Like every follower of Christ, I take great comfort in Psalm 23, and always have: The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want (yes, I learned it in King James). And I think I memorized Psalm 100 before I could read: We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. We all know that sheep are dumb, skittish, and virtually helpless. That’s why they (meaning we) need a really good shepherd. But why does a shepherd need sheep?
The master/landowner sits in his upstairs study and gazes out the window onto the hillside where his calm, white sheep graze peacefully in the afternoon sun. It’s a beautiful picture, and it brings him great pleasure to see his sheep so contented.
But when he purchased those sheep at the nearby sheep auction last month or last year, his goal was neither this bucolic scene nor the contentment of the sheep. As he examined their hooves, checked their wool, and looked in their mouths (I actually know nothing about buying sheep; I’m just postulating about what the buyer might do.), he had one of three purposes in mind for each of those sheep.
Shearing: for His comfort
Some of the sheep had the potential for beautiful, thick wool, which the master will shear every spring. The wool is made into clothes for the comfort of the master and his family. Have you ever seen a freshly-shorn sheep? It looks naked, scrawny, and vulnerable. That’s embarrassing. Sometimes God calls us to something that the world thinks is foolish or that we find embarrassing. Sometimes He asks us to be emotionally naked, to seek forgiveness instead of justifying ourselves, to expose our own faults and weaknesses rather than hiding (figuratively) in a thick, comfy blanket of wool, to put on that tight shirt even though we’ve gained five pounds and people can see the fat rolls on our bellies. (Okay, He wouldn’t ACTUALLY call any of us to wear the too-tight shirt, but the point is that we’re revealing parts of ourselves that we don’t want to show.) And why? For His glory. He wears a beautiful, thick coat made from my gifts . . . from a sacrifice that doesn’t physically hurt me but definitely inconveniences or embarrasses me. John the Baptist spent his adult life out in the wilderness, wearing camel-skin clothes and eating grasshoppers. That’s pretty off-the-wall. Still he said, Jesus must become greater; I must become less (Jn 3:30). Paul said, For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:10). Delight in insults and persecution? Really? As Oswald Chambers points out (3 Oct), “Paul also said, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:13) and what he was referring to were mostly humiliating things.”
Slaughter: for His table
Other sheep selected by the master are thick and strong. After a few months in the pasture, they will be slaughtered and eaten. Some of us are called to give up absolutely everything–to prepare ourselves (fatten up), then let go of everything important to us and be entirely used up in service to Him. Perhaps Oswald says it best, “Will I surrender to Jesus Christ, placing no conditions whatsoever as to how the brokenness will come?” (3 Nov). Or as Paul put it, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20). And why would He use us in this way? Again, it’s for His glory. Our job is to fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness (2 Thes 1:11 [NKJV]). Would He really slaughter one of His beloved sheep just so He can have a good dinner?!? Absolutely. And if you have a problem with that, remember that He is GOD: It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Phil 2:13 [NKJV]). It’s all about Him anyway.
Sacrifice: for His honor
Only the best are led down this route. Do you remember the Old Testament regulations about sacrifices? Those lambs had to be perfect. I have no right to even talk about this, and there’s not much I can say. There are those few Believers whom He calls to completely relinquish this earthly life. We tend to think, “What a waste!” But God boldly declares, “What glory is Mine!” A Campus Crusade website says, “Since Jesus laid down His life, 43 million Christians have become martyrs.” There’s no way to confirm that number, but Revelation 6:9 talks about those who have been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. Verse eleven says they are waiting on more to join them.
Did you notice that two out of the three groups of sheep have to die? Do you realize that NONE of the sheep just stay on the hillside getting fat and feeling happy?
Since when is God primarily interested in my contentment or my happiness? Since when is His end-goal my satisfaction or honor? Whether we live a sacrificial life or die a sacrificial death, let our voices join Paul (again): I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:20-21). I want this to be my theme verse, but I never live up to it.
Okay. I haven’t talked about the grapes. Same idea. The vintner (I looked that word up.) wanders up and down the rows of grape vines, selecting the ripest, sweetest-looking grapes for his next batch of wine. Why? So he can lay the grapes on a shelf and look at them? Hardly. They would spoil very quickly. I’ll just let Oswald Chambers explain it. “God’s purpose is not simply to make us beautiful, plump grapes, but to make us grapes so that He may squeeze the sweetness out of us” (2 Sept). And “Yet God can never make us into wine if we object to the fingers He chooses to use to crush us. . . . If we are ever going to be made into wine, we will have to be crushed–you cannot drink grapes. Grapes become wine only when they have been squeezed” (30 Sept).
The potter-and-clay imagery fits here, too. Different types of clay are used for making different types of pots.
Like the sheep (and the grapes and the clay), God chose us for a purpose/purposes. Time on the hillside is for preparation. It’s not the end goal. Grapes aren’t grown just to look beautiful, nor are pots formed to sit on a shelf. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we are embarrassed for His sake, when He calls us to give something ELSE (when we feel like we’ve already given so much!), or even when He calls us or those we love to give their very lives for His glory. That’s my purpose. Let me live in it.