Sunday, November 5, 2017

THE SHEPHERD AND HIS SHEEP (PART 3)

By now we have seen that the prophet Ezekiel had much to write about the shepherd and sheep relationship between God and his people. The prophet was writing to the people of his own day, but never have his words been more relevant to a situation than they are today.

God views his people as the sheep of his pasture. Today, the flock of God is found in the church as established by Jesus Christ, and to this day, the flock of God is the most precious thing to him in the world. Because of this, it is understandable why his enemies should try to destroy the flock.

As we continue to read what the prophet has to say, we see that he describes to us yet another dangerous condition that can come upon the church of Jesus Christ.

  • So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34:5-6)



The Scattered Flock

The dangers to the flock are many, and, as we have seen, the perils come from both without and from within. It is inevitable that enemies and threats will come, and without a doubt, these threats must be confronted. David demonstrated how a shepherd would confront this danger when he rescued the lamb from the mouth of the lion and bear. As David explained it to King Saul, when these beasts rose up against the shepherd boy, he grabbed them by the beard and slew them (1 Samuel 17:34-35).

Despite such dangers and such heroics, however, the greatest fear that the shepherd has is not the attack of a predator. His greatest fear is that the sheep should become scattered. At all costs, the shepherd must keep this from happening. This is the great disaster.

The Importance of a Unified Flock

A flock that is maintained in its unity is able to remain under the protection of the shepherd. If a danger enters from the outside or if a problem surfaces from within, the shepherd is there to care for the sheep.

In a unified flock, the shepherd can deal with the threat of a bear or a lion coming to attack his flock. However, if the flock is scattered, the shepherd cannot give the sheep his care. If an individual sheep of a unified flock becomes lame or is weak, the shepherd is able to tend to that lamb. But if the flock is scattered, the lame and the weak are left unattended. This has happened at various times throughout history to the people of God.

The prophet Jeremiah also writes of some of these times:

  • Israel is a scattered flock, the lions have driven them away. The first one who devoured him was the king of Assyria, and this last one who has broken his bones is Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. (Jeremiah 50:17)
  • “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:1)

A History of Scattered Flocks

 In the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God’s flock had faithless shepherds. These faithless ones did not seek the scattered ones or care for the flock, and the nation of Israel fell prey to the Assyrians and to the Babylonians.

As we saw earlier, Jesus also talked of the disaster of scattering that can come upon a flock. Jesus said, “He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, beholds the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them, and scatters them” (John 10:12).

Normally, in the history of the people of God, a scattering of the flock is a judgment that came upon them. Faithless shepherds and hirelings had allowed the enemies of the flock to enter in and to ravage them.

Nevertheless, it is not only the faithless shepherds and hirelings who bring harm to the flock. As we saw in the previous post, it unfortunately is also greedy sheep that bring this judgment upon the flock.

God speaks in the book of Ezekiel of those of the flock who feed in the good pasture and tread down the rest of the grass, or drink of the clear water and then foul the rest with their feet. We have looked at this verse before, but now I want us to notice something else:

  • Because you push with side and with shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, until you have scattered them abroad, therefore, I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey; and I will judge between one sheep and another. (Ezekiel 34:21-22)

Notice that this damaging attitude of the sheep brings about a scattering. It is not only that the food is wasted, but their actions resulted in the scattering of the flock. We remember also that God had said he will judge between the sheep: “Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep” (Ezekiel 34:20).

By these statements, it seems that some of the sheep, although they may be among the larger flock, are not really part of what God calls “My flock.” These sheep, who are among the flock and who trample and foul the feed, are actually not of the flock, but instead are outsiders who have made their way within the true flock. Notice closely what God said: “And as for My flock, they must eat what you tread down with your feet, and they must drink what you foul with your feet!”

This brings about a scattering. The scattered flock is both the tragedy and the judgment brought about by the faithless shepherds and the greedy sheep. We can see that a scattering is what will happen with a flock that is not being led by a capable and caring shepherd. However, the scattering is also a consequence that happens in a flock that has not acted as the true flock (“My flock”) and have not conducted themselves as a true flock should behave.

The tragedy in this is that a flock, once scattered, is difficult to reestablish into a single body that the shepherd is able to protect. The sheep are scattered and wandering in the wilderness. It requires a capable, loving, and faithful shepherd to gather them once again.

A Unique Scattering

There is another instance in the Bible that talks of a scattered flock. This is an interesting example and quite unlike the scattering of the flocks of which we have read above.

For a few brief years, in our history as God’s flock, we lived with the Good Shepherd. At that time, the flock of Jesus was quite small. Because the flock was under the direct care of the Good Shepherd, one would think that it could not be scattered. But Jesus had a special purpose for his flock at that time.

Read how Jesus warned his little flock before he was crucified. He told of the disaster that would come upon them:
  • “You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, ‘I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered’” (Matthew 26:31).

That which Jesus said would happen of course became true. The Good Shepherd was struck down, and his little flock was scattered. We know that in the case of a shepherd with literal sheep, if the shepherd should be mauled by a bear or a lion, certainly his flock would be at the mercy of the predator. However, the scattering of the flock in the case that Jesus was talking about was unlike all previous scatterings, because it was not because of a failure of the Shepherd. Neither, as we soon shall see, was it really because of the failure from within the flock.

Nevertheless, the Good Shepherd was struck down, and the sheep of the flock were scattered. At the time that this occurred, the enemies of Jesus Christ thought that they had become victorious.

However, we must ask, who was it that really struck down the Good Shepherd? We might say it was the established Jewish leaders or the Romans or even Satan himself. Nevertheless, in the ultimate sense, it was none of these. These were simply the acting agents. They could have done nothing if God had not allowed it to happen.

When Jesus spoke the words, “I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered,” he quoted to them from the prophet Zechariah where the prophet was foreseeing the day in which the Messiah would be crucified (Zechariah 13:7). Others committed the act, but the permission to act was given by God. God Himself always remains sovereign.

So then, why would God strike down the Good Shepherd and scatter the flock? God, in the passage in Zechariah, is referring to a judgment. However, it is not a judgment for the sake of punishment. This judgment has more to do with a refining. The prophet speaks also in this Old Testament passage of the refining of silver and gold, ridding these precious metals of their impurities so that they will shine forth.

  • “Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the man, My Associate,” declares the LORD of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered; and I will turn My hand against the little ones.”
  • “And it will come about in all the land,” declares the LORD, “That two parts in it will be cut off and perish; but the third will be left in it.”
  • “And I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are My people, and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God.’” (Zechariah 13:7-9)

Jesus knew that this refining process was necessary. He knew that the disciples would be strengthened by the refining. Nevertheless, even if the goal was a refinement of the flock, God also knew that they, as his little flock, would continue to need a shepherd.

That is why Jesus, after telling the disciples that they would be scattered, told them this: “But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee” (Matthew 26:32). Jesus wanted his flock to be gathered again.

Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, knew that his absence from his flock would be temporary. As Jesus had said would happen, he was struck down, but he rose again. It was only a few days after these events, when some of the scattered flock were first learning that the Good Shepherd was indeed alive. The news first came to a group of women, true followers and disciples of Jesus.

The word came from an angel of the Lord to remind them of the instructions to go to Galilee. Then when the women arrived at the tomb to look for a slain Shepherd that had been buried there, they found not a slain Shepherd, but a risen one. Then the Shepherd himself gave to them the word to take to the brethren to “leave for Galilee, and there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:7-10).

With great joy the little flock went to see their Shepherd. The disciples may have expected that he was now back to be with them from that time forward. However, the Shepherd was not yet back to stay. He was soon to leave again, so he instead commissioned them to fulfill the role as shepherds until he would one day return permanently.

Jesus told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV).

Those of his flock, under the authority of Jesus, were given the responsibility to be the shepherds of the wider flock. They were to shepherd his flock. Jesus was eager to have his flock reunited and under the care of a shepherd.

A Surprising Shepherd and the Surprising Flock

There is yet one more scattering of the flock that we read about before the pages of the Scripture are closed. The scattering occurred after Jesus ascended into heaven and left his flock under the care of the disciples. This scattering has yet another surprising twist to it. Actually, there are two surprises. The first is that a predator that was at first “ravaging” the flock, in the end turns out to be one of its most tender shepherds. The second is that the scattering, rather than weakening the flock, brought about a multiplication.

We read of this story in the book of Acts:

  • But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. (Acts 8:3-4)

Saul, the principal enemy of the church in the early years, was chosen by God to later become the Apostle Paul. As a shepherd, Paul cared for the flock of God as few ever have. It is through the writings of Paul that we have come to learn how truly precious the church is to God and to see some of the depth of the love of God for his flock. Paul could never have written these words unless he also had known this love for the flock.

Perhaps even more astounding is what occurred with the scattered flock. Apart from this example and also the example of the disciples of Jesus, a scattered flock always had meant disaster. The sheep, without the protection of the shepherd and left to fend for themselves, fell prey to both the harsh elements of the environment and the wild beasts that were always ready to devour them. In this scattering, however, a marvelous thing occurred. The sheep were not devoured. Rather, as they went forth, the flock grew in number.

In a sense, when Jesus the Good Shepherd left his flock, he did not leave them alone and exposed to the dangers around them. He had promised them that Another would come, who would be the Helper. The Helper was not a hired hand, but was the very Spirit of the Good Shepherd. Because of the presence of this Helper, the flock would not be left in fear, but in peace. Jesus told his disciples this:
  • The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. (John 14:26-27)

The Flock in the Present Day

We are today in large part living in an age of scattered flocks. There are some who are serving as true shepherds, but there are many who are simply hirelings and who have no real concern for the people of God.

However, in some ways, the scattering of this age is similar to what happened to the disciples after the crucifixion of Jesus. Remember that those first disciples were scattered, but then when Christ was resurrected, he gathered them together again.

Although we also live in an age of scattered flocks, we also will be gathered again. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of this final gathering, and I will soon quote what the prophet wrote. However, I would here like to first share part of the vision that the Apostle John saw of eternity that shows the end to which God is working:

  • And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
  • And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”
  • Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.” (Revelation 21:3-6)

Until that day of which John speaks, we must learn to live wisely as a flock that is scattered. To live wisely in this age, we must recognize the reasons and the dangers of the scattering. Unfortunately, much of our own disunity as the people of God has come about for exactly the same reasons that it did in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. We have faithless shepherds and avaricious sheep. Because of the misconceptions of the people of God as to how a shepherd should care for the flock, we have left ourselves open to many enemies among us who are only too ready to ravage the flock.

However, despite the fact that we are living in a time of many scattered flocks, we do well to remember that this scattering is unlike all others. There are many things about it that may surprise us. This time of a scattering has been granted to us to bring about purification in the flock. It is true that we see much uncomely behavior in the flock of the people of God, but God will “judge between one sheep and another.” We also do see faithless shepherds, but God will also deal with them in his own way.

Most important of all to understand is that despite all of the failures within the flock, God is still sovereign. He is still the Good Shepherd who will ultimately care for his flock. His flock cannot fail, because he cannot fail. His church cannot fail, because he cannot fail.

Jeremiah saw the ultimate victory. Certainly, he spoke of the re-gathering of the Jewish nation after the Babylonians held them captive, but he spoke more pointedly of the final re-gathering.

To give his people hope, Jeremiah told them that the scattering would not be permanent. God Himself is the Shepherd of his flock, and he will care for them:
  • Then I Myself shall gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and shall bring them back to their pasture; and they will be fruitful and multiply. (Jeremiah 23:3)
 
There is also this promise:
  • “I shall also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:4)


Under the Care of the Good Shepherd

In the end, we must say this: despite all that happens, the flock of God is still under the care of the Good Shepherd. We have seen failures of shepherds and sheep within the flock itself that have caused grief among the people of God. We may think that these failures are defeating the church, but it is not so. Jesus said that when the Shepherd comes, he will call forth his sheep by name, and they will follow him because they know his voice.

The entire flock of the Good Shepherd, although presently scattered, does not have to live completely unprotected. God has provided the means by which his sheep can receive care and protection. He has placed us within smaller flocks and given us those shepherds who are entrusted with the responsibility for the flock. These must act with faithfulness, and God’s sheep must act responsibly.

Despite all of the attacks and scattering of the flock through the ages, in that day soon to come, “They will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing.” We will know fully living under the care of the Good Shepherd for all time.

This the Lord has declared.

 

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