Christ our Shepherd
Adapted from sermon preached at PCC Evening Worship Service on 27 Oct 2002
"The LORD is my shepherd" (Ps 23:1a).
Psalm 23 is perhaps the most famous of the Psalms.
Many people in the world from ancient times are very familiar with Psalm 23 and may even have memorised it. Many so-called nominal Christians are strangers to the Gospel and to the Shepherd. But they love this Psalm and will ask for it to be sung at their funerals. Many unbelievers who have no qualms about saying they do not believe the words of the Shepherd, will nevertheless enjoy singing or reading this Psalm. But those who love this Psalm merely for its beauty and comforting expression and nothing more, are really abusing this Psalm.
If we know this Psalm and what the Holy Spirit intends to teach us with it, we will realise that this Psalm is not intended for just anyone to use. We call it the Sheep’s Psalm for this reason. It is a Psalm given by the Shepherd for His sheep. Yes, we may call it the Shepherd’s Psalm because it is about our Shepherd, but it is really a Psalm which He has given to those who are His sheep that we may know Him more intimately. Dr Joel Beeke has rightly said that the 6 verses of this Psalm "comprehend the highest, deepest, widest, and most glorious experience into which it is possible for God to lead His people on this side of heaven" (Jehovah Shepherding His Sheep, p. 2).
As we study this beautiful Psalm together, it is my prayer that it will not only be soul-captivating but soul-conquering, as Dr Beeke would say. It is my prayer also that it will become not only our song but our creed—so that we will not only love to sing it but believe it, and grow with it as the Spirit of Jehovah applies the words into our hearts.
With this in mind, and the Lord helping us, let us consider three things about the part of the first verse: "The Lord is my Shepherd!"
1. Christ is our Shepherd
David was known as the sweet psalmist of Israel. We do not know when he wrote Psalm 23, but in all probability he would have been a king already for quite some time. Some suggest that he might even be in his evening years, walking through the shadow of death. But whatever the case might be, it is clear that as he wrote this Psalm, it was not his days of grandeur that filled his mind, but his days of humility.
His mind went back to the days in the wilderness of the Judean hill, when he was a young shepherd boy looking after a few sheep. And as he thought about how he cared for his sheep, his heart was overwhelmed by the fact that Jehovah had cared for him in much the same way as he cared for his sheep!
This Psalm is about Jehovah. It is David’s contemplation about how Jehovah loved him and cared for him. He begins the Psalm with the words "The LORD is my shepherd!"
Now, the word "LORD" is printed with all capital letters. This is to say that in the Hebrew it is the word Yahweh or Jehovah. This is the personal name of God. When Moses was still a shepherd of sheep in Midian, God called him from the burning bush to appoint him a shepherd for His people. Moses asked God:
"Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?" (Ex 3:13)
The Lord’s reply was:
"I AM THAT I AM… Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you" (Ex 3:14).
The name Jehovah means "HE IS." It speaks of God as the "I AM." It speaks of Him as the alone living and true, self-existent, unchanging, covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.
And the Scripture reveals this God, who alone is living and true, as a Triune God,— one in essence, but three in persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
David’s Shepherd is this Triune "I AM." So the Father who sovereignly chose the flock is David’s Shepherd. So the Holy Spirit who brings the flock into the fold, is also David’s Shepherd. But in particular, David must have in mind, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, the Emmanuel, for He is the Shepherd of Israel in the most particular and unique way.
Many years before David became king, Jacob his forefather on his death bed had already referred to the Messiah as being "The Shepherd, the stone [or Rock] of Israel" (Gen 49:24).
And the New Testament confirms this designation.
In the first place, we should note that the apostles of the Lord Jesus would often use the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. What does Psalm 23:1 read in the Septuagint? Well, where the Hebrew has "Jehovah my Shepherd." The Greek Septuagint has "Kyrios shepherds me." The Greek Kyrios, which is translated "Lord" in the English Bible is the title by which the disciples of Christ Jesus most frequently used to address Him. The disciples of the Lord knew that He was the Shepherd of Psalm 23.
But more than that, in the second place, we should note that the Lord Jesus Himself announced in the Gospel of John: "I am the good shepherd" (Jn 10:11). Many of the Jews in the days of the Lord knew the Old Testament very well, so when they heard the Lord saying: "I am the good shepherd" they would immediately understand that He was claiming to be the LORD or Jehovah and Shepherd of Psalm 23.
And moreover, in the third place, the apostle Peter identified the Lord Jesus as the Shepherd of the Psalm by calling Him the "Chief Shepherd" (1 Pet 5:4).
Likewise, in the fourth place, the writer of Hebrews, who is perhaps the apostle Paul, calls the Lord Jesus, "the Great Shepherd of the Sheep" (Heb 13:20).
So you have it from the New Testament: the Lord Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd and the Great Shepherd. We have no doubt therefore, that the LORD and Shepherd that David had in mind is particularly the Lord Jesus Christ.
Psalm 23 in other words, cannot be meaningfully used by anyone who does not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. As I mentioned earlier, there are many religious people in the world who love this Psalm, but in the final analysis hate the Lord Jesus Christ. These persons have no right to use this Psalm, and when they use it, they are really abusing the Word of God.
But what about you? Do you know the Lord Jesus? Do you know Him as David knew Him? Do you know Him as a sheep knows his shepherd? "I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine" (Jn 10:14) says the Lord. Do you know Him? Have you heard His voice? Are you following Him? The Shepherd says: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:" (Jn 10:27).
If you do not know Him or hear His voice or follow Him, you can never sing this Psalm with true affection in your heart. But if you know Him, O what blessing you must have experienced whenever you read or sing this Psalm.
Is that not true?
Does it not thrill your heart as you think about your Shepherd?
Does it not comfort you to think upon your Shepherd in times of trials?
Does it not bring peace into your heart to meditate on how gentle He is to you in times of sorrows and doubts?
Does it not warm your heart to contemplate on His love for you whenever you feel unloved or unjustly treated?
Do you not find yourself filled with trust and confidence as you cast your anxieties upon Him knowing that He loves you as His sheep?
Blessed are ye who know your Shepherd and feel his strong and loving embrace daily.
Christ is our shepherd! All true Christians are the sheep of Christ. All true Christians know Him, hear His voice, and follow Him. This is our first point.
But why? How did we or do we become His sheep? There are many people in the world, but most are outside the fold. And the Scripture has concluded all under sin. All are by nature, children of wrath. None of us are any better than anyone else in the world. How is it then that we are the sheep of Christ but not others? The modern evangelist would say: "It is because of faith! It is because you believe, that is why Christ has accepted you as His sheep!" But is that so?
The Shepherd Himself said to the Jews who were outside the fold: "Ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep" (Jn 10:26).
Amazing words isn’t it? "Ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep." Conversely, we may say "we believe because we are His sheep." No, we did not become His sheep because of anything in ourselves, not even our faith!
We are the sheep of the Shepherd because He purchased us. This is our second point.
2. Christ Our Shepherd Purchased Us And Owns Us
In the days of David, in the near eastern societies, shepherds were generally very poor. Many of them started out owning no sheep of their own. They would help their fathers or their relatives to look after their flock—in order to purchase their own flock. Very often, the payment for looking after the flock is not in monetary terms, but in terms of newborn lambs from the flock. Remember how Jacob looked after Laban’s animals and how Laban paid him with some of the animals he looked after?
This tradition is still being practiced in some shepherding communities, and we are told how thrilled a shepherd would feel when he is given his first lamb. Oh how he would cherish the lamb, and every other lamb that is given to him to be his own,—so much so that it is generally understood that the shepherd’s lamb are the most well taken care of amongst the flock!
Indeed we are told that there are times when a shepherd for some reason has to sell the lamb or sheep that they personally own. This would be a time of great heartache for the shepherd. Even hard-bitten shepherds are known to shed tears when their lambs are sold. But when these lambs or sheep are being sold, they would be announced as the ‘Shepherd’s lamb,’ and are likely to fetch a higher value than those that are taken care of by hired hands.
The shepherd of course will have to work responsibly even when he is looking after the sheep of others as a hired hand. But those lambs that are given to them as payment for their wages, those are especially precious to them, and they will cherish them with uncommon affections.
Well, the Lord Jesus is our Shepherd, and we belong to Him in such a special way. We are the Father’s gift to Him, for we are told in John 10:29, "My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all." Elsewhere we are told, that the Father "hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world" and hath "predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself" (Eph 1:4-5).
The Lord Jesus Christ therefore owns us. He is not merely a hireling, looking after someone else’s sheep. The Lord Jesus Himself asserts this fact when He says:
"I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. 12 But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. 13 The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine" (Jn 10:11-14)
Do you hear His heartbeat of love in these words, dear sheep or lamb of the Lord? He loves us so much that He would lay down His life for us, His unworthy and ungrateful sheep. A hireling would not do so, but we belong to Him.
Indeed, the Scripture tells us that it was not only a hypothetical notion that the Lord Jesus was willing to lay down His life for us.
The fact is He purchased us with His own blood. Amazingly, He did so by becoming a sheep in order to lay down His life for us. The prophet Isaiah puts it this way:
"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth" (Isa 53:6-7).
All we like sheep have gone astray. We have sinned against God, and incurred His wrath. The only way we can have any fellowship with God, is to have our sins paid for. Christ Jesus our Shepherd is in very essence God. But for the sake of His sheep, He "humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil 2:8). Though He is the fellow of God, He submitted Himself to be smitten by the sword of God in order that God’s hand might be turned upon the little lambs for their good (Zec 13:7).
The Lord Jesus is our Shepherd. And He owns us, because He laid down His life for us. He paid for us literally with His sweat and blood. "Ye were… redeemed [not] with corruptible things as silver and gold" says the apostle Peter, "but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Pet 1:19). We were wicked and abominable sinners in the sight of God because of sin, but Christ Jesus our shepherd, washed our robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14).
Christ is our Shepherd because He shed His blood for us to purchase us. Yes, Psalm 23 itself does not say so, but does not the context of Psalm 23 tell us this fact most clearly? You see, Psalm 23 is not without reason placed,—by the Holy Spirit,—between Psalm 22 and Psalm 24. These three Psalms speak most loudly and clearly about the work of our Messiah-Shepherd on our behalf.
Psalm 22 speaks of the good shepherd dying for His sheep. Psalm 23 speaks of the great shepherd living for His sheep. Psalm 24 speaks of the chief shepherd ascending for His sheep, one day to return for them. The heart of this trilogy is Psalm 23.
But we cannot come to Psalm 23, but through the gates of Psalm 22; and we cannot explain Psalm 24, but through the window of Psalm 23.
Christ cannot be our Shepherd but that He first lay down His life. And we cannot explain how there can be a captivity captive who will ascend with Christ, but that He first shepherds them and prepares them for the heavenly pasture.
Because He laid down His life for us, Christ our Shepherd brought us into His fold so that we can say with confidence: "My beloved is mine and I am his."
What a privilege! What a great assurance! Were it merely our faith that made us Christ’s sheep, how little confidence we would have! Thank God it is not so. But even our faith is a gift from God because Christ our shepherd purchased it for us with His own blood. Therefore, Christ owns us. This is our second point. How ought you to live in view of the fact that Christ purchased and owns you, dear sheep of Christ?
Having purchased us, Christ does not leave us alone. Being a Christian is not simply having a ticket to heaven. No, it involves our being changed from wild goats into domesticated sheep. Christ our Lord purchased us with His blood, and His Spirit makes the internal changes to prepare us for our heavenly pasture. He does so by renewing our minds and our wills and transforming our lives. But it remains our responsibility to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to Him and to work out our salvation with fear and trembling—with gratitude and love in our hearts.
Yes, we will not be able to do so perfectly because of remaining corruption and the temptations that assault us constantly. But thank God that Christ our Shepherd does not leave us to fend for ourselves. He watches over us with tender loving care. This is our third point.
3. Christ Our Shepherd Watches Over Us
David would remember the days of his shepherding well. He would remember how he watched over the sheep, even protecting them from lions and bears. David had so much experience fighting against bears and lions that he was even confident enough to tackle Goliath with the Lord’s help. So he told Saul:
"Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out 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" (1 Sam 17:34-35).
So dedicated was David to the sheep under his charge, that he was prepared to risk his life for them. And they were not even directly his sheep. They were his father’s sheep.
But the Greater David, Christ Jesus our Lord owns His sheep. In a very special way they belong to Him. They were, in a way, His Father’s reward to Him. So Christ our Shepherd guards His sheep jealously.
When the wolf comes, our Lord tells us, He does not flee as a hireling might flee. He has already laid down His life and even suffered the equivalent of eternal death on our behalf, how could He ever forsake us?
So none of us who are His sheep will ever be lost. None of us will be ever be plucked out of His hand, for as He says: "My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand." (Jn 10:29). And He and His Father are one (Jn 10:30).
We live in a dangerous world. There is danger at every corner. I am not talking about terrorist attacks or accidents. I am talking about the spiritual warfare that we face everyday, for Satan is like a roaring lion prowling about waiting for the opportunity to devour whom he may. And likewise there are grievous wolves in sheep’s clothing who have no qualms about leading the flock to their destruction.
Sometimes these dangers can be very intense because we are assaulted within and without. Without there are temptations, persecutions and threats, and within there are fears and doubts. Sometimes we may even doubt if we belong to the Shepherd.
All of us are like sheep in a spiritual pasture.
Sheep are one of the most dependent of all creatures. Not only are they defenceless against predators, but left to themselves, they will perish. They will either overeat, and or they will starve. Or they may fall into pits and are unable to get up.
Sheep need care and protection day and night. So too are we. The Lord Jesus says: "without me ye can do nothing" (Jn 15:5). So He cares for us in every way possible.
Sheep are prone to wander. They are among one of the most foolish of all animals. Most animals will not leave a place that has plenty of food, for somewhere that has none. But sheep without their shepherd will do so. And so are we. "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way" (Isa 53:6) says Isaiah. Indeed the Lord Himself says through Hosea: "My people are bent to backsliding from me" (Hos 11:7). We are prone to wander, prone to backsliding, prone to leave the Shepherd who loves us.
Thank God that the true sheep of Christ will never wander out of the grasps of their loving Shepherd. Christ our shepherd will never let us wander too far away. "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Heb 13:5) says our Lord. And as He says through Ezekiel:
"As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day" (Ezk 34:12).
Even when we are beset with doubts or overcome with sin, He gently leads us back. He forgives us our sin, and He helps our doubts. "If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim 2:13).
And not only so, but Christ our shepherd feeds us as a shepherd feeds his flock. So He provides us with all that we need in this life—both spiritual and temporal. So He gives us the Word for our spiritual food. And He gives us the ordinances necessary for our spiritual nourishments. And He gives us all the things necessary for our temporal life, and He gives them to us with His blessing.
And moreover, as a shepherd sometimes chastises his sheep, so Christ sometimes chastises us for our good.
As a shepherd shears his sheep so that they do not become too bulky and become a danger to themselves, so Christ shears us that we may not become too complacent.
As a shepherd tenderly treats the wounds and illnesses of his sheep, so Christ tenderly nurses us back to spiritual health when we fall and hurt ourselves.
Christ our shepherd watches over us with a deep love and compassion.
Can you beloved sheep or lamb truly say: "The LORD is my shepherd"? Can you affirm that Christ is not only the Shepherd, but He is MY Shepherd? Can you say "MY" with conviction? Martin Luther once said that the "heart of true religion lies in its binding personal pronouns." Can you use this personal pronoun confidently: The LORD is MY Shepherd?
Blessed are you in the Lord if you can say with confidence in your heart: The LORD is my Shepherd, for all the blessings of the Shepherd will follow you all the days of your life and evermore. On the other hand, if you are unable to say The LORD is MY shepherd: He may be the Shepherd, but not MY shepherd, then I would plead with you to contemplate on your misery. Contemplate on the fact that your life does not have true and everlasting meaning unless you belong to the flock of Christ.
Christ our Shepherd said: "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" (Jn 10:16).
Are you hearing His call to you? Will you not forsake the leadership of the wolf, Satan, and flee quickly to Christ our Shepherd? He is the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd and the Chief Shepherd. He will not cast out anyone who comes unto Him. On the other hand, those who would not come to Him today will one day face the Wrath of the Lamb. Oh will you not come to Christ while He is still calling His other sheep to come unto Him. Amen.