opportunity when it arises. We are a blessed people. Those shepherds who were informed of Christ's birth 2000 years ago experienced something beyond the realm of human understanding. We are privileged to live in an age wherein we can experience something that is beyond the realm of human understanding as well. We experience the tremendous, unfathomable love of the great shepherd of the sheep. Praise God for his tremendous gift of Jesus Christ.
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