The Good and Only Shepherd! (Acts 4:8-12)

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday) (April 25, 2021)

It has become tradition in many Christian churches to utilize the Fourth Sunday of Easter as a time to celebrate the fact that Jesus is our Good Shepherd.  However, one mere Sunday a year hardly seems sufficient time to fully treasure this comforting image of our Savior.  After all, nothing calms our distressed and troubled spirits quite like the wonderful pastoral imagery of a shepherd.  The poetic picture painted for us of our Shepherd in such passages as Psalm 23 does more to calm us than perhaps a whole sermon of prose.    “He makes us to lie down in green pastures and leads us beside the still waters… He restores our souls and leads us in the paths of righteousness…with his rod and staff He comforts us. He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies…”So beautiful, isn’t it!  That’s what our Good Shepherd does! 

But, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.   There is a more, shall we say, disturbing aspect of this shepherd picture that some would have you and me ignore.  It is definitely not a serene and clean image.  In fact, it’s quite messy.  It is the image of a horrible death.   Not your death or mine, mind you, nor the death of any of  the LORD’s sheep.  No, this death is that of the Shepherd Himself.  In fact, He dies on behalf of and on account of His sheep.  The back story is that it is the sheep’s waywardness that causes the Shepherd to have to die.  Unbelievably, it is also to their benefit that He does willingly lay down His life!  But as hard as it is to look on our Good Shepherd impaled to a cross, it is this bloody imagery that actually does more to put the “good” in the Good Shepherd than all of the other more pastoral images combined.

This vision of our Good Shepherd John places before us in our Gospel reading today.  5 times we hear Jesus tell His listeners that, as the Good Shepherd, He lays down His life for His sheep.  It is in that self-sacrifice for the sheep that the true goodness of the shepherd is made manifest.  It is also in this Shepherd laying down His life for the sheep that it is proclaimed loud and clear that this Shepherd is the only true shepherd who can save the sheep.  After all, as we know from Holy Scripture, without His willing sacrifice in our place, none of us could ever attain to those green pastures! His sacrifice removes the penalty of death away from us and clothes us with His righteousness.

What is so comforting also is that this laying down of His life was not something forced upon our Good Shepherd.  He was not tricked into being captured, tortured and executed.  It was the path He chose.  Jesus, laying claim to being this Good Shepherd, says, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it up again” (Jn. 10:18).

This is truly a remarkable statement.  Who could ever say such a thing?  What human being has the authority to lay his life down and then raise it up again?  Now, to be sure, there are many who are deceived into taking their own lives… or those who might even willingly sacrifice their lives to save their friends. But who can give his life over to death only to take it up again?  Did the ancient gods Ra… Zeus… or Baal?  Did Mohammed? Did Buddha?  Can the Dahli Lama or the Maharishi, or Baha’u’llah do such a thing? Of course not!  But Jesus did!  He alone, therefore, is the LORD, who is the Good Shepherd!  He alone is the Savior of sinful, wayward sheep!

It is no wonder then that Jesus has always been and remains such a divisive figure in our world.  The One who can lay down His own life and take it up again blows out of the water all other  so called gods…. all other religions and faith systems… that do not acknowledge Jesus as the only true God; that is the LORD.  In fact, it also makes null and void all foolish and atheistic notions that there is no god or that we human beings are masters of our own fate. 

For you see, people don’t mind if Jesus died. They know all people die.  Even the fact that Jesus was so harshly treated and crucified does not alarm them.  Oh, they might feign a sense of pity for Him, but it does not force them to look at Him as anything but a mere man.  But, Jesus’ resurrection cannot be dismissed or ignored.  If Jesus of Nazareth did in fact raise Himself from the dead, then He did what is impossible for human beings.  Taking His own life up again causes everyone to sit up and take notice that Jesus is more than flesh and blood.  In fact, it makes it a necessity that people see Him as God! 

It is easy to see, therefore, why the enemies of the truth have to oppose the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  You can not build up a system of faith or a religion on the words of some other person if that person could not do what Jesus has done.  What validity can the words or teachings Confucius… or Mohammad… or Buddha …. .  or Baha’u’llah,  who all remain dead, possibly have when Jesus alone is alive and now sits in glory above even the heavens?

Such opposition to the truth of Jesus being the only true Good Shepherd, Savior and God, began already at the beginning.  So we see in our First Lesson today.  This text from the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts is a portion of an account retelling the opposition the apostles encountered in their witness to the truth of the Gospel of the crucified and resurrected Jesus.

It all took place on the occasion of a miraculous healing of a poor, lame, beggar at the entrance to the Holy Temple. Peter and John had gone there at three o’clock in the afternoon at one of the several appointed hours for prayer. The beggar had asked them for some alms, but, instead, got much more than he had ever imagined.  Peter and John said to him, “Silver or gold we do not have, but what we have we give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 

And wonders of all wonders, this 40 year old man, who had been lame from birth, jumped up to his feet and began to walk. He then accompanied Peter and John into the temple court, “walking, jumping, and praising God.”

As you can well imagine, this miracle did not go without notice.  Solomon’s Colonnade, the temple court, was all abuzz.  It became a perfect occasion for Peter and John to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. This they did boldly. 

It wasn’t long, however, and Peter and John received some unwelcome visitors.  “The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people.  They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.  They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.”

Our text, then, comprises the essence of the next morning’s judicial interrogation of Peter and John.  Sitting in judgment upon them, was a who’s who of the religious elite.  All the rulers, elders and teachers of the law were on hand. The High Priests Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas were there, as were John and Alexander and other members of the High Priest’s family.  Their concerns were made pointedly known with their first question to the apostles:  “By what power or what name did you do this?”

In the boldness of the Holy Spirit, Peter, speaking for himself and John, took his accusers right to the wall.  “Know this, you and everyone else in Israel,” Peter proclaimed, “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you completely healed,( literally ‘saved’).”  No soft-soaping the message here! 

Peter, in essence, however, had turned the table on his accusers.  These leaders of Israel were now the ones facing charges.  They might have thought they had merely had some crack-pot from Nazareth put to death, but Peter informed them in no uncertain terms that they had murdered God’s Christ, the Messiah Himself!

Jesus’ healing of the lame man through Peter and John had now also insured that these murderers could not some how squirm away from their crime and Jesus’ true identity.  After all, if this man was healed by Jesus, then it was conclusive evidence that Jesus did not remain dead but was alive again.  Dead men can’t do anything let alone miraculously heal someone lame from birth. 

These leaders of Israel certainly knew these two Galilean fishermen could never have pulled off such a divine miracle.  So Peter had to be telling the truth that Jesus had healed the man.  This time these shrewd leaders were not going to be able to dismiss all this by paying some more hush money as they had done by paying off the security guards posted at Jesus’ tomb.

Neither was Peter about to let these scoundrels get off the hook.  He quoted to them, as Jesus Himself had done some time earlier (Matt. 21:42-44), a passage from Psalm 118:22 in order to tell them that their rejection of Jesus was not only a fulfillment of O.T. prophecy and Jesus’ own prophecy against them, but had also placed them outside of God’s kingdom. Peter stated, literally, “The stone which you builders have rejected is the very one who is the head of the corner.” 

To reject, or remove, the very building stone upon which all other stones are connected and built, would bring the whole building down right on top of you.  That’s what these religious leaders had done to themselves by rejecting the Risen Jesus.  His resurrection was the proof that Jesus is that corner stone of the spiritual house of the saved.  Accordingly, Peter continued, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

It certainly took some real, intestinal, fortitude for Peter and John to stand before this council and preach the truth for that council held their fate in their hands.  The truth the apostles spoke not only accused their hearers of the unthinkable crime of killing God’s Messiah, but also proclaimed in no uncertain terms that their own salvation and that of the whole world rested solely in this One they had killed. 

But as one Commentator has stated, “Peter’s wonderful defense is not to be credited to his keen powers and his great courage.  He and John had not lay awake all night (in their prison cell) planning what to say… It is the Holy Spirit who puts this telling defense into Peter’s mouth” (Lenski).  We might also add that it was the Holy Spirit Who gave them the boldness to proclaim the truth.  It was all just as Jesus told His disciples.  “…they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues.  On my account you will brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.  But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it.  At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt. 10:22,23). 

No disciple of Jesus can afford to be naïve. By following Jesus he or she is testifying to Jesus alone as being the world’s only Savior and that true salvation can be found in no one else… period!   There is no latitude when it comes to following any other holy man, religion… or philosophy in the hopes of saving yourself.  They all lead to death.  Only the crucified and resurrected Jesus gives life.  Only Jesus is The Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Jesus says, “You are either with me or against me.” Only Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world.  As John the Baptizer pointed out, Jesus alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  

By the same token Only Jesus is alive from the grave to back up what He has said about Himself, as well as our salvation. As the Apostle Paul also testifies, Only Jesus was put to death for our transgressions and only Jesus was raised for our justification.  Any sinner who wants to be saved must repent of his sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for his forgiveness.

When we confess Jesus to be the Good Shepherd… to be the Savior… therefore, we are going against the grain of our, so called, inclusive society.  After all, to confess Jesus is to proclaim every other religious dogma and deity in this world to be false.  Our message to the world can’t help but be exclusive; Jesus is exclusive. By confessing Jesus as the Savior, we are saying to the Moslem, the Jew, the Buddhist, the Baha’ist, or anyone else who professes some other god or some other way of salvation, that they are at best deceived and at worst liars!

Now, you see why Christianity, when it speaks boldly the truth as is found only in Jesus Christ, becomes such a target of the world’s wrath and why secularists and humanists want any testimony or reference to the Bible or Christ removed from the public square.  Just like their first century Jewish counterparts, if they can’t feel they can embrace Jesus as merely one among many gods, they feel compelled to kill Him, expunge Him and His Word from all public discourse.

Have no illusions, members of Trinity, if we want our message concerning Jesus to be appealing to the masses, who have been deceived by unchristian scholars, phony evidence and faulty human reasoning, and all other servants of the devil, then we will have to water down the Gospel, soften its rough edges, tone down its exclusive rhetoric, and make our preaching and teaching be more inclusive. In other words, we must offend Jesus… we must forsake any real love for the eternal welfare of our neighbors, and we must lie to them. 

Therefore, if we truly want people to be saved, want to tell the truth, and want to honor Christ Jesus, we must proclaim the same exclusive message that Peter and John proclaimed, that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

How can we be so bold to proclaim Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation in our pluralistic society that prides itself on its inclusiveness?  First, we must recognize that our society is not truly inclusive.  After all, it accepts everything but the truth of Christ.  It excludes Jesus Christ. 

Second, we must be firmly convinced ourselves by the regular hearing of God’s Word that the crucified and resurrected Jesus is not only our personal God and Savior, but also the only true God and Savior of the whole world. 

Third, we must love our family members, neighbors and fellow human beings in this world enough, that as Jesus Himself did for them, we also will gladly bear the cross of exclusivity in order to save them with the truth. 

And finally, we must do as the apostles and the early Christians did in the face of opposition and persecution; that is, we must not depend on our own talents, courage, and resources, but pray in all faith that God would embolden us with His Spirit that we might boldly witness and teach the truth of His Word rightly, boldly and compassionately. After all, our world is dying without the Good Shepherd, Who alone can lead them to eternal life.  Our world is literally dying to hear the exclusive message you have of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected!  Amen.

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