The start of the Christmas season seems like an inappropriate time to talk about Psalm 23, sheep, and shepherds. But when you open the Bible, you don't find the symbols of Christmas that we most often associate with the season. You'll not find Christmas trees or wreaths or sparkling lights mentioned. Instead, when you read the Christmas story, you find sheep and shepherds. It was in Bethlehem, the little town of David, that Jesus was born. David was the writer of Psalm 23 who, as a boy, learned so much about the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. In fact, those hills where David watched his flock were the same hills where, one night, the angel of God broke through from heaven, shattered the silence, and announced to shepherds the birth of God's son.
It was thirty years later that Jesus stepped out of the carpenter's shop in Nazareth and onto the pages of human history. His coming-out was a startling event and the beginning of a three-year journey that would take him to the Cross and to the Resurrection. When he began the public, visible part of his ministry, he was announced by John, a famous prophet of that time. John said, "Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Jesus described himself in John 10:11 as "the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep." So there is a sense that the symbols of Christmas should really be the symbols of sheep and shepherd rather than wreath and tree. It is because of Jesus that we Christians are able to honestly confess those final lines of the 23rd Psalm: "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." It is in these final words that the sheep of Psalm 23 state three conclusions that are based upon their relationship to the Lord who is their Shepherd.
His sheep are assured of the reality of heaven.
If you look carefully at the final verse that starts, "Surely, goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever," you'll see a definite connection. There's a reason that the conjunction "and" is inserted—a connection between this life and forever. A lot of people think this life is an independent, closed unit. Then forever, on the other side of the grave, is some other independent, closed unit, and there's really no connection between them.
Psalm 23 really isn't talking about sheep; it's about people, it's about us. It's making the connection between this life and the forever life to come. Those who belong to the Lord—those who are the sheep of his pasture, those who in this life are followed by goodness and love—are the ones who will live forever in the house of the Lord in the next life.
The reverse is equally true. If a person is not a Christian, the days of this life are not connected to the goodness and the love of God. Those persons will not dwell forever in the house of the Lord. This life is not independent of the next life. What we say and do here and now is connected to what we will experience and what we will be in eternity to come. It's a matter of heaven and of hell.
Heaven is the normal expectation of every American. If you ask the average person what happens when people die, they would say, "Everybody goes to heaven." It's expected—like Social Security and Medicare. You reach a certain point, and it's just there when you need it. I'm amazed by the number of movies and television shows now dealing with themes of death and what happens after death.
When you listen carefully to what the scriptwriters say, they always describe it this way: "The person who has died has gone to a better place. They're happier now than they were before. They've gone to be with the man upstairs." All of this is the certain expectation of Americans. It's interesting because this absolutely contradicts what Jesus says in the Bible. In John 3:36, Jesus says, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, but God's wrath remains on him."
This raises the sensitive, controversial topic of hell. If there is a heaven, then there must be a hell. If it is an option to live forever in the house of the Lord, then it is also an option to live forever outside of the house of the Lord. There are a number of us here who remember when hell used to be a fairly frequent topic. It was a topic for sermons in churches. It was a topic in parochial schools and in the threats of parents and others who wanted to get people to believe the right thing and to behave in the right way. But that was 20 or 30 years ago. It seems to me that our whole society has decided that we don't want to be threatened by hell. We don't like the idea, so we have more or less voted ourselves out of it.
More than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God, and close to that same percentage say they believe the Bible. But when you ask them whether they believe there's a hell, the percentage drops way down. Almost no one thinks that he or she is going to hell. It's a rare thing to find people who think they're going there. And those who say they are going there have more or less remodeled hell. You'll hear people refer to "having a 'helluva' good time." That's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one. It's saying, "Hell is my kind of place. It's where all my friends will go, and it's going to be an extension of all the parties we've ever had here."
We've forgotten that the reality of heaven and hell has absolutely nothing to do with our opinions. It's not an issue to be decided at the polls in the 1990s. It doesn't really make any difference what Americans think or want; we don't determine this. The reality of heaven and hell is God's issue, God's choice. He is the one who determines what is and what isn't, and what the requirements are to get in or to stay out.
It is this same God who declares that there is a connection between this life and how and where we spend forever in the next life. So, the worst possible mistake is to choose wrongly now and spend forever regretting it. And the best possible choice is to choose rightly and to live rightly now and then spend forever celebrating. The Christian, the person who has confessed sin and accepted Jesus Christ, is the person who can say the words of Psalm 23: "Surely goodness and love shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
His sheep are assured they will enter heaven.
There's a second conclusion of those whose shepherd is the Lord. It has to do with the confidence of our relationship with God. That's troublesome to some people who think it's arrogant or inappropriate for anyone to say, "I'm sure of going to heaven." I suppose that would be true if it were a matter of self-confidence. But the confidence is appropriate when it is based upon the character and the words of the shepherd.
If sheep could think and talk like people, they might say, "Our shepherd has taken good care of us for years. He has managed us well. He has taken us to good pastures. He has rescued us when things have been wrong and when we've been frightened. He has gone with us to the high mountain valleys. He has gone with us through all of these experiences. He has even risked his life during times of storm to protect us. And he has told us that we can come and live in his house and be with him forever." So the sheep say, on the basis of who he is and what he says, "We're in. We will dwell in the house of the shepherd forever." Under those kinds of circumstances, there's no need to doubt.
In fact, doubt is really quite inappropriate because it begins to question the character of the shepherd. Psalm 23 is not the only place where the followers of God are called sheep. Actually, it's woven through much of the Bible. In John 10:11, Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the sheep—and I lay down my life for the sheep." Now, connect that with John 10:27-29 where Jesus says: "My sheep listen to my voice. I know them. They follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand."
Do you see how all this fits together? Jesus absolutely promises that anyone who is a Christian—anyone who follows his voice—has eternal life for sure, permanently, never to be snatched away. He promises that. There is then nothing arrogant, nothing inappropriate for a Christian to say confidently, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
It's the same kind of confidence found elsewhere in the Bible. It's the apostle Paul who says in Romans 8: "I'm convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." When we have that kind of confidence in the future and that kind of confidence in God, it oozes over into a confidence for living.
You know very well from your own relationships that if relationships are wrong, it undermines your confidence for just about everything else that you do. If relationships are right and good, then that stabilizes and strengthens you for the rest of life. When we can say, "I'm sure of this: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever," then our confidence is not based on us but upon God and what he says. That gives us confidence for everything else in life. It is a wonderful thing.
His sheep are assured they will be content in heaven.
The third conclusion of those who say, "The Lord is my shepherd," has to do with contentment—the contentment of living in the Lord's house. I should explain here that the word "house" in Psalm 23 is not like we think of it, not a ranch style or colonial. It means "household" or "family." In the Bible, people had this idea that it was a set of relationships as well as the place. We do that today. We use the word "house" to refer to a brokerage house or to a publishing house. We speak of the House of Representatives. By that, we're using it not just in the sense of place—we mean all that's involved there. David probably had in mind that heaven is a specific place, and he imagined what heaven would be like. But more than that, he had in mind that he would be there with God.
My family and I have lived in the same house for seventeen years. We've lived there more than twice as long as I have lived at any other address in my entire life. I'll sometimes refer to it as "our house," but more often I refer to it as "home." What makes it home isn't the address or the lot or the garage or the architecture. What makes it home is the people. You may live in a bigger or newer or better house than we live in, but as nice as your house may be, I would never refer to your house as "home," because the people who are most important to me don't live there.
So what makes "home" home is the people in the relationships. And what makes "heaven" heaven is not streets made out of gold, great fountains, lots of fun, and no smog. That all may well be. Actually, I think that heaven is far greater than our wildest imagination. The same God who designed the best of everything in this world also designed heaven, only he took it to a far greater extent than anything we've ever seen. Yet, that's still not what makes heaven, heaven. What makes "heaven" heaven is God. It is being there with him. With his presence comes peace and contentment, a fulfillment, a sense that all is well.
That contentment bubbles over into the rest of life. We can anticipate this future in the presence of God; we can be with him in a place where everything he wants happens the way he wants it to happen. And that affects this life as well. People who don't think much about God, who don't like the way God does things, are hardly people that would fit well in heaven. There's a connection between our relationship with God here and now and our relationship with God there and then.
I find that just the prospect of heaven can settle the soul. I really feel uncomfortable thinking of the number of people throughout history who have died as martyrs. That is, they have been killed, often by inhumane means, simply because they were Christians. We tend to think that martyrs are those people who were killed by gladiators and lions in the Coliseum in Rome almost 2,000 years ago. But there have been more martyrs for Jesus Christ, not in North America but in other parts of the world, in my lifetime than in all of previous history combined.
Someday, when human history is recounted, the twentieth century will be pegged as the great period of Christian martyrdom. Where we have records, in almost every generation of martyrs, something absolutely stunning happens. One frequent result of their death and suffering was that their executioners decided to become Christians. Their confidence of heaven and the anticipation of entering the presence of God bubbled over into this life, even in its last moments. That sense of "heaven connected to this life" was so powerful, so transforming that even those who were anti-Christian said, "If that's what they've got, that's what I want." This has become a powerful witness for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ.
Shepherds say that sheep that have spent the summer in the high country and are on their way back to the shepherd's fold anticipate their homecoming. Even though they have to go through difficult terrain and sudden storms that make them cold and wet, you can sense in the flock an excitement and enthusiasm as they come nearer and nearer to the shepherd's fold. The same goes for Christians who know that we will dwell forever in the house of the Lord.
Before we leave Psalm 23 and its final words, I want to ask a very important question: Do you know for sure that, if you were to die today, in the moment after you die you would begin to dwell forever in the heaven of the Lord? My desire is not to scare anyone with hell or bribe anyone with heaven or to pressure anyone into making a decision that's not your decision. But my desire is to simply encourage you to have the confidence of Psalm 23, to know for certain that the Lord is your shepherd and that heaven is your eternal home. Don't let the simplicity of this decision cause you to underestimate the importance.
First, admit you're not a Christian. It's hard to say, "I'm a sinner, and if it were up to me to get into heaven, I could never be good enough." That's very difficult for people to admit. The Bible says, "Believe in Jesus Christ," as the way to heaven. It's believing that Jesus was actually born, that he really lived, that he really died on the cross for human sin, and that he really came back to life again. But it's more than an intellectual exercise. It's a full commitment. It is the mind and the emotions and the will. It's a genuine and full belief in Jesus Christ, even to the point of saying, "I believe that if I were the only person who ever lived Jesus Christ would have come and would have died for me in order to take care of my sin and get me to heaven."
Finally, tell God. Say something like this: "God, I want to go to heaven. I want to be sure. I give my whole life to you and I accept Jesus as my savior." Pray that prayer with faith, and surely goodness and love will follow you all the days of your life. And you'll dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.