During our family meal last week, my five-year-old son Caleb perched attentively on the arm of the padded chair in which I sat––my Bible sprawled open on the coffee table in front of us. “What does it mean for the Lord to be our shepherd?” I asked, glancing around the living room at the members of our missional community, who ranged in age from three to seventy-three. Caleb was quick to the draw. “Because he takes care of everyone here,” he blurted out. “That’s right, Caleb,” I responded, pleased by his eagerness to participate.     

Earlier in the day, I had been meditating on Psalm 23 and John 10 in preparation for a talk I would be giving to the leaders of our missional communities at a retreat that coming weekend. I was confident that these simple truths, that even a young child could grasp, would be a needed encouragement to our faithful men and women who have been fighting the good fight in the trenches of everyday life on mission.

Our Communities Need to Understand and Embrace “Good Shepherd” Theology

Sadly, as adults, our hearts can so easily grow calloused to the simplicity and beauty of these truths. The declaration that, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing,” needed to be fleshed out. Especially for those facing the pressures of shepherding people in the midst of a local community plagued by negativity, depression, addiction, and suicide. Our leaders needed to see how it is that Jesus is the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. They needed to have the eyes of their hearts opened anew to specific gospel truths that would revive their souls, counteract the lies of the enemy, and empower them by the Spirit to continue serving under difficult and draining circumstances.

Psalm 23 in its Geographical Context

Not long ago, on a trip to Israel, I spent a little time off the beaten track in the untamed Judean wilderness, close to where David would have spent a lot of time pastoring his father’s sheep––and hiding out from King Saul later on in the story. It is likely where Psalm 23 was originally composed, and it is truly a place that lacks everything. So, in such a place, the claim that “the Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing,” is much more than trite religious babble, it is a concrete confidence in an all-sufficient God even in the midst of dire need. We shouldn’t picture an abundance of green pastures and flowing waters as the setting of the Psalm, but rather a barren wilderness. A wilderness where you would soon perish without the help of a faithful shepherd who knows the path to the place where patches of green spring up on the mountainside and to the hidden crevice where a soft cool stream trickles through the canyon.

This imagery helps set our expectation for the abundant life that the Good Shepherd promises in John 10:10. It is not a life free from the wilderness. It is not a life free from the valley of the shadow of death. But it is a life of restful confidence. Confidence that if the Lord is my shepherd, I don’t have to fear that valley. “I will fear no evil” not because evil doesn’t exist, but because, “you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Indeed, our Shepherd sets a table before us in the presence (not the absence) of our enemies, anoints us with the power of his Spirit, and promises that we will dwell with Him forever. After all, the greatest thing about life with the Good Shepherd is simply that; life with the Good Shepherd. “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11).

In John 10, Jesus reveals himself as the true and faithful shepherd of God’s people in contrast to the false shepherds among the religious elite (see Ezekiel 34:15-17 & Jeremiah 23:1-5 for the historical and prophetic background). John chapter 10 verses 10-15 clearly identify Jesus with “the Lord who is my Shepherd.” I would encourage you even now as you read to pause and meditate on these verses, How does the truth of Psalm 23 get fleshed out (literally) in Jesus? Or to ask it another way, how does belonging to Jesus put us in a place of “lacking nothing”?

Jesus Puts Us in a Place of “Lacking Nothing”

Because he is the good shepherd “who lays down his life for the sheep.” (Verse 11). We can pass through the valley of the shadow of death because he has already been there on our behalf. How does this put us in a place of “lacking nothing”? Our greatest need has already been met. We stand justified freely because of his sacrifice and there’s nothing we can do to earn more (or lose any) of his favor. We lack nothing in union with Christ.

Because he is committed to our care unlike the hired hands (verses 12-13). We don’t have to be concerned that Jesus will abandon us. Others might but he never will. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (See Hebrews 13:5-8). The All-sufficient One is committed to his good and beautiful work in us, and he never gives up. What more could we want?

Because he knows his sheep intimately (verses 14-15). This means he also knows our weaknesses. Shepherds understand their flock’s limitations. A good shepherd knows that his sheep are utterly dependent on him to lead them to water and nourishment and to protect them from predators and natural hazards along the way. With Jesus as our faithful shepherd, we can be confident that he knows just what we need and when we need it. So much of our time can be spent worrying about things that are out of our control. But we don’t need to try to lead ourselves, we can repent of trying to be our own shepherds by turning to the Good Shepherd and casting all our cares upon him as we follow his lead.

“Good Shepherd” Theology in Application

We may long for the day when members of the missional “dream team” join our gospel community, when the needs within don’t seem so all-consuming and burdensome, and when the needs without don’t seem so overwhelming and impossible to meet. A day when we’re no longer surrounded by wilderness. And when we face the reality that “that day” will likely never come, at least not on this side of the Second Coming, we are prone to discouragement and despair. But here’s the good news, we have a faithful shepherd who, in the words of my five-year-old, “takes care of everyone here.” Though not by removing us from the wilderness but by leading us through it day by day, refreshing our soul and giving us rest in him in the midst of the difficult, messy, and sometimes heart-wrenching task of making disciples in community and on mission.

With this perspective and gospel foundation, we are set free from trying to be our own shepherds. Jesus is our good shepherd who gave his life for us, who is committed to seeing us through the valley, and who knows our every need. As we seek to shepherd others, let’s remember that our shepherd died for us, lives in us, and will work through us as we follow his lead. We truly have everything we need.

“For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

– Revelation 7:17

In what ways have you functionally denied “Good Shepherd” theology? What would it look like this week for you to care for others in light of these truths?

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