For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Each year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday. Fittingly, all our readings today give us insight to the relationship we have with Jesus as sheep and Shepherd and the benefits of that relationship.
Our Gospel takes place during the Feast of Dedication, also called Hanukkah, the Jewish national holiday celebrating the purification of the temple by Judas Maccabaeus in December 165 B.C. Jesus was walking in the temple area near Solomon’s colonnade. It offered some protection from the winter’s cold. The Jewish religious leaders encircled Jesus and asked Him point blank: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Sad to say, they didn’t really want to know the truth. What Jesus had already told them, what He had done, and the way He lived in His Father’s name were clear evidence that He is the Christ. But they did not want to believe. Similarly, today, many people claim to want to know exactly who Jesus is, yet they ignore His own words and ways. “You do not believe,” says Jesus, “because you are not among My sheep.” Those who are not among God’s chosen flock turn deaf ears and blinded eyes to Jesus.
In contrast to such unbelievers, Jesus’ sheep hear His voice. He knows them and they follow Him. The relationship between Jesus and His followers is intimate, personal. And because He is the Christ, the Son of God, the relationship is eternal. He gives His sheep eternal life. They will not perish forever. No one can snatch them out of His hand.
What words of comfort for you and me! We are secure forever with Christ Jesus. Our security is locked up with the Father in heaven. No one can take us from Jesus’ hands because that would mean seizing us from God the Father’s hands. And no one can do that. What is true of the Son also is true of the Father.
Jesus’ words are clear. He is from God. He is the Son of God. He is God. He is the Christ. “I and the Father are one,” he concludes.
It’s not enough to gather from His words only that He and the Father think alike or have a harmonious relationship or treat His sheep alike. Jesus is speaking of being one essence with the Father, of being God. And that’s exactly how Jesus’ enemies understand Him. To them, Jesus’ words sounded like blasphemy, so they pick up stones to carry out the penalty described in Leviticus for blasphemers. Their hatred and anger cannot be contained. They are ready to ignore the legal need for a trial. They are ready to carry out capital punishment even though they know by law that only the Roman government has that authority.
But no one will take Jesus’ life. He will lay it down of His own accord when the time is right. And He will raise it again. He will give His sheep eternal life, and they will never perish, and no enemy will snatch them out of His hand.
Jesus, in our Gospel, warns of enemies from outside of the Church; Paul, in our First Reading, warns of those from within—false prophets, fierce wolves. He encourages the undershepherds of Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the Church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.
Paul understands that a preacher must answer to God for the message he preaches or fails to preach. By saying, “I am innocent of the blood of all,” he is expressing his confidence that no one will go to eternal death because Paul has failed to preach the truth to him.
God’s will is that all men turn in “repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” All the teaching of the Bible and all true preaching centers in this. To alter any of God’s Law or God’s Gospel is to misrepresent God’s will. To say more or to say less than God’s Word says can make a pastor guilty of someone’s blood, make him the cause of someone’s eternal damnation.
Shepherds feed and lead the flock. Pastors feed and lead the Church of God. The Holy Spirit has made them overseers, supervisors, for that purpose. As undershepherds, pastors are to guard themselves and the whole congregation. Paul uses the picture of a flock because he is thinking of the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep, the God who bought the Church “with His own blood.”
That is a striking expression, so striking that some copyists and editors and commentators have tried to change it. That’s unfortunate. The phrase, “God’s blood,” reminds us that when God became man, He did not stop being God. As the God-Man He is not two persons but one person. What the Man did God was doing. What belongs to the Man belongs to God. When Jesus’ blood was shed, God’s blood was shed. When God bought the Church, He did it with His own blood.
The savage wolves of whom Paul speaks are false prophets of the same kind Jesus warns about in Matthew 7:15: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” No church anywhere at anytime can be complacent about the possibility of false teachers. Wolves kill sheep. False teachers kill souls. That is why we take our doctrine and practices so seriously. Though some misunderstand it as mean-spirited or intolerant or arrogant, it is actually most loving—a matter of eternal life and death.
False prophets generally do not come from outside but arise from within. They do not oppose the truth in a straightforward way and say that it is false. Rather, they distort it. They use the right words but twist and pervert them. Such lies and distortions must be opposed and exposed with the truth of God’s Word.
Who can keep the pastors faithful in their work and protect the Church from the savage wolves? Only God. How will God do that? Through the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The Word proclaims God’s grace, imparts God’s grace, and keeps us in God’s grace. That Word will make us grow to Christian maturity and gives us a share of the blessings that God has for His saints.
Paul knows that he will not always be there to help the Ephesians, but God with His Word will help them as He has even while Paul is there building them up in the eternal inheritance the Lord Jesus has prepared for them by His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. So He does today in God’s Word written through the prophets and Christ’s apostles and spoken by His undershepherds, His called and ordained servants. Listen to Him!
In our Gospel, Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Then He promises: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” In Revelation, St. John gives us a sneak peek at the eternal life in the new heaven and earth where the Lamb will be the Shepherd forever.
The people in the great crowd which John sees before the throne of God in heaven are coming out of “the great tribulation.” That crowd represents the whole Church as if it is already triumphant, as if it is already complete, as it will be at the resurrection at the End.
The crowd of saints comes out of the great tribulation victorious because they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Because of the redeeming death of Jesus Christ, the crowd of people stands pure and holy in the presence of God. With sins forgiven by the blood of Christ, and covered now with the righteousness of the Lamb, they share in the victory of the Lamb before the heavenly Father. They stand before the throne of God and “worship Him day and night” (Revelation 7:15).
The one who sits upon the throne “will shelter them in His presence,” literally, “spread His tent over them, the same word used in John 1:14, when the Word became flesh, He “tented” among God’s people. It could be that, in using this word, God is condescending to our human understanding of existence and manner of speaking. But more likely, the word is used to direct attention to the fact that God’s people, raised from the dead will live intimately in the flesh with God in the new heaven and new earth, and in a familial, intimate way, He will dwell with us in a manner that can be experienced also with the human senses. And because God will tent among His saints in heaven, “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore” (Revelation 7:16). All our greatest needs will be taken care of!
As we reflect on what John saw and heard, we can’t help but be comforted with this thought: God always keeps His promises. John sees the final end of God’s promises concerning His people at rest in the presence of God and the Lamb, never again to be pained by the harshness of life we formerly experienced it in our earthly existence. In our new life with God, the Lamb “will be [our] Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water” (Revelation 7:17).
This relationship between God and His people, as pictured by His being our Shepherd, was revealed so beautifully in the 23rd Psalm. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord promised His people that like a shepherd He would look after them in order to rescue them and care for them. In order to carry out this Word, God then promised to provide His people with a shepherd. The promised shepherd would be His servant, born in Bethlehem from the seed of David. In the verses, preceding our Gospel, Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd.
Now in our text, John sees and hears the final outcome of these promises. The Shepherd of the Lord has been provided. By His death and resurrection, the servant David has rescued God’s people. As their Good Shepherd He tends the flock, caring for them and leading them through the great tribulation to “springs of living waters—eternal life—already now on earth, then in heaven with God, and finally forever in the new heaven and new earth.
A final truth describes the rest and the peace of the crowd of saints before God’s throne in heaven: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). Tears and laments are part of the experience and character of the faithful people of God while on earth. Tears are shed over one’s sins and the sins of others, over the ruin and sufferings experienced by others, over one’s own afflictions, when confronted with God’s anger, when alone and in sorrow, at death, and at other times of sadness.
In this life the shedding of tears is as much—at times even more—the experience of Christians as are joy and laughter. But it is the gift of God’s grace to turn the weeping and sorrow into joy, for He has promised a day when “the Lord will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). John now sees the complete and final fulfillment of this promise of God. The final word describing the peace and joy of the saints before God in heaven says it all: “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The Lord is your Good Shepherd. You hear His voice through His Word and follow Him. He feeds you on the green pasture of His Supper, His own body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. No one will ever snatch you out of His hand. The Lamb will be your Shepherd forever. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.