The Great Shepherd of the Sheep

Tom Nettles
| Psalm 23 | June 13, 2017

I. This Psalm, as do many others, has two characters, Yahweh and the writer of the Psalm. We find this also in Psalm 142 where the situation is quite different but the confidence is the same. Other Psalms have a community orientation, such as Psalm 90, “Lord you have been our dwelling place.” Others have certain elements that are highly personal an also include aspects that are widespread community concerns, such as Psalm 89. Some are historical. This one has the Psalmist and the Lord, but has wide implications for all the people of God.

A. The Lord as an individual’s Shepherd. Psalm 74:1 presents all of Israel as the sheep. We find the same identification in Psalm 79:13, “But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, etc.” Psalm 80:1 Begins, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel.” This Psalm has the feature of the individual contemplating the personal graces of having the Lord as Shepherd.

  1. In the New Testament we find that Christ is the Shepherd
  • John 10:11: Jesus identifies himself as the “good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep.”
  • Hebrews 13:20, 21: Jesus is called that “great shepherd of the sheep” who restores us to be pleasing in his sight through “the blood of the eternal covenant.”
  • 1 Peter 2:25; 5:2-4: Peter, after pointing out that Jesus bore our sins in his own body on the tree by whose wounds we have been healed, continued the image, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” He also reminded elders who served as shepherds to emulate the gentleness and mercy of the one who is “the chief Shepherd.”
  1. Marks of the Shepherd as seen in John 10:1-18; 24-39.,
  • He is the door, that is, the way into the sheepfold (7) and he enters the sheepfold by the door, that is, he himself came through the way of death in order to become the way of life for his sheep. He is the good shepherd and “lays down his life for the sheep” (11, 15, 17, 18).
  • He calls his sheep by name. Not one of those that the Father gave him will perish, but he knows all of them, will search them out, call them to himself, bring them home and protect them forever. (3, 16, 27).
  • He protects them according to his eternal purpose and his omnipotent power (29).

B. The Individual needing nothing but the Lord

  1. The Dependency of the Sheep. “I shall not want.” Nothing needed will ever be lacking. The sheep do not have the capacity to care for themselves but find their life, their preservation in the wisdom, courage, and guidance of the shepherd.
  2. The Marks of Sheep – John 10 gives six marks of the sheep.
  • They know the shepherd. “My own know me” (verse 14).
  • They know his voice. “The sheep hear his voice, . . . they know his voice. . . . They will listen to my voice. . . . My sheep hear my voice.” (3, 4, 16, 27). The sheep did not listen to thieves and robbers (8). The remnant of Israel, while others were led astray by false prophets and succumbed to idol worship and perversity of life, those that God preserved for himself did not listen to those calls for unfaithfulness (cf. Psalm 42; Malachi 3:16-18; Zechariah 13:7-9; Psalm 28 which ends with verse 9 “Oh, save your people and bless your heritage! Be their shepherd and carry them forever.”).
  • They hear him call them by name. “He calls his own sheep by name and he leads them out” (3). The great Shepherd knows his sheep in particular and, at the proper time, he calls them and effectually draws them to himself.
  • They love him. In verse 14 and 15 the concept of reciprocal knowledge between Christ and his sheep compared with the knowledge between the Father and the Son has the emphasis of mutual love. God’s Spirit engenders such a true love for Christ in the hearts of the sheep that Paul can say, “If anyone has not love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22).
  • They trust him. Wherever he leads, they will go. They have learned that he knows their needs more profoundly than they do, they recognize his voice, and respond to his gentle prodding. “My every need he richly will supply, nor will his mercy ever let me die; In him there dwells a treasure all divine, and matchless grace has made that treasure mine” [William Gadsby]. By his goodness he has taught me to trust him for all things, at all times, in all situations.
  • They follow him. “They follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish” (27, 28).

 

II. The reason the sheep lack nothing is that a steady flow of ongoing provision comes from the Shepherd (2,3)

A. He lies down in green pastures. Spiritual nourishment is abundant, a never ending sea of rich food as far as mortal eyes can see. By his word he provides fitting nourishment for each stage of spiritual growth. Real pastures may fade and become sparse, but the word of God “remains forever” (1 Peter 1:25). For the famished soul that longs for unending nourishment the supply always is ample (1 Peter 2:1-3).

B. He leads beside still waters – The waters to which he leads the sheep are not the raging flood waters of judgment but still waters from which one may easily deink. This water is needed to effect the assimilation of the provision of food. The work of the Holy Spirit in applying to the heart the renewing grace of effectual truth is done, not ostentatiously, but secretly – 1 Peter 1:23-25

C. He restores my soul. In this process of nourishment with vital spiritual food, the moral image of God is restored in the believer. Col 3:8-11 teaches that the practices of the old self, those vicious acts of the flesh–both the illicit pursuit of pleasure and the destructive attitudes and words which dominated our hearts—have given way to the “new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” See also Ephesians 4:17-24.

D. Paths of Righteousness: One of the most important words in Scripture is “righteousness.” It refers to either absolute or relative conformity to the revealed standard of righteousness, the law of God. One warrants eternal life through conformity to the standard of God.

  1. Imputed righteousness is the matter of justification. In Philippians 3:8, 9 Paul wrote about “not having a righteousness of my own” but trusting in that “which comes through faith in Christ, that righteousness from God that depends on faith.” In Romans 4:24, 25, Paul describes this righteousness as “imputed” and based on the death and resurrection of Jesus. In being delivered up for our trespasses, Jesus made the grace of forgiveness a just act on the part of God (Romans 3:26; 1 John 1:7, 9). The verdict of death for disobedience has been delivered. In the resurrection, our covenant head is received into the presence of the Father because of his perfect obedience. He even received gladly the positive command of death, dying the just for the unjust. Grace and justice join hands in “such a great salvation” (Hebrews 2:3).
  2. Progressive – In 2 Tim 4:8, though Paul could be referring to imputed righteousness, more likely he is referring to the relative, but progressive, righteousness that constitutes sanctification. He mentions, in the context several characteristics of this: maintaining a personal battle for truth and holiness, persevering in that to the end, giving a consistent affirmation of revealed truth, and loving the prospect of a future glorious appearing of Christ. In Phil. 1:11 Paul mentions several inter-related aspects of human personality that undergo transformation as manifestation of true faith and the presence of the Spirit; he calls the result a character that is “pure and blameless . . filled with the fruit of righteousness.” Both of these are related to our perception of the glory and righteousness of Christ and the consequent desire to be like him: “for the day of Christ . . . that comes through Jesus Christ.” These are the paths of purity and glorious righteousness into which our Shepherd leads us.

E. He does all of this for “ His Name’s Sake.”

  1. In Titus 2:11-14, we learn that God’s grace makes us “zealous for good works” as those whom he has redeemed that we might be peculiarly his people, reflecting godliness in the present age, and anticipating with hope the return of Christ.
  • In Philippians 1:11, the deep changes in affections indicated are pursued with reference “to the glory and praise of God.”

 

III. The Comfort in Crises (4, 5)

A. We walk each day through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” We live in the land of the dying, and, though we have developed many amusements to hide from us the reality that death looms large every moment, we cannot escape it. The fact is that all die. The shadow of that fact moves furtively through our sense, sometimes with more and sometimes with less conscious presence, but always there asking, “What really happens when life leaves the body? To whom do I answer when that happens? What will I sense, or do I just pass into non-existence?”

  1. “I will fear no evil.” The followers of the Shepherd need have no fear of evil. Before they were granted the new birth and given union with Christ and his righteousness, they were captive to the god of this world and walked according to this world and according to the prince of the power of the air.
  • Now, according to 1 John 5:18-20, though we formerly were “in the power of the evil one,” the “evil one does not touch him.”
  • The day of judgment which rightly infuses the soul with fear, becomes anticipated with glory for “we may have confidence in the day of judgment.” If we have confessed with the heart that Jesus is the Son of God, have placed our confidence in him as the Savior who loved us with the ultimate self-giving love, we do not have fear in that day. 1 John 4:15-19
  • Because we no longer fear the world and its threats and arrogant assumption of power, but know him who alone possesses all power and prerogative, and have rightly feared him alone, we know that to him we are valuable and will be acknowledged by him in that day when he appears with his holy angels to bring judgment. (Luke 12:4-8).
  1. “For you are with me.” The Shepherd Himself is Immanuel, God is With Us.
  • Matthew 28:20 records some of the last words Jesus spoke while on the earth. Even though in his human body he ascended to the right hand of the Father, as the eternal Son of God who has purchased his sheep he promised, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
  • Romans 8:36-39 assures the blood-bought believer that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
  • Colossians 3:1-4 points us to seek the things that are above, where Christ is, with the motivation that “You have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” He is with us here, and we are with him there.
  • Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10: 28, 29).
  1. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” These are instruments of guidance and correction. So the word of God corrects us both in living and in thinking (2 Timothy 3:16). His discipline, though difficult at times, nevertheless shapes us up to be his children (Hebrews 12:3-11) “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”

B. In the presence of enemies, the Lord has shown his favor. His people do not fear what the world fears, and do not embrace as grand and imitable what the world celebrates. Rather, right here in this world, the Lord has given a different orientation to life that has captured our souls and bewilders the enemies of God.

  1. He has prepared a table of rich provision, the value of which transcends all that the world can offer. (5a). “He who spared not his own Son, how shall he not also, along with him, freely give us all things.” By the greatest gift, the life of his Son, he has brought to us all that will put us beyond the reach of all the enemies of godliness. “Whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son, . . . and whom he predestinated, he called, and whom he called, he justified, and whom he justified, he glorified.” (Romans 8:29-32).
  2. He anointed the head with oil (5b). The anointing we have received is the presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. He led us to see our sin, to see the righteousness of Christ and to place our trust in him. The unchallengeable knowledge of him in his saving work has been poured into our mind and affections by that anointing, the Holy Spirit. (John 16:7-11; 1 John 2:20-22; 27)
  3. An overflowing cup (5b) The benefits that God has poured truly are infinite for they flow from him and are constituted of his own infinite fullness.
  • Ephesians 2:7 “So that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
  • Ephesians 3:14-21 – “According to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being . . . and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
  • Romans 10:12 – “Bestowing his riches on all who call on him.”

 

IV. The Certainty of the Future (6)

A. This Life – “Goodness and Mercy shall follow me.” “But God who is rich in mercy . . . but according to his own mercy” (Ephesians 2:4; Titus 3:5). By these constant and unchangeable attributes by which we have been brought to salvation, we are assured of spiritual blessings in Heavenly places. This removes the gloom of finality from the plodding days of this life, brightens each one with the recognition that he will withhold nothing that will contribute to my conformity to Christ, and will so order my mind while here that as I approach the end I will increase in yearning for the unfiltered presence of his glory and “bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).

B. Eternity – The desire of the Saint is to be in the presence of God forever. That is the reason that words of eternity are the ultimate comfort to Saints.

  1. As Paul described in 1 Thess. 4:13-18 the manner in which his people will be united with him at his coming, he ended with these words, “and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
  2. Even now, our minds are so beclouded and our spirits so entangled in the flesh, that this glorious prospect seems remote and the brilliance of its glory and joy dulled by the shadows of this life. His word, however, assures us, that the love intrinsic to the triune God and the joy of absolute holiness will engulf us when he takes us to himself in that day (John 17:26; Matthew 25:21, 23; 1 John 3:2, 3; 2 Thessalonians 1:10), “to be marveled at among all who have believed.”