Friday, March 25, 2011

On Feeding the Sheep

“Feed my lambs,” Jesus instructed Peter, “Feed my sheep.” 

What kindness and gentleness this is. What care. 

As one of the flock, I come to the shepherd, the preacher, the pastor, for food—that he would proclaim the good news of the gospel to me, and bid me partake of the feast. As one who is but a beggar, I ask, along with Christ, “Dear shepherd, feed us.” 

We come to you hungry, confused, often without even knowing it, and we look to you to protect us, to set us aright, and to feed us. We come, beggars all, needing to be fed. 

But, what is this food that nourishes and sustains the flock? What is this daily bread? This food is Christ himself—given up for us—the gospel.

In order to feed the sheep, the shepherd needs to help them to know their hunger, and then he needs to give them the good food. He must show them the law and then he must give them the gospel. One of these without the other falls short of answering Jesus’ plea. And a confusion of one with the other leaves the sheep muddled, lacking assurance and rest. The distinction between law and gospel must be clear to the shepherd, that he might make it clear to the sheep.

The law is the excellent and glorious perfection to which we are called, but that we all fail to achieve. We are told to love the law, to seek after righteousness…and even this is law.  The gospel, on the other hand, is the declaration of what Christ has done for us—entirely accomplished by the Lord—it is quite distinct then from the law.

If we confuse the two—thinking that our growth in holiness or our zeal or our love of God is the gospel itself, then we will inevitably be either wrongly self-satisfied or sorely discouraged. Encouragement toward sanctification will not nurture and sustain us. We need to be given Christ—we are hungry for the food of the gospel.

So, how does the shepherd feed the sheep?

Some don’t know they are hungry. They would turn away, uninterested in the precious gift of sustenance—the gospel.

Some are afraid to approach the table.  Aware of their failures they hesitate, feeling unworthy to partake of the gift, freely given.

Some come knowing their need, feeling their hunger, eager to feast on the gospel. They approach with confidence to once again receive reassurance and rest in the good news proclaimed. He has done it. The gift is for you, even you—the needy, the weak, the beggar.

For the first group—those who don’t even know their need, who don’t feel their hunger—the shepherd must preach the law in order to preach the gospel—that they might know their need and might long for Christ.

For the second group—those who are afraid to approach, who know they are unworthy—the shepherd must preach the law in order to preach the gospel—that the sheep might be assured that indeed they are weak, they do fail to meet the requirement of the law, and yet Christ’s sacrifice, the good news, is for them--even for them--Christ bids them come.

For the third group—those who come eagerly, hungrily, seeking the food that Christ has given—the shepherd must preach the law in order to preach the gospel—that the sheep would be reminded and reaffirmed in the true assessment of their neediness and beggarly state, that they might rejoice all the more in the gospel—assured of their sonship in Christ and affirmed in their dependence on him.

All of these must hear the law. They must be reminded that God’s righteous requirement is high and good--and all men fail to meet it. This will include exhortations to right living, a call to perfect holiness, loving God with all your heart, soul and mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself. 

The details and subtlety of this are key—the oft-overlooked failures of kindness to one’s spouse, parent, friend, the ubiquitous selfishness that infiltrates even our best moments. The sensitive, relevant, insightful exposure of our sinfulness can penetrate even the hardest heart, and by the work of the Holy Spirit bring to repentance both the unbeliever walking willfully in sin and the mature believer longing to be more conformed to Christ.

Preach the law in its perfection. The hearers of the law should be convinced of its goodness and holiness and they should simultaneously be convinced of their own failure to meet it. Any preaching of the law without an awareness that we all fall short—greiviously, staggeringly short—will leave the preacher and the sheep with the misguided and tragic misconception that all they need are better methods, more passion, or greater efforts—in order to measure up to God’s calling. This lie prevents the believer (and the unbeliever) from feeling his need, from recognizing his hunger, and ultimately from depending on Christ—and feeding on the gospel by faith.

But dear shepherd, once they have heard the preaching of the law, all of these must hear the gospel! 

Ultimately, the shepherd preaches the law in order to drive the sheep to the gospel—those sheep who are starving and don’t realize their hunger. 

He preaches the law to reassure the timid—yes, for you, the gospel is even for you. 

He preaches the law to tell the old, old story, to strengthen the faithful, to proclaim the good news to the lost and to the found.

And so, finally, after showing the sheep their need, the shepherd must meet their need by feeding them the gospel—giving them the good news: despite their abject failure to meet the righteous requirement of the law, Jesus’ righteousness has been imputed to them. Assure them of their right standing by faith through Christ’s sacrifice. 

Leave us secure in his love, 
                                 resting in his sufficiency, 
                                               humbled by our great need and his far greater gift.


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