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The Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, has held a special place in the affection of Christian men and women all down the ages. It reveals ‘Our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep’, so intimately that eternity alone will reveal the comfort and strength it has ministered to multitudes in their hour of need.
Recently it seemed to light up to me from a completely new angle, new to me that is. It came to me in some such fashion as this. “You have always delighted in this Psalm, because it has brought you to see that there is no circumstance in life, in which the Shepherd is not able to care for His own. But surely if the Spirit of Christ does indeed dwell in and possess you, and if you really are chosen by God for His service should not the characteristics of the Great Shepherd be seen in your attitude towards those to whom you minister, and should you not be prepared to give yourself for them, as the Lord gave Himself for you?” I was startled, and at once decided to study Psalm 23 from this new view-point, and to ask that the Spirit of God would show me all that I was capable of seeing. I am now seeking to share the results of my study with others, who have been commissioned to His service.
The first words that arrested my attention were:
They occur in verses 2 and 3, and are implied in verse 4. The meaning of the word ‘lead’ is given in my English dictionary as, ‘to show the way by going first’. In John 10 v2-3, this meaning is doubly emphasized, “He calleth his own sheep by name, and leaded them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them”. This aspect of leadership can be readily illustrated from life in the British Army. It is an unwritten law, that an officer should never ask men to go where he is not prepared to go first; nor to undertake any task in which he is not ready to share. This basic principle of leadership is stressed again and again in the New Testament. The apostles for instance set a standard of leadership, which it should be the ambition of every Christian worker to make his own.
In 1 Corinthians 4 v11-13 Paul indicates some of the circumstances into which the path of leadership had taken him and then continues, “I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have yet not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me” (v14-16). Writing to the Philippians he says, “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an example” (3 v17), and again, “Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do” (4 v9). He never looked upon himself merely as an exponent of the doctrines of the Christian faith, but as one called to blaze a trail in holy living, and faithfulness to Christ. Writing to Timothy he says, “For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting” (1 Timothy 1 v16).
Peter, in writing to his fellow elders in the Church, reminds them of their obligation to be leaders, when he says, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5 v2-3).
This, of course, means that a Sunday school teacher must be able to say to his class, ‘You can follow my lead’. His life is therefore even more important than his ability to impart Bible truth. Without a life truly “hid with Christ in God”, and therefore alight with God’s presence, all his eloquence and preparation, and even his soundness of doctrine, will fail to move the hearts of his scholars. The minister of a church must be far more than a preacher or an organizer, if lasting blessing, which will bring glory to God, is to be seen. He must be a leader, going ever deeper himself in his experience of God, able to develop these same qualities of leadership in others, and having patience, long patience, with the slowest of his flock. Isaiah gives us a beautiful picture of the Great Shepherd. “He shall feed His flock like a Shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40 v11). The Spirit of the Great Shepherd indwells you and me, to equip us for this same task; and manifests through us these same qualities of true leadership. The most clamant need of the Church, and not only of the Church, but of our modern world is shepherds. I can never forget the comment of a missionary returning to England after a number of years overseas. When asked his impression of the spiritual life of this land, he replied, ‘There are no pastors!’
“HE RESTORETH” (v3)
He restoreth my soul, or, in other words, He gives me back my life. In the New Testament the same word is used interchangeably either for the soul, or for the natural life we inherit from Adam. Sin not only robs men of fellowship with God, but also wastes and ruins their lives. Grace not only brings a man the blessings of eternity, but gives him back his present life. Every human life has infinite possibilities for good or evil, for Christ or Satan; and part, and an important part, of Christian ministry is the ‘restoring’ of lives.
We all of us know of lives reclaimed in this way, lives that since conversion have been useful to God, and of value to men. This is the normal development of the new birth; and it is therefore also the responsibility of the under-shepherd to make it his aim for each one of the flock committed to his care.
There are diseases to which sheep are particularly prone, and which, unless antidotes are discovered to deal with them, prove dangerous if not fatal. In talking over such diseases with men who know, I have discovered four things for which a shepherd must always be on the watch.
1. Foot-rot. We have all of us seen lame sheep hobbling about in the fields, and the cause in most cases has probably been this particular complaint. A germ from the ground is picked up in the foot, and when it gets a real hold I understand that the one adequate treatment is the swift and unsparing use of the knife. The affected part must be cut out.
Are there not germs picked up in our daily contact with the world around us, which affect the daily walk, and make us lame in a way that is obvious even to the casual onlooker? The worldling’s outlook, the greed of gain, the lure of pleasure, the drag of materialism, the pride of life, and many another virulent germ lie hidden in the soil of our daily lives.
The Great Shepherd used the knife lovingly, and therefore unsparingly. Listen to Him applying it to His hearers, “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matthew 5 v29-30, & Matthew 18 v7-9).
The under-shepherd must also be a surgeon, possessing the discernment to see, and the wisdom to deal with the foot-rot crippling his sheep, or lambs.
2. Intestinal-trouble. In this case germs which attack the inner organs are picked up from browsing in stale or unsuitable pastures. One type of such germs is the liver-fluke, for which a new treatment has recently been discovered. Medicine must be given, and a correct diet provided. It is unfortunately common in Christian work to find those whose hearts and lives have been terribly attacked by germs picked up either in the stale pastures of formal, second-hand, unspiritual teaching; or in the rank growths of one or other of our many modern errors. Love for God, and His people, has been superseded by a judging spirit, or a hyper-critical attitude. Some attractive theory, an over-balanced emphasis, or the over-stress of external observances have soured the outlook and clouded the judgment.
Again let us watch the Great Shepherd at work. He is going up to Jerusalem, and has been refused shelter in a Samaritan village. “And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt Thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But He turned and rebuked them, and said, ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village” (Luke 9 v51-56). The censorious spirit of the Sons of Thunder, aggravated by their mis-reading of scripture is corrected, and at the same time they are pointed to the real nature of the gracious workings of God. The under-shepherd must also learn to deal with these germs that fasten on, and cause endless pain in the inner lives of some of his flock.
3. Fly-blown. Here is something that demands constant watchfulness from the shepherd. A sheep will get some scratch, or develop a sore and immediately flies will settle, and feed themselves. Unless this unpleasant disease is caught early the effect will spread rapidly, and cause great suffering. A strong disinfectant must be applied, and the shepherd must employ all his knowledge of healing restoratives. We have all of us seen this kind of thing happen in Christian congregations. Someone is irritated, scratched, made sore by the words or actions of another, and at once the powers of darkness swoop down, and before we know where we are we are faced with a fly-blown sore that stinks. It is possible that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews had this in mind when he wrote, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord; looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” (Hebrews 12 v14-15).
Let us once more see the Great Shepherd at work. James and John, fired by ambition, had come to Him privately, to bespeak seats on His right and left in His kingdom. When this gets to the ears of the other disciples we read, “And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren” (Matthew 20 v24). What a promising sore for the flies to fasten on! But they are not given time to do so. The Shepherd is on the watch, and ready with His disinfectants and we read, “But Jesus called them unto Him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you; but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant, even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20 v25-28). Stinging disinfectant this, but, applied to the heart, possessed of unrivalled healing properties. What an object lesson for those of us who find our sheep suddenly fly-blown. We must always be watchful, always ready never to take sides, but to use humbly but freely the disinfectant of the Word until the sore is healed. What devastating trouble the Church might be spared given shepherds who understand their calling.
4. Lastly, I am told that it is quite common for a sheep to lie down to rest, roll over on its back, and to be unable to rise. Without help it will die where it lies.
How easy it is for Christians to take the line of least resistance; to treat the Christian life as an opportunity to sit back and then find that they have lost the ability to rise and enter actively into Christian living and work. They become passive, and then lose all power to act decisively.
Do you remember Luke 9 v61-62? “And another also said, Lord, I will follow Thee; but let me first go bid them farewell which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God”. This man intended to settle back until a time arrived, which he conceived to be more opportune for stirring himself, and following his Lord. The reply he received was calculated to jerk him back into a positive attitude, and to disperse the vapours of passivity.
The under-shepherd needs to be equipped to rescue his sheep from the dangers of passivity and a disposition to take the Christian life too casually; to save them from rolling over on their backs and being unable to get up again.
When Mr. Suter, one of the earliest workers amongst the Zulu people, left his work in Durban to move up-country into untouched areas, he received a letter from his Zulu church members, an extract of which ran as follows, ‘we are specially grateful because you have bound up the wounded and sought the wandering ones. This has showed us that you were the shepherd of the sheep’. I wonder whether such commendation can be given to you, or to me, by those to whom we have been called to minister.
“IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES” (v5)
There are always enemies waiting hungrily to attack the sheep; and a shepherd must, in addition to his other characteristics, be a fighter. 1 Samuel 17 gives us the finest picture in Scripture of this aspect of the eastern shepherds’ work. The stripling David stands before King Saul, who, with his armies, has been held in the inactivity of fear by Goliath of Gath. With bold confidence he says, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17 v32). Saul is not unnaturally piqued at his tone, “Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him”, he retorts, “for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth” (v33). But David has learnt his trade as a shepherd, and speaking from first hand experience, declares simply and straightforwardly, “Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb of the flock, and I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him. Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God. David said moreover, The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, He will deliver me out of the hand of the Philistine” (v34-37). This is no idle boasting, and Saul recognizing that David speaks with the authority of experience says, “Go, and the Lord be with thee”. David is not afraid of Goliath because he has learned a most valuable piece of wisdom. He has discovered the fact that God is on the side of the helpless sheep persecuted by wild beasts, and that He has called under-shepherds into partnership with Himself, providing them with all the equipment necessary for their task of liberation. He now knows full well that by himself he is no match for Goliath, but by the same token he also knows that Goliath has no power against the living God.
In the ministry a clear grasp of this aspect of our work, and an understanding of God’s purpose and power to deliver are of equal importance. It is not enough for us to deplore the fact that members of our flock are being led astray by one or other of the many erroneous teachings of our day. It is for us to take up the battle on their behalf, and relying only on the power of the Holy Spirit to deliver them from the ‘paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear’. I so well remember a crisis in my own experience, when it seemed as if the work, for which God had made me responsible, seemed almost to be ‘falling to pieces’. Some of my members were being led into false teaching; others seemed to have grown cold and critical; others, having few convictions of their own, were being swayed first in one direction, then in another. The thought came to me, ‘Perhaps it is time you moved. It may be that there is another sphere where you would be better able to cope with these problems. Puzzled, and very much inclined to take the line of least resistance I went to prayer. My daily portion for the following day was John 10, and verse 13 seemed to have been specially written for me. “the hireling fleets, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.” It is perhaps needless to say that I stayed, and saw God at work solving the problems in His own way, and enriching my own life, and those of others in consequence. If you read back in John 10 to verse 12 you find that the hireling is one who works for a wage, but the sheep are not his. Therefore when the wolf comes his first thought is his own safety, and the sheep are forgotten. There is a sense in which the sheep are ours. They have been purchased at the cost of the precious blood of Christ, Who gave His life instead of theirs, and is therefore fittingly spoken of as “a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1 v19). He identified Himself with the flock, and won an overwhelming victory at Calvary to deliver them from all their foes. You and I belong to the flock, we “were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls” (1 Peter 2 v25), but we are also one with the Owner of the flock, the Great Shepherd. If we are called and commissioned as under-shepherds, we are no hirelings, but have a kinship both with sheep and Shepherd, that makes for us the fate of each member of the flock a matter of deep concern.
The enemy is untiring in his efforts to destroy the sheep. Since the day when Paul told the elders of the Church of Ephesus, “I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20 v29), the inroads of the enemy amongst the flock of God have been legion. It must be that again and again at such times the complaint of Ezekiel has been true, “They were scattered, because there is no shepherd; and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill; yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them” (Ezekiel 34 v5-6). It is for you and me to see to it that God does not have cause to speak in these same terms to-day.
The practical implications of this aspect of the work of an under-shepherd are enough to daunt anyone who has not learned the lesson of his own utter insufficiency. False teaching so quickly leads folk astray, and often it is almost impossible to approach such people without risking embittered argument. Church members are so quick to take umbrage at some supposed slight, and threaten to leave. One member becomes the prey of pride, another of sudden coldness, and yet another falls into the grip of strange interpretations of Scripture. There is no end to the traps the devil sets for wandering sheep. Well may we ask with the apostle, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2 v16), but we can also answer with him with ringing confidence, “Our sufficiency is of God” (2 Corinthians 3 v5).
Make no mistake here! It is at this point we need to have revealed to us the secret of successful warfare against the powers of darkness. The Christian worker who is a mere organizer, and whose sole interest lies in the outward prosperity of the work in which he is engaged, will know nothing of this spiritual conflict. It is quite another thing, however, for the one whose whole aim and purpose is the glory of God, and the spiritual well-being of the flock. He has no illusions as to the grim struggle facing him. The secret of final triumph, like all real truth, is utterly simple. “All authority” according to His own claim, see Matthew 28 v18, is vested in the Great Shepherd. In the light of this fact He says to the under-shepherds, “Go ye therefore, and teach, (make disciples of) all nations”. This means that in every spiritual conflict you and I may proclaim without the slightest hesitation the all-prevailing Name of the living Saviour, Who conquered all evil powers at Calvary. By this means victories are won in the unseen realm which bring blessings to the flock, and liberty to the captives.
“We do not war after the flesh” declared the apostle, “for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10 v3-4). Thus armed we may confidently face the foe, and we shall find like David that our simple weapons wielded by faith in the Great Shepherd, and sharpened by a passionate love for Him and for the flock will certainly prove adequate.
“HE ANOINTETH MY HEAD WITH OIL" (v 5)
Oil in Scripture is one of the symbols of God the Holy Spirit, and our verse reveals the true objective of all shepherding. Paradoxical as it may seem the greatest moments in the experience of an under-shepherd are those in which he realizes that there are sheep who have been committed to his care who have become mature and are now independent of him. There are many who misunderstand this aspect of shepherding, and therefore tend to gather their Bible classes or church congregations round themselves. Remove them elsewhere, and their followers, quite unable to fend for themselves, melt away. The under-shepherd has to learn by experience just how to retire into the background, and always exalting the Great Shepherd, lead only to Him.
There are passages from the Epistles which show how clearly the apostles understood their Lord’s will in this matter. Galatians 4 v19 is one of them. In this epistle Paul rebukes the Galatians because, as soon as he is out of the way, they are being swayed this way and that by any false teaching that is brought to their notice. He reminds them in chapter 3 that they owe their conversion to the working of God the Holy Spirit, given to them because their Saviour had been “made a curse” for them. In chapter 4 he describes the enthusiasm they displayed at his first visit, and then shows clearly what is in his mind for them, “My little children,” he writes, with fatherly solicitude, “of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you”.
In Ephesians 3 we are given a glimpse of how the apostle prayed for the sheep. “That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; . . . that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Ephesians 3 v14-19). The end he had in view was that they might find that fulness in Christ, which filled his own life, and overflowed in blessing in every direction as he moved from place to place. They must learn to find their sufficiency in Christ, and in Christ alone.
Another glimpse of Paul’s vision of his commission is given in 2 Corinthians 11 v2. “I am jealous over you” is his plea, “with godly jealousy; for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ”. Only then would he consider the burden of his responsibility to be lifted. He must watch over them, and guide them every step of the way until he could be certain of their union with Christ. This is the work of love, constantly to seek the fulness of blessing for others!
Look again at 1 Corinthians 4. Paul brings every weapon in the armoury of eloquence into action. He tries persuasion, uses irony, employs rebuke, and then reveals the throbbing love of his heart, “I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, ye have yet not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (v14-15) . What father is not ambitious for his children, and in spite of the early joys of having them dependent on him, does not rejoice to see his care for them consummated in lives lived in successful independence of him. I shall never forget the pang, with which I realized on her wedding day, that my eldest daughter would no more be dependent on me. It was a real hurt, but I have often laughed at myself since, and rejoiced when I have seen her facing her own responsibilities, and quietly handling the affairs of her own home. The early years were mine, but the years of full maturity cannot be; that would be contrary to God’s ordering. So in Christian work infinite care must be lavished on the babes, but always with an eye on the days of maturity that lie ahead when Christ has indeed become all in all. The writer to the Hebrews suddenly realizes that he can only speak of Christ in a limited measure to the immature, and stops abruptly in his unfolding of Scripture. “Christ” he writes, “of Whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again what be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For everyone that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5 v11-14). Those to whom you and I minister can only become mature as we create the conditions in the life of our church, Bible class, or training school, which will gradually divorce them from needing us, and will encourage them to assume responsibility for others, and to this end learn to draw upon the limitless resources which are theirs in Christ. The vision of bringing souls to maturity leads every worker to a spiritual crossroads. One way lies prominence and popularity, the plaudits of men and outward success; the other offers nothing but constant, sacrificial watching over the needs of the flock, caring for nothing but the well-being of the sheep. ‘Providence,’ wrote Henry Drummond, ‘has mercifully delivered the Church from too many great men in her pulpits, but there are enough in every country-side to play the host disastrously to a large circle of otherwise able-bodied Christian people, who, thrown on their own resources, might fatten themselves and help others’. O for the ability so to shepherd the sheep that they may find that their heads are indeed anointed with the oil of the Spirit, and be gripped and held by the knowledge of the absolute sufficiency of Christ for them, and for others through them.
After warning those he calls his “little children” of the antichristian tides flowing around them, the apostle John uses these striking words, “But the anointing which ye have received of Him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you; but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in Him” (1John 2 v27). Two facts emerge from this verse. In the first place, the precious possession of every born-again Christian is the permanent anointing of the Holy Spirit, which progressively delivers him from the need of human teachers. Then this is balanced by the purpose, common to all believers, of this anointing being granted, “ye shall abide in Him”. For each one of us the one source of spiritual blessing and equipment is in Christ, and in Christ alone.
In order to accomplish this result, and to shepherd those amongst whom we are called to minister, we do not need to be spiritual conjurors, always able to find something new in the Bible, which will appeal to the curiosity of our hearers. We need patiently and lovingly to be able to manifest the simple fundamentals of the message of God’s grace. Peter, for example, opens his second epistle with a magnificent statement of the greatness of God’s loving provision, which he immediately follows with an exhortation to go on to spiritual maturity. Then he continues, “Wherefore I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and be established in the present truth . . . Moreover I will endeavour that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance” (2 Peter 1 v12 and 15). How often the true under-shepherd needs to resist the temptation to play to the gallery, and secure a reputation for originality and ability as a preacher! Again and again he must ask himself the questions, ‘What do these folk need?’, ‘How can I lead them on to maturity in Christ?’. Surely one of the greatest commendations the approved worker can hear in the day of Christ will be, ‘Here is one, who saw that the sheep were anointed with fresh oil, the oil of gladness’.
“THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH” (v4)
All that has gone before leads us finally to an aspect of the life of the under-shepherd, which is the key to all spiritual success in ministry. The Great Shepherd went first into the valley of the shadow, saying, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10 v15). He beckons the under-shepherds to follow Him even here, because all spiritual life springs from death.
In John 12 the Lord Jesus laid down the basic principle by which souls are won. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (v24). One’s whole instinct would be to limit such a verse to the work of the Lord Jesus Himself on Calvary. The verses which follow, however, forbid such a limited interpretation. “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in the world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve Me let him follow Me” (v25-26). Even in Christian work it is sadly possible to love one’s life in this world; to follow one’s own conveniences, set one’s heart on the achievement of some pet ambition, seek the praise of men, and to miss completely the vision of eternity work, which shall stand for ever to enhance the glory of the Great Shepherd. All work done on such a basis is a total loss. All work that springs from our union with Christ in His death will abide.
Further on in John’s Gospel when the Lord Jesus is talking to His disciples over the table during the Last Supper, He lays a royal command upon them, “This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15 v12-13). His whole life was a continuous death to self. He did not come into the world to please Himself, but to obey His Father in all things, and to be the Shepherd of the sheep. He lays upon the under-shepherds the same commission. They, too, are to love, and to embrace the implications of such love in sacrificial living, which spells continuous dying to the desires and dictates of self.
That Paul recognized this to be the basis of any effective service is a fact that is beyond contradiction. Look for example at a chapter such as 2 Corinthians 4. The apostle expresses in glowing terms the glory of his conversion, and then immediately proceeds to speak of the problems and difficulties, which he has found in his path. Why? Verse 12 provides us with the answer expressed in terms impossible to misunderstand, “so then death worketh in us, but life in you”. In order that the sheep may taste of life, the under-shepherd must walk in the foot-steps of the Great Shepherd, which will lead him to the Cross.
From his prison in Rome he wrote on another occasion to the members of the Church at Ephesus, “I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles”. In other words he accepted his imprisonment, ending as it did finally with martyrdom, as part of the price laid on him by his Lord which must be paid for the salvation of the Gentiles. When we remember that this man was a Jew, passionately patriotic, proud of his race, and naturally possessed of the fierce prejudices of his Pharisee background, we see how great was the work of God’s grace bringing all this to death, and putting in its place a love that was willing to go to all lengths for the sheep.
Such is the attitude of the man, who, writing to the Philippians, has forced from him the pathetic complaint, “I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state. For I have no man like-minded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Philippians 2 v19-21). Even in apostolic days there were few, woefully few, who were prepared to walk such a path; and many whose first objective in life was to “seek their own”. Is it any wonder then that in our day there are so few under-shepherds? And yet all down the ages those who have counted for God have trodden this way.
In her book, ‘This One Thing’, Amy Carmichael, who herself understood this true ‘apostolical succession’ cites some gleanings from the writings of those, to whom a daily dying was welcome if thereby others should live. She quotes, for instance, from an old copy of ‘Sargent’s Life’ published in 1862, ‘For it is the Master’s will that the safety of the flock should be largely bound up with the pain and pains of the man sent to shepherd them’. And again from Robert Stewart of China, ‘Christ suffered in agony; so must we. Christ died; so perhaps may we. Our life must be hard, cruel, wearisome, unknown. So was His’. Then finally she borrows the following from the pen of Ragland of India, ‘of all plans for ensuring success, the most certain is Christ’s own, becoming a corn of wheat, falling into the ground and dying’. Do you notice one thing? These three names are practically unknown to-day. They are known in Heaven. They have learned now the certainty of the promise to those who will follow the Great Shepherd through the Valley of the Shadow, “Where I am, there shall also my servant be. If any man serve Me, him will My Father honour” (John 12 v26). If you and I are to be under-shepherds our footsteps must be planted in the same path.
Dan Crawford, commenting on the Lord’s promise to Peter, recorded in Mark 10 v30, “A hundredfold . . . with persecutions” wrote, ‘A feeble age is the mother of feeble conceptions of truth. The royal words of the first century, found in Gospel and Epistle, need a royal age to interpret them. Truly this record cometh down to us wearing a thorny crown. It was a hard rugged path of olden time along which saints fled from city to city. Am I in such a path? Ah, beloved, that very first century so much befondled by us, how may it not rise up in judgment against us! We borrow glowing imagery from it, but do we glow?’
The call of our day is for shepherds. If I heed the call I may expect a thorny path, but the Great Shepherd has gone on ahead. “His rod and staff” may be my comfort every step of the way; and the one glorious objective burns bright ahead, that “He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied” (Isaiah 53 v11).