The good shepherd

Jesus often used parables and analogies to describe the kingdom of heaven to those that wanted to know about the spiritual life that awaited them after their physical death. One of the ways Jesus portrayed himself in the believer’s journey to heaven was a shepherd caring for his flock of sheep. Perhaps, the most famous psalm written by King David was Psalm 23 which stated, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want, he maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters” (Psalm 23:1-2). The role of the shepherd was to protect and guide his sheep along a pathway that was usually predetermined in order to keep them safe and well fed. When Jesus referred to himself as the “good shepherd” (John 10:11), he meant that he was perfectly suited for or well adapted to the circumstances of a shepherd (2570). The reason why that was true was because Jesus made it as easy as he possibly could for believers to go to heaven by making it a free gift that one could obtain simply by believing that he was who he said he was, the Savior of the World. Essentially, you could say that Jesus paved our way to heaven through his death on the cross.

Jesus’ statement, “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7), was a reference to the gate that had to be passed through in order for a sheep to enter the sheepfold, a place for him to rest at night. Jesus went on to say, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:9). The connection between entering the sheepfold and being saved was evident in the purpose of the sheepfold, to keep the sheep from the death they would certainly face if they were to be left out in the open, unattended overnight. Jesus depicted Satan as a thief that wanted to steal, kill, and destroy his flock of sheep (John 10:10). In order to drive home the point that Satan would stop at nothing to damage God’s kingdom, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus also stated that his death was a voluntary act that he was predestined for. He said, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17-18).

An aspect of Jesus’ analogy that may have been difficult for his listeners to grasp was the reference he made to his sheep hearing and knowing him by his voice (John 10:3-4). In the same way that someone today might be labeled crazy if he said he had heard God speak to him, the people that lived in Jesus’ time didn’t expect God to speak to them directly. Up to that point, God had always spoken to his people through prophets who were considered to be his spokespersons or quite literally his mouthpieces (5030). Something that Jesus made clear was that his voice was a unique identifier that made it possible for his followers to distinguish him from strangers (John 10:5), and more specifically, to prevent believers from being influenced by satanic forces that might try to lead them astray (John 10:8). Jesus’ primary goal as the good shepherd was to protect his sheep from anything that might harm them. One thing that made Jesus more than just a good shepherd was his ability to fulfill every spiritual need of those that chose to follow him. Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The Greek word translated abundantly, perissos can mean to go beyond or exceed (4053). In other words, the life Jesus gives us exceeds our expectations.

The keys to the kingdom

In an effort to dispel rumors about his identity, Jesus had a conversation with his disciples that made it clear he had come from heaven to earth for a specific purpose, to die for the sins of the world. Jesus began the conversation by asking his disciples, “Whom say the people that I am?” (Luke 9:18) and then asked, “But whom say ye that I am?” (Luke 9:20). The apostle Peter’s response is documented three different ways in the three gospels that have a record of this incident. I think Matthew, who was present at the time, captured it best when he said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mark 16:16). What Peter was saying was that Jesus was the Messiah, the savior God had promised to send to his people. Matthew went on to say, “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

Luke explained that the reason Jesus’ true identity was being kept a secret was because, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day” (Luke 9:22). In other words, it was dangerous for Jesus’ identity to be revealed because the religious leaders wanted to kill him in order to stop him from completing his mission of saving the world. After Peter made his confession of faith, Jesus told him, “And I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mark 16:18-19).

Keys are only mentioned twice in the Bible, in the conversation Jesus had with his disciples about his identity and in Revelation 1:18 where Jesus said, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and death.” The keys to the kingdom of heaven and the keys to hell were both given to Jesus, the Messiah, who was also know as the anointed one, God’s designated representative. It was in his role as Messiah that Jesus obtained access to heaven for all mankind. When Jesus told Peter that he would give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, he was essentially saying that Peter, and anyone else that confessed that he was the Messiah, would be able to have direct access to God for all eternity. Jesus’ reference to things being bound and loosed on earth and in heaven had to do with sin and its power to separate us from God.

So that his disciples would understand that access to God was not something to be taken lightly, Jesus said:

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away? For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:23-26)

The phrase Jesus used “take up his cross daily” meant to undergo suffering, trial, punishment, to expose oneself to reproach and death. In other words, to allow oneself to be treated in the same way that Jesus was. Matthew’s version of Jesus’ admonition included an incentive. He stated, “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels: and then he shall reward every man according to his works” (Matthew 16:27). The Greek word that is translated works, praxis means practice and by extension a function (4234). Another way of referring to works could be an assignment or regular duty. I think what Jesus was implying was that the more we exercise our faith on earth, the more we will see the results of it in heaven.

 

Discipleship

During his ministry on earth, Jesus centered his attention on the spiritual needs of God’s people; and for those who chose to become his disciples, he conducted a three-year apprenticeship program that focused on their membership in God’s kingdom. When the multitudes began to throng about him, Jesus looked for ways to discourage people from following him, rather than seeking to increase the number people that listened to him teach. An example of this can be found in Matthew 8:18 where it says, “Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side.” The other side Jesus commanded his disciples to go to was the southern coast of the sea of Galilee. It was there, in the region of Gadara, that Jesus cast out the Legion from a demon-possessed man (Luke 8:33). Gadara was located in the portion of the Roman Empire known as the Decapolis. The Decapolis was a league of ten free cities characterized by high Greek culture (note on Matthew 4:25). Jesus’ motivation for taking his disciples to such a place may have been to expose them to the harsh reality of satanic worship that was taking place within the borders of the Promised Land.

As he was preparing to enter the ship to sail to the region of Gadara, Jesus was approached by a scribe, a professional writer of the Mosaic Law, who wanted to go with him on his trip. Their short interaction is recorded in Matthew 8:19-20, where it says, “And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee withersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath no where to lay his head.” It is evident in Jesus’ response that he was trying to discourage the man from joining his entourage. Jesus’ image as an important person that people wanted to get close to was probably the main reason he had to constantly be on the move. This meant that his disciples rarely saw their families and were not afforded the luxury of sleeping in their own beds. The message Jesus was conveying to the scribe was that discipleship involved very difficult work that would require a huge sacrifice and not many were fit for the task.

Along with the hardship of being away from loved ones, and sometimes not even having enough time to eat, Jesus expected his disciples to give up all of their earthly responsibilities in order to focus their full attention on preaching the gospel. When one of his disciples asked to be excused from the trip to Gadara so he could attend to his father’s burial, Jesus responded, “let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:21-22). Meaning, I have more important work for you to do. The spiritual work Jesus engaged in while he was on earth was not something to be taken lightly. During the brief time that he actively ministered to the Jews, Jesus probably spent less time sleeping than most people would think is humanly possible. What Jesus was looking for in the twelve disciples that became his inner circle of confidants and close companions during his three-year ministry was a willingness to leave everything in order to eat, sleep, and breathe with the creator of the universe. There was no middle ground, no half-hearted commitments. It was all or nothing in Jesus’ work of proclaiming the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven

One of the topics that Jesus talked about frequently was the kingdom of heaven. Rather than a place far away, somewhere out in the cosmos, Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven exists here on planet earth. In order to create a mental image of the place he was talking about, Jesus told a series of parables that are recorded in Matthew 13:24-52. The first of these parables is referred to as the parable of the tares. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way” (Matthew 13:24-25). According to the footnote on Matthew 13:25, the tares Jesus spoke of in his parable were “probably darnel, which looks very much like wheat while it is young, but can later be distinguished. This parable does not refer to unbelievers in the church. The field is the world (v. 38). Thus the people of the kingdom live side by side with the people of the evil one.”

Jesus’ illustration of the kingdoms of God and Satan existing side by side in the world was most likely a reference to the Jews dispersion throughout the world after Jesus was resurrected. For almost 1900 years, the Jews didn’t have a homeland, but were integrated among other nations and lived without any political structure to sustain them. It wasn’t until after World War II, when their race was almost exterminated, that the Jews were granted access to the land that was once their inheritance from God. In his second parable, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matthew 13:31-32). Since its reestablishment in 1948, Israel has continued to gain strength as a nation and has attracted worldwide attention because of what appears to be its supernatural preservation in spite of continual military attacks against it.

In his explanation of the parable of the tares, Jesus indicated there would come a time when Satan’s followers would be removed from the world. He told his disciples, “the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; the enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burnt in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world” (Matthew 13:38-40). After this explanation, Jesus used three illustrations to convey the extreme value of membership in the kingdom of heaven. He likened his kingdom to treasure hid in a field, one pearl of great price, and a net that was able to gather into it every kind of fish in the sea without breaking (Matthew 13:44-48). In his final remark to his disciples, Jesus emphasized the value both the Old and New Testaments of God’s word (Matthew 13:52). Whereas, some might have thought the history of God’s people was irrelevant, Jesus made it clear that it was important for them to know the whole story about God’s establishment of his kingdom on earth.

Understanding

Jesus’ teaching included some hard sayings that were often misunderstood by those that gathered to hear him speak. After the scribes and Pharisees began to twist his words and take them out of context, Jesus started using stories that were referred to as parables to convey truths about God’s kingdom. Jesus’ parables used comparisons or illustrations from nature and human life to convey messages that might be misconstrued if he were to talk about them openly among unbelievers. On one occasion, when there were so many people gathered by the sea side to listen to him teach that he had to get into a ship to keep from being crushed by the crowd (Matthew 13:1-2), Jesus used the parable of the sower to describe the effects of hearing the word of God. This parable included a key lesson that Jesus later interpreted for his disciples so that they wouldn’t misunderstand the point he was making. Therefore, its meaning was very important and Jesus wanted to make sure they didn’t misinterpret it.

When Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10), it says in Matthew 13:11, “He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” The Greek word translated mysteries, musterion (moos-tay’-ree-on) means a secret or mystery (through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites)” (3466). What Jesus was implying was that membership in God’s kingdom was required for certain information to be revealed. In other words, unbelievers weren’t on the need to know list, therefore, Jesus didn’t tell them everything about the kingdom of heaven. When he explained the parable to his disciples, the key issue Jesus focused on was the unbeliever’s inability to understand or assimilate the word of God. Jesus said, “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Matthew 13:13).

Understanding of the word of God occurs at a deeper level than information that is processed through our brains. Jesus likened the word of God to seeds because seeds need to be underneath the soil in order for them to germinate. Like farming, Jesus suggested that assimilation of the word of God was a process that took place over time and an important factor that was revealed in his parable was the quality of the soil, or in reality, the condition of a person’s heart. He said, “But he that received the seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. The Greek word Jesus used for understanding, suniemi (soon-ee’-ay-mee) is derived from the word sun (soon) which denotes union; “with or together, i.e. by association, companionship, process, resemblance” (4862). The process of taking in and fully understanding the information and ideas that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God occurred while the disciples were living with him over the course of three years.

Blessedness

Blessedness, the state of being blessed with divine favor, was the original state of the world when Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden (Genesis 1:22). After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the land was cursed (Genesis 3:17), but it wasn’t until Cain killed his brother Abel that a person was cursed by God (Genesis 4:11). When Abraham was called by God to leave his country and his family behind and go to a land that God would show him (Genesis 12:1), God told Abraham, “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee: and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). For 2000 years, the world revolved around Abraham and his descendants, also known as the Israelites or Jews, but when Jesus entered the world, he turned that world upside down. One of the most important messages Jesus delivered to his disciples is referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount” (note on Matthew 5:1-7:29). Jesus began his teaching with something called the “Beautitudes” or be attitudes. These declarations of blessedness were intended to show Jesus’ disciples that happiness was more than an emotion that was dependent on their outward circumstances. Jesus’ used a Greek word, makarios to refer “to the ultimate well-being and distinctive spiritual joy of those who share in the salvation of the kingdom of God” (note on Matthew 5:3).

Jesus used the word markarios nine times in his opening statement to a crowd described as “the multitudes” (Matthew 5:1). It is likely there were more than 5,000 people, perhaps as many as 25,000 people, listening in when Jesus preached his sermon on the mount. Jesus’ startling statements were received with amazement, or as we might say today, the people were completely blown away by what he said. Jesus began with this declaration, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus contrasted the person that lived a life focused on spiritual things in this world as a beggar, or someone that was poverty stricken, and royalty in heaven. His intention was most likely to illustrate that the two realms in which we exist, the physical and spiritual, are opposites of each other. What we think makes sense for us to do to take care of our needs in the physical realm might actually lead to spiritual poverty and vice versa. Unlike the free pass that the Israelites received, Jesus taught that entering into God’s kingdom meant that you must live a completely different kind of life than what made sense in the physical realm. Jesus stated, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). The Greek word translated persecuted, dioko means to flee or to drive away (1377). In other words, Jesus was saying that his followers should expect to be outcasts of society.

Born again

The effect of Jesus’ teaching was evident from the start. In his first public appearance at the temple in Jerusalem, when he declared his intent to rise from the dead, John tells us of Jesus that “many believed in his name” (John 2:23). Although the religious leaders were probably already plotting to kill Jesus, one man had the courage and conviction to find out for himself what exactly the term basileia (bas – il – i’ – ah) ouranos (oo – ran os’) or “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 3:2) meant. Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, a member of the group that eventually condemned Jesus to death. He came to visit Jesus at night for one of two reasons, either Nicodemus didn’t want anyone to know he was there or he intended to have a lengthy discussion with Jesus and wanted to speak to him when he had more time available. Nicodemus stated plainly the reason for his visit. He said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” (John 3:2).

Nicodemus wanted to know the truth. He believed that Jesus was a prophet, but was obviously still struggling with the possibility that God had actually kept his promise and had finally sent his Messiah, Jesus to save his chosen people. Jesus explained to Nicodemus that the reason he couldn’t make sense of what was happening was because he hadn’t been born again (John 3:3). Nicodemus’ response indicated that he was looking at things from a human or material perspective. He asked Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:4). Jesus then explained to Nicodemus that being born again had nothing to do with the physical realm. He wanted Nicodemus to understand that in order to see the spiritual realm or kingdom of heaven, one had experience a spiritual birth, a birth just like or similar to the birth that brought him into the physical world, but completely different in its effect upon his life.

Jesus’ lengthy conversation with Nicodemus centered around the fact that a requirement for entrance into God’s kingdom was belief in him. He told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:14-17). Jesus’ repetition of the statement “whosoever believeth in him should not perish” placed the emphasis on everyone, both Jews and non-Jews, being able to be saved as long as they believed in him. This declaration made it clear to Nicodemus that God’s chosen people were those who would by their own volition make a conscious choice to receive salvation through Jesus Christ. The great truth that motivated God’s plan of salvation was that he wanted to save the world, and therefore, made it possible through a process of spiritual adoption for everyone to be born again (Ephesians 1:4-5).

Repent

John the Baptist’s message was very simple and direct. The single most important point he made could be summed up in one sentence, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). The Greek word translated repent, metanoeo (met-an-eh´-o) means “to think differently or afterwards that is reconsider” (3340). At the core of John’s message was the idea of looking at the world differently, to see things from God’s perspective. The kingdom of heaven had to do with the rule of God and was considered to be both a present reality and a future hope for the Jewish people that lived during Jesus’ ministry on earth (Note on Matthew 3:2). The unique time period in which John preached was a key factor in the way he talked to people about repentance. According to John, time was of the essence; there was no time to waste when it came to getting right with God.

Some of John’s harshest messages were directed at the religious leaders that appeared to be righteous, but were only pretending to be interested in God’s kingdom. What the religious leaders really wanted was to control the Jews behavior. They made up rules that they expected everyone to lived by, but the rules were actually too difficult for the people to follow. Matthew 3:7-12 states about John:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

John’s introduction of the spiritual concept of fruit was meant to make people aware of the fact that God wanted to see evidence of the change that had taken place in people’s hearts. Merely saying that someone had repented was not enough. As fruit is a tangible sign that a tree is reproducing or bringing forth a new source of life, so fruit in a Christian’s life showed that a real change of heart had taken place and a new way of living would follow.