Monday, January 20, 2014

The Door of the Sheep (John 10:7-10)

One of the most iconic and recognizable buildings in all the world is the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Dating back to 537 AD, the cathedral was built to be a Christian Church – the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in what was then the capital of the Roman Empire. Over the years, there were changes, features were added, modified, and renovated. The most noticeable of these changes are the Islamic minarets that tower over the building, installed in the fifteenth century when Muslims conquered the city and converted this significant Christian church into an Islamic mosque. But long before that, in the ninth century, Emperor Theophilus made a less noticeable change to the building. He had new doors put in. But these were not just any doors. These doors were built 200 years before Christ’s birth for the pagan temple of Apollos in the city of Tarsus, the birthplace of the Apostle Paul. Theophilus had those doors moved to Constantinople and installed in the Hagia Sophia, and he had them marked with the sign of the cross and the name of Jesus Christ. Today, the Hagia Sophia is a museum, but throughout all of its history, as a church, as a mosque, and now as a museum, those doors have remained unchanged. Those doors serve as a lasting reminder of a significant truth: the way into God’s presence is marked with the name “Jesus Christ,” and unless you come by Him, the door into God’s presence will remain locked and barred against you.

Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus uses seven vivid images to describe Himself, His divine nature, and His mission of salvation. In each one, He pairs the image with the powerful phrase, “I am,” or ego eimi in Greek. This is, of course, significant, given that when God revealed Himself to Moses, and Moses asked the Lord to tell him His name, the Lord said, “I AM WHO I AM.” And so, the phrase, “I am,” is not a mere statement or a meaningless phrase. It is an announcement of God’s very own presence. Every time the Lord Jesus took up those words ego eimi, “I am,” He was announcing to His audience that He was God in the flesh. The seven vivid images that He uses in John’s Gospel reveal aspects of His divine nature and His saving mission. We have seen two of these statements already in John’s Gospel. In Chapter 6, we see Jesus saying, “I am the Bread of Life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst” (6:35). In Chapter 8, He says, “I am the Light of the World; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (8:12). We find the third “I am” statement here in our text today in John 10. Jesus says in verse 7, “I am the door of the sheep,” and again in verse 9, “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved.”

It is a surprising statement, given that in the immediately preceding verses, Jesus was identifying Himself as the shepherd. Here, He says He is the door. Is He the door, or is He the shepherd? The answer is “yes.” In a sense, it is entirely right and fitting for Jesus to be symbolized by both the door and the shepherd. In the ancient Near-East, during warmer weather, the shepherds would stay overnight in the fields with the sheep. The sheep would be corralled into a makeshift pen, essentially a circle of stones with an opening on one side. When nightfall came, and the sheep were safely enclosed, the shepherd himself would stretch his own body across the opening and become, as it were, a living door for the sheep. If you want to come into that sheepfold, you have to come by way of the shepherd. Jesus is the Shepherd, and He is the door. And this text answers for us the question of how Jesus is the door of the sheep.

I. Jesus is the only door of the sheep (v7-8)

Sometimes people are funny about doors. There are some people who refuse to sit with their back to the door. There are some people who, as soon as they walk into a place, they do a quick study of the room to see where all the exits. Sometimes, they might get nervous when they find themselves in a place with only one way in, and only way out. In a place like that, if you find a door, you have found the only door there is. And Jesus says that when it comes to entering into everlasting life, there is only one door. You notice that He says, “I am the door.” He does not say, “I am a door,” or “I am one of the doors.” He is exclusive here; He says, “I am the door.”

Perhaps you have come here today convinced that there are multiple valid pathways to God and to eternal life. It may be that you think Christians are narrow-minded and intolerant for daring to say in this progressive society that there is only one valid way to God. Friends, if that is what you are thinking today, first let me say that I am so glad you are here. Second, let me challenge you to do what all good intellectual scholars are trained to do – go to the source. Do Christians say that there is only valid way to know God? Why, yes, in fact, we do. But the question should be, “Why do Christians say this?” And the answer is, because Jesus Himself said this. You say, “Where did He say this?” For one thing, He said it here: “I am the door.” But, more clearly and certainly He says it in the sixth of these seven “I am” statements in John. In John 14:6, He will say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Note the exclusivity there: the Way; the Truth; the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” The first followers of Jesus understood clearly what He meant by these words. In Acts 4:12, the Apostle Peter restates this same truth as he proclaims, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” The Apostle Paul said it this way, “There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). The Apostle John said the same thing in these words, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 Jn 5:12). The exclusivity of Jesus Christ is something that Christians have believed and proclaimed since the birth of the Church. And where did we get this idea? We get it from none other than Jesus Christ Himself.

When you consider Jesus Christ, you really only have a handful of options available to you. He is either a self-absorbed liar, a lunatic with delusions of grandeur, or else He is who He claimed to be – including being the only way to God and to eternal life. Now, in the history of the world, there has never been found any serious intellectual movement that would seek to label Jesus as a self-absorbed liar. Even those who do not believe in Him will remark about His humility, His compassion, and His noble teachings. Never has there been any who have seriously considered Him to be a lunatic with delusions of grandeur. On any list of the wisest people to ever live, Jesus always ranks high near the top. By common consent, then Jesus is not a liar and not a lunatic. So, what other option could there be? He is who He said He is. He said He is God-in-the-flesh, the “I am.” He said “I am the door,” “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” the only means of knowing God and entering into eternal life.

Now, here someone will say, “But there have been others who have made claims such as these before. What about them?” There were many in Jesus’ day, and many who came before Him, who claimed to be Saviors and Messiahs. That is why Jesus said, “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers.” Obviously, the “all” here is not completely exhaustive. He is not referring to Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and a host of other faithful and godly people who had served the Lord and His people wholeheartedly. But then again, none of them claimed to be “the door” to God and to everlasting life. But there were many others who had made that claim. They said, “Follow me, and I will lead you to find true meaning in life. I will lead you in the path of peace. I will lead you to encounter God.” By the multitude they came, and they come still today. But Jesus said every single person who ever came or ever comes making these claims is a thief and a robber.

A thief and a robber are different from one another, and two different Greek words are used here to signify that. A thief is one who steals cunningly or by stealth. The Greek word is kleptes, from which we get kleptomaniac. A robber is one who steals by violence. It is the difference between a shoplifter and a bank robber. And spiritually, there have been plenty of both in the history of the world. Some deceptively lead others away from truth and life with fine sounding words and subtle falsehoods. Others take their spiritual prey by force, leading them in paths of violence and tragedy. It sounds unbelievable, but they have been effective and persuasive. Multitudes have followed them, and multitudes still do. But Jesus said, “the sheep did not hear them.” They might deceive multitudes, but they do not deceive those who are the true people of God. They know the voice of the Shepherd. They follow Him. These do not allow themselves to be seduced or stolen away from the simplicity of faith in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 11:3). They have the ability to compare the words and ways of these pretenders to the person and Word of Jesus, and when they do, they see them for what they are: thieves and robbers. They know that there is one and only one gate that leads to God and to life – and that is Jesus Christ. He is the door of the sheep. The only door.

II. Jesus is the Open Door for the Sheep (v9a)

The need for a door on the sheep-fold is quite obvious. It keeps thieves and robbers out. But there is another all-important function of the door. It serves to let the sheep in! And it is this function, rather than the other, which Jesus emphasizes most in this passage. He is the door, and it is important for us all to know that the door is open!

In verse 9, Jesus says, “If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved.” Salvation awaits on the inside of this door. But perhaps you wonder, “Salvation from what?” I can remember a time in my life when I would hear Christians ask me, “Are you saved?”, or in some cases they would say, “You need to get saved!” I didn’t understand what they meant. I didn’t think I was in any sort of imminent danger. But I will never forget the day when I finally came to understand what they meant. Frankly, it became clear to me that the thing that God desired to save me from was God Himself. For most of my life, I had rejected God, rejected Jesus Christ, argued that He did not exist, and lived as if He did not exist. I was seeking my own pleasure and pursuing whatever course I thought could deliver pleasure to me. But, as I was reading the Bible, almost on a dare by some Christian friends, I was suddenly, inexplicably, and undeniably aware that God really did exist. My immediate thought was that this was the worst possible discovery I could ever make. If God really was there, then assuredly He would call me into accountability and judgment for how I had been living my life. I did not need to be convinced that I was a sinner. In that moment, I suppose that every wrong I had ever done came flooding into my mind. I knew that if the Lord were to give me what I deserved, that hell would surely be my eternal fate. But it was in that crisis of my soul that I came to know about Jesus, the door that opens to salvation. In His death on the cross, He had become my substitute, bearing God’s wrath in my place. My sin was punished in Him so that I could be forgiven and made clean before God. There was no denying that God existed, and that I was guilty before Him. And if there were any hope for me at all, it was surely in Jesus Christ, and in Him alone. Every other religious system in the world says that the way to God is to work harder, to try harder, and to be better than you are. Jesus Christ does not say that. He alone has laid down His life in a sacrificial death to bear our sins, so that we can be cleansed and saved. No one else has done that for you. He is the only door that opens to salvation.

It is important to recognize that the door to salvation is open. The Bible says that all of us are sinners, and in our heart of hearts we know it is true. Our own conscience is sufficient to convict us of the truth of it. No matter what we say, we know that there is right and there is wrong, and we know that we have done wrong. But Jesus says that if we enter through the door, if we come to Him by faith, we will be saved! Saved from our sin! Saved from hell! Saved from judgment! Saved from wrath! In short, in Jesus Christ, the door is open by which God will save us from God and for God!

The door is open, and it is open to all. Notice Jesus says, “If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved.” You say, “Can I enter in through that door?” Well, are you anyone? If so, then you qualify. You might say, “Well, I don’t know, I have been pretty bad.” He says, “Anyone!” And you might even say, “Well, as for me, you see, I’ve been pretty good. Do I need this door?” And again, He says, “Anyone!” And that “Anyone!” applies to everyone, because no matter how good we are, we are still sinners before God. The standard is righteousness – a sinless holiness that was personified and exhibited in the person of Jesus Christ. You might be better than your friend or your neighbor, but you aren’t better than Jesus. Therefore, you need to be saved, and the door is open to you.

And it is at this point that some Christians will raise an objection. They will say, “How can you say anyone, when we have this thing in the Bible called election or predestination?” Well, first and foremost, we can say “Anyone,” because Jesus said “Anyone.” If your theological system makes Jesus out to be a liar, then you need to change your system. But did He not say, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him?” He did. He said that in John 6:44. And it is true. But He also said “If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved.” And that is equally true. If it helps you, imagine it this way. Jesus is the door. And on the outside of the door, over top of it, it is inscribed, “If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved.” And so you enter that door. And as you do, you turn to look behind you, and you find that over the top of the door on the inside is inscribed, “No one came come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws Him.” You see, no one comes through that door that God has not drawn. From His vantage point, the door is reserved for all those whom He has foreknown and effectually called unto salvation. But from our vantage point, whosoever will may enter into that door. In the end we will find that no one will but those whom God has chosen. You may ask, “But how can I know if I am chosen?” This is how you know – you enter in. No one will enter in only to find that they were not chosen. This same Jesus said, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” The fact that you chose to enter in is evidence that God was calling you, drawing you, and had chosen you. It is His drawing that is evidencing itself in you in that desire to come to the door and enter.

The door is open, and today, it is open to you. I say today, because the fact of the matter is that it will not be open to you forever. There will come a point in every person’s life when the door will close. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed unto man to die once, and after this comes judgment.” You do not know the day of that appointment, but God does, and it is an appointment that He will keep. Thus it is a matter of some urgency that you do not sin away the day of grace. This is the day of salvation, now is the time (2 Cor 6:2). Enter in while the door is open to you, and be saved. Jesus is that open door.

III. Jesus is the door of opportunity for the sheep (v9b)

When a person completes a level of education, whether high school, college, grad school or whatever, it is a momentous occasion marked by a special event called a “commencement service.” That’s a strange word for it. “Commencement” means “beginning,” not “end.” We think of it as an ending to something, but the word commencement reminds us that it is not the end, but the beginning. Now is the time to go out and do something with what you have learned. Some people view salvation as “the end” of something. Well, in a sense, it is. It is the end of the old way of life, the life of sin. It is the end of bondage to Satan. It is the end of futile living for one’s own self. But, I want to challenge you to not view the Door that is Jesus Christ as a finish line, but rather as a starting line. Becoming a Christian is not the end, it is the beginning – the commencement – of a whole new way of living. Entering in through this door is entering into a whole new world of opportunity.

Jesus is the door of opportunity for intimate fellowship with God. Jesus said that by this door, the sheep may go in. You are going into the very presence of God. In fact, He is actually coming into you. The Spirit of God is moving in and taking up residence in the core of your being. You are going into God’s family, as an adopted son or daughter. You are going in to know Him and be known by Him, to have Him as a Father and a friend. Having been previously cut off from Him because of your sin, you have been cleansed in the blood of Christ, and welcomed in to His embrace.

Jesus is the door of opportunity for mission for God. What is it that you are really living for? For most Americans, the aim of life is to get a good education, a good job, make good money, buy a nice house, drive a nice car, climb the corporate ladder to the top, and have beautiful children that you can teach how to do the same thing, only better. It’s the American Dream, right? Suppose you attained it. Suppose for a moment that it was all in hand, and then death came. How much of that would really matter in eternity? You cannot take any of that with you, whether you go to heaven or to hell. But what if I told you that Jesus Christ offers you something far more meaningful, an opportunity to live for something that would matter forever? He does. He said that He is the Door, and by this door, the sheep can go out. They can go out for Him to impact the world for Him. Sheep go out this door and they find other sheep, lost sheep who are scattered and don’t have a shepherd. And they bring them back in through the Door. You can be a part of the mission that God has been pursuing since the world began, and that is to fill this planet with passionate worshipers giving praise to His name. As I read the Bible, I find that there are only two things on this planet that are going to last forever. One is the Word of God – it stands forever (Isa 40:8; 1 Pet 1:24). The other is the souls of human beings. They will live forever, either in heaven or in hell. So, why on earth would anyone seek to find fulfillment in the fleeting things of this world when they could be occupied with the mission of imparting the everlasting word of God into the everlasting souls of men? You can live for more than yourself! Do something that matters! You can be on mission with God and for God! But only if you find Jesus as the door and come in to Him, and then go out or Him!

Jesus is the door of opportunity for nourishment from God. He says that you can go through this door and find pasture. Why does a sheep need pasture? To stay alive! The pasture is where the sheep eats, and it has to eat to live. Through Jesus Christ, we have access to the food that nourishes our soul. After all, this is the one who said, “I am the Bread of Life, he who comes to Me will not hunger….” (John 6:35). He feeds us with Himself. How does He do this? He does it every time we meet with Him over the pages of His unfolded Word, the Bible. Reading it is eating. Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). You need this Word more than you need your next meal (an appropriate reminder at this hour, no doubt!). By this word you live! It is your pasture. How do you find it? You can’t. Unless you enter into this door that is Jesus!

Finally, Jesus is the door of opportunity for satisfaction. Mick Jagger gave voice to the unspoken, unsatisfied longing in every human heart – “I can’t get no satisfaction!” You know what that feels like don’t you. You’ve tried, and you’ve tried, and you’ve tried. You’ve looked for it in education, in your work, in money, in possessions, in relationships, in sex, in drugs and alcohol, and on and on. And what has it gotten you? Disappointment, frustration, despair. Those are the things that the thief – Satan, the enemy of your soul -- offers to you. He dangles them out in front of you and says, “Come and do this, try that, it will satisfy you.” Why does he do that? Because he hates you. He has a threefold plan for your life – to steal, to kill and to destroy (v10). And he is good at it. You know he is. He has done it to you, just like he has to me.
Jesus is not like that. He says that He has come for a different purpose. He has come that you may have LIFE, and have it ABUNDANTLY! Now, that is not just a promise of heaven and eternal life. It includes that, but it is more than that. He’s already promised that in verse 9 – if you enter through Him you will be saved. That’s eternal life. But, what kind of offer would it be for you to just have an endless supply of days to fill with the frustration of unsatisfied longings and meaningless pursuits? No thank you. But this offer is more than that. It is not just eternal life that you have to wait until death to experience. It is abundant life that begins the moment you walk through the Door that is Jesus Christ. It is a life in which the deepest longings of your heart are satisfied forevermore in Him. It is a life in which your greatest treasure is something that can never be stolen or taken away, it will never break or wear out, because your greatest treasure is Him! Abundant living is not living with what this world considers abundance. It is a life that can stand to lose everything, because you know that this one thing is something that you can never lose. And what a glorious testimony this abundant life is to the world, when it seems that all has been lost in the wake of suffering and tragedy, and the Christian says, “No, all is not lost. I have not lost my treasure. Christ is my treasure, and He is with me still, and He is enough.” That is a life that most people will never know. This is the life you were meant to live – life in Him that is found as you enter into the door that is Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 7, Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt 7:13-14). Make sure you are one of those few. Come in through Jesus and be saved. Know the fellowship with God that is found inside that door. Go out  on mission for Him. Find that pasture by which He sustains and nourishes your life. This is abundant living. It is found through Christ, the Door. He is the only Door, and that Door is open to anyone who will enter. Enter in and live!


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Looking Ahead at 2014: I Am Excited!

As we stand at the head of a brand new year, I am taking the time to do some evaluation. I'm looking at my personal life, my family, my ministry, and I'm taking note of where things are, where they need to be, and what it is going to take to get there. I'm also looking at the church I have been blessed to serve as pastor for the last 8-plus years: Immanuel Baptist Church of Greensboro, North Carolina. And I can honestly say, I have never been more excited about this church than I am right now.

Don't get me wrong -- I am by no means saying that we have "arrived," and that there is not room for improvement. There always is. One of the mottoes of the Protestant Reformation has been abbreviated familiarly as "Semper Reformanda" ("always reforming"). But that does not mean "always changing," as if "change" in and of itself is the thing we are aiming at. As Michael Horton has pointed out, the complete phrase is “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” Horton notes, "The verb is passive: the church is not 'always reforming,' but is 'always being reformed' by the Spirit of God through the Word." As I look at Immanuel Baptist Church today, I see evidence that the Spirit of God is reforming His church (this local expression of it) by the Word of God, and is working in and through us in powerful ways.

A couple of important disclaimers are necessary here. I am most assuredly not saying that I am responsible for these things. Nor am I saying that any single member or group of members are responsible. I want to say loudly and clearly that the things God is doing in our midst are being done in such a way that only God Himself can receive the glory for it. My philosophy of ministry is very simple: "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:1-2). That is my job. It is not to preach my ideas or my "vision," but the revelation that is disclosed to us graciously in the pages of the Holy Bible. That's it. That is what I do. But, it is God who gives me the ability to do that, it is God who opens hearts and ears to hear it, and it is God who gloriously moves in us and through us to bring us to obedience to His word and engagement in His mission. What God is doing here today, He can do without me. I am not promised tomorrow anymore than you are. If I am removed by death or the call of God to another field tomorrow, there is no reason that God would not, could not, and should not continue doing what He is doing in our midst, and even greater things than these! Nor am I saying that things are better than they have ever been. This church has a rich and glorious history, notwithstanding the fact that, like all churches, there have been chapters of that history that have been rather inglorious. I am not trying to make any comparisons with the past. My view is on the present and the future. And, neither am I saying that things are as good as they can get. We have a long way to go. I do not claim that we are a "perfect church," or that the time has come for us to rest at ease in Zion. We must labor in the vineyard 'til the Master comes, and all the moreso with renewed energy and zeal that ought to be present within us because of what God is doing presently.

Now, let me get right down to the matter. What is going on that excites me so much? Let me enumerate a few of the many things that God is doing here. Undoubtedly, I will not be able to present an exhaustive list, but these are some of the reasons I am so excited.

I. Our "Jerusalem." A number of years ago, we identified a "local mission field." We know that we cannot reach all of Greensboro. So we asked God to burden us, to mobilize us, and to use us for His glorious purposes here in this community. In the intervening time, here are a few things we have seen happen.

(A) The Coliseum Motel is now closed. I attribute this to God. True, the City of Greensboro was the agent He chose to use to make it happen, but God was the one doing it. While it stood, it was a great mission field for us, but it was also a harmful influence in our community. It was a den of prostitution and drug abuse, and was the leading location for 911 calls in our city. I viewed our responsibility before God as two-fold: (1) to be a witness to the people there; (2) to be a watchman on the wall for the well-being of our community. Numerous Immanuel members served on the citizens' committee which ultimately led the effort to get the city to demolish this motel. We prayed, and we worked. And God did it.

(B) Community Outreach is taking place on a consistent and regular basis. We have begun an annual outreach to the Ardmore Park Community for National Night Out, and it has been a great success. We continue to draw more and more children from our community to Vacation Bible School every summer. Several times a year, we mobilize our members to knock on 400 doors in our community to place the gospel into the hands of every resident. And we are beginning to see fruit. The firstfruits of this field are coming in. Surely, if we continue to be faithful in sowing, a greater harvest will come.

(C) We continue to look out of our front doors and see a strip-club across the street. For years, we have looked at it and wondered why the city would not shut it down. There have been multiple murders on the premises, and God only knows the iniquity that takes place within the long shadow of our steeple there. But today, God is doing a work there. Through this church and others who share the vision, there is a concerted prayer effort for those who own it, manage it, disrobe in it, and lust in it. And moreover, God is raising up an army of women to go into the club in His name to show His love to the women who are trapped in that lifestyle.

(D) We continue to see God drawing in students from UNC-G. Eight years ago, there was not a single college student at Immanuel. How did it happen? God did it. They simply began to come. And they brought their friends. And they are still doing it. But they aren't just coming in; they are going out. They are going out to the campus and out to the nations to make Jesus Christ known. Many of them graduate and move elsewhere, and they plug into faithful, Bible-teaching churches, and serve Him there.

II. Our "Judea and Samaria." Several years ago, God led this church to focus our "Home Missions" efforts on the state of Vermont, statistically the most unevangelized and least religious state in America. God has opened the door for partnerships there, and He is sending out Immanuel's members to serve there on short-term volunteer trips. The first trip was in 2012, and there were only three of us. In 2013, there were eleven of us, and interest is already building for 2014.

III. The Ends of the Earth.

(A) God is sending Immanuel to the nations. In 2011, six of us embarked on a vision trip to Nepal. In 2013, four more went back. In 2015, Lord willing, we will go again. But we are not just going on a "holy vacation." Through these trips, God is developing a heart for the nations in His people here, and fueling our prayer efforts for Nepal and the rest of the world. Through the 2013 team, numerous pastors from mountain villages were equipped to plant even more churches, and they are doing it, praise God! Because of this focus on South Asia, Immanuel has paid for wells to be dug, for clean-water filtration devices to be given to families, for cottage-industries to be developed, for women to be trained with job skills, and a host of other wonderful things. A Christian orphanage has been outfitted with new toys, and uplifted with many prayers. And God has given us a heart for Nepalis living in Greensboro. Relationships are being built, and miraculously, plans are in the works for the planting of a Nepali Church here.

(B) God is enlarging our focus. Immanuel's students are spending their summers in South Africa and other places. They are sensing God calling them to the nations -- some for short term, some for longer terms. And by God's grace, in 2013, the invitation came to bring a team to Dubai. Immanuel sent three, and through our providential relationships, God raised a team of sixteen! This team ministered to children, teaching them about missions and challenging them to consider how God might use them to reach their friends for Jesus, or how He might call them out in their young adulthood to invest their lives overseas as missionaries. As we were doing this, their parents were being challenged similarly by others. And, if God wills, the opportunity may arise in 2014 to return and do the same. God has brought our way a sister church from a neighboring state who are burdened to reach a West African people group that is one of the most unreached on the continent of Africa. There are nearly 1,500 of them in our city. As God leads, we will begin working with them as partners to facilitate the advance of the Gospel to these people in our city.

IV. Internal Reformation

God is not just working "outside the walls." He is working inside as well. A meaningful fellowship is being enriched daily as Immanuel members pour into one another. God-glorifying relationships are being forged between "Old Immanuel" members and "New Immanuel" members. There is harmony and joy among the members. Prayer has become, not something we talk about on Wednesday nights, but something we DO. Attendance at these prayer meetings has waned, because many prefer "the old way," but for those who come, there is a powerful meeting with God as prayers are poured out from the heart in intercession and worship. There is a unity and sweet fellowship among our deacons that is simply marvelous to behold. God is raising up new leaders, new singers, new workers, new missionaries going out in our community and the world with the gospel.

The year ahead will not be without its challenges. One of them is staring us squarely in the face. The departure of the Greensboro Chinese Church from our facility is imminent. We are saddened to see them go, but after 25-plus years, we are proud to see them venturing out in faith. It is like a parent seeing their child move away. There are tears of sadness intermingled with the tears of joy. This will mean great changes for our children's ministry, which presently consists predominantly of Chinese children. There will be changes and challenges for us financially. The Chinese Church presently contributes over ten percent of our annual operating budget. We will feel the pinch of it. But with these challenges comes opportunity. We will have a newfound freedom in planning activities and using space that heretofore has been occupied by the Chinese Church's ministries. It will be up to us to decide how to use that for God's greatest glory. Undoubtedly, in the year ahead, there will be funerals. Past years have taught us that death is no respecter of persons. It strikes the young and the old. It will visit us again in 2014. But God is the One who has promised us that HE will never leave us nor forsake us. He has kept that promise. He has not forsaken us. He has not left us. Rather, He has visited us afresh in recent days and poured out blessings. This is a day for all Immanuel family to rejoice in Him and give Him glory.

As I survey all that God is doing in our midst, I am snapped back by one seemingly ever-present frustration. Many in the Immanuel family are discouraged. Their children, their grandchildren, some of their closest friends have, over the last several decades, gone out from us and have not returned. Some, praise God, are faithfully involved in other churches. Others, sadly, are not. We grieve and pray along with them for the spiritual well-being of those. Many look around at a sanctuary that was once filled to capacity, and see only the empty seats of seventy-five percent of the room. They think to themselves, and not a few will say out loud, "The church is dying." My friends, I hope that the words I am sharing here will encourage you. The church is not dying. If I have any discouragement at all in these days, it is that so many are so discouraged, not seeing or participating in the glorious work that God is doing in our midst. I am reminded of that account in 2 Kings 6, when the servant of Elisha was perplexed because all he could see was gloom and defeat on the horizon. He said to Elisha, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?" But Elisha prayed to the Lord, "O Lord, I pray, open his eyes." And the Bible says that the Lord "opened the servant's eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha." Friends, do you see those horses and chariots of fire? The army of the Lord is advancing on our behalf! Please do not miss it because discouragement has blinded your eyes. My prayer for 2014 is the same as Elisha's: "O Lord, I pray, open our eyes!" 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Recognizing the Shepherd (John 10:1-6)

Audio

In Matthew 7:15, Jesus said, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” This saying of Christ has given rise to our familiar idiom of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In the course of each of our lives, many of us have probably been duped at some point by someone we trusted and considered harmless, only to find that they had evil intentions to do us harm in some way. The dangers of a wolf in sheep’s clothing are obvious. But there is another danger that we may often overlook, and that is the danger of a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

Six hundred years before Christ, the famous Greek story-teller Aesop told a fable of a wolf and a shepherd. The shepherd had kept his eye on the wolf for some time, and eventually came to trust the wolf, so much so that one day he left the wolf in charge of the sheep. When the shepherd returned, he found a great many of his sheep had been killed and carried away. It seems that wolves in sheep’s clothing are dangerous enough, but a wolf in shepherd’s clothing is potentially far worse. In the passage that we are studying today, we find a True Shepherd who has come to the sheepfold to gather His sheep to Himself, and to warn of those wolves in shepherd’s clothing who seek only to selfishly devour the flock.

Of course, the True Shepherd is none other than Jesus Himself. Throughout this entire Chapter, Jesus will use the language of ancient Near-Eastern sheep-herding to describe Himself and His ministry. In so doing, He is picking up on a theme that unfolds throughout the Old Testament. Most familiar to us is the great 23rd Psalm, where David (who was a shepherd before he became king) writes, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” The theme recurs throughout the Psalms. Psalm 78:52 speaks of the Lord leading forth His own people like a flock of sheep. Psalm 95:7 says that the Lord our Maker is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. In Isaiah 40:11, we have these beautiful words: “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.” God’s people had learned to view the Lord God as their Shepherd, and themselves as His sheep.

But the Old Testament prophets also declared the word of the Lord concerning the wolves in shepherd’s clothing. Isaiah 56:11 decries the selfish behavior of those “shepherds who have no understanding,” who neglect the sheep in order to pursue their own unjust gain. In Jeremiah 23, the Lord pronounces a woe upon these false shepherds of God’s flock, saying, “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture! … You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them.” Perhaps the most vivid and stern condemnation comes from the Lord through the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel:

Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them. Ezek 34:2-6 (NASB)

But the Lord says there in Ezekiel 34 that another day is coming – a day in which He will bring judgment on those wicked shepherds and He Himself will become the True Shepherd of His flock. He says, “I will feed My flock, and I will lead them to rest. … I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick” (34:15-16a) The Lord says that He Himself will do this. But then He turns right around a few verses later, He says something entirely different. He says, “I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the Lord have spoken.” Is this a contradiction? Is the Lord going to be the Shepherd, or is David going to be the shepherd? Well, it is actually no contradiction at all. Since David had long been dead, everyone would readily recognize that it was not the literal David who would be the shepherd, but one like David – even, one from David’s offspring. And after centuries of longing for this promise to be fulfilled He came. The Lord Jesus came into the world, a son of David’s lineage, and God Himself in human flesh. In Christ, and in Christ alone, David and the Lord Himself becomes the true Shepherd of the flock of God. It is Jesus, of whom Paul says that He is God’s Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power, … Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1:3-4).

The point of this story, call it a parable if you will, is that Jesus is the True Shepherd of God’s flock, who has come to rescue the flock from the hands of the thieves and robbers – those wolves in shepherd’s clothing – who have sought their own gain at the expense of the people of God. It is obvious that in this context, those false shepherds are the religious leaders of Israel: the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees and the Chief Priests and elders of the nation. You may recall that in the previous chapter, Jesus had opened the eyes of a man who had been born blind. And when this man began to give to Jesus the glory that He was due for the miracle He had done, the religious leaders did not rejoice with him but expelled him from the synagogue and threatened to do the same to his entire family. In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus condemned and warned against those religious leaders of Israel who “like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widow’s houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers.” It was these who, for their own selfish gain, had turned the Temple of God into a den of robbers (Matt 21:13; Mk 11:17; Lk 19:46).

Long had the flock of God languished under these wolves in shepherd’s clothing. They were like robbers and thieves who had entered the sheepfold by scaling the walls like a ravenous wolf. But now the True Shepherd had come, and He would call out His own sheep to come after Him and follow Him. That True Shepherd is the Lord Jesus Himself, and here He indicates that there are certain unique characteristics that mark the True Shepherd which make Him recognizable to His sheep.

I. We know the True Shepherd by His Word

When Donia and I first met and were getting to know each other, I used to call her on the phone to talk pretty often. The thing was, she and her sister sounded just alike on the phone. At the sound of “Hello” on the other end, I would launch into conversation, only to have Nicole say, “Hang on, I think you want to talk to Donia.” But the more I got to know Donia, the more I began to recognize the subtle differences between her voice and that of her sister. It is important that we know the voice that is speaking into our lives, and Jesus says here that His voice and His words are recognizable to His own sheep.

Notice the emphasis on the word of the Shepherd throughout this passage. In verse 3, “the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name.” In verse 4, “they know his voice.” In verse 5, “they do not know the voice of strangers.” There is a distinction in the voice of the Shepherd that the sheep recognize. Historians of the ancient Near-East tell us that in a sheepfold like this, the flocks of several families would be kept together and guarded by a doorkeeper who was employed by the families collectively. When each shepherd would come to the fold, he would use a unique call that his sheep, and his sheep alone would recognize, and they would come to him and follow him. That gives us a great image of how the sheep of God’s flock respond to the voice of the True Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, when He speaks.

Notice that they hear His voice (v3). Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable the sound of silence can make people? To combat this, many people fill their lives with noise. Even if it is not intentional or conscious, our ears are constantly filled with various sounds. As I was preparing this message, there was the sound of music playing in my office, the sound of phones ringing, the sound of voices in the office, the sound of keys being pecked on my keyboard along with the various blips and bleeps of the computer, the noise of traffic and sirens on High Point Road, and seemingly a thousand other things. That is the way most of us live. It is like we are drowning in a sea of incessant noise. And amid all of this noise there are many voices seeking to speak into our lives. Each one beckons us to hear them and obey them. But even in the midst of this great cacophony, those who belong to the Shepherd have the ability to hear His voice as distinct from all others. That can only come as we devote time to the discipline of listening carefully to His word. As we spend time immersing ourselves in God’s Word, we begin to notice the sound of His voice, the tenor and dialect by which He speaks, and the vocabulary He uses. When other voices call us to follow them into some pursuit, we are able to recognize whether or not there is a Galilean accent in those words. We can say no to certain things because we know with certainty that our Shepherd would never call to us with those words. We can distinguish between sounds that deserve our attention because they resonate with the words of Christ, and those that can be ignored because they are not in harmony with His words. His sheep hear, above all the noise and distinct from all the other voices, the voice of the True Shepherd.

And then notice that He calls His own sheep by name (v4). He knows us more intimately than any other being, and the really astounding thing about that is that He loves us anyway --  more deeply than any other being. So tenderly does He call to us, that He does not treat us like a faceless mass of humanity, but lovingly and compassionately He calls us as individuals. He call us by name. He has known us from eternity past. We speak of a time when a person “meets Jesus,” but that is only half true. Each of us must come to a point when we meet Him for the first time, but we are meeting someone who knew us completely before we drew our first breath. Some of you may have not yet met Him, but even here and now it seems to you as if He is calling out to you, by name even! That is how it was for me. After spending my life running as fast and hard as I could away from Him, I reached this point where it seemed as if Jesus was calling out to me by name, calling me to come to Him and believe and follow Him. He knows you, and yet He loves you anyway. Imagine it. He calls to you by name because He wants you to know Him and to live in His love. He invites us into a personal relationship, where you become part of His family. More tenderly than a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord God embraces you and becomes the ultimate and perfect Father who knows your name. When He speaks to you in His word, He speaks to you personally.

And then notice the effect of His words: He calls out to His sheep, and His sheep follow Him because they know His voice. When He speaks, things happen. Think of how the world was created – it was by the Word of God. Things that did not exist came into existence because of the power of His word. Atoms and molecules arrange themselves in response to the speaking of His word. Do you think that His word cannot have the same kind of effect on you? There is power in His word to move us to obedient action. It begins when He begins to call us to Himself out of unbelief. The theologians refer to it as an “effectual call.” Jesus said in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me.” What first caused you to believe upon Christ? Was it your superior intellect or your perfect reasoning? No, it was the power of His gracious call. Can it be resisted? Perhaps for a short time, but not forever. If He is calling, you will come. And the same remains true after you come to Him. You continue following Him by faith because He will not let you live in disobedience if you are of His fold. You might resist for a season, but He will bring you to obedience if you belong to Him. He will give you a hunger for His word, and moreover a glad desire to obey it. Why? Because His sheep follow Him because they know His voice.

His word is always going forth. But not everyone can hear it. Even in this passage, in verse 6, there were many who did not understand what it was that He was saying. Of course they didn’t! They are not His sheep. Their lives have been spend in the fold of other shepherds – false shepherds; wolves in shepherds clothing. But if you are one of His sheep, you know it when He speaks to you. Even the very first time He calls to you, you recognize it as the sound of a voice you have longed to hear your entire life, as if your ears were formed for this very purpose – to hear those blessed words fall off His lips as He calls you to Himself by name. His words are one of the distinct characteristics that make the True Shepherd recognizable to His sheep. But it is not the only one.

II. We know the True Shepherd by His Ways

We went over to my dad’s house on Christmas day, and he met us in the driveway and escorted us around to the back door of the house, and said, “Family comes in the back door, friends come in through the side door.” I said, “Who uses the front door?” He said, “If anyone comes to the front door, we just assume they are Jehovah’s Witnesses and don’t answer it.” Maybe your house is like that – family and friends know to enter one way, strangers enter by another. That’s kind of like what Jesus is saying here.

He says, as the True Shepherd, He comes in through the door of the sheepfold. He is allowed entry into the corral because the doorkeeper knows Him. Strangers aren’t allowed in through the door. If they want in, they have to sneak in by climbing over the wall. They sneak in because they are trying to hide their evil deeds – they are coming in to steal or harm the sheep. But the doorkeeper lets the Shepherd in because he knows the Shepherd, and knows that the sheep belong to the Shepherd, and he knows that the Shepherd cares for the sheep. He doesn’t have to sneak in. He is not operating in secret. Everything Jesus said and did during His earthly life and ministry was done before the eyes of a public audience, whether the twelve disciples, the inner circle of three, or multitudes of onlookers. On the contrary, the religious leaders of Israel are often found plotting and scheming in secret to destroy Him and scatter His sheep. And the same is still true of this Shepherd. He is working in your lives in ways that are visible and evident to others. They see Him transforming you from the inside out. He calls you to publicly identify with Him as His follower through baptism, and to testify publicly for Him, and to live for Him before the eyes of a watching world. He is not a clandestine, secret agent. His followers do not scheme in dark alleys. If they have to do that, then they are not walking with Him. I once heard the word “integrity” defined as “who you are when no one is looking.” In other words, if you are a person of Christlike integrity, you live in such a way that it would not matter who sees or hears you. That is how Christ lived. His way is to enter in through the door, not to scale the wall in secret.

But then notice also His way of leading His sheep. Verse 4 says, “He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.” Shepherds in the Western world lead their sheep from the rear, prodding them along the path, using sheepdogs in some cases to herd the sheep along to the place the shepherd wants them to go. But in the Near-East, still today as I understand it, the shepherd leads his sheep from the front. They follow him. He speaks as he walks and the sound of his voice beckons the sheep along in his footsteps. Jesus said this is the way He leads His sheep. He doesn’t lead us along paths that He Himself has not walked. He does not call us to do something that He has not experienced firsthand. Peter gives us a beautiful image of this in 1 Peter 2, when he says that Christ has left us an example to follow “in His steps” (2:21). Everything we encounter as we follow Him is something He has encountered first. Does this path pass through fields of temptation? Christ has walked through that path before us, and survived it without yielding to sin. Listen to Him calling you from the front and follow. Does it lead through an acre of suffering? Jesus has left His footprints on the trail. Hear His voice leading you on and follow. Does it lead into circumstances unknown, where uncertainty abounds? Fear not. He is already there before you. He is calling you to come on behind Him there. Does it lead even into the valley of the shadow of death? He has been there too, and has emerged on the other side. And it is because He has passed through death and into life that you can as well. He did it for you. He died the death that was meant for you because of sin. But He emerged from it victorious and alive forever more. Your sin-debt has been paid by Him, and from the other end of the valley, you can hear Him, can you not, calling you by name and saying, “Come on. Follow My footprints. Don’t wander off the path. I am here, just up ahead. Keep walking.” We know that He is the True Shepherd because He is not goading us on from the rear, sending us before Him to test the waters. He leads His sheep from the front and the echo of His word calls us on to follow after Him. That is His way of leading.

Then finally notice the perfection, or completion, of His way. In verse 4 there is a single little word there to remind us that Jesus never fails. It says, “When he puts forth all his own.” Catch that word: all. Every single one of His sheep makes it to the place where the Shepherd is leading them. He doesn’t put forth some of His own. He puts forth all of them. He said in John 6,

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:37-40)

Notice the absolute certainty of those words. He doesn’t wish or hope to do this. He has promised that He will do it. And He will not do it for some or for certain ones of His sheep. He will do it for all of them. If you are His sheep, He will never fail you. He will never leave you nor forsake you. He is that great shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in safety to go out and find the one who is missing (Luke 15:4). He is the one who sends you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, but who does so promising, “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 10:6; 28:20). He is the one who has began a good work in you, and who will be faithful to complete it (Php 1:6). Jesus never fails! And He is the only one who never fails. Every human being you know will disappoint you at some time or another. Jesus never will. You will be let down by others innumerable times in your life, but never by Jesus. Others will fail to deliver what they have promised you, but Jesus has never made a promise that He did not keep, and He never will. What can we say? It is just His way. And His way is perfect. He never fails.

Do you recognize this True Shepherd? Do you know whose voice it is you hear above all of the noise of this world? The one who knows you so intimately that before you ever meet Him He is able to call you by name? The one whose word is so powerful that it can create in you things that do not yet exist – a faith to receive Him, a hunger to hear Him speak, a desire to obey Him with joy and serve Him with gladness? It is none other than the voice of Jesus. Do you see Him, coming in by the front door because He has nothing to hide. All that He does is done so that others can see it and recognize Him as the one doing it. Do you see Him leading you on from the front, down paths that He Himself has already trod, beckoning you to follow in His steps and stay on the path? Do you see Him fulfilling every promise that He ever made to you and never failing you, never leaving you, never forsaking you? That is Jesus. Only Jesus. He alone is the True Shepherd.

In the course of His earthly ministry, Jesus encountered multitudes of people, and the Bible says that when He saw these people, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). How does Jesus see you today? Are you distressed and dispirited? Do you have a shepherd who can tend to you with love and compassion – one who knows you intimately, and loves you anyway. This Shepherd is calling you by name, and beckoning you to come into His fold.

You see them, too, do you not? Multitudes of people who wander aimlessly and perilously through this world because they do not have this Shepherd. How do you look on them? Do you look on them as Jesus did – as sheep without a shepherd? Why not go to them and tell them about your wonderful Shepherd? Tell them about the care that He gives to you, and which He can give to them as well. Invite them to come and meet this Shepherd, and assure them that He is no stranger to them. He already knows them by name, and just may be calling out to them through the Gospel-filled words you speak.