Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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The LORD is my shepherd

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The words are so familiar that we give them little thought. Why don’t we pause a moment and do that? Who is this LORD who is mentioned 6,828 times in the Old Testament? Have you noticed that his name is always written in small caps? Other lords are mentioned in the Old Testament, but this LORD must be someone of special significance.

Well, we all know that LORD refers to God. Why didn’t David just write God then? Hold on to your hats, because the answer takes us on quite a journey.

You see, what David actually wrote was YHWH is my shepherd. The Hebrew alphabet was the first phonetic alphabet, but it consisted of only 21 characters, all of them consonants. A few of them did double duty to represent vowel sounds, but YHWH contains no indication of what vowels sounds to use in pronouncing it. YHWH is the name of God and that four letter combination is referred to as the tetragrammaton, a Greek word meaning four letters.

Apparently the Hebrew prophets, priests, kings and just ordinary people knew how to pronounce it until the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the Babylonian captivity. Then a teaching appeared that to pronounce the name of God was to take His name in vain. So when someone read the Old Testament Scriptures aloud and came to one of the 6,828 instances of the tetragrammaton, he would substitute some other word that was descriptive of God. The most common such word was Adonai, which means lord.

Some years later small diacritical marks were added to Hebrew, placed above the letters, to show the vowel sounds. When the Old Testament text was written with these vowel marks, the vowels of Adonai were added to the tetragrammeton, producing Yahowah, which later was translated into English as Jehovah.

Jehovah is an artificial word having no root or meaning in Hebrew. The consensus of Bible scholars is that the name of God should be spelled Yahweh. When Moses asked God to tell him His name, God’s answer was “I am.” That is the root and meaning of Yahweh.

French Bible translators have taken an approach that differs from their English counterparts. They translate all 6,828 instances of YHWH as “l’Éternel,” – the Eternal.

I believe that is what David was saying: The Eternal is my shepherd: the eternal, uncreated omnipotent, omniscient, creator is aware of me and all my needs and He is taking care of me and will take care of me forever.

We are significant in the eyes of Yahweh, He wants us to know Him personally and trust Him for all our needs. It is a wonderful thing to have the assurance that He is doing just that, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death and there seems to be danger on every hand. If we trust Him and follow where He leads, He has us covered.

A matter of the heart, not the head

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By Swampyank at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18002690

As I walked the dusty streets of Plimoth, Massachusetts, Samuel Fuller fell into step beside me. “The church hierarchy in England says that we are not a legitimate church, because we have no ministers. A church is made up of Christian people; they don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?”

On my father’s side I am descended from English Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts in 1638, just 18 years after the Mayflower. We have attended two family reunions in Massachusetts and each time we have gone to Plymouth to visit the historical reconstructions. Plimoth Plantation is a reconstruction of the village established by those who came on the Mayflower, as it would have been seven years after they arrived. The people who populate the village speak in the accents of the areas in England where the character they are playing originated from. They are very thoroughly trained and absolutely unaware of anything that has happened since 1627.

Samuel Fuller was the colony’s doctor and deacon, the only spiritual leader the church at Plimoth had in its early days. I wondered if the convictions he expressed with seeming sincerity came off along with the costume at the end of the day, or if they went deeper At a family supper that evening I had an opportunity to ask a cousin  who also played a character at Plimoth Plantation. She hesitated just a bit, then said “I think he has it in his head, but not in his heart.”

The two statements I have quoted hit the nail on the head. A Christian church must be made up of Christian people. That means people who have the truth in their heart, not only in their head.

That explains why my wife and I went from church to church during the first few years of our marriage. We met many fine people, we would be happy to call them friends today. But something didn’t seem right; it was never clear to us how many of them might actually have a relationship with the Shepherd. They all claimed to be following the Shepherd, but it often seemed like they wee receiving direction for their lives from other sources and there did not seem to be a closeness, a genuine trust and fellowship among the members.

We have been members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 41 years. We are not better people than the people in all those other churches we used to visit. We don’t all see things exactly the same way, we don’t always do things just right. But I believe that we all know the Shepherd and that allows us to trust one another. When problems and misunderstandings arise, and they do, we trust the Shepherd to help us sort things out, and He does.

That is what we were missing in all those other churches, that is what kept us searching, even though we might not have been able to put into words just what we were looking for. I believe the Shepherd was leading us, telling us that He had something better planned for us.

Jesus, speaking of Himself as the Good Shepherd, said: “And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.” John 10:4-5.

The affliction of Joseph

Judah and Ephraim were the two largest tribes of Israel. Joshua was of the tribe of Ephraim; perhaps the Ephraimites carried from that some sense of entitlement that they should play more of a leadership role. When Jeroboam of the tribe of Ephraim rebelled against King Rehoboam, Mannasseh and all the other northern tribes followed his lead.

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From that point on the prophets referred to the whole rebellious northern kingdom and Joseph, or Ephraim, just as all the tribes united in the southern kingdom were called Judah. And Joseph was now once more separated from his brethren. That is the affliction of Joseph the prophet Amos was referring to in Amos 6:1-6.

Elijah and Elisha were both natives of the northern kingdom, used of God to warn the people and call them to return unto the true worship of the Lord. Hosea and Amos were from Judah and called of God to call the people of the northern kingdom to repentance.

Jonah was also of the northern kingdom. The only mention of him, beside the book which carries his name, is found in 2 Kings 14:25. This is the account of Jeroboam II retaking the northern part of Israel from the Syrians, as prophesied by Jonah.

2 Chronicles 21:12-15 records the letter sent to King Jehoram of Judah by Elijah: “Thus saith the LORD God of David thy father, Because thou hast not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat thy father, nor in the ways of Asa king of Judah, but hast walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and hast made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to go a whoring, like to the whoredoms of the house of Ahab, and also hast slain thy brethren of thy father’s house, which were better than thyself: behold, with a great plague will the LORD smite thy people, and thy children, and thy wives, and all thy goods: and thou shalt have great sickness by disease of thy bowels, until thy bowels fall out by reason of the sickness day by day.”

The only other connection of Elijah to Judah is that when he felt his life threatened by Jezebel he crossed into Judah, left his servant there and continued on to Mount Horeb.

There is a revealing incident in the life of Elisha when King Jehoram of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were preparing for battle and called on Elsha to enquire of the Lord on their behalf. Elisha replied to the king of Israel: “As the LORD of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, surely, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward thee, nor see thee” (2 Kings 3:14).

All of this is pretty conclusive evidence that the prophets regarded Judah as the people of God and Israel, led by Ephraim, to be apostate. Yet God had called them to minister to the people of apostate Israel to draw them back into full fellowship with His people.

Hosea spoke of a time when the two houses of Israel would be reunited. During the Babylonian captivity the prophet Ezekiel bemoans the unfaithfulness of the shepherds in chapter 34. Verse 11says: “For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out.”

The sending of the 70 by Jesus to seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel should be seen as part of the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Note that he is referring to sheep, that is children of God. The lost condition referred to means that they had no shepherd, not that they were spiritually lost. When the Bible speaks of the saved and the lost it refers to them as sheep and goats. The sheep will enter heaven, the goats will be turned away.

There are multitudes of people in the world today who are unsaved and need to hear the gospel and see it being lived out in the lives of true children of God. But there are also the lost sheep, the children of God who wander through the wilderness of the world because they do not have a shepherd. They are also a mission field. Jesus said: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:16).

Four kinds of Christians?

In musing over the many directions taken by Christians I have encountered over my lifetime, it seems that they fall into four basic categories: ritualists; activists; survivalists and disciples. I don’t pretend that this is the nec plus ultra of analyses, but it is something that has helped me sort things out in my own mind.

Hmm, nec plus ultra, that says exactly what I am trying to say, but I wonder now if it helps anyone else understand what I am trying to say. It is Latin and means “nothing more beyond.” I think it would be understood if I were writing in French, which I’m not. What I wanted to say back there is that this explanation works for me but somebody else might be able to do a better job.

I’m not sure that I’ve found the best word to typify each category either, but here is what they mean to me;

  1. Ritualist. I would include here all those who feel the need to regularly sit in on a worship service at a certain day and time. This includes those who are strongly attached to a liturgical form of worship, but I would include all those who feel the important thing is to be there. They are not specifically drawn by the preaching or the fellowship, they just want to be part of what’s happening. Perhaps the best way to describe them is as consumers of spiritual food, rather than contributors.
  2. Activist. This includes all who feel they are called to change the world. this might include the Christian ecologist, the one who feels a burning call to enlighten the world about him about the need to prepare for the sounding of the sixth trumpet of the Apocalypse, or one who feels he has to share the message of salvation with every person he encounters, on the street, in stores, at football games.
  3. Survivalist. The opposite of category two. They have given up on the world and all their efforts are focused on just hanging on. They see danger everywhere, are suspicious of everyone. Sometimes they gather in  communities and protect themselves from outside influence by restricting social contact, sometimes even speaking a different language.
  4.  Disciples. To disciple means to teach. To be a disciple means to be a learner. This is a life-long process where one never gets to the point where he has nothing left to learn and no need of others. One cannot really be a disciple in isolation from others, or according to one’s own plan or schedule. Discipleship includes the idea of being part of a disciplined and orderly group where learning is possible.

Lest I be misunderstood, I want to emphasize that I have encountered true Christian believers in all four groups and I can recognize all of those tendencies within myself. Left to our own devices we all tend to go off on some tangent. As an elderly neighbour was wont to say “There is no moderation in the human race.”

The Great Commission is a call to make disciples of all peoples, including those next door if they are willing to listen. It is not enough to lead someone to salvation and then leave them to carry on as best they can by their own devices. The Great Commission is not fulfilled until there is a disciplined body able to function as a body, not merely a collection of disconnected body parts.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to paint a picture of a group of mindless zombies led by a dominating leader. Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Shepherd of the church. Yet He has called for the establishment of a servant leadership to watch over the spiritual health and growth of each assembly.

I mentioned moderation. It is listed as part of the fruit of the Spirit and is not something that can be taught. Yet it seems that we need to be taught the need for moderation. Part of the whole life of discipleship is learning how to relate to one another in a way that is supportive and encouraging for all and will maintain a purity of faith and life. This is what our Lord and Shepherd expects of us and the better we come to know Him, the better we will be able to relate to one another.

Did Moses speak with a stutter?

We know the story. Moses was an Israelite child raised by an Egyptian princess. After he had lived as a prince for 40 years. He fled Egypt after an unfortunate incident and spent the next 40 years as a Midianite shepherd. Now God was asking him to go back to the Israelite people, speak to Pharoah on their behalf, and lead them out from of their bondage. Moses pleaded with God to send someone else, because he couldn’t speak clearly. Some say the problem was a stutter. What does the Bible say?

“And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10). This is the verse that leads many to believe that Moses had a speech impediment of some sort. But consider the following verse from the speech of Stephen before the Sanhedrin: “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds” (Acts 7:22).

“Mighty in words” does not seem to be a description of a man who stuttered and stammered and could hardly get his words out. Josephus says of Moses that he was made a general and led the Egyptian army to a great victory. Does that sound like a man who had trouble speaking clearly? As we follow the account in Exodus, it does not appear that Moses had any difficulty in speaking to Pharoah.

What then was his problem? Remember that Moses had been raised by his parents until he was weaned. Then he became an Egyptian and later a Midianite. It is probable that he spoke both those languages without difficulty. At the age of 80, he no doubt still have retained some of the rudiments of the Hebrew tongue, but he could hardly have been fluent in that language. And here God was asking him to go back and present himself to the Hebrew people as their deliverer! Why should they believe him when he could hardly speak their language?

Finally God asked “Who hath made man’s mouth? ” There was no way out for Moses, God was telling him to go. And it worked. He relied on the help of his brother Aaron when he first met with the Israelite people, but it appears that he was soon speaking to them on his own.

Moses was the right man for the job God was asking him to do. He knew all the ins and outs of the Egyptian culture and government. He was a natural leader. But he needed those forty years of watching the sheep in the wilderness to temper his character so that he would be able to lead the Israelite people through that same wilderness.

God knows our abilities and our weaknesses, all the things we have been through in life, all the mistakes we have made. If we are willing, He can take all the lessons that we have learned so painfully and use them for the benefit of others in His kingdom. But we must not run ahead of God as Moses did when he killed the Egyptian and then had to flee. We should rather wait patiently on God and let Him show us the times and the places where we can  serve Him. Then, when He does prompt us to do something, we should not make excuses.

Living in the presence of the Shepherd

There are well-meaning Christians who put much emphasis abiding by correct doctrine, even adding numerous rules of guidelines as rules of conduct. The intention is to construct a barrier around the people of God so that they would know not to stray far from the truth as given in the Word of God.

But where is the Shepherd in this scene? It often seems that He has been relegated to a supporting role, the barrier that surrounds the flock is considered greater protection than the Shepherd.

Well, fences work well for cattle. When a herd of cattle is turned out into a new pasture, they will follow the fence around until they are sure that there are no weak spots. Then they will settle down and not trouble the fence again. Oh sure, there will often be one fence jumper in a herd, but the rest will contentedly ignore him and feed on the pasture.

Sheep are not like that. If the flock sees that one sheep has found a weak spot in the fence, they will all follow. That is why sheep need a shepherd, and that is why the Bible depicts the people of God as a flock of sheep. If left to ourselves, we are all inclined to follow the wayward sheep.

In the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd. He calls His own sheep by name; they know His voice. They stay close to Him because they know He will lead them to good pasture and water, He will protect them from danger, He will care for the weak and injured.

Why then does the Bible spend so much time teaching doctrine? Why do we need doctrines if we are in the presence of the Shepherd? The doctrines are a big part of what enables us to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd from all the impostors out there. Jesus spoke of thieves, robbers and hirelings. They all call at first with pleasant, enticing voices. Some are trying to steal and destroy the sheep. Some are merely mercenaries who are acting as shepherds for personal benefit and do not care enough for the sheep to put themselves in the way of danger. “The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”

Jesus says He is the door of the sheepfold. The sheepfold was a walled enclosure to protect the sheep at night during the colder months. The shepherd stood at the door to examine his sheep as they came in, to make sure that all his sheep made it safely into the fold and that no others tried to crowd in. Often he would sleep in the doorway at night to make sure no wild animals tried to get it.

The sheep knew and trusted their shepherd. They would not go out to pasture until the shepherd called them by name and went ahead to check for danger and to lead them to the best pasture.

Here is a God given picture of the ideal state of the children of God. To live constantly in the presence of the Good Shepherd is to live in peace and assurance that all is well. I am where the Shepherd wants me to be; I am doing what the Shepherd wants me to do.

By all means, let’s study the Word of God and learn the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. They all point us to the Shepherd and help us to know Him better. But may we never begin to think that our safety is simply in knowing and obeying the doctrines. It is in knowing and obeying the Shepherd who is revealed by the Word and the doctrines.

A more honest version of the shepherd psalm

Mammon is my shepherd; I shall always want more.

He gives me no rest; he makes me to always desire greener pastures and more dangerous waters.

He gives me emptiness and leads me in paths that offer shiny and exciting things to fill that emptiness.

But when I come to the valley of the shadow of death, he abandons me to my fears; wealth and luxury give no help nor comfort there.

Though I have what I need, he shows me that others have more and better than I.

Surely envy and greed shall follow me all the days of my life: and I don’t want to think of what may be after that.

[Who is your shepherd?]

Pookie come home

Pookie wasn’t here to greet me when I came home Tuesday evening after taking my wife to the airport. Pookie,a little flame point Siamese, showed up on our doorstep two years ago in fall, a feral kitten looking for a home. We didn’t need a third cat, but pretty soon he had captured our affection and we couldn’t think of letting him go. He is the Energizer bunny of the cat world, and is always there to give an enthusiastic greeting when he hears the car coming. This time he wasn’t there, and didn’t come when I called.

Finally, after dark, he showed up. He had wounds on his head between his ear and his eye and below his chin. He had been attacked a week earlier by some creature and we were giving him antibiotics to quell the infection from that. I hoped that the antibiotic in his bloodstream, plus the two remaining pills, would be enough to prevent any infection from this new attack. By Thursday evening I knew it wasn’t going to be enough, so I took him with me when I went to the Delisle vet clinic to work on their bookkeeping. He got one antibiotic pill there at the clinic and another that evening.

Our most lively cat had become lethargic and slow moving, yet yesterday morning he wanted to go out. I expected that he would only be out a short time, but the hours went by and no Pookie appeared. I finally called the lady on the farm next to our acreage and she said she had not seen Pookie, but that all their cats went into hiding during the day because of the dogs. Their son and his family are moving back from Alberta and the dogs are staying next door until they can move to their new home. But the dogs are penned up in the evening and then the cats come out to be fed.

Evening came, and still no Pookie. By this time I had worked through most of the grieving process, from denial to anger and finally acceptance that I probably would not see him again. Just before I went to bed, I decided to look once more. In my pyjamas, with slippers on my feet and a flashlight in my hand, I opened the door to go out . . . and in walked Pookie.

He must have found a safe place to sleep the day away and was moving  with greater ease than in the morning. I popped a pill in his mouth, made sure he had enough to eat, went to bed and slept peacefully.

I wondered about my feelings, is it right to be so emotionally affected by the supposed loss of an animal? We humans seem often to be unbalanced in our love. Some people are animal lovers, but have difficulty getting along with people. Some people profess a love for their fellow man, yet are very hardhearted toward animals. I don’t believe either extreme is pleasing to God.

Wasn’t it the shepherd’s love for his sheep that gave meaning to the Old Testament sacrifices? Shepherds knew their sheep, called them by name, took care of their needs, protected them, and loved them. God asked them to take the very best out of their flock and to offer it as a sacrifice for their sins. Don’t you suppose they were reminded again and again how serious their sins were when they had to take a sheep that they loved and offer it as a sacrifice to atone for their sins?

David went from tending his father’s flock as a shepherd to tending his heavenly Father’s flock as king. He never lost the heart of a shepherd. When he sinned by numbering the people and the death angel was sent among the people, David said: “Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father’s house” (2 Samuel 24:17).
Isn’t this why David was a man after God’s own heart?

Finally, it took the sacrifice of Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, the perfect Lamb of God, to bring an end to the slaughter of animals as atonement for sin. Don’t you suppose the Father’s heart was broken when Jesus cried out from the cross “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

No suffering is pleasing to God, He knows every sparrow that falls. He has no pleasure in the death of sinners, yet the death of His own Son makes plain the terrible reality that sin separates us from God.

 

Submission = Freedom

I realize this is a counter-cultural statement in the present day and age where liberty is prized above all other virtues. But are people more free today than they were in ages past?

Consider the example of a shepherd and his flock. The shepherd watches over the needs of the flock, guards them from enemies, treats their wounds and sicknesses. Is this freedom or bondage? If an independent minded sheep leaves to seek his freedom, is he then free when the wolves are picking over his bones?

If an unwed woman wishes to abort her baby, she is free to do so; she will find much support and encouragement for this decision. Will she find as much support and encouragement if she makes a different choice? Or does the prevailing mood of our society push in one direction only? How can this be called freedom of choice?

People are fleeing repressive regimes in some countries and seeking a safe haven in nations that are more free. Most of them are willing to submit to the laws and mores of their new country and make it their new homeland. Others appear to want to re-create the laws and mores of the countries from which they have fled. It appears that they have carried with them a bondage of the mind.

Christianity promises freedom and demands submission. This sounds contradictory, but true freedom can only be found in submission to God. All the other forms of submission of which the Bible speaks – in the home, in the church, towards civil authorities – are simply means of working out our submission to God’s authority in all areas of our life.

There are many people who want to claim Jesus as their Saviour, but are not willing to acknowledge His as Lord of their life. It is a great fallacy to believe that such a thing is possible. Many people find Christian life burdensome and frustrating precisely because they believe that submission is an infringement of their liberty. They follow the path that they believe will bring liberty and happiness and find themselves deeper and deeper in bondage and more and more unhappy.

We are like sheep – we need a shepherd. When we can submit to the Good Shepherd and permit Him to lead us in all areas of our life, we find it a truly liberating experience.

One more point must be clearly established – in the Christian church everyone is called to submit, no one is called to lord it over the faith and life of others. God has an order that makes homes and congregations into havens of peace and love if each one can submit to his or her place in that order. Knowing that those to whom I submit are themselves submitted to authority, ultimately the authority of God, brings the assurance that there will be no abuse of the confidence I place in them. Those who are in authority over me are those who must watch for my soul. that cannot work if they try to do it in an overbearing and lordly way.

 

Pet Therapy

But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.  And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.  And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die (2 Samuel 12:3-5).

Nathan knew how to approach the king in a way that would touch his heart.  Other men may have scoffed at the foolishness of the poor man who fell in love with a lamb.  Not King David, his heart was still the heart of a shepherd.  His indignant reaction opened the way for Nathan to bring him face to face with the reality of his own sin.

Falling in love with an animal has helped many people through times of sorrow and stress, or even mental illness.  A stray cat found its way to the home of a lady who was showing signs of paranoid schizophrenia.  She felt sorry for the half-starved creature, began to study the care and feeding of cats and was rewarded with an affectionate pet who has been with her for many years.  In the process, her symptoms diminished and she is better able to cope with life.  Being responsible for the feeding and care of a dependent animal helps to take a person’s mind off their own problems.

Farm children who are given a calf or a pony to care for may avoid many temptations that other young people fall into.  A lonely single lady will rejoice at the thought of her dog who eagerly awaits her return.  A dog who needs to be taken for a walk can lift his owner from the slough of despond.

I can spend hours at my computer doing bookkeeping, growing more frustrated by the minute with a client’s slaphappy record keeping.  Then I become aware of a pair of golden eyes staring at me, silently and patiently.  After I have spent a little time combing my cat and fussing over her, I return to the keyboard and find my frustrations have vanished.  We have another cat who doesn’t want to be held.  But when I a sit in the recliner and put my feet up he will jump up on my lap, curl up and fall asleep.  I find it especially endearing when an aloof cat shows such evidence of trust.

There are cat ladies who want to take in every stray in the neighbourhood.  There are people who thought it would be a good idea to have a pet, but do not have time or patience to care for it.  I am not talking about such instances.  But when a poor family showers affection on a cherished pet and takes good care of it, let’s not scoff and say they are wasting money.  That pet is probably doing more good for the family than we imagine.

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