Christ our Provider
Adapted from sermon preached at PCC Evening Worship Service on 3 Nov 2002
"The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1).
Psalm 23 may be called the Sheep’s Psalm rather than the Shepherd’s Psalm. It is a Psalm given by the Chief Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ to His sheep. But it is a Psalm about our Shepherd. It is a Psalm that glorifies Him as the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd and the Chief Shepherd. In this Psalm, we see Him as:
our Provider—so we shall not want;
our Peace-maker—so we can lie down in green pastures;
our Preserver—for He leads us besides still waters to preserve our health;
our Physician—for He restores our souls;
our Pilot—for He leads us in the paths of righteousness;
our Protector—so we shall fear no evil;
our Prince—for He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies;
our Patron—for it is in His house we will dwell for ever and ever.
In this second study, we want to consider Christ as our Provider from the phrase "I shall not want." These words remind us of three important facts.
1. Christ’s Sheep are Well-Provided For
What do the words "I shall not want" mean? We read and sing this verse many times, but what does it mean? ‘To want’ is ‘to lack’. So "I shall not want" means "I shall not lack" or "I shall lack nothing". But what does it mean by "I shall not lack" or "I shall lack nothing"?
Let me put it this way: Does "I shall not want" mean that God will provide me with every thing that I desire to have? Or does it mean that I will have no desire for anything, anymore?
Well, let me suggest that neither of these explanations adequately explains what David, writing under inspiration, means by "I shall not want."
Comparing Scripture with Scripture, we can conclude that "I shall not want" has two aspects: One aspect has to do with what the Shepherd does, the other aspect has to do with the response of the sheep.
The first aspect speaks of Christ providing for all that we need in this life: whether material or spiritual. Note that it is not all that we desire to have, but all that we need. There is a difference between desire and need. Some of what we desire may not be what we need, and indeed can be detrimental for us.
Those who have children will know how often they have to turn down their children’s request for certain things because it is not good for them. A young child may request his father’s permission to sit by himself on a roller coaster. Would the father agree? A few years ago, I foolishly did. Had the Lord not intervened through someone else, one of my children and another child might have been seriously injured.
A man may desire prosperity, but from God’s point of view, that may not be good for him because he is the kind of person that is easily tempted by self-sufficiency.
Another man may desire a certain spiritual gift, but that may not be good for him because he is easily overcome by pride.
Yet another man may desire a family, but that may not be best for him because he is not yet ready to be a husband or father.
There is an obvious difference between need and desire. "I shall not want," speaks of our Shepherd providing our needs,—not necessarily our desires. So the apostle Paul declares: "My God shall supply all your need [not desires] according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus" (Ph 4:19).
And note also that Christ supplies both our material and spiritual needs. We must not fall into the Gnostic error that only what is spiritual is good, whereas what is material is evil or too lowly to be associated with God. No, no; God made us soul-and-body, and our Shepherd took on a human body and a reasonable soul. It is clear that He is concerned with our souls as well as our bodies. The apostle Paul tells us that God shall supply all our need. It is obvious that we have physical needs too, and therefore it is clear that God will also provide for our physical needs.
We must be clear in our minds on this point. There was a time, some years ago when I thought that it was wrong to pray for our physical needs. I thought that God knows our physical needs and so He will supply, so there is no need to pray for these things (cf. Mt 6:23). I am afraid that some of us may also be slipping into this Gnostic error—thinking that it is not spiritual to pray for things that pertain to our temporal lives. But if this is so, why does the Lord teach us to pray "give us this day our daily bread"?
And does not the fact that Christ our Lord took on human flesh and the fact that we are united to Him body and soul suggest that He is concerned about both our body and soul?
The apostle Paul says:
"He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Rom 8:32)
Christ Jesus our Shepherd was delivered up for us all. He laid down His life in order that we might be redeemed. If He laid down His life for us, common logic tells us that He will not withhold anything that is good and needful for us. And we do have physical needs too.
Yes, because it is very easy for us to focus on the material more than on the spiritual, we must emphasise on the spiritual. But we must not over-react and forget that the Lord does provide all that is necessary for us in this life including our material need. Indeed, when David was old, one of the thoughts that encouraged him tremendously was that God always provides for the needs of his children including their material needs: "I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread" (Ps 37:25), he says.
So then, we see that "I shall not want" speaks of how Christ our Shepherd is providing for all our needs.
But secondly, "I shall not want," speaks also of the response of the Sheep. For…
2. Christ’s Sheep are Spiritually Contented
We have seen that the Shepherd provides all that His sheep needs. But obviously more is needed for the sheep to say, "I shall not want" than the fact that the shepherd provides for all they need. You see, men unlike sheep is not by nature a contented lot. We always want more than what we have. We are never satisfied. By nature we are covetous. This is why we are commanded: "Thou shalt not covet." Therefore, by nature, we will not be able to say: "I shall not want."
If we were without sin, then the fact that Christ is providing for all our needs would be sufficient to give us full contentment. But as we are, we will by nature say: "The more the merrier." And by nature, we will always feel that we are lacking this or that. And like children we do not know how to take "no" for an answer.
Yes, very often when we obtain something which we desired, then we may feel contented for a while. But the things of the world never satisfy. So after a while, we want more. Contentment is not a natural trait of sinful man. The apostle Paul says: "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content" (Phil 4:11). Contentment must be cultivated.
But the sheep of Christ says: "I shall not want." Therefore the sheep of Christ must be content. How does contentment become our lot when we are by nature discontented? We become contented in two ways.
Firstly, contentment has become a part of us because an inward change has taken place when we were translated into the sheepfold of Christ. As the sheep of Christ we are content because the Spirit of Christ is at work within our souls. The Spirit of Christ is also known as the Spirit of Adoption. And He works from within so that more and more we are conformed to the image of Christ, the only begotten Son of God. Contentment is one of the things He does within us.
He does so by making us heavenly minded. You see, one of the greatest causes of discontentment in this life is not the want of spiritual things, but the want of material things. When the Spirit of Adoption indwells us, He makes us mind heavenly things, and make us place more value in spiritual things. This is exactly what Paul is saying in Romans 8:5—"For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit" (Rom 8:5). With this Spirit of Adoption indwelling us, we can say with the apostle Paul that though we have nothing, yet we possess all things (2 Cor 6:10).
But secondly, we can be content because we know and love our shepherd. The relationship between the shepherd and his sheep is a very intimate one. Not only does the shepherd know his sheep, his sheep know him reciprocally. This intimacy between the shepherd and the sheep is almost proverbial. Those of us who have ever seen sheep will know that they all look alike. I’ve never been able to tell one sheep apart from another. But we are told that shepherds who have worked with their sheep for some time are not only able to tell their sheep apart and call them by name, but are able to recognise them from a distance!
Likewise, sheep, which have been carefully looked after by their shepherd recognise their shepherd from a distance. A few years ago I was studying in Wales, and we used to have visitors every month. There were not many places to visit where we stayed, so we would always bring them to a waterfall nearby. But the waterfall was located inside sheep country and we actually had to walk through a path that was covered with sheep poo. But one thing we were never able to do, was to get a close-up look of the sheep. They would always stay a distance from us.
There was one occasion, however, when we noticed that the sheep were crowding about at a fence near where we were standing. We stood there for a moment watching the sheep and wondering why they were behaving so strangely that day—for they would usually flee out of sight whenever we approached the fence. Well, it did not take long before we had our answer, for a shepherd and his sheep dog suddenly appeared behind us! The sheep knew their shepherd.
Our relationship with our Shepherd is like that too. The Lord Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine" (Jn 10:14).
This being the case, we can have the confidence that what the Shepherd regards as necessary for us, is what is really necessary for us. Is there something I need? I know my Shepherd will supply. Is there something I desire, and my Shepherd has not provided? Then I can conclude that it is either not fit for me or not good for me, or Christ will provide it in due time.
Thus the psalmist says: "they that seek the LORD shall not want any good thing" (Ps 34:10); and again: "no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly" (Ps 84:11).
It is what is good for us in the sight of God that our Shepherd provides us with. He does not promise to provide all that we desire, but all that is good and needful for us. As the sheep of Christ who love our Shepherd, we know this to be true.
Dearly beloved and friends, are you able to say: "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want"? Are you able to say it with sincerity? Are you able to say it even though you are poor in the eyes of the world and even if you have unfulfilled desires?
Remember that although Christ promises to provide for all the needs of His sheep, yet it is not the abundance of temporal blessings that makes a sheep of Christ contented. No, the sheep’s contentment is not based on circumstance. It is an inward contentment. The sheep of Christ knows contentment firstly because his nature has been changed and he has the Spirit of Adoption, and secondly, because he has an intimate relationship with the Shepherd.
What this also means is that one of the marks of a sheep belonging to Christ is that he has spiritual contentment despite and in spite of his outward circumstances. Conversely, this means that if you are unable to say: "I shall not want" with any degree of conviction and consistency, then it may be that you have either lost sight of the Shepherd or you are simply not one of His sheep. A covetous man disqualifies automatically as a sheep of Christ. Let none say: "I have want" because Christ has not provided for my needs, for such a person proves himself to be a stranger to the Shepherd. The sheep knows and loves his shepherd; he knows he is generous to provide for his sheep; and he knows that whatever is withheld from him is either unsuitable for him or not good for him at this time.
Are you overwhelmed by something you desire, but Christ has not provided? Is your faith shaken because you have an unmet desire? Will you not repent of your unbelief and hardness of heart? Will you not plead with the Lord that He will change your covetous heart into one that minds heavenly things and desires the glory of Christ more than your own creaturely comfort?
Christ’s sheep are spiritually content. This is our second point.
But now, thirdly, let us take note that Christ provides for us as a shepherd provides for his sheep. He does not provide as an absent father or a nursing mother. He provides for us as a shepherd.
3. Christ Provides for us as a Shepherd
David, the human author of Psalm 23 knew shepherding very well. He grew up as a shepherd. He knew how the shepherd provides for his sheep. He knew how he protects his sheep, how he leads them to green pastures and still waters, and how he treats their wounds.
He knew that the shepherd is always present whenever the sheep is out in the open. But he also knew that the shepherd does not spoon-feed his sheep unless it is a new born lamb that has been abandoned by its mother.
The shepherd, in others words, does not care for his sheep as an absent father, or as a nursing mother. He does not give what is needed and then leave the sheep to fend for themselves. Neither does he normally bottle-feed his sheep. No, he brings them to green pastures, he leads them beside still waters, then he watches over them. The sheep are left to graze and drink. Only the very sickly are allowed to remain totally passive as they are fed.
This is the case with the way our Shepherd provides for us too. In so far as material things are concerned, He teaches us that we have to work hard to obtain them and He teaches us that we must not give priority to seeking these things. Rather, we must seek first the kingdom of God: "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mt 6:33). We cannot expect blessings that pertain to our temporal life until we set our priorities aright and seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
What about spiritual things? Well, we can have no doubt at all that He will provide the spiritual things that are necessary for our spiritual growth and enjoyment. "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Rom 8:32).
But God usually works through the appointed means. We do not believe that God always work through means as Rome does. But we do believe that God usually confers grace as we attend the use of the means with faith. This is why we call them means of grace.
The implication of this is that those who would not make use of the means can have no confidence of receiving the grace of God or the benefits of redemption.
Experience and the Word of God teach us that Christ our Shepherd leads His sheep to local assemblies of His universal flock. At these assemblies or local churches, the sheep enjoy the company and fellowship of other sheep. And not only so, but they graze on the Word, are refreshed by the ordinances, and are protected by the discipline of the under-shepherds appointed for their care.
But the sheep are responsible to make use of the means and to submit themselves under the rule of Christ through the appointed officers.
Dearly beloved and friends, the sheep of Christ are of all men most blessed. They are blessed because they have the special attention of Christ. Christ leads them by His providence to where they can graze and drink. Christ protects them. And He never leaves them. He speaks to His sheep in the preaching of His word. He governs His sheep through the leadership of His under-shepherds, and He shows His warmth and love to His sheep not only through His Spirit who indwells us but through other sheep which He has purchased with His own blood. The church is not merely an institution or a social gathering. The Church is where Christ is and where Christ shepherds His flock.
Are you a sheep of Christ? Do you recognise your Shepherd and how He is taking care of you? Remember that it is by God’s wisdom that Christ should take care of us as a Shepherd.
He does not take care of us as an absent father. He promises to be with us even until the end of the world. He walks with us in our sojourn in this world. He is with us in our labours in this world; He is with us in the church. Christ is our Shepherd, not an absent father.
Neither must you think that Christ will always take care of you as a nursing mother. Yes, He does love us as a nursing mother, but no, He does not normally feed us as a nursing mother so that we have no responsibilities. We are responsible to seek first His kingdom, to make use of the means of grace that He has appointed. We are responsible to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
When the sheep says "I shall not want," he is not being mystical, as if being a sheep of Christ means not having to work for our temporal needs or to make use of the means of grace.
Are you one of Christ’s sheep? Only such as are truly the sheep of Christ, or are the living members of His church can truly say with the psalmist: "I shall not want."
Can you, brethren or friend, speak these words from the bottom of your heart,—with conviction and certainty? In other words, I am asking you if you feel those words. I am asking if those words describe you.
Blessed are you if those words describe you, for you bear a mark of the sheep of Christ. And not only so, but if those words describe you, I know that you are experiencing a joy that the world does not understand. Nothing that happens in this world will shake you and cause you to be filled with dread and gloom—because Christ is your Shepherd.
But oh friend, if you are unable to say, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want," I know you live a miserable life. Your life will fluctuate with circumstances. Your life is like a roller-coaster having no certainty and no satisfaction. And worse, if you do not repent and cry out to the Shepherd of the Sheep to admit you into His fold, you will forever and ever live in misery and want.
Indeed, when you leave this present world, everything that you derive comfort from in this world will be removed from you, and you will have absolutely nothing by which you may derive any satisfaction—not even a drop of water on your tongue. Oh will you not repent while there is time? Christ our Shepherd laid down His life in order that His sheep may have life. Will you not cry out to Him to bring you into His fold? Amen.