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Here’s the first chapter for you to consider.
The Lord is Our Shepherd
The alarm rudely wakes me at 4:00 A.M. out of a sound, warm sleep. It is midwinter in central Illinois and time to check the sheep. We are in the middle of lambing season so my brother and I take turns making the early morning round to see how the expectant mothers and newborns are doing. The small flock nestled in the old barn is our 4-H project. While I am getting ready Mom comes downstairs. Although she understands the need for this early morning ritual she is not comfortable having one of her “lambs” leave the warm house. After putting on my parka and boots, I trudge out to the barn.
The stars are brilliant overhead as they are in midwinter. The snow squeaks with every step I take towards the weak golden light that is barely visible through the cracks in the barn door. A snowdrift blocks the gate so I awkwardly climb the fence and drop into the snow covered pasture. As I approach the barn door I softly say “morning sheep, just me.” The door protests at being disturbed but stubbornly yields to my tug. Inside the old barn our small flock lies in deep straw. I continue my soft one-sided conversation to calm them. One old ewe stirs and comes to greet me, hoping for a hand out of some grain or fresh hay. I take my gloves off and pet her soft wool while looking over the flock. So far Sophie has dropped triplets, normal for her, and they are doing fine. A lamb born a few nights ago to one of the yearlings is weaker than normal. We may have to help it nurse if it is going to survive. Several have yet to lamb. Barney is living up to her name and is as wide as a barn; she should have twins. However there are no new lambs tonight. I throw a couple of slices of hay into the pen, knock the ice from the water pans, and return to the house for a few more hours of sleep.
Later that same day a larger flock surrounds me. It is the gathering of the church for worship. This time I am not the shepherd but a lamb. Others are feeding, caring, and looking over my progress. Worship, Sunday school, fellowship, evangelism, and preaching are the activities of this flock. Like our barn, there is the sheltering warmth of being around other believers that protects from the cold of the world. In one way the purpose for our little 4-H flock and Christ’s purpose for the church are the same. We raise sheep to show at the 4-H fair. Christ’s desire is, “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27). Christ does this by shepherding individuals personally and through the local flock to which they belong.
A Different Focus
God designed sheep to be flock animals; they must be part of a flock to survive. The same is true for individual Christians, they must remain connected to a local “flock” to survive and thrive. That is why the title of the chapter is “The Lord is Our Shepherd.” This may seem at odds with the opening phrase of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” David’s use of “my” was a break in the traditional way of viewing the shepherding role of God. The focus of the Old Testament is how God shepherded Israel as a nation and how they rebelled at times against that leading. So the personal shepherding of God that David describes occurs within the context of belonging to a larger flock. Christ shepherds, leads, comforts, and provides the needs for each individual through the context of the local “flock”.
There are many books that discuss Psalm 23 and Christ’s shepherding of individuals. I recommend Phillip Keller’s “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.” What is on my heart for this book is how Christ shepherds the local church and people through the church. Churches become involved in so many ideas, church growth plans, and programs that it becomes easy to lose sight of what Christ is doing. My premise is simple. Jesus already has a plan and means for growing the church. He is actively shepherding each congregation. So, our goal is to discover how Christ is shepherding the local congregation and join Him in that work.
Declaration and Destination
The simple statement, the Lord is our shepherd, is loaded with meaning. For the local flock, it is both a declaration and a destination. First it is a declaration of ownership. Christ owns the flock. Jesus created each lamb and bought him or her by His own blood. “The Lord is our shepherd” is also a destination. In that journey there are many temptations that seek to take our focus off of Him. Jesus said it best when he chastised Peter, “…For you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Mark 8:33b). It is easy to “do church” in a way that pleases man but is not following the way the shepherd is leading. However, the desire of our shepherd is that we follow his way and not our own.
While a local congregation may call their leadership “Pastor”, which literally means, “to shepherd,” David’s declaration is that our shepherd is the Lord. It is important to note that David uses the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush, “YHWH”; I am that I am (Exodus 3:14). Who says, “I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides me” (Isaiah 44:6). Jesus also called himself the I Am. For instance Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I Am” (John 8:58). Hebrews 13:8 summarizes the I Am as, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The LORD, God himself, is our shepherd.
Saying that Christ is the shepherd is not an attempt to diminish the role or need for leadership in the local congregation. It is instead a call to remember that no matter how the local church is structured the shepherd is Christ. In fact part of Christ’s shepherding the church is the provision of leadership within the flock. “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–13). Granted there is disagreement within the church concerning the number and extent of each of these roles today. My personal view is that all the roles are still active and needed in the church. However, whether you identify three of the five or all five as being active does not matter in this discussion. What does matter is that Christ our shepherd provides these roles with the express purpose of growing the flock to maturity.
Three False gods
Perhaps it seems obvious that Christ shepherds the local congregation. But it is also obvious is that each congregation, just like each individual, has areas where the Christ is not yet the Lord. Part of the journey is searching for and correcting those areas. While the list of possibilities is endless, I see in Scripture three areas that are common for local congregations. All three cases are idols that Israel corporately worshiped at various times instead of God.
The first idol is perhaps the most well known, the Golden Calf of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32:1-8). The people became uncomfortable with Moses’ long stay on the mountain and they demanded that Aaron produce for them an image of God that they could worship. Out of their offerings Aaron fashioned a Golden Calf. Whenever a congregation upholds an image of God that is incomplete or out of balance they have forged and are worshiping a Golden Calf. Such as worshiping the God of love but ignoring justice, which is also a part of God’s character. The same could also be said in reverse, worshiping justice but ignoring love. The point is that Christ is not our shepherd when we worship a vision of God that is incomplete or woefully out of balance. In these instances, we have created God in our own image and to our own liking instead of worshiping His revealed nature. The difficulty comes in recognizing our weakness since we are convinced that our vision of God is correct. To defeat this idol we must first recognize that as good as our congregation is it does not have all the answers. Recall what James says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b).
The second idol also comes from the time when Israel was in the wilderness. Israel had sinned and God responded by sending poisonous snakes. When the people cried out for relief, God directed Moses to create a snake out of bronze and lift it up on a pole. Everyone that looked on the image received healing from the effects of the snakebite (Numbers 21:6-9). That bronze snake was kept and many years later Israel sinned by worshiping it (2 Kings 18:4). This idol is that of worshiping past works of God. It is good to recognize how God has moved a congregation along over many years. It is comforting to look back and see His hand through the trials and victories. But there is also a tendency to want to remain in the same pasture instead of following the shepherd to the next spot of green grass. There is a huge difference between knowing our history and worshiping it. Through one we glorify God; through the other we lose our way.
The third idol is the Ephod of Gold that Gideon made in Judges 8:26-27. Following the miraculous victory by Gideon’s 300 over the Midianites Gideon collected a tribute from the spoils. From those pieces of jewelry Gideon formed an ephod. Scripture does not say anything about what the ephod looked like. We do know that Gideon placed it in Ophrah and that the Israelites worshiped it. One hint of what the ephod may have looked like is the description of the breastplate, also called an ephod, which the High Priest wore (Exodus 28:6-21). The deep irony of the story is that Gideon’s first act after his call by God was the destruction of an altar to Baal belonging to his Father. Using those clues we see that the idolatry is the pride of being right or chosen. It is the sin of declaring that Christ is our shepherd but not yours. That something we do or teach is the right way and almost everyone else is wrong. This could be at the denominational level, local level or even the personal level. Granted, there are doctrines that must be held by all that call on the name of Christ. But in the history of the church, more division has been caused by minor squabbles then anything else. One example is the church that divided over whether a person should be immersed backwards or forwards. Our differences are not the problem; however the pride we have in those differences are an idol and a sin.
There are of course other examples of idolatry that do not fit into those three categories. Regardless of whether the issue is one of the three mentioned or something else, when Christ reveals a problem leadership needs to determine how to move forward in correcting the sin. The good news is that Christ is shepherding His church and will provide the means of bringing correction when the leadership and congregation are willing to follow.
There are two questions that we are going to explore through the rest of the book. The first is – How does Christ shepherd individuals through the context of the local flock? The second is – How does Christ shepherd the church? One thing is certain; Christ is patiently persistent in his shepherding. Phillip Keller notes that the 23rd Psalm could be classified as, “David’s hymn of praise to divine diligence.” Keller’s sentiment rings true as Christ shepherds individuals to maturity and as Christ shepherds the church so “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).